2014 Big Ten preview: Ohio State, Michigan State lead the way

Friday August 15th, 2014

How They'll Finish
East West
Mich. State 10-2 (7-1) Wisc. 10-2 (7-1)
Ohio State 11-1 (7-1) Nebraska 10-2 (6-2)
Penn State 9-3 (5-3) Minn. 7-5 (4-4)
Mich. 8-4 (5-3) N'western 7-5 (4-4)
Maryland 5-7 (2-6) Iowa 7-5 (4-4)
Indiana 4-8 (2-6) Illinois 4-8 (1-7)
Rutgers 3-9 (1-7) Purdue 4-8 (1-7)

Conference championship: Michigan State defeats Wisconsin

    Offensive MVP
    2013 stats: 206 carries, 1,609 rushing yards, 12 TD
    2014 projected stats: 262 carries, 1,885 rushing yards, 20 TD
    Gordon gets the nod (barely) over Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller mostly because Miller will work with an almost entirely new set of skill-position players and a rebuilt offensive line. Meanwhile, the 6-foot-1, 207-pound Gordon should benefit from four returning offensive line starters opening holes and a solid enough quarterback in Joel Stave to keep opponents honest. Wisconsin's schedule is light on formidable defenses. Heisman Trophy talk for Gordon is not out of the question.

    Defensive MVP
    2013 stats: 14 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, 1 interception, 3 TD
    2014 projected stats: 19.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 interception
    His first year as a starter resulted in enough disruption and game-changing plays to earn the 6-4, 257-pounder first-team All-Big Ten honors and a second-team All-America spot. Calhoun may not replicate the trio of turnovers returned for a score (one interception, two fumbles). Still, with talented Marcus Rush (five sacks in 2013) on the other side of the Spartans' defensive front, teams can't always slide their entire protection scheme to Calhoun. Expect the harassment in the backfield to reach another level.

    Impact Freshman
    2013 stats (high school): 57 tackles, 4 interceptions, 1,381 all-purpose yards, 19 TD
    2014 projected stats: 44 tackles, 2 interceptions, 23.4 yards per kickoff return, 10.6 yards per punt return, 4 TD
    Given the pressure to win in Ann Arbor, there won't, and shouldn't be, any hesitation to maximize Peppers' all-over-the-field ability. Fans know he'll play defense. Brady Hoke has already said he'll return kicks. If the third-rated prospect in the class of 2014, according to Rivals.com, can represent a threat out of the backfield or at receiver, don't expect the Wolverines braintrust to hesitate dispatching their prized freshman there, too.

    Coach on the Hot Seat
    Tim Beckman, Illinois
    2013 record: 4-8 (1-7 Big Ten)
    Record at Illinois: 6-18 (1-15 Big Ten)
    The Fighting Illini notched four wins in Beckman's second season (up from two in year one), but just one Big Ten triumph. That made the program a ghastly 1-15 in league play under his watch. Another no-bowl belly flop might force athletic director Mike Thomas' hand. Transfer Wes Lunt should hold down the quarterback spot, but the defense that surrendered 35.4 points and 481.5 yards per game last fall must make a leap.

    Three key nonconference games

    Wisconsin vs. LSU (in Houston), Aug. 30. (ESPN)

    The stakes are fairly immense for the Badgers, who benefit from a neutral-site matchup with the Tigers. Should Wisconsin win, the path to run the table is fairly clear until back-to-back November matchups with Nebraska and Iowa.

    HAMILTON: Wisconsin ranks No. 15 in SI's Preseason Top 25

    Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6 (FOX)

    Regardless of what happens in Eugene, a Big Ten title run might get the Spartans into the College Football Playoff anyway. But upend a national championship favorite on the road? If that were to happen, coach Mark Dantonio's team would spend the rest of the season dealing with title talk.

    Miami at Nebraska, Sept. 20 (ABC/ESPN)

    Maybe this isn't as glitzy as other matchups, but it's the Cornhuskers hosting a dangerous team on the fringe of the Top 25. Coach Bo Pelini's crew wants to go beyond its annual four-loss anticlimax. This game will test Nebraska's mettle, and it's one the program should win if it's poised to be something more than it recently has been.

    Three key conference games

    Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 25 (ABC/ESPN)

    If James Franklin and Christian Hackenberg are to whip up some magic in in State College, this is an optimal opportunity. The Nittany Lions also get Michigan State at home to end the regular season, but this is the first legitimate threat to the Buckeyes' Big Ten title hopes.

    THAMEL: Ohio State ranks No. 4 in SI's Preseason Top 25

    Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 8 (ABC)

    This, very simply, could represent a play-in game for the league championship and, by extension, a spot in the College Football Playoff. These are the two best teams in the Big Ten. The winner almost certainly would be favored in the conference title tilt. The loser might leave wondering what's left to play for.

    Nebraska at Wisconsin, Nov. 15. (TBD)

    While the Big Ten West Division is viewed as the weaker half of the league this year, the team that wins this game will have a decent shot at taking down the East champion in Indianapolis on Dec. 6. So, depending on what happens elsewhere, this could be a matchup that creates an unlikely path into the playoff. That's especially true if either squad comes in with one loss or fewer and stays that way.

    Ross D. Franklin/AP

    Five key questions

    Will Brady Hoke survive? Consider this Coach on the Hot Seat, Part II. Hoke's 11-win debut season of 2011 is buried under the disgruntlement of his 15-11 record -- including two bowl losses -- that followed. Hoke imported former Alabama coordinator Doug Nussmeier to recharge an offense that ranked 10th in the league (11th in rushing offense) and draw more consistency out of quarterback Devin Gardner. However, if Michigan continues to sputter against a schedule featuring trips to Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State? Well, there may only be one change left to make.

    Can Maryland or Rutgers make any kind of noise in the league? As contenders ... probably not so much. The Terrapins' maiden Big Ten voyage includes a six-game stretch of Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan from Oct. 4-Nov. 22. Bringing back quarterback C.J. Brown (2,818 total yards), tailback Brandon Ross and four offensive linemen at least gives them a chance. Rutgers returns 16 starters, but it's a gargantuan leap from the American Athletic Conference to this, a season that features road games at Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State.

    Will Northwestern rebound? Last year was set up for a Wildcats' breakthrough, thanks to their returning talent and favorable schedule. Then the air went out after a 40-30 home loss to Ohio State with ESPN's "College GameDay" on hand. That started a seven-game losing streak as Pat Fitzgerald's program went bowl-less for the first time since 2007. With the quarterback settled -- Trevor Siemian is the man, with no splitting snaps -- and Wisconsin and Nebraska visiting Evanston, maybe Northwestern can make a move, although things could tougher following receiver Christian Jones' knee injury and running back Venric Mark's transfer announcement.

    Can James Franklin turn Christian Hackenberg into a superstar? This might have less to do with Franklin and Hackenberg than with the wideouts and offensive line, both of which remain question marks. Still, Hackenberg passed for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions as a true freshman. He needs time and targets, but facing Ohio State and Michigan State at home will give the 6-4, 220-pounder his stage to shine.

    Will Minnesota surprise and break through? Jerry Kill has the Gophers on a slow but steady upward trajectory. He has a reliable running back in David Cobb (1,202 yards in 2013), depth on the offensive line and seven starters returning from a defense that allowed a manageable 22 points per game last fall. New quarterback Mitch Leidner is unproven, but he could have his feet under him by a raucous November that features games against Iowa and Ohio State and consecutive road trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin. Kill's crew has opportunities to escape from obscurity. Minnesota just has to seize them.

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