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updated: 8/27/2014 7:41 PM

McGraw: Sizing up the Big Ten

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What's new in the Big Ten for 2014? Well, there are 14 teams now and the division names are no longer nondirectional.

Also, the conference champion can lose to an SEC team in the new four-team playoff, instead of just a regular old bowl game. As the opening games approach, here are some intriguing questions about the new season:

Will Braxton Miller's injury ruin Ohio State's season?

Well, the Buckeyes probably wouldn't be ranked No. 5 if the AP poll took a second preseason vote. The would-be, fourth-year starting quarterback is out for the year after needing shoulder surgery.

The new starter is J.T. Barrett, a redshirt freshman from Wichita Falls, Texas. He moved ahead of sophomore Cardale Jones two days before Miller's injury. Barrett isn't exactly walking into a veteran offense. OSU is replacing four starters on the offensive line and lost top rusher Carlos Hyde to the NFL.

"Quarterback is an important cog, but that's exactly what is -- a cog. It's not the team," OSU coach Urban Meyer said. "The best quarterbacks are great distributors … getting the ball out quickly and distributing to playmakers. That's what my initial evaluation of J.T. is; he's very good at that."

Can Michigan State handle their success?

It has been a while. The Spartans will try to repeat as Big Ten champs for the first time since 1965-66 and they start the season ranked No. 8, their highest spot since opening No. 3 in 1967.

MSU led the league in rushing, passing and scoring defense last season, while limiting 10 of 14 opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground. Just five starters return on defense, though. The offense might be in better shape with junior quarterback Connor Cook and top rusher Jeremy Langford back.

Will Michigan be able to block anyone?

During the coaching changeover from Rich Rodriguez to Brady Hoke, the Wolverines somehow ended up with a recruiting vacuum on the offensive line. As a result, the current roster includes no fourth- or fifth-year linemen. True freshman Mason Cole is slated to start at right tackle in Saturday's opener against Appalachian State.

Last year, Michigan averaged a ridiculously low 99 yards rushing during conference play, and that was with two NFL draft picks starting at tackle.

Is Melvin Gordon the nation's best running back?

The Wisconsin junior from Kenosha owns an amazing 8.1 yards per carry for his career. He reached 1,000 yards on his 104th career carry. The Badgers have had a 1,000-yard rusher for eight consecutive seasons and return three starters on the offensive line, so the odds favor Gordon doing well. He'll get a challenge right out of the gate when Wisconsin faces LSU on Saturday.

Will Bo Pelini's cat bring Nebraska good luck?

Pelini displayed a surprising sense of humor by carrying his cat out of the tunnel before Nebraska's spring game. Maybe a lighter atmosphere can lift the Huskers to the Western Division title. Ameer Abdullah is the top returning rusher in FBS, while the defense improved during last season.

Is Northwestern due for something to go right?

After starting 4-0 last season, the Wildcats went 1-7 in the Big Ten. The bad news continued this summer when top running back Venric Mark left the program and wide receiver Christian Jones was lost to an injury. On the bright side, most of the starters return and head coach Pat Fitzgerald (probably) won't rotate quarterbacks anymore. Senior Trevor Siemian figures to take all the snaps, while the Cats bring back top rusher Treyvon Green and leading receiver Tony Jones.

Is there any hope for the Beckman era at Illinois?

Tim Beckman's tenure may depend on quarterback Wes Lunt, the transfer from Oklahoma State who beat out Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey for the starting job. There is experience everywhere on offense except wide receiver, while eight starters return on defense.

Any dark horse candidates for a division title?

Based on schedule alone, Iowa has the ingredients for a solid season. The Hawkeyes' four conference road games are Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Illinois, while they finish with Wisconsin and Nebraska back-to-back at home. The offense should be in good shape, especially up front.

Can the Big Ten put a team in the new NCAA playoff?

Let's face it, the Big Ten isn't exactly loaded with challenging opponents. It's very possible the conference champ could finish with one loss and be in good shape to join the four-team playoff party.

What should we know about Maryland and Rutgers?

First, we should thank the new conference additions for the elimination of the Leaders and Legends divisions. Maryland could be interesting to watch with receiver Stefon Diggs and dual-threat quarterback C.J. Brown. Rutgers may not be the pushover everyone expects, but will be welcomed to the conference with road games at Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State.

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