The Michigan State Spartans went unbeaten in Big Ten play in 2013. They would go on to beat Ohio State 34-24 in the Big Ten Championship Game, earning a trip to the Rose Bowl while also preventing the previously unbeaten Buckeyes from playing in the BCS Championship. The Spartans would beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl 24-20 as well to really show that the Big Ten was stronger than their perception.

The experiment with the Legends and Leaders divisions is over. The Big Ten has added two teams this year in Maryland from the ACC and Rutgers from the American Athletic. The conference will be split into two divisions known as the East and the West. The East appears loaded this year with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan highlighting it. The West is completely wide open and easily the weaker of the two divisions in 2014. Here is a look at how I have this conference playing out this year.

Big Ten East Predictions

1. Michigan State (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) – The Spartans were a few blown calls in a 13-17 loss to Notre Dame last year away from playing in the national title game. Despite some big losses on defense, this is still the best stop unit in the Big Ten. The offense will only be better with seven starters back including RB Langford and QB Cook, who played his best football in the wins over Ohio State and Stanford to close the season. Michigan State’s Big Ten road schedule is a cake walk, and it gets key home games against Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska. A win over the Buckeyes will give the Spartans the tiebreaker in the East division.

1. Ohio State (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten) – The Buckeyes are the popular pick to win the newly-formed East division this year, and for good reason. They went a combined 24-0 in their first 24 games under Urban Meyer, but lost back-to-back games to close out last season. Braxton Miller is back to lead what will be the most potent offense in the Big Ten. The defense does have seven starters back, but loses four of its top six tacklers. Ohio State does have an easy conference schedule as it draws both Minnesota and Illinois from the West. However, it must play Michigan State on the road, and that loss will have the Buckeyes falling short of a Big Ten Championship in 2014.

3. Michigan (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) – Michigan was 6-1 last season and as high as No. 11 in the country. However, a 1-5 finish certainly leaves a sour taste in their mouths. The Wolverines lost four games by a combined 11 points last year and should have better fortune in close games in 2014. They return 15 starters and should be vastly improved defensively after a down year on that side of the ball. They avoid Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska from the West. I’d pick them to finish higher in the East, but unfortunately they have to play the top two division contenders in Ohio State and Michigan State on the road.

4. Indiana (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) – The Hoosiers have only been to one bowl game since 1993. This was an experienced team last year, but it was led by mostly juniors. Now, with 17 returning starters, this is a senior-dominated squad in 2014. They do have some tough non-conference games at Bowling Green and Missouri, and draw Iowa out of the West, but I like their chances of getting back to a bowl game this year. They have the second-best offense in the Big Ten, and the defense will surely be better with nine starters back. This is the third-most experienced team in the FBS, and these players will use their hunger and leadership to push them to a 7-win season and bowl eligibility in 2014.

5. Penn State (7-5, 3-5 Big Ten) – Despite the NCAA sanctions, Bill O’Brien managed to lead Penn State to a combined 10-6 record in the Big Ten over the past two seasons. New head coach James Franklin is the perfect fit here. All he did was take a Vanderbilt team that had one nine-win season in 122 years to back-to-back nine-win campaigns over the past two. This will be a gritty bunch, but with just 12 returning starters, I have the Nittany Lions finishing toward the bottom of the pack in the loaded East division. They only have five returning starters on offense, have to break in four new starters along the O-line, and lose three of their top four receivers, including Allen Robinson (97 receptions, 1,432 yards, 6 TD).

5. Maryland (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) – The Terrapins certainly have the talent to be competitive in their first season in the Big Ten. They managed to get to a bowl game last year despite key injuries at wide receiver and defensive back. The year before, they were down to their 6th-string quarterback, who previously played linebacker. They will surely receive better health in 2014, and with 17 returning starters, they are one of the most experienced teams in the league. They could surprise, but I’m not banking on it because of the schedule. Their draw the top two teams from the West in Wisconsin and Iowa. Their Big Ten opponents (excluding Rutgers) combined to go 37-19 in conference play last year.

7. Rutgers (3-9, 1-7 Big Ten) – The Scarlet Knights have managed to make a bowl game in eight of the last nine seasons. They limped into one in 2013, losing six of their final eight games all by double-digits. Their only wins during that stretch came against lowly Temple and USF at home. I look for them to play 2014 like they ended last year. While they do have 16 returning starters, this is one of the least talented teams in the conference. Plus, they draw Wisconsin and Nebraska from the West, and their Big Ten opponents (excluding Maryland) went a combined 37-19 in conference play last year. It will be a painful first season in the Big Ten for Scarlet Knight fans in 2014.

Big Ten West Predictions

1. Iowa (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten) – The Hawkeyes have been remarkably consistent under head coach Kirk Ferentz, who has won three Big Ten Coach of the Year awards since his arrival here in 1999. They won eight games last season, and they should be able to improve upon that in 2014. The offense returns eight starters and will be one of the better units in the Big Ten. The defense is a concern with just five returning starters. They lost their top three tacklers at linebacker, and two of them have moved on to the NFL. However, they have drawn a dream schedule. They draw Maryland and Indiana out of the East, and their Big Ten opponents (excluding Maryland) went a combined 20-36 in conference play last year. The key is that they get their three contenders from the West in Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska all at home. A win over the Badgers will give them the tiebreaker, and they’ll be the surprise of the Big Ten by going all the way to the title game.

1. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) – The Badgers were a 9-4 team last year, but they were much more dominant than their record would indicate. Their three losses during the regular season came to Arizona State, Ohio State and Penn State all by a touchdown or less. Their nine wins all came by double-digits as they outscored opponents 34.8 to 16.3 on the season. The offense will be superb with the top O-line and top set of running backs in the Big Ten. The concern is on defense, where just three starters return. However, the Badgers do draw an easy schedule as they get both Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland from the East. Excluding those two, their Big Ten opponents went a combined 16-32 within the conference last year. They do have to play on the road at Iowa and at Northwestern, and I have them dropping those two games and losing out on a tiebreaker to the Hawkeyes.

3. Northwestern (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) – After catching all the breaks in close games during a 10-win campaign in 2012, the Wildcats couldn’t have had any worse luck in those types of games in 2013. They lost five games that were decided within the last couple of possessions last year, and the end result was a 5-7 season. This year, they are tied for the Big Ten lead with 17 returning starters. They do draw Michigan and Penn State from the East, and have to play at Iowa. Still, even though I have them pegged third in the West, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them win the division. At the very least, this will be one of the most improved teams in the country in 2014.

4. Nebraska (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) – Bo Pelini has dug his own grave with some comments he has made through the media. The folks in charge have decided to bring him back for at least one more season, and that’s understandable considering the Huskers have won at least nine games in each of his first six seasons in Lincoln. I expect that trend to come to an end in 2014 as they welcome back just 11 starters this season. They lose QB Taylor Martinez, and Tommy Armstrong is an average signal-caller at best. Nebraska draws Michigan State out of the East, and it plays the top three contenders in the West in Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa all on the road.

5. Illinois (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten) – The Illini have a combined six wins in Tim Beckman’s first two years on the job. They are hoping year three is where they make a bowl, but it won’t be easy. They do return 14 starters, and while they lose QB Scheelhaase, they have Oklahoma State transfer West Lunt to take over QB duties. Offensive coordinator Bill Culbit helped spark a unit that went from 16.7 points per game in 2012 to 29.7 ppg in 2013. The defense has eight starters back and should be better after yielding 35.4 ppg a year ago. However, they draw both Ohio State and Penn State out of the East. Their road schedule is brutal with Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern, but they could make up some ground at home against the likes of Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State. I have them winning the former two games to finish 2-6 within the conference and just shy of a bowl.

5. Minnesota (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten) – The Golden Gophers were one of the biggest surprise teams last year as they won eight games and went .500 in Big Ten play. With 15 returning starters and only 16 lettermen lost, they could again be on track to surprise in 2014. They were outgained by 50.3 yards per game in Big Ten play last year, so they were fortunate to win four conference games despite being an underdog in seven of them. This year, they draw both Ohio State and Michigan out of the East, so the schedule gets much tougher. They should be a dog in six of their eight Big Ten games, and thus I have them going just 2-6 within the conference this season.

7. Purdue (3-9, 0-8 Big Ten) – Things can only get better for the Boilermakers in 2014. They were historically bad last year, getting outgained by an average of 241 yards per game in Big Ten play, which was the worst mark within the conference in over 20 years. Darrell Hazell hasn’t been able to recruit very well at all in his first two years here, so they are lacking talent. They do have 15 returning starters this year and should be more competitive. Unfortunately, they draw Michigan State out of the East, and they get their two weakest Big Ten opponents in Minnesota and Illinois on the road. That spells a second straight 0-8 season within the Big Ten for Purdue in 2014.

Big Ten Championship Game: Michigan State Defeats Iowa

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