Big Ten preview: Without Braxton, Buckeyes can still take on Sparty

Editor’s note: This year, we’re eschewing traditional conference previews for more bite-size nuggets of information and insight.

Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel have spent the summer visiting teams and speaking with coaches around the country.

What you find below are byproducts of those conversations and their own opinions.

On Monday, we looked at the SEC. Tuesday, the Pac-12 was covered. Wednesday belonged to the Big 12.

Now, let’s swing through the Big Ten.

SURPRISE TEAM

Mandel: Indiana Hoosiers. The Hoosiers are brimming with playmakers on offense like running back Tevin Coleman and receiver Shane Wynn, and while their defense remains suspect, they won’t face many prolific attacks in conference play. Kevin Wilson’s team, which went 3-5 in conference last year, could flip that mark this season.

Feldman: Northwestern Wildcats. The bottom fell out at midseason in 2013 and the Wildcats went into a free fall, losing seven in a row. But they had about five games that could’ve gone either way at the last second. This team is very hungry after that, Pat Fitzgerald says. They also have a favorable schedule, missing Michigan State and Ohio State, the league’s two most talented teams.

FLOP TEAM

2014 AWARDS PREDICTIONS

Mandel: Penn State Nittany Lions. Scholarship reductions have taken their toll; James Franklin’s staff left behind a more talented roster at Vanderbilt. QB Christian Hackenberg is a star but will miss departed star receiver Allen Robinson. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions’ depleted offensive line is a mess, and their defense is pencil-thin.

Feldman: Rutgers Scarlet Knights. I’m skeptical how well an undersized D-line will hold up in the rugged Big Ten, and the RU pass defense has a long way to go after floundering last season. The schedule-maker also didn’t do the Big Ten newcomer any favors by giving RU road trips to Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska and Maryland. There are also games against Michigan and Wisconsin. They also miss out on playing Purdue and Illinois, two of the worst teams in the league. Ouch.

BREAKOUT PLAYER

Mandel: Wes Lunt, QB, Illinois. He started five games for Oklahoma State as a true freshman in 2012, but in 2014 he could become one of the top passers in the Big Ten. Illini camp observers say Lunt has a cannon arm and should provide a significant upgrade from departed four-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase.

Feldman: Lunt. The Oklahoma State transfer has coach Tim Beckman giddy thanks to his big arm. Beckman said Lunt’s arm strength is such that it’ll allow the Illini to challenge — and stretch — defenses in ways it hadn’t in recent years and that’ll open up more things for them.

IMPACT FRESHMAN

TOP 20 PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Mandel: Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan. The conference’s highest-rated signee last winter has been so impressive he’s apparently displaced several veterans and moved into one of the Wolverines’ starting spots. “He’s playing very well," coach Brady Hoke said of the Paramus, N.J., native after a recent scrimmage.

Feldman: Peppers. The 6-foot-1, 202-pound Peppers might be the biggest defensive recruit Brady Hoke has landed since he’s been back in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines were 73rd in the nation in allowing pass plays of 40 yards or longer. Fortunately, Peppers has been as advertised and has left the normally conservative coaches very, very impressed.

HOT SEAT COACH

Mandel: Hoke, Michigan. It’s been downhill since a BCS berth in his 2011 debut season, with the Wolverines badly underachieving during their 7-6 campaign last season. “They’ve got the players, there’s no question about that,” said an opposing coach. AD Dave Brandon needs an on-field product befitting his marketing hype.

Feldman: Kyle Flood, Rutgers. After a nice debut season taking over for Greg Schiano, Flood had a clunker of a 2013, going 6-7 and just 3-5 in the AAC. He did make a shrewd hire bringing in Ralph Friedgen to be his OC, but Flood needs results fast. It’s no stretch to think that if he can’t get the Scarlet Knights to a bowl this year, Rutgers brass will look to go in a different direction as the program tries to measure up in a much tougher league.

THREE MAKE-OR-BREAK POSTION GROUPS

1) Ohio State offensive line: Star QB Braxton Miller’s season-ending injury only increased the onus on four new starters up front. Left tackle Taylor Decker is a sure thing, but coaches are nervous about the group’s overall development.

ON THE HOT SEAT

2) Iowa linebackers: The Hawkeyes are brimming with talent and experience elsewhere but must replace three starters who accounted for a combined 985 career tackles. Senior middle LB Quinton Alston should provide leadership.

3) Nebraska secondary. Losing nickelback Charles Jackson (knee) and safety LeRoy Alexander (suspension) for the season leaves the Huskers with little depth. They need juco transfer Byerson Cockrell and two true freshman to fill in.

— Mandel

THREE UNDER-THE-RADAR GAMES

1) Virginia Tech at Ohio State, Sept. 6: The Hokies aren’t where they were four years ago, but Frank Beamer’s team will almost certainly bring the caliber of defense to give new Buckeyes QB J.T. Barrett an early test.

2) Iowa at Pittsburgh, Sept. 20: The Hawkeyes’ schedule is lacking for obvious minefields well into November, but this is one potentially tricky spot. Iowa rallied from a 27-10 deficit to win 31-27 in their 2011 meeting.

3) Ohio State at Maryland and Michigan at Rutgers, Oct. 4: If the league’s two newcomers hope to make a splash, this is their best chance. Sold-out, amped up crowds at both spots figure to welcome the two traditional titans.

— Mandel

MORE BIG TEN INTEL

* Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman will look to replace Miller’s playmaking abilities in part by maximizing touches for speedy H-backs Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall. Freshman running back Curtis Samuel could be a factor as well.

FREAKS WEEK 2014

* Wisconsin is replacing eight starters on defense, but sophomore outside LB Vince Biegel is emerging as a potential big-time pass-rusher. In a surprise, true freshman Lubern Figaro – a two-star recruit — could start at safety in the opener against LSU.

* Nebraska’s 6-2, 300-pound sophomore Maliek Collins looks like the big, athletic force in the middle the Huskers have been missing. He’ll team with DE Randy Gregory on what should be Bo Pelini’s best front four in years.

* Oft-maligned Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova appears to be benefitting from new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen’s mentorship. The fifth-year senior, who’s thrown 39 career interceptions, showed noticeable improvement since the spring.

* Maryland’s talented receiving corps, led by pro prospects Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, couldn’t ask for a better mentor. Their new position coach is 17-year NFL vet Keenan McCardell.

* With top WR Christian Jones lost to a season-ending ACL injury, Northwestern needs former five-star recruit and USC transfer Kyle Prater to finally maximize his potential. The injury-plagued fifth-year senior has 20 career receptions.

* Minnesota’s limited passing game does no favors for sophomore WR Donovahn Jones, who could be one of the league’s better talents if the Gophers get him the ball.

* Beating FSU and everyone else for five star D-lineman Malik McDowell was a huge coup for Mark Dantonio. The 6-6, 300-pounder looks to be everything DC Pat Narduzzi hoped he’d be, displaying stunning athleticism for his size and keen awareness, but he’s far from the only D-line gem in MSU’s freshman class. Narduzzi’s also been thrilled with what he’s seen form Enoch Smith, Craig Evans and Dave Beedle and is intrigued by rangy DE Montez Sweat, the Spartans’ latest snag from Georgia — the same place they unearthed two-star recruit turned first-rounder Darqueze Dennard.

— Feldman and Mandel

BIG TEN PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

FELDMAN — EAST MANDEL — EAST FELDMAN — WEST MANDEL — WEST
1) Michigan State 1) Ohio State 1) Nebraska 1) Nebraska
2) Ohio State 2) Michigan State 2) Wisconsin 2) Wisconsin
3) Michigan 3) Michigan 3) Iowa 3) Iowa
4) Maryland 4) Indiana 4) Northwestern 4) Minnesota
5) Penn State 5) Maryland 5) Minnesota 5) Illinois
6) Rutgers 6) Rutgers 6) Illinois 6) Northwestern
7) Indiana 7) Penn State 7) Purdue 7) Purdue
Feldman’s title pick: Michigan State over Nebraska Mandel’s title pick: Ohio State over Nebraska