Football season is mercifully almost underway, and not only for the Fighting Illini. All of the Division I teams (without a BYE) will begin their seasons this weekend, and there are some especially important games for Big Ten teams.
This new weekly post, which will regularly run every Monday morning throughout the season, will serve to keep you updated on the news from around the Big Ten. Once the season gets going, there will be plenty to talk about and lots more humor. For now, we'll be focusing primarily on each team's week one match-up and a quick summary of what their year looks like.
The Hawkeyes are coming into this season with all kinds of hype, largely because of their supremely easy schedule this year. The team still has weaknesses and lost several important players on defense, but there's hope for offensive improvement in 2014 that could lead them to contention for the division title. Iowa kicks off their season against Northern Iowa this Saturday, which should be an easy win.
A conservative, yet consistent offense and a solid defense led the Gophers to a surprising eight-win season in 2013. Phillip Nelson, their leading passer last year, is gone, but the Gophers played most of their best football with Mitch Leidner under center anyway. For those seeking a player to watch from this team, senior running back David Cobb ran for over 1,000 yards last year and should repeat that effort in 2014. The Gophers will play Eastern Illinois this Thursday night.
After being the half-injured starting quarterback for the last 19 years, Taylor Martinez is officially gone from the University of Nebraska. He's really gone. He's not coming back. Really. His replacement, Tommy Armstrong Jr., started several games last year and seems like an average to slightly above average quarterback. Regardless of his play however, the Nebraska offense should remain formidable due to the explosive Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah totaled 1,690 rushing yards last season and has a good chance of eclipsing even those incredible numbers this year. Still, Nebraska's success this season seems to depend on if their defense will continue to improve in 2014. If the QB situation works out well and the defense (outside of the obviously stellar Randy Gregory) works out, then Nebraska will find themselves breaking the double-digit win barrier. Nebraska opens with a cupcake game against Florida Atlantic, this Saturday afternoon.
Northwestern is one of the harder teams in the Big Ten to analyze this year. Yes, they've had injuries and horrible luck at times, especially last year. It has cost them multiple games. At the same time, the team still doesn't have a whole lot of talent, and they just lost their two most important skill players for the entire season. The bottom line is that Northwestern will probably have a lot of close games this year-- how those shake out will determine the success of the team and whether the fan confidence in Pat Fitzgerald remains unwavering. Northwestern will begin this season with the second game of their home-and-home with Cal at Ryan Field on Saturday afternoon.
Ah, Purdue. Remember how bad Illinois was in 2012? Purdue was worse last year. 125th in rushing yards and 122nd in points scored. There's a small chance that a team comprised solely of our TCR staff would be able to finish better than last in the country in rushing yards (okay, we wouldn't). As bad as last year was, it doesn't seem like Darrell Hazell is really too bad a coach. He's gotten solid reviews from those who have seen him in action and there's some hope for the future here. This year, though? It's very likely that Purdue wins three games or fewer this year, and none in the Big Ten. For their fans' sake, hopefully they steal one game like Northwestern did last year (anyone but Illinois, please). Purdue and Western Michigan will face off at noon eastern time on Saturday.
In extremely uncharacteristic fashion, Wisconsin will play the best team of any Big Ten squad this weekend. Unfortunately, their game against LSU will stupidly be taking place at a neutral site in Houston, but it will still be a great atmosphere. Neither team has a definitive choice at starting quarterback as of yet (although Melvin Gordon did let junior Tanner McEvoy's name slip as the likely starter the other day), which means the game will be exclusively smashmouth football. Les Miles always has some weird tricks up his sleeve, and this should be a great early season test for Wisconsin before they get into the rest of their supremely easy schedule. Wisconsin and LSU are facing off on Saturday night and it will be televised on ESPN.
Indiana has a football team?
Maryland seems likely to have a pretty good team this year, but any chance they might've had of winning the Big Ten East was completely obliterated by their ridiculous schedule. They do get Ohio State and Michigan State at home, but have to take on Michigan on the road and their two crossover games are @ Wisconsin and home against Iowa. Luckily, the start of their season should be pretty simple. Maryland takes on James Madison this Saturday afternoon on the Big Ten Network.
Last year's Michigan offensive line was one of the worst in the program's history, yet still had two NFL-caliber tackles. This year, they're slated to start a true freshman at left tackle. If this line doesn't improve, it won't matter how talented Devin Gardner and their stable of young backs are-- the offense still won't be able to move the ball. Luckily, there's reason to believe that new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will be able to find success in the running game. He was successful at Alabama and has a good track record working with quarterbacks. We might just see Michigan return to nine or ten wins in 2014. They'll hilariously kick off their season against Appalachian State this Saturday.
Everything has come up roses for Michigan State since the end of their game against Notre Dame last season. They haven't lost since and began 2014 with a Rose Bowl victory over an excellent Stanford team. Though they lost plenty of men on the defensive side, DC Pat Narduzzi will probably keep them in line on that side of the ball. Michigan State's potential is sky high, but we'll find out if their offensive performance from last year is sustainable over the long term. They lead off their 2014 campaign against Jacksonville State this Friday night.
You know what we have to talk about here. With no Braxton Miller, Ohio State will be relying on redshirt freshman JT Barrett to run their offense this season. Nobody knows how Barrett will handle the mountains of pressure, but there's no doubt he'll be a significant downgrade from one of the most explosive athletes in the country. On the plus side, Ohio State has the best defensive line in the B1G, a group composed of four Mon-Stars and led by incredible sophomore DE Joey Bosa. They'll certainly be a handful this year and will help out Ohio State's questionable secondary. OSU will begin their season with a game against Navy on Saturday.
Due to most of the media's (largely deserved) gigantic crush on James Franklin, Penn State seems to have become a little overrated this year. The last thing that fans saw from this team was a huge win over Wisconsin on the road, and many are using that and their fantastic recruiting to predict a great season in 2014. Here's the problem: those recruits aren't there yet, and the depth of the team is really in question. Superhuman wide receiver Allen Robinson is gone, so a good running game and QB Christian Hackenberg will have to work harder to move the ball this year. Penn State has some potential to be very good in 2014, but a slight, slight step back from last year seems more likely. Interestingly, Penn State begins their season against a decent UCF team in Ireland (!).
Does anybody really know anything about Rutgers? Some dude named Gary Nova is the quarterback, but he's really not very good. Nova's YPA has hovered around seven for his whole career, and he throws quite a lot of interceptions, including four (4!) in one game against Louisville last season. Rutgers brought in long-time Maryland coach Ralph Freidgen this summer though, so perhaps their offense will be able to find more success this year. Rutgers opens with a challenging game at Washington State this Thursday.
In the interest of completeness, I guess I have to give you a little bit on Indiana. Their offense, which was one of the best in the Big Ten and the country last year, is probably going to be around the same level. Tre Roberson is gone, but QB Nate Sudfeld remains and should do a good job of throwing the ball around. The explosive Tevin Coleman is a running back that Illinois fans should know well, and he'll return to terrorize our defensive line yet again. Luckily, the Hoosiers defense sucks and will almost certainly continue to suck. If it doesn't though, watch out for the Hoosiers this year and next. They play Indiana State this Saturday.