Power Ranking the Most Dangerous Offenses in Big Ten Football
There's still some truth to the old adage that "defense wins championships." But we're definitely living in a new age where offense is king in the college football world.
Defense-heavy conferences like the Big Ten are being forced to adapt, even if it appears the league is being dragged along kicking and screaming. Still, the Big Ten isn't without its potent offensive weapons, and as spring practices get underway, it's time for a fresh batch of power rankings.
This time, we'll be looking at the most dangerous offenses in the Big Ten. How will the Buckeyes stack up in 2014? Can Michigan State continue its improved offensive output? Will the Wolverines be able to develop any sort of consistency moving forward?
We'll attempt to answer those questions and more in our list of the most dangerous Big Ten offenses, pre-2014 spring practice edition.
Call them what you will: Worst, least dangerous, anemic or offensively challenged, the bottom four teams in the new-look Big Ten for 2014 have their work cut out for them in a conference schedule full of defensive juggernauts.
We'll start with the newcomers, Rutgers and Maryland. Since neither team has played a Big Ten conference game, it's difficult to know exactly where the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins will stack up against the rest of the league.
Maryland will be guided by sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, after he was granted a medical waiver prior to his 2013 senior season. Brown finished seventh in the ACC last season with 203.8 passing yards per game, which included 13 touchdowns to seven interceptions in 11 appearances.
For comparison, that would have ranked his average yardage output at fifth in the Big Ten. Then again, you'd need to compare the relative strength of passing defenses of the two conferences (Michigan State and Iowa finished in the top ten nationally from the Big Ten, while only Virginia Tech finished with such a distinction from the ACC).
Rutgers probably returns the best-sounding quarterback name of any Big Ten program in senior Gary Nova. His 215.9 passing yards per game was good enough for seventh in the American Athletic Conference last season, but Nova's 18-to-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio leaves much to be desired. With ball-hawking secondaries littering the Big Ten, Nova will need to improve his accuracy greatly with the shift from the AAC to the Big Ten.
Purdue is a team that seems to be in complete disarray. The Boilermakers' lone win last season was only secured in the final seconds against FCS Indiana State early in the year. Indiana State, for its part, was 1-11, with its lone win coming against a Division II program. It's going to be a long road back to relevance for Darrell Hazell's club in West Lafayette, and we shouldn't expect much from the Boilers in 2014 offensively.
Minnesota is the final program in our "bottom four," but is probably the most likely to make a jump in 2014. The Gophers were an impressive, if not outright surprising, 8-5 in 2013, but only managed a 4-4 conference mark after running into the conference's tougher defenses late in the year.
Quarterback Philip Nelson will be back for his junior season, and if Minnesota can find a way to make the passing game more of a factor this season (Nelson averaged just 108.8 passing yards per game last season), the Gophers could be the surprise team of the new West Division this fall.
It doesn't matter what you're ranking; if you put Michigan anywhere below two or three on your list, prepare for reactions ranging from dismissive to apoplectic. But sitting at No. 10 on our list of most dangerous Big Ten offenses are the Wolverines, and for good reasons, too.
Michigan not only finished 10th out of 12 teams in the Big Ten offensively last season (373.5 yards per game), but it did so in a completely underwhelming fashion. Inconsistency was the word of the day for Michigan's offense last season, and the Wolverines' up-and-down performances destroyed any chances of the expected run to the Big Ten Championship Game by the fourth game of the conference schedule.
After opening conference play with their customary victory, the Wolverines went on to lose five of their next seven games, finishing fifth in the six-team Legends Division.
Despite valiant individual performances, particular from the likes of Devin Gardner (who finished second in the Big Ten with 246.7 passing yards per game) and Jeremy Gallon (second in the Big Ten with 105.6 receiving yards per game), Michigan just couldn't find ways to win football games.
Michigan actually finished fourth in terms of scoring offense last season, but the Wolverines' reliance on big defensive plays, short fields and sporadic big gains to score points was evident all throughout 2013.
If the Wolverines can find a way to sustain amazing offensive displays like we saw against Indiana and Ohio State, perhaps we'd have some faith in Michigan's offense in 2014. Unfortunately, we also have 2013 games against Connecticut, Michigan State, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas State stuck in our heads, too.
Add in a much younger offensive line and the loss of the top receiver (Gallon) and rusher (Fitzgerald Toussaint), and you'll excuse us if we don't get all giddy about Michigan's 2014 offense.
For much of Northwestern's success over the past several of seasons, one needs tolook no further than do-it-all quarterback Kain Colter. He did, after all, do something no Northwestern quarterback had done since the 1948 season: Win a bowl game.
But 2013 was a different story, as the Wildcats not only finished a dismal 5-7, including last-place 1-7 finish in the Legends Division, but Northwestern also finished in the bottom half of the conference when it came to total offense. The Wildcats' 399.6 yards per game was seventh in the Big Ten last season, and with Colter now departing with his degree in hand, we're of the opinion that Northwestern's offensive output will get even worse.
That is, of course, unless senior quarterback Trevor Siemian, senior back Treyvon Green and senior wideout Christian Jones can figure out how to fill in the hole left by Colter's nearly 1,100 yards and 10 total touchdowns—to say nothing of improving enough to win more than five games in 2014.
Like Northwestern, rival Illinois will be without a key offensive cog moving into 2014—which is undoubtedly going to hurt offensive expectations this fall.
Nathan Scheelhaase has racked up 8,568 passing yards in his four seasons at Illinois, ranking him 12th all-time in Big Ten history, and tops among Illinois quarterbacks. But it's not difficult to see how Scheelhaase was almost single-handedly responsible for the Illini's offensive output in 2013. His 272.7 passing yards per game was tops in the conference and his 3,543 total offensive yards also led the Big Ten—without playing a bowl game.
If you look who might be ready to fill in those rather large yardage-gaining shoes left behind by Scheelhaase's departure, you'll have to look pretty far down the list of the Big Ten's offensive leaders in 2013. Only one other Illini finished in the top 30 when it came to offensive yards last season, running back Josh Ferguson—at No. 30 with 779 yards.
The Big Ten had a whole cadre of up-and-coming sophomore quarterbacks last season, and Iowa's Jake Rudock was among them. Rudock finished seventh in the Big Ten with 183.3 passing yards per game, but he also threw 13 interceptions against 18 touchdowns.
Luckily for Iowa fans, there's plenty of time between now and this fall for Rudock to work on his consistency. He should also receive more help from returning senior running back Mark Weisman.
If Iowa's run game can step it up a notch, we think the Hawkeyes can make a modest improvement over last season's offensive numbers (ninth in the Big Ten in total offense).
Over the past several seasons, Nebraska has pinned its hopes and offensive fortunes on the play of the quarterbacks. Perhaps looking further back in the formation would be the way to go for 2014.
Slowly but surely, Bo Pelini and company are coming around to the conclusion that the Big Ten is a quantum leap away from what the Big 12 once was, in terms of defense. The mobile, run-and-gun quarterback can only be successful in the Big Ten if you have an athlete second-to-none. I think we can all admit now that Taylor Martinez and Ron Kellogg III didn't have the chops needed to be superstars in that system against Big Ten defenses.
Even moving forwards, there's some lingering doubt about returning sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr.'s ability to become a go-to quarterback. Granted, he was just a freshman, but tossing eight picks on nine touchdowns will make any fan grind their teeth.
But Nebraska does have one very potent weapon that can be a game-changer. Returning senior Ameer Abdullah led the Big Ten last season with 1,690 rushing yards (130.0 yards per game). If the Huskers can find a way not only to get Abdullah the ball, but get him into the end zone more frequently (nine rushing TDs in 2013), don't be surprised if that 2014 Gator Bowl victory of Georgia is the first of many impressive wins for the Huskers.
5. Penn State
Penn State has lost a lot between the season finale of 2013 and now. Head coach Bill O'Brien's departure will certainly have an impact, but James Franklin certainly knows how to defy expectations in order to win football games.
But the Nittany Lions also lose stud receiver Allen Robinson, who led the Big Ten (and was sixth nationally) in receiving yards in 2013.
Really, the only reason we're betting on Penn State making the top five when it comes to offense in 2014, is the return of young phenom quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He finished third in the Big Ten in terms of passing yards and yards per game as a freshman last season, and we think he'll excel under Franklin's system in State College.
Honestly, we haven't been this high on Penn State in a long while, and it might be happening at just the right time.
4. Michigan State
If you only watched Michigan State's performances in the Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl Game, you might have been tricked into thinking that the Spartans were one of the nation's most complete teams throughout 2013.
You'd be wrong.
Michigan State had one of, if not the top, defense in the entire country last season from Week 1 right through to the final whistle. That's become par for the course in East Lansing, but in 2013, it was also MSU's saving grace.
Without that strong defense, Michigan State easily could have lost four of its first five contests. Despite finishing No. 3 in both the AP and Coaches' polls and No. 2 in the final B/R Top 25, Michigan State nearly dropped early contests to the likes of Western Michigan and South Florida. Michigan State just didn't have any offensive chutzpah early in the season, as young Connor Cook struggled mightily.
But if ever you saw a quarterback grow up before your eyes in the middle of a season, this was it. After finally getting past long time nemesis Iowa, MSU rallied for 42 points against a defensively declined Indiana team and pasted Illinois two weeks later, 42-3. After knocking off rival Michigan 29-6 on November 2, Sparty dared to dream about what might happen next.
MSU shot up in the AP Poll from No. 24 to No. 14 after the win against Michigan, and Cook found a way to gather in every point needed from there on out to not only win MSU's first outright Big Ten title in more than two decades, but eventually win in Pasadena, too.
Sure, there are some questions on defense for MSU in 2014. But offensively, the Spartans return nearly every starter at a skill position, save for wideout Bennie Fowler. We should definitely see some season-long improvements from MSU on the offensive side of the football this fall.
"Should" being the operative word.
Names like Nate Sudfeld, Tre Robinson, Tevin Coleman and Cody Latimer might not be on the forefront of your mind, but if you're a fan of high-octane offense in the Big Ten, they should be.
These four guys combined for 48 touchdowns and over 5,200 yards of total offense for Indiana last season. What's more, all of them will be returning in 2014.
So why aren't we hearing more about the magnificent offense that head coach Kevin Wilson has constructed in Bloomington? Quite frankly because the Indiana defense gave up 527.9 yards and 38.8 points per game in 2013 (123rd and 115th nationally, respectively).
To put it simply, the atrociousness of the defense completely overshadows how good the offense can be. But if the Hoosiers can put up even a halfway decent effort on the defensive side of the football in 2014, don't be surprised if they become the surprise Cinderella of the season.
Given Wisconsin's penchant for running the football, it's hard not to like the Badgers' chances in 2014. After all, Melvin Gordon is back for another season in Madison, and that will instantly raise Wisconsin's offensive street cred.
Up-and-coming sophomore Corey Clement rushed for nearly 550 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman, while looking up the depth chart at two superstars last season. He should be ready to take on more responsibility in 2014, and with solid dual-threat quarterback play from Joel Stave taking the snaps again, we're pretty confident in our prediction that Wisconsin will once again aggravate the Big Ten's defensive coordinators.
1. Ohio State
It might be a bit early to buy into the Braxton Miller Heisman hype, but when it comes to being one of the Big Ten's top all-around players, you can't call it hype anymore.
Okay, so Miller isn't your typical Big Ten quarterback. He doesn't throw the ball a whole lot (255 attempts in 2013, 10th in the conference). He doesn't rack up a ton of passing yards (2,094, ninth in the Big Ten). But on the occasions where he wasn't throwing one of his 24 passing touchdowns last season, he was busy gashing the defense on the ground for big yards—or one of his 12 rushing touchdowns.
Miller finished 2013 with the third-most total offensive yards in the conference, and blew away his quarterback counterparts with 1,068 rushing yards. In fact, in the run-happy Big Ten, only seven running backs rushed for more yards than Braxton Miller last season. No other quarterback was even in the conference's top 15 rushers last season.
With Carlos Hyde now departed, the passing game may need to play a slightly bigger role in 2014. But if Miller can hold his 63.5 percent completion ratio steady, that shouldn't be a problem—especially with four of Ohio State's top five receivers returning.
A national championship—especially in the new playoff format—is still a long way off, and there are some legitimate questions about the Buckeyes defense. But when it comes to pure power on offense, there is no squad in the Big Ten more dangerous than the men of the scarlet and gray.
Follow @davidrluther on Twitter!