March Madness: Who Wins a Big Ten Football Conference Tournament?
Spring football has started around Big Ten country, and the journey to a championship is just beginning for all conference teams. But what if the football teams grabbed a championship in the same crazy madness that basketball teams experience every March? Who would win based on the rosters coming together for the 2014 season?
It would be must-see television and a sight to behold, for sure. Especially with the College Football Playoff just beginning this year, brackets will be so much more in style than ever before in the sport.
Let's get a jump on that bracket madness and look forward to the Big Ten season by playing out the 2014 basketball championship bracket with the football teams. Would the top seeds hold form across sports, or would there be tons of "upsets" from football schools with struggling basketball programs?
Although we cannot embed polls on the slides, please vote in the comments below about how you see the bracket playing out, and let's see who would really survive Big Ten Football Madness.
Game 1: (8) Indiana vs. (9) Illinois
The Hoosiers and Fighting Illini make for a great matchup in basketball thanks to rich histories and the long-shot chance for both to make the NCAA tournament with a deep conference tournament run. In football, both of these programs are improving but have a long way to go. In other words, still an entertaining matchup.
The key to this game is likely which team can establish a consistent passing game to keep the opposing offense off the field. Illinois has lost Nathan Scheelhaase and his top target Steve Hull, which leaves an open question throwing to largely unproven guys like RB Josh Ferguson and WR Martize Barr. Indiana returns most of a secondary that was weak at coverage last season, but this unit would likely be good enough to slow down the inconsistent Illini offense.
Meanwhile, Indiana has several good options at quarterback and a solid top weapon in Shane Wynn to receive those throws. Illinois returns depth at cornerback and safety, but the coverage was so bad at times last year it makes you question whether anything would change in three months.
Here's guessing the answer is no, which means Indiana wins a shootout by 17.
Game 2: (5) Ohio State vs. (12) Purdue
Although it may be hard to believe, Purdue has been kryptonite over much of the last decade for the Buckeyes. However, just like the basketball team in 2013-14, Purdue football hit a new low last season and now must dig out slowly. That made for many blowouts in 2013, including one by the Buckeyes in West Lafayette, Ind., a place where OSU has typically struggled.
The Boilermakers are basically still facing a total rebuild on offense, defense and special teams. The poor results put on the field last season mean even the returning starters cannot feel safe about their jobs. While that makes for good spring competition, it does not make for a good football team.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes will be looking to prove a point after healing up following the 0-2 end to the season. Braxton Miller returns, and Purdue does not have the defensive line talent built back up to harass him. As that is one great way to beat an Urban Meyer team, the options look thin for Purdue.
But who knows, maybe another Purdue miracle is in the works. OK, maybe not.
Ohio State wins going away by 35.
Game 3: (7) Minnesota vs. (10) Penn State
Both these teams are compelling on both the football field and on the basketball court. Minnesota is just on the cusp of conference title contention in both sports, having made strides under newer coaches Jerry Kill and Richard Pitino. Meanwhile, Penn State finally has some skilled players in basketball, and the program is also making it through the dark football-sanctions period just fine as well.
Both of these teams will look to establish the power-run game to allow the defense to rest up and dominate the contest. That means the battle will be won along the offensive and defensive lines primarily.
Penn State will be challenged by a veteran and solid Minnesota offensive line that returns four starters from an effective unit in 2013. However, Deion Barnes should return to dominant form after a sophomore slump and become the terror that Ra'Shede Hageman was for Minnesota this year. That will negate Minnesota's overall advantage in experience.
Speaking of Hageman, he is gone from the Minnesota line, and that will be a huge hole to fill. Penn State brings back a strong complement of first-string offensive linemen, which will help the running game and Christian Hackenberg's passing game get going.
Expect that to be the difference, as Penn State uses a slight advantage on the lines and a strong disparity in talent at the "skill positions" to win this game by three.
Game 4: (6) Iowa vs. (11) Northwestern
Iowa and Northwestern headed in vastly different directions in both football and basketball this past season. The Hawkeyes rebounded back to a bowl game after a 4-8 season, and the good times keep on rolling as the basketball team appears to have locked up a NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since 2007. Northwestern, on the other hand, could not survive a slew of injuries and struggled to win any Big Ten football games, while also stumbling to the basement of the basketball standings.
After years of being the butt of all injury jokes (AIRBHG, anyone?), Iowa returns a healthy crop of all its running backs following an effective 2013 season. Brandon Scherff will pave the way for each of these distinctive running backs to have a field day against an undersized Northwestern defensive front. Once again, the game will flash by in about two-and-a-half hours thanks to the running game.
Northwestern also brings back substantially all the running talent and an offensive line that was good until the injury bug struck last season. If Northwestern can break through to the second level, Iowa's new crew of linebackers may find stopping the Wildcats difficult. That is unlikely, though, as Iowa's strength on defense is a run-stuffing defensive line.
Iowa has the tools to outsmart the smart-kids school and avoid the kryptonite that has been Northwestern until the 2013 season. Hawkeyes win by six.
Game 5: (1) Michigan vs. (8) Indiana
This year, Michigan and Indiana have played one football game full of offensive firepower and over 100 points and two highly contested basketball games. With the Hoosiers building a good program and Michigan trying to get back to elite status, this is just the type of game that would separate the pretenders from the contenders in Big Ten football.
Unfortunately for Indiana, Tom Crean is not going to be cutting down the nets or pulling down goalposts in celebration anytime soon. Michigan is simply too loaded with top recruits and improving coaches to not be able to figure a game like this out. As long as the defensive line makes similar strides as were made against Ohio State's great offensive line in November, Indiana will have trouble finding enough time to burn a leaky Michigan secondary.
Meanwhile, Michigan will enjoy a total mismatch when it has the ball. Regardless of whether Devin Gardner or Shane Morris is throwing the balls, there should be plenty of time available to find second and third options like TE Devin Funchess. Plus, Michigan actually has better depth at running back, which could help keep this offense on the field at critical junctures.
The Wolverines sweat this one out for three quarters, but eventually Indiana's defense suffers a cave-in, and Michigan rolls to a 17 point win.
Game 6: (4) Nebraska vs. (5) Ohio State
Nebraska and Ohio State played two high-scoring games to begin the Legends and Leaders era, and it will be fun to see these two teams collide again as cross-division rivals in the East-West alignment. Both teams have been right on the cusp of winning a conference title in football, which makes this game between historic powerhouses just as entertaining as the upcoming meeting on the basketball court.
Nebraska has high hopes thanks to a powerful group of running backs returning, including Ameer Abdullah. Unfortunately, Nebraska is completely rebuilding the offensive line and has no proven option at quarterback, which makes the offense likely one-dimensional. Sadly, that's also the dimension that Ohio State is pretty good at stopping on defense (running games). Nebraska will score some points, but will it be enough?
That answer would be no, based on one very important factor: Braxton Miller. When he has played against Nebraska (not counting the half he was injured in Lincoln, Neb.), Ohio State is outscoring Nebraska by almost seven touchdowns in 1.5 games. Even though the Buckeyes are also replacing a lot of offensive linemen, there is way too much good talent for Braxton Miller to throw to when he's not burning the Cornhuskers with his legs.
This is a nightmare matchup for Nebraska, so Ohio State strolls to a 14-point win. Look for the basketball to be much more competitive this week if these two programs meet!
Game 7: (2) Wisconsin vs. (10) Penn State
During the Legends and Leaders era, Wisconsin and Penn State became last-weekend-of-the-season rivals, which led to some memorable games. Penn State shocked the Badgers straight out of what looked like a likely BCS berth in Madison, Wisc., last season, and Wisconsin fans would love an immediate rematch here in March. Unlike on the basketball court, this is no mismatch.
Wisconsin will be a straightforward offense this season thanks to a ton of depth returning on the offensive line and the return of Melvin Gordon. Especially without Jared Abbrederis keeping defenses honest, Wisconsin will need to be dominant on the lines to win games. Assuming Deion Barnes bounces back as alluded to in the last game, the Nittany Lions will have a chance to keep Gordon contained again.
Wisconsin faces a similar test when Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak come pushing through the line of scrimmage early and often for Penn State. However, look for Christian Hackenberg to show just how valuable two years of mentoring from Bill O'Brien can be with a breakout performance as a junior. Even without Allen Robinson, he will pick apart the rebuilding linebackers and defensive backs employed by Wisconsin at this early 2014 juncture.
In other words, the same upset that greeted us on the last night of the regular season in 2013. Penn State holds on for a 10-point win.
Game 8: (3) Michigan State vs. (6) Iowa
Michigan State and Iowa have brought the physical-battle style of play to both football and basketball. Unfortunately for Iowa, that has led to the Spartans winning the upper hand in most of the recent meetings. That being said, Iowa would love another shot at Michigan State after both teams improved to the point of dominating the Legends Division.
Michigan State earned prestige as the "No Fly Zone" in 2013, but that strength may be tested with some new faces at the core of the defense—linebackers. Still, the defensive line returns both ends and will likely be a dominating force again, starting with these spring practices. Iowa may have a good offensive line and depth at running back, but the Spartans have crushed similar attacks from arguably better teams like Ohio State.
Meanwhile, Michigan State will be happy to have back most of the offensive firepower from an efficient unit in 2013. With Iowa working in the spring to build up new linebackers to the Iowa standard, there should be some coverage gaps and missed running game assignments for the Spartans to exploit. Iowa will learn once again, you simply cannot get in a phone booth and outfight the Spartans.
Michigan State wins by 14, which is like a blowout victory in the MSU book.
Game 9: (1) Michigan vs. (5) Ohio State
If Michigan fans loved the offensive showdown in the quarterfinals, they will be in for another similar treat in the renewal of The Game. The Buckeyes and Wolverines put up 83 points and 12 touchdowns in the November meeting, and there's little indication that either defense would have all the problems solved at this point in the early offseason.
Just like in the new division alignment, this would stand as a play-in game to the championship. That means the stakes should be high every single year, barring a Sparty runaway.
Michigan exploited the leaky Ohio State pass defense with a ton of looks in November, and Devin Gardner would likely find some openings once again. However, he took a pounding from the talented Ohio State defensive line when pressure came, and that will be even more deadly this spring with a lack of proven receivers outside Devin Funchess to rely upon. But don't think Michigan would not still score a ton of points in this game.
Meanwhile, Michigan will not have to worry about stopping Carlos Hyde anymore. That may not be much comfort when Ohio State can simply reload with speedsters Ezekiel Elliott and Bri'onte Dunn pushing the pace this season. Plus, Braxton Miller as a senior is a similar nightmare Michigan has faced time and time again. Just like Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor before him, a well-developed Miller will be more than enough to carry his team to victory.
Well, as long as Michigan keeps calling predictable plays on two-point conversions. Seriously!
Ohio State wins by four.
Game 10: (3) Michigan State vs. (10) Penn State
Michigan State will likely be pleased to avoid the ground-and-pound struggle against Wisconsin thanks to the Penn State upset (at least in seeds). The Spartans have a lot of reloading to do on defense, which would be a bad fit against the Wisconsin rushing attack. However, every Cinderella typically runs out of luck at some point, and this may be that point for the revamped Nittany Lions program.
James Franklin has some questions about his offensive line. Playing against Shilique Calhoun and the Spartan defensive line will likely provide no answers other than there is still lots of development to do in State College, Penn. Look for Christian Hackenberg to be seriously harassed all game, which will allow the reloading defensive backfield and linebackers to survive a passing onslaught.
Meanwhile, the Spartans will use superior depth on offense to wear down the still-thin Penn State roster. This will be the stereotypical game where the better team emerges in the third and fourth quarters thanks to depth and star power, this time in the form of RB Jeremy Langford. Mark Dantonio is also a tough tactician to play against, and James Franklin and his staff will need a couple of years to figure out how to beat this mastermind.
It's simply too soon for the Land Grant Trophy to go back to Penn State. It's unclear whether that's a net benefit or a net loss, but regardless, Michigan State moves on with a 24-point margin.
Championship: (3) Michigan State vs. (5) Ohio State
Just like the actual Big Ten Championship in 2013, this bracket in March has reduced itself to Sparty against Brutus Buckeye. Both teams lucked into some favorable matchups against the best the West Division had to offer, but that would not stop these teams from enjoying this rematch. It will be a truly great thing to force Michigan State to battle Michigan and Ohio State every year, as these will be some of the best games the Big Ten has to offer.
So it is fitting that it all comes down to this once again. Would Ohio State be able to reverse the losing streak and grab the March Madness football title?
Ohio State will be eager to test the new version of the "No Fly Zone," and expect Braxton Miller to buy a little more time in the pocket than Christian Hackenberg. It will help that Ohio State's reloaded offensive line is likely far better than what Penn State has to work with, which means the Michigan State defensive line will not always dominate the line of scrimmage. The script will be flipped from the game in Indianapolis, as this time Ohio State will exploit some holes in the Michigan State secondary.
Of course, Michigan State will also exploit the similar holes that remain in Ohio State's defense. Without Ryan Shazier anchoring the center of the defense, Urban Meyer will have to rely on Larry Johnson's young but wildly talented defensive linemen to own the line of scrimmage and take the emphasis off the holes in the secondary. The Spartans will score some serious points once again.
This time, the game could very well come down to special teams. While both teams feature great punters and speedy return men, the placekicking game is a total disparity. Michigan State has sophomore Michael Geiger coming off a 15 of 16 season, while Ohio State will rely on a new kicker. Add to that Urban Meyer's distaste for the kicking game at times, and this will be a huge advantage for Sparty.
Michigan State wins in overtime thanks to a better field-goal kicker. MSU takes the title by three.
Thanks for reading! Please let me know how your Big Ten football March Madness bracket would play out in the comments below.
As always, you can follow me on Twitter. Until next week, enjoy the basketball (which should be as fun as this thought exercise was)!