College Football Big Ten Predictions for 2014
The Big Ten will be one of the elite conferences in college football with at least three teams that could contend for a national championship.
It starts with Ohio State and Michigan State, who are now division foes, after the realignment of the former Leaders and Legends divisions due to the addition of Maryland and Rutgers. The Buckeyes will be seeking revenge after ending their 2013-14 season on a sour note. Meanwhile, Sparty is coming off its best season in school history with a 13-1 record and a Rose Bowl victory over Stanford.
Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio are among the best coaches in the conference, but second-year Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen could be moving up into that category as well. Andersen’s Badgers will be in the hunt to represent the West Division in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Wisconsin’s competition will come from both Iowa and Nebraska. Iowa hasn’t won a conference title since 2004, while Nebraska has gone through a 15-year conference title drought.
Michigan and Northwestern have the talent to compete for a Big Ten Championship but must be more consistent and clutch after disappointing 2013 campaigns.
The Big Ten will be a threat in the new College Football Playoff system and should have at least two teams in 2015's six bowl games.
Big Ten East: Ohio State Buckeyes
Prediction: 12-1, 7-1 (Tied for first in Big Ten East)
Urban Meyer is 24-2 at Ohio State, but his two losses were in the Big Ten title game and in the Orange Bowl. The Buckeyes, led by senior quarterback Braxton Miller, will be determined to win a conference title and contend for their first national championship since 2003.
In his final season as the leader of the offense, Miller would like nothing more than to get his Buckeyes to a national championship. The dual-threat quarterback—who threw for 2,094 yards, rushed for 1,068 yards and accounted for 36 total touchdowns—sat out spring practice due to shoulder surgery.
A setback for the Buckeye offense will be the loss of 1,000-yard rusher Carlos Hyde, who led a rushing attack averaging 308.6 yards per game (fifth in the country). Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott (262 yards, two TDs) hopes to still take the starting role in the backfield after recently undergoing wrist surgery.
Corey “Philly” Brown will no longer be the main target in the passing game, but there shouldn’t be any concern with Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson leading the way. Both will give opposing defenses problems in the passing and running game. All-Big Ten candidate senior tight end Jeff Heuerman will be another option in the passing game after catching 26 passes for 466 yards and four touchdowns last season.
Besides potential All-Big Ten tackle Taylor Decker, the entire offensive line will consist of new starters. Ohio State averaged 45.5 points per game (third in the country) and racked up 511.9 total yards per game (seventh in the country) last season. If the offense wants to be dominant again, the line needs to be strong up front for Miller and the running game.
The defense had a rough ending to the 2013-14 season, as it gave up an average of 38.3 points in the final three games. Even though the run defense ranked in the top 10, Meyer’s defense needs to be better this season with six returning starters.
The defensive front is loaded with potential All-American senior tackle Michael Bennett and Freshman All-American end Joey Bosa. The linebacking unit losing Ryan Shazier to the draft shouldn’t be to devastating with Joshua Perry taking over at the weak-side spot. Perry, who is the team’s top returning tackler, will be joined by quick sophomore Darron Lee on the strong side and most likely Curtis Grant in the middle.
A secondary that surrendered a whopping 268 yards per game (110th in the country) last season will be the biggest question mark heading into the season opener, with senior Doran Grant being the only starter back.
The Buckeyes open their season in Baltimore against Navy and then host Virginia Tech in a Saturday night showdown at The Shoe. They’ll host in-state foe Cincinnati on Sept. 27, whom they have defeated 10 consecutive times, before starting the Big Ten schedule. Ohio State will have three tough road games—Penn State (Oct. 25), Michigan State (Nov. 8) and Minnesota (Nov. 15)—prior to getting Michigan at home in their annual rivalry.
The game in East Lansing against Michigan State will likely decide who takes the East Division title and plays in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship. If Meyer’s group can win its first outright conference title since 2009, look for Ohio State to be in the running for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Big Ten East: Michigan State Spartans
Prediction: 10-2, 7-1 (Tied for first in Big Ten East)
Mark Dantonio finally got his team over the hump with a Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl berth. With Sparty winning its first Rose Bowl in 26 years, it shouldn’t be any surprise that this team will be contending for another Big Ten title and making a run at a national championship.
The offense will be in good shape heading into the season, but the defense lost a lot of talent to the NFL and returns just five starters. Nevertheless, this Michigan State squad will be difficult to beat again this year.
From a not-so-flashy offense with a quarterback issue heading into the 2013 season, the Spartans are filled with weapons and a quarterback in Connor Cook who will be among the best in the league after earning MVP honors in the Rose Bowl. Cook emerged as the starter early in the season and ended the campaign with an impressive 2,755 passing yards and 22 touchdowns.
Expect a lot more from the junior this season, as he’ll continue to give defenses problems with his mobility and ability to come up with big plays with his arm strength. Cook won’t be the only problem for defenses, as he’ll have big playmakers in the running and receiving game too.
Senior tailback Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns, will be one of the elite backs in the conference again this year. Senior Tony Lippett (613 receiving yards, two TDs) will lead a receiving corps full of talent and depth.
Juniors Macgarrett Kings and Aaron Burbridge return, along with senior deep threat Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. The O-line loses three starters but should be solid again with second-team All-Big Ten center Jack Allen and freshman All-American left tackle Jack Conklin.
Michigan State will look to cause major problems for opposing offenses again this season, despite losing a lot of talent. The top defense in the Big Ten and second best in the country loses Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Darqueze Dennard.
With the D-line needing replacements at both starting tackle positions, the end positions will give the Spartans one of the most dangerous lines in the country. Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year junior Shilique Calhoun will be a force to be reckoned with, after recording 7.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries last season. Fourth-year starter Marcus Rush (five sacks) will complement Calhoun at the other end position.
In the linebacking unit, senior Taiwan Jones will make the transition from outside to middle linebacker, while junior Darien Harris takes Jones’ outside position. All-Big Ten senior free safety Kurtis Drummond (91 tackles, four INTs) will lead the secondary with sophomore boundary corner Darian Hicks.
The road trip at Oregon on Sept. 6 should give the country a quick indication of what this team is made of. A win over the Ducks in Week 2 would give Sparty a head start at contending for a national title, while a loss at Autzen Stadium would make its national title hopes that much more difficult.
Michigan State will have two tough matchups in October against Nebraska (Oct. 4) and in-state rival Michigan (Oct. 25), but both will be in East Lansing. The Spartans get a bye week following Michigan and will need to be ready to host Ohio State on Nov. 8, in what will likely be the most critical game on the Big Ten schedule this season. A win over the Buckeyes could be just what they need to win the East Division.
The season finale at Penn State will be Michigan State’s final obstacle, before it advances to one of the six major bowl games.
Big Ten East: Michigan Wolverines
Prediction: 9-3, 5-3 (Tied for third in Big Ten East)
2013 is a year Brady Hoke and the Wolverines would like to forget. A 5-0 record to start the season quickly turned into a downward spiral. Michigan defeated hated rival Notre Dame and then had two shaky wins over subpar Akron and UConn teams by a combined seven points.
It went on to finish the season with a 2-6 record and lost four of those eight games by four points or less. Hoke, who appeared to be the savior of Michigan football after replacing Rich Rodriguez, is now feeling the heat and desperately needs a season of nine wins or more.
Quarterback Devin Gardner had a breakout performance in a 41-30 win over Notre Dame last season, as he passed for 294 yards, rushed for 82 yards and scored five total touchdowns. What appeared to be a sign of good things to come turned into inconsistent play throughout the season for the redshirt junior.
Gardner, who finished the season with 2,960 passing yards, 483 rushing yards and 32 total touchdowns, will be determined to reach his potential in his final season under former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
Besides Gardner, the Wolverines return six other starters. One of them is 6’5" junior wide receiver Devin Funchess, who racked up 748 yards and six touchdowns. He is among the elite in the country after converting from tight end. Funchess will look to fill the void of Jeremy Gallon as Gardner’s main target.
The passing game will need to be complemented by a run game, which struggled by averaging just 125.7 yards per game (102nd in the country) in 2013. Nussmeier will focus heavily on the run game, which consists of former 5-star sophomore tailback Derrick Green, sophomore De’Veon Smith and redshirt sophomore Drake Johnson.
The line loses starting tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield and will be an uncertainty heading into the season. Four starters, including left tackle Erik Magnuson and offensive lineman Graham Glasgow, are back and need to be stronger up front after giving up the most tackles for a loss (114) last year.
The Wolverines return eight starters and hope to improve after finishing 41st in the country in total defense (371.5). It wasn’t easy trying to keep a struggling Michigan offense in games last season, but fourth-year defensive coordinator Greg Mattison needs his defense to step up, especially in critical third-down situations.
The linebacking corps will be the most experienced unit with senior team captain Jake Ryan switching to the middle, while Desmond Morgan and James Ross start at the outside spots. Ryan should be one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten after missing the first five games in 2013 because of a torn ACL injury.
Junior All-Big Ten cornerback Blake Countess will be a big playmaker again on defense after finishing the season with six interceptions (tied for seventh in the country). Countess will be joined by cornerback Raymon Taylor, who led the Wolverines with 86 tackles last season, as well as strong safety Jarrod Wilson and 5-star recruit Jabrill Peppers. The defensive line loses just one starter and will be anchored by second-team All-Big Ten senior end Frank Clark.
It’s easy to look forward to the final game of a classic rivalry between Michigan and Notre Dame on Sept. 6, but the Wolverines can’t overlook Appalachian State after a huge 34-32 loss at The Big House in 2007. Michigan should be able to get by a Mountaineer team that struggled last season, though, before heading to South Bend.
Hoke’s team has a good opportunity to be 6-0 before hosting Penn State on the night of Oct. 11. The final three of five games consist of road games at Michigan State, Northwestern and Ohio State. The Wolverines haven’t won in East Lansing since 2007 and in Columbus since 2000. With a favorable schedule and an experienced team, there is no reason the Wolverines would lose more than three games.
Big Ten East: Penn State Nittany Lions
Prediction: 9-3, 5-3 (Tied for third in Big Ten East)
Bill O’Brien bolted for the NFL after only two seasons in State College. He did a great job at coming in and making the best of a terrible situation. The fanbase may be disappointed that he departed after going a combined 15-9, but incoming head coach James Franklin should be the right fit for a program that still has a two-year postseason ban left.
Franklin did wonders down in Vanderbilt, as he led a losing program to two back-to-back nine-win seasons and three straight bowl games. Depth will continue to be an issue as Penn State moves through its probationary period, but it has a chance to do well with a favorable schedule this season. Not to mention, the 2015 recruiting class could be among the best in the country.
One of the best things to happen for Penn State was landing quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The true freshman started right away last season by breaking 11 school records and passing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns.
The O-line and receiving corps could be weaknesses for a Nittany Lions offense that averaged 433.2 yards per game in 2013. Junior left tackle Donovan Smith is the only starter back up front, after senior guard Miles Dieffenbach tore his ACL in the spring. Besides junior tight end Jesse James (333 yards, three TDs), the receiving unit is bare with the loss of 1,000-yard receiver Allen Robinson. It could be up to Geno Lewis and freshman receivers Saeed Blacknall and Chris Goodwin to be the big playmakers in the passing game.
The defense starts up front where it returns two starters from last season. All-Big Ten defensive tackle DaQuan Jones is gone, but senior end C.J. Olaniyan and junior end Deion Barnes should fill the void and give offenses problems. Olaniyan led the Nittany Lions with five sacks in 2013.
The linebacking corps will be led by Mike Hull, the defense’s top returning tackler from last season. He'll make the move to the inside position. Other than Hull, there is unproven talent at the linebacker position. Junior cornerback Jordan Lucas had 65 tackles and a team-high 13 pass breakups last season. Lucas will be joined by senior safeties Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser.
Penn State will start the season with a long trip to Dublin, Ireland, to battle it out with a UCF squad that lost key starters after winning the Fiesta Bowl last season. The schedule is then soft until it hosts Northwestern on Sept. 27 and faces Michigan and Ohio State in October.
The Nittany Lions will make the trip to Ann Arbor and look to defeat the Wolverines for a fifth consecutive time, while they'll also look to defeat Ohio State at home for the first time since 2005. The rest of the schedule sets up well with the only other difficult game being a season finale against Michigan State.
Penn State will exceed expectations again despite not being bowl-eligible.
Big Ten East: Indiana Hoosiers
Prediction: 6-6, 3-5 (Tied for fifth in Big Ten East)
Indiana missed out on bowl season again after a 5-7 record. Fourth-year head coach Kevin Wilson has eight starters returning to an explosive offense, which averaged 38.4 points per game (16th in the country) and racked up 508.5 yards per game (ninth in the country).
On the other hand, the Hoosiers defense ranked among one of the worst in the country. It finished 114th in points per game (38.8) and 120th in total yards per game (527.9). If Indiana wants to advance to its first bowl game since 2007, the defense needs to improve dramatically.
The offense scored at will for most of the season, except against quality opponents Wisconsin and Ohio State, where it scored a combined 17 points. The quarterback job should be solely Nate Sudfeld's now with the transfer of Tre Roberson in June. Sudfeld started eight games and threw for 2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns last season.
Tevin Coleman will return in the backfield, where he rushed for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013. He missed the final three games with an ankle injury and should hit the 1,000-yard mark this year.
Coleman will run behind an offensive line with experience and depth. The issue offensively will be the receiving unit, which lost three of its top four targets. The returning starter is senior wide receiver Shane Wynn, who had 46 receptions for 633 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Brian Knorr has been brought in from Wake Forest to fix a dreadful Indiana defense. Knorr will install a 3-4 scheme but still run multiple sets with nine returning starters back. Starting linebacker David Cooper, who led the Hoosiers with 85 tackles, will lead a linebacking unit that returns T.J. Simmons and Forisse Hardin. Junior Nick Mangieri also returns but will switch from defensive end to linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme.
The pass defense gave up 290.2 yards per game (118th in the country) and will look to returning senior safety Mark Murphy and cornerbacks Tim Bennett and Michael Hunter to cause more than seven interceptions this season. The defensive line, which returns two starters, must improve after allowing 5.4 yards per rush last season.
For Indiana to make a bowl game, it starts with winning four of its first five games. Winning on the road at Missouri (Sept. 20) will be difficult, but defeating Indiana State, Bowling Green, Maryland and North Texas is likely.
The reason for the need to start 4-1 is due to the next four contests, which include games at Iowa and Michigan, as well as home games against Michigan State and Penn State. Knocking off Rutgers on the road and Purdue at home in November would give the Hoosiers what they need to be selected for a bowl game.
Big Ten East: Maryland Terrapins
Prediction: 6-6, 3-5 (Tied for fifth in Big Ten East)
Maryland makes the move from the ACC to the Big Ten and will look to make an impact right away with a majority of its starters returning, including a talented quarterback. It won just three ACC games last season and will likely struggle with the Big Ten’s elite, but fourth-year head coach Randy Edsall continues to add more wins each season he’s at Maryland.
If the offense is going to be productive in its first season in the Big Ten, senior dual-threat quarterback C.J. Brown is going to have to be that go-to guy. He passed for 2,242 yards and 13 touchdowns while finishing second on the team in rushing with 576 yards and 12 touchdowns.
As a playmaker who can be dangerous running the ball, it's critical that Brown protects his body from big hits to stay healthy. Fortunately, he’ll have help in the rushing game with starting running back Brandon Ross (776 yards, four TDs).
The Terps will have one of the best receiving corps in the country with six of their top targets back. Junior Stefon Diggs (587 yards, three TDs) is a potential All-American candidate, while Deon Long (489 yards, one TD) will fight for All-Big Ten honors. Diggs and Long both return after suffering broken legs last season. With much of the focus on the talent at quarterback and wide receiver, the biggest impact could be an experienced group of offensive linemen blocking for Brown.
The Terrapins return nine starters to a defense that recorded 37 sacks last season. Junior safety Sean Davis will be the leader and a potential All-Big Ten candidate, after recording 102 tackles and two interceptions last season. Joining Davis in the defensive backfield will be returning starters Will Likely and Anthony Nixon.
Former safety Matt Robinson makes the switch to outside linebacker, while ACC honorable mention inside linebacker Cole Farrand returns after an 84-tackle season. A defensive line with every starter back will be anchored by senior defensive end Andre Monroe.
An ideal start for the Terps would be to win their first five games of the season. Games against James Madison (Aug. 30), USF (Sept. 6) and West Virginia (Sept. 13) are all winnable, but the tricky games will be on the road against Syracuse (Sept. 20) and Indiana (Sept. 27). The following games are critical for Maryland because of how difficult its Big Ten schedule will be.
Edsall’s team draws Ohio State and Iowa at home and then travels to Wisconsin and Penn State. It then finishes the regular season with both Michigan schools and Rutgers.
There is a legitimate possibility the Terps could lose their final six of seven games. A win over Rutgers in the final game could be what gets Maryland to its second consecutive bowl game.
Big Ten East: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Prediction: 4-8, 1-7 (Seventh in Big Ten East)
Like Maryland, Rutgers will make its Big Ten debut as well, after moving over from the American Athletic Conference. Fourteen starters return to a team that went 6-7 and played in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Last season, Rutgers struggled to run the ball, put points on the board and defend the pass. The result of the following issues resulted in Rutgers losing by an average of 19 points in its seven loses. It won’t get any easier with tougher conference opponents and a tricky nonconference schedule.
The biggest question heading into the season will be if two-year senior starter Gary Nova can bounce back, after being benched in the final three games of the season. Nova should be the man under center in the season opener, unless redshirt freshman Chris Laviano beats him out in fall camp.
Running back Paul James managed to rush for 881 yards and nine touchdowns, despite the ground game averaging just 129.5 yards per game (100th in the country). Joining James in the backfield will be Justin Goodwin, who rushed for 521 yards and five touchdowns. As of late, Goodwin could find himself at cornerback too.
The Scarlet Knight offensive line returns all five starters and should help the run game improve from 3.7 yards per carry, with second-team All-AAC left guard Kaleb Johnson and second-team All-AAC center Betim Bujari.
In the pass game, junior All-AAC tight end Tyler Kroft finished last season with a team-high 573 yards and four touchdowns. He will be an All-Big Ten candidate and the main target again with a receiving corps consisting of wide receivers Leonte Carroo and Ruhann Peele, who combined for 759 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The run defense was among the best in the country by allowing only 100.8 yards per game (fourth in the country), despite the pass defense giving up 312 yards per game (120th in the country). Joe Rossi has been promoted to defensive coordinator and will have talent at the linebacking position with second-team freshman All-American Steve Longa and senior Kevin Snyder. The two players will switch positions, as Longa moves to the weak side and Snyder moves to the middle.
The secondary’s lone returning starter is strong safety Lorenzo Waters. Rossi will have his hands full with a defensive backfield that has experience but lacks depth and consistency.
The return of tackle Darius Hamilton and defensive end Djwany Mera will play a big role in shutting down opposing Big Ten rushing attacks. Unlike the secondary, the line has depth, which will benefit it against better talent.
Rutgers will make the journey west for a second straight season by facing Washington State in Seattle on Aug. 28. It will then get Howard at home on Sept. 6 before hosting Penn State (Sept. 13) in its Big Ten opener.
After playing Tulane at home on Sept. 27, the Scarlett Knights will go through the gauntlet of the Big Ten. October will be rough with a home game against Michigan and road games at Ohio State and Nebraska. November will get a little better with matchups against Indiana and Maryland, but Rutgers still must play Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Winning two Big Ten games this season would be impressive for a team that will likely miss its first bowl game in four seasons.
Big Ten West: Wisconsin Badgers
Prediction: 10-3, 7-1 (First in Big Ten West)
Gary Andersen picked up right where Bret Bielema left off. If not for a surprising home loss to Penn State at the end of the regular season, the Badgers would have played in their fourth consecutive BCS bowl game.
The offense, which returns five starters, has one of the best running and offensive line units in the country. The defense will have the most question marks heading into the season, after losing every starter in its front seven. Regardless, the Badgers should be fine, considering they only have three difficult games the entire season.
It’s hard to believe Wisconsin is a favorite to win its division and still has questions at the quarterback position. Junior Joel Stave threw for 2,494 and 22 touchdowns but injured his throwing shoulder in the Capital One Bowl and felt the effects during spring practice. Stave’s competition for the starting job will come from converted safety Tanner McEvoy.
While there may be questions under center, the running game will be explosive with fourth-team All-American junior Melvin Gordon and sophomore Corey Clement. Gordon, along with former Badgers running back James White, rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
The rushing attack will look to a veteran offensive line, led by second-team All-Big Ten right tackle Rob Havenstein and second-team Freshman All-American center Dan Voltz, to use its size and physical style to battle off opposing defensive lines. Losing Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen will hurt a receiving unit that returns four wide receivers who combined for a total of 347 yards and two touchdowns.
Wisconsin had a top-10 defense last season that only surrendered 16.3 points per game (sixth in the country) and 305.1 yards per game (seventh in the country). Unfortunately, top playmakers Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong are gone.
The secondary returns cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary, as well as strong safety Michael Caputo, but that’s it. The linebacking unit will now be headed by senior inside linebacker Derek Landisch. He will be joined by Vince Biegel, Marcus Trotter and Joe Schobert in a 3-4 defensive scheme under Dave Aranda.
The line is entirely new and will be led by senior nose guard Warren Herring. The goal this year defensively will be to cause more turnovers and put more pressure on the quarterback.
The Badgers open the season with a challenging matchup in Houston against LSU. The schedule then dies down until they travel to Northwestern (Oct. 4). November will be the toughest month with a home matchup against Nebraska and a road game at Iowa. Wisconsin is 2-1 against the Huskers since it joined the Big Ten and has outscored them in both wins by an average of 35 points.
Andersen’s squad then travels to Iowa City a week later in what will be a trap game against the Hawkeyes. The season finale will be at home against a rising Minnesota program, whom it defeated in 10 consecutive meetings.
Wisconsin will advance to the Big Ten title game for the third time in four years and be in the conversation as an at-large team for one of the major bowl games.
Big Ten West: Iowa Hawkeyes
Prediction: 9-3, 5-3 (Tied for second in Big Ten West)
There weren’t high expectations for Kirk Ferentz’s squad heading into 2013, but as usual, when the Hawks are expected to do nothing, they surprise. Wins against Michigan and Nebraska to end the regular season were unexpected, and they earned Iowa an Outback Bowl bid.
The offense won’t have many questions heading into the season with six starters back, but the defense must replace all three starters in the linebacking corps. The Hawkeyes will be in contention for a Big Ten title for the first time since 2009.
After not taking a single snap under center, then-sophomore Jake Rudock had a decent season by completing 204 passes for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns. He surprisingly showed mobility by rushing for 218 yards and five touchdowns but must improve a 59 completion percentage and cut down from 13 interceptions. T
he heart and soul of the offense returns with third-team All-Big Ten senior running back Mark Weisman (975 yards, eight TDs), who will look to run through defenses again this season. Weisman will have plenty of help in the backfield, including Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock. The Hawkeyes return their two top receivers, Kevonte Martin-Manley (388 yards and five TDs) and Tevaun Smith (310 yards and one TD), while the line returns three starters from last season, including All-Big Ten tackle Brandon Scherff.
Iowa loses its three leading tacklers after ranking ninth or better in three of the four defensive categories. A stout Hawkeyes defense held opponents in eight wins to an average of 13.4 points per game.
The D-line will be the strongest unit with three of its four starters back. It’ll be led by second-team All-Big Ten senior tackle Carl Davis and honorable mention All-Big Ten senior tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat. The linebacking corps is bare after losing all three starters from last season, but the defensive backfield should be in good shape with senior strong safety John Lowdermilk (78 tackles) and sophomore cornerback Desmond King (69 tackles).
It wouldn’t be a big surprise if the Hawks started the season 7-0. Iowa State has defeated Iowa just twice in Iowa City since 2002, and the only other challenging road game will be on Sept. 20 at Pittsburgh.
The month of November is when Ferentz’s squad could struggle. Northwestern is always a tricky game to win, and playing on the road at Minnesota (Nov. 8) will be no easy task either. A road trip at Illinois on Nov. 15 shouldn’t be too difficult, but hosting Wisconsin and Nebraska in back-to-back weeks will either make or break the Hawkeyes’ division title hopes.
Big Ten West: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Prediction: 9-3, 5-3 (Tied for second in Big Ten West)
Bo Pelini has won nine or more games in his six seasons at the helm but has yet to win a conference title or play in a major bowl game. The seat continues to get hotter each year for Pelini, as Huskers nation gets more and more desperate to contend for a national championship. If the offense can cut down on turnovers and avoid putting the defense in difficult situations, there is no telling how good Nebraska can be this season.
Taylor Martinez is the school’s career all-time passing leader with 7,258 yards, despite all of the scrutiny he was under while quarterbacking for the Huskers.
The offense will no longer worry about Martinez and be focused on sophomore Tommy Armstrong starting under center. Armstrong led the team with 966 passing yards but threw for about as many touchdowns as interceptions.
He’ll look for help in the backfield from All-Big Ten senior I-back Ameer Abdullah, who amassed 1,690 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, as well as junior Imani Cross (447 yards, 10 TDs). Abdullah’s physical running ability gave him an average of six yards per carry last season, which will be key again in the success of the rushing attack.
In the passing game, it will be up to one of the best receivers in school history Kenny Bell accounted for 577 yards and four touchdowns last season and will be joined by sophomore Jordan Westerkamp, who had his moment of fame by catching a 49-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass against Northwestern as time expired last season. Up front, senior left guard Jake Cotton will lead a line that is replacing four starters.
Junior defensive end Randy Gregory will be the main threat again on the Blackshirts defense, after finishing All-Big Ten with 66 tackles and 10.5 sacks. Joining Gregory up front will be sophomore defensive end Greg McMullen and sophomore defensive tackles Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins.
The linebacking unit will have talent and depth with linebackers David Santos and Zaire Anderson. Santos recorded 87 tackles, while Anderson had 52 tackles. Middle linebacker Michael Rose must be replaced after suffering a season ending injury on Aug. 9.
Team-leading tackler strong safety Corey Cooper is back in the Huskers secondary after a 91-tackle 2013 campaign. Cooper, along with senior cornerback Josh Mitchell, will be in command with the other cornerback and safety spots up for grabs.
The defense’s major obstacle will be to avoid second-half letdowns, as it did last season against UCLA, Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa. It’s not to say that the offense wasn’t to blame in the four losses, but the Huskers were outscored 93-45.
Nebraska has a rather favorable schedule with no Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State. It will have nonconference tests at Fresno State (Sept. 13) and at home against Miami (FL) on Sept. 20.
Road games at Michigan State and Northwestern in October have seemed to be tricky since joining the Big Ten. A win at Sparty would be huge for the program nationally, but knocking off Northwestern on the road is a must. In the Huskers' three matchups with the Wildcats, no team has won by more than three points.
Being 8-1 and heading into a difficult November schedule against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa would be ideal. Nebraska is a combined 5-4 against the three teams and has no choice but to go into Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium and win to put itself in position for a West Division title.
Expect another nine-win season for Pelini, but a conference title is out of reach.
Big Ten West: Northwestern Wildcats
Prediction: 7-5, 4-4 (Fourth in Big Ten West)
2013 was supposed to be a turning point for the Northwestern program, but things didn’t quite pan out. The close loss to Ohio State in early October escalated into a six-game losing streak, which caused the Wildcats to miss their first bowl game since 2007. Between injuries on the offensive side and four losses by an average of 6.2 points, the Wildcats were left with a bad taste in their mouths. Needless to say, Northwestern will be ready to get back into the bowl picture this season.
Senior Trevor Siemian no longer has to split time at quarterback with Kain Colter gone. Siemian looked solid in the spring and will look to make the Wildcats a more pass-oriented team this season. He’ll rely heavily on returning wide receiver Tony Jones (630 yards, four TDs), after Christian Jones went down with a season-ending injury.
The running game also took a major blow with Venric Mark deciding to transfer. The ground attack now will now turn to Treyvon Green (736 yards, eight TDs). Up front, Northwestern needs to improve on its pass protection after allowing 36 sacks last season. Third-team All-Big Ten senior Brandon Vitabile will anchor a line that is returning all of its starters.
The defense seemed to keep the Wildcats in close games despite being among the worst in the Big Ten. Just a few more defensive stops could have given Northwestern at least an eight-win season.
Heading into this season, though, the defense should be improved under defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz with basically every returning starter back. The secondary will be the best unit on defense with senior safety Ibraheim Campbell (73 tackles, four INTs), junior safety Traveon Henry (77 tackles, one INT) and junior cornerback Nick VanHoose (61 tackles, eight pass breakups).
Like the secondary, the linebacking corps will return experience with potential All-Big Ten senior Chi Chi Ariguzo (106 tackles, four INTs) and Collin Ellis (78 tackles). The question on defense will be the line, which could still be battling injuries once the season begins. Defensive ends Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo will look to get to the quarterback more often, after combining for 10 sacks last season.
Northwestern might have trouble against in-state foe Northern Illinois in Week 2 but should be undefeated heading into its road game at Penn State on Sept. 27. A win over the Nittany Lions might be a must-win with a difficult October and November schedule.
The Wildcats host Wisconsin (Oct. 4), travel to Minnesota (Oct. 11) and get Nebraska (Oct. 18) at home for homecoming. To make things worse, the first three games in November won’t be easy against Iowa, Michigan and Notre Dame. Five wins heading into the final two games against Purdue and Illinois will be what Pat Fitzgerald’s squad needs to make it back to a bowl game.
Big Ten West: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Prediction: 6-6, 2-6 (Fifth in Big Ten West)
Jerry Kill continues to do good things at Minnesota by leading the Gophers to their first eight-win season since 2003. The 34-23 upset win over Nebraska was the highlight of the 2013 season. It may be difficult to match eight wins again with a difficult schedule, but going to a third consecutive bowl game is realistic.
Philip Nelson’s decision to transfer to Rutgers prior to an off-field incident, which ended up getting him dismissed from the Rutgers program, leaves the quarterback job to an inexperienced Mitch Leidner. Leidner finished second on the team in rushing yards (407) and threw for 619 yards and three touchdowns last season. He’ll look to improve a passing game that finished dead last in the conference (148.1 passing yards per game).
It’s likely third-team All-Big Ten senior running back David Cobb will need to be the main enforcer on offense again, after racking up 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He will look for help from a line that includes Big Ten honorable mention senior guard Zac Epping. Sophomore tight end Maxx Williams (417 yards, five TDs) will be Leidner’s main target, along with sophomore receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones.
Minnesota ranked in the middle of the Big Ten in total defense but was 25th in the country in scoring (22.2 points per game). The defense lost All-Big Ten defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive back Brock Vereen, which doesn’t help the Gophers heading into the season.
The defensive line will be led by junior defensive end Theiren Cockran, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after leading the team with 7.5 sacks. Senior Damien Wilson (78 tackles) will head a linebacking corps in the middle, while sophomore Jack Lynn and junior De’Vondre Campbell look to hold the outside positions.
With Vereen no longer heading the secondary, it’s up to senior safety Cedric Thompson to be the leader. Thompson, who led the team with 79 tackles last season, will hope to cause more turnovers with senior cornerback Eric Murray.
The Gophers will have a difficult road task at TCU on Sept. 13, which could be the difference in them making a bowl game or not. The Big Ten schedule is brutal with trips to Michigan (Sept. 27), Nebraska (Nov. 22) and Wisconsin (Nov. 29). Minnesota should take down Purdue at home and Illinois on the road in October to give it six wins on the season.
If there is any chance of hitting seven wins, it will need a big home win over Northwestern, Iowa or Minnesota. In the past five seasons, the Gophers are a combined 4-8 against those three teams. Look for Kill’s team to finish in the middle of the pack and receive a bowl bid.
Big Ten West: Illinois Fighting Illini
Prediction: 4-8, 1-7 (Tied for sixth in Big Ten West)
Since Tim Beckman arrived in Champaign, the Illini are 6-18 with only one conference win. The run game needs to help the pass game on offense, but it’s the defense that needs to step up immediately. With a difficult conference schedule, Illinois needs to find a way of pulling off two upsets to hit a six-win total. Failing to get to a bowl game for a third straight season will not help Beckman’s job heading forward.
Second-year offense coordinator Bill Cubit helped improve the offense with a pass attack that finished second in the Big Ten with 287.7 yards per game. Cubit is hoping the offense will continue to improve in 2014 with Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely to start at the quarterback position. Lunt won’t be guaranteed the starting job heading into the fall though, as he’ll face the competition of senior Reilly O'Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey.
Losing Steve Hull, Miles Osei and Spencer Harris in the passing game means new targets must emerge. Junior college transfer Geronimo Allison and freshman Mike Dudek may have to be those players.
The top returning receiver happens to be dual-threat junior running back Josh Ferguson, who recorded 535 receiving yards and four touchdowns. In the run game, Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry, ran for 779 yards and scored seven touchdowns. He’ll look for help from senior Donovonn Young (376 yards, three TDs). The line will return four starters from last season.
The Illini defense returns eight starters from last season after ranking an awful 110th in the country in total defense. Surrendering 35.4 points per game, 238.6 rushing yards per game and 481.5 total yards per game will be unacceptable for Tim Banks’ defense. Junior linebacker Mason Monheim recorded 97 tackles and will be a leader for the defense.
Team-leading tackler Earnest Thomas III (101 tackles) will move from safety to join Monheim in the linebacking unit at the outside hybrid "Star" position. Meanwhile, senior free safety Zane Petty will take command of the defensive backfield and be joined by returning cornerbacks V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence.
The goal in the secondary will be to cause more than three interceptions, while the line looks to account for more than 15 sacks by placing more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The defensive line hopes to be tougher with returning senior tackle Austin Teitsma, freshman end Paul James and JUCO transfer tackle Jihad Ward.
Other than a road game at Washington on Sept. 13, Illinois should be 3-1 heading into conference play. Unfortunately, it misses out on matchups against Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers, as well as Indiana. The only game the Illini will be favored in is a home stand against Purdue on Oct. 4.
While road games at Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State could get nasty for Beckman’s squad, wins over Minnesota and in-state rival Northwestern could be what the Illini need to go bowling.
Big Ten West: Purdue Boilermakers
Prediction: 4-8, 1-7 (Tied for sixth in Big Ten West)
Darrell Hazell had a rough first year with his Boilermakers by going a disappointing 1-11. Things can only go up for the program this year with a favorable nonconference schedule and a good amount of its playmakers back. The defense needs improvement, but the offense must score more points if Purdue has any chance of winning any Big Ten games.
The offense finished dead last in the Big Ten in three of the four offensive categories. Sophomore quarterback Danny Etling is back under center after passing for 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns. Etling will look for more production from a running game led by speedster Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt. Purdue totaled only 805 rushing yards last season, which was the second worst in the country.
While there will be questions heading into the season with the run game, the passing game returns all of its main targets. DeAngelo Yancey and Hunt, who will put time in at slot receiver, will lead a receiving corps that averaged 215.8 yards per game last season. Senior tight end Justin Sinz will be another target for Etling as well.
Junior center Robert Kugler is back, but the line will be a concern. JUCO transfers David Hedelin and Corey Clements may have to step in and make an impact at the tackle positions.
A lot of pressure will be placed on the shoulders of senior defensive end Ryan Russell. He had a disappointing 2013 campaign but looked solid in spring practice and will be an All-Big 10-caliber player this year. Joining Russell on the line will be defensive end Jake Replogle.
Experience shouldn’t be an issue at linebacker with seniors Sean Robinson and Joe Gilliam, but it could be highly recruited freshman Gelen Robinson, son of Purdue basketball star Glenn Robinson, who could make some noise.
The secondary will be in good shape with Frankie Williams back at cornerback and Taylor Richards returning at safety. A big boost for the secondary will be getting senior Landon Feichter back at safety after he missed five games due to injuries last season. The Boilermakers will look to record more than 14 sacks and 13 interceptions this year.
Purdue will get the opportunity to take three of its first four games against Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois. Its best chance to win a game in conference play will be a road contest at Illinois on Oct. 4. The Boilermakers battled tough against the Illini last season but fell just short in the fourth quarter.
Other potential wins could be at the end of the season when the Illini host Northwestern (Nov. 22) and travel to in-state rival Indiana (Nov. 29). Winning one conference game is a must, and anything else would be a bonus.
Big Ten Championship: Ohio State over Wisconsin
Ohio State’s BCS title hopes ended last season in Indianapolis when it was upset by Michigan State 34-24. Senior quarterback Braxton Miller will be more than ready this year after he tried to rally his troops back against Sparty.
It will be up to the Buckeyes defense to step up, though, and defend one of the most explosive rushing attacks consisting of Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.
Ohio State hasn’t won a conference title since 2009, while Wisconsin has won three Big Ten titles in the last four years. Despite the Badgers not being as strong at the quarterback position, this team can sneak up when it’s not favored and cause chaos for opposing teams. For example, take the 70-31 blowout Big Ten Championship Game win over Nebraska in 2012.
Expect a tough battle between the two teams, but Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes will prevail in the end. The conference title will put Ohio State in a good position to be selected as one of the top four teams in the College Football Playoff.
Note: Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.