Thursday, September 01, 2011

2011 College Football Preview: Big Ten

As usual, my 2011 College Football Preview includes information compiled from a variety of sources, most notably the work of Phil Steele. Check out his preview publications and material on his website. I also scour local newspapers and school websites for updated information, but it should be noted that all information contained in team and conference previews is only current up to the date of that post's publication.

Predicted Order of Finish
Leaders Division
1. Wisconsin
2. Penn State
3. Illinois
4. Ohio State
5. Purdue
6. Indiana
Legends Division
1. Nebraska
2. Michigan State
3. Northwestern
4. Michigan
5. Iowa
6. Minnesota

Top Storylines in the Big Ten

Nebraska brings league title game, bad division names, instant contender. Welcome, Nebraska. Before you've won a Big Ten game, you have a target on your back. You have the label of "favorite." That's what happens when you have a defense with guys like tackle Jared Crick, end Cameron Meredith, and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and a young quarterback like Taylor Martinez. Yeah, Bo Pelini has to replace some offensive pieces like Roy Helu and Niles Paul, but the Cornhuskers walk into the Big Ten as a team capable of contending for the national championship. Martinez was up and down as a freshman, but he got through a sometimes-rough first year and helped lead his team to a ten-win season. Nebraska will keep with the run-first offense, with Martinez and junior back Rex Burkhead leading the charge. It's the kind of addition a league makes and is really happy with in hindsight. There is a buzz around this league that hasn't existed for a while, and it distracts people from the goings-on at tOSU.

How Russell Wilson's inability to hit changed the Big Ten race. To put it bluntly, Wilson created a new contender for the national championship by transferring to Wisconsin. The Badgers return two top running backs, an experienced senior receiver, and they possess one of the best offensive lines in the nation. Gabe Carimi is gone, but center Peter Konz and left tackle Ricky Wagner both return. Six starters return on defense, but they also bring back middle linebacker Chris Borland, a medical redshirt last year. Senior Aaron Henry is the leader in the secondary, and junior Mike Taylor will make plays at outside linebacker. But the story is Wilson. The former All-ACC quarterback solidifies the only major question mark Wisconsin had, as sophomore Jon Budmayr didn't look ready to step into Scott Tolzien's shoes. The Badgers don't play a true road game until Oct. 22 (Michigan State), and they open the league schedule Oct. 1 at home against Nebraska, the toughest game on their slate. Bret Bielema has matured as a coach, to the point that he is no longer a detriment to a program that has the look of a serious BCS contender.

What's left of Ohio State is still good. No more Terrelle Pryor. No more Sweatervest. Ross Homan and Devon Torrence are among those gone from the defense. Suspensions have sapped the team's depth for the first five games of the season. But Ohio State is still dangerous. Joe Bauserman takes over at quarterback, and he has plenty of weapons with the likes of Rod Smith and Jaamal Berry, and Dan Herron will be around after his suspension is served. The Buckeyes can catch, block, run, and will still play good defense. The key will be surviving the suspensions of guys like Herron and DeVier Posey, and then surviving road games against Nebraska, Illinois, and Michigan, along with home dates against Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Penn State. It's a tough draw this year, and a somewhat-gutted Ohio State team might not be its old self as a result. But they're still good.

Jerry Kill era opens with no promises or insane bluster. Unlike his predecessor, new Minnesota coach Jerry Kill doesn't feel the need to talk about what the Gophers are going to do. Instead, he's working to rebuild a program that was once a perennial bowl contender, but has gone 17-33 in the last four years. The Gophers have some talent, especially on the defense, for Kill to work with. But he acknowledges that this is a long-haul project, and not one that will carry a lot of short-term victory. For now, this team will work with what is there. On defense, guys like Kim Royston, Troy Stoudermire, and Brandon Kirksey have to make a leap as individuals for the team to truly improve. Offensively, it's on the broad shoulders of junior MarQueis Gray, a prized Tim Brewster recruit who was moved to receiver last year and caught 42 passes while Adam Weber finished his Gopher career as the school's all-time leading passer. Gray has an arm, but he's untested at that position at this level. The Big Ten schedule is a bear, with the most winnable games (Michigan, Purdue, Northwestern) all on the road.

The Rest of the Story

Joe Paterno has 14 starters back for his 46th year as Penn State coach. The Nittany Lions might not be BCS material, but they are good enough to make a second-tier bowl and perhaps pull an upset or two in league play. ... Lots of hope around this Illinois team, with sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase back along with leading receiver A.J. Jenkins. The offense was good last year, and should be even better this year. ... I think Purdue is going to improve this year, as Danny Hope enters his third season as head coach. I'm just not sure how far up the Leaders Division standings they can get, especially with some uncertainty at quarterback. ... Former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson takes over at Indiana, and his first job is to replace Ben Chappell, the school's No. 2 all-time passer. There are some pieces in place, but Wilson has a lot of work ahead. ... Senior quarterback Kirk Cousins and junior back Edwin Baker lead the way for Michigan State, a team largely forgotten in the Legends Division thanks to Nebraska, but one that is extremely talented and very much a title threat. ... Quarterback Dan Persa's health is a significant question for Northwestern, but once he's good to go, the Wildcats have one of the better offenses in the league. ... The Brady Hoke era starts at Michigan, and hopes are high it won't be the disaster that the Rich Rodriguez era was. The Wolverines return star quarterback Denard Robinson, leading receiver Ray Roundtree, running backs Michael Shaw and Vincent Smith, and seven starters on defense. Then again, given how bad the defense was last year, seven returning starters might not be a good thing. ... If junior James Vandenburg can lead the offense and get the ball in the hands of receiver Marvin McNutt, Iowa will be good enough to win eight or nine games again this season.

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