Early 2014 Big Ten East power rankings: Spartans, Buckeyes back on top

Andy Lyons

The Big Ten East is brand new and loaded with talent on the field and on the sidelines. Even though we still have to finish coaching season, the recruiting cycle, and spring ball, let's talk about how it stacks up early on. Adam Jacobi ranks his personal seven, with yours below.

Michigan State-Ohio State was a titanic matchup that decided the fate of the Big Ten in 2013, and with the two teams converging on the new Big Ten East in 2014, the balance of the conference may yet be at stake between the two yet again. Or will Michigan put it all together and make a run for the championship? Oh, and two new teams are joining the conference.

Here's a way-too-early look.

1. Michigan State Spartans

2013 finish: 13-1, Big Ten champions, Rose Bowl champions, No. 3 in AP and USA Today

Returning starters: 13

The Big Ten's best team in 2013 looks like it'll take a step back in 2014, but all steps are relative, and most programs can only dream of regressing into still being the best team in the division. So here Michigan State is.

The offense finally jelled into a cohesive, efficient unit as Connor Cook and his receivers improved over the course of the year. If the Spartans can overcome a depleted offensive line, they'll score. Among the skill-position players, only receiver Bennie Fowler departs, and while Fowler was an important part of the offense, guys like Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Tony Lippett will thrive with the increased amount of targets. Cook is back, running back Jeremy Langford is back, tight end Josiah Price is back, fullback Trevon Pendleton is back ... you see the pattern.

The adjustment pains will be on defense, though, as Michigan State bids adieu to leaders like Max Bullough (and his Rose Bowl replacement, Kyler Ellsworth), Denicos Allen, Darqueze Dennard, and Isaiah Lewis, to say nothing of defensive tackles Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds. There's talent to replace them, but it is virtually impossible for the next guard of Spartans to match 2013's No. 1 defense right away.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

2013 finish: 12-2, Big Ten Leaders champions, 12th in AP, 10th in USA Today

Returning starters: 13

Speaking of good teams sporting new looks, Ohio State will be a substantially different team. Most of the physical offensive line departs to graduation, and top tailbacks Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall join them. Quarterback Braxton Miller is back for his senior season, so Urban Meyer's not exactly in any trouble when it comes to the offense.

But with Miller's passing skills still lacking, will Ohio State have the horses up front to go heavy? Does Dontre Wilson make the leap to a go-to threat on the outside? Do we see the tight ends re-introduced to a heavy role on offense?

Buckeye fans complained early and often about defensive breakdowns in 2013, and with linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby both likely going early in the Draft, the Buckeyes have a major need and opportunity for new playmakers to step in. And this is the type of situation in which Meyer thrives. If Curtis Grant can put it all together, he should be the next great Buckeye linebacker, but dude will already a junior in 2014. Doran Grant looks like the next top corner, but how often did he get victimized when good quarterbacks saw him on the field last year?

The talent level is still so high in Columbus that it's very difficult to rate the Buckeyes much lower than this, and 10-2 (6-2) sounds just about right (Virginia Tech looms on the non-conference schedule, but it's at the 'Shoe, and the Hokies are relatively toothless these days). But make no mistake, for all the grousing Meyer did about his team not being ready in the preseason last year, he has a much more difficult task in front of him this time around.

3. Michigan Wolverines

2013 finish: 7-6, fifth in Big Ten Legends, unranked

Returning starters: 13

Believe it or not, the future is still bright for Michigan, even after a thoroughly underwhelming 2013. The Wolverines have an embarrassment of riches on the offensive side of the ball, with highly rated prospects all over the two-deeps. An offense with senior Devin Gardner at quarterback, pass-catchers like Jake Butt and Devin Funchess at tight end, budding superstar Derrick Green at running back and a line full of four- and five-star prospects should be putting up about 40 points a game.

That Michigan struggled so readily on that front last year was a more than valid reason to let offensive coordinator Al Borges go. And incoming OC Doug Nussmeier, previously at Alabama and Washington, knows a thing or two about making an offense full of talent work in cohesion.

This is a bit of a broken record, but the losses in the trenches are worrisome, as Michigan bids adieu to left tackle Taylor Lewan, right tackle Michael Scofield, and defensive tackles Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington. We like Ondre Pipkins to take another step forward plugging the middle, and Michigan's back seven could be loaded (the Wolverines have seven or eight linebackers, led by the likes of Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, and James Ross III, that could start just about anywhere in the Big Ten), so the future is bright.

The talent is there. There is absolutely no question. Now, then, it's time for Brady Hoke to get his offensive and defensive units working with clarity of vision, and if he can't do that, it might be time for Michigan to find someone who can. Anything lower than third in this division should be unacceptable.

4. (tie) Indiana Hoosiers

2013 finish: 5-7, fourth in Big Ten Leaders, unranked

Returning starters: 18

The Big Ten's most chaotic team — Hoosier games averaged more than 77 points last year, while the average Michigan State game saw just 42.6 — looks to be another Tasmanian devil in 2014, lighting up the scoreboard and watching helplessly as the opponent does the same.

While the Hoosiers welcome back all but four starters from last year's campaign, the slate they'll face might be the toughest in the Big Ten. All three FBS non-conference games are against 2013 bowl teams (North Texas, Bowling Green, and Mizzou) and two are on the road. The Hoosiers face a cross-divisional game at Iowa, another 2013 bowl team. And then, you know, facing this leviathan of a division.

Where Kevin Wilson goes with the quarterback tandem of Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld should be interesting to watch, and whether he can surround receiver Shane Wynn with weapons remains to be seen. But the potential for major fireworks is still there in Bloomington.

4. (tie) Maryland Terrapins

2013 finish: 7-6, fifth in ACC Atlantic, unranked

Returning starters: 17

For as middling as Randy Edsall seems as a head coach, and for as devastating as it was to lose Stefon Diggs (quite possibly the B1G's best wideout in 2014) to a broken leg in the middle of the year last year, the Terrapins still kept things together for a decent year.

The Terrapins' run-heavy offense should get a shot of balance and explosion with Diggs and Deon Long coming back. That could also help either sixth-year senior C.J. Brown or Caleb Rowe to improve at quarterback. Brown's battled injuries for years now, and Rowe completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes last year.

Maryland brings back four starting offensive linemen and all of its starting defensive linemen, but no one on either side of the trenches warranted even an honorable mention from the ACC in 2013 anyway. Still, the framework for success is in place, even against a brutal schedule, and now it's up to Edsall to earn his pay and make it happen.

6. Penn State Nittany Lions

2013 finish: 7-5, third in Big Ten Leaders, unranked

Returning starters: 14

Penn State welcomes its third full-time coach in the last four seasons, as Vanderbilt wunderkind James Franklin comes to town. And while the hire was universally seen as a home run, it still means another adjustment period.

For a team that bids adieu to three of its starting offensive linemen and its most fearsome playmaker, WR Allen Robinson, that might mean a season or two of rebuilding. Not fun when you don't have a full complement of scholarships, but those are slowly returning.

With quarterback Christian Hackenberg ready to take on his second year under center, a winning record is absolutely still in play for the Nittany Lions. Tight end Adam Breneman was another prized recruit in Hackenberg's class, but he'll have to contend with potent catchers like Jesse James and Kyle Carter at the position.

On defense is where the Nittany Lions look worryingly average, though, and losing a great positional coach like Larry Johnson Sr. will not help matters. We like Deion Barnes on the line, Mike Hull at linebacker, and Adrian Amos in the secondary, but at the end of the day you need more than one stud in each unit, and it's tough to see where else the elite production comes from there in 2014.

7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

2013 finish: 6-7, seventh in American, unranked

Returning starters: 11 [highly disputed!]

It's not that Rutgers is terrible. It's just that Rutgers isn't better than anyone else in the division.

Quarterback Gary Nova returns, which is not the best news for the Scarlet Knights. Nova struggled before hitting the bench for senior Chas Dodd in 2013, and while it's Nova's team again now, it also was for a while in 2013, y'know?

Still, if Nova gets his game right, he has some weapons. Tight end Tyler Kroft emerged as a consistent option in the passing game with 43 catches as a sophomore. Running back Paul James has an opportunity to be a go-to back, but his lack of production coming back from injury was a bit of a concern. Still, if he's healthy, count on him cracking 1,000 yards.

On defense, the Scarlet Knights say goodbye to a bevy of players, especially in the secondary. With dynamic passing offenses cropping up at Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State, a lack of experience will be killer for Kyle Flood and company. Expect some blowouts. So it goes.

What do you think?

Give us your way-too-early power ranking for the all-new Big Ten East.

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