Jan 1, 2014; Pasadena, CA, USA; Michigan State Spartans coach Mark Dantonio poses after the 100th Rose Bowl against the Stanford Cardinal. Michigan State defeated Stanford 24-20. Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten football: Will Spartans defend their Big Ten crown?

For many years, the Big Ten football conference was often characterized as the “Big Two and Little Eight.”

And why not.

From 1968 through this past season, the Wolverines and Buckeyes combined for 42 (21 each) of the 56 titles. In comparison, Wisconsin has six and Michigan State  five.

Now, it’s Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin dominating the last few seasons.

Since 2005, Ohio State has five titles (a sixth was vacated do to Tattoo-gate), Wisconsin has three and Michigan State two.

Best football in East 

With no disrespect to the Badgers or Hawkeyes; its the Spartans and Buckeyes who are expected to fight it out for the conference crown.

Unlike last season when MSU and OSU competed in opposite divisions (Leaders, Legends), both teams will play in the brand new East Division, because the addition of two new teams  (Rutgers and Maryland)  forced the Big Ten to realign the league into more geographical East and West divisions.

There’s no question the Spartans and  Buckeyes are the cream of the East with Michigan and Penn State on the outside looking in. Michigan is still smarting from the Rich Rodriguez era while the Nittany Lions are recovering from the Sandusky scandal.

While Iowa and Wisconsin pace the West Division contenders, the Big Ten champion most likely come from the East. So what will ultimately differentiate the Spartans from the Buckeyes?

Bye could make the difference

For starters Sparty will have the home-field advantage when Ohio State travels to East Lansing Nov. 8.  In addition,  the Spartans are idle the same day Ohio State hosts Illinois Nov. 1. While  the Buckeyes are battling the Illini, the Spartans are being given an extra week to heal the many nagging injuries which creep up during a long season.

Also the bye gives  MSU an extra week to strategically prepare for Ohio State’s head coach Urban Meyer, who’s gone 24-2 in two seasons as the Buckeye head coach.

Like Meyer, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio is earning a spot among the nation’s coaching elite. It took a few seasons to get untracked, but the eighth year coach has a 52-12 record over the the last four seasons, including a 3-1 record over in-state rival Michigan, a 2-2 record with Ohio State, and a 3-1 mark over Wisconsin. The Spartans have won three straight bowl games including the 24-20 victory over No. 5 Stanford in this year’s Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Defense, defense, defense

The No. 4 Spartans finished last season with 10 straight wins, which of course, doesn’t phase the Bucks.

Handicapping teams which are very well matched,  sometimes calls for the old adage: offense wins games, defense wins championships. While Ohio State has the edge on offense,  Michigan State’s defense was outstanding a year ago, and might be nearly as good this time around. Ohio State’s defense, which generally is only a step below its vaunted scoring attack, suffered a near collapse during the final three games of the 2013 season.

Leaky defense

The Buckeyes allowed 115 points in that stretch (nearly 38 points per game), which is certainly an anomaly for a Meyer coached team.  Ohio State gave up 41 to Michigan (a 42-41 win), 34 to MSU in the Big Ten title game (a 34-24 loss) and 40 in the Orange Bowl against Clemson (a 40-35 loss).

Another advantage for the Spartans is eighth-year  assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. It appears that Narduzzi, who won the 2013 Frank Broyles Awards (which goes to the nation’s top assistant coach), won’t be sticking with Dantonio for ever.

In last year’s dream season, Narduzzi’s defensive unit finished 2nd nationally in total defense (252.2 yards per game),  2nd in rushing defense (86.6), 3rd in scoring defense (13.2) and 3rd in pass defense. In the Big Ten, Michigan State led the way by placing first in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and rushing defense.

Here’s how we expect the Big Ten teams to stand before the Big Ten title game:  Big Ten-East, 1) MSU 7-1, 10-2;  2) OSU 6-2,  10-2;  3t) Michigan 5-3, 8-4;  3t) PSU 5-3, 7-5;  5) Indiana 3-5,  6-6; 6) Maryland 2-6, 4-8; 7) Rutgers, 1-7, 2-10.

Big Ten West, t1) Iowa 6-2, 8-4;  t1) WISC 6-2, 9-3; t3) NEB 4-4. 7-5; t3). Minnesota 4-4, 6-6; t3  NW 4-4, 5-7; 6) Purdue 2-6, 5-7;  7) Illinois 2-6, 4-8.

 Please comment below, explaining why your favorite team will win the Big Ten Title.

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Tags: Daily Peninsula Michigan State Spartans Football Ohio State Buckeyes Football

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