The end of September has arrived with cooler weather across the Midwest and, more importantly, conference play. Thankfully the Big Ten left a good final impression with a 12-1 record in non-conference play during Week 4, and that could open the door to one of these conference competitors becoming a College Football Playoff competitor as the season progresses.
But non-conference play is now mostly behind us, which means it is time to turn a laser focus to these new East and West Divisions and the Big Ten Championship race.
Coming into the season, it looked as though the West Division was totally up for grabs between five teams, with Illinois and Purdue looking to improve and be competitive as well. Meanwhile, the East Division appeared to be highly stratified, with the “haves” (Michigan State and Ohio State) outpacing the “have-nots” (Rutgers, Penn State, Indiana) by a wide margin.
But after four weeks of mostly non-conference play, those preconceptions about these divisions have totally flipped.
The West Division has a clear favorite Nebraska and another top contender Wisconsin, then there appears to be a big gap to Iowa and Minnesota (and possibly Illinois), and still a further big gap to the two true dumpster fires in the conference, Purdue and Northwestern. Meanwhile, Michigan State is still the favorite in the East Division, but the other six teams have all shown strengths and weaknesses that render the division race completely unpredictable. How did this muddling of the waters in the East Division occur?
Rutgers and Maryland, that’s how.
Jim Delany did not make fans quiver with excitement when he led the charge to announce the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights would be joining the conference a couple years ago. Indeed, both of these programs appeared totally lost at the time in football, making the move look weak outside the television markets and viewership brought in by these universities.
But four games into the first season of the new Big (14) Ten, it’s Rutgers and Maryland bringing up the collective level of play in the East Division. Add that to Michigan’s continued struggles, Ohio State’s injury/suspension concerns, and strong play at times from Penn State and Indiana, and the division looks like a total free-for-all behind the Spartans.
Maryland is not just good enough to compete, this team can win big and perhaps make one of the big New Year’s Day bowl games.
Rutgers may end up at the bottom of the division standings, but this team will fight valiantly and will likely not be the 0-8 or 1-7 doormat most suspected.
Both these teams will be tough outs, if the development during the first four weeks of the season can be believed. That should raise the level of play and competitiveness within the East Division to be even more stacked than imagined before the 2014 season began. It all starts with Rutgers and Maryland, a surprising but welcome development in the conference expansion and realignment saga.
Rutgers has only had two losing seasons in the last decade, but one of them came last year (6-7) in Kyle Flood’s second season at the helm. That, plus the worst defensive performance in 2013 since the early Greg Schiano days had all signs pointing downward in the first Big Ten year.
However, Rutgers has taken care of the first part of the schedule better than expected, sandwiching impressive wins at Washington State and at Navy around a win over Howard and a tight loss at home against Penn State. The Scarlet Knights should likely be 4-0 after outplaying the Nittany Lions for most of that game, and their chances look good to continue rolling at home against Tulane and Michigan the next two weeks.
Take care of that business, and nobody will be able to ignore the positive impact Rutgers is having heading into the brutal final six games of the schedule. This includes four road games and two division crossover games against the best in the West, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
The key difference from 2013 appears to be much higher amounts of experience, especially on defense. In 2013 the team only had four returning starters on that side, and it definitely took a toll. This defense brought back seven starters and many important backups, and that depth helped the team survive a rocky start against WSU.
Even more impressive has been the development of this unit since the opening game, as Rutgers shut down each of Howard, Penn State, and Navy for most of the game, despite those teams presenting much different angles of offensive attack. Rutgers under Kyle Flood continues to focus on shutting down opposing running games and forcing opponents to win with their quarterbacks’ arms. Some teams just simply are not built for that (unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, Penn State was built for that).
That defense may become even more important as the offense must now adjust to the loss of leading running back Paul James (torn ACL, out for season). Gary Nova has shown some improvement at quarterback as a senior, but he is still prone to mistakes and bad reads. Which means, as always, the Scarlet Knights will need to be a defense-first team to win games. That does work in the Big Ten though, just look at Mark Dantonio and Jim Tressel for proof.
Rutgers should remain close and competitive in many games, even if a lot of the tougher games on the back half of the schedule do not end up in the win column. That will raise the level of play of everyone in the East Division, lest they be left behind and fall into the cellar of this competitive division.
Meanwhile, the expectations of Maryland were a bit higher coming into the season thanks to three seasons of continued improvement under Randy Edsall. Although the cupboard may have been left somewhat bare by Ralph Friedgen, Edsall has rebuilt this program with his style of recruits, and the results (especially on defense) are finally starting to show.
Much like Rutgers, Maryland brought back a ton of starters this season, including 8 on the offense and 9 on the defense. Other than the 63-0 beatdown received from Florida State, these players had been through close game situations and figured out how to win more than lose during the 2013 campaign. Accordingly, all signs pointed to continued improvement despite the small step up to the Big Ten.
The Terrapins have not disappointed so far, even though their record is not perfect. West Virginia is a tough team now that Dana Holgorsen has another good quarterback, and losing on a last-second field goal to a quality opponent like WVU is not season-breaking. The dominant win at Syracuse and the win at USF despite turning the ball over six times are the signs of a good team, finding various ways to win.
Maryland has found a nice balance on offense, throwing for 238 yards per game while running for 163 yards per game. C.J. Brown has not been forced to rely too heavily on his superstar wide receiver Stefon Diggs, although that dynamic duo will almost certainly make some big plays during conference play. The Terrapins open up Diggs and the other receiving options by running the ball tough with C.J. Brown and RB Brandon Ross. One potential risk is that C.J. Brown could be injured with the extra hits he takes in the running game, and that will be something that could derail the early success in this topsy-turvy East Division.
The Terrapins have a tough conference schedule with crossover games against Wisconsin and Iowa, but it is not quite as brutal as that final six-game stretch for Rutgers. What could be brutal for Maryland is the injury bug, which hit in a big way against Syracuse. Starting TE Andrew Isaacs, starting DE Quinton Jefferson, and backup LB Cavon Walker are all done for the season following injuries at the Carrier Dome. This has caused a shuffling of the defensive line, which could be troublesome with two solid offenses in Indiana and Ohio State coming up next on the schedule.
As long as that injury bug does not spread like wildfire or hit a couple of key roster spots, Maryland will likely be fine. Every team has to deal with some level of attrition, but there’s always seemingly one team in the Big Ten that gets really derailed by the number and/or severity of injuries each season. If that happens in College Park, then Maryland could take a quick turn with a number of losses.
Just like Rutgers, Maryland has proven that it will compete, if not win, many of the games on the Big Ten schedule. This newcomer should not be looking up at all of the old guard when the season ends, and that means a very good bowl game is likely on the table for the 2014 Terrapins.
Just like with the previous moves to add Penn State and Nebraska to the conference, the legacy of conference realignment and Jim Delany’s role in it will not be cemented for many years. However, the starts of Maryland and Rutgers have put a relatively weak Big Ten conference on notice: the new teams have come to compete, not just get beat.
With Indiana improving as long as it can hold onto Kevin Wilson as coach and these developments at Maryland and Rutgers, the East Division could quickly become one of the best in college football. It may take a while to catch up to the SEC, but the competitiveness and balance in this division could help achieve that goal.
Which is a shock, considering what everyone seemed to think about these additions bringing down the conference football quality.
Welcome Rutgers and Maryland (and good luck). Now let’s play some Big Ten football!