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Andrew Logue: Buckeyes, Badgers early favorites in Big Ten

[ 0 ] May 9, 2014 |

Everything about Big Ten football feels different, until you peek into the future.

The divisions have been re-arranged with a geographical lean. Yet, I see a couple of powerhouses maintaining a place atop the standings.

Ohio State, which has won or shared seven conference titles since 2002, will rule the East Division.

With quarterback Braxton Miller taking snaps and Urban Meyer storming the sideline, the Buckeyes are national title contenders.

If you’re looking for a potential spoiler, try defending Big Ten champion Michigan State.

“We’re now at the top, and that’s where Ohio State has been,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Wednesday during a charity event in Toledo. “The opportunity to compete at that level, at this point and time, is just a mindset.”

I’m picking Wisconsin, three Rose Bowl appearances the past four seasons, to emerge from the West Division.

What about Iowa and Nebraska?

Well, there’s a lot to like about the Hawkeyes. They have eight starters on offense and seem poised to fill a void at linebacker.

The Cornhuskers should have a formidable defensive front and an impressive rotation at running back.

Consistency matters, however, and the Badgers have been a Big Ten bellwether for nearly two decades, under three head coaches.

Of course, this latest makeover could keep all of us on edge, until the very end.

“It’s a little bit like two years ago when Nebraska joined,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That felt different and it was a change for everybody.

“Obviously, this is very different.”

**EAST DIVISION**

OHIO STATE

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer (USA Today Sports)

Early MVP candidate: Braxton Miller is listed on everybody’s Heisman Trophy watch list after accounting for 3,162 total yards and 36 touchdowns, either running or throwing, last season. He completed 63.5 percent of his passes and averaged 6.2 per rush.

We’ll know more after: The Buckeyes travel to Michigan State on Nov. 8. The Spartans beat Ohio State 34-24 in last year’s Big Ten title game.

Among the questions: Urban Meyer’s aura of invincibility took another hit with a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

MICHIGAN STATE

Early MVP candidate: It took Connor Cook several weeks to establish himself as the starting quarterback in 2013. He’ll have to elevate his performance while Michigan State’s defense replaces several key players.

We’ll know more after: A Sept. 6 visit to Oregon.

Among the questions: The Spartans were dominant defensively, but will miss linebackers Max Bullough (299 career tackles) and Denicos Allen (278).

MICHIGAN

Early MVP candidate: Much of the chatter this spring centered on freshman cornerback Jabrill Peppers, who will join the team this summer. He is a five-star prospect capable of shoring up the Wolverines’ secondary.

We’ll know more after: The Wolverines host Penn State on Oct. 11. They lost a four-overtime thriller to the Nittany Lions last year, 43-40.

Among the questions: Michigan ranked 11th in the Big Ten when it came to running the football, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry and 125.7 a game.

PENN STATE

Early MVP candidate: Christian Hackenberg took over the starting quarterback duties as a true freshman and threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. New coach James Franklin refers to Hackenberg as an “Alpha male.”

We’ll know more after: Franklin makes his Penn State debut Aug. 30 against Central Florida, in Dublin, Ireland.

Among the questions: The Nittany Lions remain under NCAA sanctions through the 2016 season, including a limit of 75 scholarships in 2014-15.

INDIANA

Early MVP candidate: Running back Tevin Coleman netted 7.3 yards per rushing attempt, but fell 42 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. He’ll likely hit that plateau this fall, bringing stability to the Hoosiers’ two-quarterback approach on offense.

We’ll know more after: Indiana employs its new 3-4 defensive scheme at Missouri on Sept. 20. The Tigers gained 623 yards and scored 45 points a year ago against the Hoosiers’ 4-3.

Among the questions: Who will fill the void at receiver after the departure of Cody Latimer?

MARYLAND

Early MVP candidate: Junior safety Sean Davis led the team with 102 tackles last fall, including nine stops against Marshall in the Military Bowl.

We’ll know more after: The Terrapins make their Big Ten debut at Indiana on Sept. 27.

Among the questions: Wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long were unable to participate in spring practices because of leg fractures.

RUTGERS

Early MVP candidate: Steve Longa started all 13 games at middle linebacker, earning freshman all-America honors. He’ll move to the weakside spot this season.

We’ll know more after: A 7 p.m. Big Ten Network showdown with Penn State on Sept. 13.

Among the questions: Can the Scarlet Knights pull themselves out of a public relations funk? Ever since they were invited to join the conference, it’s been one athletic department faux pas after another.

**WEST DIVISION**

WISCONSIN

Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon (USA Today Sports)

Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon (USA Today Sports)

Early MVP candidate: Imagine what Melvin Gordon could do now that he’s running solo. He rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns last season while splitting carries with James White. He’ll be a front-runner for the Doak Walker Award this time around.

We’ll know more after: The Badgers host Nebraska on Nov. 15 and visit Iowa on Nov. 22.

Among the questions: The quarterback battle continues between Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy. Stave was the starter last season, completing 61.9 percent of his passes for 2,494 yards, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

IOWA

Early MVP candidate: Carl Davis is on the verge of becoming an elite defensive tackle. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound senior was second-team all-Big Ten and serves as an elder statesman for the Hawkeyes.

We’ll know more after: Iowa travels to Pittsburgh for a Sept. 20 road test.

Among the questions: How will the Hawkeyes handle elevated expectations after rebounding from a 4-8 debacle in 2012?

NEBRASKA

Early MVP candidate: Ameer Abdullah, the nation’s top returning rusher with 1,690 yards in 2013, leads a deep corps of running backs. He’s netted 2,977 yards on 549 career carries.

We’ll know more after: The Cornhuskers head to East Lansing, Mich., Oct. 4 for a marquee matchup with the Spartans.

Among the questions: Once again, the quarterback position is a concern. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the leading candidate.

MINNESOTA

Early MVP candidate: Mitch Leidner took complete control of the quarterback job when Philip Nelson transferred to Rutgers. They both played last season, but Leidner seems to be the clear starter coming out of spring drills.

We’ll know more after: A Sept. 27 game at Michigan, where the Gophers have won just once since 1986.

Among the questions: The health of coach Jerry Kill continues to be a concern.

NORTHWESTERN

Early MVP candidate: It’s no longer a two-quarterback system at Northwestern. As coach Pat Fitzgerald said, “this is Trevor Siemian’s football team.” Siemian is more of a pure thrower, but Fitzgerald will continue to keep opponents guessing.

We’ll know more after: The season opener, Aug. 30 against California.

Among the questions: How will an ongoing debate over unionization impact the chemistry inside Northwestern’s locker room?

ILLINOIS

Early MVP candidate: Defensive back Earnest Thomas III was voted the Illini’s most valuable player this spring, a nice encore following his 101 tackles and three forced fumbles in 2013.

We’ll know more after: The Illini play at Washington on Sept. 13. The Huskies were 9-4 last season.

Among the questions: Wes Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State, was supposed to be the starting quarterback. But Reilly O’Toole has looked promising in practice.

PURDUE

Early MVP candidate: Ryan Russell, a senior defensive end, was featured on a promotional poster produced by the school. He’s played in 38 career games and recorded 18.5 tackles for loss.

We’ll know more after: An appearance in Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis, Ind.) for a Sept. 13 meeting with Notre Dame.

Among the questions: The early reviews on quarterback Danny Etling were promising. The former four-star prospect rarely flinched during his freshman season, but he’ll need help to revive Purdue’s offense.

 Andrew Logue covers Hawkeye football for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMLogue.

Category: Big Ten, Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Andrew Logue: Andrew has been with the Des Moines Register for 15 years, covering everything from preps to Hawkeye and Cyclone sports, as well as the Drake Relays. View author profile.

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