One team is excited, one is disappointed, one is anxious, and one is hopeless. This would describe the bottom four teams in Big Ten football after the 2013 season. No matter what they say in their public pronouncements, it's hard to put a happy face on what they achieved last season.
Indiana, Northwestern, Illinois, and Purdue were unquestionably the worst teams in the conference in 2013, but their respective trajectories are markedly different. With two new teams entering the conference in 2014, and with those two teams not exactly causing the current teams to shake in their boots, it could be time for some of the basement-dwellers to step up.
What follows is an analysis of those four teams, their current condition, and their chances to rise to the top half of the conference (and the probable bowl berth that would follow) in the upcoming season. For each I will give a prediction expressed in percentage terms.
The Hoosiers actually had a winning record in their division at 3-2, and thus they tied Wisconsin and Penn State for 2nd place behind Ohio State. Overall in the conference, they finished 3-5 with an upset victory over the Nittany Lions being the highlight of the season. They tied Michigan for 8th in the conference but their 5-7 record left them sitting at home during bowl season.
IU finished the season with some gaudy offensive statistics: 17th in the country in passing yards, 30th in rushing yards, 9th in total offense and 17th in scoring. But it was the defense that was a problem as they gave up over 508 yards per game to finish 103rd in the country. Our beloved Buckeyes, whose 2013 defense we regularly deride, gave up less than 360 yards per game to finish 34th.
Quarterback Nate Sudfeld grabbed the reins of the offense in a September game against Bowling Green and he had a solid season, completing over 60% of his passes for over 2500 yards and 21 touchdowns against only 9 interceptions. But fellow sophomore Tre Roberson started four games himself, including a monster performance in the finale versus Purdue, and it looks like coach Kevin Wilson will stick with the pseudo-platoon in 2014.
The key for Indiana might be learning to possess the ball a bit more in order to take the pressure off their defense. Making Roberson the permanent starter might help with this. Against the Boilermakers, IU rushed for over 400 yards and held the ball for over 34 minutes. On the other hand, they still gave up 516 to a really bad Purdue team, and so it might not matter.
Chance of escaping the cellar: 30%. The road schedule is tough, with dates at Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa. I only see three possible conference wins for this team unless they improve their defense dramatically. The irony is that they still might end up bowl-eligible, due to some soft non-conference games (Indiana State, North Texas, and Bowling Green again).
The Wildcats were among the darkhorse favorites to win the conference in 2013, but after a tough loss at home against OSU the season imploded in spectacular fashion. NU finished 1-7 in the conference, including a last-second heart-breaker against Nebraska.
Northwestern was another team that used a two-quarterback platoon, but their results were not as positive as that of the Hoosiers. Senior Kain Coulter was very productive when he played, but coach Pat Fitzgerald went with junior Trevor Siemian for the most part at quarterback, and his numbers were pedestrian at best.
What accounts for this decision is anyone's guess considering how solid Coulter had been in 2012, but he is gone now and Siemian is the man, for better or worse. He finished the season in impressive fashion, completing 31/44 passes for 414 yards with four touchdowns and 0 INTs against Illinois. Prior to that game, he had thrown for only seven touchdowns against nine interceptions.
In some ways, Northwestern's path out of the basement is easier than most. After all, they had won 10 games the previous season and were expected to continue that run in 2013. In order to get back to that level, they will have to throw off the emotional baggage of a crash-and-burn season in which they often were close to winning only to fold late in the game.
Chance of escaping the cellar: 50%. Pat Fitzgerald is a strong leader and I expect that his team will bounce back to their winning ways in 2014. The schedule is not easy, but they get a break by not playing either Ohio State or Michigan State. Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin are at home while Iowa, Minnesota, and Penn State are on the road. If they can win two of the three key home games and take at least one of the key road games I like their chances to finish in the top seven.
The Illini in 2013 finished with the same 1-7 record as Northwestern, but that is where the similarities end. Unlike the Wildcats, Illinois was not competitive in most of those games. While it is true that they went to overtime against Penn State and played Northwestern tough, the reality of the situation is that the Illini were a pushover for most of the teams on their schedule.
Chief (no pun intended) among their weaknesses was a rush defense that ranked 116th in FBS. Only seven teams gave up more yardage per game on the ground, and none of them played in BCS conferences. On the flip side, the Illini were 92nd in rushing offense, thus signaling that they were weak along both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Most of Illinois' offense in 2013 was from the arm of senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (thankfully the last time I will need to spell that name), who has now departed. His probable replacement Wes Lunt is no doubt a tough guy, having likely spent his childhood being ridiculed with the moniker "Mr. Lunt" by cruel classmates. But can he throw for 3000+ yards? He may need to with this team.
Chance of escaping the cellar: 10%. Nice knowing you, Tim Beckman.
These are lean times in West Lafayette. Purdue went 0-8 in-conference last season and it wasn't a fluke. Thus, every conference game on their schedule looks like a loss. The worst part is that the fans won't have anything to look forward to because their basketball team is almost as bad. Even recruiting brings no enthusiasm, as their 2014 class is even less impressive than the two classes that preceded it.
Chance of escaping the cellar: 0%. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Relive Ohio State's thrilling win at Northwestern with this full-game video.