It's been one week without college football. How do you feel? Do you have the shakes? Irritability? Do you still obsessively check your phone on Saturdays for scores of games even though you know there aren't any being played?
If you answered "yes" to any one of these questions—and let's face it, you wouldn't be here if you didn't—then you, my friend, are suffering from college football withdrawal. There is only one known cure: more college football. Unfortunately, we won't even get a bastardized form of that until April, and unless you're so overcome by the crippling dementia that accompanies serious college football viewing that you actually find recruiting interesting, it will be a long, cold winter.
My suggestion is to ween yourself of the game with the NFL playoffs (I know, it's not the same) and argue incessantly about who is going to win the Big Ten next year.
Before that, however, we need one last look back at the 2011-12 season with a final batch of power rankings. Unlike previous editions—which were, by nature, always incomplete and based more on how a team was playing in the moment than a "body of work" argument—this final batch of power rankings will judge definitively (subjectively) who had the best season and who had the worst.
By far the easiest judgment to make about the 2011 season: Indiana was universally terrible.
Under first-year coach Kevin Wilson there were bound to be growing pains, and that held true nearly everywhere for Indiana. The offense took a step back while the defense was in the bottom 20 nationally in every major category and the special teams was below average.
Prior to Wilson's arrival, the Hoosiers were a pass-heavy spread offense able to generate a lot of yards through the air on the back of solid quarterback play and a deep receiver corps. Even though Wilson had previously coordinated the offense for Oklahoma—no stranger to airing it out—the pass offense lost too much going into the season to keep up with its above-average production.
The Hoosiers brought out three different starters through the year. First was Edward Wright-Baker followed by Dusty Kiel. Neither proved particularly effective, but after injuries sidelined both, freshman Tre Roberson got the opportunity to start and made the most of it. Roberson was a solid dual-threat quarterback that showed a lot of promise, and next to emerging tailback Stephen Houston the Hoosiers finally found an average rushing attack (161 yards per game, 54th in the nation).
Unfortunately, the defense couldn't stop much of anything. The rush defense was nearly the worst in the nation, allowing over 240 yards per game. This had the unfortunate effect of keeping the Hoosiers out of most Big Ten games (you don't win in the Big Ten if you can't stop the run) while also skewing the opponents' pass yards, where Indiana was 47th in the nation with only 215 allowed per game. However, when yards on the ground are that easy to pick up it is no surprise teams avoid the pass.
Just how bad did it get? Indiana lost three non-conference games by one score to a MAC team, a surprisingly good Virginia team and a Sun Belt team. Then the Hoosiers lost all eight Big Ten games. The only win on the season came against FCS South Carolina State.
So year one of the Kevin Wilson era wasn't a rousing success. Considering the state the program was in before he arrived it isn't much of a surprise. The defense lacks quality Big Ten athletes and the offense lost some of its best skill players.
However, with Roberson and Houston returning the Hoosiers will have a good chance to build a more efficient offense in 2012. If Wilson can start to fix the defense the Hoosiers could be on the road to respectability, but don't expect early returns. This is a full makeover.
Way-too-early-2012-record prediction: 3-9
Arguably the only program in worse shape than Indiana going into the 2011 season was the flaming crater that was Minnesota's football team after years of Tim Brewster-induced failure. Jerry Kill wasn't walking into much of a positive football atmosphere, but against all odds he made it work and was able to steal a couple crucial Big Ten victories along the way.
Much like the Hoosiers, Minnesota was forced to break in a new starting quarterback upon the departure of a long-tenured senior that held the position down. Unlike Indiana, the path of succession was clear: It was MarQueis Gray's job come hell or high water.
The enigmatic junior entered the program as perhaps Brewster's greatest recruiting coup and was so athletic that instead of waiting for the starting job to open up as a sophomore he actually moved to receiver and had a productive year. Unfortunately, that move probably didn't help Gray develop as a quarterback and that showed through the year as Gray struggled to find his footing at the position. He was still an effective running option, but passing was always hit-or-miss as Gray ended the year just 93rd nationally in pass efficiency.
On the other side of the ball things weren't much better. The Gophers weren't quite as hopeless as Indiana, but still ranked 77th in yards allowed with more than 400 per game while giving up 31 points per game. Minnesota had a habit of either getting blown out (Michigan, Purdue, Nebraska and Wisconsin all put up more than 40) or keeping it close (losses to Michigan State and USC were by a combined nine points).
It wasn't all fun and games. Jerry Kill suffered seizures during a game against New Mexico State and had to be hospitalized, he repeatedly called players out for lack of effort and he even criticized former coach Brewster for the level of talent he inherited. Through it all, Minnesota rallied together to notch to Big Ten wins.
Minnesota still has a ways to go in terms of building up a solid football team on both sides of the ball, but Jerry Kill has done as well as any first-year coach in his position could do.
Way-too-early-2012-record prediction: 4-8
It took a particularly Zookian effort to end the embattled coach's tenure as the head of the most schizophrenic team in the conference.
The only reason the fightin' Zookers aren't in the last two spots of this power poll is bowl eligibility, but even that barely covers just how complete a collapse took place in Champaign last fall. Illinois began the season as a devastatingly effective team on both sides of the ball on the way to a 6-0 record and legitimate talk of a Big Ten championship.
Then the wheels came off.
Over the next six weeks the offense took a nose dive. Three times the Illini were held to just a single touchdown and the most points Illinois managed to score during the six-game skid was 17 in the first half against Wisconsin in what would be another terrible loss.
The main culprit for this spectacular collapse was an offense that completely lost itself. Nathan Scheelhaase began the season looking like a complete quarterback capable of breaking big plays both through the air and on the ground. However, during the losing streak he was effectively bottled up as a passer while getting little help on the ground. Running backs Jason Ford, Donovonn Young and Troy Pollard were inconsistent, and receiver A.J. Jenkins was the only viable option in the passing game—and everyone knew it.
The truly tragic part was that the defense never stopped playing at an extremely high level. The Illini were one of the best defenses in the conference for most of the season and one of the most devastating front sevens in the country (sixth in sacks per game and fourth in tackles for loss per game). Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was a breakout star for the defense and was backed by playmakers like Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown, both featured prominently in the conference's top-10 lists for defensive stats.
In the end, the defense wasn't able to do enough to save the season, and that in turn cost Ron Zook his job. A bowl game against UCLA seemed more like a cruel joke ("Wait, you mean we have to play more football?") but Illinois took care of business and got its seventh win of the season.
There is no reason why Illinois can't turn around an improve in year one under new coach Tim Beckman. The defense returns a great deal of talent and quarterback Scheelhaase will be a third-year starter that has showed flashes of considerable ability. One thing Zook always did was recruit well. Now Illinois has to turn that into wins. Not an easy task, but certainly do-able for the right coach.
Way-too-early-2012-record prediction: 7-5
The Wildcats have made it quite a habit under coach Pat Fitzgerald of looking like they are finally about to break through, only to finish the season with a sigh of "there's always next year."
Much of the hype going into 2011 stemmed from the return of Dan Persa from a breakout campaign as one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the country that was sadly cut short on an Achilles injury suffered in a last-minute win over Iowa. Persa was tentatively scheduled to be back in time for the opener and even got a bit of Heisman hype from his athletic department.
That return was delayed because of the injury and backup Kain Colter was thrust into the starting lineup. This worked out well in the first two games (both wins) but the Wildcats fell short against the triple-option attack of the Army Black Knights. This would begin a five-game losing streak, four of the losses coming with Persa back in the lineup.
The offense for most of the season was productive with the passing game averaging more than 250 yards per game and the running game averaging 166. Most of the offensive burden fell on the shoulders of Persa, who once again put together a great season as a quarterback with a top-15 passer efficiency rating and the best completion percentage in the conference.
Outside of Persa, it was Colter in a utility role who provided most of Northwestern's offense. He was the leading rusher and third-leading receiver on the team.
However, the defense once again was pushed around to the tune of 407 yards allowed per game—177 of them coming on the ground, and a pass-efficiency defense that was in the bottom quarter of the nation.
After a 2-5 start Northwestern was able to rebound and win four straight, including an upset win in Lincoln, Neb. for what would prove to be the crucial sixth victory. However, the Wildcats ended up playing Texas A&M in the bowl game and the Aggies didn't have enough collapse left over to give that game away.
Next season Northwestern must replace Persa and its top two receivers (Drake Dunsmore and Jeremy Ebert) while still finding a competent defense somewhere. No easy task, but there is enough talent in Evanston that it is inevitable someone will say, "This is the year."
Way-too-early-2012-record prediction: 7-5
2011-12 was the season of Buckeye discontent. The offseason was filled with NCAA scandals and investigations that ultimately led to the dismissal of head coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor giving up his senior season at OSU. That was just the beginning of the bad news.
With the suspensions that carried over from the previous season and the absences of Tressel and Pryor, the Ohio State offense took perhaps the biggest hit of any unit in the Big Ten. Hardly known for being a high-powered unit under Tressel, the 2011 version under interim coach Luke Fickell was downright bad for long stretches of the year.
The first five games hit the unit the hardest. After a ritual shellacking of Akron, the Buckeye offense struggled with Toledo, looked anemic against Miami, did what almost everyone else could do against Colorado and then got thoroughly dominated against Michigan State. The MSU game in particular was indicative of the ineffectiveness of the Buckeye offense in the early season. Neither quarterback could pass with much success, which allowed the Spartans to load the box and bring pressure every play. It was nearly enough for a shutout.
Quarterback was the main deficiency for most of the year. Ohio State first hitched its wagon to Joe Bauserman, but that quickly proved to be a colossal mistake and true freshman Braxton Miller was given more and more time to learn on the job. By the time Miller had led OSU to a big lead against Nebraska only to see Bauserman squander it in particularly painful fashion, the writing on the wall was clear: It was Miller's team. The freshman struggled at times and rarely threw more than 10 or 12 passes, but it was enough thanks to the return of tackle Mike Adams and running back Dan Herron from suspension, which gave the Buckeyes a more credible running threat.
Defensively, it was just a battle to keep a head above water. Ohio State wasn't bad per se, but when you spend the better part of a decade smothering the rest of your conference with a defense loaded with multiple draft picks, being just average against the run (50th, 141 YPG) and pass (pass-efficient defense, 53rd) isn't going to keep the locals from venting at your expense.
Of course, it didn't help that Ohio State lost its final four games to Purdue (making Danny Hope 2-1 vs. OSU), Penn State (a team OSU had owned for much of the last decade), Michigan (breaking a seven-game win streak in The Game) and Florida (a team with arguably a worse offense).
If good news had a name, however, it would be Urban Meyer. The hire has more than satisfied the fanbase, reignited recruiting, and put the Buckeyes on every other sports writers "Teams to Watch" list for 2012. The pieces are certainly there with a defense that returns almost completely intact and a young set of skill players, including sophomore Braxton Miller.
Way-too-early-2012-record prediction: 8-4
If for no other reason other than everyone's ACL didn't explode in the first game of the season, this season has to be considered a success for Purdue. I guess there is also seven wins and a bowl appearance, if you want to get specific.
It didn't always seem like that would be the case. Purdue entered the season again with significant question marks on offense after last year's starter at quarterback, Rob Henry, went down with—you guessed it—an ACL injury before the season (I swear there must be something in the water).
On top of that, 2010's starter, Robert Marve, was still not fully recovered from his own ACL injury a year prior. Fortunately, Caleb TerBush was like, "Chill, y'all. I got this." After spending most of his career buried on the depth chart, TerBush emerged as the unquestioned starter through the season and held off a fully recovered Marve.
This health at the quarterback position as well as a deep stable of running backs and receivers allowed the Boilermakers to put together a solid offensive effort led by a pretty productive ground game. Purdue was 33rd in the nation in rush yards per game and average 60th in points per game with 26.9. The defense also came in pretty much average overall with a points-allowed average of 26.8 on just under 395 yards allowed per game. All of which was enough for Purdue to win the games it should while losing the ones it was expected to (with the exception of a loss to Rice and a win over OSU).
Add in a victory over Western Michigan in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl and Purdue had a moderately successful season by its own depressed standards. With TerBush and most of the skill position players on the way back for another season Purdue will have an opportunity to improve on a solid 2011 and finally take a definitive step back toward the glory years of early Joe Tiller.
Way-too-early-2012-record prediction: 6-6
The narratives of Ohio State and Penn State's season will look to the blind eye to be more devastating to the program as a whole. Both programs taken down by a scandal few saw coming. The surprising thing about the disappointment surrounding Iowa's season is just how normal it was.
The first problem happened over the offseason with an intense workout that sent 13 players to the hospital with Rhabdomyolysis, a liver condition caused by greatly overdoing weightlifting workouts. Iowa made it through to the season but soon lost a game to rival Iowa State when the Hawkeyes failed to close the game out late. A few weeks later it was Penn State's turn at revenge after a run of torment at the hands of the Hawkeyes. Then a loss to Minnesota seemed to put Iowa at rock bottom, but despite that the team still controlled its destiny in the Legends Division.
A win over Michigan kept the dream alive long enough for Iowa to lose two of its last three to Nebraska and Michigan State and then be relegated to the Insight Bowl versus a pissed-off Oklahoma team. On top of that, Iowa lost another running back well before he was scheduled to graduate after Marcus Coker decided not to return to the team following a suspension for the bowl game.
Of course, Iowa had the horses on offense to make a serious run at the conference title. Quarterback James Vandenberg stepped into the starting role after two years of spot duty behind Ricky Stanzi. The junior was solidly in the upper half of the Big Ten in passing, but fell apart in games against Michigan State, Penn State and Nebraska. It helped that Vandenberg was throwing to Marvin McNutt, one of the best receivers in the conference.
Coker, before his disciplinary problems, was one of the better running backs in the Big Ten with the second-most yards per game behind Montee Ball. Unfortunately, Coker was nearly all of Iowa's rush offense as the rest of the team averaged just 22 yards per game, which put the Hawkeyes 79th in the nation in rush yards per game.
Unfortunately, the defense wasn't quite good enough to get the kinds of clutch stops that Iowa's solid-but-unspectacular offense needed to win games against elite competition. The Iowa defense was in the 60s nationally in rush yards allowed and total yards allowed while not being far off in pass yards allowed (58th) and pass-efficient defense (72nd).
And so goes another year of expectations not met for Iowa. The Hawkeyes are good enough to garner mention as conference challengers, but routinely fail to live up to that hype. With the retirement of long time defensive coordinator Norm Parker and yet another tailback flame out the picture isn't any clearer for next season, but it sure feels like another mild disappointment. Hopefully this time they at least beat Minnesota.
Way-too-early-2012-record prediction: 7-5
If someone asked you the day the season started to rank in order from most-likely to least-likely team to experience a crippling scandal that would claim the jobs of almost an entire football staff and numerous athletic department and university administrators, odds are you would have forgotten even to rank Penn State. Such is the squeaky-clean record the Nittany Lions have developed over the past four-plus decades with Joe Paterno roaming the sideline.
Thankfully very little of that has to do with the football played on the field this season—the reason we are here—so we don't have to rehash the horrific details. Even so, the scandal was more than enough to overshadow what was otherwise a pretty good season for Penn State.
The Nittany Lions started the season looking for a quarterback (again) only to settle on Matt McGloin (again). Despite this, Penn State had another go around with Rob Bolden Roulette and only lost once—to eventual national champion Alabama—before handing the reins to a more effective (or less egregious error-prone) McGloin.
Of course, McGloin's job was made significantly easier by the fact that the Penn State defense made a sudden return to its dominant form. The Nittany Lion defense was a top-10 unit with the fifth-best scoring defense and sixth-best pass efficiency defense in the country, and in many games the defense was good enough to let the offense flounder for long stretches without digging too big a hole. The Nittany Lions won five games scoring 20 or fewer points. On top of that, Silas Redd and the Penn State rushing attack (165 YPG) were nearly as productive on the whole as the Penn State passing game (177 YPG), which further lightened the load on McGloin.
Even though Penn State was able to rip off seven wins in a row at one point—including five Big Ten wins—the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke just as the bye week was happening and the hardest three-game stretch of the season was coming up. Penn State would lose two out of three and miss out on the conference championship game.
What next year has in store is anyone's guess. Penn State still has no real answer at quarterback as it is looking more and more likely that Bolden is a bust and McGloin's ceiling only goes so high. The defense will need to replace a few significant contributors, all while a new coaching staff roams the sidelines. There is talent in Happy Valley, but it could be a few years before Bill O'Brien is able to steady the ship.
Way-too-early-2012-record prediction: 7-5
The Huskers came to the Big Ten hoping to quickly take control of the conference, but succumbed to old problem en route to another good, not great season under Bo Pelini.
It certainly looked like Nebraska would be one of the conference's premier teams in the beginning as the Huskers made short work of the non-conference schedule on the way to a showdown with Wisconsin on the first Saturday of October. However, that game proved to be prophetic.
Nebraska's defense, long thought to be the strength of the team, was overpowered by the Wisconsin offense. For the year, Nebraska finished as a slightly better-than-average defense but far from the defensive output of versions past. Part of the problem was an injury to Jared Crick, but even so, Nebraska only had two really impressive defensive outings on the season: a beatdown of Michigan State in Lincoln and another to close the season against Iowa. However, Northwestern gave the Huskers fits, and Michigan had very little trouble moving the ball. Even Ohio State had a great day until the wheels came off late thanks to a Braxton Miller injury.
Even so, Nebraska's defense was usually good enough to put its offense in a position to win, and the Husker offense with its two-headed rushing attack of Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead was often too much for teams to handle. Burkhead finished with the third-best yards-per-game average in the conference (104) and Martinez was ninth (67). Of course, the problems started when Nebraska was forced into passing situations because Martinez still wasn't comfortable throwing the ball downfield with regularity.
In the end the Huskers had a pretty good season. Outside of a surprising upset loss to Northwestern (that also knocked Nebraska from the lead for the Legends Division) they only lost to teams with double-digit wins (Michigan, Wisconsin and South Carolina). With Burkhead and Martinez back the offense should be as good or better in 2012. If the defense can take a step forward then Nebraska could easily be right back in the mix for a Big Ten title.
Way-too-early-2012-record prediction: 10-2
What do you call anything after Michigan's win against Illinois to get to eight wins?
The fact is, Michigan was by far the biggest overachiever in the conference and did it with a nearly complete overhaul of two terrible units from previous years (defense, special teams) while still producing at an above-average level on offense.
The defensive turnaround in and of itself would be enough to get Michigan fans excited even without the upswing in record. Michigan went from having one of the worst defenses in a BCS conference in 2010 to having an all around top-25 unit that forced turnovers, made red-zone stops and was as good as almost any team in the country on third-and-short. Michigan finished the year sixth in scoring defense and had six games in which it allowed two scores or less.
Meanwhile, the special teams took a major step forward as kicker Brenden Gibbons became downright deadly, capped by a 3-of-3 performance in the Sugar Bowl. Meanwhile the kickoff coverage unit forced a number of fumbles and the punt return unit cut down fumbles drastically.
All the while the deadly offense of 2010 stayed at a high level of production for most of the season. While there were some definite growing pains, Michigan's new coaching staff utilized the players on the roster—including Denard Robinson—while developing a complement in the run game in tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint. There were bad games against Michigan State, Iowa and Virginia Tech as well as three bad quarters against Notre Dame, but for the most part Michigan's offense was at least able to cash in on opportunities presented by the defense.
The 2011 season brought about the first-double digit wins and BCS bowl appearance since 2006, the first bowl win since 2007, the first win over Ohio State since 2003 and a three-game win streak against Notre Dame. With a significantly harder schedule in 2012 Brady Hoke will need quite a sophomore campaign to match the accomplishments of his first.
Way-too-early-2012-record prediction: 8-4
The Spartans entered the 2011 season with a chip on their shoulder after the events of 2010. There was the fact that Michigan State was passed over for the Rose Bowl for a Wisconsin team the Spartans beat by 10 points. On top of that the Spartans were passed over for a BCS at-large berth in favor of an Ohio State team that used ineligible players for the entire year.
What did the Spartans get? A date with a pissed-off Alabama team with a month to prepare. Instead of falling back to a mediocre record, Michigan State channeled that anger and won 11 games for the second year in a row.
The place to start when talking about the 2011 Spartans is on defense. Mark Dantonio had a good track record of coaching defense, but the improvement on Michigan State's defense over the past few years is his most impressive achievement (on the grounds that he walked into a cushy situation at OSU when he coached on the BCS title team). Michigan State's defense was a top-10 unit that led the Big Ten in most major defensive categories all season long. The Spartans were able to shut down Michigan's offense, dominate Iowa and control both games against Wisconsin for long stretches.
Of course, the Spartans offense was no slouch either. In the games Michigan State's defense wasn't able to completely shut other teams down, the offense went a long way toward getting the ultimate upper hand. The Spartans found most of their success in the passing game led by an experienced Kirk Cousins—30th in the country in pass efficiency rating—and three very good receiving options. Of the three, B.J. Cunningham was by far the best downfield threat, and Cunningham put together an incredible season that saw him average 93 yards per game. Keshawn Martin played the shifty, slot receiver role and continually made short throws into big plays, and Keith Nichol probably made the biggest play of the season with his Hail Mary reception to win the regular-season matchup with Wisconsin. Tight end Brian Linthicum was an underrated part of the offense as well.
The passing game was relied more heavily on because the running game struggled for stretches behind an inexperienced offensive line. A season after running for 1,200 yards, Edwin Baker struggled to regain his form and was slowly phased out of the No. 1 role in favor of the bigger Le'Veon Bell, who fared well in the role but still failed to break 1,000 yards. On the season Michigan State was just 78th in rushing offense nationally and next to last in the Big Ten.
Next year the Spartans will bring back nearly the entire defense (minus a big piece in the middle, Jerel Worthy, and safety Trenton Robinson) and most of the offensive line. However, Cousins and his top four receiving options will have moved on, as will junior Baker, who has decided to enter the draft. Michigan State will still have a great opportunity to get back to the Big Ten championship game because of a great defense, but the offense is going to have to work through a number of growing pains early for it to happen. Besides, that chip on the shoulder will only carry you so far.
Way-too-early-2012-record prediction: 10-2
The Badgers started the season with BCS championship and Heisman Trophies dancing in their heads. They ended it the same place they did in 2010: losers in the Rose Bowl. Not that this is a particularly bad place to end a season, but expectations being what they are it is hard not to think, "What if?"
A big reason for the optimistic offseason expectations was the upgrade at quarterback. With the infusion of Russell Wilson into the already loaded Wisconsin offense, the Badgers were thought to be on their way to an unstoppable offensive juggernaut. That is largely how things played out as the Badgers put together the sixth-best scoring offense in the nation and were only held below 30 points twice in the season.
The offense was almost perfectly balanced between pass and run with an average of 235 rush yards per game to 234 pass yards per game. The run game was led by Heisman finalist and single-season touchdown record-tying Montee Ball (with special guest James White) and the passing attack consisted of the single season pass efficiency record-holder Wilson throwing to two wide receivers, Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis, with the fifth- and sixth-most receiving yards in the conference as well as the second team all Big Ten tight end Jacob Pedersen. All of this was behind an offensive line littered with all-Big Ten selections. Yeah, they were good.
Unfortunately the defense struggled at key times and cost the Badgers big. While the defense ranks well nationally in both total defense (15th) and scoring defense (13th), an easy schedule has something to do with that. In 10 games the Badger defense held teams to less than 20 points, all of them wins. In four games the Badgers allowed 33 or more points, and three ended up being losses. This includes two secondary breakdowns at the end of back-to-back games versus Michigan State and Ohio State that led to last-minute passing touchdowns. The other game was a 600-yard clinic that Oregon's offense was able to put up.
Still, Wisconsin got to 11 wins for the second year in a row, won the Big Ten for the second year in a row (the first year outright), and went to a second straight Rose Bowl. While the few prizes Wisconsin left on the table will still sting, the sum total of accomplishments is impressive enough to keep the Badgers at the head of the class for 2011. Whether Wisconsin can hold that perch for a third year in a row will depend on who leads the offense when the Badgers can't bring in a Russell Wilson for a year of service.
Way-too-early-2012-record prediction: 9-3