Big Ten Football: Teams Facing Biggest Challenges in 2014 Spring Practice

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterMarch 12, 2014

Big Ten Football: Teams Facing Biggest Challenges in 2014 Spring Practice

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    Hope springs eternal in the offseason—unless your favorite team has numerous questions to answer, that is. 

    If that's the case, the next several months can be more nerve-racking than anything else. Questions about quarterback battles, new head coaches or coordinators and/or defensive holes are almost always the biggest storylines in the spring. 

    Every team has questions to answer, of course; some just have more than others. 

    Which Big Ten teams have the biggest question marks as 2014 gets underway?

5. Michigan Wolverines

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    The hot seat talk for Michigan coach Brady Hoke may be a bit premature, but 2014 still looms as a big year for the man in charge. 

    Hoke released brought in Doug Nussmeier from Alabama as a replacement for former offensive coordinator Al Borges. It's a huge hire, one that Hoke hopes will have instant results. 

    So the questions for the Wolverines start there. Will the offenseranked 87th in the country last season, improve and by how much?

    There's technically an open competition at quarterback between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris. While it's understandable to think Gardner will ultimately come out on top, it's not being played by Nussmeier as a sure thing. 

    There are also some seniors on the defensive side of the ball who are moving on, namely in the front seven. Jake Ryan, who came back from an ACL injury last year, is moving to middle linebacker. Hoke told Ann Arbor's WTKA 1050-AM in February that the move will get Ryan closer to the action on every play. 

    How will Ryan play as the anchor of the Wolverines defense?

4. Penn State Nittany Lions

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    New Penn State head coach James Franklin is exactly what the Nittany Lions were looking for in a replacement for Bill O'Brien. 

    Franklin is intense, charismatic and an excellent recruiter. How he'll do in his first year in Happy Valley, though, remains to be seen. 

    The questions start on offense, as they often do. Franklin has the best young quarterback in the conference, Christian Hackenberg, coming back.

    How will the offense look under Franklin? O'Brien is known as a great offensive mind who has worked with some of the best quarterbacks at any level of football. Can Penn State maintain, or otherwise improve on, what was the third-best passing offense in the Big Ten?

    Hackenberg's favorite receiver, Allen Robinson, left for the NFL draft. Who steps up there?

    Most of the defense is coming back, but that group was susceptible at times against the pass, ranking eighth in the Big Ten in long pass plays allowed. Can the Nittany Lions shore up that side of the ball?



3. Michigan State Spartans

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    Michigan State's 2013 defense was straight nasty. 

    The Spartans led the Big Ten in every major statistical category: scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense, total defense and turnover margin. 

    Not surprisingly, Sparty's question marks for 2014 revolve almost exclusively around the defense. Edge-rushers Marcus Rush and Shilique Calhoun are back, but the interior of the defensive line will be new. 

    Linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and cornerback Darqueze Dennard? They're all gone. 

    Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is the best in the business, and he earns every penny of his $900,000 salary (H/T Chris Huston of College Football Talk). He'll continue to earn it if Sparty's defense can even come close to what it accomplished a season ago. 

    There will be some new faces for Michigan State in 2014. How quickly will they produce at a high level?

2. Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Head coach Tim Beckman's first two years with Illinois have resulted in six total wins. He may need to match that number in 2014 if he wants to keep his job. 

    The Illini's offense made significant strides last season with the addition of offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, averaging 13 more points per game from 2012 to '13 (16.7 to 29.7). However, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is finally gone after what felt like a 10-year career. 

    Replacing him could be Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. Lunt had some success starting for the Pokes as a freshman in 2012, throwing for 1,108 yards as one of three starting quarterbacks. 

    Will he hit the ground running after spending a year redshirting?

    The defense also needs a dramatic turnaround. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks returns, likely to the sound of teeth gnashing from fans. Illinois finished 105th in scoring defense, 118th in rush defense and 82nd in pass defense a year ago. 

    By not bringing in a new D-coordinator, Beckman is putting his faith in Banks, hoping he can do a better job of developing players. The challenge, of course, is whether Banks will or not. 

1. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    The good news for Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is that "Audiogate" seems like a distant memory. After beating Georgia in the Gator Bowl, Pelini inked an extension that takes him through 2018 with the Cornhuskers. 

    All of which begs the question: Has any coach in college football had a more dramatic turnaround over the past six months than Pelini?

    Pelini can keep that momentum going in 2014 by winning a divisional and, perhaps, conference championship. However, there are questions the Huskers must answer. 

    Let's start with the easiest. Barring an upset, it would appear that Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the heir apparent to Taylor Martinez at quarterback. Armstrong started seven games in 2013 while Martinez was sidelined with a foot injury.

    Still, there's a lot of room for Armstrong to grow as a full-time starter. When a player has been around as long as Martinez was, he can be a safety net. 

    Martinez isn't the only starter departing. Though leading running back Ameer Abdullah and receiver Kenny Bell are returning, the Huskers lose four seniors along the offensive line. 

    There are also questions about the defense. Pelini's a defensive guy at heart, yet the Huskers were average in that department last season, especially against the run. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis is returning and the front seven should be the strength of that unit. 

    Ultimately, can the Huskers get over the perennial 9-4/10-4 hump?


    Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All stats courtesy of