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Big Ten Football: 5 Can't-Miss Spring Games of 2014

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2014

Big Ten Football: 5 Can't-Miss Spring Games of 2014

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    The Big Ten Conference became, technically, the Big Fourteen this offseason, as Rutgers and Maryland joined the league from the AAC and ACC, respectively.

    This new individual era works in concert with the other new era in college football: the renunciation of the BCS and dawn of the College Football Playoff.

    These changes could not come at a better time for the Big Ten, which, despite having a Rose Bowl champion in Michigan State, has been down the past few years. The league is ready for a fresh new start.

    That start begins with spring practice, and those practices culminate with the spring game—a public scrimmage that allows fans to see, for the first time, its first-year players along with which old players have improved. (Coaches enjoy getting to see the same things.)

    So what makes a spring game "can't miss"? It's a myriad of factors. New head coaches are a big one—the start of a new regime—but quarterback battles and early enrollees also make a difference.

    A team like Michigan State, for example, is expected to be very good next season, but there's really no reason for a non-Spartan fan to watch them play in April. Things are too stable.

    Big Programs + Big Questions = Awesome Spring Games.

5. Ohio State

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    PAUL VERNON/Associated Press

    Don't fret, Ohio State fans. This isn't a power ranking. I don't think you'll be finishing fifth in the conference this year—just that other Big Ten teams have more important spring games.

    There are some reasons to tune in when the Buckeyes play on April 12, however, chief among them is to keep an eye on the defense. Chris Ash was hired as the new co-defensive coordinator and maestro of the secondary, and he will be tasked with fixing a unit that was broken in 2013.

    With OSU breaking in a number of new receivers, it will be clear, if there are open players, that he still has work left to do. Or vice versa.

    Also worth watching are some talented early enrollees. Five-star linebacker Raekwon McMillan, 4-star athlete Curtis Samuel, 4-star receiver Johnnie Dixon and 3-star dual-threat quarterback Stephen Collier, among others, will highlight the group playing before a Buckeye Stadium crowd for the first time.

    Position battles at running back, wide receiver and backup QB are also worth keeping an eye on, though, Urban Meyer has recruited well enough to keep this offense moving with semi-fungible parts.

    Braxton Miller's return ensures that this unit will be good.

4. Nebraska

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Tommy Armstrong or Johnny Stanton?

    Johnny Stanton or Tommy Armstrong?

    That is the question on every single mind in Lincoln, where the Huskers are searching for a full-time quarterback for the first offseason since Taylor Martinez's first snap. And the race is pretty close.

    Armstrong is the early favorite, having played a decent amount last season (while Stanton took a redshirt) and led Nebraska to a Gator Bowl upset of Georgia. After seeing him work out this spring, B/R's Erin Sorensen thinks he might be the most improved player in the Big Ten.

    But don't sleep on Stanton, a quasi-mythic figure in Lincoln with the dual-threat capabilities to do some of the same things as Martinez. He'll enter the spring game an underdog to Armstrong, but if Stanton outperforms him on April 12, he'll score big points with the fans and the coaches and swing some public sentiment his way.

    Position battles all over the field are worth watching, as Nebraska, according to Phil Steele, is tied for No. 100 in the FBS with just 11 returning starters. However, to be entirely honest, this game is ranked for the QB battle more than anything else.

    (That and a glimpse at the new, non-dragon version of Bo Pelini.)

3. Wisconsin

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    Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Spor

    Joel Stave was merely above-average last season, leading to speculation that the quarterback position might be up for grabs in 2014. When given a chance to quell those whispers, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig...well, didn't."

    "I look forward to a very competitive spring," Ludwig said, according to Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com, "and look for major improvement out of the position."

    Ludwig did go on to say the job is Stave's for the moment, but the tacitness behind that first statement is clear: The Badgers need better play under center. He also quipped that Wisconsin needs "to complete two or three more passes a game" than it did last season.

    Bart Houston, formerly hyped prospect Tanner McEvoy and 4-star early enrollee D.J. Gillins provide quality competition for Stave, and watching all four square off in the spring game should be high drama—at least for the middle of April.

    Elsewhere, we'll get our first glimpse of Wisconsin's defense in the post-Chris Borland era and a look at the Melvin Gordon-Corey Clement dynamic at running back. How will each adapt to a bigger respective role? Who will catch passes sans Jared Abbrederis?

    There's plenty here worth tuning in for.

2. Michigan

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    "I'm the quarterback of this team."

    Those were the words of Devin Gardner on the opening day of spring practice, asserting himself to be the favorite over rising sophomore Shane Morris, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com.

    In all likelihood, Gardner is telling it straight.

    He embraces the competition but can't imagine a world where he loses. And despite his pronounced struggles on the road in 2013, his gutsy effort against Ohio State, experience and overall upside make him the rightful favorite—especially in what could be a make-or-break year for head coach Brady Hoke.

    Still, watching Gardner and Morris go head-to-head in the Big House will be interesting. That holds doubly true as the dueling QBs, along with every other offensive player, work to learn the offensive system of first-year coordinator Doug Nussmeier.

    And what do we make of Derrick Green? The former 5-star recruit looked sluggish and appeared to lack burst as a freshman, though even Adrian Petersen would have had trouble rushing behind the Wolverines' 2013 offensive line.

    The defense can be trusted. It played well enough for most of last season, has enough returning pieces and is still under the command of Greg Mattison. It will provide the quality competition that is needed for Michigan's offense to improve.

    Let's see how steep that learning curve really is.

1. Penn State

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    Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

    Let's start with the crowd.

    Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska will fill their stadiums well because they're Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska. But none of them are ushering in a new era like the Nittany Lions of Penn State. And the fans at Beaver Stadium should make a show of it.

    James Franklin will roam those hallowed sidelines for the first time as the PSU head coach, and he'll be in charge of a game with plenty of intrigue. He may not bring his trademark fall intensity, but he'll make sure the guys in helmets and pads sure do.

    And then there's Christian Hackenberg.

    Hack was 247Sports' top-ranked quarterback in the 2013 class and was last seen carving up Wisconsin in a final-week upset at Camp-Randall Stadium. This spring game—the first one after high school graduation—is the one Jameis Winston used as a springboard to his eventual Heisman campaign and national title in 2013.

    Can Hackenberg dream that big? No—not yet. But as he attempts to carry momentum from one season to the next, and as he auditions some promising replacements for departed receiver Allen Robinson, Big Ten fans will keep their eyes transfixed regardless.

     

    Star ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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