Big Ten- Preseason Overview

Gardner (left) and Miller in their respective spring games.

Gardner (left) and Miller in their respective spring games.

Emerging from the year-long cloud of bowl probation, the Ohio State Buckeyes are not only the definite favorites to win the Big 10, but are in the mix for a spot in the national championship. But repeating last year’s unexpected success won’t come as easy this time around. Noticeable increases in national attention and pressure from the college football world essentially destroyed the last team in a similar situation as Ohio State’s: USC. The Big 10 has become much more consistent from top to bottom, despite the departure of key program figures across the conference landscape. The rest of the Big 10 will certainly present a greater challenge in repeating a 12-win season (and then a conference championship) for the Buckeyes, but if any team is equipped to handle one of the deepest conferences in the country, it’s the squad from Columbus.

Projections:

1) Ohio State

As long as no major catastrophes occur, Ohio State seems destined to cruise to the Big 10 title. Braxton Miller has continued his growth as a quarterback, developing his passing skills while sustaining his classification as “dual-threat”. Only in his junior year, Miller’s progression and clutch play make him a Heisman Trophy favorite, as well as the unquestioned leader of his team.

Coach Urban Meyer suspended running back star Carlos Hyde for 3 games (the police dropped the case of alleged assault), but even that shouldn’t derail Ohio State during Hyde’s absence. The Buckeyes have several viable, running options–a fifth-year senior and two sophomores–that foster a sense of balance in the backfield with or without Hyde in it.

While not exactly deep at the wide receiver position, Ohio State should have enough to suffice Miller’s need for targets. Corey Brown has proved to be a dependable player for reeling in receptions, while Devin Smith is the downfield threat every national contender possesses.

The defense has lost many starters from last year, but should maintain good shape under the leadership of Ryan Shazier–a tackling machine and one of the best linebackers in the nation.

2) Michigan 

Public perception, as well as that of the Michigan coaching staff, is very favorable of quarterback Devin Gardner. After filling in at sporadic periods during former starter Denard Robinson’s injuries, Gardner looks to firmly take hold of the reins at quarterback. He institutes a pro-style offense, and with his fluidity and comfort in the pocket, most signs point to him flourishing for the maize-and-blue. Yet we really don’t know all too much–or as much as we’d like to know–about Gardner. The pressure will be at an all-time high on him this upcoming season, and his durability will be put to the test as he finally starts the entire season.

Protecting Gardner, and getting him help from others, should not come as a difficulty. Taylor Lewan, one of the best offensive linemen in the country, will protect Gardner’s blind side. Fitzgerald Toussaint will be tremendously useful out of the backfield if he stays healthy. Gardner will also have lengthy receivers at his disposal, who fit in well with the pro-style offense.

The Wolverines lost many pieces in their defensive unit from last year, as well as one important one in spring ball. A leading tackler at linebacker, Jake Ryan tore his ACL during the spring. Until his potential return in mid-October, Michigan will have to make up for the void in their defense.

3) Nebraska 

The key components for the offense are set in place for the Cornhuskers: quarterback Taylor Martinez has nice chemistry with experienced teammates at the running back and wide receiver positions. This will make for a proficient offense both on the ground and in the air.

While spring practices have raised the hopes of Husker fans regarding their defense, that side of the ball remains a major concern. The front seven is entirely new from last year, and will look to contribute to the effort of improving last year’s run-defense rank of 90th in the country.

Here’s the bottom line for Nebraska: the development of Martinez is of utmost necessity. Until he learns to efficiently throw a football–whether its attaining consistency or once more altering mechanics altogether–Martinez cannot adequately serve as the true leader of this team in his senior year.

Colter will look to replicate last season's success.

Colter will look to replicate last season’s success.

4) Northwestern

Under the leadership of head coach Pat Fitzgerald, its seems as though the Wildcats will always prove to be competitive. The offense returns most of its major components, as well as its unique style of rotating quarterbacks. While Trevor Siemian works as the established thrower in the offense, dual-threat option Kain Colter meshes better with Northwestern’s efficient running game. Yet it’s reasonable for Fitzgerald to not completely shift to a run-central gameplan, as allowing Siemian opportunities creates an intriguing–and unpredictable–versatility essential to the offense.

The defense keeps several starters from last year, and fields an impressive array of depth. It remains on a path of improvement, though, and is still too shaky to be heavily relied on.

5) Michigan State

The Spartans are in a similar predicament as last season: the defense is rock-solid for yet another year, but questions surround the offense. And unfortunately for MSU, the uncertainty has only mounted concerning the offensive unit. The quarterback situation remains undecided, and whoever grabs the job will hope for better play from the Spartan receivers–an estimated 66 passes were dropped last year. A group of freshman and a converted linebacker will look to establish any semblance of a rushing attack.

The defense, on the other hand, constitutes a polar opposite of Michigan State’s offense. Once again, many regard the unit as one of the best across the nation, as most of the linebacker and secondary crew return from a season filled with all-conference honors. The defensive line is not exactly proven, but everything else Sparty offers on defense should make it up for any losses on the front line.

6) Wisconsin 

The quarterback and offensive line situation is currently in limbo for the Badgers, as injuries and no clear-cut starters at these positions could prove damaging as these uncertainties carry over into the regular season. The rushing attack is as good as ever, though, as James White will carry the load for the entire offense in his senior campaign.

Wisconsin has a few strong points in their defense well, which could be enough to make the group consistent throughout the regular season. As an air of change enters Madison after Bret Bielema’s departure, the different culture and style affects all facets in the football program, including the defense.

Key matchups

  • Wisconsin at Ohio State, September 28th
  • Ohio State at Northwestern, October 5th
  • Michigan at Michigan State, November 2nd
  • Michigan at Northwestern, November 16th
  • Ohio State at Michigan, November 30th
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