Big Ten Football: Way-Too-Early 2014 Power Rankings for East Division
For the second time in four years the Big Ten is going through some massive changes. Come 2014 the conference ditches the unpopular "Leaders" and "Legends" division names.
Not because of any popular uprising, but because the B1G is growing from 12 to 14 teams. With Maryland and Rutgers set to join the conference officially on July 1, 2014, the Big Ten enters a new era.
With it comes a geographical realignment and the much easier to remember "East" and "West" divisions too. No longer are rivals Michigan and Ohio State in separate divisions. No longer could the Big Ten see back-to-back versions of "The Game" take place to end the season.
With all of the changes in format, there are also plenty of changes going on within the power structure of the conference.
Having seen Michigan State win the Big Ten this past season, can it become the top dogs in the East in this new era?
Or will Ohio State, Michigan or even Penn State have something to say about it all?
We kick off our way-too-early look at the divisions with the East division that features Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers.
Rutgers should fit in nicely with the Big Ten, after all it's got the "losing a bowl game it could've won" thing down pat.
Unlike Maryland, the other new kid on the block in the B1G, Rutgers will face life in its new home with a lot of new parts being added to the mix.
Defensively, three-quarters of the secondary will be gone to graduation, as will three members of the front seven. Maybe that's a good thing, though, because the Scarlet Knights gave up 40 or more points in five of their seven losses last season.
On the other side of the ball, seven of the 10 offensive lineman in the last two-deep are all going to be gone and that's a ton of bodies to lose.
Paul James is a talented running back, and depending on the line in front of him, he could be a difference maker for this offense in need of one of those. He averaged over five yards per carry and scored nine touchdowns on the year.
Quarterback Gary Nova was very inconsistent as the year went along, throwing for 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while completing just over 54 percent of his passes. Rutgers is going to need a lot more out of Nova in his final year for the Scarlet Knights to have a chance in the loaded East.
If there is a team that could benefit from the move up in conference affiliation it is Rutgers, who has seemingly been a sleeping giant in football-rich New Jersey for a while.
However, Rutgers is a few years away (talent-wise) from being at the Big Ten level and it needs to start on the defensive side of the ball.
Kyle Flood's future in Piscataway is also hanging by a thread, and right now this team just isn't on par with what anyone else in the division brings to the table.
Maryland isn't going to get an easy welcome to the Big Ten, no matter who is on this team or how good it is. A five-game stretch that features Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan in a row is about as brutal as it could be for any team in the East in 2014.
The good news is that Maryland appears to have an offense that could give Big Ten defenses some challenges, as it likes to play more in space than a lot of Big Ten teams are used to. However, it needs to be better in the run game overall or Maryland could be dead in the water.
Last season the Terps averaged 148.4 yards per game on the ground, good for 10th in the ACC and an average that would've been the same in the Big Ten.
No disrespect to the conference that produced the national champion this past year, but overall the ACC is not the Big Ten defensively and Maryland will be challenged to run the ball effectively with an offensive line that is still young and loses one starter.
Maryland will catch a break with quarterback C.J. Brown granted a 6th year of eligibility before the season started, according to Alex Prewitt of the Washington Post.
His relationship with budding star receiver Stefon Diggs will be crucial to any success that Maryland has in its first foray into the Big Ten. So to will be seeing how Diggs recovers from a broken leg suffered against Wake Forest.
After watching the Terps on and off throughout the 2013 season, that defense is also going to be a major hurdle to get over if Maryland wants to avoid the cellar of the East this upcoming season.
It was pure mediocre in the ACC and against the much more power-heavy Big Ten rushing attacks, it will struggle a lot. Just watch how Marshall pushed around and pounded on the Terps defense in the Military Bowl for the latest proof.
Year 1 of the Big Ten could be a baptism by fire for the Terps, but it appears after a few rocky years at least Randy Edsall has this program heading in the right direction.
Will 2014 be the year Indiana finally gets to a bowl game under Kevin Wilson? It seems like each of the past two years this team has been the hot pick to be the "surprise team" in its division.
However, each year the defense lets this team down and as Wilson enters Year 4, its time for the defense and this team to make it to a bowl game or it could be the end for the head coach.
This team could look different in 2014, though, because its top two receiving options are gone in Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer. With a transition happening on the outside, look to breakout running back Tevin Coleman to be a bigger focal point of the offense.
Coleman ran for 958 yards, putting him fifth in the conference in 2013. He also averaged a healthy 7.3 yards per carry, and the Hoosiers would be wise to use him more prominently in 2014 because of it. He's a home run threat every time the ball is in his hands, and respecting him only helps open up the deadly pass attack.
Additionally, Wilson and Co. need to figure out whom the full-time quarterback is going to be. At times Indiana's offense sputtered this past year with the constant switching between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.
Unfortunately for them, the schedule is also a bit unkind. The Hoosiers have trips to Missouri, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio State all on the schedule and will likely need to win one of those games to become bowl eligible.
Based off of 2013, this team still has a lot of question marks to answer on defense, and until we see it do it on the field, it is just too far behind the top four to make a believer out of me.
Look for the Hoosiers to be more competitive against the top of the conference, but they just aren't quite there yet. Another missed bowl game could be in the making in Bloomington.
4. Penn State
Figuring out Penn State at this point is a bit tricky, simply because we don't know much about how new head coach James Franklin will have this team operating.
Heck, even he stated he doesn't believe in a set style of offense, only stating that it will play multiple pro-style sets:
What I would say is we're going to run multiple pro style offense, defense, and special teams. To me, I'm not a guy that's going to pigeon hole what we're going to do. I think my philosophy is you go out and hire really smart people, and you have a system that has flexibility to take advantage of all your strengths and hide your weaknesses.
All we do know is that he has perhaps the brightest star at quarterback in the Big Ten at his disposal in Christian Hackenberg.
Franklin has promised an exciting brand of football in Happy Valley, but the question is without star wide receiver Allen Robinson, just how exciting can this offense really be?
The makeup of the offense appears to be heavily run orientated and tight end driven. That doesn't necessarily scream "exciting" at first glance. However, having a great stable of backs in Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch could make things exciting at times if you love the run game.
In Franklin's first year, it could be the defense that drives this team. Despite two of the better front-seven players, tackle DaQuan Jones and middle linebacker Glenn Carson, being gone, there is a lot of talent across the board.
Defensive end Deion Barnes will still be in uniform and his counter part C.J. Olaniyan deserved to be talked about more than he was until the end of the season. Olaniyan ended 2013 with 50 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and five sacks.
Penn State was supposed to be a team that fell on hard times when the NCAA hammer came down on it, but for the past two years this program has exceeded expectations and produced winning seasons.
With a schedule that features Illinois and Northwestern out of the West division along with UMass and Temple out of conference, this could be set up nicely for another eight-win season.
As long as Hackenberg is at quarterback, this team was going to be fine, but adding a mind like Franklin to the mix should really make this offense fly. Look for another season above .500 and a team capable of playing with anyone in the conference.
This will be an interesting offseason in Ann Arbor, as Michigan will welcome a new offensive coordinator to the mix in Doug Nussmeier.
His hire signaled a willingness to do what it takes to win, making Nussmeier one of the top three highest-paid assistants. Now the question is if Nussmeier can turn this team around fast enough to be a true competitor in the East.
On paper, there is a clear gap between Michigan, Ohio State and the rest of the division, but if there is a team capable of closing that gap, the early money should be on Michigan.
It has the parts available on offense, with running back Derrick Green seeing increased playing time as his freshman season went on last year and tight end Devin Funchess emerging as a matchup nightmare for opponents as well.
The biggest question is who will play quarterback. Will it be the much maligned, but statistically good Devin Gardner (60.3% comp. rate, 2,960 yards, 21 TDs, 11 INTs), or does Nussmeier go all-in on the pro-style offense and go with Shane Morris, who showed some promise in the bowl game against Kansas State?
What really should make people excited about the Wolverines' prospects to be a challenger in 2014 is the schedule. No Wisconsin or Nebraska from the West will help the prospects out greatly, as does getting a bye between Penn State and Michigan State.
But road games to division favorites Michigan State and Ohio State loom large if they want to be a true contender.
Michigan has some nice parts available, but it’s had them for the past two years and done nothing with them as well. If the change in offensive coordinator takes, this could be a surprise team.
2. Michigan State
Michigan State ended the Big Ten's misery in the Rose Bowl with its win over Stanford on New Year's Day, but the win was almost bittersweet.
That's because it was also an end of an era for the Spartans as well. Next season this team will need to rely on its offense, because gone will be six starters on defense and eight players on the two-deep defensively.
It's not just the amount of guys gone; it's who is gone in East Lansing that matters. Gone will be Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen, Isaiah Lewis, Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover. So, too, will be Bullough's replacement at MLB in the Rose Bowl, Kyler Elsworth.
That's two-thirds of the linebackers gone and the middle of the defensive line gone as well. Replacing those parts won't be easy no matter the talent stepping in, because it was all about attitude and chemistry for the departed seniors.
Luckily for the Spartans, the offense proved it could score and win games for them down the stretch as well.
MSU will have a lot of offensive weapons back; especially quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford. That duo became deadly at the exact right time for the Spartans' run this past season, and in 2014 they'll need to be the duo that leads this team.
Despite the questions on defense, the biggest issue could be up front as Michigan State loses Blake Treadwell and Fou Fonoti on the offensive line. They happened to be the two best O-linemen the Spartans had last season, and replacing them won't be easy.
Even so, this is a team that won't crumble with heavy losses because of how well it has recruited over the past four years or so.
An early-season matchup with Oregon in Eugene is a huge test of exactly where this team will be, but outside of that, the Spartans' schedule in Big Ten play is manageable. MSU gets Nebraska at home and a not-so-intimidating trip to Purdue for its cross-divisional games.
Look for it to be challengers to Ohio State all season long, but there are just too many leadership and play-making holes on defense for me to put it ahead of OSU just yet. That could change after spring, though.
1. Ohio State
Ohio State is on a two-game losing streak after its Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, but it comes in to 2014 as the team in the East in the best shape.
Sure, Carlos Hyde will be gone and so will four of his offensive linemen, but this team gets its most important player back for one last go-around in Braxton Miller.
Had Miller left for the NFL after this season, Ohio State would've been in some major trouble. With Miller back in the fold it can ease in the new players around him and know that he is capable of winning football games on his own (see 2012 for proof).
Replacing Hyde and his over 1,400 yards won't be easy, then again the Buckeyes backfield showed up without him to open this past season. Look for Ezekiel Elliott, who ran for 262 yards on just 30 carries as a freshman in 2013, to be the main back next season.
There's also the intriguing fit of Dontre Wilson into this offense. His role diminished a bit as the season went on, but Wilson can be an X-factor for this team going forward and don't be surprised to see a breakout season for him in his sophomore year.
Defensively, the Buckeyes lose their biggest playmaker in linebacker Ryan Shazier but are getting one of the best players in the 2014 class, Raekwon McMillan, to replace his athleticism. He's one of the early enrollees at Ohio State, and that extra time is likely to lead to him seeing the field from Day 1 in Columbus.
The defensive line was young this past year but showed great promise. As long as the starters stay healthy, it will be the best defensive line in the Big Ten in 2014.
Now the question is can the secondary get fixed and can anyone outside of Joey Bosa or Noah Spence get pressure on the quarterback.
There are holes in the roster that need to be filled on both sides, but with the way Urban Meyer has hit the ground running in recruiting over the past few years, this team is in a plug-and-play situation almost across the board.
Ohio State also catches a break in its schedule this year, avoiding Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa out of the West division. Its schedule is pretty attractive, with games against Michigan State and Michigan spread out nicely as well.
Give me the Buckeyes as the way-too-early favorites in the East for 2014, but it'll be a close race.
*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.
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