At the start of the College Football Playoff era, it is hard to make sense of the Big Ten; one of the sport's most profitable and recognizable conferences has struggled to win big games against power-five teams and become a bit of a punchline.
At the same time, the B1G still had two teams—Michigan State and Ohio State—play in a BCS bowl last season, and both debuted in the Top 10 of this year's preseason Amway Coaches Poll. Wisconsin looked unchanged without Bret Bielema, and if Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa (none of which has fallen too far) can gain back some traction, that would give the league seven formidable programs.
Further complicating matters is a final bit of conference realignment, which this year introduces Maryland and Rutgers to the conference via the ACC and AAC, respectively. Both will join the newly formed East Division, which was divided from the West on a purely geographical basis (and appears to be much stronger in 2014).
But what does this all mean for the 2014 season? Will the new-look Big Ten forge a new, more-respected identity in the post-BCS college football world? And which teams are most likely to carry the banner?
Let's take a look at the odds board.
Note: These odds reflect the author's point of view on how likely each team is to make the CFP. They have not been crafted in the same way as Las Vegas lines: with the intent to draw action on certain sides. Instead, they represent how many times the season would have to be played for Team X to make the playoff once.
Full Odds Board
|Odds to Make College Football Playoff in 2014-15|
|Odds||2013 Record||2013 F/+ Rank|
|Source: Bleacher Report / Football Study Hall|
This one is pretty close.
Unlike the Big 12 and ACC, which begin the season with either large (Oklahoma) or overwhelming (Florida State) favorites, a good case could be made for two Big Ten teams as the lead dog entering 2014.
Unsurprisingly, those are the two teams that met in last year's conference championship game, Michigan State and Ohio State. But even though the Spartans won that evening, and even though that win was not a fluke, and even though the Buckeyes travel to East Lansing this season, the safe money remains on Urban Meyer.
Now entering his third year in Columbus, Meyer has a team that is far from perfect but less flawed than his previous OSU sides. Especially if new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash can patch up the secondary (where he specializes), a defense led by a terrifying front line might become the best in the conference.
Leading that front line is a trio of All-America candidates: Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence. Together they combined to put up 39 tackles for loss last season, 24.5 of which came in the second half of the schedule, once Bosa—then a true freshman—turned the proverbial corner and began to look unblockable.
Guys who weigh 285 pounds should not be able to do this:
Also returning is quarterback Braxton Miller, the two-time reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and a logical favorite to repeat for a third time this season. Now a senior, his experience and his knack for conjuring plays from thin air should help an offense that lost running back Carlos Hyde, receiver Corey Brown and the majority of an offensive line that might have been the best in the country.
The Buckeyes finished No. 4 in the preseason S&P+ projections at Football Study Hall, trailing only Florida State, Alabama and Oregon. That's nine spots ahead of Michigan State (No. 13). No other Big Ten team besides Wisconsin ranked in the top 30.
It is close—and the numbers reflect that—but going with Ohio State as the preseason favorite always feels pretty safe.
Northwestern won 10 games two seasons ago and started last year 4-0. Its fifth game was the Big Ten opener against Ohio State, and Evanston, Illinois—of all places—was the site of College Gameday.
The Wildcats led that game by three points, 30-27, with less than six minutes on the clock. Eventually, Hyde and the Buckeyes' offensive line became too powerful, OSU took the lead with 5:22 remaining and eventually won by 10 points, 40-30, after a meaningless touchdown on the game's final play.
That turned out to be a portent for Northwestern: both losing close games and allowing teams to score with zero seconds on the clock. The latter happened in a much-less-meaningless way at Nebraska:
And again the following week against Michigan:
All things told, the Wildcats lost seven straight games and missed the postseason in what was supposed to be a seminal year for the program. Unlike last year, they do not enter 2014 with much fanfare, and have actually found themselves in the news for off-field reasons (Kain Colter's push for unionization) instead of on-field ones.
But overlooking a Pat Fitzgerald-coached team would be unwise. Northwestern has always done better as an underdog—a role it has perpetually occupied—and injuries forced a ton of young players to see the field last season. According to Phil Steele's blog, the Wildcats return the 12th most experience in the country.
The most important returnee didn't play much in 2013, either. Running back Venric Mark, one of the most explosive scat-backs and punt returners in the country, missed most of the season with a fractured ankle but was granted a medical redshirt to return in 2014.
"He's trending to be ready to go for the season and things are moving in a positive direction," said Fitzgerald of Mark's status, per Skip Myslenski of NUSports.com.
Boy, what a boost that would be.
Together with senior quarterback Trevor Siemian (513 pass attempts since 2012), a massively underrated group of receivers and an offensive line that returns 100 career starts, Mark—if healthy—would help Northwestern field a dangerous offense. If his players can remain on the field, Fitzgerald always grooms a solid defense, too.
More than anything, though, the Wildcats have a nice schedule. Playing in the weaker West Division, they get two of their top competitors, Wisconsin and Nebraska, at home, and the one that they play on the road, Iowa, is a team they have always fared well against.
If they hold serve at Ryan Field and go 2-1 in road games against Iowa, Penn State and Notre Dame, Northwestern could enter the Big Ten Championship Game with one loss and a chance to crash the CFP.
It is likely? No. But it's not altogether unlikely, either. If you played out the season 35 times, I think it would happen at least once.
Note: For my more thorough breakdown of the Wildcats, click here.
One of these years, it'll happen. It almost has to happen.
Maryland cannot keep suffering injuries at such a disastrous clip. Two years ago, it was forced to play a walk-on freshman linebacker at quarterback, and last year—among many, many other things—it lost star receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long to the same season-ending injury (a broken leg) in the same game against Wake Forest.
On paper, what the Terps return in 2014 is among the best in the conference. As Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall explicates:
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.
College football is a complicated sport to predict; there are too many factors at play. But among the things we know for near-certain are that balance and experience matter. To compete, you must have players who have already competed, and in most (but not all) cases, they must be well dispersed over every position group.
In theory, Maryland has this. It has enough potential star power, too. Diggs was the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2012 recruiting class and has looked the part when healthy. C.J. Brown put up legit Heisman numbers in the first four games of last season. Andre Monroe had more tackles for loss (17) in 2013 than any returning player in the country other than Vic Beasley and Ryan Mueller.
The only thing holding this team back is injuries—which are supposed to be random from year to year—and a brutal schedule. The East Division is not as forgiving as the West, and cross-division games against Iowa and at Wisconsin are an unlucky draw.
Even if Maryland stays healthy and plays well all season, the schedule precludes it from reasonable CFP contention.
But this is a longshot bet; it isn't supposed to be reasonable. We don't know for sure what the ceiling on this group of players is, because they have never stayed together on the field for long enough. Why not take a shot on the unknown?
"Randy Edsall, despite what some say, is a good coach," said an opposing Big Ten assistant in the Athlon Sports 2014 College Football Preview magazine. It wasn't so long ago (2010-11) that he had UConn playing in the Fiesta Bowl.
And this team has a lot more talent than that UConn team.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT