By Chris Emma-
(CBS) Long before the stadiums are filled and the helmets get strapped on, the 2014 season was played. This new football season is a culmination of program stability and recruiting trends.
Those teams at the top have kept stability at the head coaching position, won the recruiting battles and maintained a program identity. There’s no secret to building a championship-level team. And it’s not a surprise as to which teams are atop the Big Ten.
Over the past five years, Michigan State and Ohio State have the displayed the blueprint for producing a winner. It starts with their coaches, the Spartans’ Mark Dantonio and Buckeyes’ Urban Meyer, then works down the food chain of the program. They win the recruiting battles, develop talent and win games.
It takes a village, as they say, and both the Spartans and Buckeyes have it. Dantonio and Meyer are two of the best coaches in the country, but where would the Spartans have been without defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi or the Buckeyes sans one of the top staffs in the country?
Consistently, Michigan State and Ohio State have raked in the top blue-chip talents, developed them into better players and formed a cohesive team. That’s where the identity is formed.
What comes to mind with Michigan State? Dominating defense. The Spartans were sixth in the nation in total defense in 2011, then jumped to fourth in 2012 and second in 2013. There’s no reason to expect a letdown now.
For Ohio State? Team speed that rivals the SEC more than any Big Ten team. The Buckeyes averaged more than 500 yards and 45.5 points per game last season. Even without Braxton Miller — lost for the season with a torn labrum, Ohio State can still put up lopsided numbers.
Respectively, each has laid the foundation for success. That’s why these are the cream of the crop.
In the Big Ten, two teams have the model in place to compete for championships every year. The Spartans and Buckeyes are legit contenders for the College Football Playoff this season and will be every season as long as Dantonio and Meyer are in charge.
Football is back, and it will be fun. But so many of the battles have already been won.
1.) It’s do-or-die for coach Tim Beckman in Champaign, and everyone there knows it. The Fighting Illini need to win six games — reaching bowl eligibility — or else Beckman’s third year will almost certainly be his last. Looking at Illinois’ schedule, there’s no reason it shouldn’t win five games. But that sixth victory figures to be difficult, as it’ll need to be an upset on the road or a home win against Iowa or Penn State. Beckman has Wes Lunt to count on at quarterback, plus a much greater talent level throughout his team. It could all come together for the Illini. For Beckman, it needs to in order to save his job.
2.) Don’t know which Big Ten game to watch each weekend? Flip the TV to the one with Melvin Gordon, the Wisconsin running back who’s one of the nation’s most explosive players and a legitimate Heisman contender. Gordon has put up Nintendo numbers in his young career, with 1,609 rushing yards (7.8 per carry) and 12 touchdowns in 2013. There’s no reason to think he’ll slow down, not with an elite offensive line in place. Gordon is must-see TV every Saturday.
3.) Brady Hoke’s seat in Ann Arbor is hot. That would’ve come as a surprising statement two years ago when the Wolverines ran to the Sugar Bowl in Hoke’s first season. But Michigan has regressed, even with strong recruiting returns. It’s all about player development, and Hoke just hasn’t made his players better. The maize and blue needs to reverse this trend or a change in leadership figures to be coming.
4.) The “Blackshirt” tradition that Nebraska takes such pride in will be revived to full form. The Cornhuskers’ defense is at its best since joining the Big Ten — and perhaps even better than its 2009 unit that featured Ndamukong Suh. In Randy Gregory, the Huskers have a dominating pass rusher and a likely a top-five pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He anchors a defense that will be tough for offenses to navigate.
5.) The breakout freshman name to watch is Michigan State’s Malik McDowell. He’s a monster in the middle, getting the chance to play in in first year with the Spartans’ loaded defense. “He’s had a very good camp for a freshman,” Dantonio said. It’s tempered praise for the preseason, but it’s only beginning.
6.) In picking sophomore Danny Etling as quarterback, Purdue greatly enhanced its chances for 2014 and also for the future. Etling is the right guy for coach Darrell Hazell to build his program around, a promising young arm, dedicated student of the game and a proven leader (even as a freshman). The Boilermakers take great pride in their “Cradle of Quarterbacks” tradition, and Etling is the next big name.
7.) Even without Braxton Miller, lost for the entire season with a torn labrum, Ohio State will be OK. J.T. Barrett is a replacement-level quarterback, but that works when the supporting cast is so staggering. Barrett doesn’t need to be Miller for Ohio State to be good. He just has to manage each game. It can be done, and the Buckeyes can be fine.
8.) The departure of Venric Mark was a brutal blow for Northwestern, made even worse when coupled with Christian Jones suffering a torn ACL. But the Wildcats still have playmakers to work with on offense. Freshmen Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault should complement Treyvon Green’s game and can be counted on in the receiving game, too. Northwestern has talented receivers ready to work in Tony Jones, Miles Shuler and Kyle Prater (yes, that Kyle Prater). If Trevor Siemian can play to his potential and the running backs can provide a punch, the exit of Mark won’t be a fatal loss.
9.) “Yeah, it’s big, but it’s not loud. I mean, that’s one thing with Michigan, it’s not a loud crowd.” And with that sharp line, Maryland’s Randy Edsall fired up the state of Michigan, ruffling more feathers in the Big Ten. It should be noted that Michigan Stadium is incredibly loud, one of the most intimidating places to play in the country. Edsall and his Terps will get to experience it soon.
10.) Even with Bill O’Brien gone from Happy Valley, quarterback Christian Hackenberg has what it takes to become Big Ten Player of the Year. Sure, O’Brien was instrumental in Hackenberg’s growth, but so much of his talent is natural. Just a sophomore, this could be another stellar season.
Quote of the week
“Happy football season.” – Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald
Big Ten power rankings
1.) Michigan State – All hail the king. Sparty is the favorite for a Rose Bowl repeat.
2.) Ohio State – No Braxton Miller, plenty of problems. Can a redshirt freshman lead the Buckeyes?
3.) Iowa – The Hawkeyes will be fun to watch this season. Consider them a sleeper to steal the conference crown.
4.) Wisconsin – It’s hard to count out the Badgers as long as Melvin Gordon is in their backfield.
5.) Nebraska – Bo Pelini has been all smiles this offseason, but will that be wiped away by Big Ten play?
6.) Michigan – Expectations are relatively low for the Wolverines, but there’s plenty of talent on their roster.
7.) Penn State – Bill O’Brien got a lot out of a little. It’s James Franklin’s turn to prove himself in Happy Valley.
8.) Maryland – The conference newcomers have playmakers to work with in their rookie campaign.
9.) Northwestern – The Wildcats went from 10 wins in 2012 to just five. A brutal schedule spells more rough times in Evanston.
10.) Minnesota – With one of the Big Ten’s best defenses, the Golden Gophers have potential to surprise this season.
11.) Illinois – Let’s see what Wes Lunt can do for the Fighting Illini. Tim Beckman needs a winning season.
12.) Indiana – The Hoosiers have one of the Big Ten’s best offenses and worst defenses.
13.) Rutgers – Expect the Scarlet Knights to struggle in Year 1 with their new conference
14.) Purdue – Four wins seems like the Boilermakers’ potential, and it would mark a successful season.
Jacksonville State at Michigan State (Off) – Michigan State, 49-0
Penn State vs. UCF (-2) – Penn State, 23-21
Indiana State at Indiana (Off) – Indiana, 56-31
Northern Iowa at Iowa (Off) – Iowa, 41-10
Appalachian State at Michigan (-35) – Michigan, 42-21
Navy at Ohio State (-17) – Ohio State. 31-21
Western Michigan at Purdue (-11) – Purdue, 38-24
Youngstown State at Illinois (Off) – Illinois, 45-20
James Madison at Maryland (Off) – Maryland, 52-7
Florida Atlantic at Nebraska (-22) – Nebraska, 48-13
California at Northwestern (-11) – Northwestern, 49-42
Wisconsin vs. LSU (-6) – LSU, 24-20
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.