Kickoff for the 2014-2015 College Football season is just weeks away and teams in the Big Ten are looking to start fresh and erase what became another season of decline for one of the top conferences in the nation. With the exception of the Rose Bowl win by the Michigan Spartans and Gator Bowl win by the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Big Ten had a poor bowl showing, going 2-5, a season ago. The regular season was not much better with seven out of the twelve teams ending conference play with records at .500 or below.
So what kind of impact and improvements will Big Ten teams bring to the table for 2014-2015?
New Look – With the new additions of Rutgers and Maryland to the Big Ten, there will be fresh meat for established conference teams to adapt to and the chance of new rivalries to be born. In addition, a new set of fan bases will be exposed to good old-fashioned, hard-nosed football, history, and tradition that teams within the conference are known for. Although the final results of these additions remain to be seen, the initial shake-up and changes should breathe new life and excitement back into the conference.
New Focus – After a disappointing end to a dominating season, early predictions have Ohio State in the driver’s seat again to lead the Big Ten for 2014. With the return of quarterback, Braxton Miller for his senior season, the Buckeyes are poised to start where they left off and play with a chip on their shoulder. Although, Ohio State has had some key losses on offense for 2014, such as running back Carlos Hyde and Corey Brown, veteran receiver targets Evan Spencer and Devon Smith will be back in action, keeping production, speed, and skill alive for the Scarlet and Gray. And, with little changes on defense, Ohio State is poised to be a dominating force in the conference.
New Rivalry – In a key Big Ten Championship win over the Buckeyes, Michigan State proved they were on the rise and in position to start a new rivalry. Even though one of the greatest rivalries in all of college football is between Ohio State and Michigan, the dominance of the Ohio State over Michigan over the past decade has stalled some of the excitement that surrounds that rivalry. The Spartans exposed many weaknesses of the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship game, completely dominating in the win. The win cost the Buckeyes an opportunity to make a National Championship run. The Spartans have a good chance at defending their conference title in 2014. Although they have lost key players on defense, most of their roster is intact, including returning quarterback Connor Cook, whose mobility and arm strength will be key to making a run at the Big Ten Championship again.
New Challenges – Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Indiana all have unique challenges to overcome in the upcoming season. Wisconsin will have the greatest barrier as they only have 8 starters returning this season. They will be reloading on both sides of the ball. Although they have incoming talent with speed, particularly on defense, the learning curve of the team gelling together could be a concern. However, their schedule works in their favor and should make for an easier transition.
As for Michigan, Penn State, and Indiana, these teams will be adjusting to a coaching change in one form or another. For Michigan, a new offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, has been brought in to fix the offense, particularly with the offensive line and running game. Penn State will be adjusting to a new Head Coach, James Franklin. Franklin will have a stabilized and solid roster to work with; however will have to navigate the NCAA sanctions that are still in place. Getting the most out of the roster he inherited will be the key. Indiana has brought in a new defensive coordinator, Brian Knorr. Indiana will need to improve greatly on defense after last season’s performance. They will also need to overcome their schedule as it is one of the toughest in the conference.
New Possibilities – Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Northwestern all can carry over the momentum of their successful improvements of the season before. Because these teams all have returning talent, major overhauls to their rosters won’t be needed. All teams will have a more competitive effort within the conference and create a healthy balance of competition in the conference. Minnesota and Northwestern, in particular, have the opportunity to add to the win column and better the 3-5 conference records from last season by utilizing their running game. The Golden Gophers and Wildcats both have returning 1,000 yard running backs in Venric Mack (NW) and David Cobb (MIN). Using the running game as an anchor for their offenses will be key.
New Hope – Illinois and Purdue have a lot in common. Both struggled on both sides of the ball and had abysmal records in 2013. Overcoming the woes of 2013, the Illini and Boilermakers will need to capitalize on every success to gain the momentum and build the confidence that is needed to consistently win. One of the positives from 2013 that can be carried over to the 2014 season from both teams is the success of the special teams. Purdue’s return game and Illinois punting game will be their strength. Capitalizing on these strengths can mean the difference in setting the tone on defense or putting the offense in best position to win.
If anything, the Big Ten is making strides to return to the elite conference that they were once known for. The pieces are there for teams to continue their rise and winning consistently again. The Big Ten will be the conference to watch in 2014.