2014 Scout Big Ten Football Preview

Shilique Calhoun

A snapshot preview of the Big Ten, where the conference just got very interesting...

The Big Ten continues to get bigger, but is it better? For the second time in four seasons, the nation’s oldest football conference has expanded its brand. But while bringing in Nebraska before 2010 was widely viewed as a huge addition to the on-field product, the addition of Maryland and Rutgers can described purely as a money move to get the Big Ten’s lucrative television market into the big East Coast markets.

While the two new schools have only played in a combined one BCS bowl game in their respective histories, the addition of the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins certainly altered the landscape of the conference.

The Big Ten’s 14 teams now reside in two seven-team divisions split geographically, and the power without question resides in the East with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, schools that have each won a BCS bowl game in the last four seasons, including Michigan State winning the Rose Bowl last season. All three will be considered among the division’s favorites, making the transition of Maryland and Rutgers into the league – while also dealing with Indiana’s high-tempo offense and Penn State in the East – a bruising one.

The West Division has plenty to boast about as well. Wisconsin has won three of the last four Big Ten championships, Nebraska has won at least nine games in all six of Bo Pelini’s seasons, Iowa seems on the path to regaining its former glory and Minnesota and Northwestern are trying to take the next step in program growth. The competition in the West makes the rebuilding projects at Illinois and Purdue even more challenging.

OFFENSIVE MVP
RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin – With Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller’s shoulder injury knocking him out until 2015, Gordon likely becomes the face of the conference and the league’s best hope for a Heisman Trophy finalist. Gordon enters 2014 as the nation’s active career leader in rushing average at 8.1 yards per carry, and his 1,609 rushing yards last season ranks No. 2 among returning players. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah (1,690) is the nation’s top returning rusher.

DEFENSIVE MVP
DE Randy Gregory, Nebraska –
There might not be a better NFL prospect in the Big Ten than Gregory, who had 66 tackles with 10.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and 18 quarterback hurries last season. A junior college transfer last season, Gregory was raw, but showed an ability to get to quarterbacks. Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini feels Gregory’s ceiling is extremely high, and says his game grew a lot in the spring.

BREAKOUT PLAYER
QB Wes Lunt, Illinois –
Expected to be the starting quarterback for the Illini this season, the former Oklahoma State quarterback has the tools and the skills to be the catalyst for a big offensive year. He’s too good not to start, as he’s a prototypical signal-caller with a big arm and the look of a future professional.

COACH ON THE HOT SEAT
Tim Beckman, Illinois –
With a 6-18 overall record (including a 1-15 mark in the conference), this is a make-or-break year for Beckman. Get the Illini to a bowl game, and he should get another season in Champaign. Win five games or fewer and he’ll likely be headed for the unemployment line.

SLEEPER TEAM
Iowa –
It’s been four years since Iowa won a bowl game and five years since the Hawkeyes posted a double-digit win total, causing some civil unrest in Iowa City toward long-tenured coach Kirk Ferentz. This season looks promising, as the Hawkeyes return 13 starters (eight on offense, five on defense), avoid playing Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State, and get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home.

MUST-SEE NON-CONFERENCE GAME
Michigan State at Oregon, Sept.6 –
Pairing two teams that should be in the preseason top 10, this matchup will feature the Spartans’ fierce defense against Oregon’s high-tempo offense. After beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl, this is another chance for Michigan State to show it truly belongs in the national elite.

IMPACT RECRUIT
WR George Rushing, Wisconsin –The Badgers need wide receivers after losing go-to target Jared Abbrederis to the NFL, and Rushing has the biggest hype of the Badgers’ three incoming wide receivers. A one-time Louisville commit, Rushing recorded 49 receptions for 670 yards and 18 touchdowns despite playing with two other teammates that also accepted FBS scholarship offers. He could provide an immediate big-play threat for Wisconsin.

BEST TAILGATING
Wisconsin –
The Badgers’ students are known for their rendition of “Jump Around,” but the pregame party gets just as much attention. The sweet smell of brats, steaks or whatever on the grill permeates the air at sunrise, and the frothy beverages aren’t too far behind. Tailgating is taken so seriously that they once changed state law to have liquor sales begin at 6 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. on game days.

BOLD PREDICTION
Michigan State wins the Big Ten. Not only do the Spartans return a lot of key pieces from last year’s championship roster, the schedule sets up beautifully for State: they host Ohio State and Michigan, and get a pair of friendly crossover games (hosting Nebraska and traveling to Purdue).

HEISMAN CANDIDATES
1. RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
2. RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
3. QB Connor Cook, Michigan State
4. QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State

TOP QUARTERBACKS
1. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
2. Connor Cook, Michigan State
3. Devin Gardner, Michigan
4. C. J. Brown, Maryland
5. Joel Stave, Wisconsin

TOP SKILL-POSITION PLAYERS
1. RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
2. RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
3. WR Shane Wynn, Indiana
4. WR Stefon Diggs, Maryland
5. WR Kenny Bell, Nebraska

TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYERS
1. DE Randy Gregory, Nebraska
2. DE Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
3. DE Joey Bosa, Ohio State
4. DB Blake Countess, Michigan
5. DB Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State

BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL
1. OL Erik Magnuson, Michigan
2. DB Darrian Hicks, Michigan State
3. LB Derek Landisch, Wisconsin
4. LB Darron Lee, Ohio State
5. DL Cameron Botticelli, Minnesota

BREAKOUT PLAYERS
1. QB Wes Lunt, Illinois
2. QB Jake Rudock, Iowa
3. CB Tre Waynes, Michigan State
4. QB Nate Sudfeld, Indiana
5. WR Kenzel Doe, Wisconsin

BEST HEAD COACH

1. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
3. Bo Pelini, Nebraska
4. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
5. Gary Andersen, Wisconsin

TOP CONFERENCE GAMES
1. Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 8
2. Wisconsin at Iowa, Nov. 22
3. Michigan at Michigan State, Oct. 25
4. Nebraska at Iowa, Nov. 28
5. Nebraska at Wisconsin, Nov. 15

TOP NON-CONFERENCE GAMES
1. Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6
2. Wisconsin vs. LSU (at Houston), Aug. 30
3. Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 6
4. Miami at Nebraska, Sept. 20
5. Virginia Tech at Ohio State, Sept. 6

2014 RECRUITING CLASS RANKINGS
1. Ohio State
2. Michigan State
3. Penn State
4. Michigan
5. Wisconsin

E1. Michigan State
By Mike Wilson, SpartanDigest.com
Offensive MVP: QB Connor Cook
Defensive MVP: DE Shilique Calhoun
Top NFL Prospect: DE Shilique Calhoun
Breakout Player: CB Trae Waynes
Fan Favorite: C Travis Jackson
Top 2014 Signee: DL Malik McDowell
Impact Freshman: DL Craig Evans
Must Win Game: Ohio State
Biggest Game of the Year: Vs. Oregon
Best Road Trip: @Oregon
Best Local College Sports Bar: Crunchy’s
Best Tailgating Spot: Wilson Tennis Courts
Outlook: Michigan State has a strong nucleus returning, but has to place some solid defensive starters to maintain levels reached in 2013.
Season Prediction: 10-2, Capital One Bowl

E2. Ohio State
By Jeff Svoboda, BuckeyeSports.com
Offensive MVP: RB Ezekiel Elliott
Defensive MVP: DL Michael Bennett
Top NFL Prospect: DL Joey Bosa
Breakout Player: LB Joshua Perry
Fan Favorite: WR Dontre Wilson
Top 2014 Signee: LB Raekwon McMilan
Impact Freshman: RB Curtis Samuel
Must Win Game: Michigan State
Biggest Game of the Year: Vs. Michigan
Best Road Trip: @Penn State
Best Local College Sports Bar: Varsity Club
Best Tailgating Spot: North Stadium Lots
Outlook: A young team got even younger when Braxton Miller went out, but a bunch of raw talent and a what should be a much improved defense will keep the Buckeyes in contention.
Season Prediction: 9-3, Capital One Bowl

E3. Michigan
By Tom Beaver, GoBlueWolverine.com
Offensive MVP: QB Devin Gardner
Defensive MVP: LB Jake Ryan
Top NFL Prospect: QB Devin Gardner
Breakout Player: RB DeVeon Smith
Fan Favorite: LB Jake Ryan
Top 2014 Signee: DB Jabrill Peppers
Impact Freshman: DB Jabrill Peppers
Must Win Game: MSU
Biggest Game of the Year: Vs. MSU
Best Road Trip: @MSU
Best Local College Sports Bar: N/A
Best Tailgating Spot: N/A
Outlook: Three tough road games - ND, MSU, OSU - face a talented and veteran team. Can U-M meet the challenge?
Season Prediction: 9-3, Capital One Bowl

E4. Penn State
By Mark Brennan, FightOnState.com
Offensive MVP: QB Christian Hackenberg
Defensive MVP: LB Mike Hull
Top NFL Prospect: OT Donovan Smith
Breakout Player: WR Geno Lewis
Fan Favorite: QB Christian Hackenberg
Top 2014 Signee: TE Mike Gesicki
Impact Freshman: WR DeAndre Thompkins
Must Win Game: Northwestern
Biggest Game of the Year: Vs. Ohio State
Best Road Trip: @Michigan
Best Local College Sports Bar: Damon’s
Best Tailgating Spot: Behind the press box
Outlook: NCAA scholarship sanctions will really start to sting this year. But the schedule is relatively manageable, even for a depleted roster.
Season Prediction: 7-5

E5. Maryland
By Rachel Klein, TerrapinTimes.com
Offensive MVP: QB C.J. Brown
Defensive MVP: DB Sean Davis
Top NFL Prospect: WR Stefon Diggs or WR Deon Long
Breakout Player: CB Will Likely or ATH Taivon Jacobs
Fan Favorite: WR Stefon Diggs
Top 2014 Signee: OL Damian Prince
Impact Freshman: OT Derwin Gray
Must Win Game: Rutgers
Biggest Game of the Year: Vs. Penn State
Best Road Trip: @Michigan
Best Local College Sports Bar: Bentley’s
Best Tailgating Spot: Lot 1
Outlook: Maryland should be able to pick up a few wins early in their schedule, but the Terps will likely struggle significantly in their inaugural Big Ten season.
Season Prediction: 7-5, Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

E6. Indiana
By Terry Hutchens, AllHoosiers.com
Offensive MVP: Nate Sudfeld, QB
Defensive MVP: T.J. Simmons, LB
Top NFL Prospect: Shane Wynn, WR
Breakout Player: Tevin Coleman RB
Fan Favorite: Shane Wynn
Top 2014 Signee: Dominique Booth, WR
Impact Freshman: Nile Sykes, OLB
Must Win Game: Sept. 27, Maryland
Biggest Game of the Year: Sept. 20, at Missouri
Best Road Trip: Nov. 1, at Michigan
Best Local College Sports Bar: Nicks English Hut, Bloomington, Ind.
Best Tailgating Spot: Memorial Stadium lot
Outlook: Indiana has plenty of offensive weapons again led by QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman and WR Shane Wynn. The big question is how much of an immediate impact can new DC Brian Knorr bring with his 3-4 defensive scheme.
Season Prediction: 6-6, Texas Bowl

E7. Rutgers
By Sam Helman, ScarletReport.com
Offensive MVP: WR Leonte Carroo
Defensive MVP: OLB Steve Longa
Top NFL Prospect: OG Kaleb Johnson
Breakout Player: WR Janarion Grant
Fan Favorite: DT Darius Hamilton
Top 2014 Signee: OLB Sidney Gopre
Impact Freshman: RB Josh Hicks
Must Win Game: vs Penn State
Biggest Game of the Year: vs Penn State
Best Road Trip: @Ohio State
Best Local College Sports Bar: The Olive Branch
Best Tailgating Spot: he Scarlet Lot
Outlook: Rutgers needs to make its first year in the Big Ten count. The eyes are on coach Kyle Flood in his third year, and he needs a big one to restore momentum.
2014 Prediction: 5-7

W1. Wisconsin
By Ben Worgull, BadgerNation.com
Offensive MVP: RB Melvin Gordon
Defensive MVP: S Michael Caputo
Top NFL Prospect: RB Melvin Gordon
Breakout Player: LB Derek Landisch
Fan Favorite: RB Melvin Gordon
Top 2014 Signee: OL Jaden Gault
Impact Freshman: WR George Rushing
Must Win Game: Iowa
Biggest Game of the Year: Vs. LSU
Best Road Trip: @Ohio State, @Houston for LSU
Best Local College Sports Bar: Nitty Gritty
Best Tailgating Spot: Lathrop Street west of the stadium
Outlook: With no Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State or Penn State on the schedule, Wisconsin has a manageable road to the division title.
Season Prediction: 10-3, Capital One Bowl

W2. Iowa
By Rob Howe, HawkeyeInsider.com
Offensive MVP: LT Brandon Scherff
Defensive MVP: DT Carl Davis
Top NFL Prospect: LT Brandon Scherff
Breakout Player: WR Tevaun Smith
Fan Favorite: LT Brandon Scherff
Top 2014 Signee: RB Markel Smith
Impact Freshman: S Miles Taylor
Must Win Game: Northwestern
Biggest Game of the Year: Vs. Wisconsin
Best Road Trip: @Maryland
Best Local College Sports Bar: Sports Column
Best Tailgating Spot: Melrose Avenue
Outlook: A favorable schedule makes Iowa a solid pick to compete for the Big Ten West Division Title. Returners at QB and on both lines a plus. Hawkeyes must replace three all-Big Ten linebackers and figure out punter and kicker.
Season Prediction: 8-4, Gator Bowl

W3. Nebraska
By Josh Harvey, BigRedReport.com
Offensive MVP: RB Ameer Abdullah
Defensive MVP: DE Randy Gregory
Top NFL Prospect: DE Randy Gregory
Breakout Player: DT Maliek Collins
Fan Favorite: RB Ameer Abdullah
Top 2014 Signee: OG Tanner Farmer
Impact Freshman: WR/KR Demornay Pierson-El
Must Win Game: Wisconsin
Biggest Game of the Year: Vs. Michigan State
Best Road Trip: @Wisconsin
Best Local College Sports Bar: McKinney’s Irish Pub
Best Tailgating Spot: Blur Parties-The Tailgate
Outlook: The Huskers will have a chance to contend for a Big Ten title, but will have two tough road contests against Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Season Prediction: 10-2, Capital One Bowl

W4. Northwestern
By Nicholas Medline, PurpleWildcats.com
Offensive MVP: RB Venric Mark
Defensive MVP: DE Dean Lowry
Top NFL Prospect: S Ibraheim Campbell
Breakout Player: LB Drew Smith
Fan Favorite: LB Collin Ellis
Top 2014 Signee: RB Justin Jackson
Impact Freshman: K/P Hunter Niswander
Must Win Game: Nebraska
Biggest Game of the Year: Vs. Michigan
Best Road Trip: @Notre Dame
Best Local College Sports Bar: Bat 17
Best Tailgating Spot: Nowhere
Outlook: Northwestern has the talent to regroup after its 5-7 record last year.
Season Prediction: 7-5, Hear of Dallas Bowl

W5. Minnesota
By Brice Marich, GopherDigest.com
Offensive MVP: RB David Cobb
Defensive MVP: DE Theiren Cockran
Top NFL Prospect: RB David Cobb
Breakout Player: TE Maxx Williams
Fan Favorite: QB Mitch Leidner
Top 2014 Signee: RB Jeffrey Jones
Impact Freshman: WR Melvin Holland
Must Win Game: Illinois
Biggest Game of the Year: Vs. Iowa
Best Road Trip: @Wisconsin
Best Local College Sports Bar: Mac’s Industrial Sports Bar
Best Tailgating Spot: Tailgate Sport Café
Outlook: Minnesota is looking to build off their magical season last year with their stout defense and their physical running attack, but has a tough schedule.
Season Prediction: 7-5, Texas Bowl

W6. Illinois
By Fletcher Page, IlliniPlaybook.com
Offensive MVP: RB Josh Ferguson
Defensive MVP: LB TJ Neal
Top NFL Prospect: QB Wes Lunt
Breakout Player: DE/LB DJ Smoot
Fan Favorite: LB Mason Monheim
Top 2014 Signee: DL Jihad Ward
Impact Freshman: WR Mike Dudek
Must Win Game: Minnesota
Biggest Game of the Year: Vs. Northwestern
Best Road Trip: @Ohio State
Best Local College Sports Bar: Esquire
Best Tailgating Spot: Near Green Street
Outlook: The offense should put up points with playmakers like Josh Ferguson and big-armed QB Wes Lunt. Defense has struggled for two seasons and needs to improve significantly. Special teams should be above average, with return V’Angelo Bentley as explosive as there is in the Big Ten.
Season Prediction: 5-7

W7. Purdue
By Terry Hutchens, BoilerSportsReport.com
Offensive MVP: Akeem Hunt, RB
Defensive MVP: Ryan Russell, DE
Top NFL Prospect: Ryan Russell, DE
Breakout Player: Danny Anthrop, WR
Fan Favorite: Landon Feichter
Top 2014 Signee: Gelen Robinson, LB
Impact Freshman: Gelen Robinson, LB
Must Win Game: Sept. 6, Central Michigan
Biggest Game of the Year: Sept. 13, Notre Dame
Best Road Trip: Nov. 1, Nebraska
Best Local College Sports Bar: Harry’s Chocolate Shop
Best Tailgating Spot: Slater Center Hill
Outlook: For Purdue to have a chance to have a more positive season than last year’s 1-11 mark, the Boilers need to go 3-1 in the non-conference season. Other than that Purdue needs a breakout year from Akeem Hunt and Danny Anthrop, and steady play from QB Danny Etling.
2014 Prediction: 4-8, No bowl game

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