Every Big Ten Team's Strongest, Weakest Position Groups Heading into 2014 Season

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2014

Every Big Ten Team's Strongest, Weakest Position Groups Heading into 2014 Season

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    The job of building a college football powerhouse is an ongoing process for every coach across the nation. Every season, coaches must juggle lineups depleted by graduations or early departures while plugging the next great campus legend into the mix.  The result is an ever-changing landscape of great—and not-so-great—position groupings.

    With spring practices behind us, we now have a pretty good picture of what each team's roster will look like come fall camp.  We also have a better idea about what to expect from each position grouping come the fall, although there's still plenty of time for changes between now and Week 1.

    Here, we'll take a look at those returners, as well as some young blood in an attempt to identify each team's strength and weakness on the field heading into the 2014 college football season.


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    Weakest Position: Defensive Front Seven

    Last season, Illinois gave up 238.6 rushing yards per game.  Not only was that the worst in the Big Ten, it was also 118th in the FBS and worst among all "power conference" programs.

    With Illinois bringing up the rear in the conference in recruiting as well, according to 247Sports, we're not confident the Illini will be making any miraculous one-year turnarounds in this department.


    Strongest Position: Quarterback

    It might sound a little odd, given Illinois' relative lack of success, but when it comes to pass offense, the Illini actually finished 2013 ranked second in the Big Ten with 287.7 yards per game.  What's more, Illinois will be adding more options in 2014 with former Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt, who is now eligible to play.

    It's worth noting, however, that Illinois won't have Nate Scheelhaase any longer, and Lunt wasn't exactly impressive in Illinois' spring game.


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    Weakest Position: The Entire Defense

    There really isn't a whole lot to like about Indiana's defense as a unit.  Sure, there may be some individuals who can put up an impressive performance (such as Tim Bennett), but when looking at the team as a whole, one can't get past the 527.9 yards per game Indiana gave up last season.

    For the record, that was by far the worst in the Big Ten and third-worst in the nation (ahead of only Cal and New Mexico State).


    Strongest Position: Quarterback

    As bad as the defense was last season, the offense was nothing short of amazing.  Led by a tandem of quarterbacks in Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson, Indiana ranked eighth in the nation in total offense.

    Head coach Kevin Wilson may choose to go with one quarterback in 2014, and it's still an open question as to which prolific QB he'll pick (although signs are pointing toward Sudfeld), but no matter who emerges as the full-time starter, it's clear that Indiana's offense will be in good hands.


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    Weakest Position: Quarterback

    A weak Hawkeyes quarterback might not be all that surprising, given Iowa's traditional offensive style, and it might not even be all that concerning for many Iowa fans.  But with Iowa consistently struggling to claw its way back into the upper echelon of the Big Ten, perhaps a little more focus should be placed on the passing game.

    Last season, then-sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock completed less than 60 percent of his passes for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns.  He also threw 13 interceptions.

    Rudock has shown some improvement this spring, but Iowa will need to be better than ninth in the Big Ten in passing offense (as it was in 2013) if the Hawkeyes want to do better than 8-5.


    Strongest Position: Offensive Line

    Luckily for Rudock, he'll have one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten in front of him in 2014. Anchored by 2013 All-Big Ten selection Brandon Scherff, the massive and, at times, dominating Iowa offensive line should provide plenty of opportunities to improve upon the passing attack in 2014.


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    Weakest Position: Defensive Secondary

    Last season, Maryland was pretty mediocre in nearly every facet of the game.  There wasn't one particular area that was terrible, but there wasn't an area in which the Terrapins truly excelled.  If we had to select one position group which could make the biggest impact with an improvement, however, we'd have to select the defensive backfield.

    In 2013, Maryland didn't have a single corner or safety rank in the top 10 in the ACC in terms of interceptions or in the top 25 in terms of passes defended.  Maryland also loses its top interception performer from last season in Dexter McDougle.


    Strongest Position: Wide Receiver

    Stefon Diggs has the capability to pick apart an opposing secondary single-handedly.  Despite missing significant time last season due to injury, Diggs still managed to tie for second on the team in receiving touchdowns.  Diggs also led Maryland with nearly 90 receiving yards per game (in his seven appearances).

    If Diggs can stay healthy in 2014, he'll easily be one of the top receivers in the Big Ten, if not the nation. He's explosive out of the backfield and electric when the ball gets into his hands; defenses beware.


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    Weakest Position: Quarterback

    It's no secret that Devin Gardner struggled to guide Michigan's offense to victories last season.  It's wasn't, however, for lack of trying.  Gardner actually put together a pretty impressive 2013 from a statistical standpoint: 2,960 passing yards, 21 passing touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 246.7 passing yards per game, 483 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns.

    So what is it about the Michigan quarterback that leads us to believe Gardner (along with Shane Morris) should be part of the weakest position group the Wolverines will field in 2014?

    If you take a look at Michigan's best offensive outings last season, you'll see a commonality between them: porous opposing defenses.  Against Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio State, the three best offensive performances of 2013, you'll find three Big Ten programs that all were sixth or worse in total defense.

    Additionally, Ohio State and Indiana were the two bottom teams in passing defense last season.

    Should we really be impressed with the fact that Gardner can light up a defense that is being picked apart every week?

    It also doesn't help the Michigan quarterbacks out that every other position group seems to be making strides this offseason toward getting better.  Gardner, on the other hand, had a pretty rough spring—leaving his status as starter still somewhat in doubt heading into fall camp.


    Strongest Position: Linebackers

    Jake Ryan is back, and if he can stay 100 percent through 2014, he will be the anchor of a lockdown defensive midfield that could have multiple 100-tackle performers this season.

    With Ryan moving to the middle linebacker slot from the strong side, expect to hear his name a lot this fall.  Joined by James Ross III and Desmond Morgan, along with experienced backups such as Joe Bolden and Brennen Beyer, running backs and slot receivers will loathe entering the middle of Michigan's defense come September.

Michigan State

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    Weakest Position: Running Backs

    "Weakest" isn't exactly the right adjective here.  "Underutilized" might fit better.

    Before the Michigan State hate-mail machine kicks into high gear, it's important to remember that the weakest part of a pretty darn good football team isn't necessarily "weak."  Since we didn't want to leave the page blank, we went with the position group that, statistically speaking, was the least impressive from last season and hasn't changed much heading into 2014.

    Maybe Jeremy Langford's comparatively unimpressive numbers from last season were a result of Michigan State's overall ability to spread the wealth, so to speak.  Since the Spartans didn't need to rely on Langford, he wasn't called upon to carry the load with eye-popping performances.  His 1,422 rushing yards last season was fifth in the Big Ten, but he led the conference in rushing touchdowns with 18.

    Plus, with so much talent returning at quarterback and at receiver, we doubt Langford will need to carry the Spartans this season, too.  So, where does that leave us?  Probably with a very good running back who will be, unfortunately, underappreciated—just like in 2013.


    Strongest Position: Defensive Line

    Shilique Calhoun is the definition of defensive end superstar.  He led the Big Ten in forced fumbles last season, was credited with 7.5 sacks and scored three defensive touchdowns in 2013.  On the other side of the line, Marcus Rush holds opposing offenses in check.  Were it not for the attention given to Calhoun, Rush might be a star in his own right; he's that good, if underrated.

    The middle of the line is still firming up for 2014, but if there's one thing we've learned about 2013 Big Ten Coach of the Year Mark Dantonio and 2013 Frank Broyles Award winner (as the nation's top assistant coach) defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, it's that they can reload a top-flight defense with top-flight talent seemingly overnight.


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    Weakest Position: Quarterbacks/Wide Receivers

    It doesn't get much worse than Minnesota's passing game.  Last season, the Gophers threw for only 148.1 yards per game, fewest in the Big Ten and 117th nationally.  Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner combined to complete just 51.3 percent of their passes for just 1,925 yards.

    Nelson has since transferred, but that in no way means Minnesota's passing game is about to get kicked up a notch.  Minnesota didn't have a single receiver with more than 420 yards last season, and the team leader was a freshman tight end (Maxx Williams, 417 yards).  The top returning wide receiver only managed 259 yards and a single touchdown in 2013.


    Strongest Position: Defensive Secondary

    Despite an anemic passing attack, there were actually a number of things Minnesota did fairly well last season.  Defending the pass was one of them.  The Gophers allowed just 215.1 passing yards per game in 2013, and there is plenty of experience and talent returning in 2014 to provide hope for some improvements this fall.


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    Weakest Position: Quarterback

    You can't really argue that the quarterback position at Nebraska has been a sore spot for the Corhhuskers for the past couple of seasons.  What's worse, it isn't looking all that better for 2014.

    Taylor Martinez is finally gone, but in his place, head coach Bo Pelini will need to select what amounts to the least bad option.  There's Tommy Armstrong, the likely starter, who completed just 68 of his 131 attempts (51.9 percent) last season for 966 yards.  The real scary part, however, was the eight interceptions he threw compared to just nine touchdowns.

    Maybe his offseason workout with NFL legend Brett Favre will do some good.  It can't hurt.


    Strongest Position: Running Backs

    Luckily for Nebraska's passing game, there's one heckuva running game upon which the Huskers can fall back on.  The Big Ten's leading rusher from 2013, Ameer Abdullah, will be back to defend his title.

    Add in some experience and talent from Imani Cross with some promising youngsters such as Terrell Newby, and all of the sudden, Nebraska's offense looks like it has plenty of teeth for 2014.


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    Weakest Position: Running Backs

    Northwestern certainly had a disappointing season in 2013, especially when compared to the past five years under Pat Fitzgerald.  The Wildcats had been building a tradition of bowl trips at season's end, but that all came screeching to a halt at the end of 2013.

    One of the glaring weaknesses of the Wildcats last season is the same weakness that's shaping up for 2014: the ground game.  In 2013, the Wildcats didn't have a single player with more than 740 yards on the ground.  What's more, quarterback Kain Colter, who accounted for more than 20 percent of the team's rushing yardage, is gone.  Who will fill that hole come 2014?


    Strongest Position: Quarterback

    As bad as the rushing game might be this season, the passing attack might actually take a step forward. Trevor Siemian is now the undisputed leader of the team, and his style is much more of a true passing quarterback than Colter ever needed to be.

    Last season, Siemian, used in passing situations, was 177-of-296 for 2,143 yards and 11 touchdowns with nine interceptions.  He'll need to improve on those numbers, especially in his touchdown-to-interception ratio, to take enough pressure off of the running game to make a world of difference—but he has the talent to make it happen, especially when he's taking 100 percent of the snaps.

Ohio State

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    Weakest Position: Defensive Secondary

    If defense wins championships, Ohio State might want to take a peek at its secondary if it's looking to figure out what went wrong in 2013.  Not only did the Buckeyes lose out on a Big Ten title (and likely resulting berth in the BCS National Championship Game), but Ohio State also went on to lose the Orange Bowl—both against teams led by impressive quarterback performances.

    In 2013, Ohio State gave up the second-most passing yards per game (268.0) while being similarly unable to put up any offensive passing numbers of its own (Ohio State ranked 90th nationally in passing offense).  The difference between the offense and defense is the simple fact that quarterback Braxton Miller can make up for any passing shortcomings with his feet.

    The defensive backfield has no such superstar as of yet.


    Strongest Position: Defensive Line

    It's not all bad news on the defensive front, however.  The Buckeyes' defensive line is shaping up to be one of the very best in the conference next season.  Ohio State returns three of the Big Ten's six leading sack producers from last season.

    Speed on the outside, strength inside and an ability to gobble up quarterbacks and running backs alike will all come together in 2014 to rival Michigan State for the top run defense spot at season's end.

Penn State

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    Weakest Position: Defensive Backs

    Who would have ever guessed that one day we'd be talking about a relative lack of success on defense at Penn State?

    All in all, Penn State has done a fine job of staving off utter collapse and ruin in the wake of some pretty harsh NCAA sanctions.  Still, the Nittany Lions have weakened a bit on defense since the glory days, and last year, they gave up better than 237 passing yards per game (eighth in the Big Ten).

    The numbers got even worse against the top-level talent.  In three games against ranked opponents, Penn State gave up an average of more than 300 passing yards.

    Given the current state of affairs, we're not expecting Penn State to be a title challenger quite yet.  But in order to lay the ground work for future championships, new head coach James Franklin should be making pass defense a priority.


    Strongest Position: Quarterback

    As a freshman, Christian Hackenberg had a storybook season at Penn State.  Hackenberg ended the year just 45 yards shy of 3,000 passing yards.  His 248.3 yards per game ranked him third in the Big Ten, and his 231 completions ranked him second in the conference.

    What can he do for an encore?  A good start would be increasing his scoring output.  Despite some pretty impressive yardage numbers, his 20 passing touchdowns ranked just seventh in the Big Ten.

    Don't worry, Penn State fans.  If 2013 was any indication, this youngster has every tool he needs to become one of the all-time great signal-callers ever to grace Happy Valley.


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    Weakest Position: Quarterback

    Purdue had pinned its hopes on a young quarterback who was supposed to be the next great passer to come out of the Cradle of Quarterbacks.  Instead, Danny Etling, who replaced a benched Rob Henry, struggled mightily during his seven games as starter, compiling an 0-7 record.

    Etling will now likely be the go-to guy in 2014, which isn't necessarily as bad as it sounds.  Etling did have 10 touchdown passes in eight games last season—after he was pressed into service a year ahead of schedule.  Still, Etling isn't the kind of quarterback we're used to seeing in a Boilermakers uniform, and things look pretty bleak for the Boilers in 2014.


    Strongest Position: Defensive Secondary

    Last season, Purdue gave up 224.5 passing yards per game.  That isn't all that great, but it isn't all that bad, either.  So how can we put a mediocre secondary that ranked sixth in the Big Ten last season as Purdue's best position unit for 2014?

    OK, you caught us.  We're not sold on any part of Purdue's 2014 squad being all that great.  But when you compare the pass defense to a run defense that was 116th in the nation, a pass offense that was 79th in the nation and a rush offense that was second-to-last (124th) in the nation, the 55th-ranked Purdue secondary suddenly doesn't look quite as awful.

    Even with the loss of Ricardo Allen, Purdue will still return defensive backs that combined for six interceptions last season.


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    Weakest Position; Defensive Secondary

    Don't be surprised if Rutgers doesn't make the biggest splash in its first season as a member of the Big Ten.  The Scarlet Knights are coming off of a pretty mediocre showing in 2013 where the Knights put together a 6-7 record, which included a 3-5 mark in conference play as a member of the American Athletic Conference.

    In case you were curious about any big-name new additions, don't hold your breath.  Rutgers didn't add a single 4- or 5-star recruit in the class of 2014, per 247Sports, and there's little reason to believe we'll be seeing much of an improvement in the pass defense category next season.

    In 2013, Rutgers gave up 312 passing yards per game, the worst in the AAC and 122nd nationally.  Even Indiana's laughable defense didn't give up more than 290 passing yards on average last season.


    Strongest Position: Defensive Front Seven

    As bad as Rutgers is when it comes to defending the pass, the run defense is another story altogether. The Knights finished 2013 just north of 100 rushing yards per game (100.8), second in the AAC.  In fact, only three teams in the nation (including Michigan State) gave up fewer rushing yards per game last season.

    Of the 16 Rutgers players who recorded at least one sack last season, all but four return for 2014.  The list of returners includes junior Darius Hamilton, who led the squad with 11.5 tackles for loss.  Rutgers also returns four of the top five tacklers from the front seven last season.

    Rutgers might raise a few eyebrows against teams who like to run, but without improving on that porous secondary, expect teams that are capable of airing it out to do so often.


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    Weakest Position: Quarterback

    Wisconsin is another one of those programs where picking the weakest position group is a little like picking the least wet bucket of water.  Wisconsin just does everything so well; most opponents spend an entire game searching for some small chink in the armor.

    That's not to say Joel Stave is the weak link, because he's been pretty darn good on the rare occasions he's needed to be.  But when you have a program that is almost 100 percent built to run the ball over, around and through an opposing defense, there are times when the quarterback isn't called upon to do much.


    Strongest Position: Running backs

    As difficult as it was to come up with any weakness among Wisconsin's positional groups, it's relatively easy to come up with the strength: the running game.

    Last season, Melvin Gordon and James White combined for 3,053 rushing yards—the most by two players on a single team in FBS history.  

    Gordon is back for 2014, which certainly places Wisconsin's running attack among the most dangerous in the conference.  Add in Corey Clement, who averaged over eight yards per carry on 67 touches last season (along with seven touchdowns) and Wisconsin once again becomes one of the nation's premiere rushing teams.