B1G 40: Which teams are the Big Ten's Playoff contenders?

B1G 40: Which teams are the Big Ten's Playoff contenders?
July 25, 2014, 12:45 pm
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Vinnie Duber

As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.

Which teams are the Big Ten’s College Football Playoff contenders?

We live in a new world, folks! Well, kind of.

The BCS has been replaced with the College Football Playoff, and as Earth-shattering news as some would like you to believe that is, the reality is that instead of two teams playing for the title, we now have four. Considering there are 125 teams in FBS college football, that’s not really so much change.

But a new system exists, so how will it affect Big Ten team’s chances of winning a national championship?

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A selection committee will be deciding at the end of the season which four teams will play for college football’s new ultimate prize. That committee includes former Wisconsin head coach and current athletics director Barry Alvarez, former Nebraska head coach and athletics director Tom Osborne, former Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. There’s two semifinals and a final. Simple as that.

Even those who are depressed by the demolition of the BCS (am I the only one raising their hand?) have to acknowledge the good news that there won’t be any restriction on the number of teams from each conference that can land in the Playoff. That’s huge, and though it’s not the most likely thing in the world that the Big Ten will get two teams into the four-team field, it is a possibility. It’s also a possibility the conference could get zero teams into the Playoff, but that’s a kind of depressing thought.

So, while it’s likely only one of these teams will eventually reach the Playoff, here’s a look at the conference’s best candidates to play for a national title.

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Ohio State Buckeyes. Here’s your preseason favorite, everyone. Even if you don’t think the Buckeyes will be this year’s Big Ten champ, they have pretty good odds in their favor. Ohio State’s non-conference schedule features four should-be wins, even if a home date with Virginia Tech seems a little tricky in Week 2. After that, it figures to be smooth sailing until Nov. 8, the biggest game in the Big Ten this season. Ohio State and Michigan State will meet in East Lansing in what looks like it could be a de facto Big Ten East championship game. Win that — and the Nov. 29 season-finale against Michigan — and the Buckeyes would go on to the Big Ten title game. Win that, and it would seem a spot in the Playoff is virtually assured. Ohio State has a Heisman-candidate quarterback in Braxton Miller, talented wideouts, plus a defense chock full of playmakers (even if it is in need of some improvement). The Buckeyes are a favorite for a reason.

Michigan State Spartans. Though the Buckeyes are the favorites, the Spartans are right there with them. They are, after all, the reigning conference champs and the reigning Rose Bowl champs and were probably next in line for a spot in last year’s national-title game had either Auburn or Florida State slipped up late. This year, Mark Dantonio returns many of those players, especially on offense. And though the defense is a bit depleted, there are still some big playmakers there for coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Schedule-wise, there are two gigantic match ups: the Week 2 game at Oregon and the aforementioned Nov. 8 hosting of Ohio State. The Spartans are almost sure to be favored in every other game they play, meaning those two will determine their season’s outcome. The home-field advantage against the Buckeyes is huge, but the road trip to the Pacific Northwest will prove difficult, indeed. Oregon was recently tabbed as the preseason Pac-12 favorite, and a head-to-head matchup could squeeze one of the two out of the Playoff come December.

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Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers are the favorites to win the Big Ten West. And while it’s the Big Ten East getting all the hype — somewhat deservedly so — this division might prove the tougher one to win. While the Badgers figure to have a more talented roster than other contenders like Iowa and Northwestern, they have lost an awful lot from last year’s team, which was a few plays here and there away from competing for a national title. Add that to an extremely tough season-opener against LSU and road trips to Northwestern and Iowa, and the Badgers’ thought-to-be-easy road to the conference-title game might not be so easy after all. The good news, though, is the return of Melvin Gordon, a Heisman-candidate running back who could carry this team to the Big Ten title game on his back. The Badgers absolutely have a shot to reach the Playoff should they win the league championship.

Iowa Hawkeyes. While the East has solid teams throughout like Michigan, Penn State and Maryland, none of those really figure to challenge the two top dogs. Not so in the West, where anointed favorite Wisconsin could receive quite the test from Iowa and Northwestern. The Hawkeyes have a bunch of returning talent, a starting QB with a year under his belt in Jake Rudock and momentum coming off last season’s unexpected 8-4 finish. Iowa hosts all of its main division competitors — Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska — in Iowa City to go along with a not-so-tough non-conference schedule. They might not seem like national-title contenders on paper, but if they reach the Big Ten title game, they’d be a win away from a spot in the Playoff.

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Sleepers. Anything can happen in college football, and there are a couple teams who could pull off unexpected dream seasons and find themselves in the Big Ten title picture, the same picture that could vault them into the Playoff. Watch out for the Northwestern Wildcats. They would have to win at Iowa and have a very tough November non-conference road game at Notre Dame. But if they can find a way to win all the games they lost in ridiculous fashion last season, they could be a double-digit-win team. Sleepers out East include the Michigan Wolverines and Maryland Terrapins. Both teams have some really big-time playmakers, and if they pull some upsets — some big upsets — there’s nothing saying a dream season isn’t a possibility. But, as mentioned, it seems unlikely anyone will break the Ohio State-Michigan State stronghold at the top of the division.