Say this for the Big Ten: it doesn't care if you make fun of its numerical prowess.
Ever since it added Penn State to the conference in 1989, the Big Ten has had more schools than the name suggests. It was compounded with the addition of Nebraska in 2010, and taken to new heights with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers in 2012.
A 14-team Big Ten brought about the end of the Leaders and Legends Divisions and ushered in the Big Ten East and West. In the East, Ohio State will contend with the two newest members of the conference on a yearly basis; in fact, Maryland and Rutgers are the first two Big Ten teams the Buckeyes will face this year.
Like it or not, Maryland and Rutgers are #B1G. So, what should we know about the new neighbors we're giving the stinkeye?
One on the Decline...
On Nov. 20, 2012, Rutgers was on top of the world. The Big Ten had just extended an invitation, enabling them to escape the crumbling Big East. The Scarlet Knights were 9-1 in head coach Kyle Flood's first season, No. 9 in the country and headed for a BCS bid. It's been all downhill since then.
Rutgers dropped the final three games of 2012 to finish unranked. The Scarlet Knights spent a year in the Charmin-soft American Athletic Conference, where they were expected to contend for a championship; instead, they went 6-7 and finished on a 2-6 slump. The result: over a dozen of Rutgers' best recruits defected before signing day, and its highly-touted recruiting class fell to pieces.
That goes without mentioning the $48 million budget deficit or multitude of scandals that made Rutgers' athletic department the laughingstock of the college sports world. The Scarlet Knights are facing down a stacked Big Ten East, and Flood is on the hot seat if his team flops.
...And One on the Rebound
A few years ago, Maryland was in even worse shape than Rutgers is now. In 2010, Maryland's athletic director fired long-time coach Ralph Friedgen. It was understandable, since Friedgen's teams wavered between 5-7 and 8-5 for nearly a decade, but firing him after a lucky 9-4 year caused a media firestorm. Firing Friedgen put Maryland's already-strained athletic department on the hook for a large buyout and cost them coach-in-waiting James Franklin, who is now coaching rival school Penn State.
Plan C for Maryland was hiring Randy Edsall from UConn. It started off dismally: against complaints of massive attrition and a toxic atmosphere, the Terps finished 2-10 in 2011. It was only marginally better in 2012, as Maryland went 4-8 while suffering rotten injury luck. The best thing the Terrapins did all season was recruit five-star wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who was an all-conference performer from day one. That led to Maryland's resurgent 2013 season, wherein they improved to 7-6 despite season-ending injuries to Diggs and Deon Long, their other top receiver.
From rocky beginnings, Randy Edsall has made the Terps better each of the last two years. Can he do it again in 2014?
I hate to use the B-word to describe anybody, but Rutgers' starting QB Gary Nova deserves it. Here goes: Gary Nova is a no-good Bellisari.
Remember Steve Bellisari? OSU quarterback, inaccurate throwing, horrendous decision-making, and just enough play-making ability to cling to the starting QB job from 1999-2001? Nova is all of those things, except he is entering his fourth year as a starter. Just look at his highlight video.
In spite of Nova, Rutgers should make some headway running the ball. The Scarlet Knights were pretty bad at running the ball, but they return all five offensive line starters, including seniors Betim Bujari, Kaleb Johnson and Keith Lumpkin. Junior running back Paul James had some dynamic games in 2013, and Justin Goodwin could be a solid contributor too. Rutgers' receiving corps isn't impressive, but they do have senior tight end Tyler Krone as a solid target. If new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen (it's a small world, huh?) can get Nova's head straightened out, Rutgers could have a respectable offense this year.
Maryland's offensive talent is the inverse of Rutgers. The Terrapins have the strongest wide receiver trio in the Big Ten behind Stefon Diggs, Deon Long and Levern Jacobs, and starting quarterback CJ Brown is an adept dual-threat QB, beating Virginia Tech with his feet last year.
Maryland is less secure in the offensive line and the backfield; the Terrapins will be starting true freshmen Damian Prince and Derwin Gray. They're both talented (Prince was a five-star offensive tackle) but if they can't win the starting jobs, Maryland has no depth to replace them. They return largely-inffective leading rusher Brandon Ross, but they will find their greatest success in pass-heavy games.
Rutgers' defense could have passed for Ohio State's in 2013. The front seven were great against the run, allowing the fourth-fewest yards per game in the country, but the secondary was atrocious, finishing 122nd in passing yards allowed per game. While the line loses leading tackler Marcus Thompson, it retains defensive tackle and team MVP Darius Hamilton. Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder are the other two defensive standouts. Nobody in the secondary is in for a special year, but SS Lorenzo Waters did lead the secondary in tackles, pass breakups and forced fumbles. With better turnover luck, the passing defense could improve to bad – mediocre, even!
Maryland had a decent top-50 defense in 2013 and looks to improve this year. Their strength is also the front seven, which has SDE Andre Monroe, DT Darius Kilgo, and LB Matt Robinson. Unlike Rutgers, Maryland didn't have any glaring weaknesses in the secondary; of which SS Sean Davis and CB William Likely are the best returning players. The Terps' greatest weakness is their lack of depth, which is probably going to bite them at some point.
Since this is as good a place as any to put special teams: Rutgers' Janarion Grant was a sensational kick and punt returner as a freshman, and Maryland's Brad Craddock is one of the Big Ten's best kickers. If Diggs returns kicks for Maryland, he should excel too.
Ohio State begins conference play with both of the newbies, travelling to College Park on Oct. 4 and hosting Rutgers on Oct. 18. Maryland ought to have a good offense and an okay defense, which should put them anywhere from 3rd-5th in the Big Ten East. If the Terps surpass expectations, they'll be an 8-9 win team and the Buckeyes will need to be on upset alert.
Rutgers has a killer Big Ten schedule, possibly the toughest in the conference, and no leadership at quarterback to counteract it. Given the team's talent level, 4-8 is a reasonable baseline for this season. Finish below that, and Kyle Flood is likely fired; make a bowl and he's safe for another few years. They're the consensus last-place team in the Big Ten East, and in all likelihood the easiest conference win the Buckeyes will get all year.