Big Ten Report - Preseason
August 1, 2014
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We're less than 30 days away from Week 1 of the college football season and it's never too early to take a look at our favorite conference: the Big Ten.
Let's take a look at areas of concern and potential storylines heading into the fall for all 14 schools.
Illinois: Improve its rush defense
Opponents pounded Illinois’ defense for 254.3 rushing yards per game last season, ranking last in the Big Ten and 120th out of 125 teams. It didn't exactly translate to success for the Illini, as they allowed 35.4 points per game and went 4-8 overall. The offense was pretty respectable, ranking 46th in yards per game and 61st in points per game. If they can fix its defensive leaks, Illinois may turn a few heads in the Big Ten this season.
Indiana: Find a defensive identity
Indiana ranked 116th in points allowed last season at a whopping 38.8 per game with seven opponents exceeding 40 points. The Hoosiers allowed 7.4 yards per play and over 520 yards per game. They need a defense to pair with that strong offense - 10th in yards per game and 16th in points per game - as they proved they could be competitive with a solid defense, finishing 4-0-1 ATS in the five games that it allowed fewer than 40 points.
Iowa: Breaking into the elite
The Hawkeyes lost just four games during the regular season to teams with a combined record of 44-6 (Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin). They were just 1-3 ATS in those four games while going 7-1 ATS against the lesser competetion. They then lost their bowl game to LSU by seven points (10-3). If Iowa hopes to break into the top half of the Big Ten, it has to start beating the elite teams.
Michigan: Figuring out an offensive identity
Replacing the talent that Michigan's offense lost won't be easy. The Wolverines lost their top receiver (Jeremy Gallon), and two top offensive linemen (Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield). Coach Brady Hoke also insists that Devin Gardner, the incumbent starter ataQuarterback, is in a competetion with sophomore Shane Morris. Whether he likes it or not, Hoke is entering a make-or-break year with the team and this offense can't continue to be just average (87th in yards and 46th in points in 2013) if he wants to remain at the helm.
Michigan State: Dealing with a target on its backs
Michigan State capped off a stellar season with a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl win. The Spartans always had a stout defense but it was the offense that really emerged as the season went on. After scoring just 13 points in the season's only loss to Notre Dame in September, Sparty averaged 29.6 points per game over the final 10 games and finished 8-2 ATS over that span. They lost a lot of star power on a defense that finished 2nd in yards allowed and 3rd in points allowed. They'll have to deal with every opponents' best effort week in and week out as everyone wants a shot at the defending Big Ten champs.
Minnesota: Building off of a strong season
Minnesota was sitting at 8-2 and ranked 25th in late November. They then lost to Wisconsin by 13, Michigan State by 11, and Syracuse by 4. Still they finished 8-5 & 9-4 ATS (all five of their losses were to bowl teams). QB Philip Nelson was dismissed, giving sophomore Mitch Leidner (3 TD, 1 INT, 407 rush yards in 2013) full reigns of the position. They'll need to develop a stronger receiving corps for Leidner considering the leading receiver had just 25 receptions last season.
Nebraska: Replacing offensive stars
The Huskers played much of last season without incumbent starter Taylor Martinez at quarterback. Martinez played just four games before being injured and Tommy Armstrong Jr and Ron Kellogg III filling in for him. Armstrong is number one on the depth chart right now but is far from cemented as the starter. Whoever is running the offense will have to deal without their leading RB (Abdullah: 1,690 yards and 9 TD) and WR (Enunwa: 51 rec, 753 yards, 12 TD) from 2013. Head coach Bo Pelini is on thin ice and should the Huskers start to falter early on, everything could unravel.
Northwestern: Bouncing back from a disastrous 2013
The Wildcats were 4-0 and ranked 15th while ESPN's Gameday was on campus for the showdown with 3rd ranked Ohio State. Northwestern lost that game and the subsequent six to finish with a losing record. The Wildcats repeatedly failed to live up to expectations week in and week out, finishing just 3-8 against the spread. Top offensive weapon Kain Colter is gone, but QB Trevor Siemian returns along with a healthy Venric Mark at RB for a team looking to rebound.
Ohio State: Starting a new streak
After winning 24 straight regular season games, the Buckeyes dropped the Big Ten title game to Michigan State and the subsequent bowl game against Clemson. Late in season, it appeared that the weight of the streak was weighing heavy on the team. They started the season with a plus-31.2 points per game scoring differential (6-2-1 ATS) but finished with just a plus-9.8 differential over the last five (0-5 ATS). They lost a lot of talent on defense but have recruited well enough to fill holes - plus having Heisman Trophy candidate QB Braxton Miller makes things much easier on offense.
Penn State: James Franklin picking up where Bill O'Brien left off
Expectations are high for Franklin, who inherits a team that finished 15-9 SU and 14-10 ATS in two seasons under Bill O'Brien. The Lions still have two years remaining on their postseason ban, but the fiery Franklin won't let that be an excuse to underachieve. He has some strong pieces to work with, most notably QB Christian Hackenberg, who had some learning curves as a true freshman but finished with 20 TD and 10 INT.
Purdue: Find a playmaker, any playmaker
The Boilers were one of the worst teams in the nation last season. They finished 1-11 SU & 3-8-1 ATS. They averaged just 282 yards per game and 13 points per game (both ranked 121st). Defensively they weren't any better ranking 105th in yards allowed and 113th in points allowed. QB Danny Etling showed flashes during his freshman campaign with 10 TD and 7 INT. Their leading rusher had just 464 yards and 1 TD. They need to show improvement under Darrell Hazell or he will likely be out by year's end.
Wisconsin: Develop a passing attack
The Badgers will always be a run-oriented offense. Melvin Gordon and James White gained over 3,000 combined rushing yards last season with 25 combined touchdowns. However, if the Badgers want to make their way into the "elite," they'll have to get better at QB. Incumbent QB Joel Stave completed 62% with 22 TD and 13 INT; decent numbers, but he really put no scare into opposing defenses. There's a three-way competition going on and whoever wins will have to deal with a very raw receiving corps sans Jared Abbrederis (78 rec, 1,081 yards in 2013), plus RB White has left for the NFL.
Maryland & Rutgers: Assimilating to the new conference
Maryland dropped six of its final nine games after a 4-0 start last season. Injuries derailed them but there's reason for optimism. Notably QB CJ Brown and WR's Stefon Diggs and Deon Long returning to full-form. The Terps have a brutal schedule to deal with this year; starting Oct. 4 the Terps have consecutive games against Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan.
Rutgers finished 6-7 last year despite playing a very tame schedule. They lost big to Central Florida, Cincinnati, and Houston while also dropping games against Connecticut, Notre Dame, Louisville, and Fresno State. Their 2014 Big Ten schedule is a bit more forgiving than Maryland, but it'll still be a major step up from what they faced last season in the AAC.
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