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Thursday Morning Brews (11/13/14)

Looking ahead to 2015, Pt. 2.

Ezekiel Elliott
Ezekiel Elliott
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

2015 Big Ten Division Rankings

Yes, it's way too early for anything like this. But after watching Devin throw an ill-advised pass to Devin for the umpteenth time in 2014, I've found that I don't care.

Big Ten East

T-1. Michigan State Spartans

The Big Ten belongs to the Buckeyes for the moment, and they also have young talent in their offense to build on whatever success they have this year. But the Spartans have some great up-and-coming stars on defense, and their offense should also carry over into next year. Good luck picking between them and the Buckeyes.

T-1. Ohio State Buckeyes

The Buckeyes will lose Michael Bennett and Steve Miller from their defensive line, and also pass-catchers Jeff Heuerman and Devin Smith. This means there are some possible holes to exploit opening up, but with the collection of assistant coaches that Urban Meyer has, something tells me those weaknesses won't be open for very long.

3. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

The 2014 season was expected to be rough, perhaps humiliating for what is obviously a proud fan base, and highlighted by plenty of 70-yard runs through the middle of their small defensive line. That never happened. But 2014 was only the encore, as Coach Flood and Ralph Friedgen add a near-five-star quarterback to their active roster in Hayden Rettig. Their defensive line has proved stout and, more importantly, disruptive. And they will be returning much of their talent: Paul James, Leonte Carroo, TE Tyler Kroft, DE Darius Hamilton, LB Steve Longa, and CB Nadir Barnwell. The Scarlet Knights surprised many in '14, but they may actually just be getting warmed up.

4. Michigan Wolverines

A little optimistic? No one knows who will coach the Wolverines in 2015, but the level of talent is ripe for a comeback season. But there are still a lot of neuroses to work out. Rarely do programs get in a state like this, where fans are sick of players and coaches, coaches are losing control of their players and getting catty with reporters, athletic directors are throwing their coaches under the bus and players are just short of giving up on the field. So, yes, perhaps a little optimistic, but the tools are still there for success.

5. Penn State Nittany Lions

The Lions' offensive line has been a disaster, and there are no miracle cures for it, either. Fortunately for James Franklin, there is about to be a serious athleticism upgrade, and that tends to solve a couple problems. There's a growing number of great-looking receivers, and plenty of other weapons on both sides of the ball headed to Happy Valley - everything from a top-10 corner, to two four-star running backs, to five blue-chip linemen, two of them defensive ends.

The receivers, though, still hold the most potential to become a legitimate nightmare for the Big Ten. Baylor's gotten a lot of mileage out of flooding the field with receivers who can beat defenders deep, which opens up 10-yard underneath routes because of the cushion they force. Penn State may develop that as well, but only once the line stops leaking.

6. Maryland Terrapins

On offense, this will be an overhaul. The production of Stefon Diggs, Deon Long, C.J. Brown (about 50% of UM's total offense), and four offensive linemen will have to be replaced. This makes Maryland perhaps the second-biggest question mark in the East, after the original UM.

7. Indiana Hoosiers

The good news for Indiana is that reporters aren't heaping praise on Kevin Wilson for resuscitating a moribund program into a 9-win contender, which would have made him an attractive option for other teams in a weak coaching market. And, if Tre Roberson hadn't transferred, it's very possible Indiana might have won that many. Against Maryland, Nate Sudfeld went 14/37. Versus Iowa, Sudfeld and Covington were a combined 7/21. Then there's Michigan, where Zander Diamont went 5/8 for 24 yards. In the Penn State game, Diamont was 13/27 for 68 yards. Change two of those four games around, and Bowling Green, and Indiana is sitting at 6-3 and playing third fiddle to the Spartans and Buckeyes.

But, the bad news is Indiana is still far from being a contender. Kevin Wilson will be back for another year, and he and Brian Knorr will try to revive the confidence in that young Hoosier defense. It's a tall task, perhaps even more than replacing Tevin Coleman should he enter the NFL Draft. Good luck, Hoosiers.

Big Ten West

1. Nebraska Cornhuskers

The Huskers are losing both Abdullah and Randy Gregory, two of the ten best players in the league. But there's no more questioning Pelini, who has led his team to at least 9 wins in every single year.

The Huskers passing attack could be explosive, with Tommy Armstrong showing flashes of great quarterbacking and a stockpile developing of athletic wide receivers. There is also the Huskers defense, which has been one of the nation's best: 16th in scoring defense, 19th in rushing defense, 2nd in passing efficiency defense. Bo Pelini doesn't recruit like a madman, but he knows how to win with what he has.

2. Minnesota Gophers

This hasn't been brought up often, but the Gophers are largely a young team that's been blossoming under Kill. They will lose Cobb this off-season, but next year, they have Berkley Edwards and Jeff Jones. They've already shown they can replace talents like Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, and it's possible there are more budding NFL talents in that workpail defense.

3. Wisconsin Badgers

It's hard not to look at this year's Badgers team and see an opportunity missed. They played an LSU team that was vulnerable at the start of the year, and their quarterback situation has not gone well all year long. Plus, there's also that 28-24 nightmare against Illinois. Then again, this is set against a very high standard that the Badgers have earned for themselves, and it's also something that happens in a tough league - there are upsets and coaches smelling out schematic weaknesses week in and week out. It may also be a product of the youth that Andersen has turned to after losing his starting front seven from a year ago. Regardless of any inconsistencies, the Badgers will have a shot to take another step forward in 2015.

4. Northwestern Wildcats

The Cats feel like they have a lot of problems, but appearances may be deceiving. Their defense has held opponents to 22.3 points a game, good for 30th in the nation. They haven't been able to dominate the line of scrimmage consistently, but they show some brief flashes and have some young guys coming up. Their offense has been one of the worst in the country, but they do have a good foundation if they can elevate their line play a bit and get a dual-threat quarterback under center.

And, to that end, the Cats just happen to have the #6 dual-threat QB of the '14 recruiting class in Clayton Thorson waiting in the wings. Siemian is gone after this year, and Thorson could provide a spark for the next Wildcats team. There is also freshman back Justin Jackson, who will get a chance, along with guys like Ezekiel Elliott, Terrell Newby, Derrick Green, Delton Williams and Paul James, to create that next crop of strong Big Ten backs. With a stronger offense, and better line play, the Cats will be a tough out.

5. Iowa Hawkeyes

Credit to Kirk Ferentz for changing some of his schemes this year. With that said, his team has adopted a little bit of inconsistency as certain teams have found ways to exploit the Hawkeyes. What's encouraging is that the line coaching is always very good, and there seems to be an understanding that they need more speed and a modernized attack on offense. Tevaun Smith has been great for them, and one of the more underrated receivers in the conference.

On the other hand, the Hawkeyes will sustain heavy losses for the second off-season in a row. Their quarterback position hasn't blossomed much, but it wasn't that long ago that Iowa had back-to-back 3,000-yard passers (2010-11, with Ricky Stanzi and James Vandenberg). Jake Rudock is still only a junior.

6. Illinois Fighting Illini

The Illini have been helped by a pass defense (returning mostly intact next year) that's allowing 54.5% completions in Big Ten play and under 200 yards per game. They also have two budding stars on offense in Josh Ferguson (5.0 yards per carry, 9.3 yards per catch) and Wes Lunt, who produced 8.22 yards per throw and a 13/3 touchdown ratio before getting injured. On the flip side, the Illini have not been able to control the line of scrimmage. Their front seven and offensive line need a lot of work.

7. Purdue Boilermakers

Unfortunately for the Boilermakers, seniors Akeem Hunt (1,078 total yards) and Raheem Mostert (1,256 total yards) are departing. The passing attack should be improved, and the program has shown signs of a pulse after a wretched first year under Darrell Hazell. They might just have some magic in them, but it's still a long climb.

Hitting the Links Is Taking It to The House

Looking at a Position Group That's Rapidly Improved, Pt. 11

Both offensive lines played very, very well in that MSU-OSU game, and it's also true that Ezekiel Elliott has made his linemen look a little better - he has been a downright amazing player to watch on occasion. But most Ohio State fans swear by OL coach Ed Warriner, and he's proving them right again.

Around the Big Ten: Links

There were too many interesting links and storylines about all the Big Ten teams for me not to include.

Preparing for Mississippi State

Alabama welcomes Mississippi State this Saturday, but that's just the backdrop for this behind-the-scenes look at how the Alabama players felt after the overtime win over LSU.

Gophers Reach the CFP Top 25

We'll see if three Big Ten West teams are ranked by season's end.

Revisiting the Buckeyes

SB Nation takes a closer look at how the Buckeyes have turned out; this is a great read.

Ameer Abdullah Able To Practice

There were questions about whether he'd be ready for this week's showdown with Wisconsin, but there was a positive sign in him returning to the practice field.

Year of the Pac-12 Kick Return Men

One could argue this is also a side-effect of a lack of depth for special teams defenses, and the article does talk about that. Regardless, it's very effective to have a dangerous weapon at kick returner, and the Pac-12 has embraced that.

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 11

There's a theme here of backups coming in and producing at a high level.

Big 12 Playoff Tracker

There are two teams left in the Big 12 with a reasonable shot at the Playoff, and ESPN breaks down who those teams are rooting for this week.

Brad Kaaya's Turn At The Helm

Kaaya talks about his growth this season and what this week's Florida State-Miami game means to him.

FSU Delays Winston Hearing to Ensure His Eligibility

Obvious comment about how this is despicable is obvious.

Marcus Mariota Will Win the Heisman

...says SB Nation writer Andy Hutchins. That said, Andy is almost certainly right, and he also goes through some of the other front-runners and how their case looks.

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Stat of the week: Stanford's defense has been so good (4.11 yards per play), it has almost been a full yard per play better than the second-best defense in the conference, Utah (5.09).