The Big Ten conference season kicks off in full today. It’s time to predict how the teams will finish in each division.
This is an exciting year for the conference. Not because of the two new teams (I want to say Maryland and Rutabaga?), but because we are finally done with the very pompous – and incredibly unhelpful – Legends and Leaders divisions. Giving in to common sense at last, Jim Delaney has gone with simple, geographic divisions. Let’s start in the West.
- Wisconsin. I don’t necessarily think the Badgers are the best team in the division, but they do have some good talent led by RB Melvin Gordon. Most importantly, the de facto division championship game against Nebraska is in Madison. That game will likely decide who gets to go to Indianapolis.
- Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have strong candidates for Big Ten Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year (RB Ameer Abdullah and DE Randy Gregory, respectively). They have strong talent as most of the other positions, and Bo Pelini appears to be turning a corner as a coach. So why is NU not in the top spot? There are concerns about depth (the defense looked rather ordinary without Gregory), but mostly it is about Big Red’s schedule. Road games at Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa all will prove challenging.
- Iowa. Speaking of schedules, the Hawkeyes likely have the easiest path to the title. The concern with the Hawkeyes is they may not have the arsenal to match Wisconsin and Nebraska. That said, Iowa tends to be a much better team in November than they are in September.
- Minnesota. The Gophers took some big strides in 2013, including an impressive win over Nebraska and bowl appearance. The next step is to finish in the top half of the division. I don’t know if Minnesota has the pieces to do that, but they are capable of beating anybody in the division.
- Northwestern. Admittedly, the last three spots are a bit like picking the prettiest wart on a frog. I’m not sure that Northwestern is the prettiest, but I think Pat Fitzgerald is the best coach of the bottom three. That counts for something, right?
- Illinois. The Illini have not been very impressive so far in 2014, and their 3-1 record has been done largely with smoke and mirrors. Yet, they get the benefit of the doubt for not being Purdue.
- Purdue. This team was the worst of the Leaders, and I feel confident in saying that they will be the lest of the West – unless Illinois is really, really bad.
- Michigan State. The Spartans are easily the best team in the conference, and despite the loss to Oregon, they should not be ruled out of the CFB playoff – especially if they dominate the conference offensively and defensively.
- Ohio State. Truth be told, I’d really like to put Penn State here, but Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes have a stellar conference record the last few years. Until it’s proven they cannot keep winning Big Ten games, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.
- Penn State. New coach James Franklin is the rock star of the conference, and his team is playing with his confidence and swagger. QB Christian Hackenberg is developing into a top flite quarterback, but the sanctions will hurt depth over the long haul of a season.
- Rutgers. Admittedly, I know very little about the new kids on the block. But Rutgers (I want to say they are the Scarlet Pumpernickels?) has played well in their first four games, including a narrow loss to Penn State.
- Indiana. Here’s something you don’t see every day: The Hoosiers easily have the best win in the B1G non-conference season (a victory over a ranked SEC team, no less). Even if that SEC team is Mizzou, it’s still a big feather for a conference that needs all the positive praise it can get. Now, will that translate into conference success? I’d like the Hoosiers’ chances much more if they were in the West.
- Maryland. Like Rutgers, I’m not very familiar with Maryland (if only I had done that ACC power ranking last year…). Like Rutgers, Maryland has also played well in their first four games, although losing to West Virginia may be telling.
- Michigan. The good news from Michigan’s non-conference slate: they did not lose to FCS Appalachian State. The bad news: pretty much everything else. Things are going to get much worse in Ann Arbor before they get better. Big Ten fans outside of Ann Arbor should try to stifle their smiles.
Big Ten Championship: If these predictions hold to form, we’re looking at Michigan State and Wisconsin matching up in Indy. I like the Spartans to win by 17 points.
Dark horse prediction: Nebraska and Ohio State face off in an epic battle ending in a heartbreaking loss for Husker fans.