SvoNotes: Big Ten Race Not Quite Clear-Cut

It's tough to predict college football, so BSB editor Jeff Svoboda isn't sure about preseason predictions that have Ohio State and Michigan State on another collision course at the top of the Big Ten standings. In fact, it could be an interesting year for both squads.

It's that simple, right?

Ohio State and Michigan State are going to be the titans of the Big Ten this year.

It could happen, but it might not.

I'm here to play devil's advocate a little bit on the presumption that Ohio State and Michigan State will be the league powers again in 2014.

It could definitely happen. Both sides have plenty of good returning players and won a lot of games last year, which is what you have to do to get picked to win a conference in college football.

But I can also see trouble befalling both teams. In fact, this could very well be one of the most intriguing seasons of Big Ten football in quite some time, even before accounting for the eastern invasion of Maryland and Rutgers.

Will things go wrong for the top two contenders in the league? Probably not both of them, but I wouldn't be surprised if the early November clash between the presumed titans of the Big Ten East has a different storyline by the time it happens.

Why do I say that?

Read on for more.

Ohio State
I think you can take the Buckeyes to the bank as far as being at least a 10-win team in 2014, which is never anything to sneeze at. Considering the fact the Buckeyes have to replace the engine of their offense (Carlos Hyde), the player with the most receptions in a season since 1998 (Philly Brown), four starting offensive linemen and two first-round draft picks on defense, I don't think you could complain about a 10-2 regular season – and it could (should?) be even better.

So I'm not here to say Ohio State doesn't have the talent or the drive to win the Big Ten and perhaps even more. In fact, I think the Buckeyes do.

But could something happen that could send this season spiraling downhill before it even gets started? Well, I can think of one way – if Braxton Miller suffers a significant injury early in his senior campaign.

Obviously, I'm not wishing that at all, but I have to admit the concern keeps bugging me – especially considering the sporadic injuries that have popped up from time to time in Miller's career.

I think the Buckeyes will get through an early slate of games against solid teams – Navy, Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Maryland should all be above-average teams this year – if Miller stays on the field. He's good enough that any team in the nation with him on the field will be able to score points, and I can definitely imagine a scenario in which Miller leads the team to some early wins, confidence builds, the defense and offensive line keep getting better and Ohio State makes a run at a national championship.

I can also see a rough go of things if Miller, say, pulls a leg muscle in the second quarter of the Navy game. While both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett showed promise and improvement during the spring, I'm not sure either is ready to be the full-time man, especially if the call comes in game one of the season.

And with the Buckeyes replacing so many parts, losing Miller early in the season could lead to trouble. I think if given time, question marks like the offensive line and the defensive back seven will jell together and perform admirably. But if they have to go win a game early in the campaign, it might be asking too much

That's one reason I think this could be one of the most interesting campaigns in recent Ohio State memory. If things break right in the first six games, the last six could be a fantastic fight to the finish. If they don't, well, things could go downhill quickly.

Michigan State
My big concern about the Spartans is that the offense will not be able to keep pace with a defense that again likely will be one of the best in the nation.

In other words, I worry that 2014 could be more like 2012 than 2013 for the Green and White.

Partly I think this because I'm just not sold on Connor Cook. His sophomore campaign was very impressive – especially when he led MSU to wins vs. Ohio State and Stanford at the end of the season. But he was still also only a two-star recruit, and no one who saw him in high school really thought he'd be this good, especially this soon.

Does that mean anything? Not necessarily. It is quite believable that Cook simply just improved that much during his first few years in East Lansing. It happens.

But guys also get hot for certain stretches, as well, and then crash back to earth. We've seen it a lot in the Big Ten, in fact, where players like Juice Williams and Drew Stanton showed early promise only to flame out once they got figured out a bit (injury didn't help Stanton, either).

It is true that Michigan State became the first Big Ten team ever to win each of its conference games by double digits. But this was also a team that struggled to put points on the board vs. Minnesota and Purdue, as well. And with the Spartans having to replace three starting offensive linemen, it could be much tougher sledding – especially if the defense struggles replacing its six departed starters. And we saw two years ago that the line between playing good defense and winning close games can sometimes go the other way on the ledger.

In the end, yes, it seems pretty likely that early November day in East Lansing will go a long way toward determining how the Big Ten will shake out.

But this is college football, and things don't always work that way.

That's all I'm saying.

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