Big Ten storylines dominate regional, national conversation
By now, you know that the top two offseason storylines came from the Big Ten’s most historic programs. But there’s much more to follow in the conference outside of Ohio State and Michigan. Here are five storylines that won’t go away anytime soon.
Ohio State quarterback battle
In case you’ve been living under a rock — a really big rock — there’s been a wee bit of a quarterback controversy brewing in Columbus. College football’s top offseason story has only gotten more intriguing with the news that J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller will all battle for the starting job. All three were named to numerous national watch lists because whoever gets the job will have the keys to Urban Meyer’s Ferrari.
Sure, Miller’s late-July announcement that he’ll switch to H-Back broke the internet. Really, it shouldn’t have come as much of a shock. For him to do what he does, he has to get his quickness and agility back, which he’ll be able to focus on more at H-Back. But if you think Miller is going to stop rehabbing his shoulder and give up the position he dominated for two years, prepare to be shocked again. Meyer quickly dismissed his senior’s claim that he would play receiver exclusively in 2015. I don’t care what position Miller working out at, this is still a three-quarterback battle. So let’s get back to the debate that dominated the headlines this offseason.
Miller’s two Big Ten Player of the Year awards certainly loom large. So do Barrett’s 34 touchdown passes last year, which were 10 more than the next best in the Big Ten. And, just in case you somehow forgot, Cardale Jones took the world by storm by leading the Buckeyes to a national title with “upsets” of Alabama and Oregon.
This has to be the best three-quarterback battle in the history of football. Meyer would really cause a stir if he implemented a two-quarterback system like he did with Tim Tebow and Chris Leak on Florida’s 2006 national championship team. Whatever Meyer does, stay tuned. This is just the beginning of the fun.
Are we sick of Jim Harbaugh yet? Hopefully not because this is just the beginning of khaki-mania. The worst-kept secret of the NFL season was Harbaugh’s inevitable reunion with his alma mater. Michigan made the home run hire that would undoubtedly result in Big Ten titles again, or so Wolverine fans hope. A Stanford-like rebuild would heal the scars left by two straight sub-.500 seasons in the Big Ten under Brady Hoke.
But there could be more tough times ahead for the maize and blue in the immediate future. ESPN’s 40th-ranked 2015 recruiting class doesn’t figure to provide an instant boost, which could lend itself to a more pressing issue for Harbaugh. His recruiting ties are predominantly out west and with neighbor Urban Meyer taking a machete to the Big Ten, he doesn’t exactly have the state of Michigan roped off yet.
Harbaugh also doesn’t have a proven starting quarterback to lead his offense, either. Iowa transfer Jake Rudock and southpaw Shane Morris both could become reliable starters under Harbaugh’s tutelage, but neither are locks to turn around Michigan’s 112th ranked offense. There will be ups and still plenty of downs for the new-look Wolverines in 2015. And maybe even a few clunkers.
How will backfields replace Gordon, Abdullah, Coleman, Cobb?
Let’s all just declare 2014 the year of the running back in the Big Ten. The three top rushers in the nation (Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ezekiel Elliot) all came from the Big Ten. If you want to include David Cobb and Ameer Abdullah, it was five of the top 12. Four of those five guys, however, will be playing on Sundays this year. The guys who ran through some major holes also left some major holes behind.
Gordon’s backup, Corey Clement, showed last year that he’s capable of taking the feature back reins by ripping off 6.5 yards per carry. If he can continue that, it’d be a load off new coach Paul Chryst. Clement might not surpass Gordon’s 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns, but for Wisconsin to do what Wisconsin does, he doesn’t have to.
Coleman’s breakout season was actually what brought UAB tailback Jordan Howard to Bloomington after the program was dissolved. Howard finished 14th in the nation in rushing last year and figures to play alongside an improved line. Nate Sudfield’s arm should also prevent defenses from loading the box.
Cobb was the workhorse who fueled Minnesota’s surprising 8-win season. Despite a backfield with limited experience, the Gophers likely won’t struggle to fill Cobb’s void. Rodrick Williams is the favorite to take on the majority of Cobb’s 314 carries last year. He and Berkley Edwards both figure to provide the muscle behind Jerry Kill’s ground-and-pound attack.
The most uncertain of the backfield voids is in Lincoln, where Abdullah did everything and more for Nebraska. Mike Riley will rely on a combination of Imani Cross and Terrell Newby, neither of which have the elusiveness Abdullah did. There’s reasonable suspicion that return specialist De’Mornay Pierson-El will also have a role in the Husker backfield. However it shakes out, yards won’t come as easy as they did with Abdullah.
Will Penn State get back to national relevance?
Without a postseason bowl ban, James Franklin did exactly what Penn State fans could’ve hoped for in his first season — win a bowl. Two Big Ten wins, however, won’t appease the masses in Happy Valley this year. Expectations entering 2015 are greater, and rightfully so.
For the Nittany Lions to make that jump, they need to give Christian Hackenberg some time to throw. Widely regarded as one of the NFL’s top quarterback prospects, Hackenberg threw for just 12 TD’s last year, largely because only six teams in Division I allowed more sacks than Penn State. The good news is that all but one offensive lineman returns for the Nittany Lions. The addition of top junior college prospect Paris Palmer will also be key. The bad news is that their most experienced lineman, Donovan Smith, left for the NFL.
Hackenberg and the Big Ten’s leading returning receiver, DaeSean Hamilton, could easily form the conference’s top duo. Pair that with the league’s top scoring defense in 2014 and Penn State should hold its own in the mighty East. But if Hackenberg is running for his life again, that won’t matter.
How wild is the West?
Ignore the cliche and focus on this possibility: There might be three teams in the East better than the West’s best. If you can find a projection that doesn’t have Ohio State and Michigan State as the conference’s two best teams, show me. Until then, we’ll forget about them with this argument.
The Penn State vs. Minnesota/Wisconsin argument is one that might not have an answer until season’s end. In the Badgers’ defense, they are the ones that have been to more Big Ten Championships than anyone. Wisconsin always finds a way, but there’s no guarantee that Paul Chryst will follow suit and there’s no guarantee that replacing the nation’s leading rusher will be a seamless transition.
Minnesota is the trendy pick to earn a trip to Indianapolis, especially if it can take two of its three home games against the likes of Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin. Many felt Kill’s group was a season away from contention before 2014, which was why he earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. He could make a bid for some even nicer hardware this year.
Iowa and Nebraska drew East road games against Indiana and Rutgers. It wouldn’t take major improvements from either team to threaten for the West crown. A 4-team race would make for an entertaining race to Indy. After all, somebody has to at least try to dethrone Ohio State.