Optimistic, Pessimistic and Realistic Predictions for Every Big Ten Team
The offseason is nothing if not a time for predictions. That's why it's time for optimistic, pessimistic and realistic predictions for every Big Ten team this season.
No one was surprised to see Ohio State in last year's Big Ten title game, but how many figured Michigan State would become one of the hottest teams in the country by year's end?
Will this season have any more surprises? Or will it be preseason favorites dominating the top of the standings again?
Our optimistic, pessimistic and realistic picks are in this slideshow.
Illinois Fighting Illini
No coach should be on a hotter seat entering 2014 than Illinois' Tim Beckman. To get firmly off said seat of heat, Beckman, in all likelihood, needs to take the Illini back to the postseason.
First and foremost, Illinois must improve on defense—especially since defensive coordinator Tim Banks is around for another season. Last year, the Illini ranked at or near the bottom of the Big Ten in major statistical categories like scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense.
If that side of the ball can be so much as serviceable in 2014, it'll be a major improvement.
The offense has some pieces to work with. Running back Josh Ferguson is a good runner and receiver out of the backfield. If Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt comes through, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will have a nice pure passer under center.
Optimistic: 6-6, with Illinois finally—and barely—getting back to a bowl.
Pessimistic: 3-9, with wins over Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Purdue.
Steadily, Indiana has improved under head coach Kevin Wilson. But can the Hoosiers finally take the next step and get back to the postseason in 2014?
That's the big question with teams like Missouri, Michigan State and Ohio State on the schedule. The Hoosiers are going to have to pull an upset or two.
Indiana is more than capable of scoring points even though leading receiver Cody Latimer is gone. Rather, Indiana has to shore up on defense after giving up 38.8 points per game last season—a number that was one of the worst in the country.
With enough offense, even a so-so defense should be enough to get the Hoosiers to six wins.
Realistic: 6-6. This feels like a year when Indiana is finally going to top someone it shouldn't, whether it's Iowa, Michigan or Penn State.
If you're looking for a coach who is nowhere near the hot seat, look no further than Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.
He's all about that buyout.
The Hawkeyes actually have some good offensive weapons at their disposal. Jake Rudock showed great flashes last season and could, possibly, creep toward a 3,000-yard season this year. He'll have bruising runner Mark Weisman to help take the pressure off, as well as an offensive line with NFL-caliber tackle Brandon Scherff.
Defense could be a question mark beyond the defensive line. Last year's unit was among the best in the Big Ten. Can Iowa reload on that side of the ball?
The schedule sets up nicely for the Hawkeyes, who could ride early season momentum into late-season challenges.
Maryland's first year in the Big Ten could end up with more optimistic results than most might think.
Then again, the Terps have had an awful time with injuries. By the time December rolls around, three-fourths of the team could be in the hospital.
Staying healthy has been an issue, but Maryland's offense could finally get clicking with quarterback C.J. Brown and receivers Deon Long and Stefon Diggs.
The schedule for Maryland starts off easy enough but picks up quickly in the month of October with a home game against Ohio State. From there, games against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan make the back half of the schedule daunting at times.
Optimistic: 10-2, with a huge upset of Ohio State that carries the team throughout the season.
Pessimistic: 5-7. The Terps lose their first Big Ten game against Indiana and don't recover, losing seven in a row before topping Rutgers to end the year.
It's too early to tell if 2014 is a make-or-break year for head coach Brady Hoke. At the very least, though, Hoke would like to reverse the downward trend the program has been on lately.
Hoke has a new offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, who should provide the spark the Wolverines desperately need on that side of the ball. While Devin Gardner still appears to be the front-runner to start at quarterback, Shane Morris is apparently closing the gap.
Whoever starts at quarterback needs better protection up front, and the running game needs more help. Also, expect young players like running back Derrick Green and defensive back Jabrill Peppers to make big names for themselves.
Optimistic: 11-1, with a surprise win over Ohio State
Pessimistic: 5-7. Nussmeier's offense sputters and neither quarterback can take control.
Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State's 2013 season was a memorable one. Had it not been for an early season loss to Notre Dame, the Spartans would have been undefeated and in prime position to play Florida State for the final BCS championship.
Sparty's defense, the best in the nation, is what carried the team to a Rose Bowl victory. But with so many key players off that defense gone, Michigan State will be challenged to reload, not rebuild.
Quarterback Connor Cook is one of the best passers in the Big Ten, but he needs more consistency from his wide receivers. If the offense can pick up where it left off and the defense can replace its departed star power, there's no reason the Spartans won't be a divisional favorite.
Optimistic: 11-1, with an early season win over Oregon.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
There's nothing terribly flashy about Minnesota, but the Gophers should be an even better team under head coach Jerry Kill.
Quarterback Philip Nelson left the program after a cringe-worthy 2013, but Mitch Leidner is a big, young talent with some upside. He has weapons around him, including big tight end Maxx Williams.
Defensively, the Gophers should be solid again, returning almost all of the starters or two-deep players from a year ago. Minnesota wasn't particularly great on defense, but it wasn't bad either. Quietly, the Gophers were a solid eight-win team.
Can this be the year Nebraska finally gets over the 9-4/10-4 hump?
The Cornhuskers have come oh-so-close a number of times under head coach Bo Pelini. They've been good—really good, at times—but never great. Certainly, the program has had its fair share of tough losses under Pelini.
Nebraska is breaking in a new starting quarterback—sort of. Tommy Armstrong Jr. played most of last season with Taylor Martinez sidelined. He'll have receiver Kenny Bell and running back Ameer Abdullah back to give the Huskers a solid QB-WR-RB combo.
The front of the defense should be the strength on that side of the ball. Nebraska's defense wasn't anything to write home about last season, but with some key returning starters, could this be the year the Cornhuskers return to their defensive reputation of years past?
Optimistic: 11-1, with a Big Ten title appearance (and win).
Simply put, the wheels fell off Northwestern last year. And then Northwestern flew off a cliff and into a canyon.
It was an awful ending for a season that had so much promise. And Pat Fitzgerald is too good of a head coach for that to happen.
The good news for the Cats is that they'll get another chance in 2014. Almost all of the offense returns—Trevor Siemian takes over as the full-time starting quarterback—as does most of the defense. On paper, this team, like last year's, has promise. Unfortunately, Northwestern hasn't shown it can deliver on that promise.
Pessimistic: 0-12, because if last year showed us anything, it was that Northwestern was the person playing Oregon Trail who got dysentery after his oxen died.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Another year, another set of high expectations for Ohio State. That's just the way things are with Urban Meyer in Columbus.
The Buckeyes were nearly in a position to play for the BCS championship last season, but they lost the Big Ten title to Michigan State. Ohio State then dropped the Orange Bowl to Clemson.
But there's a lot to be excited about this year. Quarterback Braxton Miller is back, and the defensive line should be one of the best, if not the best, in all of college football.
The concern is the offensive line, which is replacing four starters off of last year's group. All consistency on offense starts in the trenches, so it's paramount that the Buckeyes come together up front sooner rather than later.
Optimistic: 13-0. Somehow, someway, the Buckeyes find a way to win every game, including the Big Ten title, and are selected into the first College Football Playoff.
Pessimistic: 9-3. A stunning loss to Navy in Week 1 gets Ohio State off to a bad start. The Buckeyes then lose games to Michigan State and Michigan to end the year.
Realistic: 11-1. It's hard to go undefeated. To go undefeated three regular seasons in a row (not counting the conference championship)? Good luck with that. We'll say Ohio State trips up somewhere unexpected—say, at Minnesota.
Penn State Nittany Lions
First-year coach James Franklin is bringing passion and energy to Penn State. The question is whether it will translate into wins right away.
Franklin will have one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in the nation, Christian Hackenberg, at his disposal. With receiver Allen Robinson gone, though, Hackenberg will likely spread the ball around more.
Things won't get off to an easy start for the Nittany Lions, as a trip to Ireland to face UCF awaits in Week 1.
Optimistic: 10-2—and double-digit wins would be huge for Franklin.
So year one for Purdue coach Darrell Hazell was a little tough. Just a little. The Boilermakers went 1-11 last season, failing to win a conference game.
Things don't look any more promising this season. The offense does return some nice playmakers, like sophomore quarterback Danny Etling, and most of its offensive line. The defense, though, leaves a ton to be desired. And with the loss of star cornerback Ricardo Allen, this team is in search of someone to step up.
There really aren't any breaks for Purude once conference play gets underway. The best-case scenario is to try to get some nonconference wins early to boost the team's confidence.
Optimistic: 4-8. The Boilermakers win all but one of their nonconference games and upset Illinois.
Pessimistic: 1-11. Surely Purdue can't lose to Southern Illinois...right?
Realistic: 2-10. Purdue is able to get one more victory in nonconference play, but it remains winless in the Big Ten.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Like Maryland, Rutgers is heading into its first year in the Big Ten. Also like Maryland, Rutgers will play in the East Division. How the Scarlet Knights fare against the likes of Ohio State and Michigan State will be interesting to see.
Rutgers has some pieces coming back on offense, but Gary Nova hasn't always been the most consistent quarterback. Since wide receiver is a bit of a question mark, suffice to say that the Rutgers offense should be run-heavy this year.
Pessimistic: 2-10, with wins over Howard and Tulane.
Gary Andersen's first year at Wisconsin was a sound 9-4. But now the Badgers program has been elevated to think about Rose Bowls and conference championships. There's little for Andersen to turn around in Madison.
Running back Melvin Gordon returns, so he should again be a focal point of the offense. Quarterback Joel Stave returns too, though it will be interesting to watch him battle with Tanner McEvoy.
The Badgers must replace a key player on both sides of the ball: receiver Jared Abbrederis and linebacker Chris Borland. Many would suggest that those two were the heart and soul of their respective units. Still, Wisconsin should be a preseason favorite to win the West Division.
Optimistic: 10-2 and a Big Ten title appearance.