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Using our college football simulation engine, WhatIfSports.com simulated thousands of college football games to create the 2014 Big Ten Preview. Team ratings, player ratings and depth charts are accurate as of August 19th. What you see in the Conference Standings table is the most likely outcome based on the computer simulations. The team-by-team schedules use Absolute Records, which you can learn more about below. Those same game-by-game simulations also generate average points per game for both teams.
All team previews are provided by CollegeFootballNews.com.
2014 Big Ten Predicted Conference Standings
For this analysis, thousands of college football games are simulated, with the sum of the winning percentages of those games being our final predicted record. As can be noted, sometimes a team is "favored" (wins more than 50% of the time) in a different number of our games than the expected record shows. We list this record as the Absolute Record. The assumption of the Absolute Record is that the more likely scenario always happens. Since we know that it does not, our expected record (in the table above) is far more accurate. Also, especially since we are rounding, it is possible for a team to win a game more often, yet score the same or fewer points on average. In those cases, for Absolute Records, we always take higher winning percentage and are not predicting a tie or a win by an underdog. This is another reason why the expected records are more accurate, as the teams are so evenly matched, the game could easily go either way.
Was this the end of the long journey for Michigan State, or was the run to the 2013 Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl victory the start of something bigger?
Head coach Mark Dantonio had been fighting and fighting and fighting to get his program to an elite level, coming achingly close to winning the Big Ten title in 2011 after the fantastic 2010 team went 11-1 - before getting obliterated by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl - and then last year the dream came true. It was the season Spartan fans have been waiting for since winning the 1987 Rose Bowl, and now the expectations are there to do it again. This can't be a one-off.
There aren't any excuses for the 2013 success - last year's team was fantastic, especially defensively - but the timing couldn't have been more perfect. It's not like the Spartans received a slew of big breaks, but now they need to make their own good fortune again.
It continues to help the cause that Michigan is wheezing and coughing its way through the seemingly never-ending transition. It was super of Urban Meyer to stop giving Carlos Hyde the ball in the Big Ten championship, and it wasn't a negative that Wisconsin wasn't on the schedule.
There was just one decent non-conference game, and the Spartans gacked away the chance against Notre Dame. You and ten friends could've shut down Western Michigan and South Florida's offenses. The teams on the slate that could actually move the ball - Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State and Stanford - all came up with over 300 yards of total offense, and...
Whatever. Michigan State was due, and it came through.
That's life in the Big Ten at the moment. Wisconsin made regular recent trips to Pasadena thanks to weak slates and one big win getting the job done, and Ohio State started out 24-0 under Meyer thanks to its relatively soft schedule. Michigan State was the real deal and could've battled and held up against anyone - it would've been really, really interesting to have seen that defense deal with Auburn - but again, now it's about continuing the success and showing the staying power to remain among the elite of the elite. That's one break Sparty didn't get - if the 2013 season was this year, there would've been a spot in the College Football Playoff.
2013 can't be an aberration, but with the Spartans being put in the nasty Big Ten East along with an improved Ohio State and a can't-be-that-bad-again-defensively Michigan, is it possible that last season was simply charmed? Does Dantonio have the talent in place to do it all again?
The offense that struggled so much early on has to replace three starters up front, and it could stand to find a receiver or two who'll keep defensive coordinators up at night, but QB Connor Cook has the look of a burgeoning star, and Jeremy Langford would've been hailed as one of the nation's best running backs if he wasn't in the same league as Carlos Hyde, Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah.
The Spartan defense lost heart-and-soul types Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, along with several key parts of the rotation, but replacing six starters might not be as impossible as it seems on the surface with DE Shilique Calhoun an All-American at one end, Marcus Rush a dangerous pass rusher at the other, and Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes heading another great secondary. Along with one of the best kicking games in America with all-star punter Mike Sadler and air-tight kicker Michael Geiger returning, don't assume Michigan State is going anywhere quite yet.
Can the Spartans handle being everyone's circle game? Fortunately, the pressure is squarely on Ohio State to win the East, and the vice is tightening on Michigan after all the issues of last season, but it should be okay to blow up the cliche - for Dantonio, staying on top of the mountain might really be easier than getting there.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Michigan State Spartans
|1||Jacksonville State Gamecocks||95||46-7|
|4||Eastern Michigan Eagles||94||32-12|
|11||Ohio State Buckeyes||60||21-19|
|13||Rutgers Scarlet Knights||76||24-16|
|14||@Penn State Nittany Lions||67||23-17|
Editor's Note: Braxton's Miller's season-long absence was accounted for in our predictions.
Someone can say 99 nice things about you, but it's the one negative comment you'll remember.
Urban Meyer can win 24 games in a row at Ohio State, but it's the two losses that everyone will remember - for now.
Ohio State doesn't play in the same figurative league as everyone else in the Big Ten, and for the moment that includes Michigan and even recent champions Wisconsin and Michigan State, too. It's national title or bust for a program that's bound by nothing, gets almost any recruit it really, really wants, and has an A-list head coach with two national championships on the resume. But even with all the success, all the talent, all the facilities and all the amazing things going its way, getting any appreciable love and respect from the SEC types is hard, and nothing short of a national championship will change that.
The main criticism is fair - Ohio State came up with a nice, but hardly dominant win over Wisconsin last season, and the second-best win in the Meyer era came against an okay Nebraska team in 2012. It's not like Urban's days at Florida when every other week brought a new, massive challenge to deal with - the Buckeyes simply haven't had many chances to face anyone with a pulse over the last two years. Put the Ohio State team of the last two years in the SEC and it's probably Georgia, at best.
The defense went bye-bye against a mediocre Michigan squad to only fan the flames of skepticism even further, and when the big question was whether or not an undefeated Buckeye team actually deserved to play for the BCS championship over an SEC champion with one-loss, the question was answered with a thud. One 34-24 loss to Michigan State later, and the national title chance that was set up so perfectly on a tee was gone, along with the aura of invincibility under Meyer's watch.
Had the Buckeyes come out and blasted away at Clemson in the Orange Bowl - the same Clemson team that got its doors blown off at home by a Florida State squad that went to Pasadena - the narrative at the end of the year might have changed. The thrilling 40-34 shootout loss to the Tigers gave the naysayers all the ammo they needed.
But the two losses from the 2013 season don't matter much for the prospects for the 2014 campaign. It's Ohio State, so if it goes 13-0 and wins the Big Ten title with victories over Virginia Tech, Michigan State, Michigan and (probably) either Nebraska or Wisconsin, it'll be in the inaugural College Football Playoff no matter what, and 12-1 with a conference championship will almost certainly get it done, too. And then it doesn't matter a lick what the SEC types or the other critics have to say - get in the playoff, win two games, and the respect will be taken and well-earned.
But getting there won't be quite so easy.
Even without superstar quarterback Braxton Miller, consider the season a complete and utter failure if there's a playoff-ruining loss along the way to Navy, Virginia Tech, Kent State, Cincinnati, Maryland, Rutgers, Penn State, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana and/or Michigan, meaning the team just has to play up to its talent level to book 11 wins. It'll all come down to the road game at Michigan State, and making sure it's able to handle everyone's best shot.
The defensive line should be among the best in the nation and will destroy any and all mediocre running games, and the secondary has a chance to be even better despite the loss of Bradley Roby, C.J. Barnett and Corey Brown. The O line has to reload, but it had to come up with some new ideas when Meyer first came to Columbus and it turned out to be fine. There are more than enough weapons at the skill positions, the coaching staff is peerless, the recruiting class was yet again full of NFL talent and the schedule is light and breezy.
It's all set up perfectly for the Buckeyes, but it'll take just one misfire to ruin all the fun. 24-2 was nice, but for Ohio State, it wasn't good enough. Anything less than a national title won't be good enough, either.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Ohio State Buckeyes
|2||Virginia Tech Hokies||60||21-19|
|3||Kent State Golden Flashes||83||29-17|
|8||Rutgers Scarlet Knights||80||26-16|
|9||@Penn State Nittany Lions||57||24-21|
|10||Illinois Fighting Illini||75||29-21|
|11||@Michigan State Spartans||40||19-21|
|12||@Minnesota Golden Gophers||69||25-18|
So why isn't this working? Why can't Michigan be back to being among the superpowers of superpowers again? What's missing?
Rich Rodriguez is a fantastic college football coach. He brought West Virginia to the brink of a national title appearance, and he's doing a good job turning around Arizona. However, the RichRod era at Michigan was doomed from the start for a program that needed to take a big step back in order to rebuild and reconfigure to go from Big Ten title-good to national championship-good. There was no patience, no defense, and no desire to keep him around, even though Michigan appeared to be right on the verge of reaping the rewards of change.
In comes Brady Hoke, another top-shelf college football coach who made Ball State - Ball State - a winner and was great for San Diego State in rental mode before taking the Michigan gig. He took advantage of the pieces that Rodriguez put in place on the way to a great 2011 season complete with a Sugar Bowl victory.
But again, he was a new coach and Michigan underwent a change overall in philosophies, and partly because of the changes, the last two seasons have been awful by Maize and Blue standards, bottoming out by losing five of the last six last season - and needing a minor miracle to get that one win over Northwestern - finished off with a lifeless loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. It wasn't quite as embarrassing or bad as the 52-14 disaster against Mississippi State in the 2011 Gator, but that marked the official end of the RichRod experience. The loss to the Wildcats to end last year did nothing more than put the pressure on.
Hoke has recruited extremely well - coming up with one of the nation's top classes in 2013 - and has a ton of young talent in place to compete at the highest of levels. Does that mean that Michigan is on the verge of going 2011 all over again - with some dud seasons building toward a massive campaign - or is this really just the third best team in the new Big Ten East behind Michigan State and Ohio State?
It's Michigan, so there's no real excuse for any down years or rebuilding, but the reality is that it really has taken a while to talent up. The offensive line was the biggest issue last season, failing to generate any semblance of a push for the ground attack that finished 102nd in the country, and the inconsistencies were a major problem. The offense that sputtered and coughed until the final moments against Akron and UConn blew up against Penn State, Minnesota and Indiana.
The defense did a decent job, holding tough against the run and holding its own when the offense was struggling to find its identity, but it has to be better. It might not have been as Ohio State's in terms of pass defense, but it wasn't Michigan State's D, and that's where the standard is now.
No, so really, why isn't this working? Why have the Wolverines had more six-loss seasons in the last two than Ohio State has had since 2000? Why has Michigan State turned into the best college football team in the state? Why isn't Hoke's team considered a national title contender, with some suggesting it shouldn't even be ranked in the top 25?
It's Michigan, so eventually this really will work and the program will become fantastic again, but this is the key season in terms of direction. Is it just going to require a little bit more patience, or is there a bigger problem in terms of the right coaching staff and the right fight to go up against Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio?
Hoke's going to get one more shot at this, but one more season like last year will mean Michigan will have to rebuild all over again.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Michigan Wolverines
|1||Appalachian State Mountaineers||86||31-17|
|2||@Notre Dame Fighting Irish||45||21-22|
|3||Miami (OH) RedHawks||92||30-12|
|5||Minnesota Golden Gophers||63||22-20|
|6||@Rutgers Scarlet Knights||67||24-17|
|7||Penn State Nittany Lions||53||21-20|
|9||@Michigan State Spartans||39||18-22|
|14||@Ohio State Buckeyes||50||21-20|
Under impossible circumstances, Bill O'Brien did an amazing job.
It didn't matter than he took off early to the NFL - he did his job. Thrown into the fire, he helped keep the program and school from spiraling out of control, put Penn State football back on track, and found a way to replace a legend all throughout all of the controversy. Even so, it's better to be the guy after The Guy.
Even if James Franklin doesn't work out, and even if he doesn't lead the way to ten-win seasons and Big Ten titles on a regular basis, at least on paper, it works. It's the pitch-perfect hire at the exact right time. Penn State couldn't have found a coach who fits exactly what it needs at almost every level, and it couldn't have found a guy who'd be better to break things out of their shell.
It takes a serious personality to be able to coach at a place that still worships a former head man as a god, and while O'Brien was able to set the right tone at the right time in one way, Franklin is setting a different attitude in another direction just when the program needed it.
While no one's denying that emotions still run high at times when the words Penn and State are brought up, the football program is still standing, the school is still in business, and despite all of the negative PR and all the problems, things are moving on.
But there are still logistical issues to deal with that Franklin will have to get by.
The NCAA sanctions have been lessened, but as USC has painfully found out, it still takes a while to rebuild the depth and get a superpower program back to its former self.
Being thrown in the new Big Ten East with Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan doesn't help, and yeah, there will still be problems at times just because the talent isn't quite there thanks to the NCAA problems. Even so, with bowl eligibility coming next season, and with the addition of Franklin, all things considered, Penn State is coming out of this more than fine on the field.
O'Brien was able to come up with 15 wins over the last two seasons, and while they were irrelevant in terms of the landscape of the respective years, they didn't matter in one way. They helped bring in Franklin, and they helped in a big way for recruiting.
Franklin has the exact right mindset and the perfect attitude. He didn't want to hear any excuses at Vanderbilt, and never allowed anyone to use the same old talking points about why the program couldn't succeed. His demand was to find a way no matter what, and while the Commodores didn't win the SEC East, and they took care of the weak and the sad - for the most part - they also went 9-4 in each of the last two seasons and went to three straight bowl games.
Franklin isn't going to listen to any talk about a honeymoon period, and he isn't going to care that this really is a redshirt year for his coaching staff and his tenure. He has an NFL franchise quarterback in Christian Hackenberg around for two more seasons, he has a possible top five recruiting class coming in, and he has just enough talent among the starting 22 to be competitive.
But if Penn State goes 5-7 this season, that doesn't mean it's time to worry in any way. That doesn't mean that O'Brien was the far better coach, and that doesn't mean anything to Franklin's tenure. It doesn't really matter if Penn State goes 12-0 or 0-12, it's all about getting Franklin into his groove now so 2015 can rock.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Penn State Nittany Lions
|3||@Rutgers Scarlet Knights||67||24-18|
|9||Ohio State Buckeyes||43||21-24|
|13||@Illinois Fighting Illini||71||29-22|
|14||Michigan State Spartans||33||17-23|
Welcome to the new world of college athletics.
Of course it's about big business on every level, but Maryland's move to the Big Ten represents everything the entire realignment and readjustment movement is about. It's not about tradition, and it's not about bettering the product - it's about money, and that's okay.
Nebraska couldn't stop doing backflips over joining the Big Ten in 2011. Rutgers was always looking for a better home, and with Penn State already firmly established moving the Big Ten a little more east, the move made sense.
And then there's Maryland, who was a mainstay of the Atlantic Coast Conference but was an easy target with an athletic department that needed money. The Big Ten wanted to get its network more into the Baltimore/D.C. markets, Maryland needed cash, and the transaction was complete.
While it might be easy for ACCheads to get all up in arms over the "whatever happened to tradition?" aspect of it, it really is a great move for the school and the athletic department. The Big Ten is simply a better conference than the ACC, and very soon, the change isn't going to seem so weird.
But will this move eventually translate into more wins and more success for the football program? It'll mean more money, and that will help, and it will mean greater exposure and more overall interest when a Michigan or Ohio State comes to town, and that will be a plus, but can a school used to caring more about basketball start to make bigger inroads on the gridiron? Randy Edsall was able to do it at UConn, and if he can keep his team in one piece, he should have an interesting team coming back to battle away in the tough Big Ten East.
Nine starters are back on each side of the ball after an inconsistent and ultimately disappointing year. If the star receivers - Stefon Diggs and Deon Long - can quickly recover from their respective broken legs and return to their previous form, the offense that threw well and had some nice moments should be more dangerous.
The defense was terrific against everyone but Florida State and Clemson - at least until the dud of a bowl loss to Marshall. This could be a very quiet, very good D that gives the Big Ten East some problems.
The really nice part is that expectations will be relatively low. Nebraska fans thought their Huskers were going to take the league by storm, but no one's going to pick Maryland to challenge in a division with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. The program is due for a respite from big injuries, and it also might be ready to show a little consistency. Basically, Maryland needs a break.
And getting paid a lot of money is part of it.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Maryland Terrapins
|1||James Madison Dukes||95||44-8|
|2||@South Florida Bulls||49||22-23|
|3||West Virginia Mountaineers||55||24-21|
|6||Ohio State Buckeyes||33||18-23|
|10||@Penn State Nittany Lions||46||20-23|
|12||Michigan State Spartans||27||16-23|
|14||Rutgers Scarlet Knights||52||23-21|
It seems like the Kevin Wilson plan is just this close to starting to really work, and now Indiana is positioning itself in a fun spot.
Welcome to Indiana - the team no one really wants to face.
There are two ways to look at the Hoosiers and what they do. On the one side, if you can figure out how to get the IU offense off the field right away - like Wisconsin did in the 51-3 blasting - there's a chance to come up with a nice and easy win. The warp speed, up-tempo style that tries to move things a million miles per hour also can go three-and-out in a hiccup. On the other side, if you're not fully prepared for it - like Penn State and Michigan - you could have a slew of big problems.
It's almost like trying to face a curveball like Georgia Tech or a Navy - it's a different sort of offensive style that defenses have to focus on, and considering the typical college football work week, there are basically two practices to try to simulate exactly what the Hoosiers do. The talent level still isn't there like it is at Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan, but if the offense works, it can be an equalizer.
But Wilson is trying to make Indiana into more than just a gimmick. He came in and said from the start that the skill level and talent weren't up to snuff, and while recruiting to Bloomington isn't necessarily easy, he's doing a decent job of getting the right players to fit what he needs to do. He's trying to get fast on offense, fast on defense, and make everything move. Now in his fourth year, he appears to have just enough experience in place to start coming up with a few more big boy wins.
Eight starters are back on the nation's ninth-ranked offense, and if you think that going 5-7 with a big-time offense might not be scary and might not be a big deal, look at what Baylor has been able to do once it figured out how to play a little bit of defense. There's a chance that IU goes BU and just starts to flash mob points on the board. Go get a hot dog, come back to your seat, and it might be 21-0 Hoosiers. Now that the experience and timing and talent are all starting to come together in one shot, this really might work.
And then there's the defense. Baylor didn't play D for years, but it was still able to rise up and become a player in the Big 12. Once the D came around, then the team became conference title-good - Indiana isn't there quite yet. However, there's a new defensive coordinator, a new style, and ten returning starters to hope for an improvement after finishing 120th in the nation in total defense.
Wilson is trying to do more, and he's trying to make Indiana into a football school, but two more wins and a 7-5 record would be fantastic. And along the way, upsetting the pecking order in the new Big Ten East might be fun, too.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Indiana Hoosiers
|1||Indiana State Sycamores||95||47-7|
|3||@Bowling Green Falcons||35||24-28|
|6||North Texas Mean Green||51||25-24|
|8||Michigan State Spartans||21||18-28|
|11||Penn State Nittany Lions||43||23-25|
|12||@Rutgers Scarlet Knights||64||27-22|
|13||@Ohio State Buckeyes||26||20-28|
To be kind, the Rutgers athletic department could use something positive to focus on.
It's been a rough run for Scarlet Knight athletics, known more for the Mike Rice fiasco than for anything that has happened on the field or court, but with the big, giant, huge move to the Big Ten, suddenly the narrative should change. At the very least, the football program has a chance to make a national name for itself if it's able to rise up and make some noise in the new league.
The fit seemed like a natural one ever since Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany started throwing out the idea of expansion and realignment. The Big Ten has a network it wants to sell advertising for, Rutgers has one of the few programs that has anything to do with the New York City market, and from academics to school size to alumni base, it all works out from a business perspective for the league, and it obviously ups the football profile in a huge way for Rutgers.
Now it's up to the team to be more than just a speed bump in the nasty Big Ten East.
Flying slightly under the radar in recent years with nine-win seasons in 2011 and 2012 before a rocky 6-7 campaign last season, it took a little bit of rebuilding, but this could be a really, really deep sleeper to do big things in its inaugural year.
The run defense was a killer last season - okay, partly because everyone was having too much fun bombing away on the beleaguered secondary - and it should be dominant up front. Nine starters return to an offense that was inconsistent, but showed enough life to potentially shine on the ground with a loaded backfield to work around.
But after sputtering through the American Athletic Conference, and previously beating up on mediocre Big East teams, can Rutgers avoid the flake factor?
The Scarlet Knights lost in a wild 52-51 shootout with Fresno State to start the season, and were able to come back to beat Arkansas, but they were obliterated by Houston, Cincinnati and UCF, and lost to a horrible UConn team. Two years ago, they were strong enough to beat a good Cincinnati squad and gave a great Louisville team all if could handle, but it lost to Kent State and dropped their final three games of the season.
There aren't any real layups in the Big Ten schedule, but Rutgers won't be the automatic win that several big boys might think it'll be. It'll be head coach Kyle Flood's job to provide the right attitude, and the pieces might really be in place for this to be a fun campaign.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Rutgers Scarlet Knights
|1||@Washington State Cougars||39||23-28|
|3||Penn State Nittany Lions||33||18-24|
|5||Tulane Green Wave||50||21-20|
|8||@Ohio State Buckeyes||20||16-26|
|13||@Michigan State Spartans||24||16-24|
Is Wisconsin on the verge of doing something really, really big, or is it stuck in a bit of a rut? It might be a good rut, but can it finally become the type of program that can compete at the highest level and for really, really big things?
You can only get so far by recruiting to a type. It's fine to bring in the guys who fit your system to get to a certain level, but to break through and to win Rose Bowls, and beat a South Carolina, and deal with an Ohio State, and have a chance against an LSU, you need talent. If you don't have the top-shelf guys on both sides of the ball, there's a hard ceiling, and Bucky is having a problem breaking through.
Wisconsin has been college football's lead bum slayer over the years - blasting away on teams like UMass, Tennessee Tech, Purdue, and other mediocre squads. Last season it played three teams that finished with ten wins or more, and lost all three games.
Winning two straight Big Ten championship games was obviously fantastic, but both were followed up by Rose Bowl losses. Fine, so the Badgers were totally hosed in the loss to Arizona State and had a shot against Ohio State, but the best win was BYU? Iowa? The loss to South Carolina was the first double-digit defeat since a 34-24 loss to Michigan State in 2010 - and that was close until the very end - but it's hard to sell the program as one of the elite when so much of the success has come from fattening up on the dregs.
It's also hard to get respect among the big boys when you lose six of your last seven bowl games.
And that's what should make this season interesting. Gary Andersen had a decent first season, but the bizarre loss to Penn State to end the regular season and the loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl closed things out with a thud. With so much turnover on defense, no Jared Abbrederis at receiver, a confusing quarterback situation, and four of the top five tacklers gone, including heart-and-soul linebacker Chris Borland, there are lots and lots of question marks...
But it might not matter.
The new world of college football should be tailor-made for the Wisconsin program, needing to get it close to the pin and not necessarily be perfect. Beat LSU in the opener, and it's Game On with a favorable schedule with no Ohio State, Nebraska at home, and the toughest road game either at Iowa or Northwestern. Lose to LSU, rip through the Big Ten slate, get into the championship game, and then, with one puncher's chance win over an Ohio State or Michigan State, a 12-1 Badger team is in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Which would then beg the question - yeah, great, but is this team even any good?
That's what the LSU game is for as a tone-setter, but yeah, Wisconsin is good. The bigger question now is whether or not Andersen can make the program truly great.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Wisconsin Badgers
|2||Western Illinois Leathernecks||95||48-8|
|4||Bowling Green Falcons||61||26-20|
|5||South Florida Bulls||79||26-16|
|7||Illinois Fighting Illini||80||29-18|
|10||@Rutgers Scarlet Knights||75||25-16|
|14||Minnesota Golden Gophers||74||25-17|
What's your problem with Bo Pelini?
He's always on the hot seat, Nebraska fans are always grouchy about him for one reason or another, and it always seems like he's one bad loss away from getting canned, but this isn't 1985 anymore. The days of relying on a walk-on program, bringing in a few national recruits, and then rolling through an awful schedule before losing to Oklahoma at the end of the year are over. Considering the landscape of college football at the moment, Pelini is doing a fantastic job.
Nebraska is in a tough spot - and I don't mean Lincoln. Actually, I sort of do.
Jimbo Fisher was able to reload Florida State with recruits within a short drive from the greater Tallahassee metropolitan area. Bob Stoops had Texas to mine from when he rebuilt Oklahoma, and Nick Saban didn't have to look far to get players to bring Alabama back to glory. But the Huskers have to cast a wider net and have to work a little harder, especially considering they don't rely on a specific offensive style that requires just a few key parts to work behind the cultivated linemen.
Now, Nebraska is trying to work its way through a world with stronger recruiting on a national scale, and with a brand name that doesn't mean now what it did ten years ago considering many players on the current roster weren't alive yet when Tommy Frazier was bringing home banners.
And yet, on a relative island in terms of recruiting base, and with everyone going for the same talented players harder and smarter than ever, Pelini's ability to win nine games or more in each of his first six seasons is actually a terrific feat.
How many other coaches from BCS leagues won nine or more games in their first six years? Eight, including Steve Spurrier, Barry Switzer, Mack Brown, and Tom Osborne. Speaking of aging superpowers, you don't think Michigan fans would be a wee bit happier with six straight nine-plus win campaigns?
Last season, Nebraska lost its star starting quarterback and still finished second behind Michigan State in the Legends division - not exactly anything to get in a twist over - making it just the second time that a Pelini team hasn't won at least a share of a division title. He broke a bowl slide with a good win over a beat up Georgia team in the Gator Bowl - remember, there was a stretch during the late 1980s into the early 1990s when you couldn't have a bowl season without a Nebraska loss under Osborne - and now he comes into the 2014 season a bit more solidified on the job front and with a potentially terrific team ready to bring home yet another season with nine or more wins.
But will that be enough?
There are depth issues on the defensive front, the linebacking corps could be a bit sketchy, and the secondary was dinged a bit this offseason, but it's still a sound group with enough talent to be sound and solid.
The offense could be tremendous with one of the best groups of running backs in America and an improved line that could quietly become a major strength.
So now it'll be up to Pelini to put it all together and win the new Big Ten West and at least get to the Big Ten championship. And if he doesn't, the Husker nation will have to once again settle for a really, really good year that most programs would kill for.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Nebraska Cornhuskers
|1||Florida Atlantic Owls||78||27-17|
|2||McNeese State Cowboys||95||46-8|
|3||@Fresno State Bulldogs||71||27-19|
|4||Miami (FL) Hurricanes||63||25-20|
|5||Illinois Fighting Illini||76||28-20|
|6||@Michigan State Spartans||42||18-21|
|9||Rutgers Scarlet Knights||76||24-15|
|13||Minnesota Golden Gophers||58||22-19|
The common theme with the new Big Ten realignment is that the East is the far tougher of the two divisions - with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan as the anchors - and with Wisconsin and Nebraska the only two powers in the West.
Iowa might be able to change that this year.
Northwestern will be better, and Minnesota will be solid, but Iowa might be that lurking team that could keep hanging around, hanging around, hanging around, and then boom...it's November and there's talk of College Gameday going to Iowa City for the matchup of the 10-0 Hawkeyes vs. Wisconsin.
No, Iowa isn't one of the ten or 15 best teams in America, but it might start to look like it as the season wears on thanks to an absolutely magical schedule with no Ohio State, no Michigan State, no Michigan, and with Wisconsin and Nebraska coming to Kinnick. When your toughest road trips are Pitt and Minnesota - which is almost like an Iowa home game - you have to take advantage.
The 4-8 clunker of two years ago seems like a distant memory after the strides made last season. The loss to Northern Illinois at home to kick things off wasn't a plus - it's still just a MAC team - but the other losses came to Michigan State, at Ohio State, Wisconsin, and in the bowl game against LSU. That's not that bad, and other than the loss to the Badgers, the Hawkeyes battled well in defeat. Throw in the nice run at the end of the year with the overtime win over Northwestern, the dominant victory over Nebraska, and the win over Michigan thrown into the mix, and all of a sudden, this is a good-looking team coming into the year on a roll.
But can Iowa play, or will this be a case of good team/great schedule? Yeah, put Iowa in the SEC West and the results wouldn't be pretty, but this year, in the Big Ten West, Kirk Ferentz has the type of team that could end up in Indianapolis for a 13th game.
The passing game that was non-existent at times in the 2012 disaster started to ramp things up last season, and now QB Jake Rudock knows what he's doing and the receiving corps that was such a big, dull dud two years ago now looks like a strength.
The running backs are hardly scary, but Mark Weisman is a good veteran working behind a terrific line anchored by likely all-stars Brandon Scherff at tackle, center Austin Blythe and guard Jordan Walsh.
The defense loses all three fantastic linebackers, but the line should be a rock at times and the secondary has upside. The linebackers should figure it out quickly, and by the time they really need to know what they're doing, they should be ready for late November against Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Can this be another version of the 2009, Orange Bowl-winning team? Ferentz has made big things happen before when no one was expecting it, and this year, with this slate, watch out.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Iowa Hawkeyes
|2||Ball State Cardinals||60||25-21|
|3||Iowa State Cyclones||70||23-17|
|11||@Minnesota Golden Gophers||57||22-19|
|12||@Illinois Fighting Illini||67||26-20|
What the hell was that?
Coming off a brilliant 10-3 season, Northwestern started out 4-0, and while it was a bit shaky, it was still on a roll having won seven in a row going back to the end of 2012. Everyone got jacked, College Gameday rolled into town, and the Wildcats had Ohio State in trouble late, but stalled and ended up losing 40-30 - with the final score looking worse than the game thanks to a fluky late touchdown.
Little did anyone know that the season ended on October 5th.
It's not like Northwestern was supposed to take a step back or letdown after the Ohio State loss - on the contrary, the team battled hard and gave the more talented Buckeyes all they could handle. But what followed was a bizarre string of losses in just about every way imaginable. It was as if Northwestern spent 2012 figuring out ways to win, and then balanced it out last year by inventing new ways to lose.
It's not like crushing defeats were anything totally new to the Wildcats - they had both Michigan and Nebraska dead in 2012, only to lose late on painful huge plays - but 2013 was something different.
Want to lose in a brutal slugfest? Ohio State 40-30.
Want to lose by not showing up the following week in a letdown alert game against a team looking to make a statement? Wisconsin 35-6.
Want to lose by doing everything right but hang on to the ball? Minnesota 20-17.
How about losing in overtime - Iowa 17-10 - or on a Hail Mary - Nebraska 27-24 - or on a miraculous late drive and three overtimes - Michigan 27-19 - or by just losing the will to live against the best team in the Big Ten - Michigan State 30-6?
To try to look on the bright side, it really did take a few crazy plays for the season to go into the tank, and while you are what your record is, 5-7 could've very, very easily have been at least 8-4. That's Northwestern football, though - it's just never going to have the talent to not get by on full effort and a few breaks here and there.
Even if last season was a humbling experience at a time when it seemed like the program was just about to take off, it's not time to assume that it's back to the days of good old reliable, homecoming game Northwestern.
If the program and the school can overcome what's sure to be a season-long distraction with the unionization movement likely to reload, there's enough talent returning on both sides of the ball to get right back into the hunt for really big things. 18 starters return, and with no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule, it really might be possible to prove that 2013 was just an aberration.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Northwestern Wildcats
|1||California Golden Bears||66||26-22|
|2||Northern Illinois Huskies||51||24-22|
|4||Western Illinois Leathernecks||95||41-9|
|5||@Penn State Nittany Lions||36||18-23|
|7||@Minnesota Golden Gophers||50||23-22|
|12||@Notre Dame Fighting Irish||29||18-25|
|14||Illinois Fighting Illini||60||26-23|
Doing a great job of getting through the adversity and the health concerns surrounding head coach Jerry Kill, Minnesota is going full steam ahead.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys did one of the best coaching jobs in the country last season, stepping in for Kill, who took a leave of absence as he tried to get his epilepsy under control, but this is still Kill's team and this is Kill's program. He turned Southern Illinois into a winner in his third season, he took Northern Illinois to the MAC title game in his third season at the helm, and last year, in his third year, Minnesota came up with its first winning season since 2008.
But this is really Kill's third full season overall in Minneapolis, with Claeys handling things during the toughest part of the campaign, and now the program appears to be in the right spot with the right parts and the right attitude.
The Gophers' 4-0 start was quickly wiped away with Big Ten losses to Iowa and Michigan. Both were ugly, both saw the offense go nowhere, and both failed to provide any real hope that things were about to change. Claeys was thrown into the fire in a key game at Northwestern, and everyone responded.
No one would've said boo if the season went into the tank, but instead, Minnesota won four straight games, got to eight wins for the first time since going 10-3 in 2003, and turned out to take the step forward everyone was looking for.
They started to play as if they had nothing to lose. Northwestern badly outplayed them, but key plays, takeaways, and capitalizing on breaks led the way to the win - they found a way to get it done.
A shockingly dominant win over Nebraska the next week was the really, really big victory Minnesota had been looking for since Kill took over, and it showed that yeah, the potential is there to be more than just an also-ran. This year's team also has the potential to come up with the big performances on a regular basis. With so many good returning veterans, it's time to build off of everything accomplished in 2012 and do even more.
At his previous stops, Kill won with a bruising, efficient running game and a defense that found its way into the backfield on a regular basis. Claeys will handle the defensive side, but the offense could quietly be a big-time threat with a terrific line paving the way for a deep group of backs and a quarterback in Mitch Leidner who appears ready to become a star.
They're in the easier of the two new Big Ten divisions, but it'll be tough to make too much of a dent with road games at Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska and getting Ohio State at home. But this might be the type of team that can rise up and pull off a big upset or three just by doing what it does best.
If this group could adapt and thrive without its head coach, just wait and see what it might do now that he's settled in.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Minnesota Golden Gophers
|1||Eastern Illinois Panthers||95||46-9|
|2||Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders||62||24-21|
|3||@TCU Horned Frogs||39||20-21|
|4||San Jose State Spartans||62||27-24|
|9||@Illinois Fighting Illini||54||26-24|
|12||Ohio State Buckeyes||31||18-25|
Is it possible for an entire program to call a timeout to regroup?
Not in a Death Penalty sort of way, but maybe Illinois can just take a little break, collect its thoughts, take a deep breath, and really figure this out, because all the pieces should be there to be better at playing college football and it's just not happening.
This is the program of Red Grange and Dick Butkus, and it's a program that's tasted just enough success to appear to be on the verge of doing something big, but it's not taking any real forward-thinking steps to generate any sort of interest.
The University of Missouri is only a few hours to the left, and it's not like Gary Pinkel walked into a burgeoning powerhouse of a program. Last year the Tigers were a win away from playing for the national title.
Minnesota has a palace of a new stadium to sell to recruits - as well as a great history of its own - and Wisconsin was a total disaster until Barry Alvarez took over 25 years ago. What is Illinois selling and what's its pitch?
Northwestern has an ad campaign rolling boasting that it's Chicago's Big Ten team. Can you imagine Vanderbilt trying to claim that it's Nashville's SEC team? And why can Northwestern do this? Because it's right, and not just because of geography.
Illinois can be really, really strong, but it needs to decide 1) if Tim Beckman is the type of head coach who can punch his weight with the better coaches and teams in the Big Ten and 2) what it wants to do if and when the first question has already been answered.
There are now 14 teams in the Big Ten, and Illinois was dead last in the 2014 Scout.com Big Ten recruiting rankings. Granted, the 2013 class was solid, but the 2012 haul was awful. Unless you're Wisconsin and you recruit parts to an already established system, you can't be looking up at Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana in the recruiting world and expect to make much headway. The players aren't there, the system isn't special, and there's nothing happening to suggest that anything massive is about to change this year to create a spark. And no, spiffy new uniforms don't count.
The chance was there to get Bobby Petrino, but that's gone now. James Franklin would've been an almost perfect hire in terms of firing up the base and generating some semblance of enthusiasm in the Chicago market, but he took his talents to State College.
Where's the Illini's Kliff Kingsbury?
So now it's up to Beckman to do something magical. He has a nice coaching staff around him, 18 starters are back, and he's been on the job just long enough to know what he needs to do. Former Oklahoma State starting quarterback Wes Lunt is ready to roll, nine of the top 11 tacklers are returning, and there's a good-looking backfield that could shine with a little help from the offensive line.
But is it enough? Is just being bowl eligible what Illinois is aspiring to? The program can and should be so much more, and if Beckman is the guy to make that happen, he needs to show this year that it's possible.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Illinois Fighting Illini
|1||Youngstown State Penguins||95||45-7|
|2||Western Kentucky Hilltoppers||45||27-29|
|4||Texas State Bobcats||60||27-24|
|9||Minnesota Golden Gophers||45||24-26|
|10||@Ohio State Buckeyes||25||21-29|
|13||Penn State Nittany Lions||29||22-29|
Does Darrell Hazell have any tricks up his sleeve to turn around a nose-diving Purdue program?
It's not like the Boilermakers were scaring anyone, but they went from a bowl appearance in 2012 - granted, it ended with a 58-14 stomping from Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl - to a 1-11 season that should've and could've been winless, needing everything in the bag to beat Indiana State.
The defense was bad, the offense worse, and it wasn't as if Hazell did anything impressive to inspire confidence that he's the guy who can make Purdue football relevant in the new Big Ten West. So is this just a big rebuilding job in the hopes of a payoff that came for Kent State in 2012 under Hazell's watch, or was last year the sign of big, big problems ahead.
This is a young team, but there's experience returning with 16 starters back. Hazell's biggest issue, though, is showing that all the veterans can produce, and even more importantly, finding the right parts from the recruiting class and from the depth last year to rely on.
There's little star power to count on, and that's a problem in a Big Ten season with plenty of leaders and big names to rally around - but that just means the expectations for Purdue football are going to be that much lower. That might not be what Hazell is looking for, but at the very least, his team can sneak up on everyone.
The opportunity is there, though, to rebound and come up with a far better season, helped by a much, much easier schedule that's tailor-made for bowl eligibility, but first, Purdue has find something that works.
To be fair, outside of Indiana State and Illinois, it's not like there were any real breathers on last year's slate. Indiana wasn't that awful, and seven teams finished with nine wins or more. Throw in Iowa and Penn State - who each finished with winning records - and maybe, just maybe, everything was so bad because Purdue played better teams. That's not really the case this season with Western Michigan, Central Michigan, and Southern Illinois just a few of the winnable games.
But Boilermaker fans aren't looking just to go to a bowl - how is it possible to be competitive again in the Big Ten race? More importantly, can Hazell be the guy to do it?
He parlayed his one great season at Kent State into the next job, but it remains to be seen if he really is a rising star that Purdue was able to snag, or if he's in a bad situation and he's going to need lots and lots of time before everyone figures out whether or not this can work.
Following one of the worst seasons in Purdue football history, he had better show that things are about to change. And soon.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Purdue Boilermakers
|1||Western Michigan Broncos||62||25-20|
|2||Central Michigan Chippewas||48||24-25|
|3||@Notre Dame Fighting Irish||22||18-28|
|4||Southern Illinois Salukis||95||39-7|
|6||@Illinois Fighting Illini||44||25-26|
|7||Michigan State Spartans||20||15-26|
|8||@Minnesota Golden Gophers||35||21-25|
Jake Westrich is the Digital Content Coordinator for WhatIfSports.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.