With a top-heavy schedule and a Heisman hopeful among their ranks, the Badgers are in prime position to be a part of NCAA football’s first year of post-BCS playoffs.
Head coach Gary Andersen, however, is quick to remind everyone that in the Big Ten, nothing is given, only earned.
After bringing in Maryland and Rutgers and ditching the Leaders and Legends divisions for the more practical titles of East and West, Wisconsin still stands as the perennial powerhouse in its half of the conference.
Annual contenders Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan are all across the aisle in the East and do not play the Badgers in 2014, meaning the road to Indianapolis and the Big Ten Championship game should be relatively smooth for Wisconsin this season.
The East division brings a storied tradition of excellence to the table, and in a league as competitive as the Big Ten, any of the teams could emerge from the regular season to play in Indianapolis in December.
After a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl victory last season, Michigan State is clearly the team to beat in the conference. Barring something inexplicable, the Spartans will be vying for a spot on the bus to Indianapolis and will be prime candidates for a berth in the first NCAA playoffs.
Head coach Mark Dantonio has worked absolute wonders with what can only be explained as mediocre talent. It took almost a month for things to fall into place last year but with a little luck and a lot of momentum Michigan State found itself rubbing shoulders with elite programs.
Quarterback Connor Cook returns with nearly 3,000 passing yards and 22 touchdowns, leading an experienced offense with few meaningful departures.
With the defensive side of the ball losing a few big playmakers, if the Spartans have a weak spot it will be its traditionally complex, blitz-reliant defense.
Head coach Urban Meyer is 24-2 during his two-year tenure with the Buckeyes. It’s hard to bet against numbers like that.
However, with star quarterback Braxton Miller out for the season and a defense which fell apart late last year, there is now a light at the end of the tunnel for other teams in the East.
Ohio State will have to rely on an influx of young talent this season, with an incoming freshman class ranked by Rivals as second-best in the country, behind Nick Saban and permanent recruiting champion Alabama.
Replacing Miller and one of the most efficient running backs in the country, Carlos Hyde, are tall orders, but if anyone can figure it out, Meyer can.
Even with an unproven new quarterback in redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, a youthful backfield and a struggling defense, it’s hard to count the Buckeyes out. Thanks to their recruiting, their talent level remains one of the best in the conference.
One of the biggest disappointments in college football in 2013, Michigan went 8-5 while losing four of its last six games. This was in large part due to an offensive line whose play ruined a promising run game and made life exponentially harder for quarterback Devin Gardner.
If anyone can make the turnaround from 2013 mediocrity to 2014 contention it is Michigan, under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, formerly of Alabama.
Gardner will have his work cut out for him, however, with poor protection and no help from a returning running backs corps that lacks a 1,000-yard rusher.
The defense also fell apart down the stretch last season, though almost the entire squad returns in 2014. Improvement is to be expected, but judging from last season’s results a miracle may be too much to expect.
If you are a Hoosier football fan, it’s go big or go home.
Indiana is perennially one of the most inconsistent yet wildly entertaining teams in the conference due to its constant big play potential.
While the chances Indiana makes the short trek to the Big Ten championship are slim at best, the realistic expectation of an elite offense and a terrible defense make for a team which has the ability to defy predictions.
With a quarterback duo that threw for over 3,600 yards last season and one of the deepest running back corps in the conference, it’s hard to believe that Indiana will have trouble scoring this fall.
It is the defense, which at its worst allowed 623 yards to Missouri last season, that will drag the Hoosiers down this year.
While Penn State remains bowl ineligible this season, and thus is ineligible from playing in the conference title game, the penalties stemming from the Sandusky trial have gradually begun to lessen. Along with the hiring of charismatic new head coach James Franklin, the worst seems to be over for the Nittany Lions.
Highlighting a solid squad of returning Big Ten signal callers, Christian Hackenberg and his 2,955 passing yards look to create repeat success in Happy Valley. A depleted receiving corps is simply a speed bump for the sophomore, and a returning duo of running backs in Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton will surely take the pressure off the young phenom.
Last year, Penn State shocked the Badgers in the regular season finale. Wisconsin was left clueless as the Nittany Lions completely shut down the run. The same strategy is likely going to be used this year and with some experience in the secondary the defense can only improve.
While there’s still no chance for postseason play, Penn State can at least play spoiler this fall for the other teams in the East.
Maryland and Rutgers
The newest additions to the geographically expanding Big Ten, Maryland and Rutgers rightfully have relatively low expectations in their first season.
After being completely decimated by injuries last season a healthy Maryland team can surely scrape its way into the middle of the Big Ten pack right away, barring any more freak injuries. The Terrapins also have one of the conference’s most explosive wide receivers in Stefon Diggs.
Rutgers, on the other hand, had one of the nation’s worst pass defenses last season. The Scarlet Knights have been on a downward slide for the majority of the last decade and they have a steep hill to climb if they want to be anywhere other than the bottom come December.