With the 2014 college football campaign looming and the preseason in full swing, let’s take one last whip around the FBS to top off our talking points, shall we? Previously: the SEC, the ACC, and the Pac-12. Next up: the Big Ten, growing ever bigger and ever further away from actually having 10 teams.
Spotlight Team: Michigan State
The narrative on the 2014 Spartans will be scripted early this season, perhaps unfairly, thanks to a Week 2 trip to Eugene that has us forgetting everything we’ve ever heard about the dangers of looking ahead. This is where we have an advantage as consumers and not producers of football goods and services: While Michigan State’s coaches and players must pay lip service to the idea of dogged preparation for a visit from Jacksonville State in Week 1, we are free, in our preseason fantasias, to fast-forward through an unspectacular season-opening week and go right for the good stuff: one of the sport’s most electrifying offenses versus an utterly stultifying defense, a Rose Bowl regular program versus the defending Rose Bowl champs, in a loud-as-hell venue with an evening kickoff. Are we there yet?
Four players off Pat Narduzzi’s 2013 Spartans defense are currently on NFL rosters, but deadly defensive end Shilique Calhoun returns, alongside such highly skilled elements as Kurtis Drummond at safety, Trae Waynes at corner, and Taiwan Jones at linebacker. And here’s one matchup that just got crucial: With Oregon losing left tackle Tyler Johnstone to a fall camp ACL tear, it’ll be Narduzzi’s rushers versus Marcus Mariota’s blind side.
With an effort, we move on to actual Big Ten things: The Spartans don’t get into league play until Week 6, when they host Nebraska, and they have a manageable conference slate from there, getting Regular Michigan in East Lansing and Ohio State at home following a bye week. Strong division race stakes should be in play by that point,1 and the Buckeyes are likely to enter Week 11 undefeated, having played through September and October without facing any sterner opponents than Virginia Tech and Cincinnati, both in Columbus.
Michigan State returns quarterback Connor Cook, who finished 2013 on a hot streak; every running back of significance, including 2013 breakout star Jeremy Langford; and every receiver not named Bennie Fowler. That bumper crop of skill players will be operating behind a line undergoing moderate renovations, and from this distance, the Spartans’ season looks as though it will hinge on whether the offense has leveled up enough to offset the household names missing on defense.
Big Ten Story Time
Four absorbing plotlines to follow into the mists in 2014.
• Lucky Bucks? As mentioned above, Ohio State is already a very good football team, with a chance to be further elevated by a favorable schedule. That doesn’t mean “replete with baked goods” so much as “winnable,” and “winnable” doesn’t necessarily mean “will win”: The Buckeyes enter 2014 on a two-game losing streak, and got an offseason makeover on defense with the addition of new co-coordinator Chris Ash. But even after losing first-round draft picks Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby on defense, star running back Carlos Hyde and receiver Corey Brown on offense, and the vast majority of last year’s O-line,2 the Buckeyes seem set up for league success.
For something like the 27th year in a row, Braxton Miller returns at quarterback, at full strength following spring shoulder surgery but on a pitch count early in fall camp. His next three most frequent pass targets behind Brown (Devin Smith, Evan Spencer, and Jeff Heuerman) are all seniors this year. The race to replace Hyde hasn’t quite shaken out yet, with front-runner Ezekiel Elliott out following wrist surgery, though he’s expected back by the Buckeyes’ season opener. And speaking of the opener, Ohio State has two games high on our watch list to kick off the season: at Navy3 in Week 1 and versus Virginia Tech in Week 2.
• In From the Coast. If we’re picking favorites between incoming Big Ten initiates Rutgers and Maryland, and we absolutely are doing that,4 we’re taking the Terps. Both programs face first-year conference schedules that should qualify as some bureaucratic form of hazing, but Maryland’s slate sets up a little smoother, with Ohio State and Michigan State coming to College Park and Michigan and Wisconsin on the road. That doesn’t sound easy, but it’s easier than the Scarlet Knights’ road, which sends them to Ohio State and Nebraska in consecutive weeks, and then to Michigan State in November. Also, this seems like as good a time as any to start counting on the law of averages to produce a season in which the Terps aren’t absolutely and repeatedly gored by injuries. Seeing Deon Long and Stefon Diggs happy and healthy gives us fuzzy feelings; let’s keep them that way this year, if it’s not too much trouble.
• It’s the Depth, Dummy, Cont’d. Penn State’s motif struggle hasn’t changed since we last visited the Big Ten in the spring. Here’s what we said in April:
NCAA-levied sanctions cast reverberations that the Nittany Lions’ roster will feel for years to come, and right now, those depth issues are directing recruiting, affecting practices, and throwing echoes around at the team’s most storied position. Every team has these issues. Penn State just has lots of them. … This is not meant to be a bleak outlook, so take heart: Shallow depth means playing time for lots of young guys. At lots of different positions.
The Nittany Lions also lost Bill O’Brien, the head coach who joined them at the very bottom of the post-Sandusky scandal crater, to the NFL. Places to look for hope in Happy Valley: First, of course, to quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the program’s first sophomore captain, who came perilously close to a 3,000-yard passing season last year as a true freshman. Next, to the running backs, where the Nittany Lions return an alliterative pair of seniors who could each clear 1,000 yards in Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak.
Penn State opens the season against defending Fiesta Bowl champs Central Florida in Ireland for reasons we’ve never found entirely compelling, and has a not-horrific regular-season schedule that gives it Ohio State and Michigan State at home and skips Wisconsin and Nebraska. Still, the Nittany Lions won’t contend for the conference this year, and shouldn’t even threaten the upper echelon of a gnarly East division, but with James Franklin now helming this thing — and James Franklin would be the first to tell you this — it shouldn’t take too many seasons to flip that script. Franklin himself is another avenue of hope: The native son seems likelier to stick around than other coaching hotshots, which means we might one day get our first glimpse of what a Franklin program looks like long term. We tend to forget we’ve yet to see that.
• BO ASCENDANT, BO ETERNAL. Before we retire to our cattery salons to pick out Nebraska’s four losses for this season5 and speculate whether Ameer Abdullah will hit 2,000 rushing yards before or after the Huskers’ bowl, can we just take a moment to make vague waving finger circles at Bo Pelini and say, “We love whatever it is you’re doing here”? Almost a year ago, after that bullshit audio sabotage job, we were pretty well convinced that a fast postseason exit would be the quickest route to human happiness for both Pelini and his administration, and this was before the “If they want to fire me, go ahead” press conference. The offseason sloughed along, and Pelini stayed, and then he brought a cat to the spring game, and modeled the Huskers’ new uniform. He seems generally pleased to be hurtling into another season in Lincoln, and somehow none of this is coming across as an image remake or inspiring any cognitive dissonance. Bo Pelini is not retconning himself; Bo Pelini is now a very amped-up, top-blowing coach who inspires chill behavior in house cats. Having no Big Ten allegiances to speak of, we would very much like for him to stay forever, if it suits him.
Who’s That Guy? Indiana’s Tevin Coleman!
Who’s That Guy? is an orientation tool for use in college football’s vast landscape, and is filmed in front of a live studio audience.
Who Is He? Indiana running back Tevin Coleman.
Where Is He From? Tinley Park, Illinois.
Years Played: Coleman is entering his junior season. He played in all 12 of Indiana’s games as a true freshman and started nine as a sophomore before missing the balance of the season with an ankle sprain.
Follow the Bouncing Ball: The Hoosiers’ antics on offense in 2013 (more than 38 points scored per game!) were overshadowed somewhat by their steadfast indifference to defense (more than 38 points allowed per game!), and under that veil went Coleman, who recorded 958 yards rushing and 193 receiving before the aforementioned injury prevented him from competing against Wisconsin, Ohio State, or Purdue.
Bio Tidbit: Coleman’s hometown is also the home of the series of UFO encounters referred to as the “Tinley Park Lights.”
Social Media Presence: Coleman can be found on Twitter at @Teco_Raww, dispensing oceanographic trash talk with simple elegance:
Career Highlight: Coleman’s last outing of 2013 was also his greatest: a 215-yard, two-touchdown performance against Illinois.
Should We Know Him? Coleman returned to practice healthy and will be running behind an entirely intact offensive line, so it comes down to personal choice: Is this what you want football to be? Raised on the notion of 17-13 being a respectable football score, we tend to delight in the novelty of teams that do things like rank 17th nationally in scoring and 117th nationally in scoring allowed, but the decision is yours. If your decision is the same as ours, look out for Coleman. He’ll be the one who looks like a runaway laser pointer wearing this majestic helmet:
Lesser luminaries of the league destined for bigger things in 2014.
• Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin. We’ve previously compared Wisconsin’s running back pipeline to a Skee-Ball machine, in which one is taken away and another clacks into its place without delay. The Badgers’ recent history at the position has a kind of mechanized continuity to it: Montee Ball to James White, and James White to Melvin Gordon, and Melvin Gordon to Corey Clement. Gordon and White netted more than 3,000 combined rushing yards in 2013, and while Gordon returns, White’s now off being a Patriot. Next!6
• Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State. Who wants a piece of the 6-foot-5, 285-pound guy who started 10 games for Ohio State in 2013, recording 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks … as a freshman? And who does backflips?
Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan. Offered by Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Stanford, UCLA, and pretty much every other prestige program out there, the consensus five-star out of Paramus, New Jersey, already has the respect of his coordinator.
Reply Hazy; Try Again Later. Any number of Big Ten coaches could find themselves forcibly ejected at the close of 2014. Michigan’s Brady Hoke is probably staring down the angriest booster base, but the Wolverines could get to nine wins without too many improbabilities rolling their way. There’s Kyle Flood and his not-lustrous record at Rutgers, but surely he deserves a break for diving into the East division? Meanwhile, nobody knows what the next clash between Pelini and the Nebraska brass might bring. The toastiest of the bunch is probably Tim Beckman, who’s gone 6-18 in two years with the Illini and will field a team that must travel to Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Ohio State this year.
Early Must-Watch Game, Conference Category
Everything else in September pales in comparison to Michigan State at Oregon in Week 2. Ohio State at Navy will look patriotic as hell over Labor Day weekend, and the smashiness of Wisconsin-LSU in Houston will be a highlight of Week 1, but we’ll all have one eye pointed toward all of that green in Autzen until the evening of September 6, at which time we will put both eyes there, and leave them there in tribute.7
Early Must-Watch Game, Nonconference Category
Appalachian State returns to Michigan in Week 1, producing a problematic set of circumstances in which Michigan will have to win by gobs and gobs of points to put the ghosts of 2007 to rest, and in which even if the Wolverines trounce the Mountaineers, we’re going to have to talk about it, because of that one time they did not. Also of interest: Michigan at Notre Dame in Week 2, and Nebraska at Fresno State in Week 3.
Big Ten 2014 Fall Must-Have Fashion Item
Iowa passes the midseason mark undefeated, manages to lose to Maryland,8 recovers, and goes on to win 10 games. Kirk Ferentz gets another contract extension. Oceans rise; mountains fall; the world spins on.