|Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press|
|The pressure is on Ohio State QB Braxton Miller to deliver in his senior season.|
As we take a look at the players that will be charged with replacing the 2014 draftees in the Big 10, here are some early (OK, way-too-early) Big 10 predictions from the College Football 24/7 team for the upcoming season:
Big 10 East winner
Chase Goodbread: Michigan State. The Spartans will break Ohio State hearts again in 2014, but this time they'll do it within their own division. Connor Cook returns at quarterback to lead what should be an effective offense. There are a number of defensive holes to fill, but MSU hosts both the Buckeyes and Michigan in East Lansing.
Mike Huguenin: Ohio State. The Buckeyes' defensive line should be tremendous, one of the three or four best nationally. The rushing attack should be even better than it was last season even without Carlos Hyde; the biggest concern will be keeping a deep group of running backs happy. QB Braxton Miller is poised for a big senior season. The offensive line is a question, as is the secondary. But the defensive line will make things easier on the secondary, and a plethora of top-level skill-position guys will help the rebuilt offensive line. Plus, the schedule is such that the Buckeyes shouldn't truly be tested until November. By that time, the offensive line and secondary should be just fine.
Bryan Fischer: Michigan State. Michigan State has both Ohio State and Michigan at home and that might be the difference in a relatively close division race. Connor Cook and the offense should continue to improve given what they return from last year's Rose Bowl team and Mark Dantonio will surely find a way to replace a number of starters on defense.
Big 10 West winner
Goodbread: Wisconsin. Who else is there to challenge the Badgers in this newly aligned division? Nebraska? Iowa? Unless the Cornhuskers of old are coming through the door, Wisconsin made out like bandits with this realignment. Melvin Gordon returns at running back for what should be a huge year now that backfield mate James White is gone.
Huguenin: Iowa. Yep, the Hawkeyes. Neither the Hawkeyes nor Wisconsin have to play division crossover games against Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State or Penn State, but Iowa gets its toughest division foes (Nebraska and Wisconsin) at home in the final two weeks of the regular season. Iowa's offense should be much improved over last season, and while replacing all three starting linebackers is going to be tough, the defensive front four and secondary look fine. Wisconsin lost its best (only?) wide receiver, its best linebacker, its best offensive lineman and its best defensive back, not to mention a solid nose tackle. And it says here that Iowa QB Jake Rudock will have a better season than whoever Wisconsin uses at quarterback.
Fischer: Iowa. Wisconsin certainly is one of the favorites in the West, but this just might be the year Kirk Ferentz lives up to his hefty contract. Jake Rudock is back under center and the skill-position players around him aren't bad at all. If he can avoid Iowa running back injury hex (AIRBHG), Mark Weisman should be a bowling ball coming out of the backfield and the secondary/defensive line should both be good enough to offset losses at linebacker. Plus, the Hawkeyes get the Badgers at home late in the season.
Team with best chance to win national title
Goodbread: Wisconsin. The Spartans, in truth, will probably be the better team. But the schedule sets up far more favorably for Wisconsin. If the Badgers can muster a season-opening win over an LSU team ravaged by NFL draft departures, they could sail for the next two months. Michigan State travels to Oregon early and gets Michigan and Ohio State in consecutive games, albeit with an idle week between them.
Huguenin: Ohio State. Truth be told, the Buckeyes aren't close to a sure thing to win their division. But the East is better than the West, and the Buckeyes do have a ton of talent and a coach who knows how to get the best from his players.
Fischer: Michigan State. Urban Meyer's Ohio State team will certainly have the edge in terms of being a bigger brand, but the Spartans will be able to state their case to the committee based on a strong schedule. A big non-conference win against a top-five team at Oregon would go a long way, but MSU has all of the big-league foes on the docket to keep the team in the conversation even if it falls to the Ducks. The defense should be good but the offense can also win games and they will likely be one of the most balanced teams in the final four if they make it there.
Top offensive player
Goodbread: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. He'll have to do more on his own this year with an inexperienced offensive line, but Miller remains the league's most dynamic offensive threat. He can beat defenses to the sticks on the ground at any time, and has improved as a passer. In one three-game Big Ten stretch last year, he completed 59 of 74 passes (80 percent) against Iowa, Penn State and Purdue.
Huguenin: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. He might have been the first running back taken in the 2014 draft, but he didn't feel he was totally NFL-ready. He should be by the end of this season. Gordon (6-foot-1, 207 pounds), a junior, is a dynamic playmaker who needs to show more toughness and that he knows how to catch the ball.
Fischer: Miller. Miller is already one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country and the departure of Carlos Hyde, among others, should do nothing but help put more of the focus on the signal-caller. He should improve as a passer with another offseason of work and he certainly has the wheels to scare defensive coordinators. A rebuilt offensive line remains a concern, but it's something Miller should be able to handle.
Top defensive player
Goodbread: Nebraska DE Randy Gregory. Gregory made the adjustment from junior college to the Big Ten look easy last year, so in 2014, it's on the league to adjust to him. Good luck. Gregory had 19 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries last season, all team-highs by a wide margin. Listed at 245 pounds, look for Gregory to add weight to his 6-6 frame this year.
Huguenin: Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun. This is a tough category, with Nebraska DE Randy Gregory and Ohio State DT Michael Bennett also worthy candidates. Calhoun (6-4, 257), a junior, had 7.5 sacks last season and should be a double-digit guy this fall. He is better against the run than Gregory, who also should reach double-figures in sacks. Michigan State again will be a defense-first team this season, and Calhoun figures to be the ringleader.
Fischer: Gregory. He has a good case to make that he's one of the top defensive players in the country let alone the Big Ten. He might even be college football's top defender. His numbers from last season were good, but 10.5 sacks seems low for the amount of pressure he applied to offenses coming off the edge. He might play a little heavier this season to do a bit better setting the edge, but if he keeps up his pass-rush motor, the phrase "man amongst boys" comes to mind.
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Coach of the year
Goodbread: Penn State's James Franklin. After turning Vanderbilt into a winning program, Franklin is the college game's poster coach for doing more with less. As with Vandy, he doesn't inherit much from Bill O'Brien due to NCAA sanctions. He won't threaten to win a division, but relative to expectations, he'll outperform every coach in the league.
Huguenin: Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. If the Hawkeyes win the West, Ferentz will be a shoo-in to finish in the top two of the voting. The key: Preseason expectations for the Hawkeyes won't be as high as they will be for Ohio State (or Michigan State, the East's other top contender), which will push Ferentz over the top.
Fischer: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald. The great collapse of 2013 will color a lot of people's minds, but Fitzgerald is a good coach and should have a talented team back in 2014. Will they win the Big Ten? That seems unlikely, but counting them out in the West seems like a bad move given there's not a ton of separation at the top. They have a decent home schedule and being in contention late in the season should be enough to earn him these honors in a bounce-back year.
Goodbread: Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott. Coming out of spring practice, Elliott is the favorite to take over for ex-Buckeyes star Carlos Hyde, now of the San Francisco 49ers. He's not as big as Hyde (6-0, 210), but has real explosiveness through the hole and averaged a whopping 8.7 yards per carry last season in limited action.
Huguenin: Michigan DE Frank Clark. He's going to be overshadowed at his position in this league by Calhoun and Gregory, but Clark -- who will be a senior this fall -- is an intriguing talent. He played a multitude of positions at perennial prep power Cleveland Glenville and was recruited by most schools at either wide receiver or linebacker. Michigan signed him in 2011 to play linebacker; he was 6-2 and 210 pounds at the time and now is 6-2 and 270 pounds. He remains raw when it comes to technique, but his athleticism is appealing. He had five sacks last season and should hit double digits in that category this fall. That athleticism will be a huge selling point to NFL teams.
Fischer: Ohio State H-back Dontre Wilson. Ezekiel Elliott figures to be the primary running back for the Buckeyes with Carlos Hyde out of the picture, but Wilson will contribute all over the field as a do-everything H-back. He should put up some impressive numbers as a slot receiver and with several carries per game in Urban Meyer's scheme.
Top returning senior
Goodbread: Iowa OT Brandon Scherff. Named Iowa's most valuable player on offense last year, Scherff is considered a potential first-round draft pick as the Hawkeyes' starter at left tackle. Scherff (6-5, 320 pounds) was named first-team All-Big Ten by the league's coaches and figures to be in the tackle-elite category of next year's NFL draft along with FSU's Cameron Erving, Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi, and if he declares early, Stanford's Andrus Peat.
Huguenin: Scherff. Scherff is strong, physical and can run. He should join recent Iowa offensive tackles Bryan Bulaga, Robert Gallery and Riley Reiff as a first-round pick. Scherff should be one of the top three tackles in the nation this fall and has a chance to go in the top 10 of the 2015 draft.
Fischer: Scherff. He doesn't have the frame that other top-flight left tackles do, but Scherff is likely a first-round pick if he turns in another season like he did in 2013. The offense should be improved and, if he keeps Jake Rudock upright, the Hawkeyes could find themselves well positioned in the Big 10 race.
Player with most on the line
Goodbread: Ohio State DE Noah Spence. Ohio State's sack leader last year with 8.5, Spence was suspended for three games (Orange Bowl, plus the first two games of 2014) after testing positive on a drug test. Reportedly, the family is planning a lawsuit against the Big Ten over the case. That's quite a cloud set to follow Spence, who returns for his junior season after being named All-Big Ten last season.
Huguenin: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. He thought about turning pro, but decided to stay for his senior season to improve his draft stock. Now, he needs to make that decision pay off. He is a great fit for coach Urban Meyer's version of the spread offense and is a true dual-threat quarterback. Still, he has to improve as a passer. The better he becomes in that facet of the game, the earlier he will hear his name called in the 2015 NFL Draft. If he doesn't noticeably improve, he could be a third-day selection.
Fischer: Michigan QB Devin Gardner. Michigan made the big splash in the offseason by hiring offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama, and Gardner figures to be the big benefactor in that move. He certainly had his moments last season at quarterback, but the pressure on him to perform will run even higher in 2014 with Nussmeier calling the shots. He has some good weapons (Derrick Green, Devin Funchess, etc.), but will have to deal with some turnover along the line. There's talk that this could be a make-or-break year for Brady Hoke after the regression the Wolverines have gone through during his tenure. So, you know, no pressure, Devin.
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