It’s that time of the year again folks! With the football season now a week away, it’s time to take you deep into the heart of Midwest football as we preview the Big Ten Conference.
Despite last year’s play resulting in a three way tie for the conference crown, this upcoming season in the Big Ten could be one of the toughest through and through for competing teams. Gone are the days of best records, three way ties, and
BCS controversy. Welcomed are a brand new institution in Nebraska that brings great competition to the conference, two new divisions with the worst names in college football, and a championship game that propels the winner into the best bowl game the conference has to offer.
Today Eric (Legends) and I (Leaders) break down the conference by division to get you ready for Ohio State’s upcoming opponents, and some great games on the schedule for 2011.
The stock of Big Ten Football couldn’t be any higher entering the 2011 season of play. After adding Nebraska through expansion (just the second team added in sixty years), the continuing talk of adding new members to the conference in upcoming years has even some of the common fans excited. Another successful year produce 29 NFL draft picks, a 29-3 record against FBS schools, and five teams playing on New Year’s Day (Two in the BCS). Despite those teams getting to the New Year, the post-season play of this conference was absolutely atrocious on that day, as teams went 0-5 including a couple beat downs from SEC schools. In the first year of a new format, it will be interesting to see if play in the post-season and outside of it leads to talk of putting the Big Ten back on the map as arguably one of the top conferences in the nation.
Top Games of 2011:
1.) Ohio State vs. Nebraska (Week Six) 2.) Nebraska vs. Wisconsin (Week Five) 3.) Wisconsin vs. Michigan State (Week Eight) 4.) Wisconsin vs. Ohio State (Week Nine) 5.) Ohio State vs. Michigan (Week 13) 6.) Iowa vs. Nebraska (Week 13) 7.) Michigan State vs. Michigan (Week Seven) 8.) Nebraska vs. Michigan State (Week Nine) 9.) Nebraska vs. Penn State (Week 11) 10.) Penn State vs. Wisconsin (Week 13)
#6: Minnesota: 1-7 (B1G), 1-4 (Legends)
Returning Starters: 15 (6 offense, 8 defense, 1 special teams)
Key Returning Players:
- Offense: Marqueis Gray (QB), Duane Bennett (RB), LaMonte Edwards (RB)
- Defense: Anthony Jacobs (DL), Gary Tinsley (LB), Troy Stoudamire (CB)
Under new Head Coach Jerry Kill, the Golden Gophers are looking to try to climb back into the upper-middle class of the Big Ten for the first time since Glen Mason was let go. Unfortunately, it will take time to recover from a 2-6 Big Ten record last season, particularly with the new format of the conference. Kill is making the right sounds now, and seems like he’ll have the Gophers on the right track, but it will take time.
The worst problem for the Gophers will be their defense. Usually having a large number of returning starters is a good thing, but not from a defense that gave up 33 points per game – better only than Illinois and Michigan last season. It will be up to Senior Gary Tinsley to lead the defense on the field to greater heights.
That said, the Minnesota offense may make a rapid turnaround this season. While passing may not be a serious threat from this team, the running game looks to be a headache for opposing defenses. Quarterback Marqueis Gray has already demonstrated a quickness while playing WR that will allow him to be a serious running threat in the backfield. He will be joined by Duane Bennett, who stands to replace 2010′s leading rusher DeLeon Eskridge, and LaMonte Edwards, both at runningback, in returning Minnesota to their former glory.
#5: Michigan: 3-5 (B1G), 1-4 (Legends)
Returning Starters: 18 (9 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams)
- Offense: Denard “Shoelace” Robinson (QB), Roy Roundtree (WR), Michael Shaw (RB)
- Defense: Mike Martin (DL), Troy Woolfork (CB), J.T. Floyd (CB)
Michigan is another school with big changes in their coaching staff. Now under former Michigan coordinator Brady Hoke, the Wolverines hope to recover from the last three years of stagnation and decline under Rich Rodriguez. The question will be exactly how fast UM can get back into the shape they’re used to.
It likely won’t happen this year. Michigan’s defense, already weakened by Rich Rod’s recruiting and poor strategy, will be a serious work in progress. While Hoke has already made sweeping changes, particularly to the Linebackers, and Troy Woolfork has returned to significantly strengthen the secondary, there’s still a severe shortage of talent. It will be interesting to see if the new 4-2-5 defensive scheme produces significantly better results over Rich Rod’s ill advised 3-3-5 utilized last season.
Surprisingly, the offense may also struggle during the year. New offensive coordinator Al Borges and Hoke have planned to switch into a Pro Style offense, one perhaps better suited for departed QB Tate Forcier. Denard Robinson is a more effective passer when he runs more frequently, something he may not be able to do much in a pro style system. Thankfully, he’ll get help from a talented and experienced wide reciever group lead by senior Roy Roundtree, and by a nice set of between-the-tackles runners including Michael Shaw.
Expect a regression for the Wolverines this year by a game or so overall. That, however, would not be a sign that Hoke is incapable, as this team requires significant changes in order to improve – changes that will cause regression regardless of when they occur. That those changes are happening now is a good sign for the Maize and Blue.
#4: Northwestern: 3-5 (B1G), 2-3 (Legends)
Returning Starters: 17 (9 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams)
- Offense: Dan Persa (QB), Jeremy Ebert (WR), Mike Trumpy (RB)
- Defense: Vincent Browne (DE), Brian Peters (S), Jordan Mabin (CB)
Pat Fitzgerald has been doing nothing but great work at Northwestern. He has successfully managed to transform the Wildcat image from a perenial Big Ten bottom feeder into a team that always seems to do better than they should. Most especially, they are now a team that other schools look forward to having rotate off their schedule. That’s quite a feat for a University predicated in academics first.*
This team entirely belongs to senior quarterback Dan Persa. He’s so critical to this team, and so good, that the University has started a Heisman campaign for him. Can you imagine? A Heisman campaign for a Northwestern quarterback? It boggles the mind!
Persa is joined by 2010 1st team all-big ten WR Jeremy Ebert, a three year starter, and fellow three year starting WR Drake Dunsmore. Both of those players will headline a littany of weapons for Persa to go to. Add to them sophomore Mike Trumpy at RB, and Northwestern should have an offense to be reckoned with.
While the Linebackers are a weakness for this team, there won’t be many schools capable of getting a solid passing game going against the solid secondary. Northwestern has 3 returning senior starters in the secondary, and Peters and Mabin combined for 170 tackles and 4 INTs last season, making them the most dangerous players on the Northwestern defense.
* That’s definitely not a bad thing, by the way. Big hat-tip to NU for sticking to their principles in this day and age of athletics first.
#3: Nebraska: 4-4 (B1G), 3-2 (Legends)
Returning Starters: 12 (5 offense, 7 defense, 0 special teams)
- Offense: Taylor Martinez (QB), Rex Burkhead (RB), Mike Caputo (C)
- Defense: Jared Crick (DT), LaVonte David (LB), Alfonzo Dennard (CB)
The new baby of the Big Ten conference, Nebraska is hearing lots of good things said about them for this upcoming season. Many outlets believe that Nebraska is the most likely choice to represent the Legends division in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game. As you can tell, I’m not entirely sold on that choice.
Taylor Martinez leads a potent offensive attack that was good enough last year to earn the ‘Huskers a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. While plenty of talent are ready to step up in the starting lineup, Nebraska finds themselves short on experienced receivers and offensive linemen. Mike Captuo is the lone Senior on an offensive line that could see as many as four sophomores starting. While that’s not a fatal problem, it does make life more difficult for a team that seems like it will have to focus on the running game in a new conference that builds it’s defenses to stop exactly that.
Despite the apparent offensive setback, the defense is completely ready to take a step forward from an already excellent group. There are skilled players in all of the key positions, including terrifying defensive tackle Jared Crick, and turnover happy corner Alfonzo Dennard (4 INTs last season). It should be no surprise that this defense is being labeled as one of the best in the conference, if not the country.
The biggest worry, though, is fatigue and injury. There are no significant backups at quarterback behind Martinez, making it likely that, were he to be injured, Nebraska would have issues keeping their offense going. Does this cause the Nebraska coaching staff to be so conservative with Martinez that they have trouble keeping defenses honest with the running game? It’s hard to say at this point.
Also of issue is the fact that Nebraska will be playing a conference full of teams that they have little experience with. While every other team has the same disadvantage on a game to game basis against the ‘Huskers, the constant effort of learning new team’s systems week in and week out could be a drain on the coaching staff and team. Now, that didn’t stop Penn State from a 10-2 record their first Big Ten season in 1993, but it is something to keep in mind.
#2: Iowa 6-2 (B1G), 4-1 (Legends)
Returning Starters: 10 (5 offense, 4 defense, 1 special teams)
- Offense: James Vandenberg (QB), Marvin McNutt (WR), Marcus Coker (RB)
- Defense: James Morris (LB), Micah Hyde (S), Shaun Prater (CB)
The Iowa Hawkeyes are one of the few teams in the Big Ten poised to make a big move despite replacing the majority of their starters. This usually means that the team is ready to regress in a rebuilding cycle. However, Iowa has plenty of skilled players ready to demonstrate that Ferentz can actually retool a team and keep them at the top of the conference on a regular basis.
Part of that plan is a name that should be familiar to Ohio State fans – quarterback James Vandenberg. I’m sure you will recall that Vandenberg took the Buckeyes to overtime in 2009 – in Ohio Stadium no less – in his very first start. Now that All-American Hero Ricky Stanzi has graduated, Vandenberg will step into his shoes and show what he can do. Given that he will be throwing to Marvin McNutt, with Marcus Coker with him in the backfield, the Iowa offense should be quite potent. This is only made more true by the excellent and experienced offensive line fronting the team.
The real question marks, however, are on defense. The defensive line has been completely decimated by graduation, leaving only senior DT Mike Daniels to hold down the fort. This is not aided either by the inexperienced linebackers, where sophomore James Morris is the only player of note – though his All-American freshman campaign is well worthy of it. The secondary is the least damaged of the entire unit, with Micah Hyde (now playing safety) and Shaun Prater are two of the most ball-hawking players in the entire conference with 8 total INTs between them.
Iowa may very well be looking to their offense to keep them in games early this season as the defense figures itself out. It will be critical for the talent base that Ferentz has built up to step up and make a name for themselves quickly, or this Iowa team could suffer.
#1: Michigan State: 6-2 (B1G), 4-1 (Legends)
Returning Starters: 13 (6 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams)
- Offense: Kirk Cousins (QB), BJ Cunningham (WR), Edwin Baker (RB)
- Defense: Jerel Worthy (DL), William Gohlston (DL), Trenton Richardson (S)
Michigan State was easily one of the most improved teams last year, going 11-1 overall and winning a share of the Big Ten (with Wisconsin and Ohio State). While that team won games with their superior defense, this one will have to do with more significant offense. That, however, doesn’t mean that Dantonio’s team will be unable to field a solid defense.
That defense will be lead by a spectacular defensive line. Jerel Worthy is backed up by any number of excellent players, including Sophomore William Gohlston, who will make MSU a tough nut to crack with the running game. That said, the Linebackers and Secondary have been depleted by graduation. The Spartans will depend on Trenton Richardson to lead the back 7 while they learn the ropes.
The offense, however, looks to be much improved over last year’s model. After a great 2010 season, Kirk Cousins is easily one of the best quarterbacks in the nation coming into this year. He will have the joy of throwing to Biletnikoff list member BJ Cunningham at WR. Cousins and Cunningham could be the most dangerous throw/catch combo in the Big Ten conference, and it will show early in the season. Coupled with that will be a runningback tandem which includes Edwin Baker, who ran for 1200 yards last season. This Spartan offense will be a powerful one, and should give the Spartans time to train their defense.
#6: Indiana: 1-7 (B1G), 1-4 (Leaders)
Returning Starters: 15 (6 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams)
Key Returning Players:
- Offense: Ted Bolser (TE), Darius Willis (RB), Damario Belcher (WR)
- Defense: Adam Replogle (DL), Jeff Thomas Jr. (LB), Mick Mentzer JR (DL)
There’s a new Sheriff in town as Kevin Wilson has already brought an “us against the world” mentality to the table to start 2011. Despite being at the bottom of the Big Ten totem pole for years, former head coach Bill Lynch has put enough talent on the field to make this team at least semi-competitive in games. Wilson will start his campaign without a recruiting class, but he does have some talent to teach.
Offensively, the battle is three deep at quarterback, and it looks like Sophomore Dusty Kiel leads the way. Edward Wright-Baker could see time due to his athletic ability, but Kiel is the pro type quarterback that Wilson has been known to develop. The key offensively comes down to the health of Darius Willis at running back. He gives the offense a chance to move the chains. He is backed up by two underclassmen that have nowhere near the experience. At receiver, 2nd team All Big Ten recipient Demarlo Charles returns. He will look to be the number one target without Tandon Doss in the mix. Sophomore tight end Ted Bolser scored five touchdowns and averaged 15.1 yards per carry in 2010. He has the makings of being the best tight end in Indiana school history.
Defensively, It will be a struggle for the Hoosiers, who lose their biggest play maker in Tyler Replogle in the linebacking corps. Indiana has always struggled with the run, but with depth returning at linebacker and defensive tackle, it wouldn’t be out of line to think that this defense could improve on an already better than normal 172 yards per game given up last season. There is still a lot of work to be done in Bloomington, but like on the hardwood, there is a lot of hope for the future.
#5 Purdue 2-6 (B1G), 1-4 (Leaders)
Returning Starters: 18 (7 offense, 9 defense, 2 special teams)
Key Returning Players:
-Offense: Rob Henry (RB/QB), Ralph Bolden JR. (RB), Antavian Edison (WR)
-Defense: Kawann Short Jr.(DT), Ricardo Allen (CB), WIll Lucas (SLB)
Injuries, bad luck, and a lack of running game killed any chances of the Boilermakers improving in 2010, but there is a lot to like about this year’s team. Head Coach Danny Hope has brought in a lot of young talent that is just about ready to sprout, and despite having an unorthodox offense, there is some hope for this team. Despite losing to all four of it’s Leaders opponents last year, there is a lot of positives to look forward to. The Boilermakers snapped a five game winning streak against the Fighting Illini last season and haven’t lost back to back games to rival Indiana since 93-94. They have out-gained the Buckeyes in yardage 7 of the last 10 times they’ve played.
Offensively, this team is lead by Rob Henry and Robert Marve behind center. Marve, who was injured last season five games in, brings a better passing game to the table, while Henry provides a solid rushing attack (his 594 yards on the ground led the team last season.) At wide receiver is converted quarterback Justin Siller, who is trying to recoup from injury. A lot is expected from him and fellow wide out Antavian Edison, who was used at times as a running back last season. At running back, the Boilermakers are still looking to figure things out after an injury depleting nightmare of a season last year. Ralph Bolden will get the first shot at it. The second team All-Big Ten back in 2009 returns after a spring ACL injury in 2010.
Defensively, the Boilermakers are very young, but provide a lot of depth on the field. Losing the Big Ten defensive player of the year will hurt without a doubt, but up front they return 8 of their top ten lineman. Led by Kawann Short who had 6 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. The linebackers return five of their top six back, including sophomore Will Lucas who will start on the strong side. Lucas was called one of the top three players defensively on the team by head coach Danny Hope. In the secondary is 2nd team All-Big Ten standout sophomore Ricardo Allen who was tied for third on the team in tackles last seasonwith three interceptions. All seven returning corners from last year’s team have starting experience and could be a big part of the turnaround of pass defense in 2011.
#4 Illinois 4-4 (B1G), 2-3 (Leaders)
Returning Starters 14 (7 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams)
Key Returning Players:
-Offense: Nathan Scheelhaase (QB), Jason Ford (RB), A.J. Jenkins (WR)
-Defense: Ian Thomas (LB), Trulon Henry (FS), Akeem Spence (DT)
If there is one coach that keeps surviving the hot seat, it’s Illini head man Ron Zook. Making their first bowl game since the 2007 Rose Bowl last season, there is a lot to like about this upcoming season if you are an Illinois fan. Unfortunately, there is still a bunch to worry about. Offensively, the Illini will look to replace the production of workhorse Mikel Leshoure in the backfield. Defensively they will depend on the replacement of their top three tacklers and arguably the best defensive tackle in the conference last season Corey Liuget. Still, the experience and talent returning to Champaign give this team a chance to surprise some folks in 2011.
Offensively, the team will depend on sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase, who stepped in last year at quarterback and really showed some flashes of brilliance. The youngster doesn’t have an NFL arm, but he excels with his athleticism (2nd in rushing yards) and ability to create medium and short passes by moving around the pocket. Down the stretch he was able to regain composure after struggling with passing. Down the stretch, Scheelhaase had just one interception in the last seven games. Gone from last season is Leshoure, who averaged 6 yards per carry. Jason Ford will pick up the carries in the backfield, though not in the same extent. Ford scored 7 tiems and averaged nearly 5 yards a carry in 2010.
Defensively is where most of the losses will effect the team, as tackling machine Martez Wilson at linebacker will need to be replaced alongside second leading tackler Nate Bussey and top cornerback Travon Bellamy who was third on the team in tackles. Also gone is 1st team All-Big Ten defensive tackle Corey Liuget. The good thing though is that replacing these players are some pretty experienced players. Ian Thomas had 5.5 tackles for loss a year ago and will step in as the leader of the corps. Inside Akeen Spence will look to fill the hole left by Liuget. He had 45 tackles last season. The Illini struggled to get to the quarterback last season and will still have that trouble this season. If they can shore up their defensive questions though, a higher finish in the division wouldn’t be surprising.
#3 Penn State 4-4 (B1G), 3-2 (Leaders)
Returning Starters 16 (7 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams)
Key Returning Players:
-Offense: Rob Bolden/Matt McGloin (QB), Derek Moye (WR), Silas Redd (RB)
-Defense: D’Anton Lynn (CB), Nate Stupar (OLB), Devan Still, (DT)
Joe PA is back! This is the 46th time he’ll lead the Nittany Lions, who are back after an above .500 season. With a lot more experience heading into the year, the road is a little brighter, but with road games against Ohio State and Wisconsin, it’s going to take some solid play to propel this team into the Big Ten title game. If they do make it they must beat Iowa and Illinois, two teams they struggled with last season. Penn State has never lost back to back games to Illinois in Paterno’s reign and have dropped 8-9 to Iowa the last nine seasons.
Offensively, nearly everyone is back at the skill positions, minus Evan Royster, who many believe underproduced last year. Royster will be replaced by sophomore Silas Redd who really impressied with nearly 450 yards on the ground and 5.7 yards per carry. Returning is top receiver Derek Moye who is a solid target. Alongside him will be speedy juniors Justin Brown and Decon Smith. The quarterback position is still a mystery but sophomore Rob Bolden should be the starter. After Paterno declined to release him from his scholarship, it looks like he is the guy. The only thing holding him back is whether or not he can be a leader in the huddle. Penn State will need that vocal leader if they plan on making a leap to the next level in the Big Ten.
Defensively, a slew of talent returns to the field. Despite getting to the quarterback only 17 times in 13 games, the defensive line looks like a force, as Devon Still returns with 4 sacks from a year ago. They will need to close the gap in the running game though as the defense gave up some of their worst numbers of the decade. D’Anton Lynn returns to the secondary for his senior year after a very successful season last year. He will lead a secondary that return six backs who started six plus games. There is a lot to like from the white and blue entering the season, and if they can gel together on defense they could contend for the Leaders division slot in the championship game.
#1* Wisconsin (7-1 B1G), 4-1 (Leaders)
Returning Starters 13 (6 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams)
Key Returning Players:
-Offense: Montee Ball (RB), James White (RB), Nick Toon (WR)
-Defense: Mike Taylor (LB), Antonio Fenelus (CB), Chris Borland (LB)
To say that Wisconsin’s dominant running game wasn’t one of the best in the nation would be foolish. Back are it’s two top rushers, four starters on the offensive line and a good amount of talent on a defense that was dominant against the run a year ago. There is no doubt that Bret Bielema has something in the water at Camp Randall and this year seems to be no different as 56 lettermen return from a year ago. After a tough loss in the Rose Bowl to TCU, the Badgers are looking to start things off strong when they open big ten play against Nebraska in week 5.
Offensively, despite losing two All-American lineman, Wisconsin will continue to wreak havoc on the ground. Freshman of the Year James White averaged nearly 7 yards a carry, while Montee ball averaged 6. Peter Konz anchors the line at center and receiver Nick Toon returns after a pretty solid junior season. The only question on offense will be how former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson fits into the system and if he can produce like he has in the past.
Defensively, Chris Borland will lead the linebackers after recovering from a shoulder injury that had him out for most of his sophomore campaign. The former Big Ten Freshman of the year will move from the outside to the middle and call the defense in 2011. He will be joined at linebacker on the strong side by Mike Taylor, who was a 2nd team conference selection last season. He is the leading tackler returning from a year ago and also cuaght two interceptions. First team all conference corner Antonio Fenelus returns for his senior season. He will lead a secondary that has a lot of promise. Up front, the Badgers will be without motor J.J. Watt, but return 7 other players at the position from last year.
#1* Ohio State 7-1 (B1G), 4-1 (Leaders)
Returning Starters 13 ( 7 offense, 4 defense, 1 special teams)
Key Returning Players:
- Offense: Dan Herron/Jordan Hall (RB), DeVier Posey (WR), Mike Brewster (C)
-Defense: Nathan Williams (DE), Andrew Sweat (WLB), Travis Howard (CB)
There has been a lot of turmoil this off-season, and with a new coach and three of the most talented players for the Buckeyes sitting out to start the first five games, there is still a national recognition that the Buckeyes will compete in the Leaders division. There is just too much talent on this roster to not finish in the top three in the leaders division.
Call me a homer, but offensively, there are not many holes to fill, specifically up front where the Buckeyes will have no problems missing 1st team all-conference tackle Mike Adams. You could argue that the combination of Boom Herron, Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry, Rod Smith, and Carlos Hyde is the best in the conference, and though there is a drop off at receiver, Jake Stoneburner provides the security blanket a quarterback without a bunch of experience needs at tight end. Verlon Reed and company have shown flashes early in camp, and everything seems to be coming together at the right time. With the suspensions of Dan Herron, Mike Adams, and DeVier Posey only affecting on big ten game, it’s hard to put this team out of the race.
Defensively a lot of talent has to be replaced, but youngsters such as Big Hank at nose tackle and Dominc Clarke in the secondary are closing the gap rather quickly. A lot of young talent under the guidance of this staff will lead to some players stepping up this season all over the field. Up front on the line, this team can line up with anyone in the conference and create mismatch problems. The linebackers have some big shoes to fill, but their potential is exciting.