1. Michigan State Spartans (4 first place votes)
Polls: No. 8 in USA Today/Coaches
Coach: Mark Dantonio, eighth season, 64-29 (82-46 overall)
Last season: 13-1 (8-0 Big Ten) beat Ohio State in Big Ten Championship; beat Stanford in Rose Bowl
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Returning starters (15): Offense (7) — Connor Cook (QB, Jr.); Jack Allen (C, Jr.); Jack Conklin (LT, So.); Jeremy Langford (RB, Sr.); Tony Lippet (WR, Sr.); Trevon Pendleton (FB, Jr.); Josiah Price (TE, So.); Defense (5) — Shilique Calhoun (DE, Jr.); Kurtis Drummond (S, Sr.); Taiwan Jones (LB, Sr.); Marcus Rush (DE, Sr.); Trae Waynes (CB, Jr.); Specialists (3) — Michael Geiger (K, So.); Taybor Pepper (LS, Jr.); Mike Sadler (P, Sr.).
The skinny: Michigan State proved the old adage ‘defense wins championships’ last season. The reigning conference champions leaned on their top-ranked defense, holding teams to an average of 13 points per game. That included six games wherein MSU’s opponents didn’t score a touchdown. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi must replace six starters on defense, but that shouldn’t be a problem as the Spartans have experienced reserves ready to step into roles along the defensive line and at linebacker. MSU boasts a talented pair of defensive ends in Marcus Rush and Shilique Calhoun, and returns nine letterwinners in the secondary led by three-year starting safety Kurtis Drummond. Meanwhile, quarterback Connor Cook progressed nicely in what was one of the best statistical seasons in school history. Cook completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,755 yards with 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He lost only Bennie Fowler from last season’s receiving corps. In addition, Cook has four of the five tight ends back who saw action last season and touchdown machine Jeremy Langford who led the Big Ten with 18 scores from the running back position. The Spartans have to replace three starters on the offensive line but have the depth to do so with five players returning who saw action in reserve roles last season. This is a deep squad that knows what it takes to win.
Pennsylvania connections (7): Brandon Clemons (Delaware Valley); Demetrious Cox (Jeanette); Paul Lang (Mount Lebanon); Montae Nicholson (Gateway); Casey Schreiner (Bethel Park); Damion Terry (Cathedral Prep); Delton Williams (Cathedral Prep)
Can’t miss game: Sept. 6 at Oregon (6:30 p.m., FOX): Week 2 features a matchup of two teams with playoff hopes. The Ducks had the No. 2-ranked offense among FBS teams last season while the Spartans fielded the No. 2-ranked defense. This will be an early test for both teams after opening with FCS squads in Week 1.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
Polls: No. 6 in USA Today/Coaches
Coach: Urban Meyer, third season, 24-2 (128-25 overall)
Last season: 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten); lost to Michigan State in Big Ten Championship; lost to Clemson in Orange Bowl
Returning starters (13): Offense (5) — Braxton Miller (QB, Sr.); Taylor Decker (OT, Jr.); Devin Smith (WR, Sr.); Evan Spencer (WR, Sr.); Jeff Heuerman (TE, Sr.); Defense (7) — Noah Spence (DE, Jr.); Michael Bennett (DT, Sr.); Adolphus Washington (DL, Jr.); Joey Bosa (DE, So.); Curtis Grant (LB, Sr.); Joshua Perry (LB, Jr.); Tyvis Powell (S, So.); Doran Grant (CB, Sr.); Specialists (1) — Cameron Johnston (P, So.)
The skinny: The Buckeyes, who had been dominant under Meyer in his first 24 games at the helm, ended last season with a bit of a whimper. But despite losses to Michigan State and Clemson, and losing do-it-all quarterback Braxton Miller to a season-ending shoulder injury, Ohio State enters 2014 as a deep squad and one of the Big Ten’s best. It’ll be nearly impossible to replace Miller’s 1,068 rushing yards yards, 2,094 passing yards and 36 touchdowns, however. Now either sophomore Cardale Jones or reshirt freshman J.T. Barrett will lead the offense. They have a lot to work with as wideouts Devin Smith and Evan Spencer are back after playing as No. 2 and No. 3 targets last season while tight end Jeff Heuerman is always a reliable target. They’ll all be protected by an offensive line that will feature four new starters. Expect the defense to be sturdy. The Buckeyes return seven starters including four linemen in a front that was nearly unstoppable last season. The Buckeyes tallied 42 sacks (third nationally) in 2013 and are poised to again be one of the best pass-rushing squads in the country with former Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson directing them. They’ll need to be early on as defensive coordinator Luke Fickell will be looking to break in five new players to help out star corner Doran Grant on the back end. Replacing playmaking linebacker Ryan Shazier won’t be easy.
Pennsylvania connections (2): Malik Hooker (New Castle); Spence (Bishop McDevitt)
Can’t miss game: Nov. 29 vs. Michigan (TBD): The matchup speaks for itself. You can bet the bad blood will be flowing for this one.
3. Wisconsin Badgers
Polls: No. 14 in USA Today/Coaches
Coach: Gary Andersen, second season, 9-4 (39-35 overall)
Last season: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten); lost to South Carolina in Capital One Bowl
Returning starters (9): Offense (6) — Joel Stave (QB, Jr.); Jordan Fredrick (WR, Jr.); Tyler Marz (LT, Jr.); Dan Voltz (C, So.); Kyle Costigan (RG, Sr.); Rob Havenstein (RT, Sr.); Defense (3) — Darius Hillary (CB, Jr.); Sojourn Shelton (CB, So.); Michael Caputo (S, Jr.)
The skinny: This squad has all the makings of a classic Wisconsin Badger team — a massive offensive line with a talented, hard-nosed running back behind it. The Badgers return four of five offensive linemen — center Dan Voltz, tackles Tyler Marz and Rob Havenstein and right guard Kyle Costigan — from last season and the returnees combine to average 321 pounds. That’s plenty of beef to protect quarterback Joel Stave and pave the way for running back Melvin Gordon. While Gordon wasn’t technically the Badgers’ starter last season, the junior surfaced as one of the nation’s top backs. He finished 11th in rushing with 124 yards per game and scored 12 touchdowns. In the process, he became the fasted player in school history to reach 1,000 yards rushing reaching the threshold with just 104 carries. Stave will need new targets to emerge after the always-dependable Jared Abbrederis graduated. Defensively, the Badgers’ strength is in the secodnary where Darius Hillary, Michael Caputo and Sojourn Shelton got ample playing time as underclassmen. In front of them, the Badgers will field an entire new front seven in their multiple, 3-4 defense. Not everyone’s a new face, however. Noseguard Warren Herring has played in 35 games while inside linebacker Derek Landisch and end Konrad Zabzebski have seen action in 31 and 38 contests, respectively.
Pennsylvania connections (2): Caputo (West Allegheny); Arthur Goldberg (Mount Lebanon)
Can’t miss game: Aug. 30 vs. No. 13 LSU (9 p.m., ESPN): How about a matchup between Top 15 teams at a neutral site to start the season? Yes, please.
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Polls: No. 22 in USA Today/Coaches
Coach: Bo Pelini, seventh season, 58-24 overall
Last season: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten) beat Georgia in Gator Bowl
Returning starters (14): Offense (5) — Tommy Armstrong (QB, So.); Ameer Abdullah (RB, Sr.); Kenny Bell (WR, Sr.); Cethan Carter (TE, So.); Jake Cotton (OG, Sr.); Defense (8) — Vincent Valentine (DT, So.); Aaron Curry (DT, Jr.); Randy Gregory (DE, Jr.); David Santos (LB, Jr.); Michael Rose (LB, So.); Zaire Anderson (LB, Sr.); Josh Mitchell (CB, Sr.); Specialists (1) — Sam Foltz (P, So.)
The skinny: Nebraska’s strength last season was its running game as Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby combined for more than 2,400 rushing yards. Abdullah was the nation’s sixth-leading rusher with 130 yards per game. This will be his biggest test, however, as Abdullah will be running behind an offensive line with four new starters. Tommy Armstrong got an early start to his career after replacing an injured Taylor Martinez midway through the season. He’ll need to be more consistent after completing just 52 percent of his passes for 966 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. Of course his progression also depends on the offensive line. Thankfully, Nebraska has a veteran defensive unit that returns six of its front seven that combined for 38 sacks and 93 tackles for loss last season. Punter Sam Foltz showed his potential to be a difference-maker last season with 16 punts of 50 yards or more.
Pennsylvania connections (1): Zaire Anderson (Frankford)
Can’t miss game: Nov. 15 at Wisconsin: With three games to play in the regular season, this one could go a long way in deciding the West Division champion.
5. Iowa Hawkeyes
Polls: Not ranked.
Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 16th season, 108-79 (120-100 overall)
Last season: 8-5 (5-3 Big Ten); lost to LSU in Outback Bowl
Returning starters (14): Offense (8) — Jake Rudock (QB, Jr.); Brandon Scherff (LT, ); Austin Blythe (C, Jr.); Jordan Walsh (RG, Jr.); Mark Weisman (RB, Sr.); Tevaun Smith (WR, Jr.); Kevonte Martin-Manley (WR, Sr.); Adam Cox (FB, Jr.); Defense (5) — Carl Davis (DT, Sr.); Louis Trinca-Pasat (DT, Sr.); Drew Ott (DE, Jr.); John Lowdermilk (S, Sr.); Desmond King (CB, So.); Specialists (1) — Connor Kornbrath (P, Jr.)
The skinny: Iowa wrapped up its 2013 regular season 3-0 including a 38-17 drubbing of Nebraska. The Hawkeyes return an experienced group that suffered its only losses in the regular season to the top three teams in the Big Ten. Back are three cornerstone offensive linemen — Brandon Scherff, Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh — who will protect a promising quarterback in Jake Rudock and powerful running back Mark Weisman. Add in tailback Jordan Canzeri and the Hawkeyes have a nice 1-2 punch in the backfield. Defensively, the Hawkeyes have three of their top defensive linemen back where Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat will man the tackle spots. Drew Ott anchors from his end spot while Desmond King and Jown Lowdermilk return at cornerback and safety, respectively. If the Hawkeyes can avoid the injury bug, they should field one of the top defenses in the conference and could be better than last season when they finished sixth overall in total defense in the country.
Pennsylvania connections (0)
Can’t miss game: Sept. 13 vs. Iowa State (3:30 p.m. ABC, ESPN, ESPN2): Whenever the Hawkeyes and Cyclones get together, it is usually must-see TV. Each of the last three games have been decided by six points or less, with Iowa State holding a 2-1 edge in those matchups.
6. Michigan Wolverines
Polls: Not ranked
Coach: Brady Hoke, fourth season, 26-13 (73-63 overall)
Last season: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten); lost to Kansas State in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
Returning starters (16): Offense (7) — Devin Gardner (QB, Sr.); Erik Magnuson (LG, So.); Graham Glasgow (C, Jr.); Kyle Kalis (RG, So.); Devin Fuchess (WR, Jr.); Jake Butt (TE, So.); Joe Kerridge (FB, Sr.); Defense (9) — Frank Clark (DE, Sr.); Willie Henry (DT, So.); Brennen Beyer (DE, Sr.); Jake Ryan (LB, Sr.); Desmond Morgan (LB, Sr.); James Ross III (LB, Jr.); Jarrod Wilson (S, Jr.); Raymon Taylor (CB, Sr.); Blake Countess (CB, Jr.)
The skinny: The hype was high for Michigan last year but the Wolverines’ four-overtime loss to Penn State at Beaver Stadium set a sour tone for the second half of the season. Then, Michigan lost five of its next seven games including getting blown out by Kansas State 31-14 in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Luckily for coach Brady Hoke, he should have enough help to pick up the pieces and start fresh. The Wolverines return 16 starters, including nine on defense and seven on an offense that should show improvement with new coordinator Doug Nussmeier calling the shots. The former Alabama coordinator has been able to help coach a 1,000-yard rusher in each season he’s run offenses and that’s what the Wolverines need badly. Last season, no Michigan back got close to the 1,000-yard mark, with Fitz Toussaint finishing as the team’s top rusher with 648 yards on 185 carries. First, it will take the pressure off of quarterback Devin Gardner, who ran the ball 165 times for 483 yards. Second, a strong running game will help keep the Michigan defense off the field. In 2013, the Wolverine defense lined up 912 times. Having fifth-year senior Jake Ryan — who missed five games due to injuries — back at linebacker full time will also help.
Pennsylvania connections (2) — Patrick Kugler (North Allegheny); Chase Winovich (Thomas Jefferson);
Can’t miss game: Nov. 29 at Ohio State (TBD): Duh.
7. Penn State Nittany Lions
Polls: Not ranked
Coach: James Franklin, first season, 24-15 overall
Last season: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten); not eligible for postseason play
Returning starters (15): Offense (7) — Christian Hackenberg (QB, So.); Jesse James (TE, Jr.); Donovan Smith (OT, Jr.); Zach Zwinak (RB, Sr.); Geno Lewis (WR, So.); Adam Breneman (TE, So.); Miles Dieffenbach (OG, Sr.); Defense (7) — Adrian Amos (S, Sr.); Jordan Lucas (CB, Jr.); C.J. Olaniyan (DE, Sr.); Deion Barnes (DE, Jr.); Mike Hull (LB, Sr.); Nyeem Wartman (LB, So.); Ryan Keiser (S, Sr.); Specialists (1) — Sam Ficken (K, Sr.)
The skinny: No other Big Ten team has undergone an overhaul like the Nittany Lions have. Although they return most of their offense and defense, players — notably upperclassmen — will be taking cues from their third coaching staff following Bill O’Brien’s departure and James Franklin’s hiring. It has been a frenetic three years in Happy Valley, and Franklin and Co. will be busy working four new offensive linemen into the fold after Miles Dieffenbach was lost with a torn ACL in spring practice. Power runner Zach Zwinak may have to make his own holes early on while Bill Belton’s prowess in the wildcat could also help keep defenses off-balance early. The sky’s the limit for strong-armed quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who may be the best pure passer in the Big Ten. He’ll have a whole new cast of receivers but can rely on proven tight ends Jesse James and Kyle Carter. Mike Hull anchors a defense that is again short on proven linebackers. Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell should be the favorites to earn most of the playing time behind a talented front four that includes speedy ends C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes. Anthony Zettel’s move to the inside should bolster the middle of the defense that also includes big sophomore Austin Johnson and junior college transfer Tarrow Barney. Penn State shouldn’t have many problems stopping the run but can the secondary improve? Communication will be key, and taking cues from veteran defensive coordinator Bob Shoop should help the cause. Jordan Lucas may be one of the Big Ten’s best cornerbacks while Adrian Amos adds versatility to the backend. Safety Ryan Keiser is a sleeper as the former walk-on made critical plays at crucial times last season. Special teams — notably punting and return units — must get better.
Can’t miss game: Oct. 25 vs. Ohio State: This is always the most anticipated game on Penn State’s schedule. Beaver Stadium will surely be rocking as the Nittany Lions try to prove their mettle by knocking off a team with national title hopes.
8. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Polls: Not ranked
Coach: Jerry Kill, fourth season, 17-21 (144-94 overall)
Last season: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten); lost to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl
Returning starters (16): Offense (8) — Foster Bush (RG, Jr.); Josh Campion (RT, Jr.); David Cobb (RB, Sr.); Zac Epping (LG, Sr.); Drew Goodger (TE, Sr.); Tommy Olson (C, Sr.); Maxx Williams (TE, So.); Drew Wolitarsky (WR, So.); Defense (7) — Michael Amaefula (DE, Sr.); Cameron Botticelli (DT, Sr.): Theiren Cockran (DE, Jr.); Antonio Johnson (S, Jr.); Eric Murray (CB, Jr.): Cedric Thompson (S, Sr.); Damien Wilson (LB, Sr.); Specialists (1) — Peter Mortell (P, Jr.)
The skinny: Minnesota made big strides last season, improving by two wins overall and hanging in tough in back-to-back regular season losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State. Fueled by a snarling running game and quick passing attack, the Golden Gophers were one of the most physical teams in the conference. They’ll need to keep that up and get more production from the quarterback spot after Philip Nelson, the team’s leader in all major passing categories, transferred. Mitch Leidner got some reps and returns as the team’s starter. Minnesota’s defense has improved steadily every year under coordinator Tracy Claeys, reducing its total points surrendered from 380 to 321 then to 289 points over the last three seasons. The Gophers have potential in a fairly wide-open Western Division.
Pennsylvania connections (0)
Can’t miss game: Nov. 22 at Nebraska (TBD): The road to the Western Division championship figures to go through Lincoln or Madison, and the Gophers get both Nebraska and Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks to end the regular season.
9. Northwestern Wildcats
Polls: Not ranked
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, ninth season, 55-46 overall
Last season: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)
Returning starters (17): Offense (8) — Jack Konopka (OT, Sr.); Paul Jorgensen (OT, Sr.); Brandon Vitabile (C, Sr.); Geoff Mogus (OG, Jr.); Matt Frazier (OG, Jr.); Dan Vitale (FB, Jr.); Christian Jones (WR, Sr.); Tony Jones (WR, Sr.); Defense (9) — Dean Lowry (DE, Jr.); Sean McEvilly (DT, Sr.); Chance Carter (DT, Sr.); Matthew Harris (CB, So.); Nick VanHoose (CB, Jr.); Ibraheim Campbell (S, Sr.) Traveon Henry (S, Jr.)
The skinny: Northwestern entered last season with Big Ten title hopes. The Wildcats ended it early without a bowl game and a miserable 1-7 record in conference play. Injuries at the quarterback and running back position slowed them and a heartbreaking loss at home to Ohio State sent their season into a downward spiral that included two losses in overtime to Iowa and Michigan, and a back-breaking defeat on a Nebraska Hail Mary. This season hasn’t started off well either as do-it-all running back and return man Venric Mark left the program and top wideout Christian Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in preseason camp. Even without their two best players, the Wildcats should have enough experience returning to build on — all five offensive linemen return while the backend of the defense is deep and physical. The offensive line must do a better job protecting quarterback Trevor Siemian, who’s now running the show after splitting time with Kain Colter. All-in-all, the front five gave up 35 sacks. After a dreadful 2013, the Wilcats can only improve. Maybe the early preseason adversity will give this squad even more to rally around?
Pennsylvania connections (7) — Ibraheim Campbell (Chestnut Hill Academy); Adam DePietro (Lancaster Catholic); Eric Joraskie (Mount Carmel); Connor Mahoney (Malvern); Ian Park (Upper St. Clair); Andrew Scanlan (Spring Ford); Jack Schwaba (Upper St. Clair)
Can’t miss game: Sept. 27 at Penn State (Noon, TBD): Beaver Stadium has been the site of a handful of Nittany Lion comebacks against the Wildcats in recent years. This is the Big Ten opener for Northwestern and a chance right out of the gate to prove they’re ready for a challenging slate with games vs. Wisconsin, Nebraska, at Iowa and Michigan down the road.
10. Maryland Terrapins
Polls: Not ranked
Coach: Randy Edsall, fourth season, 13-24 (87-94 overall)
Last season: 7-6 (3-5 ACC); lost to Marshall in Military Bowl
Returning starters (19): Offense (9) — C.J. Brown (QB, Sr.); Sal Conaboy (C, Sr.); Stefon Diggs (WR, Jr.); Ryan Doyle (LT, Jr.); Michael Dunn (RT, So.); Andrew Zeller (RG, Jr.); Nigel King (WR, Jr.); Deon Long (WR, Sr.); Brandon Ross (RB, Jr.); Defense (8) — Sean Davis (DB, Jr.); Cole Farrand (LB, Sr.); L.A. Goree (LB, Sr.); Quinton Jefferson (DL, Jr.); Jeremiah Johnson (DB, Sr.); Darius Kilgo (DL, Sr.); Andrew Monroe (DL, Sr.); Anthony Nixon (DB, Jr.); Matt Robinson (LB, Sr.); Specialists (2) — Brad Craddock (K, Jr.); Nathan Renfro (P, Jr.)
The skinny: Finally, the Big Ten has an amphibian mascot. The Terrapinscome over to the Midwest-heavy league after a mediocre run in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season. Maryland has a lot of experience returning and features a handful of potential breakout stars on offense. Stefon Diggs was averaging just more than 17 yards per catch when he suffered a season-ending leg injury at Wake Forest in Week 7. In addition, the Terps lost Deon Long to injury, too. They’re both back as are seven other players who caught a pass in coordinator Mike Locksley’s offense. Quarterback C.J. Brown was the first player in team history to throw for at least 2,000 yards and rush for 500 more. Brandon Ross is also back to run behind a nearly-intact offensive line led by Rimington Trophy candidate Sal Conaboy, who will anchor the group. Maryland’s defense was decent last season, finishing 44th overall nationally. If the Terrapins can adjust to the physicality of most Big Ten teams, they could be a dangerous team to the contenders in the East Division.
Pennsylvania connections (13) — J.T. Ventura (Hollidaysburg); Tyler Burke (Coatesville); Perry Hills (Central Catholic); C.J. Brown (Seneca Valley); Anthony Nixon (Central Catholic); Brock Dean (Bishop McDevitt); Sal Conaboy (Abington Heights); Andrew Zeller (Red Lion); David Shaw (Spring Grove); Spencer Myers (Selinsgrove); P.J. Gallo (Council Rock South); Brett Kulka (General Mclane); Quinton Jefferson (Woodland Hills)
Can’t miss game: Nov. 1 at Penn State (TBD): The battle between longtime regional foes will resume after a long hiatus. The last time the Nittany Lions and Terrapins got together, Penn State embarrassed Maryland 70-7 on the Terps’ own turf. You can bet any regional recruits on the sidelines or watching from home will be weighing offers from both of these teams.
11. Indiana Hoosiers
Polls: Not ranked
Coach: Kevin Wilson, fourth season, 10-26 overall
Last season: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
Returning starters (18): Offense (8) — Nate Sudfeld (QB, Jr.); Tevin Coleman (RB, Jr.); Shane Wynn (WR, Sr.); Jason Spriggs (LT, Jr.); Bernard Taylor (LG, Sr.); Collin Rahrig (C, Sr.); Dan Feeney (RG, So.); Peyton Eckert (RT, Jr.); Defense (9) — Nick Mangieri (DE, Jr.); Bobby Richardson (DT, Sr.); Ralph Green III (DT, So.); David Cooper (LB, Sr.); T.J. Simmons (LB, So.); Forisse Hardin (LB, Sr.); Tim Bennett (CB, Sr.); Mark Murphy (S, Sr.); Michael Hunter (CB, Jr.); Specialists (1) — Erich Toth (P, Jr.)
The skinny: It’s hard to believe a team that fielded the nation’s 16th overall scoring offense and the 17th overall passing offense did not qualify for a bowl game last season. Then take a look at the Hoosier’s defensive performance and the picture becomes clearer. Indiana’s defense gave up a whopping 528 yards per game and 39 points per game. Most of the Hoosier offense is back, including mobile Nate Sudfeld who was among the nation’s most accurate passers with a 60 percent completion rate in 2013. He’s got two dangerous players to distribute the ball to in speedy wideout Shane Wynn and hard-hitting back Tevin Coleman but will need more targets to step up following the departures of Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes, who combined for 119 catches, 1,835 yards and 16 touchdowns. About that defense though, well, any improvement will do.
Pennsylvania connections (0)
Can’t miss game: Nov. 29 vs. Purdue (TBD): Look away if you prefer a defensive game. Otherwise, the season finale for both teams could be the highest scoring game of the season, as the Hoosiers and Boilermakers gave up an average of 38 pointslast season.
12. Illinois Fighting Illini
Polls: Not ranked
Coach: Tim Beckman, third season, 6-18 (27-34 overall)
Last season: 4-8 (1-7 Big Ten)
Returning starters (18): Offense (7) — Simon Cvijanovic (LT, Sr.); Michael Heitz (RT, Sr.); Alex Hill (OL, Sr.); Ted Karras (RG, Jr.); Josh Ferguson (RB, Jr.); Donovonn Young (RB, Sr.); Jon Davis (TE, Sr.); Defense (8) — V’Angelo Bentley (DB, Jr.); Eaton Spence (DB, Jr.); Earnest Thomas (LB, Sr.); Taylor Barton (DB, Sr.); Zane Petty (DB, Sr.); Mason Monheim (LB, Jr.); Mike Svetina (LB, Jr.); Austin Teitsma (DL, Sr.); Specialists (3) — Taylor Zalewski (K, Jr.); Justin DuVernois (P, Sr.); Zach Hirth (LS, So.)
The skinny: With just one conference win over the last two seasons, the Illini could improve in every area. Unfortunately, they’re now tasked with replacing their best player — do-it-all quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Illinois’ most likely option comes in the form of Wes Lunt. The former Oklahoma State prospect transferred and sat out last year per NCAA rules. He’ll now have to replace a player in Scheelhaase who graduated as the Fighting Illini’s all-time leader in total offense. Illinois really struggled to start games last season and rarely played well to begin second halves. The Illini were outscored 108-41 in first quarters and 122-87 in third quarters. The schedule is brutal, too. Illinois opens with trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State on the slate. Iowa and Penn State also provide tough challenges in Champaign.
Pennsylvania connections (3) — Tyrin Stone-Davis (Mastbaum Area); Jihad Ward (Edward Bok Vo-Tech); T.J. Neal (McKeesport)
Can’t miss game: Nov. 29 at Northwestern (TBD): Both in-state rivals are looking up at what they hope will be better seasons after each saw 2013 fall apart. A head-to-head matchup in the regular season finale could provide both teams with a chance to become bowl eligible at the other’s expense.
13. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Polls: Not ranked
Coach: Kyle Flood, third season, 15-11 overall
Last season: 6-7 (3-5 American Athletic Conference); lost to Notre Dame in Pinstripe Bowl
Returning starters (17): Offense (9) — Taj Alexander (RT, Sr.); Keith Lumpkin (LT, Jr.); Kaleb Johnson (LG, Sr.); Chris Muller (RG, So.); Gary Nova (QB, Sr.); Ruhann Peele (WR, So.); Michael Burton (FB, Sr.); Paul James (RB, Jr.); Tyler Kroft (TE, Jr.); Defense (7) — Lorenzo Waters (S, Sr.); Steve Longa (LB, So.); Djwany Mera (DL, Jr.); Gareef Glashen (S, Sr.); Darius Hamilton (DE, Jr.); Anthony Cioffi (CB, So.); Nadir Barnwell (CB, So.); Specialists (1) — Kyle Federico (K, Jr.)
The skinny: Along with Maryland, Rutgers is the newcomer in the conference. And the Scarlet Knights will likely have a tough go in a rugged Eastern Division. Among Big Ten teams, only Michigan and Purdue fielded worse rushing offenses last season. The Scarlet Knights will have to do better in that area in their physical new league. In addition, Rutgers has to finish games off. The Scarlet Knights were outscored 103-81 in fourth quarters last season. Meanwhile, the Rutgers offense converted just 35 percent of its third downs. If they can make improvements in these areas, the Scarlet Knights will have a much better chance at winning.
Pennsylvania connections (12) — Andre Boggs (Coatesville); Sebastian Joseph (Stroudsburg); Sam Bergen (East Stroudsburg); Kevin Snyder (Cumberland Valley); J.J. Denman (Pennsbury); Taj Alexander (Downingtown East); Chris Muller (Boyertown); Robert Martin (Harrisburg); Desmon Peoples (Archbishop Wood); Nick Arcidiacono (Archbishop Wood); Tyler Kroft (Downingtown East); Charles Scarff (Lancaster Catholic)
Can’t miss game: Sept. 13 vs. Penn State (8 p.m., BTN): Rutgers makes its conference debut against a regional rival. Penn State has recruited the New Jersey area well over the years and currently counts 15 players on its roster that call New Jersey home. Twelve Rutgers players hail from Pennsylvania.
14. Purdue Boilermakers
Polls: Not ranked
Coach: Darrell Hazell, second season, 1-11 (17-21 overall)
Last season: 1-11 (0-8 Big Ten)
Returning starters (20): Offense (10) — Danny Etling (QB, So.); Gabe Holmes (TE, Sr.); Akeem Hunt (RB, Sr.); Jason King (LG, So.); B.J. Knauf (WR, So.); Robert Kugler (C, Jr.); Shane Mikesky (WR, Jr.); Jordan Roos (RG, So.); Justin Sinz (TE, Sr.); DeAngelo Yancey (WR, So.); Defense (9) — Anthony Brown (DB, Jr.); Landon Feichter (S, Sr.); Joe Gilliam (LB, Sr.); Taylor Richards (S, Sr.); Sean Robinson (LB, Sr.); Michael Rouse (DT, Jr.); Ryan Russell (DE, Sr.); Frankie Williams (CB, Jr.); Specialists (1) — Paul Griggs (K, Jr.)
The skinny: The Boilermakers couldn’t get much of anything right last season. In all fairness, they fielded one of the youngest teams in the country. Second-year coach Darrell Hazell welcomes back 20 starters, of which 11 were underclassmen last season. Danny Etling emerged as Purdue’s quarterback of the future but struggled to stay on his feet. In eight games, Etling was sacked 31 times. The Boilermakers will have two new tackles this season and guards Jason King and Jordan Roos are looking to have a better season after getting knocked around as freshmen in 2013. Purdue’s defense also welcomes back most of its players from 2013, where it ranked 105 nationally. A big problem was the defense couldn’t get off the field as it got very little possession time help from the offense. Purdue’s offense ran just 62 plays per game and was outpossessed by nearly six minutes per game. That’s a long time in a football game and no defense can hold up at that pace. The bright side is, it can’t get much worse.
Pennsylvania connections (3) — Jack De Boef (State College); Brandon Cottom (Council Rock North); Robert Kugler (North Allegheny);
Can’t miss game: Sept. 13 vs. Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. NBC): Purdue actually came close to knocking off the Fighting Irish last season in what was the Boilermakers’ closest game until the penultimate week of the season.