By Chris Emma-
(CBS) Alas, the tedious, grueling set of eight months known as the offseason is over. It’s finally game week in college football.
The new-look Big Ten is set for sail, with 14 teams representing college athletics’ oldest conference. There are storylines aplenty as the season sits just six days away. For now, each team has a clean slate.
Without further ado — because we’ve waited long enough for Week 1 — let’s review our preseason Big Ten power rankings.
1.) Michigan State — The reigning Rose Bowl champs remain atop the Big Ten, and with good reason. The Spartans bring back most of their core from a special 2013 run. Connor Cook leads the offense after emerging from a relative unknown to star, while Pat Narduzzi’s defense is still one of the best in college football.
2.) Ohio State — With Braxton Miller at the helm, the Buckeyes seemed poised to run for the College Football Playoff. After his season-ending injury, they’ll now have to count on a redshirt freshman at quarterback in T.J. Barrett, who has incredible talent around him. But will it be enough to salvage the season at a school with such lofty expectations?
3.) Iowa — Only in Iowa City could an offensive tackle be the focal point of a team. But Brandon Scherff is just that good. The projected top-five pick in next year’s NFL Draft is back for another run, anchoring a tough offensive line. For a change, the Hawkeyes will be a pass-happy offense, complemented by a strong defense. Kirk Ferentz has the a top contender to win the West.
4.) Wisconsin — Having one of the nation’s greatest weapons in running back Melvin Gordon, a legitimate Heisman contender, offers plenty for Wisconsin. But the Badgers lack depth all throughout the roster, coupled by questions at quarterback with Tanner McEvoy. Gordon can win Wisconsin eight games on his own, but can the supporting cast do enough to back it?
5.) Nebraska — The knock on Bo Pelini, at least as a coach, is that his ceiling is 10 wins. In Lincoln, that’s just not good enough. Perhaps the Cornhuskers could change that this season, with their best defense since Ndamukong Suh was busting up the Big 12. Add in the elite speed and playmaking ability of running back Ameer Abdulluh, and there’s a lot to like about Nebraska.
6.) Michigan — Frustration in Ann Arbor is higher than the cheap seats in Michigan Stadium. Brady Hoke has regressed since becoming the Wolverines’ coach, and he’s now on the hot seat. Michigan has the potential for a strong season, but the emergence of its rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State, makes a return to prominence even tougher.
7.) Penn State — Bill O’Brien did what seemed to be impossible, sustaining something for the Nittany Lions in the wake of sanctions. Can James Franklin build upon that success? Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a threat to win Big Ten Player of the Year, leads a Penn State team thin in numbers. He’ll have to enjoy a stellar season for his team to make a run.
8.) Maryland — Maybe Randy Edsall’s team can be a surprise in Year 1 with the Big Ten. The Terps have nine starters returning on defense and lethal weapons on offense, but this isn’t the ACC anymore. It won’t be easy for Maryland in its inaugural season.
9.) Northwestern — The most unlucky team in college football last season faces an even more daunting task, facing one of the most brutal schedules in the country. Northwestern has great talent and depth on its roster, even without Venric Mark, but it will be another uphill battle to reach a bowl game.
10.) Minnesota — In the Twin Cities, coach Jerry Kill hasn’t been raking in the blue-chip recruits, but it hasn’t mattered. The Golden Gophers have found ways to win. Their defense seems primed for a big season, following a surprise rise in 2013. The questions surround Mitch Leidner’s abilities at quarterback.
11.) Illinois — In his third year, Tim Beckman probably needs to win six games and reach a bowl game to save his job. Fortunately for the coach, his Fighting Illini face a light schedule, with only one true test, Washington, in nonconference play. Illinois should easily win five games — progress from the first two seasons with Beckman — but locking down that sixth win will be a challenge.
12.) Indiana — Coach Kevin Wilson has built an offense that can compete with anyone in the Big Ten, but the Hoosiers’ defense is the league’s worst. Indiana will have to win some shootouts to travel somewhere warm, or even trek to Detroit, for the holiday season.
13.) Rutgers — During Big Ten Media Days, coach Kyle Flood referred to his program as being “New York’s Big Ten Team.” He better hope the spotlight isn’t too bright on his Scarlet Knights in Year 1 with the Big Ten. It’s going to be a struggle for Rutgers, with little depth and a brutal slate of games.
14.) Purdue — It’s a total rebuild in West Lafayette, as evidenced by a 1-11 first season for coach Darrell Hazell. The Boilermakers are certainly stronger than 2013 and have a much easier schedule in which they’re presented three cupcake wins in nonconference play. Winning a Big Ten game will be another task. Still, three or four wins would be progress for Purdue.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.