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Big Ten preview: Conference looking for national respect

Andrew A. Nelles/Associated Press
Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun is a strong Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

The 16-season BCS era wasn't all that kind to the Big Ten.

The league had just one national championship during that span, with Ohio State winning it all after the 2002 season. And the Buckeyes also were the only league team to make it to the title game (they also lost in 2006 and '07).

In addition, the Big Ten was 13-15 in BCS bowls overall -- far behind the SEC and Pac-12 and also worse than the Big East/AAC among the "power" conferences. It was a few percentage points better than the Big 12 (.464 winning percentage to .454 for the Big 12), and a lot better than the ACC (.277).

The dawn of the playoff era lends hope that the Big Ten can improve its reputation, and league commissioner Jim Delany said late last month that it was important for the conference to win a national title. Michigan State and Ohio State made it into the BCS last season, and those appear to be the two strongest league teams this season. But Braxton Miller's injury removes the Buckeyes as a viable playoff contender. Can Michigan State do enough to get into the four-team playoff field? It likely would mean running the table.

The conference definitely has been re-energized of late by some of the coaching hires, with Urban Meyer at Ohio State and James Franklin at Penn State, in particular, shaking things up on the recruiting trail.

Now it's time for the conference to win some important games in January.

Predicted finish


East Division
1. Michigan State: If the Spartans win at Oregon on Sept. 6, this team could go unbeaten.
2. Ohio State: With QB Braxton Miller out for the season, the Buckeyes' title hopes -- both Big Ten and national -- took an unsurvivable hit. This remains a talented team with what might be the nation's best defensive line, but no Miller means the offense is going to struggle at times.
3. Michigan: Brady Hoke's seat is at least a little warm, and the Wolverines have to show more toughness on both sides of the ball.
4. Penn State: QB Christian Hackenberg is a rising star, but there are issues along the O-line and at WR.
5. Maryland: Will the Terps be able to run effectively? If so, they should go bowling.
6. Indiana: The offense will be fine. The defense? It could be ugly. Again.
7. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights were a middling team in the AAC, and this is a big step up.

West Division
1. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz likes to win with tough defense and a strong rushing attack. He has both -- and an easy schedule.
2. Wisconsin: TB Melvin Gordon is a given. But will the passing attack do anything?
3. Nebraska: TB Ameer Abdullah and DE Randy Gregory are big-timers, but passing attack and secondary are big concerns.
4. Northwestern: The offense was a disappointment last season, and the Wildcats have to be able to run the ball effectively this fall.
5. Minnesota: This is a respectable program now, and coach Jerry Kill deserves a ton of credit. But can the Gophers pass at all?
6. Illinois: Tim Beckman is on the hot seat, and unless transfer QB Wes Lunt has a big season, that seat is just going to get hotter.
7. Purdue: Darrell Hazell is in the second year of what looks to be a four-year rebuild. The offense was brutal last season, but how much better can it get?

The BCS is gone, replaced by the College Football Playoff. It's the dawning of a new and exciting era, with a four-team playoff starting this season. CFB 24/7 presents a primer to get you ready.

More:
» CFB Playoff Picture: If the season ended today
» Latest College Football Playoff rankings
» CFB 24/7 Top 25 Power Rankings
» AP Top 25: FSU remains No. 1
» Updated bowl projections: Hundley vs. Petty?

National title contender


Michigan State: The Spartans are as tough physically as anybody in the Big Ten, and the defense is going to be stout. Michigan State has a huge Sept. 6 game at Oregon. Win that and the Spartans become a big-time playoff contender; lose that and the outlook becomes murkier.

Offensive Player of the Year


TB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Miller's injury means Gordon (6-foot-1, 213 pounds) is the league's best Heisman hope. He is one of the top two running backs nationally and has 1,800-yard potental this season. He has good speed and explosiveness, and almost 25 percent of his rushing attempts (50 of 206) went for at least 10 yards last season. In the past two seasons combined, he has had seven runs that covered at least 50 yards.

Defensive Player of the Year


DE Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State. Calhoun (6-5, 256), a senior, might have been the most talented Spartans defender last season, and that's saying something, considering they led the nation in total defense. He will have a number of challengers for this honor, including Nebraska DE Randy Gregory and Ohio State DE Joey Bosa and DT Michael Bennett, but Calhoun's all-around game is impressive. He is a physical guy who is tough against the run, but he also can rush the passer. He had 7.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and 18 quarterback hurries last season, and should improve on all those numbers this season. Besides being a physical player, Calhoun is an excellent athlete (he averaged a double-double in basketball in high school in New Jersey).


14 for '14 series:
CFB 24/7 counts down the 14 college football players or coaches to watch in varying categories in 2014.

» Top small-school prospects
» Impact freshmen in college football
» Top rivalries in college football
» Top personalities in college football
» Best uniforms in college football
» Best stadiums in college football
» Biggest hitters in college football
» Hot coordinators in college football
» Best recruiters in college football
» Hot-seat coaches in college football
» Best coaches in college football
» Best names in college football
» Heaviest players in college football
» Smallest players in college football
» Top celebrity college football fans
» Top Heisman Trophy candidates
» Most explosive athletes in college football
» Most versatile players in college football
» Most freakish athletes in college football
» Scariest players in college football
» Fastest players in college football
» Toughest players in college football
» Smartest players in college football
» Most physical players in college football
» College football players with best intangibles

Breakout player


QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: We're cheating some here because he put up good numbers as a true freshman last season. Still, assuming he makes the jump normally associated with rising-star players between their first and second seasons, he should be one of the top five quarterbacks, regardless of class, this fall, which would set him up for a huge 2015 season. Hackenberg is a special talent with all the needed physical tools. The biggest question with Hackenberg this fall is who becomes his go-to receiver. It seems likely that it will be sophomore Geno Lewis (6-1, 201), who should have a breakout season of his own.

Player on the spot


QB Jake Rudock, Iowa: This could be a memorable season for the Hawkeyes. The non-conference schedule isn't all that taxing (a visit to Pitt will be tough, though), and the Hawkeyes avoid Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State in Big Ten division crossover games; in addition, the two toughest league games are at home (Wisconsin and Nebraska, in the final two weeks of the regular season). Rudock, a junior, performed adequately as a first-time starter last season, throwing for 2,383 yards and 18 TDs. But he also tossed 13 picks, and making that many mistakes this season won't cut it. If he can be in the low 20s in TD passes and keep the interception total around eight or so, the Hawkeyes will be in excellent shape because the running game is going to be strong and the defense solid. Indeed, if he plays that well, Iowa should win the West.

Three best non-conference games


LSU vs. Wisconsin (in Houston), Aug. 30: Two teams that want to win with their running games and a stout defense. LSU looks to have more speed -- and the better defense.
Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6: The best non-conference game of the season nationally? It looks that way. And it's an intriguing finesse-vs.-brawn matchup, too.
Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 6: This is the final time these teams are scheduled to play, so be prepared to hear about that ad nauseum leading into the game. But it has some on-field intrigue, too; for starters, a Michigan win would mean the Wolverines will be better than most expect this season.

Three biggest conference games


Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 8: This almost certainly will determine the East Division winner. It also should identify the league's most-likely playoff participant.
Wisconsin at Iowa, Nov. 22: The first of two huge back-to-back games that will determine the West Division title.
Nebraska at Iowa, Nov. 28: And this Friday contest is the second of two huge back-to-back games that will determine the West Division title.

Preseason All-Conference Team


Offense


QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (6-4, 234, sophomore)
RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska (5-9, 195, senior)
RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin (6-1, 213, junior)
WR Stefon Diggs, Maryland (6-0, 190, junior)
WR Shane Wynn, Indiana (5-7, 167, senior)
TE Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State (6-5, 255, senior)
T Tyler Marz, Wisconsin (6-5, 321, junior)
T Brandon Scherff, Iowa (6-5, 320, senior)
G Zac Epping, Minnesota (6-2, 318, senior)
G Dan Feeney, Indiana (6-4, 307, sophomore)
C Brandon Vitabile, Northwestern (6-3, 300, senior)

Defense


DE Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State (6-5, 256, junior)
DT Michael Bennett, Ohio State (6-2, 288, senior)
DT Carl Davis, Iowa (6-5, 315, senior)
DE Randy Gregory, Nebraska (6-6, 248, junior)
LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern (6-3, 235, senior)
LB Mike Hull, Penn State (6-0, 232, senior)
LB Jake Ryan, Michigan (6-3, 236, senior)
CB Desmond King, Iowa (5-11, 190, sophomore)
CB Trae Waynes, Michigan State (6-1, 182, junior)
FS Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State (6-1, 202, senior)
SS Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern (5-11, 205, senior)

Special teams


K Brad Craddock, Maryland (6-0, 185, junior)
P Mike Sadler, Michigan State (6-0, 175, senior)
KR Kenny Bell, Nebraska (6-1, 185, senior)
PR Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa (6-0, 205, senior)

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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