Big Ten Football: 5 Most Interesting Remaining Spring Games of 2014
The Big Ten, now the "big 14," will be wrapping up its spring football schedule over the next couple of weeks. While we've already had some entertaining and newsworthy spring games, there are still several interesting games remaining before spring practices conclude.
Even though we've already seen Michigan conclude an interesting spring practice, there's still a lot of compelling storylines across the conference that have yet to play out. While we're not guaranteed any resolutions—like Michigan's quarterback situation that will apparently linger until fall camp—we should still be able to fill in some holes with these five remaining spring games.
We're not really ranking the importance of spring games here, but if we were, Ohio State wouldn't be at the top. It's not as if we think Ohio State won't be good in 2014; the Buckeyes will be an East Division front-runner right out of the gate. But when it comes to 2014 spring games, there are some more compelling stories out there.
Still, there are some points of interest we should all look for on April 12 when the Buckeyes stage their annual spring scrimmage. First, we're all going to want to take a peek at Braxton Miller. Is he really going to be as good as some think he can be? Can he really add a deadly passing attack to his already impressive ground skills?
But if we look beyond Miller and his Heisman hopes, what are the Buckeyes' chances for some hardware this season?
Last season, Ohio State finished seventh in the Big Ten (47th nationally) in total defense and 11th in the conference (112th nationally) is passing defense.
While the Buckeyes certainly have the offensive weapons to score a lot of points when needed, it was the defense that prevented the Buckeyes from adding anything more than a Leaders Division championship to the trophy case in 2013.
With seven returning starters from last season, we should see some maturation on the defensive side of the football. Still, Ohio State's big problem in 2013 was the secondary. Six of Ohio State's seven returning starters are among the front seven.
There are also some position and depth-chart battles at running back and wide receiver that could provide some entertainment value to OSU's spring game. But if you are looking for some details about Ohio State's chances in 2014, keep an eye on that new secondary.
Minnesota was the surprise team of 2013, finishing 8-5 with a pretty surprising 4-4 record in the Big Ten. Gone, apparently, are the days of losing to the likes of hapless New Mexico State or FCS teams like South Dakota.
One of Minnesota's remaining struggles, however, is the play of the quarterbacks. Last season, Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner combined for just 1,925 yards and 12 touchdowns on seven interceptions while completing just 51.3 percent of their passes.
Nelson has since announced his transfer to new Big Ten member Rutgers, where he'll sit a year before returning to the field in 2015. That leaves Leidner as the only Gopher with any collegiate experience. Will head coach Jerry Kill stick with Leidner or move in a fresh direction?
There really aren't a ton of options out there for Kill, but that doesn't mean some unknown freshman couldn't step forward and really make a name for himself this spring. If (and it's a mighty big "if") Minnesota can find someone, anyone to shore up the passing game, the Gophers could be a team to watch in the West Division in 2014.
But let's see how spring ball concludes before we make that leap.
There's really been only one question that has been important to Nebraska fans this offseason: Tommy Armstrong or Johnny Stanton?
Nebraska has gone a long time since it had a true full-time quarterback, and so far, 2014 hasn't provided any definite answers. Armstrong, as most Nebraska fans can tell you, had a fairly underwhelming performance as an unexpected freshman starter in 2013.
Recurring injuries again sidelined Taylor Martinez, and Armstrong stepped in to eventually lead the team in passing—with fewer than 1,000 passing yards. Armstrong also threw eight interceptions last season to just nine touchdowns.
Still, Armstrong is the favorite to secure the starting job in 2014. The competition, however, if far from over, as young Mr. Stanton takes his first snaps in front of the Nebraska faithful on April 12. Head coach Bo Pelini knows all too well what the pressure feels like in Lincoln. Should Stanton impress, or even outperform Armstrong, expect the chorus of Stanton fans to grow to a deafening roar.
Penn State's April 12 spring game is right around the corner, and we'll admit that there's an almost circus-like appeal this year because of the arrival of James Franklin.
Unlike his predecessor, Franklin's arrival at Penn State is generating quite a bit of excitement. Additionally, this Franklin era looks to have a sense of permanence that Bill O'Brien never really embraced. Don't be surprised to see an impressive fan turnout at Beaver Stadium for this one.
But James Franklin's arrival is only part of the appeal this year. Christian Hackenberg was a young phenom at quarterback last season for the Lions. He rightfully generated quite a lot of buzz with his impressive performances that contradicted his youth and inexperience.
Now, Hackenberg has that year under his belt, plus the benefit of umpteen spring practices to settle more fully into the Penn State system—not to mention learning Franklin's style.
Will Hackenberg's first spring game be successful enough to really generate buzz about the Nittany Lions? Is Penn State still capable of defying expectations while under the weight of NCAA sanctions? Will a Franklin-led Hackenberg offense be enough to truly brighten Penn State's prospects for 2014?
We'll be in a much better position to answer those questions after April 12.
We won't see the defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl Game champions on the field for their spring game until April 26, but you can bet there will be a lot of eyes on the Spartans of Michigan State once they are. The biggest question facing MSU this spring is, quite simply, "what's next?"
Finishing the 2013 season as Big Ten champions was something only a few dared suggest back in August. Michigan State, however, not only blew through the Big Ten without a conference loss, but the Spartans knocked off mighty Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and eventually toppled Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game to finish No. 2 in the final B/R Top 25 of the season.
So what now? What can MSU do for an encore? How can Sparty possibly top 2013?
First, we need to look to offensive consistency. Quarterback Connor Cook grew up literally before our eyes last season. Despite a horrendously slow start, Cook quickly—and somewhat quietly from a national and even Big Ten media standpoint—became one of the most efficient on-field game-managers. Will Cook be able to continue his growth?
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, how well will Michigan State be able to reload on defense? Gone is Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Thorpe Award-winner Darqueze Dennard. In fact, MSU returns just five defensive starters.
Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi (who turned down the head coaching position at UConn to remain DC at MSU) have been great in the past at reloading the defense with some eye-popping talent. Will they do it again for 2014?
If we see signs of another dominating defense on April 26, don't be surprised if more than a few people put Michigan State near the top of their lists for the East Division race.
Follow @davidrluther on Twitter!