Big Ten Football: Power Ranking 5 Teams with the Best Chance to Win Conference

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistJune 2, 2014

Big Ten Football: Power Ranking 5 Teams with the Best Chance to Win Conference

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    Michigan State was nothing short of impressive in 2013, blowing past the best the Big Ten could offer in route to an 8-0 conference record and a win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game—all by double-digit margins. Do the Spartans have another championship run in them, or will we see a changing of the guard in 2014?

    Michigan State needs to reload its defense. Ohio State, unquestionably the second-best team in the Big Ten in 2013, has its own share of holes to fill. Both teams return impressive talent, but with conference realignment, both the Buckeyes and Spartans are now part of the new East Division.

    What about the West and its soon-to-be divisional powerhouses? Can Nebraska shake off yet another four-loss season (its sixth straight)? Can Wisconsin reclaim its once dominant role?

    We'll break down the five teams we think have the best shot at winning the Big Ten title in 2014, and we've broken them down into the top two teams in each division, plus a fifth "wild card" team.

    Football is a crazy sport where anything can happen, but we're fairly confident these five teams have the best shot at making a run for the Big Ten title—and the likely College Football Playoff berth that could come with it.

No. 5: Iowa

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    We'll start with our "wild card" team, and we've chosen Iowa for that honor in 2014. The Hawkeyes, part of the new West Division, haven't won a Big Ten title since 2004, and even then, it was a shared title with Michigan (which defeated Iowa and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl Game).

    Every few seasons, Iowa seems to pop to the top of the conference standings, followed by a few years of relative obscurity. Despite this "flash in the pan" history, we see Iowa primed to buck the trend after finishing in a tie for second place in the Legends Division in 2013.

    The last time Iowa finished second, the Hawkeyes suffered through the three following seasons placing fourth or worse. But Iowa didn't have then what it has now: A solid group of returning core talent.

    Led by quarterback Jake Rudock, Iowa might finally be able to put together a serviceable aerial assault to an always solid ground attack. Tie in an impressive offensive line, anchored by Brandon Scherff, and Iowa is quickly transforming itself into a program with the look and feel of a contender.

West No. 2: Wisconsin

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    Last season, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and James White combined for 3,055 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns—one of the best tandem rushing performances in college football history. White is gone, but Gordon returns along with sophomore Corey Clement, who himself rushed for 802 yards per carry on 67 attempts.

    Quarterback Joel Stave, who competed nearly 62 percent of his passes in 2013 for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns, is also back in 2014. Is there really any doubt that Wisconsin will be among the very best teams in the West Division this season, if not to entire conference?

East No. 2: Michigan State

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    Michigan State had what was easily its best football season in over 20 years, winning both the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl Game title. Michigan State followed a dominating defense to both titles, but you can't look past the contributions to the effort made by a steadily improving offense.

    The Spartans' defense actually led the team in scoring through the first two weeks of the season. After an early loss at Notre Dame on September 21 and a less-than-convincing 14-0 win over hapless Purdue a few weeks later, absolutely no one was convinced MSU had a shot at anything.

    But Connor Cook, once thought to be the "least bad" quarterback on the roster, began one of the most impressive in-season maturation processes we've seen in a long while. By the time State rolled into Lincoln's Memorial Stadium on November 16, the Spartans were the talk of the Big Ten. Could they hope to knock off a "team of destiny" from Columbus in the Big Ten title game?

    We have the answer to that question. Now, the question becomes, "Can the Spartans create a destiny of their own?"

    MSU will need to overcome the loss of six big-name starters on defense. If, however, there has been one constant in East Lansing with Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi at the helm, it has been the ability to reload stellar defenses with stellar young prospects.

    Michigan State has led the Big Ten and been in the top six nationally in total defense each of the last three seasons. With an improving offense (that returns eight starters for 2014), MSU simply needs to be pretty good on defense to have a shot at another title this fall.

    And "pretty good" seems all but certain based on where the Spartans were last season.

West No. 1: Nebraska

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    It doesn't take too much imagination to envision Nebraska climbing its way atop the West Division in 2014. After all, the Cornhuskers are returning one of the nation's premiere running backs in Ameer Abdullah this fall.

    Last season, Abdullah led the Big Ten with 1,690 rushing yards—the most by a Nebraska running back in nearly two decades. If the Huskers can develop a passing game that has been troubled, to put it nicely (11th in the conference in 2013 with 196.7 passing yards per game), then Nebraska really does stand a better-than-decent chance of not only climbing to the top of the West this fall, but also staying there through November right into a berth in the Big Ten title game.

    A win over Wisconsin in Madison (easier said than done) on November 15 could set up a winner-takes-all season finale showdown against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on November 28.

    As we mentioned earlier, Nebraska has never lost fewer than four games in the past six seasons (coincidentally, that matched up exactly with the Bo Pelini era). There's bound to be some pressure on Pelini to improve upon that this season, especially given all that took place last year. It might be now or never for Pelini's Cornhuskers.

East No. 1: Ohio State

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    It's entirely possible that Ohio State's loss in the Big Ten Championship Game to Michigan State and loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl to end last season might turn out to be a good thing for the Buckeyes. Stay with us here.

    Coming into the 2013 season, Ohio State, riding a 12-game win streak, was viewed by many in the Big Ten as a team everyone saw as an inevitable BCS title contender. Head coach Urban Meyer did nothing to dispel this mentality, and his players and the easily convinced fan base bought into the fantasy.

    Ohio State learned two things against Michigan State. First, even Braxton Miller can be slowed by a few defenses out there. Miller had a season-low (for full games) 101 passing yards against the Spartans, completing just eight of 21 pass attempts. Miller was also held to 6.7 yards per carry, his lowest since October 26 against Penn State (6.2 ypc).

    The other lesson the Buckeyes took away from the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game was the simple fact that clichés become clichés for a reason. "Defense wins championships." Ohio State's pass defense was particularly bad last season. The Buckeyes gave up 268 passing yards per game, 11th in the Big Ten and 112th nationally. Against a much-improved pass attack from MSU, that was a killer.

    So why does Ohio State get our top spot in 2014? Simple. Braxton Miller is back and, presumably, improved over 2013. Secondly, remember how we mentioned how losing to MSU and Clemson might end up being a good thing? Well, here it comes: Urban Meyer now knows what needs to be fixed, and he's set about fixing it quickly and in a major way.

    Meyer has brought in Chris Ash from Arkansas to be safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator with Luke Fickell. Ohio State will likely run a 4-3 Over/Quarters defense this fall—a formation that is becoming the new mainstay in college football. If there's one thing Ohio State has, it's speed, and the 4-3 Over is designed to take advantage of that speed to counter the spread.

    Ohio State has the offense. If the defensive front seven can do its job in 2014 with the line stuffing plays and the linebackers improving on their read and reaction time, the Buckeyes will have all the tools in place to win the Big Ten in impressive fashion.

    What comes after that could be something very special for Ohio State fans.


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