CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: Big Ten Predictions

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As the 2014 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we will be examining the Big Ten. 

And while we’re at it, check out our CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository for our team’s looks at the upcoming season.

BIG TEN EAST

1. Michigan State (Last year: 13-1; beat Stanford in Rose Bowl)
Michigan State will have the best defense in the Big Ten, despite losing some key players from 2013. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will figure out how to get the most out of his defense and players like defensive end Shilque Calhoun and safety Kurtis Drummond will help make that task easier. The defending champs will be unlikely to start so slow on offense this season, as they did in 2013, with quarterback Connor Cook back and seasoned (and most importantly, confident). Michigan State’s offense should be balanced and reliant on the run with Jeremy Langford coming off 1,422 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Getting Ohio State at home is key as far as Big Ten play is concerned, but a week two trip to Oregon could keep the Spartans playing catch-up in the playoff discussion from the start.

2. Ohio State (Last year: 12-2; lost to Clemson in Orange Bowl)
Here’s the thing with Ohio State. With or without quarterback Braxton Miller, Ohio State may still be the best team in the Big Ten this season, but with Miller lost for the entire season the idea of Ohio State running through the regular season unscathed becomes much less likely. In a season that was expected to be layoff or bust, the Buckeyes may have already gone bust, but this is still a talented team that could be favored in every game of the season, with the likely exception of a road trip to East Lansing in early November. JT Barrett will take over under center, lacking much experience and with a fraction of the potential of a healthy Miller, but the Buckeyes will find some ways to make it work. Afterall it is not as though the rest of the roster is lacking for players ready to leave their mark. Look for Ohio State to get a bit tougher on defense this season, with Michael Bennett anchoring the defensive line and Noah Spence on the edge after serving a suspension.

3. Michigan (Last year: 7-6; lost to Kansas State in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl)
Is this the year Brady Hoke turns the Michigan trends back in his favor? Only a handful of players on the roster now were not recruited by his staff, so his stamp is officially on this Michigan football program. The addition of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier comes with high expectations for improving the offense, which was dismal at times in protecting quarterback Devin Gardner and protecting the football. This was a team on the brink of losing at home to Akron but a play away from taking out Ohio State. You try figuring this Michigan team out. Moving tight end Devin Funchess to wide receiver was needed to improve the receiving position and should work well, and the running backs look to improve as well. Michigan’s defense is in the most in need of improving, cutting down on big plays allowed being the biggest concern. Adding star recruit Jabrill Peppers at defensive back could give a boost in that area.

4. Penn State (Last year: 7-5)
The James Franklin era gets underway with great enthusiasm but lingering concerns over roster depth. Penn State will have the talent at positions to do some good things and win a game they probably shouldn’t along the way (Ohio State and Michigan State at home?), but the depth concerns to lose a game they probably should not (Indiana in Bloomington, again?). The light at the end of the tunnel is there for Penn State, which is good news. Penn State also has one of the best young quarterbacks in the nation with sophomore Christian Hackenberg. Offensive line concerns are legitimate of course, as they have been for years, but if Hackenberg stays healthy the offense can be effective. The defense on the other hand, could use some playmakers and some more brute force up front to bring pressure on opposing QBs and close down running lanes.

5. Maryland (Last year: 7-6; lost to Marshall in Military Bowl as ACC member)
Maryland receives no favors on the schedule in their debut season as a member of the Big Ten, but the Terrapins join the new conference with possibly the best wide receiver unit in the conference. Stefon Diggs has the ability to break open a big play at any moment, and he plays in a division that sees some weaknesses in secondaries all over (except Michigan State). And do not forget about Levern Jacobs and Deon Long. Maryland’s biggest concern is keeping quarterback C.J. Brown upright to be able to get those receivers the football. The defense hit walls against explosive offenses in 2013 but returns a good number of upperclassmen, which is usually nice. A fourth-place finish is not all that unrealistic, but probably a reach for Maryland in 2014.

6. Indiana (Last year: 5-7)
The Hoosiers have an offense that is capable of giving every team in the Big Ten some fits. Credit head coach Kevin Wilson for making that happen since he arrived in Bloomington, but the defense is not a unit that will cause much fear on a weekly basis. The Hoosiers averaged 38.4 points per game last season, but the defense allowed 38.8 points per game. If the defense can just improve a little bit, then the Hoosiers should be seriously thinking about making plans for a postseason bowl game. It could be a rough start with the schedule though with road games at Bowling Green and Missouri. Getting to six wins may be a reach for Indiana unless they can get off to a good start. Running back Tevin Coleman could become one of the top running backs int he Big Ten.

7. Rutgers (Last year: 6-7; lost to Notre Dame in Pinstripe Bowl)
Rutgers is going to have a tall mountain to climb in year one in the Big Ten. Rutgers must go on the road to Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State and hosts Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. Getting to six wins to return to the postseason is a reach for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers does add Ralph Friedgen as offensive coordinator, which should result in some better scheming and preparation, but Gary Nova is still the best option at quarterback and Rutgers has lost some key players over the last couple of years. Experience is thin. The defense could be picked apart by most teams n the schedule, which should be a constant area of focus for Rutgers.

BIG TEN WEST

1. Wisconsin (Last year: 9-4; lost to South Carolina in Capital One Bowl)
The Badgers fell shy of playing for yet another Big Ten championship last season, but now in a new division it looks as though Wisconsin has the easiest road to travel back to Indianapolis this fall. The Badgers will be led by one of the top running backs in the country, Melvin Gordon, and have a schedule worthy of legitimate playoff consideration if things go their way. A season-opening game against LSU in Cowboys Stadium is far from impossible and a home game against Bowling green should deserve more respect than it may get. Avoiding Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State in crossover games is nice too. On offense there is a need to see some players step up to support Gordon and quarterback Joel Stave needs to be a bit more consistent. The defense will be good, not great, but needs to find a way to create more turnovers in 2014.

2. Iowa (Last year: 8-5; lost to LSU in Outback Bowl)
The Hawkeyes may not dazzle with their style of play, but it should be effective enough to make a realistic run to an appearance in the Big Ten championship game. The Hawkeyes are anchored on the offensive line by left tackle Brandon Scherff and the rest of the line should do well in creating space for running back Mark Weisman. Iowa’s offense is designed to win some ugly games, and the defense should be capable of allowing for that to happen. Defensive tackle Carl Davis will lead the way up front along with defensive end Drew Ott. Iowa allowed just 18.9 points per game last season. The most challenging game on the schedule before late November may be a road game at Pittsburgh, but Iowa ends the regular season with Wisconsin and Nebraska at home on back-to-back weeks, with the division potentially on the line and Iowa in control of its own path.

3. Nebraska (Last year: 9-4; beat Georgia in Gator Bowl)
Nebraska will also have one of the top running backs in the Big Ten and the nation with Ameer Abdullah, but the Cornhuskers have some work to do in improving the supporting cast to become a top contender in the Big Ten. The Huskers will have some help on the defense with Randy Gregory entering the season as one of the top defensive ends in the conference, but Nebraska’s defense is a long time removed from the great defenses of the past. Bo Pelini‘s team has been consistent with the win total, but inconsistent on a game-to-game basis at times. With road games at Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa, it looks like Nebraska could be staring at another nine-win season.

4. Minnesota (Last year: 8-5; lost to Syracuse in Texas Bowl)
Head coach Jerry Kill has done a tremendous job with building something at Minnesota, but the bar may have been reached by the Gophers for now. Minnesota needs to see big leaps from multiple positions in order to make a run at a top three finish in the west division. Minnesota needs consistency out of the quarterback position from Mitch Leidner. Running back David Cobb should help take some pressure off Leidner, but there will be a time when Minnesota needs a big third-down completion. The schedule is a challenge as well, with a road game at TCU and back-to-back road games in conference play at Nebraska and Wisconsin to end the regular season.

5. Northwestern (Last year: 5-7)
The Wildcats were a trendy pick by many in the west division throughout the offseason, but the late departure of Venric Mark and the loss of wide receiver Christian Jones will take a big toll on Northwestern’s offense, which was to be the strength of the team for head coach Pat Fitzgerald. That is a lot of offensive production lost by the Wildcats, and that does not even account for a new full-time starting quarterback in Trevor Siemian. Fortunately, Siemian is not without some experience in this offense without Mark, with Treyvon Green playing a solid role last fall. On defense, linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo will rack up the tackle numbers but the rest of the defense can be exposed and the special teams break in a new kicker and punter.

6. Illinois (Last year: 4-8)
What will save head coach Tim Beckman? Three years in, Illinois needs to make a push for a postseason game if the heat is going to be turned down on Beckman’s job security. To get there, the Illini defense needs to improve in a hurry. The Illinois defense was shredded routinely last season and the offense was unable to keep up. Adding quarterback Wes Lunt after sitting out the 2013 season should help stabilize the offense, and should help the Illini keep up with the opposition, but the defense needs to find away to come up with some turnovers after not being able to last fall. re there six wins on the schedule? Yes, but it will be a battle to get there until the defense starts showing signs of improvement.

7. Purdue (Last year: 1-11)
There is nowhere to go but up for Purdue, hopefully. A trip to the postseason is a dream at this point, but the Boilermakers should make some improvements this fall. Head coach Darrell Hazell is in year two and the team should be starting to find its identity. On offense, Purdue managed just 14.9 points per game last season and the defense allowed 38.0 points per game. What should the realistic goal for Purdue be in 2014? Getting an extra touchdown per game and cutting one on defense would be a nice way to go. It still will not result in a winning season, but it would be a huge step in the right direction.

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Michigan State over Wisconsin

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

Middle Tennessee holds on to win the bizarre (and turnover-filled) Camellia Bowl over Arkansas State

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Middle Tennessee State entered the Camellia Bowl 121st in the country in turnover margin and had lost the battle in nine of their 12 games this season. Arkansas State was only a little bit better in the same category, ranking 81st in turnover margin in 2017. Predictably those kinds of statistics came into play on Saturday night in the Camellia Bowl as the two sides played a bit of hot potato — six giveaways — before MTSU hung on for a 35-30 win to cap off the first day of bowl season in college football.

Blue Raiders quarterback Brent Stockstill had a game that could have been a nightmare for a veteran quarterback but ended up being alright thanks to his defense continually picking him on a night where chunk plays were hard to come by. The signal-caller threw the first of his three interceptions on the night on the first drive of the game but bounced back over the final three quarters, throwing for 232 yards and a pair of touchdown passes. That kind of performance, which included several big throws in the second half, helped secure the first bowl victory of his career and give him the rare distinction of being able to win a postseason game with his father Rick as head coach.

It wasn’t all about the Stockstill combo for MTSU however as their run game produced a pair of touchdowns behind tailbacks Terelle West and Tavares Thomas, and the team’s defense had one of their best outings of the season to limit the Sun Belt’s highest scoring offense to well below all their season averages. Linebacker Darius Harris led the way when his unit was on the field, flying from sideline-to-sideline and racking up 12 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a two pass break ups. His running mate at linebacker, D.J. Sanders, was equally productive with seven tackles and a 54 yard fumble return for a touchdown just before halftime.

The Red Wolves did what they could to threaten to make things interesting down the stretch but never could get over the hill. The team ran a fake punt to open fourth quarter, resulting in a 21 yard strike from the punter to gunner Chris Murray along the sidelines and appeared to seize momentum after a subsequent  touchdown to Warren Wand. However the defense failed to get a stop and then Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Justice Hansen (337 yards, 3TD, 1 INT) threw a fourth down pass out of the end zone to all but seal a rather lackluster loss for a team that had won six of the last eight coming into the bowl.

Arkansas State also came up a bit short in the record books on the defensive side of the ball as well. In addition to allowing 35 points to MTSU, conference player of the year Ja’Von Rolland-Jones failed to record a sack and thus couldn’t break the NCAA career record (held by former Arizona State and current Baltimore Ravens star Terrell Suggs) of 44 career sacks after entering the game just shy of the mark with 43.5. While the pass rusher did manage to sack Stockstill in the game, the play was negated by a penalty to keep him from taking over on the all-time list.

The victory pushed Middle Tennessee over the .500 mark for the fifth time in six seasons and likely meant a little bit more to the program given how many key injuries the team suffered over the course of 2017 before capturing their first bowl win in eight years. Arkansas State did their best to prevent that from happening as they dropped to 7-5 on the season after a rather bizarre Camellia Bowl that had a little bit of everything.

Defense comes up big to help Middle Tennessee grab Camellia Bowl lead at halftime over Arkansas State

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Middle Tennessee State started off the Camellia Bowl on Saturday night in about the worst way possible with a pair of first quarter interceptions but leaned heavily on their stout defense to manage their way to a 21-10 lead over Arkansas State at halftime in a somewhat low-scoring affair few could have seen coming between these high-scoring offenses.

Blue Raiders quarterback Brent Stockstill tossed an interception on the team’s opening drive of the game but managed to bounce back and throw for  80 yards and a touchdown after another slow start for the veteran signal-caller. Luckily the team’s defense pitched a goal line stand after his first pick and proved to be similarly stout after his second to keep the team in things after such a rough start against the Sun Belt power.

Mistakes proved to be costly for the Red Wolves throughout the night on both sides of the ball as a roughing the punter ruined a potential stop early and led to MTSU tailback Terelle West running right off his left guard for a 45 yard touchdown and a quick lead for the Conference USA squad who wasn’t doing much to move the ball outside of that big play.

The wildest sequence of the bowl season (so far) happened in the closing minutes of the first quarter however, leaving fans, officials and coaches all confused at what exactly just happened. Stockstill appeared to find a receiver over the middle and on the door step of the end zone but ASU’s Justin Clifton had other ideas — stripping the ball and appearing to run it back (with help) for a touchdown. The call went through a lengthy review process that wound up giving Clifton an interception and his offense the ball back at their 18 yard line instead but they ended up punting it away for 61 yards to cap off a truly bizarre few minutes.

Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen had some decent numbers (151 yards passing, one rushing TD) but things just weren’t clicking for what had been the Sun Belt’s most prolific offense during the regular season. The signal-caller fumbled shortly before halftime, which allowed D.J. Sanders to rumble 54 yards with a fumble recovery touchdown that extended MTSU’s lead. The Red Wolves did manage to mount a scoring drive on the next possession to get right back in the game but they’ll need to show more down the stretch if they want to reach the eight win mark for the sixth time in seven seasons.

It’s had a few strange moments but the conclusion to the first Saturday of the bowl season is shaping up rather nicely down in Montgomery, Alabama. However both sides in this one will be sure to focus on correcting a bunch of mistakes after that somewhat whacky first half.

Marshall pushes bowl winning streak to six in escaping with win over Colorado State in New Mexico Bowl

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The Streak lives.  Barely.

Marshall (8-5) came into Saturday’s Gildan New Mexico Bowl having won five straight bowl games.  Exiting Albuquerque, Marshall will head back to Huntington armed with a six-game postseason winning streak as they escaped with a 31-28 win over Colorado State (7-6).

The first half was all about the passing of quarterback Chase Litton.  The second half was all about the running game — with a little Litton sprinkled in as well.

Up 21-14 at halftime, Tyler King outran the CSU defense to score on a 90-yard touchdown run very early in the third quarter to give MU a 28-14 lead that had the feeling of putting the game out of reach.  King finished the win with 106 yards rushing, one of two Thundering Herd running backs to top the 100-yard mark as Keion Davis chipped in with a team-high 141 yards.  Davis himself scored on a 68-yard touchdown in the second quarter to give the Herd its halftime lead.

After throwing for 177 in the first half, Litton finished with 262 through the air.  Tyre Brady, who caught six passes for 165 yards and a touchdown, was named the Player of the Game.

Entering the fourth quarter, MU held what walked, talked and looked like an extremely comfortable 31-14 lead.  CSU, however, cut the lead to 31-28 midway through the quarter on a pair of Nick Stevens touchdowns (one passing, one rushing).  Getting the ball back with just over six minutes remaining and pinned back on their own 16-yard line, the Rams, who caught a break when a fumble recovered by the Herd was negated by defensive holding, couldn’t reach midfield on their last drive as their hopes for a come-from-behind win were extinguished after turning the ball over on downs.

(That Michael Gallup catch to briefly extend that last drive, though.  Wow.)

While Marshall extended its winning streak — Doc Holliday is 5-0 as head coach — Colorado State extended a skein in the opposite direction as the Rams have now lost four bowl games in a row.

FCS title game set: defending champ James Madison vs. five-time champ North Dakota State

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If everyone is being honest with themselves, and aside from the opposing fans, this is the matchup we were all looking for.

Friday night, No. 2 North Dakota State (13-1) routed No. 6 Sam Houston State (12-2) 55-13 to claim one spot in the 2017 FCS championship game.  One day later, top seed James Madison (14-0) easily took care of business against No. 5 South Dakota State (11-3), claiming the other spot with a methodical 51-16 semifinal woodshedding.

The top two seeds in this years tournament will now square off Jan. 6 in Frisco, Tex., for the 2017 FCS championship.

James Madison is the reigning national champion, claiming the school’s second-ever title with a 28-14 win over Youngstown State last season.  North Dakota State, meanwhile, will be looking to get back to the trophy mountaintop after they won a record five straight championships from 2011-15.

The Bison will likely be shorthanded for that contest, however, as their two starting cornerbacks — Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush — suffered knee injuries in the semifinal win while their second-leading rusher, Ty Brooks, suffered a shoulder injury.  Despite the game being nearly three weeks away, all three are expected to be sidelined for the contest.