Iowa Football 2014: Big Ten Conference preview
This is a period of flux for the Big Ten Conference.
Rutgers and Maryland have joined, prompting a realignment of divisions. But the nine-game league schedule won't go into effect until 2016. For now, Big Ten teams only play eight of 13 possible opponents.
Ohio State appeared to be a national title contender until quarterback Braxton Miller was lost for the season. Still, the Buckeyes are expected to be very good and help the league's balance of power tilt toward the East Division.
Will anybody from the West make a serious run at the first-ever College Football Playoff?
While you ponder that, keep an eye on these 2014 storylines in the now-14-team Big Ten.
1. Squeezed out?
At least one of the Power 5 conferences will be eliminated from the four-team tournament. Perhaps two. Most of the pundits expect the Southeastern Conference (which has eight teams in the first Associated Press top25 poll) to get one bid if not two. Defending champion and top-ranked Florida State could roll through the Atlantic Coast Conference, while Oregon is a perennial neon nemesis in the Pac-12. Oklahoma is talented, but could get tripped up by the Big 12's round-robin format.
Where does that leave the Big Ten? Well, you can quietly root for the Buckeyes or Michigan State to stay unbeaten, or hope teams like Wisconsin win marquee nonconference matchups and give the entire league a boost. The Badgers open against Louisiana State.
2. A new network
When commissioner Jim Delany introduced the Big Ten Network, people chuckled. Then, they saw the payoff. Now, everybody seems to want to do it (except the Big 12). The SEC Network launched Aug. 14, and it'll be interesting to see if it adds muscle to SEC commissioner Mike Slive's 14-team behemoth. That could be bad for the Big Ten, and everybody else.
3. Heisman hopeful
It's been eight years since the Big Ten produced a Heisman Trophy winner (Ohio State's Troy Smith in 2006). That's pretty significant, considering the conference boasted five winners from 1991 to 2006. With the Buckeyes' Miller out for the season with a shoulder injury, Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon could emerge as a front-runner. Gordon rushed for 1,609 yards in 2013, averaging 7.8 per carry.
4. Buyer beware
Yeah, we get it. Adding Rutgers to the Big Ten opens doors to all those television households in the New York market. But what about competitive value? The Scarlet Knights have finished a season ranked among the top 25 just once in the past 38 years. And they finished 6-7 in 2013, losing six of their last eight games. Unless Rutgers improves, this will be an on-field fiasco.
5. West winner?
Critics may scoff at the West Division, but it could be a wild ride. Wisconsin must replace 24 seniors, but has a favorable schedule. Nebraska will find out if Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the answer at quarterback. As for the Hawkeyes, no team on their schedule is unbeatable, but you wouldn't necessarily be shocked if any opponent jumped up and bit them.
That sort of suspense should keep us entertained all the way through November.