The Big Ten is looking revived, healthy. But how healthy, exactly? There are the usual suspects at the top, and teams like Minnesota or Michigan might start knocking on the door in a hurry. Can anyone else challenge the Big Ten's upper crust? And after 10 members went bowling in 2014, can that number even go up?
Every team has ambitions, but there are only 56 wins to go around during conference season. So, for each team in the league, we tiered them into where they stand now, with the single most pressing thing they need to work on if they want to move up.
Possible Champions: Ohio State, Michigan State
With all due respect to Wisconsin, these are the only two teams that can end the year truly happy. Both of Michigan's rivals are blessed with potent offense, a defense with few holes, and coaches who turn young prospects into All-Conference players.
For Ohio State's off-season, just as it is within games, the issue is momentum. Urban Meyer is working to get all his players working as hard as they can for as long as they can, and as selflessly as they can. As long as they're doing that, he will figure out the rest. It's been a good strategy, since that vague force has somehow kept teams from honing in on Ohio State's weaknesses. Whether it's close games with Penn State, Minnesota, or Alabama, no one can quite get the job done. And Meyer is 24-0 in the Big Ten regular season because of it.
For Dantonio, the challenge is in the secondary. The offense has never been more dangerous. The front seven is biting and vicious. The safeties, even, are physical and generally athletic. But the passing game, which was so recently a No Fly Zone, is still the way through the Spartans. Arjen Colquhoun, Vayante Copeland, Jermaine Edmondson, and Darian Hicks have been in the mix at corner, with Demetrious Cox in there as well. But their play, according to Mark Dantonio, hasn't been good enough during the spring.
Possible Big Ten Champs: Wisconsin, Minnesota
This rivalry is getting hotter. Minnesota is the recipient of three primetime games on ABC or ESPN this season, and their defense is every bit as athletic as Michigan State or Ohio State. On offense, the question has been their receiver corps, but offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover isn't worried. Their ranks will be bolstered by four redshirt freshmen - Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland, Jerry Gibson, and Desmond Gant.
"I know Coach [Kill] is pretty high on them, and I can see why," he said this February. "Are they going to be complete receivers on April 11? Probably not. Are they going to be complete receivers on Sept. 1? Probably not. You’ve got to get through the growing pains with them, let them work against a darn good secondary for the next six months."
As easy as it would be to point to the receiver corps as their biggest area for concern, I'm going to go back to a position of strength: the running backs. Kill loses Donnell Kirkwood and Cobb, but he can turn to a former track star (Berkley Edwards), an emerging star (Jeff Jones), or the quiet but effective Rodrick Williams, who had 5.0 yards a carry in limited touches. David Cobb made it look easy, but can one of those three take over being a workhorse? Without fumbling or health issues? No matter if Minnesota's receivers grow a lot or not at all, this is the horsepower that makes Minnesota's engine purr.
Wisconsin, the much more established team up north, has some of the better coaches in the Big Ten, an underrated and sometimes forgotten quarterback in Joel Stave, and plenty of athleticism on defense. What they lack, though, is skill players out wide. Tanner McEvoy has played at wide receiver, but he will also be used on defense. Alex Erickson is a Drew Dileo type, and Troy Fumagalli is a young tight end who will become well-known over the next couple years - or as well-known as Wisconsin tight ends ever get.
Erickson and Fumagalli are the only ones who return with 150 yards. That's not a lot of firepower if Wisconsin wants to stretch the field.
Remaining Steel Crushers: Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska
A lot of blue-bloods waiting in the wings - proud programs of the conference, with large fan bases and realistically insane expectations, hoping to break out. Turnout was huge for all three during spring, which means that all three first- or second-year head coaches are supplying hope. Is it justified?
Nebraska is lacking at linebacker. Michigan has huge quarterback question marks. All three have worrisome offensive lines. But all of these teams also have All-American-caliber players. Does one of them jump into conference contention?
Respectable: Illinois, Rutgers, Northwestern
I'm high on Rutgers, but the Scarlet Knights haven't shown the ability to be elite in any way, like Penn State (defense) or Michigan (defense) can. Likewise, I'm high on the Illini, who have hinted that, maybe, this isn't your parents' Illini anymore. I've mentioned this before, but Illinois has not had back-to-back 10-win seasons ever in its history; is Beckman a season or two away from being viewed as a savior of the program, following the same career arc as Mark Dantonio (first three seasons at MSU: 22-17)?
If either Kyle Flood or Tim Beckman want to keep good vibes going, they will need to address the line. Rutgers ranked second-last in the conference in rushing defense, and their O-line must replace three starters. Illinois, meanwhile, played with a terrible offensive line a season ago, and a D-line with only a few bright spots. If that can be fixed, then playmakers like Leonte Carroo, T.J. Neal, Mason Monheim, and Steve Longa can make plays.
Northwestern has had similar problems: specifically, they need to address their recurring offensive line problems. If Clayton Thorson provides a spark, if Justin Jackson is as advertised, if the defense finds some teeth (and those safeties are suddenly looking pretty Michigan State-like), this is still a low-ceiling ballclub until the offensive line can hold a drive together. Perhaps that's harsh, but it's time this unit joins the Big Ten.
Cryogenically Frozen: Iowa
The last time Kirk Ferentz or Hayden Fry weren't coaching in Iowa City, gas cost 65 cents. More importantly, the last time Iowa won 9 games was six seasons ago, in 2009. Ferentz's Hawkeyes will alternatively flash a pulse, then go for long stretches without one at all. Will things change? Do the Hawkeyes have another chapter to write under Ferentz?
Searching for Respect: Maryland, Purdue, Indiana
I've been looking at Maryland as a potential free-fall candidate for a while now. They lose a lot of talent, and while they've out-recruited Rutgers, they haven't shown the same ability to build up prospects like Kemoko Turay, John Tsimis, or Tyler Kroft. For them, this season really revolves around what kind of identity they find on offense during a re-vamp off-season. Last year's C.J. Brown-led unit did not protect the defense from staying out on the field too long, and as a result, one of the Big Ten's better defenses performed like one of its worst.
Nowhere is the search for respect more salient than in West Lafayette. Advanced stats tell us Purdue is growing slowly. Even if outsiders don't believe, can the locker room come together around Darrell Hazell's message? Can they fight through a season of adversity to steal a couple wins at opportune moments? There are big problems on offense, between the ineffective quarterbacks and a power run game that might not have enough power. But at the end of the year, the way everyone will judge the season is simply if they improved, even marginally.
Indiana's other team hasn't been too hot, either. Indiana's AD, Fred Glass, seems to support Kevin Wilson, which he should. But what will Wilson produce? The offense looks rebooted, and the defense has some of the biggest, scariest linemen in the Big Ten. (Don't believe me? Say hi to Nate Hoff.) But the bottom line is the wins have to come sometime.
Hitting the Links Has Weak Spots
This is why Jabrill Peppers at safety is so important.
DeWeaver, a 2016 prospect, has pledged to start recruiting for MSU and has said he wants to win championships for the Spartans.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with going to see recruits practice and helping them hone their skills. The uproar over this has been swift and ridiculous.
If there were a list of the greatest Big Ten-related tweets of the year, Jeff Greene's mistaken identity would have to be on the list.
A good example of something like this is Wisconsin, which played Arthur Goldberg and Warren Herring (both 6'2", 290) heavy minutes at nose guard, with Chikwe Obasih (6'2", 268) often the second beefiest guy around the line. Despite the fact that offensive lines could get 'push' at the line, there was always a swarm of athletic linebackers around to force quick plays and even get into players' heads.
With that said, having 250-pound run-stoppers would be an obvious challenge. You'd have to assume that if there will be a successful spread-crushing defense that comes out of that, it would be found in a conference like the AAC, Mountain West or the Pac-12.
Of course. It's the Big Ten.
Veii was one of Maryland's better remaining skill players. Randy Edsall now has just two decent running backs: Wes Brown, who showed some speed but not much else, and Brandon Ross, who should start. It's doubtful this position isn't limited by injury at some point during a long season, which puts more onus on whoever wins the quarterback battle (Caleb Rowe?) to carry the team.
First of all, Minnesota is athletic. Second, this will be the second straight draft where Minnesota has a first-round-worthy selection. Kill has replaced Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen seamlessly, and now he'll be faced with David Cobb and Maxx Williams heading to the League. And he did it from the ground up.
If there was one coach who deserved to steal Coach of the Year from Urban Meyer, it was Jerry Kill.
Jim McElwain's first season might replicate a slow explosion, between this and his troubles at quarterback.