One Improvement Every Big Ten Team Must Make to Win Conference Title in 2014

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2014

One Improvement Every Big Ten Team Must Make to Win Conference Title in 2014

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    Michigan State's biggest improvement in 2013 came on the offensive side of the football.  While MSU maintained a stellar defense, the improvement on offense was the biggest key to the Spartans' 2013 Big Ten crown.

    Where do the other Big Ten programs need to show improvement in order to win a Big Ten title in 2014?

    At the beginning of the 2013 college football season, Michigan State wasn't tapped by many to win the Big Ten title.  While there are certainly a few programs that will inevitably rise to the top of the Big Ten's expectation list throughout the summer and into the fall preseason, we've put together a list of one improvement every Big Ten program must make in order to compete for a Big Ten Championship—and possible College Football Playoff berth—in 2014.


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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 6-7 (3-5 in the AAC)

    We'll start with the two newcomers to the Big Ten for 2014, Rutgers and Maryland.

    For the Scarlet Knights, the move to the Big Ten is clearly a step up in class. While the American Athletic Conference certainly held its own in its first season of existence, the week-in, week-out difference between the Big Ten and the AAC is pretty stark.

    If Rutgers wants to have any hope of making some noise in its first Big Ten season, a major leap forward on offense will be a must. The Knights ranked seventh in total offense in the AAC last season, behind teams like Temple, Houston and SMU.

    Quarterback Gary Nova returns for his senior season and will need to be much more efficient against the Big Ten defenses he'll encounter in the new East Division.  Nova completed just 54.5 percent of his throws last season and had a 18-to-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

    Those numbers will cause a good deal of excitement among opposing secondaries.


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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 7-6 (3-5 in the ACC)

    Like Rutgers, Maryland will be entering the Big Ten's new East Division for 2014. Unlike Rutgers, however, the Terrapins are somewhat used to seeing top-tier programs on a near-weekly basis.

    A 7-6 record might not exactly be the kind of starting position Maryland would like heading into Big Ten play next season, but it's still a far cry from the 2-10 records the Terps put up in both 2009 and 2011.

    Plus, we can't forget that defending Big Ten champion Michigan State was 7-6 heading into its championship run.

    But while Michigan State had some impressive building blocks in place, Maryland's foundation is a little weaker. The Terps were perfectly mediocre last season, finishing with a middling 7-6 record and similarly lukewarm numbers in total offense and defense—finishing eighth in the ACC in both categories.

    Maryland's major emphasis heading into 2014 should be on its rushing attack. Maryland averaged fewer than 150 yards per game on the ground last season, and if there's one thing Big Ten defenses know how to do, it's defend the run.

    The Terps also lose quarterback C.J. Brown to graduation. Brown was a major part of Maryland's offense last season on the ground, rushing for 576 yards and a team-leading 12 rushing touchdowns.

    It's clear that Caleb Rowe, a junior in 2014 and the expected starter at quarterback, will need to grow up quickly if Maryland is to have any shot this fall.


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    R Brent Smith/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 1-11 (0-8 in the Big Ten)

    It doesn't get much worse than Purdue—and we're not just talking about in the Big Ten, either.  Purdue was one of the nation's worst teams last season, winning a lone game against FCS Indiana State.

    Before you go thinking that win against Indiana State is anything of note, keep in mind that the Sycamores were themselves 1-11 last season, and Purdue only managed a six-point victory, 20-14.

    Okay, so Purdue is going through a transition right now.  Years of substandard performances under Danny Hope have translated into a truly difficult environment for new head coach Darrell Hazell.  It's likely going to take Hazell and his staff several more years to build Purdue back up from the ground.

    So what one improvement can Purdue make to compete for a Big Ten title in 2014?

    Pray. Beyond that, there's no single thing we can point to that will put the Boilermakers in a position to make a run at the conference title this fall.


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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 4-8 (1-7 in the Big Ten)

    Illinois finally got over the hump and won a Big Ten game this season, its first conference victory since the Ron Zook years.  Now comes the hard part: building on that minor success to win a conference title for the first time since 2001 under Ron Turner.

    We're talking about the one thing programs can do to win a title in 2014, and with Illinois, we have plenty of areas from which to make our selection. The offense wasn't particularly terrible this past season, but it wasn't all that spectacular, either—the Fighting Illini finished fifth in the Big Ten in total offense.

    Defense, however, was a different story entirely.

    The Illnii finished 11th in the conference in total defense and dead last in rush defense, giving up 238.6 yards per game on the ground.

    You aren't going to win many games in the Big Ten giving up so many rushing yards, so our one improvement Illinois must make to become a contender in 2014 is pretty straightforward: Stop the run.

    Easier said than done, especially given the state of Illinois' recruiting as of late. Our friends at ranked Illinois' class of 2014 13th in the Big Ten, thanks in large part to the complete absence of four-star-or-higher talent brought in by head coach Tim Beckman.


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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 5-7 (1-7 in the Big Ten)

    Live by the lucky break, die by the lucky break. That pretty much sums up Northwestern's last couple of seasons. In 2013, the bounces just didn't go the Wildcats' way, and Northwestern's impressive streak of bowl appearances came to a sudden screeching halt.

    Still, it's not as if head coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn't have enough to work with in Evanston. There is talent enough for another run in the Big Ten in 2014.

    What derailed Northwestern in 2013 was its continued reliance on gimmicky play-calling. While underdog teams often need some innovative plays to keep pace with more talent-deep opponents, Northwestern's luck just couldn't be expected to hold year after year against the best the Big Ten had to offer. Opposing coaching staffs wised up, and Northwestern is once again in a position where it will have to change its game to survive.

    Part of that change will actually be forced on Fitzgerald in 2014. Kain Colter, a cornerstone of the Wildcats' offense for years, is gone. As dynamic and versatile as Colter was, a return to some more traditional offensive sets might do Northwestern some good. Trevor Siemian now has the opportunity to run a more fundamental offense.

    And if Siemian could put up over 2,100 passing yards in Northwestern's wildcat-loving offense last season, imagine what he'll be able to do if given free reign in 2014.

    The question now shifts to Northwestern's defense. Can the Purple Cats improve a defense that gave up 423.4 yards per game in 2013 over the offseason? That's a tall order for any program.


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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 5-7 (3-5 in the Big Ten)

    Indiana lost the draw when it came to deciding which program remained in the stronger East Division. Indiana now rests with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State rather than annually facing off against Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue, while the Boilermakers join the six programs in the Central Time Zone to make up the West Division.

    But all is not lost for the Hoosiers. Despite being a "basketball school," something seems to be stirring around the football facilities in Bloomington.  Much like the slow buildup in East Lansing at one of the Big Ten's other "basketball schools," we're starting to see some signs of life from the Hoosiers.

    Head coach Kevin Wilson seems to be taking the opposite tack of Mark Dantonio at Michigan State. Rather than focusing on defense first, Wilson has built one of the Big Ten's most electric offenses at Indiana.

    Not only did Indiana's 505 offensive yards per game rank the Hoosiers second in the Big Ten in total offense, the boys from Bloomington also found themselves ranked No. 9 in the FBS at the end of 2013.

    Unfortunately, Indiana's defense was just about as bad as its offense was good. The Hoosiers were 123rd nationally in total defense—out of 125 FBS programs.

    It doesn't take a football genius to figure out what single improvement Indiana needs to make in 2014 to compete for a Big Ten title.

    The good news? Indiana's defense was incredibly young last season. In fact, the Hoosiers had just one senior among their top 17 tacklers last season. The top 15 players in terms of tackles for loss all return in 2014. Every player who recorded an interception returns. Every player who recorded a sack will return, as will every player who recovered a fumble.

    See a pattern developing?


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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 7-6 (3-5 in the Big Ten)

    Michigan entered the 2013 season with championship aspirations. It only took two Big Ten games to put Michigan in a hole, and after losing three of their first five conference games, the Wolverines were finished in 2013.

    But Ann Arbor is one of those towns where hope always seems to renew itself along with the ivy covering the Michigan Union. Don't be surprised if Michigan fans are again touting their team's chances come August.

    But if there's one major area in which the Wolverines need to improve in order to finally live up to those perpetually lofty expectations, it has to be the play of their quarterback. Devin Gardner returns for his fifth and final season at Michigan. Despite early scuttlebutt about Gardner being the unquestioned starter for 2014, head coach Brady Hoke announced an open position battle for the starting job.

    It's probably more of a gimmick than anything else. After all, Gardner is still recovering from a broken foot suffered against Ohio State that kept him out of Michigan's bowl game.

    But it has to be comforting to Michigan fans to know that Hoke is at least open to the possibility of going with Shane Morris under center if Gardner can't make any improvements on his coverage-reading abilities before next fall.

Penn State

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    John Beale/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 7-5 (4-4 in the Big Ten)

    Penn State can't actually win a Big Ten title in 2014 as a continuing postseason ban prohibits the Nittany Lions from participating in the Big Ten Championship Game. Still, Penn State can compete for an East Division title next season, so we'll uncover the one improvement necessary to accomplish that goal.

    If Penn State even wants to hold serve, the offensive output generated by All-American receiver Allen Robinson will need to be replaced (Robinson has declared for the 2014 NFL Draft.) But with phenom quarterback Christian Hackenberg expected to make another leap forward with some college experience under his belt, the real focus should be on defense.

    Penn State gave up over 361 yards per game last season, eighth in the Big Ten. Penn State has a rich history of powerful defenses, particularly at the linebacker position, and it's going to be up to new head coach James Franklin to continue to rebuild that part of the program.

    Defense wins championships, especially in the Big Ten. If that continues to ring true, Penn State will need some big names on defense over the next few recruiting cycles. Penn State has put together an impressive 2014 class, but it's heavy on offensive weaponry.

    Franklin has proven himself, building Vanderbilt into a winning program. Penn State is already a winning program, but we're interested to see how he'll move the program forward as the Nittany Lions move through the final stages of their NCAA-imposed sanctions.


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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 8-5 (4-4 in the Big Ten)

    Not all that long ago, we were talking about a Minnesota team that would lose to the likes of FCS South Dakota. But Jerry Kill has been steadily building a program of which Minnesotans can once again be proud.

    The Golden Gophers won eight games in 2013, their best since 2003's 10-3 mark. What's more, Minnesota overachieved in 2013 with a pretty young roster. Most of the Gophers' top offensive weaponry returns in 2014, and the Gophers' defense will have veterans in every position group.

    The one area in which Minnesota struggled mightily in 2013, however, was the passing game. The Gophers finished dead last in the Big Ten last season, averaging just 148.1 passing yards per game. That number must improve to give the Gophers any shot against teams like Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State—all of which appear on Minnesota's 2014 schedule.

    Jerry Kill's decision regarding his quarterbacks just got a lot easier, too. Junior Philip Nelson and sophomore Mitch Leidner split time in 2013 and were poised for a tough battle for the starting job in 2014. Nelson, however, decided he wanted out and announced his intentions to transfer.

    We'll now have to see if Leidner can live up to his potential. If he can thrive under a one-quarterback system, Minnesota could be a legit contender in the West in 2014.


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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 8-5 (5-3 in the Big Ten)

    The old joke about Iowa is that Kirk Ferentz always seems to be rebuilding but never bothering to win anything of consequence along the way. That perception may start to shift if some of the momentum built during 2013 can carry over to next fall.

    Iowa's only conference losses in 2013 were to Big Ten champions Michigan State, Leaders Division champions Ohio State and Leaders Division runner-up Wisconsin. Iowa, for its part, finished behind only Michigan State in the Legends Division.

    The Hawkeyes also fielded the conference's second-best defense behind MSU but will lose four of the top five tacklers—a combined 14.5 sacks and 12 of its 13 interceptions—thanks to graduation. Maybe it's lucky that Ferentz has so much experience at "reloading" his program.

    However, it's not the defense we're concerned about in 2014. As great as Iowa was on defense, the Hawkeyes finished ninth in the Big Ten in terms of total offense.  The good news here is that most of the offensive skill players return this fall.

    Junior quarterback Jake Rudock will be in the spotlight once again, and, assuming he can hold on to his starting job through spring and fall camps, he'll need to improve upon his turnover ratio if Iowa is to have any hope at success this fall. Last season, Rudock threw 13 picks compared to just 18 touchdowns.


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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 9-4 (5-3 in the Big Ten)

    Tommy Armstrong could make a claim to the moniker "Tommy Turnover" after the 2013 season, throwing eight picks to just nine touchdowns. He also completed just 51.9 percent of his passes for a paltry 966 yards in nine appearances.

    But with Taylor Martinez and Ron Kellogg both out of eligibility, head coach Bo Pelini might have no other choice but to go with Armstrong in 2014.

    Relax, Nebraska fans. Armstrong was only a freshman in 2013. He'll get better. Won't he?

    He'll need to if Nebraska has any shot at playing for that long-awaited first Big Ten title. Nebraska's defense, despite a slow start, showed tremendous growth last season.  What's more, the front seven were incredibly young—giving Huskers fans more than distant hope for the return of the feared "Blackshirts" come this fall.

    So it will once again rest with the offense. Will Armstrong mature into a quarterback capable of winning the big games? Can Bo Pelini ever win more than 10 games in a single season? Will Nebraska be the class of the new West Division?


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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 9-4 (6-2 in the Big Ten)

    The rumors of Wisconsin's demise were greatly exaggerated. When Bret Bielema bolted the program on the eve of the 2013 Rose Bowl Game, many thought it could be the end of an era in Madison.

    Enter Gary Andersen.

    Rather than turn the program upside-down, as so many new head coaches do, Andersen wisely used the plethora of talent he had in front of him to win football games in the same way Wisconsin had always won football games: solid defense and a running game that is next to impossible to stop.

    And with Melvin Gordon returning (thanks to a conversation with Montee Ball), we can all expect that stellar rushing game to keep humming along in 2014.

    Now, if Wisconsin could just find a way to get the passing game involved in the process, the Badgers could be back to their conference championship-winning ways in very short order. Wisconsin averaged just 197.1 passing yards per game in 2013, and the lack of a real threat from Joel Stave allowed teams like Ohio State, Penn State and South Carolina to sell out against the run.

    Developing anything more than its current "serviceable" passing game will work wonders for Wisconsin on its quest to return to the Big Ten title game in 2014.

Ohio State

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 12-2 (8-0 in the Big Ten)

    There are a select few places in America where a 12-2 season would be considered a failure. Ohio State is one of those Twilight Zone-esque alternate realities.

    Despite winning his first 24 games at the helm of the Buckeyes, Urban Meyer has yet to win a single postseason game. After losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Ohio State is quickly shifting its focus to 2014.

    Don't lose sight of the fact that Michigan State was one of the very best teams in the nation last season, and Clemson was certainly no pushover. Also keep in mind that Ohio State has plenty to look forward to in 2014. Braxton Miller will be returning for his senior season, and if the pieces all fall into place, we may be talking about a Heisman candidacy before too long.

    The one point where Ohio State could stand to improve in hopes of winning a conference title in 2014 is on defense. Ohio State gave up 377.4 yards per game last season, seventh in the Big Ten. There were also four teams that gave up fewer points than Ohio State's 22.6 points allowed per game.

    The defensive secondary for the Buckeyes was about as porous as one can get, giving up a whopping 268 yards per game last season—112th in the nation. That's pretty bad.

    Ohio State will return seven defensive starters in 2014, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.  With a defense that bad at defending the pass, a healthy influx of fresh talent might be just the thing the Buckeyes need to turn the corner. There's also enough experience returning to maintain a sense of maturity on the defensive side of the football.

    Bradley Roby's early exit certainly won't help matters, but there's plenty of talent—at least on paper—left on Ohio State's defensive roster. Now if only the coaches could do something with it...

Michigan State

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 13-1 (8-0 in the Big Ten)

    Mark Dantonio has been patient. He's been building his program slowly but surely over the past seven years. In 2013, it all seemed to come together.

    Despite a shockingly bad offensive debut, MSU was able to put together an impressive list of accomplishments in 2013, which included becoming the first Big Ten team in history to defeat every conference foe by double digits. A lock-down defense was key in each of MSU's 13 victories, and it seemed only fitting that the defense made a game-deciding stand on fourth down against Stanford to win the 2014 Rose Bowl Game title.

    So what can Dantonio and company do for an encore?

    Obviously, winning another Big Ten title is tops on the list. MSU has won two Big Ten titles in the past four seasons (plus another divisional title in 2011). To win a third in five years would certainly put MSU among the crop of the Big Ten's current elite programs. But repeating in the Big Ten is much easier said than done, especially when you're facing a talent drain like MSU in 2014.

    MSU will be returning just five defensive starters for 2014. Gone are Tyler Hoover, Micajah Reynolds, Denzel Drone, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Isaiah Lewis and, of course, Darqueze Dennard.

    But if there's one thing Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi (who turned down his own program at UConn to remain in East Lansing) know how to do, it's recruit top defensive talent.

    Michigan State put together the Big Ten's No. 4 recruiting class this offseason according to, and it's flush with some impressive gets. In addition to 5-star DE Malik McDowell, there are a plethora of 3-star and 4-star prospects, all set to join the defensive roster.

    If Michigan State's last few recruiting classes live up to expectations and quarterback Connor Cook can build upon the impressive growth we saw over the course of the 2013 season, we fully expect Michigan State to be an early preseason favorite in the Big Ten this season.

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