Power Ranking Every Big Ten Football Team Post-Spring Practice
Spring time in the Big Ten has officially come to a close.
Every team has wrapped up its spring game and heads into the summer looking to get healthy and stay out of trouble. So how does everyone stack up?
That can be somewhat difficult to determine. Rosters are thinner before freshmen classes enroll; key players aren't always active; depth charts aren't final. Exiting spring does give an idea of where teams are, though, and what needs to be done in preseason camp. How do all 14 Big Ten teams look post-spring?
Somebody has to be last. Unfortunately for Purdue, it gets the nod.
Head coach Darrell Hazell has a ton of work cut out for him after finishing 1-11 last year without a single Big Ten victory. The offense has to get something going in the ground game, which finished last in the conference with just 67 yards per game.
Defense was putrid too, for that matter. The Boilermakers gave up 38 points per game, ahead of only Indiana.
Quarterback is an important position battle that hasn't been nailed down, though sophomore Danny Etling should be the presumed front-runner.
Purdue may technically be better in 2014—it's difficult to be worse than a one-win team—but it will still be a long season.
As tough as things have been in two years under Tim Beckman, there's reason for Illinois to have some optimism about 2014.
The team returns a majority of its starters from last year, meaning this group should be a year older and wiser. It certainly can't get much worse on defense, which was statistically one of the worst units in the country and gave up 35 points a game.
Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt should be the front-runner at quarterback, but there are major concerns at wide receiver because of turnover. Early enrollee Geronimo Allison should be able to make an immediate impact there.
Establishing, even with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's passing attack, and stopping the run will be paramount for the Illini.
Indiana feels like it's on the verge of getting back to the postseason under head coach Kevin Wilson.
If nothing else, the Hoosiers offense sure has been exciting to watch. Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson will probably split time again. It's a situation that works well for Indiana.
It's the defense that needs fine-tuning. A lot of fine-tuning. The good news is that nearly the entire group will return. Even if that side of the ball is serviceable this year, that should be enough for the Hoosiers to get back to a bowl game.
Developing continuity on defense will be the biggest priority. The other one will be finding receivers to complement Shane Wynn.
It's finally here: the time when Rutgers is included in Big Ten power rankings.
The Scarlet Knights will have a new look on offense with the addition of offensive coordinator and former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen. Veteran quarterback Gary Nova has given himself an edge. Per head coach Kyle Flood, via Dan Duggan of NJ.com, Nova would be the starter "if we had to play today."
Generating enough offense is going to be Rutgers' biggest question. That side of the ball has the most growing to do together. The other question will be whether this team has the depth to compete in the Big Ten. TCU and West Virginia have struggled adapting to life in a deeper conference. Will Rutgers have the same issues?
All union talk aside, Northwestern still has a football team to field in 2014.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald apparently did something awful to the Football Gods, as the Wildcats sustained a rash of injuries and finished a promising season 5-7. The Cats are better than that. Fitzgerald is better than that.
This team has plenty of skill players. Trevor Siemian, who is more of a prototypical quarterback than recent players who have come through the program, took command of the job this spring. Receiver Kyle Prater is an exciting playmaker when healthy. On defense, the back seven should be a solid unit.
The Wildcats' issues are in the trenches along the offensive and defensive lines. Unfortunately, everything starts there. Northwestern has to shore up its run defense (ninth in the Big Ten) and keep Siemian standing upright. The key will be finding the right combination along both lines. That's largely to be determined.
The Badgers have all kinds of question marks on offense outside of the running back position. Quarterback Joel Stave has been sidelined with a nagging shoulder injury, paving the way for Tanner McEvoy to show what he could do in the spring game.
Wisconsin also needs to find a replacement for longtime receiver Jared Abbrederis, as well as a full complement of playmakers around him. Someone has to take the pressure off of running back Melvin Gordon.
On defense, the Badgers lose linebacker and unquestioned leader Chris Borland. Leon Jacobs and Joe Schobert will be the next in line to pick up the slack in the middle of the defense.
Iowa hasn't been able to get back to double-digit wins since 2009, but the Hawkeyes have some pieces in place to get back to that standard.
Quarterback Jake Rudock returns after an efficient, although not necessarily flashy, 2013 season. He'll have plenty of options to throw to with big receivers like Kevonte Martin-Manley and Tevaun Smith coming back. Iowa needs more help at running back to take the pressure off of Mark Weisman.
The Hawkeyes defense is a different story, as there are questions at every level. The D-line should be the strength, but there is a lot to replace at linebacker and in the secondary—especially at safety. Jordan Lomax, Anthony Gair and John Lowdermilk are all experienced but battling for position there.
Those defensive questions keep Iowa from landing further up this list.
The Terps have some pieces in place to make an instant impact in the Big Ten. Sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, if he can stay healthy, is a legitimate dual-threat quarterback. He'll have options at running back (Brandon Ross, Wes Brown) and wide receiver (Stefon Diggs, Deon Long).
The defense returns nine starters and should improve on what was a middle-of-the-road effort in the ACC last season.
The biggest issue for Maryland under head coach Randy Edsall has been staying healthy. At no point was that more obvious than in 2012, when the team ran through quarterbacks like Spinal Tap ran through drummers. That wasn't as big of an issue this spring.
There's talent and experience on this Maryland squad. There's no reason why this team can't make a bowl game in 2014.
6. Penn State
Bill O'Brien did an excellent job for Penn State in the two years he coached in Happy Valley. However, it's obvious first-year coach James Franklin is far more invested in the program. The recruiting for next year is already paying dividends.
The Nittany Lions have a young star in quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who returns as perhaps the best pure passer in the conference. However, Penn State will need playmakers to step up around him, especially with the departure of receiver Allen Robinson. Tight end Adam Breneman is another former big-time recruit who should start coming into his own.
As long as the Lions can shore up the secondary, led by cornerback Jordan Lucas, there's a lot to like about this defense. The question will be whether players can adjust to new schemes on both sides of the ball.
You'd think Minnesota would drop some spots because of the departure of quarterback Philip Nelson, who will transfer to Rutgers. That's not the case here.
Yes, Nelson had his fair share of inconsistencies last season, but he was at one point considered a kid with a lot of promise. With Nelson gone, though, Mitch Leidner jumps into the Gophers' starting quarterback spot.
"He’s been awesome," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said of Leidner to Joe Christensen of the Star-Tribune. "I think Mitch looks at himself as the starter, and the undisputed leader of the offense, and probably the team. And so there’s a confidence about him. He’s the guy holding other guys accountable."
Leidner will have a great safety net with tight end Maxx Williams, one of the best receivers at his position anywhere in the country.
The Gophers defense, which ranked fourth in the Big Ten in points allowed, should be solid again with guys like senior linebacker Damien Wilson.
Minnesota may not win the West Division, but Jerry Kill's team is going to have a shot and will upset a team or two in the process.
Michigan's main priority this offseason is improving the offensive line, which was awful last season. It won't matter who the Wolverines put at quarterback—Devin Gardner or Shane Morris—if he doesn't have protection or a running game to take the pressure off of him.
The O-line will look more complete in preseason camp because of injuries to Erik Magnuson and Joey Burzynski, so there's only so much that can be made of the Wolverines' spring game.
Michigan also needs to find replacements at receiver with the departures of Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Tight end Devin Funchess is by far the best returning receiver.
There's some young talent that will join the team this summer who should compete right away for playing time. Among them is cornerback Jabrill Peppers. Derrick Green is a young running back who may be the Wolverines' best option in the backfield.
3. Ohio State
The Buckeyes would be higher on this list—maybe No. 1—if they weren't so banged up during spring.
Quarterback Braxton Miller is out with a shoulder injury, receiver Evan Spencer is nursing a leg injury, defensive back Vonn Bell has a banged-up knee and on and on it goes.
That gives other players a chance to step up, but backup quarterback Cardale Jones didn't exactly blow everyone away in Ohio State's spring game. Head coach Urban Meyer even called Jones' spring game performance "disappointing."
"I thought he made some misses today, but I’m not going to let that ruin his spring," Meyer said, via James Grega Jr. of The Lantern. "He’s had a good spring for us."
Another concern is Ohio State's offensive line, which loses four seniors off of last year's team. Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay will boost the interior of the line once he arrives on campus, but there is still competition at one of the guard and tackle positions.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line should be one of the best in the country.
2. Michigan State
Michigan State's questions basically start and end on defense. Last year's group was statistically and visually the best in the country. It's difficult for anyone, even a defensive coordinator like Pat Narduzzi, to seamlessly replace so many key players from that group.
There are big names who need to be replaced on all three levels of the defense, but the biggest will be cornerback and Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard. Sophomore Darian Hicks is one of several names that keeps popping up as Dennard's replacement, but the competition should go all the way into the fall.
Taiwan Jones appears to be one of the new linebackers who will anchor the Spartans defense along with Darien Harris. Will there be a drop-off from last year's defense? Almost certainly, but the question is how much (or how little).
No coach in college football has turned his career around in a shorter amount of time than Nebraska's Bo Pelini. From "audiogate" to becoming the king of spring games, Pelini has had a miraculous recovery.
Will it translate into the 2014 season?
It starts with the running game, and the Cornhuskers return the conference's most productive rusher from last season, Ameer Abdullah. As if that wasn't enough, backup Imani Cross could probably start for most teams. With Abdullah, Cross and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., Nebraska should have one of the best backfields in the Big Ten.
Defensively, there are some questions at linebacker but a lot of answers in the secondary with players like Corey Cooper.
Could this finally be the year the Huskers get over the four-loss hump? Now seems to be as good a time as any, as the program is suddenly riding a wave of momentum.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.
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