Now that the 2013 college football season is officially in the books (thank you, Florida State, for ending our SEC nightmare), it's natural to take an early look toward 2014.
Much will change between now and August. Heck, much will change between now and spring practice. But for right now, the 2014 Big Ten season is shaping up as one that possibly lacks a clear-cut, slam-dunk favorite in either of the new East or West divisions.
In colleague Mark Schlabach's way-too-early Top 25 for next season, Michigan State tops all league teams by checking in at No. 6. Makes plenty of sense, as the Spartans went 13-1, won the Rose Bowl over Stanford and return the vast majority of their offense, along with a solid core on that outstanding defense.
But Michigan State does lose several defensive stars, including Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis. The Spartans also will have to play in the same division, the East, as Ohio State. The Buckeyes check in at No. 9 in Schlabach's rankings, and colleague Travis Haney goes so far as to predict that Urban Meyer's team will make the College Football Playoff next year.
"I have held all along that the Buckeyes, close as they were in 2013, were built for '14," Haney writes. "The talented 2013 freshman class that Urban Meyer brought in [ranked third in the nation according to ESPN's RecruitingNation] had bright spots, such as Joey Bosa at defensive end, but it'll really start to have an impact next season. The defense could quickly go from liability to strength, with young players such as Bosa, safety Vonn Bell and end Noah Spence becoming bigger pieces."
I think there's a lot of truth to that about the defense, which started six freshmen or sophomores against Clemson in the Orange Bowl loss. But Ohio State also loses Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby from a defense that struggled down the stretch, and the offense must replace 80 percent of the offensive line, leading rusher Carlos Hyde and leading receiver Philly Brown. Plus, the Buckeyes have to play at Michigan State.
Those two will headline the new East, and it's up to teams like Michigan and Penn State to get better and make that more than a two-team race. The West Division looks even more wide open.
Schlabach ranks Wisconsin No. 15, which comes as a bit of a surprise considering all of the valuable seniors the Badgers lose on defense, plus receiver Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers also have to open the season against LSU, though the schedule is much more favorable after that with no Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State on the docket.
Iowa checks in at No. 21 in Schlabach's rankings and has to be considered a West contender after going 8-4 in the regular season. The Hawkeyes' offense could make strides in 2014 with most of the key pieces returning, but replacing those three senior starting linebackers won't be easy.
Schlabach does not rank Nebraska, which surprises me. The Huskers finished 9-4, which apparently is an annual federal requirement under Bo Pelini, and bring back just about everybody on defense, plus Ameer Abdullah, Tommy Armstrong Jr., Kenny Bell and several other key players on offense. If forced to choose right now, I'd make Nebraska the West favorite, even though the Huskers have to go to Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State in the fall.
Northwestern figures to bounce back from an incredibly unlucky 2013, and Minnesota won eight games with a lot of young players in major roles this year. Neither can be counted out in the division.
The East looks stronger at the top in 2014 than the West, at least for now. But unlike the 2013 season, when Ohio State was the clear favorite after going 12-0 the previous year, there's no slam-dunk, clear-cut favorite in either division.