Before the 2014 college football season finally kicks off and ushers out the (seemingly) eleventy months of off-season, all of the Big Ten teams will need to replace key starters. Some more than others.
In fact, a quick look through the number of returning starters among the B1G schools shows the potential for sizeable shakeups in the standings, even if you don’t consider the end of the Leaders/Legends (failed) experiment and the start of East-West play.
Teams you’d typically think of as bottom feeders have a lot of starters returning for 2014, while the perennial contenders have a lot of holes to fill with younger players.
The Buckeyes will have 14 starters back from last year’s squad, most notably missing most of the offensive line. How does that compare to the rest of the league?
Let’s take a look at what’s coming back in the fall around the B1G.
The Terrapins return 20 starters from last year’s team that went 7-6 overall (3-5 in the ACC). The only noteworthy player lost was cornerback Dexter McDougle, who led Maryland with three interceptions in 2013.
Key returners for Randy Edsall’s squad include quarterback C.J. Brown, who completed 59% of his passes last season and tossed 13 touchdowns. Four fifths of the offensive line is back, as well as talented wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who spurned Ohio State’s offer and grabbed 34 receptions for 587 yards and three scores in an injury-shortened season.
Tailback Brandon Ross ran for 776 yards and four touchdowns last year. Only two starters were lost defensively and Maryland’s solid kicker and punter are back.
The Wildcats had a disappointing 2013 season, going 5-7 overall (1-7 in B1G play). Pat Fitzgerald will have to replace Kain Colter, but Trevor Siemian returns after throwing for nearly four times the yardage that Colter did. Northwestern welcomes back 18 starters next season.
Fourth leading receiver Rashad Lawrence is the other departing offensive starter. Linebacker Damien Proby is the big loss on defense, leading the Cats in tackles a year ago with 111.
In addition to returning their leading passer in Siemian, the Wildcats will welcome back injured star Venric Mark and 2013’s leading rusher Treyvon Green, as well as their top three receivers — Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. Five defensive starters with 60 or more tackles return this fall as well, highlighted by linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and safety Ibraheim Campbell, who combined for eight interceptions (four apiece).
Darrell Hazell gets 18 starters back from a terrible Purdue team that finished 1-11 overall (0-8 in the Big Ten). Offensively, the Boilermakers lose both starting tackles. By far the biggest loss comes on the defensive side, in cornerback Ricardo Allen, who picked off six passes in 2013.
Danny Etling returns at quarterback. He threw for 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Top runner Akeem Hunt (464 yards, one touchdown) is back, along with tight end Justin Sinz and top wide receiver DeAngelo Yancey (546 yards, two TDs). Kicker Paul Griggs is back too, but he only connected on six of 12 last year.
Kevin Wilson will have 18 starters back home in Indiana in 2014. The hardest guys to replace for the Indiana squad that went 5-7 (3-5) a year ago will be receivers Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer, who combined for more than 1,800 yards and 16 touchdowns. Safety Greg Heban is the big loss on defense. Heban accounted for 82 tackles and three picks in 2013.
The two-headed quarterback of Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld are back, each hitting 60 percent of his passes in 2013 for more than 3,650 yards and 36 touchdowns. Top runner Tevin Coleman missed three games a year ago but still ran for 958 yards and a dozen scores. Shane Wynn is a talented returner at receiver, totaling 633 yards and a team best 11 touchdown receptions last season. The whole offensive line will be back.
The Wolverines went 7-6 (3-5) in 2013 and they bring back 17 starters. The most serious losses are wide receiver Jeremy Gallon (89 receptions, 1,373 yards, nine TDs) and safety Thomas Gordon (58 tackles, three interceptions). And left Tackle Taylor Lewan won’t be around to not get called for facemasking or assault visiting fans anymore.
The marquee returner is Devin Gardner, who passed for 2,960 yards and 21 scores and ran for 483 yards and 11 more touchdowns. Then again, Gardner often shows a tendency for egregious mistakes. The return of Devin Funchess gives Gardner a formidable incumbent pass catcher in 2014, but an ACL injury to Jake Butt robs him of another. Key defensive returners include linebackers Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan and James Ross III, and corners Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor. Countess and Taylor combined for 10 picks last year.
The Scarlet Knights welcome 17 starters back from a team that went 6-7 (3-5 in the American) for their inaugural B1G year. Rutgers loses both starting receivers, Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt, as well as two defensive linemen, Isaac Holmes and Marcus Thompson.
Tight end Tyler Kroft returns, mitigating the losses of Coleman and Pratt. Kroft led the Knights in receptions (43) and yards (573) and scored four times. Quarterback Gary Nova is back after a season in which he tossed for 2,159 yards and 18 touchdowns. The down side is he completed just 54.5% of his passes and threw 14 interceptions. At least he’ll throw behind five returning starters on the offensive line this year.
Tim Beckman is on the hot seat. His Fighting Illini finished 4-8 (1-7) last year. They return 16 starters but they won’t have veteran quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in 2014. Scheelhaase hit 67% of his passes last year for 3,272 yards and 21 touchdowns, and was the team’s third leading rusher. The Illini will have to reload at receiver too, after losing Steve Hull, Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown will be tough to replace after his 119 tackles and five sacks in 2013.
Running back Josh Ferguson (770 yards, seven touchdowns) and four members of the offensive line are back on an offense that will find out if Reilly O’Toole can get it done at quarterback or if he’ll lose his spot to transfer Wes Lunt or young Aaron Bailey. Five returning starters with 53 or more tackles a year ago return to Beckman’s defense, led by linebacker Mason Monheim (97 tackles) and Earnest Thomas III at the star position (101 tackles).
The Golden Gophers returned to postseason play in 2013, finishing 8-5 (4-4). Jerry Kill gets 16 of last year’s Gopher starters back this fall. The biggest losses are on defense, particularly defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, linebacker Aaron Hill and cornerback Brock Vereen. Quarterback Philip Nelson transferred to Rutgers after passing for 1,306 yards and nine touchdowns. Mitch Leidner will take over the offense.
All but left tackle Ed Olson return on the line to protect Leidner and block for running back David Cobb, who racked up 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Safety Cedric Thompson (79 tackles) and linebacker Damien Wilson (78 tackles) return to anchor Kill’s vastly improved defense.
James Franklin inherits a team that went 7-5 (4-4) a year ago under Bill O’Brien. He also inherited 15 returning starters. Unfortunately, one of those — offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach — recently sustained a knee injury that may cost him at least a chunk of the upcoming season.
That’s another blow to a team that already lost guard John Urschel, center Ty Howle, and tackle Adam Gress. Departed wide receiver Allen Robinson caught 97 passes last year for 1,432 yards and six touchdowns and was easily Christian Hackenberg’s favorite target — no one else caught more than 28 passes. Defensively, the Nittany Lions lost two starters on the line in Kyle Baublitz and DaQuan Jones and a key linebacker in Glenn Carson (90 tackles).
Hackenberg highlights the returning players, with 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns passing as a freshman last year. The team’s top three running backs will be behind Hackenberg, in the persons of Zach Zwinak (989 yards, 12 TDs), Bill Belton (803 yards, 5 TDs) and Akeel Lynch (358 yards, 1 TD).
Depth could be a big issue for Penn State this fall, although most of the attrition came on offense.
The Flying Ferentzes welcome 14 starters back to an Iowa team that was a somewhat surprising 8-5 (5-3) a year ago. Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (299 yards, six TDs) and two offensive linemen are the sum of the offensive losses. But the Hawkeyes lose six defensive starters, including linebackers James Morris (106 tackles, seven sacks, four interceptions), Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.
On the plus side, Iowa found a quarterback in Jake Rudock in 2013. Rudock threw for 2,383 yards and 18 scores last year, and he’ll have his starting wide receivers back — Kevonte Martin-Manley (388 yards, five TDs) and Tevaun Smith (310 yards, 1 TD). Running back Mark Weisman (975 yards, eight TDs) also returns on offense.
The Cornhuskers finished 9-4 (5-3) in 2013 and are your defending TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl champions (over Georgia, because Mark Richt has lost control of everything, including the SEC narrative). Bo Pelini gets 14 starters back, with heavy losses on the offensive line (four starters gone). The biggest skill position loss is receiver Quincy Enunwa, who amassed team bests with 753 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
The defense sustained its heaviest losses in the secondary with the departures of Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans, who combined for eight interceptions and a touchdown each in 2013.
The Taylor Martinez era is over, but it pretty much already was. Tommy Armstrong Jr. was the de facto starter a year ago, tossing for 966 yards and nine scores in nine games. Ameer Abdullah’s return is huge for Nebraska. He ran for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns and added 232 receiving yards and two more TDs through the air.
The defense returns its top five tacklers, including linebackers David Santos (87), Michael Rose (66) and Zaire Anderson (52). And leading stopper Corey Cooper (91 tackles) will be back at safety.
Sparty won the league (dang it) with a tremendous 13-1 (8-0) season in 2013 and a Rose Bowl victory. Mark Dantonio gets 14 starters back, with heavy losses along the offensive line (three starters gone) and defense (Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard and three others).
Safety Kurtis Drummond (91 tackles, four interceptions) and defensive end Shilique Calhoun will anchor Pat Narduzzi’s defense, which will be good again despite the heavy attrition. Connor Cook developed into an asset at quarterback, heaving for 2,755 yards and 22 touchdowns with just six picks last year. He’ll have Jeremy Langford (1,422 yards, 18 TDs) back to hand the ball to and starting receiver Tony Lippett (613 yards, two TDs) to throw to again this fall — if the line gives him time.
The Badgers bring up the rear with just 11 returning starters. Gary Andersen’s club went 9-4 (6-2) a year ago but must replace eight defensive starters, including linebackers Chris Borland (112 tackles, four sacks), Ethan Armstrong, Conor O’Neill and Brendan Kelly. Heavy losses hit the skill positions too, with receiver Jared Abbrederis (78 catches, 1,081 yards, seven TDs), tight end Jacob Pederson (551 yards, three TDs), and running back James White (1,444 yards, 13 TDs, 300 receiving yards) all moving on.
Joel Stave will be back after completing 62% of his passes for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns last fall. Melvin Gordon is also back after his 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. Defensively, the Badgers have cornerback Sojourn Shelton (36 tackles, four interceptions) and safety Michael Caputo (63 tackles) back, but the front seven will be untested.
With so many holes to fill among last year’s top teams, the cellar dwellers of 2013 have a real shot at making their move this fall. It’s probably a must-win year for Beckman at Illinois. Wilson must show some kind of defensive progress at Indiana while maintaining his offensive fireworks. And even Pat Fitzgerald had better find whatever magic his Wildcats lost when the Buckeyes visited Evanston last season.
Meanwhile, the two new kids on the block don’t have much to replace in the way of departures, which could make their entry into the league a little easier than it otherwise might be.
And the teams at the top need guys to step up if they’re going to stay there.
Hang in there. The off-season doesn’t last forever. It only seems like it.