BTN LIVE - Our BTN Live audience picks Michigan State to win the Big Ten East.
With the season about to start, I had to check in with one of my favorite BTN analysts: Chuck Long. I did this with the former Iowa quarterback great last year at this time. And his pick to the win the Big Ten back then? It was Michigan State. Few—if any—people were bold enough to make that call last year. Here are some of Long’s thoughts on the 2014 race.
You can follow him on Twitter @ChuckLongIowa.
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Q: How do you see the East shaping up?
A: Before Braxton Miller got hurt, it was a race between Ohio State and Michigan State. Now, Michigan State has the lead. They are the team to beat. I think the Spartan offense will carry it more this year early on while the defense comes together. MSU is missing some key players on defense in guys like Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Darqueze Dennard. A lot will depend on how Trae Waynes develops as the short-side corner. The short-side corner in the boundary is the key position in that defense. If you can lock up man-to-man into that boundary, you can use your safeties down low in a nine-man box. That is where all the action is: Into the boundary with the flowing game and the running game. If Waynes can lock down that corner position like Dennard did, they won’t miss a beat.
Q: Can this still be a special season for Ohio State?
A: It still can be a special season because they have a great front four on defense. They will be in every game. I don’t foresee them scoring as many points. They were over 45 points a game last year (45.5 ppg). If they can score in the 35-range, they still will be a good team and be right in the hunt of it.
Q: How do you think the OSU offense will look with J.T. Barrett at quarterback?
A: That’s the big question. They won’t be able to do as much as they did with Braxton. Each year you have a quarterback, you can add to the plate. They have to go back to the type of package they had when Braxton Miller was a freshman. They will have to scale back. They have to find a running back to replace Carlos Hyde. They need to get that position going. And I would get the ball in the hands of Dontre Wilson. Get it into his hands as a slot receiver with reverses, fly sweeps, bubbles. You have to find other production somewhere else than the quarterback position—slot receivers, running backs and tight ends. They have to simplify the offense from the standpoint of protections and reads in the passing game, too. They will have to split the field in half more and let the quarterback read one-half of the field as opposed to the entire field.
Q: What do you see from Michigan?
A: They are laying low. I think that’s a good position for them to be in right now. Under the radar. Obviously, there is a lot of heat and pressure on that situation. But they are under the radar, which can allow what is a young team a chance to grow. No one is expecting them to win the division. So they can lay low and get better by the end of the year. They could very well be in the thick of it by being under the radar. When do you ever say that about Michigan? But it’s all Devin Gardner. It is key how he comes along. He very simply has to take care of the football when it’s in his hands. They will be better by him just doing that. That’s all he needs to do to start with. Don’t make bad decisions in the passing game; just manage the game. He will make some plays with his feet.
Q: What do you expect from Penn State?
A: I think Penn State will be better than people think. I like James Franklin. He has a lot of energy. I think he’s the perfect fit for that team right now. I think they have some depth issues. They have some talent. They just need to keep people healthy. They have the right pieces in place with experience—the quarterback. I like their running back situation. (Mike) Hull at linebacker will be a good leader for the defense.
Q: Any sleepers?
A: Maryland. They have more talent than people think. They have a veteran quarterback who has some good receivers. I like their running backs. They have built up every year under Randy Edsall. And this is his fourth season. They have to start over in a new league, which will be difficult. But I think they will sneak up on some people and beat some teams they would not expect.
Q: Who do you like in the West?
A: There are five teams that can all beat each other—Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Northwestern. It will come down to lack of turnovers and injury situations. It will be a great race. Don’t be surprised if the champion of the West wins the Big Ten. The three at the top of the West are Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska—not in that order. They are in a dead-heat right now.
Q: What do you think of the quarterback situation at Wisconsin?
A: The difference between Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave was the feet. McEvoy will give more plays with his feet, where Stave would not. That is what Coach (Gary) Andersen always has liked in his quarterbacks. He sees the benefit of the feet in the pocket to not only have some quarterback run game but to be able to extend plays with your feet and make a first down. That is what everyone strives for in college football. I believe McEvoy gives you that.
Q: What does Nebraska have to do win a championship?
A: Very simply: be better on defense. I think their defense has let them down at times. At other times, it has been a sieve. They have allowed a lot of yards and points in certain games. They will string together some games when they are good. But they can’t have the games when they have the let-down games and opponents run through them. They are a year older in the system. They were young last year. There is really no excuse not to know that system now.
Q: What does Iowa need to do to win the division?
A: They have to pass better, especially the long ball. They have to create some bigger plays in their offense. They aren’t a dink-and-dunk team. They’re gonna have a good run game; if they can complete some long balls, it’s one key to winning the division. And they have to replace those three linebackers. They lost a lot of production at linebacker.
Q: Is there a sleeper in the West?
A: Northwestern. They are coming off a tough year and have a lot of talent back. They could do some damage and be a contender in the West.
Q: Who will be in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game?
A: I won’t give it to you now. But I’ll say this: It will be Michigan State from the East vs. one of those top three teams in the West: Wisconsin, Nebraska or Iowa. Too early to tell right now.
|About Tom Dienhart||BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.|