Big Ten East preview: Spartans are beasts of the East

Big Ten East preview: Spartans are beasts of the East
August 25, 2014, 9:15 am
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Vinnie Duber

Michigan State is finally the favorite to win the Big Ten East Division and the Big Ten title.

To those who arrived at that conclusion only after Braxton Miller's season-ending injury, the only question is this: What took so long?

The Spartans are the new favorites thanks to Ohio State losing its senior quarterback for the season, but there's plenty of reason to think that Michigan State was the better team with the better shot at the crown before that even occurred.

Remember that Michigan State is the defending conference champ, not to mention the defending Rose Bowl champ who was a play or two away from playing for a national championship last season. And though Mark Dantonio's squad has lost a good deal of talent from a defense that was one of the country's finest, there's plenty of talent left. And an improved offense could make that defense the second fiddle this season.

[MORE BIG TEN: Each Big Ten team's best non-conference game]

It's not like Miller's injury shifted the Nov. 8 matchup between these two teams from Columbus to East Lansing. The Spartans were always going to have home-field advantage in that one.

And maybe the Buckeyes had a better chance at going undefeated with their relatively easy schedule, but the Spartans are the ones with a shot at a season-defining win in Week 2, when they travel to Oregon to take on a top-10 Ducks team.

Michigan State always had Connor Cook, the quarterback who blossomed throughout last season, turning in his best performances in the Big Ten title game — where Michigan State beat Ohio State — and the Rose Bowl. Michigan State always had a more promising running back in Jeremy Langford, who can get lost in the shuffle but remains one of the conference's best backs.

[MORE BIG TEN: After Miller injury, who are Big Ten's top Heisman candidates?]

The Spartans always had defensive lineman extraordinaire and touchdown machine Shilique Calhoun. They always had defensive playmakers like Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes.

Was Miller's injury a big deal? You bet. Did it knock Ohio State down a peg? Yep. But the Buckeyes weren't always at the top of the heap.

Michigan State is the best team in this division, and that same statement was true two weeks ago, too.

[MORE BIG TEN: Calhoun's days as Spartans' leading scorer likely over]

A look at the rest of the teams in the Big Ten East Division:

Buckeyes sans Braxton

The loss of Miller obviously becomes the be-all, end-all storyline for Ohio State this season. The quarterback's ability covered up a lot of weak spots for the Buckeyes, including an inexperienced offensive line, a defense in need of a rebuild and the replacement of Carlos Hyde at running back. But even with J.T. Barrett — who's never played a down of college football — taking control of the offense, there are still plenty of reasons to think Ohio State can contend for a division championship and more. First off, it's Ohio State, which means even the backups are top-rated recruits. Barrett could definitely surprise, as could Hyde successor Ezekiel Elliott. Then there's that aforementioned defense. It wasn't very good last season, but it is under new leadership in new defensive coordinator Chris Ash. Plus, the defensive line is stocked with terrific talent, including Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. The Buckeyes are down, but they're not out. Expect plenty of wins from Urban Meyer's crew.

[MORE BIG TEN: Why Braxton Miller's injury won't doom the Big Ten]

Solving the O-line Blues

Many of Michigan's woes last season can be traced back to a porous offensive line. Quarterback Devin Gardner is a fantastic playmaker and still managed to pile up plenty of impressive stats despite being under constant pressure. He was rushed so much last year that the Wolverines turned in a negative rushing total in one conference game. Gardner is back, and we know he can lead the offense to great success. If he gets the opportunity. Even though the line lost a first-round draft pick in Taylor Lewan, improvement is expected. Still, though, Lewan's replacement is a freshman, which many are using as an example of a larger issue. The running game — better than only Purdue's last season — is still on shaky ground. While a trio of former top-flight recruits is expected to live up to its billing, it hasn't quite done that yet, and Brady Hoke seems to have a new favorite for the starting job every week, signalling that no one has stood out. Michigan should be a fine team, but it won't be a great team until it helps Gardner out in the trenches and in the backfield.

[MORE BIG TEN: Are sacks no longer an issue for Devin Gardner, Wolverines?]

Turtle power

Welcome to the Big Ten, Maryland. Here's a schedule loaded with tough opponents. The Terps won't get the warmest of welcomes in their first year in the conference, with their division being the same neighborhood Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State all live in, too. But unlike fellow newcomer Rutgers, Maryland should be able to hang with its new neighbors thanks to some really talented offensive weapons. C.J. Brown is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the conference, and he has two top-notch wideouts to help him attack opposing defenses. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long both missed significant time last season with injuries, though at full strength they could be one of the top receiving tandems not only in the Big Ten but in the entire country. It's those three guys and how far they can bring the Maryland passing game that will determine if the Terps can be an East Division dark horse.

[MORE BIG TEN: As new kids on the block, Terps like sleeper role out East]

Franklin to the rescue?

Though Maryland and Rutgers grab the attention, the most important newcomer to the conference might be first-year Penn State head coach James Franklin. The former Vanderbilt coach did nothing but work wonders at one of the SEC's historic doormats, and now he's bringing his engaging personality to State College, where the football program is still emerging from the shadows of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Franklin has already made plenty of offseason headlines for his recruiting work at Penn State, delivering the Nittany Lions one of the top-ranked classes in the Class of 2015. But will that excitement surrounding Franklin and the future of the program translate to the field this season? Players have bought in to Franklin's pitch, but the main ingredient that will determine how well the Lions do is the quarterback. Christian Hackenberg was one of the conference's best as a freshman last season, and he could be the conference's best this season. If the holdover at QB from the previous regime can make it happen, Franklin's tenure will be off to a great start.

[MORE BIG TEN: Penn State players buying what James Franklin is selling]

High-powered Hoosiers

Last season, there were few if any Big Ten offenses more explosive than Indiana. Yards and points came easily for the Hoosiers. Problem was, they did for opposing offenses, too. The defense was generally ineffective all season, and though several new coaches have been brought in to assist with turning that unit around, it's still the biggest question mark heading into 2014. Fortunately for the Hoosiers, they should still be able to produce plenty of points. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld returns, as does running back Tevin Coleman. The receiving corps is fairly depleted with many of last season's top pass-catchers moving on, but Shane Wynn is back and should be Sudefeld's top target. We saw what happened last season when the offense flourished: Indiana was in plenty of games. If the Hoosiers can fix the defense even slightly, this team should win enough to get to a bowl game.

[MORE BIG TEN: Can Hoosiers offense flourish sans star wideouts?]

Not-so-shining armor

There's not a lot that would signal many wins this season for Rutgers. Like Maryland, the Scarlet Knights will play their first season in the Big Ten this year, but the schedule is stacked heavily against them. Even the non-conference portion features tests that will find the Knights as underdogs. The passing game was pretty unsuccessful last season, with Gary Nova being removed from the quarterback role midway through the year. But Kyle Flood couldn't find a better alternative and named Nova the starter again for this season. A preseason position change saw the team's second-leading rusher move to the secondary. Perceptions when Rutgers was announced as a new member of the conference where that the Knights didn't have the capability to match up with their new conferencemates. That might not be the case forever, but it certainly looks like those observers will be right this season.