It’s that time of year when American sports fans inevitably find a new underdog to celebrate. March Madness has a steady history of producing upsets and unexpected runs because of the nature of the tournament. In college football it’s much tougher to dethrone the powers that be, but there are a couple teams that have the potential to play a Cinderella role in the Big Ten next fall.
Despite scratching out a bowl win in their return to the postseason last season, the Nittany Lions never threatened to return to the top of the conference during James Franklin’s first season. They could be primed for a run this season, thanks to a forgiving schedule and some undervalued talent.
Penn State’s biggest weakness in 2014 was its offensive line. That group still has work to do, but if it can find a groove the rest of the roster is in good shape. Franklin has added good depth to a wide receiver corps with a pair of returning standouts in Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. They have an NFL-caliber quarterback throwing to them and one of the country’s top defenses on the other side of the ball.
The 2015 schedule should give the offensive line time to figure things out. Penn State has a good chance to start 6-0 before traveling to Columbus in October. Even with a loss to Ohio State, a 9-1 record heading into pivotal games against Michigan and Michigan State to close the season is very realistic. A couple wins against the East Division’s three evil stepsisters (OK, two evil stepsisters and a third threatening to return to her evil ways soon) would qualify the Nittany Lions for Cinderella status.
Minnesota, with facilities that qualify as a hollowed-out pumpkin when compared to some of its competition, has strung together consecutive eight-win seasons. The Gophers are a threat to get over the hump in the West Division because of their ability to keep games close.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner returns with an offense that needs to find new playmakers. If the Gophers can find another workhorse at running back, they should be able to continue to shorten games and keep up with more talented opponents -- like they did in a seven-point loss to Ohio State last November. Leidner needs to improve the passing attack to give the offense a chance to make big plays and pull out those types of upsets late in the game.
The teams to beat in the West -- Nebraska and Wisconsin -- both have new coaching staffs this season, which opens a window for the Gophers. Midnight might come for this group in October, when they have to face the Cornhuskers, Michigan and Ohio State in three straight games.