The Big Ten's Playoff Picture Contains Few Subjects

By Kyle Rowland on July 21, 2014 at 8:15a

The upcoming college football season will be full of intrigue and firsts. Well, unless you’ve been a die-hard FCS, Division II or Division III fan – the levels of college football that decided a champion the right way. For FBS, it’s the first year of a playoff, offering suspense in every month and a crescendo in January.

The SEC has ruled the sport for the better part of a decade. The conference won nine national championships during the BCS era, including seven of the final eight. It may very well continue that dominance in the new age. But multiple conferences will be able to flex their muscles.

Despite the SEC’s track record of success, it will be difficult for voters to keep out champions from the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12. Only four teams are allowed in and expecting two SEC teams every year is far from guaranteed. Year 1 of the playoff could serve as a reality check for the conference everyone loves to hate, as Ohio State, Michigan State, Florida State, Oklahoma and Oregon all pose significant challenges.

In the Big Ten, there’s little doubt as to who the top dogs are. It’s the Buckeyes, Spartans, and then everyone else. Last year’s classic Big Ten championship game will be played over in East Lansing – at night in November. LSU and Alabama play the same evening, making November 8, perhaps, the most important day of the season.

“When we [arrived in East Lansing] in 2006, we dreamed big,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said this spring. “What we’ve been able to accomplish this past year was a result of that – seven years of sacrifice, commitment, laying our plan out and going through our goals.

“We’re now at the top, and that’s where Ohio State has been. A lot of that is thanks to Coach Tressel and the things he did. That’s where they’re at right now. The opportunity to compete at that level at this point in time in just a mindset. But we’re very fortunate to be there.”

Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford, Keith Mumphrey, Shilique Calhoun and Kurtis Drummond return. But the losses of defensive stalwarts Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Darqueze Dennard almost outweigh who’s back.

The nation will learn quickly how good Michigan State still is when it travels to Oregon on Sept. 6 for a game with major playoff implications for both programs. Few coaches get as much out of his players than Dantonio, and after last season, it’s hard to underestimate him.

Where doubt creeps in is Michigan State’s uneven past. Historically, the Spartans are not a consistent winner. That trend is currently being discredited by seasons with 11, 11 and 13 wins. For all the talk about Michigan State’s defense, Cook’s progression will ultimately be the deciding factor in the Spartans’ fate.

“I honestly didn’t see this coming,” Cook said about his rise.

Neither did anyone else. That team and player this season could be Iowa and quarterback Jake Rudock. The Hawkeyes’ schedule gives them an opportunity at an unblemished record and hopes of crashing college football’s big party. Rudock is an academic whiz who threw for 2,383 yards, 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions during Iowa’s eight-win season in 2013.

“I think we’ve all gotten more comfortable with the offense,” Rudock said. “We all understand it better. Things like route depth. Sometimes it’s supposed to be a 12-yard route. We’d accidentally run it eight yards or nine yards, and that makes a big difference.”

What will make a big difference in Columbus is an improved defense. Urban Meyer’s 24 victories in two years were diminished by an overmatched secondary. That win total must reach 37 if the Buckeyes hope to appear in the Rose or Sugar Bowl – college football’s semifinals. The chances of a one-loss Ohio State team reaching the playoff are slim.

So Meyer and Co. will ride the arm and legs of Braxton Miller, a Heisman Trophy contender who’s improved every season. There are weapons galore on offense – Ezekiel Elliott, Dontre Wilson, Devin Smith – a veteran defensive line and an improved back end that bodes well against a favorable schedule.

There are challenges against Virginia Tech and Michigan, but it’s almost a One Game Season with a giant circle around November 8. Get past Michigan State undefeated and a berth in the inaugural playoff is in sight.

“We’re leaving spring practice with a good feeling,” Meyer said in April.

The months have since dwindled. Fall camp will begin in weeks and the chase for college football supremacy will be fraught with anticipation.

2014 could be a B1G year.

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