Best- and Worst-Case 2014 Scenarios for Every Big Ten Football Team
For the average college football fan, the offseason is a time of delusions. Whether they be delusions of grandeur for one's own team or delusions of squalor for one's rival, the fact that each team is 0-0 allows the imagination to run wild.
Technically, every team's best-case scenario next season is going 15-0 and winning the national title, and the worst-case scenario is going 0-12 before getting the "death penalty" for major NCAA infractions. But for the purposes of this list, let's ignore that.
Instead, let's take a look at the Big Ten and try to craft plausible best- and worst-case scenarios for the season: things that might be surprising but would definitely not be shocking should they occur.
Sound off below, and let me know what you think.
Wes Lunt or Aaron Bailey makes the quarterback decision easy this fall and becomes an instant superstar. Both have the raw talent to do so, and their emergence makes the transition to a new receiving corps feel smooth. A favorable schedule results in a 5-1 home record, which, combined with a late-season upset at Northwestern, helps the Illini finish 6-6, sneak into a bowl and save Tim Beckman's job.
Beckman can't decide between Lunt and Bailey all season, and the result is an offense with no week-to-week identity. A nonconference loss to either Western Kentucky or Texas State (both very possible) demoralizes the team before Big Ten play, and Beckman becomes like a "dead man walking." A brutal road schedule results in a 1-7 Big Ten and 3-9 overall record. Beckman is fired on November 30.
Nate Sudfeld is ready to be a full-time starter, Tevin Coleman stays healthy and, despite the loss of coordinator Seth Littrell, the offense trucks along at the same rate as last season (when it finished No. 16 in offensive F/+ rating). The defense is merely bad—as opposed to horrendously bad—and the Hoosiers hold serve to go 5-1 at home (losing only to Michigan State) and 2-4 on the road. They clinch a bowl berth at Rutgers on Nov. 15, add a seventh win against Purdue in the regular-season finale and beat an ACC team in the Pinstripe Bowl.
The offense struggles without Tre Roberson's mobility as an option under center and Littrell around to help call plays. Coleman gets nicked up throughout the year, the offense takes a small step back and the defense is just as bad as it was in 2013. A nonconference loss at Bowling Green and a home loss to Maryland mean a 1-3 start to the season, at which point the wheels start to come off. The Hoosiers finish 3-9, and head coach Kevin Wilson gets sacked.
The loss of last year's three star linebackers is mitigated by massive defensive tackle Carl Davis and the coaching of defensive coordinator Phil Parker. Jake Rudock takes the next step in his development, and the Hawkeyes take a small step forward on both sides of the ball. An insanely favorable schedule (only road games at Pittsburgh, Purdue, Maryland and Minnesota) results in a 10-2 regular season, a West Division title and a trip to the conference championship game.
Once there, the Hawkeyes upset undefeated Ohio State and sneak into the College Football Playoff discussion. They do end up in the Rose Bowl, which is considered a huge success.
The loss of Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris at linebacker is too much to overcome. The offense remains the same as last year's, but the run defense becomes a major weakness. Iowa has an outside shot at a division title entering the last two games against Wisconsin and Nebraska, but Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah run for 150 to 200 yards apiece. The Hawkeyes finish 7-6, a small step back from last season (and waste of an easy schedule).
After two years of horrendous injury luck, the football gods send karma in Maryland's direction, making it one of the healthiest teams in the country. C.J. Brown to Stefon Diggs becomes a dangerous combination for 12 full games, and the fans, galvanized by the move to the Big Ten, actually start showing up to the stadium. Maryland goes 2-1 in road games against Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State, loses home games to Ohio State and Michigan State but otherwise wins out to finish the regular season 9-3.
Capital One Bowl, here we come!
Everyone gets injured again…again. It turns out all these players are just fragile. With their skill players on the sideline and not enough size and depth to compete on a weekly basis, the move to the Big Ten gets ugly. Maryland gets exposed in the trenches and ends up in sloppy, ugly, low-scoring games that repel fans from the stadium each week. Even after starting the season well, a tough East Division schedule catches up to the Terps, who don't win a conference game until beating fellow newcomer Rutgers in the season finale.
Randy Edsall is fired, but all the big-name coaches Maryland is after (and thinks it has a shot at) do not reciprocate its interest. UMD hires the head coach of whichever team just won the MAC.
Devin Gardner plays each week like it's the Ohio State game. Doug Nussmeier gets the most out of the offensive line, and even though it still isn't a great unit, it's good enough to propel Derrick Green to a breakout season. Jake Ryan stays healthy, and Jabrill Peppers emerges as a Myles Jack-type two-way superstar. The Wolverines go 2-1 against Notre Dame in South Bend, Michigan State in East Lansing and Ohio State in Columbus, but they lose the division after dropping a conference game to a team they have no business losing to.
Gardner continues his Jekyll-and-Hyde ways, and Shane Morris isn't anything but a checkdown robot as his replacement. Nussmeier proves to be a product of Nick Saban's recruiting and can't get the offensive line or the running game off the ground.
The defense is decent but not good enough to compensate for another year of putrid, inconsistent offense. Michigan goes 6-6, and Michigan State and Ohio State both finish with one loss. The Wolverines lose most of their clout on the recruiting trail, and all of the blue-chip recruits in the area go to the Spartans or Buckeyes. Brady Hoke is fired, and Michigan's top choice to replace him, Jim Harbaugh, briefly flirts with the school before winning the Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers and turning down the job.
Connor Cook makes the leap that he hinted at making last season; mentor George Whitfield was right to tell Bryan Fischer of NFL.com that Cook "has the pilot light on inside." A deep group of receivers finally realizes its potential, leading to an offense reminiscent of the Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins days, and Pat Narduzzi keeps the defense at a top-10 national level. After losing at Oregon—the eventual Pac-12 champion—in Week 2, the Spartans win every other game on their schedule, including a home contest against Ohio State.
After winning the Big Ten Championship Game, MSU slides into the playoff (along with Oregon) and plays Florida State. We all get to see (in an obviously imperfect comparison) what might have happened if not for the bogus pass interference calls at Notre Dame in 2013.
Cook's early-season performance was more indicative of his skill than his late-season performance. The receivers continue to struggle with gaining separation, and a new-look offensive line has a hard time trying to jell. Attrition at defensive tackle and linebacker hurts the run defense, and even though the pass defense remains capable, teams are no longer intimidated when playing the Spartans. Michigan realizes its best-case scenario, and MSU loses all of its recruiting momentum after finishing 9-4 and playing in the Outback Bowl.
The locker room is empowered by the loss of Philip Nelson and the ascent of full-time starting quarterback Mitch Leidner. The passing game is serviceable, star freshman running back Jeff Jones is somehow ruled academically eligible (which is highly unlikely) and the running game is even better than last year. The defense remains plucky, and thanks to a manageable schedule, Minnesota finishes the regular season 8-4 for a second consecutive year.
Only this time, it also wins the bowl game.
The young group of wide receivers struggles once again to beat man-to-man coverage, allowing teams to stack the box against the run and stunting Leidner's development. The defense takes a small step back after losing Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen—its two best players—and the magic of last season is evaporated. After beating Purdue and Illinois to get to 5-3, the Gophers lose to Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin to finish 5-7 and miss a bowl.
Oh, you mean other than 10-4?
Tommy Armstrong follows through on the strides he made this offseason, when Bleacher Report's Erin Sorensen said he might be the Big Ten's most improved player, and gives the offense a renewed stability at quarterback. He, Abdullah, Kenny Bell and a typically solid offensive line help make Nebraska a top-15 national offense, and Randy Gregory leads the nation in sacks. The dominant defensive line allows the inexperienced secondary to grow into itself, and Nebraska overcomes a tough road schedule (at Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa) to win the West Division at 10-2.
In the Big Ten title game, the Huskers play their best four quarters of the season, exacting revenge on Michigan State for an October defeat. That does not put them in the College Football Playoff discussion, but a trip to the Rose Bowl is nothing to cry home about.
Oh, you mean other than 9-4?
Armstrong falls back into a battle with Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe during fall camp. The position remains unsettled throughout the season, leading to an offense that is consistently good but never great. Despite Gregory and the defensive line, the pass defense falls off a cliff. After splitting nonconference games against Fresno State and Miami, Nebraska loses all four conference road games (alluded to above) to finish 7-5. Having finally broken the curse of the four-loss season, but in a bad way, Bo Pelini is fired.
Bad luck in close games progresses to the mean—as it's supposed to—and Northwestern wins the one-score contests it lost a season ago. Venric Mark reverts to his 2012 form, Kyle Prater stays healthy and quarterback Trevor Siemian is more accurate as a full-time starter than he was last year. The unionization story brings the locker room closer together instead of splintering it, catalyzing a team with a manageable schedule that is one year removed from a 10-win season to win the West Division at 9-3 and crash the Big Ten title game.
There is no reason Northwestern can't be this year's Duke.
The late-game woes continue, Mark is a shell of his former self and Siemian's lack of mobility makes the absence of Kain Colter palpable.
On the field, that is. Colter can still be felt during the barrage of distracting questions the players must field about unionization—a story that comes to dominate the season and fractures the locker room. The Wildcats barely miss a bowl at 5-7 and hold their collective breath as Pat Fitzgerald's name pops up for every slightly bigger job opening all winter.
The defensive line stays healthy and emerges as the best in college football. New co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash fixes the secondary and becomes a Broyles Award candidate. Braxton Miller stays healthy, the new-look offensive line picks up where last year's group left off, Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson emerge as All-Big Ten players and the Buckeyes blow out every team on their schedule except Michigan State. The Spartans they beat on a late field goal in East Lansing.
After winning the Big Ten title game by 14 points, OSU enters the College Football Playoff undefeated. It beats ACC champion Clemson in the semifinal (a rematch of last year's Orange Bowl) and Alabama for the national championship. Urban Meyer proves that he can still beat Saban, and Ohio State proves it can beat the SEC.
The defensive line does not stay healthy, revealing a remarkable lack of depth. Ash does his best with the secondary, but the unit is too young to embrace the new scheme in year one. Miller is dinged up, and the lack of a viable backup quarterback costs the team a Big Ten road game it should have won. Personnel changes along the offensive line prove detrimental, and Elliott and Wilson show flashes but are not consistent enough to live up to their billing.
After a payback loss at Penn State and a close loss in East Lansing, the team lets its guard down and gets upset by Michigan in Columbus. Meyer spends the offseason studying post-graduate transfer options to start over Cardale Jones, Stephen Collier and J.T. Barrett at QB.
Herb Hand works a miracle on the offensive line, and although there isn't much depth, the group stays healthy and provides above-average blocking. Christian Hackenberg completes his transition into a more reliable Matthew Stafford, the three-headed monster in the backfield moves the chains and James Franklin's offensive expertise leads to a promising 9-3 season with another end-of-season win over a Top 15 team (this time Michigan State). Encouraged by the progress and empowered by Franklin's attitude, enough blue-chip prospects commit to PSU that the Nittany Lions land a top-10 national class.
(Note: I wanted to include the bowl ban being lifted, but it seems like a bit of a stretch at this point. Plus, I don't want to jinx it.)
The offensive line is as bad as it looked this spring, and Hackenberg takes a Devin-Gardner-in-2013 type beating. He is banged up all year, gets shut down early, stunts his development and declares in the offseason that he plans to turn pro after 2015. The defense remains strong against the run, but the secondary is still exploitable. Penn State finishes 6-6—just good enough that it should have been allowed to make a bowl—while regional teams such as Maryland and Virginia Tech flirt with double-digit wins. Recruiting takes a hit as a result.
What Darrell Hazell did at Kent State—going 5-7 his first season before 11-3 his second season—does not prove to be a fluke; two years is how long it takes for him to get going. Even though they don't make a bowl, the Boilermakers show seedlings of improvement a la Illinois in 2013. Also, after flirting with beating Notre Dame for two consecutive seasons, they finally manage to get over the hump.
Hazell is in over his head as a Big Ten head coach; he probably needed more experience running a smaller program before making the leap to a power conference. One of the directional Michigans (Western or Central) beats Purdue in the first two weeks, deflating the school before the Notre Dame game. In front of a jaded home crowd, the Boilermakers get blown out by the Irish and struggle for a half to beat Southern Illinois. Technically, going 2-10 would be an improvement on last year's 1-11...but it doesn't feel like one after the season.
Ralph Friedgen proves to be the smartest assistant coaching hire of the offseason; his previous head coaching experience lightens the burden on Kyle Flood, and the team comes out with a renewed sense of energy. Gary Nova cuts down the turnovers, and Leonte Carroo emerges as an All-Big Ten receiver. The schedule is not conducive to making a bowl, but beating either Penn State, Michigan or Wisconsin at home gives Rutgers a highlight from the season to build around.
Coaching turnover proves difficult for players to cope with, and the result is a jumbled mess. Washington State provides a tougher West Coast, season-opening opponent than Fresno State did last year, and after getting embarrassed by Mike Leach's team in Pullman, the wheels begin to fall off. Home wins against Howard and Tulane are the only of their kind, as Rutgers goes winless in its Big Ten debut. It has an even harder time recruiting than it did in the old Big East.
Melvin Gordon's per-carry numbers do not dip once he's given a bigger workload, and he becomes a Heisman candidate. Inexperience trips up LSU in the season opener, and even though the passing game and defense are a work in progress, the rush offense is good enough to carry the team. In time, 6'6" Tanner McEvoy becomes a poor man's Cam Newton, and Wisconsin takes advantage of a weaker schedule to run the table, win the Big Ten Championship Game and crash the College Football Playoff in a controversial decision over an SEC team that didn't win the conference. Skip Bayless talks for days about how Wisconsin is undeserving, thereby validating its deservingness.
A national semifinal matchup against Florida State—which isn't vulnerable anywhere, but is closer to being vulnerable against the run than it is at other spots—is contested throughout, but the Badgers' ride comes to an end in a nail-biter. Much ink is spilled comparing the year they just had to the year Auburn had in 2013.
Neither McEvoy nor Joel Stave distinguishes themselves in fall camp, and neither do any receiving options. With no pretense of a passing game, opponents stack the box to limit the effectiveness of Gordon and the offensive line. Losing Chris Borland and a whole host of other defensive starters proves difficult for Dave Aranda to handle, and although the group gets better as the season goes on, it never becomes legitimately good.
With the division on the line, Kinnick Stadium powers Iowa to a close win over the Badgers, who finish the year outside the Top 25.