Big Ten Football: Every Team's Biggest Trap Game for the 2014 Season

David LutherFeatured ColumnistAugust 18, 2014

Big Ten Football: Every Team's Biggest Trap Game for the 2014 Season

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    It was almost exactly seven years ago that Michigan, then the No. 5 team in the nation, fell victim to one of the biggest trap games ever: a Week 1 visit from FCS Appalachian State. Even the best the Big Ten has to offer can succumb to pretty apparent traps from time to time.  

    Could it happen again in 2014?

    Michigan is no longer a top-five team, and Appalachian State is no longer an FCS program, as the Mountaineers move to the FBS as a member of the Sun Belt this season. Still, there are enough pitfalls on the schedule all throughout the Big Ten to make any coach wary of early predictions for conference titles or College Football Playoff berths.

    It's safe to say that there are games, like the Mountaineers' second visit to the Big House in a couple of short weeks, that won't be sneaking up on anyone.

    But where are the quagmires for 2014?  

    Let's hone our Jedi senses as we sniff out the trap game of 2014 for each Big Ten team.

Illinois

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    August 30 vs. FCS Youngstown State

    It's no secret that 2014 is going to be a critical year for Tim Beckman's future at Illinois. After two seasons with a 6-18 record that includes just one conference win versus 15 defeats, Beckman's Illini need to make some serious advances if he hopes to keep his job.

    Obviously, being competitive in conference play would be a major boost to Beckman's chances. But before the Big Ten season begins on October 4 with a visit from lowly Purdue, Illinois must get past a nonconference slate that includes a trip to Washington in Week 3.

    The opening opponent for 2014 is the Youngstown State Penguins. Despite several down seasons, and a 2013 loss to Michigan State (55-17), YSU is on the right path.

    The Penguins have increased their win total every season under head coach Eric Wolford. After coaching YSU to a 3-8 record in 2010, Wolford's Penguins finished 8-4 in 2013, tied for second in the rough-and-tumble Missouri Valley Conference (which includes FCS behemoth North Dakota State).

    This may not come as a galloping shock to anyone, but Illinois isn't exactly Michigan State these days. Expect the Penguins to put up one heckuva fight at Illinois. If the Illini get caught looking ahead to what many view as their "real" opponents, things could get ugly very quickly in Champaign.

Indiana

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    Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

    October 4 vs. North Texas

    During a week when most Big Ten programs will be playing their conference openers, the Indiana Hoosiers will be a week beyond their first Big Ten meeting, with Maryland (September 27 in Bloomington). Nestled between two Big Ten opponents, the Hoosiers will find North Texas, which went a surprisingly good 9-4 a year ago.

    North Texas is by no means a powerhouse program, but if it were, this wouldn't be a trap game. Instead, the Eagles—or "Mean Green," if you prefer—rely on scoring enough points to outlast opponents down the stretch of the fourth quarter.

    Sound familiar?

    If you're an Indiana fan, it should. North Texas scored 414 points to their opponents' 231 in 2013. We're anxious to see what gains Kevin Wilson has made when it comes to his program's defense this season, but if the Hoosiers aren't quite up to snuff, this game could become a touchdown lover's dream come true.

    Add to the fact that this game comes between two important Big Ten contests for Indiana, and it's easy to see how a visit from a little-known non-power-conference program like North Texas could trip up the Hoosiers.

Iowa

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    September 20 at Pittsburgh

    There's nothing better than a nonconference matchup between two programs from power conferences (SEC, take note). The trouble with these games is, of course, that one team has to lose (which is probably why the SEC won't dare play top-tier opponents out of conference).

    Iowa travels to Pittsburgh, a bowl winner out of the ACC a year ago, on September 20, in a leadup to the Big Ten opener at Purdue on September 27. "Looking ahead" problems aside, there's another hazard in the Hawkeyes' trip east.

    The Panthers are a team in transition.  This fall will mark year two of Pitt's tenure in the ACC, and you can expect the Paul Chryst-led program to be focused on finding its power-conference footing in 2014 (because, let's be honest, the Big East/AAC hasn't be a true power for quite some time now).

    What would be an excellent way for the Panthers to announce to the rest of the ACC that they have truly arrived and are ready to compete for a conference title? Knocking off a darn good team from the Big Ten would be an excellent start.

    For Iowa, this game has all the makings of a "survival" game. Contrasted to a "statement" game for Pitt, that spells trouble for the Hawkeyes.

Maryland

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    September 27 at Indiana

    Maryland's first-ever Big Ten conference game could also prove to be the biggest trap game of 2014. First, there's the obvious emotion and importance that will surround this game for obvious reasons.

    But perhaps more importantly, Maryland will be facing one of the sneakiest offenses in the nation. Overall, Indiana isn't exactly a program that instills a ton of fear in its opponents. The Hoosiers were just 5-7 in 2013 despite finishing the season ranked tied (with Orange Bowl winners Clemson) for ninth in the nation in total offense (508.5 yards per game).

    The result is a team that doesn't excite a lot of opponents, yet can easily score 42 or more points in a single game if the opposing defense has simply an average day.

    Now, add in the fact that Maryland will be coming off of a tough nonconference schedule that includes West Virginia and Syracuse in the previous two weeks, respectively, and it will make the second straight week (and third in four weeks) in which the Terps will be on the road.

    Looking ahead could be an issue, too. After the Week 5 meeting with the Hoosiers, the Terrapins welcome the Ohio State Buckeyes to College Park.

    All in all, Maryland might have one of the tougher schedules in the Big Ten this season, and getting past trap games like the trip to Indiana will be crucial if the Terps hope to make a bowl game in season one of the Big Ten era.

Michigan

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    September 13 vs. Miami (OH)

    Michigan fans might look at this pick as a trap game and chuckle. But consider this: Michigan's record against the MAC over the past half decade or so isn't all that stellar. The Wolverines lost to Toledo in 2008; were lucky to walk off the field against a Ball State team coached by Brady Hoke in 2006; escaped then FCS and future MAC member UMass in 2010; and, of course, last season's nail-biter against Akron.

    But what is it about Miami that should worry Michigan fans in 2014?  

    First, Miami is under new leadership. First-year head coach Chuck Martin takes over after spending time under Brian Kelly at Notre Dame. Before joining longtime mentor Kelly in South Bend in 2010, Martin was the head coach at Division II power Grand Valley State. After taking over for Kelly at GVSU, Martin proceeded to guide the Lakers to a 74-7 record over six seasons—which included five conference titles (2005-09), two national titles (2005 and 2006) and a third trip to the title game (2009).

    Okay, so no one is expecting Martin to instantly turn the RedHawks into national champions, now or (sorry, Miami fans), ever. Miami is still a MAC team primarily composed of football players cast off by Big Ten programs during the recruiting process.

    Still, there's something about any Martin-coached team that should worry every opponent.

    Combine all that with this game's position in Week 3 between Michigan's final (for now) trip to Notre Dame in Week 2 and a visit from the Pac-12's Utah Utes in Week 4, and it's easy to see how Michigan could at least be caught either looking to the future or in the rear-view mirror.

Michigan State

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    October 18 at Indiana

    Big Ten titles are nice. Rose Bowl Game victories are even nicer. But following up a pretty remarkable 13-1 season for Michigan State is a year in which sky-high expectations will be judged against reality very quickly.

    Michigan State eases in with a Week 1 visit from FCS Jacksonville State before facing perennial Pac-12 favorite Oregon in Eugene. MSU will have a week either to celebrate a victory which is nationally relevant (especially in the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee) or to lick its wounds before a couple of gimmies against Eastern Michigan and Wyoming.

    All due respect to the Ducks and Big Ten contenders like Nebraska (Week 6) and Ohio State (Week 11), Michigan State's biggest game of the season—per usual—rolls around when the Maize and Blue make the short trip up to East Lansing for one of the nation's greatest in-state grudge matches.

    All eyes will be on MSU and Michigan in Week 9 (October 25), so it's easy to see how the Spartans could be caught looking ahead a bit in Week 8, especially against an opponent like Indiana.

    As previously mentioned, Indiana can be sneaky good. What makes this trap game so interesting are Michigan State's lingering questions on defense. Can Mark Dantonio reload one of the nation's top defenses with similar talent for 2014? Can defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi bring the magic for yet another season?

    If not, it will be a team like Indiana that will give the Spartans fits in 2014.

Minnesota

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    October 11 vs. Northwestern

    Picking a potential trap game for Minnesota in 2014 is no easy task. Almost every game on the Gophers' slate this season seems to have a particular level of importance.

    Minnesota has gone through a remarkable transition these past few seasons under Jerry Kill. No longer is Minnesota a Big ten doormat that loses to the likes of FCS South Dakota. Instead, Minnesota is beating the teams it should be beating.

    The other side of the coin, however, is the fact that Minnesota is still losing to teams perceived to be "above" the Gophers in terms of the Big Ten pecking order.

    The West Division can, for most intents and purposes, be boiled down to a race between three teams: Nebraska, Wisconsin and perhaps Iowa. If we were to extend that to four, Minnesota would be most people's choice for the next spot.

    In order to be competitive, however, Minnesota must start beating some teams to which it traditionally loses—teams like Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin.  But even if Minnesota loses a game to, say, the Wolverines on September 27, all is not lost. What will knock the Gophers out of contention, however, is a loss to the likes of divisional foe Northwestern on October 11.

    This is the type of game the Gophers must continue to win to have any hope of breaking through. Coming on the heels of a bye week (which follows that September 27 game in Ann Arbor), the Gophers will host a Northwestern program looking for its own redemption after a very disappointing 2013.

    If the Gophers drop this sneaky game, it becomes almost inconceivable for Minnesota to earn a trip to Indianapolis. To do that with a loss to Northwestern, Minnesota would almost certainly need to beat everyone else in the division—and the Gophers have Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin, in that order, in Weeks 11 through 14.

    Good luck with that.

Nebraska

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    November 22 vs. Minnesota

    Nebraska is a definite front-runner in the West Division this season. The Cornhuskers are desperate to put their string of four-loss seasons behind them (all six seasons under Bo Pelini), and a conference title would go a long way towards curing what ills Nebraska fans.

    Winning the West, however, is no foregone conclusion. The Huskers face Michigan State in cross-division play, and Wisconsin and Iowa are sure to make their own run at the West Division crown.

    It's clear that Nebraska will want to focus on Wisconsin and Iowa, with both November meetings on the road. But nestled right between those games against the Badgers and Hawkeyes is a visit from Minnesota—a Minnesota team that will be better than many expect in 2014.

    Nebraska will be in the midst of a divisional fight late in the season. Focus will be difficult enough to maintain as the season wears on. If the Huskers don't bring their "A" game, Minnesota is exactly the type of team that is capable of slipping one by them.

Northwestern

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    November 15 at Notre Dame

    What kind of Northwestern team will we see in 2014? Is it going to be a return to bowl games and success that Pat Fitzgerald worked so hard to develop, or is it going to be a repeat of the 2013 collapse after early, heart-breaking losses?

    We'll know soon enough, but for the moment, let's assume that Northwestern will fall somewhere between champions and doormats.

    It's entirely possible, with three games against lesser in-state opponents (Illinois, Northern Illinois and FCS Western Illinois), that the Wildcats will be fighting for (at least) bowl eligibility come November. Unlike the SEC, the Big Ten tends to actually schedule difficult in-conference games late in the season rather than FCS cupcakes for a week's worth of recovery late in the year. But as the conference's attention turns to the final push towards divisional titles, Northwestern will play an out-of-conference game.

    Unlike their counterparts from Dixie, however, the Wildcats will be playing Notre Dame, a team ranked in the AP's preseason Top 25.

    If the Wildcats are, somehow, in the mix out West come November, it would be very easy to overlook this game. If, as expected, the Wildcats are instead fighting for bowl eligibility, this game could be seen by many as a "gimmie" for the Fighting Irish.

    Either way, many in the Big Ten won't be paying much attention to this game. For Northwestern's sake, let's hope the Wildcats are a little more focused on it than the rest of us. Otherwise, it could be a death-knell for their bowl dreams.

Ohio State

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    August 30 at Navy

    When was the last time Ohio State started the season on the road at a team like Navy?

    Navy, obviously, is doing the smart thing by hosting the Buckeyes at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, rather than the Midshipmen's small, on-campus Navy-Marine Corps Memorial. Still, Ohio State is on the road, and we have this lingering feeling scratching the backs of our skulls that this could be exactly the type of game Navy could use to hand Ohio State a devastating loss.

    To be clear: The Buckeyes should have this game in the bag.  

    In every measurable category, Ohio State is a better football team.  Navy has struggled against power programs recently, and long gone are the days of top-25 rankings and major national attention—away from the annual Army-Navy Game, that is.

    Ohio State's defense isn't exactly the greatest in the nation (47th in the FBS last season), and the Navy triple-option can be nightmarish for defensive coordinators. There is, however, little question that Ohio State at least has the tools in its arsenal to stop Navy's rather unique approach to offense.

    Still, with so much attention—and, let's admit it, pressure—on Ohio State and its run towards its first Big Ten title since 2009, it's easy for even dyed-in-the-wool Buckeyes fans to overlook a meeting with the Midshipmen.

    Just like in 2009.

    Ohio State used the narrow, late-fourth-quarter victory over Navy in 2009 to propel itself to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl Game victory. We don't have long to wait for the 2014 version.

Penn State

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    August 30 vs. Central Florida (Dublin, Ireland)

    With the excitement surrounding the arrival of James Franklin, Happy Valley is ripe for a letdown at some point.

    Isn't it?

    Penn State, after all, is still dealing with the lingering effects of NCAA sanctions and scholarship limits. Can the Nittany Lions really compete with the best programs in the Big Ten this season and make a run at winning the East Division?

    Probably not. But there is a definite possibly of improvement over last season, and that should be the goal every Penn State fan has in the back of his or her mind.

    One of the most dangerous moments in Franklin's tenure at Penn State thus far will come right off the bat in Week 1. The Nittany Lions travel to Dublin, Ireland, to take on defending AAC and Fiesta Bowl champions Central Florida.

    But as Penn State looks to recapture some of its past glory, UCF is itself rebuilding after losing some impressive talent—namely superstar quarterback Blake Bortles. The Knights have something to prove, as well. Were the Knights just Bortles, plus 10 other guys? Is the American Athletic Conference really as "non-major" as we all think it is? Can legendary head coach George O'Leary sustain the success he's now built at UCF?

    The great wild card is, of course, the epic road trip to another continent to play this game. The game between Navy and Notre Dame went a long way towards building the fanbase for gridiron football in Ireland. It's also a great outreach to help support a massively struggling Irish economy that required a bailout from the European Union.

    Ireland may not be as "pro-Penn State" or "pro-UCF" as it was definitely "pro-Notre Dame." But the Irish love America, and they're developing a taste for our (better) brand of football.

    With all of the distractions this game brings to the table, absolutely anything can happen. If Penn State does lose this opening game of the Franklin era, how will fans react? Can the honeymoon be in jeopardy this quickly?

Purdue

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    Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

    September 6 vs. Central Michigan

    Really, which game isn't a trap game for Purdue? There's no kind way to put it: The Boilermakers were just plain awful in 2013. Purdue won just one game, and that was by six points against FCS Indiana State—which was also 1-11 in 2013 (and that win came against a 2-9 Division II program).

    At this point, Purdue is running the real risk of becoming the new doormat of the Big Ten.

    Head coach Darrell Hazell has his work cut out for him in year two of his time in West Lafayette. Quarterbacking still remains a major issue, and there are holes to be filled at almost every position on the roster. What's worse, those positions that do have returning starters are positions at which Purdue did not excel last season.

    So, with Purdue facing the possibility of another disastrous season, how do we pick a trap for the Boilermakers?

    Simple. First, we need to identify the games that could be statement games with wins. Games against rivals, like Notre Dame on September 13, fit the bill nicely. In Week 1, Purdue meets up with a program that itself occupies the bottom of its own conference, the MAC's Western Michigan (1-11 in 2013).

    After the Apathy Bowl between a pair of 1-11 teams in Week 1, Purdue faces its trap in Week 2's visit from Central Michigan. The Chippewas weren't exactly spectacular last season, but 6-6 is quite a bit better than either the Boilers or Broncos can claim.

    Purdue will be caught between facing arch rival Notre Dame in Week 3 and coming off of either a win against a terrible team or a loss to that same terrible team. Purdue will face plenty of hurdles this season, but Week 2 might be a hurdle that has more to do with focus than anything else.

Rutgers

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    September 27 vs. Tulane

    The meeting between Rutgers and Tulane actually provides a bit of intrigue. By the time Rutgers gets to this Week 5 matchup, the Knights will already have faced Washington State and Navy in nonconference play while having their first Big Ten game under their belts after a Week 3 game against Penn State.

    Tulane, for its part, is also joining a new conference—and it just happens to be Rutgers' old conference. The Green Wave are a new member of the AAC this season, and will already have two games against opponents from power-five conferences (Georgia Tech and Duke) by the time they make the trip to Piscataway.

    Tulane would like nothing more than to make a statement for its new conference. How much would the Green Wave and the suits back at the AAC offices love to hand Rutgers a loss in its first Big Ten season?

    If Rutgers isn't careful, that's exactly what could happen.

    Tulane is a program on the rise. Despite not winning more than five games in any of the 10 seasons prior to 2013, the Green Wave were 7-6 last season in head coach Curtis Johnson's second season.

    A win over Rutgers could be the first step in making year No. 3 something special in the Big Easy.

Wisconsin

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    September 27 vs. South Florida

    Wisconsin, along with Nebraska, is one of the favorites to win the West Division this season.  That campaign begins on October 4 with a trip to Evanston to take on divisional foe Northwestern.

    Leading up to that game is a visit from one of the AAC's great enigmas: South Florida.

    Sure, the Bulls were an abysmal 2-10 last season, but head coach Willie Taggert seems intent on proving that USF can be competitive again—and quickly—in the now-Louisville-less American Athletic Conference.

    If Wisconsin isn't careful, the Badgers could run into a team that has an offense build very similarly to that of Penn State.

    And we all know how that game went for Wisconsin last season.

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