Ranking Big Ten Football Teams Now That Maryland, Rutgers Are Official Members

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJuly 2, 2014

Ranking Big Ten Football Teams Now That Maryland, Rutgers Are Official Members

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Maryland and Rutgers became official members of the Big Ten Conference Tuesday afternoon, pushing the total number of programs in the league up to 14.

    With their arrival, the conference will realign its divisions from the farcically named Legends and Leaders to the geographically based East and West. It joins the ACC and SEC as the third power conference with 14 overall members and two seven-team divisions.

    Because of this official transition—and even more so now that the season is less than two months away!—now seems like a fitting time to take stock of where each football program stands heading into an important Big Ten season.

    Based on how they performed last season (and in previous seasons) and whom they return in 2014, here is a power ranking of all 14 current Big Ten members. This does not take the future into account, and it disregards the schedule. It is not a ranking of which teams are most likely to win the conference but an order of which teams would stand the best chance against another on a neutral field.

    Can't wait to look like an idiot for these come December!

    Note: All references to F/+ rating courtesy of the numbers at Football Outsiders. All recruiting information via the 247Sports composite rankings.

14. Purdue

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    2013 Record: 1-11

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): -27.3% (114)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 63.1% (109)

    Purdue was the worst power conference team in college football last season, and it wasn't all that close. It finished at No. 114 in the F/+ ratings, more than 10 spots worse than Kansas, the next closest team.

    For a number of reasons, the Boilermakers should be slightly better in 2014. Darrell Hazell is in his second year as head coach, and sophomore quarterback Danny Etling and receiver DeAngelo Yancey were a quietly promising duo as freshmen in 2013.

    Still, a team as bad as Purdue doesn't often lose 37 percent of its lettermen and make marked improvements from one year to the next. And marked improvements are what Purdue would need to make to finish anywhere but last in the conference.

    We'll see what Hazell has up his sleeve.

13. Rutgers

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    2013 Record: 6-7

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): -12.4% (91)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 67.7% (84)

    Rutgers enters the Big Ten at an inopportune time, having just come off a pretty ugly season and fired most of its coaching staff.

    But this is a very proud program, so don't expect it to just roll over in its new league. Gary Nova leaves a lot to be desired but is still an experienced senior under center—assuming he even starts—and the defense is led by rising sophomore linebacker Steve Longa, one of the most overlooked players in the country (123 tackles in 2013).

    The Scarlet Knights should be about as good as they were last season, which will probably not be good enough to qualify for a bowl game in the harder Big Ten. But it will be good enough to stay competitive in most games and put a scare into a few conference title contenders.

    Just as it did against Louisville in 2013.

12. Illinois

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    2013 Record: 4-8

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): -4.0% (71)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 75.0% (23)

    Illinois was far from good in 2013, but it was much better than it was in 2012, Tim Beckman's first season, and has to consider the year on the whole a successful one.

    Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is gone from last year's viable offense, but running back Josh Ferguson returns, and whoever wins the battle to replace Scheelhaase—whether it be former Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt or former blue-chip recruit Aaron Bailey—will have earned the role by beating solid competition.

    The real questions lie on defense, where Illinois actually managed to get worse between 2012 and 2013. With 10 starters returning on that side of the ball, there is reason for optimism. But do those starters have the size or the talent to stop the Big Ten's best offenses?

    If not, they'll have to find some other way to compensate.

11. Minnesota

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    2013 Record: 8-5

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): 2.8% (55)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 75.8% (21)

    Minnesota returns a lot of talent from a team that started last year 8-2. On the field, it should be slightly better than it was last season.

    So why is it all the way down at No. 11?

    Two reasons.

    For one, the Big Ten should be much deeper in 2014. It is still a lick below some of the other top leagues at the very top, but Minnesota and the 10 teams above it are all set up to be competitive this season.

    Secondly, the Gophers were not quite as good as their record—or at least their 10-game record—might have indicated in 2013. They were better than they had been in previous seasons, but they also won a couple of lucky games against Northwestern and Indiana. 

    This is not a team you want to play against, especially if you struggle in run defense. But it's also not a team that a good team should lose to.

    It's more of a litmus test than a legitimate Big Ten threat.

10. Indiana

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    2013 Record: 5-7

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): 2.3% (56)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 71.1% (47)

    Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell is gone to North Carolina, receiver Cody Latimer is gone to the NFL and co-starting quarterback Tre Roberson is gone to Illinois State. But with head coach Kevin Wilson, running back Tevin Coleman and co-starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld returning, Indiana's offense should remain great in 2014.

    And no, "remain great" was not a typo. Despite losing Coleman, their best player, to injury for the last few games of the season, the Hoosiers finished No. 16 in the country in offensive F/+. Clemson, Missouri and Oklahoma are among the teams that finished lower.

    Even with an awful defense in 2013, this team was still probably better than its 5-7 record indicated. Turnovers were its biggest undoing, and that is a stat that tends to normalize from season to season.

    In a different year's Big Ten, the Hoosiers might be fancied even higher on this list. Even if the offense takes a small step back, the defense has another year of experience and should be slightly better. The team as a whole should be slightly better.

    It just still may not be good enough to make a bowl game.

9. Maryland

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    2013 Record: 7-6

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): -1.4% (63)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 74.7% (27)

    If Maryland stays healthy, it could sneak up on some people in 2014. Even if it sneaks up on some people, however, its schedule is brutal enough to keep it from being a legitimate conference title contender.

    Still, what the Terps return this upcoming season is impressive on paper. Here's a thorough breakdown by Bill Connelly of SB Nation:

    Ignore everything you know about recent injuries, and see what the Terrapins return. A well-seasoned dual-threat quarterback. Starting running backs from both 2012 and 2013. The aforementioned five-star receivers (Stefon Diggs and Deon Long), plus the three exciting receivers who thrived in their absence. Five players with starting experience on a solid offensive line. The top five tacklers on a solid defensive line. Eight of last year's top 10 linebackers. Five of last year's top six defensive backs, plus the aforementioned 2012 starter (Jeremiah Johnson). A smattering of well-touted freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Basically everybody from a top-20 special teams unit.

    From a pure athleticism-and-potential standpoint, few teams in Maryland's new conference boast more talent than the Terps. And if the injury dice ever fall in favor of Randy Edsall's squad, they're a candidate for a pretty impressive breakthrough. If.

    Don't rule out at least one big upset from Randy Edsall's team this season. With C.J. Brown and Stefon Diggs on offense and Andre Monroe and Will Likely of defense, their is enough star power to fuel a couple of big wins. And with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State all on the schedule, there will be shortage of upset opportunity.

    But there is also no shortage of loss potential.

8. Penn State

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    2013 Record: 7-5

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): -0.1% (61)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 69.5% (65)

    Penn State finished strong in 2013, bouncing back from a tough overtime loss to Nebraska with a 31-24 upset at Wisconsin.

    Then-freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg played particularly well against the Badgers, completing 21-of-30 passes for 339 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. His QB rating of 208.92 was more than 40 points better than his previous career high.

    Despite another year of development, though, Hackenberg might find a rougher go of things in 2014. Star receiver Allen Robinson, who had 1,099 more receiving yards than any other Nittany Lion last season, is gone to the NFL, and the offensive line in front of Hackenberg could very well be the worst position group in the Big Ten.

    Penn State brings in a nice recruiting class, and new head coach James Franklin, who comes over from Vanderbilt, won with less talent against better competition in the SEC the past few seasons. He has this program heading back in the right direction—no doubt.

    It just feels like it is still one year away.

7. Nebraska

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    2013 Record: 9-4

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): 9.1% (39)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 60.53% (117)

    Nebraska is sound or better at almost every spot on the field; my problem with the Huskers, and the reason they cannot crack the top six of this list, is that the whole never seems to equal the sum of the parts—or at least under Bo Pelini, it doesn't.

    Did you know Nebraska has lost exactly four games in each of Pelini's six seasons? By extension, that means it hasn't lost less than four games in any of Pelini's six seasons. Schedule be damned, 127 FBS teams have lost three games or fewer in a season since Pelini took over in 2008. Nebraska as a program hasn't done it since 2003.

    There are reasons for this team to be hopeful, chief among them potential All-Americans on both sides of the ball in running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory. Sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong should be one year better, as well.

    This team is good enough, on paper, to win the new Big Ten West and compete for a conference title. But with so many lettermen departed and a coach I do not trust—even though he's been the runaway MVP of the offseason—I'll believe it from Nebraska when I see it.

6. Northwestern

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    2013 Record: 5-7

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): 2.0% (59)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 79.7% (7)

    I have gone public with my love for Northwestern in 2014, although some of that is schedule-related (and thus not germane to this list).

    Even without considering their schedule, though, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Wildcats this upcoming season. They are two years removed from a 10-win season, return as much experience as almost anyone in the country and have a head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, who always gets his team to play above its talent level.

    So why did Northwestern drop from 10 wins in 2012 to five wins in 2013? A litany of reasons. But most of it had to do with injuries and close-game bad luck—things that often normalize from year to year.

    "The last two years have been incredibly similar but very different," Fitzgerald told Adam Kramer of Bleacher Report. "The year prior, the eight to 10 plays that we needed to go our way did. Last year we won five games and very easily could have won 10."

    Star running back Venric Mark was granted a medical redshirt and sixth year of eligibility, which should keep the offense running at a high level despite the loss of quarterback-turned-labor reformist Kain Colter. And you know a Fitzgerald-coached team will play defense.

    Watch out for Northwestern as a Big Ten title contender.

5. Michigan

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    2013 Record: 7-6

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): 10.2% (37)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 68.7% (77)

    Man, what to make of this offense?

    Doug Nussmeier was poached from Alabama to help fix the pedestrian UM attack—especially with regard to offensive line play—but there are still too many question marks to count on. Is Devin Gardner the quarterback? If so, is he healthy enough to perform? Is there any way to generate a rushing game behind these blockers?

    Still, the Wolverines recruit well enough to at least be hopeful on that side of the ball. They did, after all, shred Ohio State's defense in "The Game" last season—and that was with Gardner on only one leg. How well can he play standing on two?

    The UM defense was underrated in 2013 and should be even better this season. Especially in the defensive backfield, where historically hyped prospect Jabrill Peppers joins names such as Raymon Taylor, Blake Countess and Jourdan Lewis, this unit is pretty stacked.

    Front-seven players such as Frank Clark, Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan—now playing in the middle of the defense and more than a year removed from ACL surgery—are tough to compare with, as well.

    This team is good enough (on paper) to compete with anyone.

4. Iowa

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    2013 Record: 8-5

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): 15.1% (29)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 71.9% (40)

    There are many similarities between Kirk Ferentz of Iowa and Gary Pinkel of Missouri, two long-tenured head coaches who were playfully "mocked" before last season (and even before that) for the size of their salary relative to their recent amount of success.

    Much was written about the redemption story of Pinkel in 2013, which made it easy to overlook the fantastic job Ferentz did in Iowa City. But make no mistake about it: The Hawkeyes appear to be back.

    This year, Ferentz returns a good deal of talent from a team that finished top-30 in the F/+ ratings and hung tight with LSU in the Outback Bowl. Chief among that talent is a pair of NFL-ready trench players—offensive tackle Brandon Scherff and defensive tackle Carl Davis—along with an underrated quarterback in Jake Rudock.

    If someone can step up to fill the talent/leadership void left behind at linebacker, where Iowa lost a historically productive trio of seniors, this team could once again compete for a Big Ten Championship.

    In that case, Ferentz would become the 2014 version of Pinkel.

3. Wisconsin

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    2013 Record: 9-4

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): 26.2% (19)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 65.8% (94)

    Wisconsin loses a lot of talent on defense and a pair of offensive players—running back James White and receiver Jared Abbrederis—that will be solid candidates for the UW Hall of Fame once eligible.

    But it is unwise to ever count out the Badgers.

    Despite scouts saying he would have been the top running back in the 2014 NFL draft, per Dan Parr of NFL.com, Melvin Gordon returned for his senior season and has to be considered a Heisman candidate in 2014. He'll be running behind a veteran offensive line and given a workload that should rival that of Kerwynn Williams (263 touches for 2,219 yards) under Gary Andersen at Utah State in 2012.

    And despite all the talent they lose in the defensive front seven, the Badgers do return their most important piece, coordinator Dave Aranda. His past two defenses—Utah State in 2012 and Wisconsin in 2013—have finished No. 7 and No. 9 in the defensive F/+ ratings, respectively. Not many coordinators can make a similar claim.

    This team will be fine once again next season.

2. Michigan State

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    2013 Record: 13-1

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): 32.1% (6)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 69.1% (71)

    Michigan State should take a small step back on defense and a small step forward on offense between last year and this year. Theoretically, the aggregate of those steps should result in a team that is roughly as good as the 2013 Big Ten and 2014 Rose Bowl Champion.

    The extent of how much better or worse these Spartans are than last year's version will depend on how much those units improve or decline. Will the losses at linebacker really cripple MSU's defense, or will Pat Narduzzi keep it running at its usual level? Can Connor Cook really be counted on to lead an offense week-in and -out all year?

    On both sides of the ball, there are pieces outside of those questions to be excited about. Trae Waynes and Shilique Calhoun are first-round NFL defensive prospects, and the MSU receivers are deeper than they have been in a long time (albeit lacking in star power).

    We'll learn a lot about this team at Oregon in Week 2.

1. Ohio State

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    2013 Record: 12-2

    2013 F/+ Rating (Rank): 29.9% (9)

    Returning Lettermen (Rank): 68.4% (80)

    Even on the heels of a two-game losing streak, Ohio State is the easy and logical favorite to win the Big Ten next season.

    Before that two-game losing streak, Urban Meyer had started his OSU tenure with 24 consecutive victories. He has recruited at a level that even SEC teams would envy and returns the two-time reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Braxton Miller.

    If new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, a secondary specialist, can rebuild a porous defensive backfield with highly touted youngsters, a dominant defensive line could make this pass defense quite good. The run defense should benefit from the line play as well.

    Do not be so fast to bet against the Buckeyes.