2014 Big Ten Football Preview (East Division)

The 2014 college football season marks a special year for the sport. The inaugural playoff system will be hogging the headlines this season, but there is another new feature to the college football landscape that fans should take note of. That is the formation of the new Big Ten East division.

Never before has a single division been so loaded with quality programs. Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan are consensus top ten programs. On top of that you have a Michigan State program that has been extremely competitive as of late and a Rutgers that is quietly playing the best football in program history. This is unprecedented for any college football division and it will be interesting to see how it plays out long term.

B10 East Preview IU

Indiana

Last Season’s Record: 5-7 (3-5)
Indiana hasn’t had a winning season since 2007, while that may seem like bad news for Hoosier fans; there is something in Bloomington worth celebrating. Under coach Kevin Wilson, who is now entering his fourth year, IU has achieved a slow but steady improvement.

At quarterback the Hoosiers will not match the depth from the previous season as they deal with not one but two quarterback transfers this offseason. However Indiana will return Nate Sudfeld (2,523 yards, 21 TDs, & 9 int).

The Hoosiers lost the bulk of their wide receiver core including Cody Latimer (72 receptions, 1,096 yards & 9 TDs) and Kofi Hughes (47 receptions, 739 yards & 7 TDs). The running game will have to pick up the slack, but the good news on offense is Tevin Coleman (958 yards, 12 TDs) returns. Also good news for IU fans comes on the defense, which features 10 returning starters according to Phil Steele.

IU opens up against in-state foe Indiana State at home. Looking at IU, the big challenge is an abundance of tough road games highlighted by Iowa, Missouri, Michigan, and Ohio State.

What’s at stake this season?
Despite the improvements that IU has accomplished over the past two seasons, this is a pivotal moment for the program due to the changes in the Big Ten divisions. The Hoosiers are now in a much harder division, which features a murderers row of quality programs (Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, & Michigan State). This division also features two Big Ten newcomers in Rutgers and Maryland.

A new era starts for the Big Ten and thus Indiana. If the Hoosiers want to be taken seriously as a football program, they need to establish two things in the new Big Ten East.

1. That they are not a pushover and can in fact compete with the “Big Boys” in their division.
2. That they are in fact superior to Rutgers and Maryland.

Indiana needs to establish these two trends very quickly if they want to see success over the next decade. Otherwise they will be destined to be one of the first causalities in the Big Tens new and insanely imbalanced divisional alignment. If IU can not accomplish this, then their best hope is to tough it out, play at their best level, and hope the Big Ten East as a whole elevates each other to be more competitive.

B10 East preview UMD

Maryland

Last Season’s Record: 7-6 (3-5)
Regardless of how well Maryland performs on the field, the season story line will continue to be how they are adapting to Big Ten play. Maryland had a respectable season in 2013, however 2012 and 2011 were a far cry from that. Like Indiana, Maryland has seen a slow and steady improvement. Lead by coach Randy Edsall who will be starting his fourth year with the Terrapins program, Maryland will be looking to make a statement in a new conference this year.

The passing game for Maryland will be phenomenal as the Terps returns both CJ Brown (2,242 yards, 13 TDs & 7 int), and Caleb Rowe, (989 yards, 5 TDs & 3 Int) whose 2013 season was hampered by injuries. This is coupled with a receiving core, which returns its four most productive players. Things also stay the same on the ground as running back Brandon Ross returns along with three offensive linemen. With nine returning defensive starters (according to Phil Steele) the Terps look destined to improve from last season on that side of the ball.

The most notable road games for the Terps come in the form of visits to two 100k stadiums, (Penn State and Michigan) as well as playing Wisconsin in Madison. They also have an OOC game against two P5 opponents (Syracuse & West Virginia). The luck of the draw for Maryland however is facing the two strongest Big Ten East programs at home (Ohio State, & Michigan State).

What’s at stake this season?
Maryland is now three seasons removed from their disastrous 2-10 season in 2011. Maryland has seen steady improvement since then. Heading into the 2014 season a big goal for Maryland is to keep the momentum going by pulling out another winning season.

The big elephant in the room for 2014 is the Big Ten. A new and arguably better conference is a tough adjustment for any school, but Maryland has to do so while playing in the overloaded Big Ten East. Maryland is in the same position as Indiana. They must establish that they will not be a bottom feeder in their new division. They must further prove that they are capable of competing with the “Big Dogs.” They cannot allow themselves to be pushed aside and watch Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan dominate them on the field, and on the recruiting grounds.

Michigan

Last Season’s Record: 7-6 (3-5)
The offseason for Michigan was highlighted by an embarrassing report noting a decline in student attendance. This is a sign that despite the removal of Rich Rodriguez, patience among Wolverine fans and the school administration is running thin.

Brady Hoke looked so promising after his first season at Michigan in which he went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl. But since then Michigan has continued to regress in record.

On offense quarterback Devin Gardner (2,960 yards, 21 TDs, 11 Int) returns. However he loses the electrifying Jeremy Gallon (1,373 receiving yards, 9 TDs) at wide receiver. Michigan returns three starters on the offensive line (per Phil Steele), which I’m not to sure whether to label that a positive or negative considering how many sacks they gave up in 2013.

The schedule for Michigan features the Wolverine’s three rivalry games (Michigan State, Notre Dame, and Ohio State) all on the road. That’s a big obstacle for Wolverine fans considering how critical winning these rivalry games has become for Michigan fans.

What’s at stake this season?
Michigan needs to restore faith in their program and pull out a respectable season with nine or more wins. Anything to show that this program is in an upswing will be critical for Michigan this season. Coach Hoke is rapidly approaching the point in his tenure where talks of his job security are heating up.

Another critical goal that Michigan needs to fulfill this season is to have a strong showing in their rivalry games, particularly OSU and MSU. Michigan has defeated Michigan State just once in the past five years. Against Ohio State it is even worse with just one victory in the past decade. This is flat out embarrassing for Michigan and is a trend that needs to change immediately. Michigan fans can handle a subpar W-L record, but losses to their rivals are a sticking point for Go Blue Nation.

If that’s not enough of a headache for one season, in what is one of the most bewildering scheduling moves that I have seen in a long time, Appalachian State once again takes a visit to Ann Arbor. A second upset at the hands of the Mountaineers would be catastrophic for Michigan’s program. It’s is essentially a game that has no upside for Michigan if they win, but a huge downside if they lose. Make no mistake, Michigan will enter this game seeking revenge, but under no circumstances can Michigan lose this game.

B10 East Preview MSU

Michigan State

Last Season’s Record: 13-1 (8-0)
Times are good in East Lansing. MSU is fresh off both a Big Ten and Rose Bowl Championship. Entering his eighth year at Michigan State, Mark Dantonio is at the top of his game. Connor Cook was phenomenal in 2013 with (2,755 yards, 22 TDs, & 6 int). He also boasted a QB rating of 135.5 and a 58.7 completion percentage. The bad news for Cook is that he loses his top target in both receiving yards and touchdowns in Bernie Fowler (622 yards & 6 TDs). The good news for Cook is Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings return. The duo combined for 87 receptions last season which gives Cook the option to continue passing to his two most frequent targets.

The ground game won’t be missing a beat in 2014 as their entire running back core returns, highlighted by Jeremy Langford (1,422 yards & 18 TDs). On defense the Spartans return just four starters according to Phil Steele. The Spartans will need to plug some serious holes on the defensive side of the ball if they want to have a realistic shot at the inaugural College Football Playoffs.

The good news for Spartan fans is that they will face both Michigan and Ohio State at home. The bad news for Michigan State is they square off against preseason #3/#4 Oregon on the Ducks’ home turf in Eugene.

What’s at stake this season?
Michigan State has a chance to do some serious damage this season. With Braxton Miller out for the season, the Spartans are the preseason Big Ten favorites. Ranked eighth in both preseason polls, Michigan State is in an incredibly strong position to win a National Championship. This is an opportunity that has been a long time coming. An opportunity like this won’t come around often and hence, it is critical for Michigan State to not let this season go to waste.

Ohio State

Last Season’s Record: 12-2 (8-0)
Things were looking so well for Ohio State until Braxton Miller was sidelined for the season due to an injury, this with just less than two weeks before the season kickoff. It’s brutal for any program to lose a player like Braxton Miller. Miller was the face of this year’s OSU team, arguably the face of the Big Ten conference, and a potential Heisman candidate.

So how do you replace a player like that? Well naturally you turn to the backup quarterback who unfortunately is little known redshirt freshman JT Barrett. The Buckeyes lost their top wide receiver in Corey “Philly” Brown (63, receptions, 771 yards, & 10 TDs), however the rest of their receiver core is returning.

The big loss for Ohio State this offseason came in the form of their run game. Ohio State lost their four most effective rushers, which leaves them in an incredibly difficult situation offensively. On defense Ohio State features seven returning starters (per Phil Steele), highlighted by an incredible pass rush that will be returning three players with a combined for 22.5 sacks in 2013.

Ohio State will have one game to break in Barrett against Navy before facing their first challenge of the season with Virginia Tech coming to Columbus. Next features home games against in-state foes Kent State and Cincinnati. The good news for Ohio State is that their early season schedule is not too difficult, which gives Barrett time to learn the offense. The bad news is that they will face division favorite Michigan State in East Lansing in what looks to be the best revenge game of the season after Alabama-Auburn.

I can’t think of another program that has had so much fortune and misfortune in one 30-month period. In 2012 OSU went undefeated, however they were bowl banned. In 2013 OSU again went undefeated in the regular season only to lay an egg in the postseason. In the 2014 offseason, they looked primed for a national championship run before Braxton Miller’s injury occurred. I can’t tell if they are incredibly overdue for a national championship game appearance or a 5-7 season. One can interpret it both ways.

What’s at stake this season?
Ohio State is in full salvage mode right now. Can they still have a competitive season? Will be the big question on everyone’s minds. Keep in mind that even without Braxton Miller this is still an incredibly talented team. Luckily for college football fans, we will know by their second game (Virginia Tech) what their potential is this season.

Ohio State needs to use the early part of their season to rework their offense around Barrett and hope that their national championship aspirations are still legitimate, or at the very least, stronger than Braxton Millers shoulder.

B10 East Preview PSU

Penn State

Last Season’s Record: 7-5 (4-4)
Another year, another bowl ban. Despite the NCAA sanctions Penn State has weathered the storm incredibly well. This is a program that some said would be uncompetitive for the next decade when the sanctions were first announced, and yet here is Penn State two years later with a 15-8 record.

Christian Hackenberg (2,955 yards, 20 TDs, 10 int) was my second favorite freshman quarterback to watch last year (that honor goes to Jameis Winston). The other notable offensive player from last year’s squad, Allen Robinson (97 receptions, 1,432 yards, 6 TDs) has taken his electrifying play to the NFL. Robinson single handedly had more receptions than the #2 through #5 Nittany Lion wide receivers combined. If that doesn’t show how valuable Robinson was last year, then chew on these stats. The combined receptions yards of the six best wide receivers after Robinson was 1,445 yards. Robinson accounted for 1,432 yards, which is just 13 yards fewer than those six combined. In 2013 Robinson accounted for 46% of Penn State’s total receiving yards. Hackenberg will also have to adjust to an offensive line Penn State that lost three starters to graduation/NFL, and lost a fourth starter to an ACL tear in the spring.

These are huge losses for a young quarterback to adjust to. The rest of the PSU receiving core will have to step up their game. Penn State will have to rely on Hackenberg more than ever in 2014, but the good news is the running back core returns highlighted by Zach Zwinak (989 yards & 12 TDs) and Bill Belton (803 yards & 5 TDs).

Penn State opens with an exciting out of conference (OOC) matchup against UCF in Ireland. The Nittany Lions also have the two preseason Big Ten East favorites (MSU & OSU) at home. After the UCF game Rutgers, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana give Penn State a relatively easy road game slate. The same can be said for Akron, Temple, and UMASS who also round out a relatively easy OOC slate.

What’s at stake this season?
For Penn State despite not having a chance to play in a bowl game, there are still two important things at stake for this year’s squad.

1) Develop Hackenberg
If we learned anything from last year is that the top rated quarterback prospect of his class (according to ESPN) is in fact the real deal. He is still raw but this kid is going places. Penn State can’t do any postseason damage now, but they can in the future with Hackenberg. This means developing their young quarterback will be the biggest objective of the season and will pay huge dividends down the road.

2) Transition Under a New Regime
Bill O’Brien is gone to the NFL, which means James Franklin from Vanderbilt is the new head coach of Penn State. While Penn State has had two recent head coaching changes, however neither could truly be described as being under normal circumstances. For Coach Franklin he will be tasked with actually building a competitive program rather than trying to keep one afloat. He is also treading in untested waters as this marks the first time since 1966 that Penn State has seen a “traditional” coaching change. It’s hard to determine how the PSU fan base will react to a less than stellar performance because we don’t have a modern era coaching change in Happy Valley as precedent. If this was Vanderbilt, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal, but this is Penn State, which is one of the top programs in the country.

Franklin is the second notable SEC coach to join a top Big Ten East program, and might not be the last (Les Miles & Michigan… just saying). His tenure might not just mark a change in trends at PSU, but potentially it could mark a larger shift in the coaching philosophy of the Big Ten East as a whole. It’s hard for any coach to transition to a new conference, especially if it’s a major football school like Penn State. For Franklin that’s the cards he has been dealt and a new era starts in 2014 at Happy Valley.

B10 East Preview RU

Rutgers

Last Season’s Record: 6-7 (3-5)
Like Maryland, the underlining storyline of the 2014 season for Rutgers is being in a new conference. The Big Ten will be a big change compared to the Big East/AAC.

Gary Nova (2,159 yards, 18 TDs, 14 int) returns as quarterback, and so does his top target Tyler Kroft (43 receptions, 573 yards, 4 TDs). However the same cannot be said for Rutgers second and third best receivers from 2013. Gone are Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt who combined for 66 receptions and 1,054 receiving yards. For now Paul James (881 yards & 9 TDs) is the only returning running back available. Justin Goodwin (521 yards & 5 TDs) is moving to cornerback. Lastly, running back Savon Huggins (286 yards & 2 TDs) who has had a lackluster tenure at RU despite being arguably their best recruiting prospect in program history is injured.

This may sound gloomy for Rutgers fans, however the terrific news for the Scarlet Knights is that they return all five of their offensive linemen.

Third year head coach Kyle Flood will once again be at the helm for Rutgers. The schedule will be tough for the program this year. For Rutgers their inaugural Big Ten slate can only be described as trial by fire. Rutgers has home games against Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan, while also having away games against Nebraska, Ohio State, and Michigan State. That is an incredibly brutal conference schedule. It doesn’t get any harder than that in Big Ten play and all I can say to Coach Flood is “good luck.”

What’s at stake this season?
Let me reintroduce my Maryland/Indiana pep talk. Rutgers needs to show they are heads and shoulders better than Indiana and Maryland while proving that they can compete with the “Big Boys” in their division. Otherwise they will lose their best in-state recruiting prospects to other Big Ten Programs. This is especially important for Rutgers as ACC and Big Ten programs are stepping up their recruiting efforts in New Jersey in recent years.

Rutgers will have a much harder time adjusting to the new Big Ten atmosphere than Maryland, which is a program that is more experienced with major football schools. The one advantage that Rutgers has over Maryland is recent athletic performance.

It may not look like it, but RU is quietly playing their best football in program history. The Scarlet Knights have nine total bowl appearances, of which eight have come in the past nine seasons. For the state of New Jersey, college football has finally arrived. As a result of this, a big dividend has already been paid in the form of Big Ten membership. But now RU is facing what is the most pivotal year in program history. They must keep the momentum going in their first season of Big Ten play, and do so with what is arguably the toughest schedule in conference play.


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© sportspolitico™ August 27, 2014

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