MICHIGAN STATE (2013 SUR 13-1, PSR 10-4)…Head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi got big, fat raises in the offseason. That was a smart move by Athletic Director Mark Hollis, as the Spartans’ 13-1 record, conference championship, and Rose Bowl upset of Stanford constituted the best football season in East Lansing since the days of Bubba Smith and the 1965-66 teams that went 19-1-1 in those two seasons. The icing on the cake for Spartan boosters is that Dantonio’s teams have beaten state-rival Michigan in five of the last six meetings (and ending Ohio State’s 24-game overall winning streak was a cherry on top).
Dantonio has already addressed any potential complacency and will expand the offense, using more shotgun and spread features with QB Connor Cook expected to use his legs a bit more. Cook was named second-team all-conference after throwing for 2755 YP and 22 TDs with just 6 interceptions. MSU will spice up the attack by using 6-3, 230-lb. RS frosh QB Damion Terry’s outstanding running ability and arm to keep foes off balance.
Obviously, the main thrust of the offense was and will remain sr. RB Jeremy Langford running behind an experienced offensive line featuring all-Big Ten C Jack Allen and mammoth soph left tackle Jack Conklin (a freshman All-American who didn’t allow a sack). Langford had 1422 YR last season, scoring 19 TDs, and was nearly unstoppable over the last eight games. He ran for 139 ypg while scoring 11.3 ppg from mid-October through the Rose Bowl. Fellow senior RB Nick Hill mopped up well (344 YR; 5.1 ypc).
Cook’s production should improve, given his success and added experience, as his top two targets return. Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings combined for 87 receptions last season, and Lippett was a monster during spring work. The Spartans suspended Kings for the spring, but he’s expected back for the fall, and his absence only gave more reps to promising soph R.J. Shelton. The receiving corps is the deepest unit on the team, and the crew at TE runs four-deep.
The defense has some work to do replacing six starters, including CB Darqueze Dennard, the first-round choice of the Cincinnati Bengals. Don’t cry for Narduzzi; he’ll be just fine. MSU retains the services of the reigning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year in disruptive DE Shilique Calhoun, a likely future NFL first-rounder himself. Calhoun is joined by fifth-year sr. DE Marcus Rush on the other side. Sr. LB Taiwan Jones (6-3, 252) moves inside to replace graduated vet Max Bullough, and Jones looks every bit the part after last season’s performance (67 tackles). The “No Fly Zone” should still be in effect over Spartan Stadium this fall, as FS Kurtis Drummond and CB Trae Waynes combined for 7 interceptions and 141 tackles.
Michigan State’s special teams are excellent, as 2013 frosh A-A PK Michael Geiger made 15 of 16 FGs LY, and all-league P Mike Sadler should be ready to go after missing spring due to a knee problem.
The fact Michigan State plays its three toughest conference foes (Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska) at home this season makes it probable another trip to the Big Ten championship game is on the menu for the Spartans in 2014.
OHIO STATE (SUR 12-2, PSR 7-7)…Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes looked nearly imperious in winning 24 straight to start his tenure in Columbus. But below the surface there were signs things might not be what they seemed. OSU had more than its share of narrow escapes in the winning streak, with OT wins vs. Purdue and Wisconsin in 2012. In 2013, the team was outgained in close victories against Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as being forced to rally in the second half at home against Iowa in a game that was tied in the 4th quarter. The Buckeyes dropped their last five pointspread decisions last season, losing the final two of those straight-up to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game (blowing their berth in the final BCS Championship) and to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. And this season, they are replacing six NFL draftees, including a pair of first and a pair of second rounders.
Make no mistake, OSU has a serious weapon, perhaps the single best in college football. QB Braxton Miller rounded out his game nicely in 2013, improving his throwing accuracy to 64% and his TD-interception ratio to 24-7. Miller is the returning all-Big Ten QB and has thrown for 4122 yards and has rushed for 2339 in the last two seasons. However, he’ll be operating with just one returning starter on his offensive line, and the team is replacing star RB Carlos Hyde (1521 YR, 7.3 ypc, 15 TDs LY) and top WR Corey Brown (63 catches, 10 scores in 2013; 60 recs. in 2012). The Buckeyes recruit very well, but replacing a pair of durable, consistent producers like Hyde and Brown will put more stress on Miller. The OSU QB started to show some wear and tear last year, playing with knee and shoulder problems that cost him two full games and limited him in others. An inexperienced OL could mean more pressure, more forced runs for Miller, and more injuries for the all-American.
Returning WRs Devin Smith (44 catches) and Evan Spencer (22) must take another step up if Miller’s passing game is to continue to improve. They might just do that. Soph RB Ezekiel Elliott and sr. Rod Smith combined to carry 52 times for 379 yards (7.3 ypc), and they could also step up, but the truth is it was Hyde who did most of the heavy lifting last year in the rush game, and Brown who made the big plays (team-high 10 scoring catches) and moved the chains in the passing attack.
The defense is in much better shape in terms of returning starters (8), but there are huge holes to fill. LB Ryan Shazier made 143 tackles last season to lead the team. S C.J. Barnett was second with 84. CB Bradley Roby was third with 69. All three were drafted into the NFL, Shazier and Roby on the first round. Granted, there’s plenty of talent remaining, as the DL is the best in the Big Ten and one of the strongest units in the nation. DE Noah Spence had eight sacks and was a first-team all-conference choice. Sr. DT Michael Bennett was named to the all-Big Ten second team. LBs Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant combined for 116 tackles, and DE Joey Bosa is also back on the front line for a defense that ranked 9th against the run. As usual, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare in Columbus.
The Buckeyes figure to sweep into late October 6-0 before facing a serious test at Penn State. They also visit Michigan State, and one loss might be all it takes to knock them out of the conference championship and the first College Football Playoff.
MICHIGAN (SUR 7-6, PSR 7-6)…It’s been a bit of a strange trip for head coach Brady Hoke at Michigan. When he took over in 2011 and immediately turned a team that was 15-22 in the previous three seasons into an 11-2 Sugar Bowl winner, he was the toast of Ann Arbor. After 8-5 and 7-6 marks in 2012 and 2013, the chair in his office is heating up. The situation might get hotter for him before there’s any relief.
The Wolverines had problems in the offensive line last season, yielding the most tackles-for-loss in the country. Now, that unit must replace all-American left tackle Taylor Lewan, who was chosen as the 11th overall pick in the NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans, and right tackle Michael Schofield, who went on the third round to the Denver Broncos. Add the fact that the offense is also retooling at RB (replacing Fitz Toussaint, 13 TDs LY) and WR, where record-smashing Jeremy Gallon (1373 rec. yds. LY; drafted by the Patriots) and projected returning starter Jake Butt (20 catches LY) tore his ACL in the offseason.
The offensive changes extend to the coaching staff, with ex-Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier taking over after Al Borges walked the plank. Nussmeier has some cards to work with if he can pull a little sleight of hand and rebuild the OL. QB Devin Gardner threw for 2960 yards and 21 TDs last year, and he made some plays with his feet as well, rushing for 11 scores. WR Devin Funchess (6-5, 230; first team all-Big Ten at TE LY; has moved outside) had 49 catches in 2013 and proved he can stretch the defense a bit, averaging 15.3 ypc with 11 TD catches the last two seasons. Soph RB Derrick Green was one of the top recruits at his position in the country when he arrived in Ann Arbor last season, but he came in too heavy and not ready for the step up to the collegiate level. He was a changed man after winter conditioning, as he dropped 20 lbs. and appeared ready to contribute in a much better way after plodding for just 3.3 ypc on 83 totes in 2013. Nussmeier (Alabama o.c. L2Ys) has a pedigree, and he might be able to coax the best from Gardner and Green.
Defensively, coordinator Greg Mattison’s unit took a step backward last season. After inheriting a team that gave up a school record 35 ppg in 2010, Mattison engineered one of the biggest turnarounds in memory by cutting that allowance in half, to 17 ppg, in 2011. He then followed up that effort by again holding Wolverine foes below 20 ppg in ’12. Last year the stop unit regressed to 27 ppg and ranked 66th in passing yards allowed. Hoke has stepped in and has shuffled defensive responsibilities, although Mattison is still coordinating. Have to expect this unit to snap back and turn in a better performance with nine returning starters, including all-conference CB Blake Countess (tied for Big Ten lead with 6 ints.) and sr. DE Frank Clark (2nd all Big Ten; 12 TFL). MLB Jake Ryan was one of the best at his position before tearing his ACL in the spring of 2013, but he made an unbelievably quick recovery to start 5 of the last 6 and finish with 30 tackles.
Hoke’s squad isn’t exactly loaded, and he is under pressure, but his Michigan teams are 19-2 SU at the “Big House” and play seven home games this season. That should be good enough for third place in the East and a nice slot in the Big Ten’s expanded list of bowl affiliations.
PENN STATE (SUR 7-5, PSR 5-7)…When Bill O’Brien accepted the head coaching position of the NFL’s Houston Texans, a major void was created. O’Brien had guided Penn State through the most tumultuous period in the program’s history after the Sandusky scandal and the departure, and ultimately the death, of the legendary Joe Paterno. The ensuing NCAA sanctions were a major handicap, and the departure of some players added to all the distractions. Still, O’Brien managed to post a 15-9 straight-up mark in his two years in charge and scored one of the biggest recruiting coups in the last few years by convincing QB Christian Hackenberg to keep his commitment and become a Nittany Lion. After O’Brien announced he was moving on, the Penn State athletic department scored another potentially crucial recruiting victory in luring ascending Vanderbilt HC James Franklin to State College. It appears that Penn State is now ready to move on and possibly regain the lost luster of past glories.
Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan have one of the bluest of blue chips to work with in Hackenberg, who broke 11 school passing records while averaging 246 ypg in the air as a true freshman last season. The 6-4 triggerman completed 59% and tossed 20 TD passes, and he got better as the season progressed, throwing for 556 yards with 6 TDs and just 1 interception in the team’s final two games against Nebraska and Wisconsin. Franklin’s new squad returns its top three rushers–seniors Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton as well as soph Akeel Lynch–who combined for 2150 YR and 18 rush TDs in 2013. However, the offensive line will require rebuilding, as three starters graduated and another, G Miles Diffenbach, suffered an ACL injury in spring. Hackenberg will also miss WR Allen Robinson, who was selected in the second round of the NFL draft after being named the league’s best WR in each of the last two seasons. Robinson won’t be readily replaced, and the thin OL will not be easily fixed, although Franklin started the process by signing four offensive tackles in his first recruiting class at Penn State.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions’ history of producing some of the top linebackers in the country continues in the person of Mike Hull. Hull will move to MLB after making 78 stops a year ago and 58 in 2012 as a regular on the outside. The DL lost all-conference DT DaQuan Jones (drafted by the Titans), but both DEs return, and run-stuffing DT Anthony Zettel was one of the standouts in spring. The 2ndary was burned at times in 2014, allowing 237 ypg to rank 73rd in the country, by far the worst performance by the Nittany Lion defense since 2001. Soph CB Jordan Lucas moved up the depth chart last fall and was tested often, making 55 tackles, but the secondary is being shuffled.
Franklin quickly made a difference at Vanderbilt, transforming habitual losers into a bowl team that went 18-8 SU with nine SEC wins in his last two seasons. Consider the Commodores were 1-15 SU in the SEC in the two years prior to Franklin’s takeover. Penn State has residual talent, and Franklin did a solid job recruiting. Depth is still an issue, and finding another explosive, go-to receiver to replace Robinson will be a difficult task. But Franklin has proven he can “coach ’em up” as well as anyone in the country.
MARYLAND (SUR 7-6, PSR 7-6)…There is good news and bad news for Big Ten newcomer Maryland this season. The positives are that the Terps are used to high-level competition, coming from the pass-happy ACC, and they return 18 starters plus both kickers. Maryland QB C.J. Brown is a talented dual-threat QB who rushed for 576 yards and 12 TDs as well as completing 59% of his passes for 2242 yards, 13 TDP and 7 ints. after overcoming injuries and winning a fight for the starting job over Caleb Rowe. The Terps have one of the best 1-2 wideout tandems in the country now that Stefon Diggs and Deon Long are healthy after suffering broken legs a year ago. Diggs averaged 17.3 ypc and Long 15.3, and this group has lots of quality depth with Levern Jacobs (team-high 47 catches), Amba Etta-Tawo (500 yds., 16.1 ypc LY) and Nigel King combining for 111 catches last season.
The rushing game figures to take a jump forward. The OL has four returning starters, and it added manchild true frosh Derwin Gray, an early enrollee who looked like a future star in spring. Jr. RB Brandon Ross led the team with 776 YR (4.7 ypc; gained 119 in bowl loss vs. Marshall), and soph Wes Brown (382 YR as a true frosh in 2012) returns after serving a suspension in 2013.
The bad news is that the deck has been stacked against both conference newcomers Maryland and Rutgers. Clearly the Big Ten East is loaded and is the much tougher of the two divisions, with Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State shifted into one bracket. Then the conference schedule maker dealt the Terps a couple of body blows by adding the toughest teams from the West, Wisconsin and Iowa, as crossover games.
The defense will be experienced, and on the surface it was above average (44th in total defense LY) and could figure to improve given the fact nine starters return. However, the stop unit has been a bit of a bully in the recent past, stuffing lesser foes such as FIU and Old Dominion while failing against top-drawer opposition (such as losing 63-0 to eventual BCS champ Florida State). Maryland has yielded 44 ppg the last two seasons against ranked foes, and the defense needs to force more turnovers (Terps 102nd last year in TO margin). LB Cole Farrand is an all-conference level player who had 84 stops in just 10 games and jr. S Sean Davis made a team-leading 102 LY. Sr. LBs Matt Robinson recorded 73 stops and La Goree 75, while DE Andre Monroe had 91/2 sacks. There is definitely talent and some depth, as seven of nine players who started at LB LY return, as do 13 of the top 15 tacklers.
Injuries have plagued Randy Edsall in his first three years at Maryland, and given the team’s demanding Big Ten schedule, injuries and depth must be a concern of his this season as well. If the Terps are to succeed in their new league, they must toughen up in the clutch. Defensively, Maryland ranked 115th in red zone scoring last season. On offense the Terrapins were 114th in third-down conversions. Edsall has his work cut out for him, but last season was a step in the right direction, so if the Terps can avoid injury, it should claim one of the numerous Big Ten bowl bids.
INDIANA (SUR 5-7, PSR 5-7)… A year ago, Indiana had half of what it needed to challenge for a berth in the conference championship. The Hoosier offense ranked ninth in the nation, produced 509 ypg, and ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring at 38.4 ppg. The empty half of the cup was on defense, where Indy ranked no higher than 114th in any major category and allowed 39 ppg and 528 ypg. Kevin Wilson thus fired Doug Mallory as defensive coordinator and hired Brian Knorr from Wake Forest. Knorr’s major priority has to be to find a way to slow down opponents’ rushing game. Slowing foes is still a big ask, as stopping teams on the ground seems out of the question for a Hoosier front wall that’s given up at least 5.0 ypc each of the last four seasons. Knorr will try to find a way to translate Indiana’s defensive experience (nine returning starters) into a more effective group. The Hoosiers will move to a 3-4 front, hoping 325-lb. Texan Ralph Green can continue the improvement he showed at the end of 2013 and become a space-eating run-stuffer at nose guard. That would free up LB David Cooper and S Mark Murphy to make even more plays. Cooper and Murphy combined for 169 tackles last season, and sr. CB Tim Bennett had 73.
Offensively, the outlook continues trending up. Returning QB Nate Sudfeld threw for 2523 yds., 21 TDs with just 9 interceptions. Although must note the position is thinner this fall with the transfer of part time starter Tre Roberson (1128 YP, 15 TDP, 423 YR). Roberson moved on to Illinois State for undisclosed reasons, and now the Hoosier backup is highly-regarded (but rail-thin) Zander Diamont, who was in for spring work. A negative on the passing game is that the two top receivers graduated, one of whom (Cody Latimer) had 1096 receiving yards and was the second-round pick of the Denver Broncos. Still, smurf WR Shane Wynn has 114 catches the last two seasons, and seniors Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree have both been around for a while, and both had double-digit receptions last season.
The showcase player on offense this season could be RB Tevin Coleman, who averaged 106 ypg and 7.3 ypc rushing, scoring 12 TDs despite missing three games with an ankle injury. Coleman is backed by sr. D’Angelo Roberts, who Wilson said will get some carries as well, based on gaining 863 yards in spot duty the last three seasons. Coleman will be running behind a very experienced, efficient offensive line returning six players with extensive starting experience. G Dan Feeney, who started and was a frosh all-Big Ten selection in 2012, but missed last season with injury. OT Peyton Eckert (out all of 2013 with a back problem) and G David Kaminski (started first five LY before suffering an ACL injury) are also making comebacks on the OL, which is the deepest unit on the team.
Indiana can run and throw, but it’s yet to prove it can defend, and its kick teams are iffy at best. That combination has led to a 26-9 “over” mark in Hoosier games in Kevin Wilson’s first three years in Bloomington. It’s also turned up the pressure on Wilson to change things up or move on.
RUTGERS (SUR 6-7, PSR 4-8)…Rutgers is stepping up in class this season, and it’s not apparent the Scarlet Knights are ready for the full magnitude of the challenge in front of them. Norfolk State, Eastern Michigan, SMU, South Florida and Temple are replaced on the schedule by Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Nebraska. HC Kyle Flood took a look at the 30 ppg allowed and 120th national ranking of his secondary and did what any sane coach would; he fired his defensive coordinator. Now Joe Rossi will have the task of trying to stop the Big Ten’s parade of the nation’s high-quality backs this fall. New offensive coordinator Ralph Freidgen was persuaded to come out of retirement when the Scarlet Knight athletic department gave him 500,000 good reasons coaching was better than fishing (all 500,000 had George Washington’s picture on them).
Scarlet Knight QB Gary Nova has thrown for 4854 yds. the last two seasons, but his 40-30 TD-to-interception ratio led to his benching for the final three games last season. That is a problem Freidgen must address. And keeping Nova upright is a concern as well, as Rutgers gave up 35 sacks last season. The top three RBs return, as jr. Paul James, soph Justin Goodwin and sr. Savon Huggins combined for 1688 YR and 16 scores last season. The downside is that Rutgers was held to 80 or fewer YR six times last season, while rushing for 204 ypg against the Norfolk States, Eastern Michigans and South Floridas on its schedule. Nova (or redshirt frosh QB Chris Laviano, depending on August competition) will be working with a decent set of receivers. WRs Leonte Carroo and soph Ruhann Peele weren’t starters last season, but they each had 28 catches, and Carroo led the team with 9 TD snags and a 17.1 ypc mark. TE Tyler Kroft was the leading receiver with 43 catches, good enough to put him on the first team All-AAC team along with RB James.
The defense had its shortcomings LY, but LB Steve Longa (123 tackles) and Kevin Snyder (2nd on team with 96) return, along with four of the next five of the team’s top tacklers, so there is some hope. However, Rutgers has faced just one top-twenty team in the last five years, giving up 52 points against Louisville last year. It looks like the Knights will face at least three, and possibly as many as five, ranked teams this season. The grind of the Big Ten schedule could wear down a thin squad that lands very few blue chip players. If you throw out FCS rep Norfolk St., EMU (2-10) and USF (2-10), Rutgers gave up 37 ppg to its remaining 10 foes. This defense could improve and still give up a full TD more than it did last season.
Unfortunately for Flood and the Rutgers’ fans, both Nebraska and Wisconsin have not one, but two RBs that are better than any on Rutgers’ roster. Nova has had his moments, but he’s not in the top 12 QBs in his new conference, and the interceptions might spell doom considering the athletes dotting the Big Ten secondaries. The offensive line is going to be in for a shock facing the Buckeye front four, and the inexperienced WR corps isn’t going to get a lot of separation in East Lansing. Welcome to the Big Ten, boys!
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