The East division in review
This is late because of the combination of finals week out here in California (I'm proctoring an exam right now. Don't tell anyone) and my devoting most of my football-related attention to Cal's new coach, Sonny Dykes. In my life as a Cal fan, I think this is fantastic news; Dykes has a good offensive pedigree and has had some success at Louisiana Tech. For the two games in the next two years in which I will be rooting against Cal, I think this is terrible news for all the same reasons. In any case, the August 31 date in Berkeley just got more interesting, as Northwestern will get the first look at the new Cal coaching staff's schemes.
Ohio State: 12-0, 8-0
Urban Meyer's first year in Columbus was a resounding success, but the postseason ban resulting from NCAA violations during Jim Tressel's tenure kept the Buckeyes from adding anything more than a division championship to the trophy case. Some have questioned whether an eligible Ohio State that had won the Big Ten would be in the National Championship Game, given that they are only #3 in the AP poll and that their soft schedule hurts them in the BCS computers. Personally, I don't think that voters would keep an eligible AQ-conference undefeated team out of the top 2; the only question would be whether the margin was small enough for Alabama's computer advantage (which would presumably be smaller had Ohio State played in the Big Ten championship).
Ohio State rotates onto Northwestern's schedule next year, so it matters greatly to Northwestern whether Meyer's team is poised to replicate the run his second Florida team made. The offense that put up a Big Ten-leading 37.2 points per game should be in good shape; they only had two senior starters, right tackle Reid Fragel and tight end Jake Stoneburner, though they could lose running back Carlos Hyde and left tackle Jack Mewhort to the NFL. On defense, however, the situation is much worse. 6 of this year's starters were seniors, including 3 defensive linemen and 2 linebackers. With defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins off to the NFL, defensive star Ryan Shazier will be the only returner in the front 7. Ohio State needed 2 overtime wins to get to 12-0 this year, and they were threatened several more times. With that many losses from a middling defense, I would be surprised if they don't take a step back next year.
Penn State: 8-4, 6-2
Penn State's year started with a 24-14 home loss to Ohio. Things got worse the next week when kicker Sam Ficken went 1-5 on field goals and 1-2 on extra points in a 17-16 road loss to Virginia. With their first season of the post-Paterno era threatening to spiral out of control, however, they ripped off a 5 game winning streak as part of an 8-2 finish. While the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal means that they won't be going to a bowl, coach Bill O'Brien did a fine job in his first year of keeping his team focused on winning as many games as possible. The next few years are going to be tough, with scholarship restrictions starting with the incoming recruiting class and another offseason in which players can bail out without sitting out a year at their new school. Add in the departure of several of the key players from this team, and predictions of imminent doom may come true. On the other hand, O'Brien has proved something about his ability as a coach and the recruits he has are a talented bunch. Before the season, I thought that Penn State was a particularly difficult team to project; I don't have a much better idea of what to expect next year.
Wisconsin: 8-5, 4-4
Ordinarily, a 7-5 finish and third place in your division means going to a place like Jacksonville. For Wisconsin, it was the path to a third straight Rose Bowl. With Brett Bielema off to Arkansas and Barry Alvarez coaching the team in the bowl game, they might actually win this one.
Wisconsin is the other new arrival on Northwestern's schedule, and they have a similar profile to Ohio State. They also only had one senior on the offensive line, tackle Ricky Wagner, and while Montee Ball isn't the kind of player you just pull off the shelf, they have promising replacements at running back in James White and Melvin Gordon. The defense doesn't lose as much as Ohio State's, with only 4 departing seniors, but 3 of those players were in the secondary and the fourth is tackle leader Mike Taylor. They also lose defensive end Brendan Kelly, who tied for the team lead with 5 sacks. Those losses aren't overwhelming, and Wisconsin had a ton of junior contributors who should make a strong team as seniors. Furthermore, they played 3 overtime games this year and lost all 3. If they bring in a solid coach, they should take a step forward next year; if the new hire struggles in year 1, Northwestern will have dodged a bullet.
Purdue: 6-6, 3-5
Purdue had an epic midseason slump, losing their first 5 conference games to drop to 3-6. While this stretch sealed coach Danny Hope's fate, he was able to rally the team to a 3 game winning streak against the dregs of the Big Ten (Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana) to get the team into a bowl. That bowl is the Heart of Dallas Bowl, which is another of those New Year's Day games that you can't watch because all the other Big Ten teams play at the same time. For Hope's replacement, Purdue went with Kent State's Darrell Hazell. Hazell is of the short-tenure MAC wonder class of coaches, and hopefully he is a better representative of that group than Tim Beckman
Indiana: 4-8, 2-6
Indiana took a big step forward from last season's 1-11 mark, but they could have done even more. During a 5 game losing streak in midseason, they lost 4 games by one score (Northwestern was the only exception), including allowing Ball State, Michigan State, and Navy to come back from 4th quarter deficits. While it would have been nice to see Kevin Wilson take his team to a bowl, just looking competitive was a good sign and a big step forward. Indiana returns most of their contributors next season, so they have a great shot of getting there next year.
Illinois: 2-10, 0-8
It would be hard to overstate how bad Illinois was this year. Not only did the Illini fail to win a single Big Ten game and win only 1 game over an FBS opponent (against Northwestern's new 2013 opponent Western Michigan), they were last in the conference in scoring, 11th in points allowed, last in offensive yardage, 10th in defensive yardage, and last in turnover margin. I don't believe in firing coaches until they have had at least 3 or 4 years to prove themselves, but taking what was a somewhat respectable team under Ron Zook and plunging it into the basement like that is almost bad enough to make me support firing Tim Beckman. Fortunately for Northwestern, Beckman is back, and hopefully he doesn't change a thing.