Projecting the Big Ten East
It’s a big day here at Hail Varsity headquarters as our 2014 Football Yearbook is scheduled to start shipping from the printer this week. That means it should start showing up in mailboxes and on newsstands this week. Here’s a quick video of the magazine, hot off the presses:
— Aaron Babcock (@aaron_babcock) June 2, 2014
If you want to be sure you don’t miss it, the best way to do that is to subscribe of course — the yearbook is included with your subscription — but you can also order single copies of the magazine here.
And, because we’re all in a preview state of mind at the moment, now seemed like a good time to unveil my Big Ten picks as they stand right now. For the magazine, we polled all of the Hail Varsity staff members to come up with a consensus, so what you’ll find in the magazine is different than my picks below.
Let’s get started with the East today, with the West coming tomorrow.
1. OHIO STATE — Take your pick between the Spartans and Buckeyes, really. I chose Ohio State because there’s more talent in Columbus than anywhere else in the Big Ten and, thus, a larger margin for error in a year that looks to be pretty tightly grouped at the top. The Buckeyes’ big weakness last year was a merely average pass defense. As far as weaknesses go, it’s not gigantic and the addition of Chris Ash, formerly of Wisconsin and Arkansas, as co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach is enough, in my mind, to address it.
2. MICHIGAN STATE — Don’t go writing off MSU’s defense just because it only has five starters returning. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has earned more respect than that. The Spartans will be fine on that side of the ball. The offense, which was as good as it needed to be last season after a rocky start to the year, looks like it could be a bit better in 2014 but that’s assuming the offensive line doesn’t look like it’s trying to replace three starters (which it is). Michigan State does get Ohio State at home, a valuable hole card, but I’m not sure that’s enough, even with a win there, to overtake the Buckeyes.
3. PENN STATE — The Nittany Lions are going to come out of their NCAA sanctions in two years way better than anyone projected. That much seems apparent now and, while Penn State still won’t be eligible for a bowl this season unless the NCAA changes its mind, that doesn’t mean the Lions can’t look like an upper-level bowl team in year one under James Franklin. In fact, I’m counting on a bit of the new coach bounce. Enthusiasm is running high and the Lions get both Ohio State and Michigan State at home while getting a manageable draw from the West in Northwestern and Illinois. Penn State needs some better offensive line play and is dangerously thin across the board due to the scholarship restrictions, so one or two injuries in key spots could derail the whole thing. But if this teams stays healthy I think they’ll spoil a season somewhere along the way.
4. MICHIGAN — The Wolverines problem in 2013? They couldn’t run the ball against an opponent of any substance at all after the first four weeks of the season. Michigan had 842 rushing yards in five non-conference games — including a woeful 65 in the bowl game against Kansas State — and 792 in eight conference games. That left the Wolverines hoping for big plays from wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, and he made a bunch of them, but he’s gone. Converted tight end Devin Funchess might be an apt replacement playing out at wide receiver, but I’m not convinced the concerns up front can be totally addressed in a year. Yes, the young offensive line is a year older but it’s a long climb for a team that averaged 3.52 opponent-adjusted yards per carry last season, nearly 20 percent worse than the national average.
5. INDIANA — Can the Hoosiers play some defense? It was the question last year and it’s even more pressing this year as Indiana showed that it can put up yards on most teams in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers ranked second in the conference at 6.71 opponent-adjusted yards per play last season, but gave up 6.65, which is how you end up one game short of bowl eligibility. Kevin Wilson brought in Brian Knorr, formerly the defensive coordinator at Wake Forest and the guy Frank Solich replaced at Ohio, to be his defensive coordinator and he has nine returning starters on that side of the ball. He’ll use that returning experience in a new 3-4 scheme. If that switch can generate just a few more stops per game, I think it’ll be enough to get the Hoosiers to a bowl game.
6. MARYLAND — The Terrapins are probably a better team than Indiana, but I gave the Hoosiers the edge based on one factor — this is all new to Maryland. Transitioning between conferences isn’t easy, but the Terps do have 18 starters back, including most of the major parts from an offense that, when adjusted for strength of schedule, would’ve ranked fifth in the (also adjusted) Big Ten last year at 5.74 yards per play. The key for Maryland will be stopping the run and the Terps weren’t great there in 2013. That’s a big issue in the Big Ten but if the Terps get out of non-conference play at 4-0, which they should, they’ll probably make it to bowl eligibility as well.
7. RUTGERS — The Scarlet Knights were a bowl team a year ago and seeing them at No. 7 here probably disguises their actual ability. This team isn’t bad by any means, more like average, but the schedule is absolutely brutal. Rutgers opens the season with dangerous and difficult trip to Washington State and also has to play Navy on the road three weeks later. Then the Knights get Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State all on the road in Big Ten play. And that’s all on top of switching conferences. It’s a lot for a team to handle, even one with 17 starters returning.