Big Ten Football: The Way Too Early 2012 Legends Division Predictions

Zach TravisContributor IJanuary 30, 2012

Big Ten Football: The Way Too Early 2012 Legends Division Predictions

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    It is yet another winter of our discontent.

    For football fanatics there is only one game left—the Super Bowl—before we are forced to settle in for nearly seven months of trying to pretend we like other sports as much as we do football.

    There will be hours spent filling out NCAA tournament brackets, reading stories from spring training, watching LeBron choke in the playoffs again and wishing ill on Gary Bettman for nearly killing a sport as entertaining as hockey because of the league's continued push to expand to a handful of markets that only see ice when it is what is left over in the bottom of a drinking glass.

    Serious football junkies will dive into spring games and recruiting in hopes of sucking every last drop of football out for sustenance. Some people might even watch arena football—but don't worry, those will only be the degenerate gamblers.

    How do I choose to wallow in the offseason that feels like it grows longer and longer each year? A little bit of everything (minus arena football. A man has to have a code).

    Most of all, I will think endlessly about how the 2012 season will play out. Who will win the Big Ten conference? Does anyone have a legitimate shot at the MNC* game? Will Urban Meyer have an immediate impact on the on-field product? 

    Will year two of the Brady Hoke era be better or worse than year one? Can Michigan State's defense sustain itself without the big man in the middle (Jerel Worthy)? Can Wisconsin's offense sustain itself without a proven quarterback? 

    Will Iowa keep a running back on the roster for more than three months? Will I even want to watch Minnesota/Indiana play?

    In the spirit of obsessively thinking about next season, let's walk through the first of a two part series discussing what to expect in 2012.  Today we will focus on the West, er, Legends division.

    *(Mythical National Championship)

    (Note: All returning starter numbers come from Phil Steele's numbers. If you have a problem or think your team was unfairly represented in the numbers, take it up with the guy who spends more time thinking about college football in one off day than you do in a good week.)

6. Minnesota

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    Returning starters: 6 Off, 5 Def, 2 ST

    Key losses: RB Duane Bennett, WR Da'Jon McKnight, LB Kim Royston

    Key returning players: QB MarQueis Gray, RB Donnell Kirkwood, WR Malcolm Moulton, DB Brock Vereen, LB Mike Ralis, LB Keanon Cooper, DT Anthony Jacobs, DE DL White

    Toughest conference games: at Nebraska, at Wisconsin, at Michigan, vs. Michigan State

    The Gophers should expect for things to improve in 2012, but that improvement won't be immediately noticeable on first glance.  The team simply doesn't have enough talent on the roster yet to make a serious jump in production, however, the fact that this team is entering year two under Jerry Kill should make for a more cohesive effort all over the field.

    Offensively Minnesota should see some marginal improvement, but the loss of two of Minnesota's top three skill position players (Da'Jon McKnight and Duane Bennett) will leave returning quarterback MarQueis Gray with fewer reliable options.  Odds are Minnesota will rely heavily on the run again this year (in 2011 the Gophers averaged 10 more yards per game rushing than passing), but MarQueis Gray showed flashes of potential in the passing game.  If he is able to make a leap in year two as a starter --- not outside the realm of possibility --- Minnesota could be even better than expected.

    On the other side of the ball Minnesota will need to continue to limit points allowed --- a trend from 2011 --- in an effort to give the offense a chance to keep games close.  Over the first half of the season (minus the surprising outing against USC) Minnesota gave up more than 50 points once, more than 40 points two more times, while allowing 37 to FCS team North Dakota State.  In the final five games Minnesota only gave up 40 or more once (to Wisconsin) and beat or tied its points allowed average (31 ppg) in the other four.  Minnesota brings back some key players but will need to bolster depth to have a chance at making an improvement from bad to average.

    Minnesota will likely be a better team, but don't look for that to show up in the record.  

5. Iowa

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    Returning starters: 6 Off, 5 Def, 1 ST

    Key losses: WR Marvin McNutt, RB Marcus Coker, RT Riley Reiff, DT Mike Daniels, DE Broderick Binns, CB Shaun Prater

    Key returning players: QB James Vandenberg, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley, WR Keenan Davis, S Tanner Miller, CB Micah Hyde, TE CJ Fiedorowicz, LB James Morris, TE Zach Derby, DE Dominic Alvis

    Toughest conference games: at Michigan, at Michigan State, vs. Nebraska

    Iowa football seems to be stuck in a rut.  Just a couple years ago the Hawkeyes were in the top ten and looking to establish themselves among the Big Ten's top tier.  Then, with most of the 2009 team returning, the 2010 version fell flat on its face in a very un-Iowa like fashion.  The normally stout defense began to struggle late in games, and the offense was prone to having off days.  The last two years this team has been stuck at 7-5, and that seems to be a likely endpoint for this year's squad as well.

    The offense should be in good hands with second year starter James Vandenberg handling duties under center, and despite losing one of the school's best at wide receiver (Marvin McNutt) Iowa returns four other solid options in receivers Davis and Martin-Manley as well as tight ends Fiedorowicz and Derby.  This is fortunate because Iowa has once again lost a huge piece of its offense thanks to the departure of yet another starting running back.  When Marcus Coker decided to move on this winter he left Iowa to replace the vast majority of its rushing production with a gaggle of who-dat's on a depleted depth chart.  If Iowa can't find a stopgap at running back it could be a long season for an offense that is as old-school run-to-pass as they come.

    Unfortunately, the other side of the ball isn't looking too promising either.  Not only will Iowa be looking to replace longtime coordinator Norm Parker, but also a great deal of players along the front line.  Iowa will be losing three of its best defensive linemen and top corner back Shaun Prater.  The bulk of the middle will return, but this was a defense that was thoroughly average in 2011.  Breaking in an almost entire defensive line will make staying the course goal one.

Best Offenses:

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    1. Michigan - The Wolverines return almost the entire offense from a year ago and will be in year two of Al Borges' system.  If Michigan can plug the holes at center and outside wide receiver, this group shouldn't miss a beat.

    2. Nebraska - The Cornhuskers are also going to be experienced at the skill positions and with development in the passing game this offense could be one of the better units in the country.

    3. Northwestern - Somewhere on Northwestern's campus Pat Fitzgerald has a lab in which he grows spread quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs in petri dishes for use in his evil plot to take over the college football world for the nerds.  Don't expect this year to be any different.  This unit will put up points in bunches.

    4. Michigan State - Good news?  The Spartans return almost the entire offensive line from last year, as well as the top running back.  The bad news?  Kirk Cousins and his top four receiving options have moved on.  There is talent waiting to take over in East Lansing, but there will be growing pains.

    5. Iowa - Iowa brings back its above average passing offense, but with the loss of Marcus Coker the pro-style attack will struggle to find any consistency.

    6. Minnesota - MarQueis Gray loses his top receiver and his best running back.  The Gophers will be better, but this offense was bad to begin with in 2011.

4. Northwestern

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    Returning starters: 5 Off, 5 Def, 2 ST

    Key losses: QB Dan Persa, WR Jeremy Ebert, TE Drake Dunsmore, S Brian Peters, DT Jack DiNardo

    Key returning players: QB/RB/WR Kain Colter, RB Jacob Schmidt, WR Demetrius Fields, LB Ibraheim Campbell, LB David Nwabuisi, 

    Toughest conference games: at Michigan, vs. Nebraska, at Michigan State

    At this point you about know what you are going to get from Northwestern in any given year.  The Wildcats will be able to put together a good offense that spreads the field and picks up yards in small chunks by getting players in space and allowing them to exploit one on one match ups.  Northwestern isn't going to overpower you, or kill you with big plays.  Just a stead onslaught of quick passes and option runs that becomes infuriating.

    That offensive profile will be much the same this year as Northwestern moves on from two years of Dan Persa to either option a) a ridiculously versatile Kain Colter or b) a young but talented Trevor Siemian.  Colter was the main option to start the season, but as Persa came back into the fold Colter found himself playing all over the field.  Siemian, on the other hand, got quite a few snaps at quarterback in the third-string role and could challenge for the job.  Odds are both play in some capacity (whether it is just package specific to bring Siemian in), and the return of top running back Jacob Schmidt from injury should bolster the offense.

    Defensively this group will look to improve on a slightly below average 2011 season.  Northwestern hasn't fielded a great defense yet under Pat Fitzgerald, but there is no reason that the group can't at least be solid.  With some important play makers returning this defense will most likely take a step toward average in total defense (407 ypg, 80th in 2011) while holding steady in points allowed (27 ppg, 66th in 2011).

    All of this adds up to another middling Big Ten season for Northwestern.  The Wildcats once again have the talent to make things interesting in the Big Ten race, but will most likely struggle to win more than eight games.

3. Michigan

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    Returning starters: 7 Off, 7 Def, 2 ST

    Key losses: WR Junior Hemingway, C David Molk, DT Mike Martin, DT Ryan Van Bergen

    Key returning players: QB Denard Robinson, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, WR Jeremy Gallon, DE Craig Roh, LB Jake Ryan, LB Kenny Demens, S Jordan Kovacs

    Toughest conference games: vs. Michigan State, at Nebraska, at Ohio State

    Brady Hoke put on quite the impressive show in year one of the Michigan football revival, but with that success comes increased expectations that will be tough to handle given the circumstances of 2012.

    Most of Michigan's offense returns, but the Wolverines will need to replace two big pieces.  First and foremost is the four year starter in the middle of everything, center David Molk.  Molk, the Rimington award winner in 2011 is one of the most accomplished and hard working linemen to come through Michigan, and his presence in the middle will be sorely missed --- just look at the first possession of the Sugar Bowl which he missed because of a torn ligament: three bad snaps.  That he played the rest of the game on that torn ligament is about all you need to know in terms of his toughness.  Other than that, receiver Junior Hemingway was Michigan's one true outside receiver.  The rest of the roster is littered with smaller slot receiver types.  With the rest of the offense returning for the second year in Al Borges' offense one has to figure the unit will continue to be very good, but it will depend on who fills in for the two departing seniors.

    On the other side of the ball Michigan may well see a regression from what was probably the most shocking defensive turnaround of 2011.  The Wolverines went from downright terrible to top-25 in defense thanks to coordinator Greg Mattison.  However, a lot of that success was due to stellar defensive line play, and three starters are gone from that line.  The back seven is still young-ish and liable to be exploited, so if the defensive line can't clog holes and pressure the passer everyone else could look noticeably worse.

    On top of all that, Michigan has arguably the toughest schedule in the conference with non-conference games against Alabama (in Dallas), at Notre Dame, and home against Air Force to go along with away games at Nebraska and Ohio State.

    Good luck, Brady.  You're going to need it.

Best Defenses:

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    1. Michigan State - The Spartans return almost the entire defense from last year and are deep across the board.  If one or two players can fill the shoes of Jerel Worthy in the middle, this defense could be downright terrifying.

    T-2. Nebraska - The Huskers lose three standouts but are in a good position to hold the course under coach Bo Pelini.

    T-2. Michigan - This is more a function of how mediocre the rest of the league looks on defense than it is how good Michigan looks.  The defensive line needs a lot of work, but Michigan should be able to play average or better and in the end not fall off too far from where 2011 ended.

    4. Iowa - If Iowa can replace its defensive line this could be an above average unit.  That is a big if.

    5. Northwestern - The Wildcats need to improve a defense that routinely collapsed in 2011 and was constantly susceptible to big plays.  Don't look for big changes in 2012.

    6. Minnesota - Jerry Kill's team has some talent coming back, but this is a defense that was exploited for 40+ points four separate times in 2011.  Improvement still won't get this team to the level of the rest.

2. Nebraska

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    Returning starters: 7 Off, 7 Def, 2 ST

    Key losses: WR Brandon Kinnie, DT Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David, CB Alfonso Dennard

    Key returning players: QB Taylor Martinez, RB Rex Burkhead, WR Kenny Bell, LB Will Compton, S Daimion Stafford, DE Cameron Meredith

    Toughest conference games: vs. Wisconsin, vs. Michigan, at Michigan State, at Ohio State

    Nebraska's first year in the Big Ten was nearly perfect.  The newly instituted divisional lineups added intrigue to the season, and Nebraska got wins against teams such as Michigan State, Ohio State, while experiencing a rite of passage in the Big Ten: a crushing upset at the hands of justNorthwestern.

    For year two to be any better there is only one goal: win the Legends division.  That goal isn't at all out of the question either.  Offensively the Huskers bring back almost all of the offensive production from 2011.  Taylor Martinez is back for his third year as a starter and second year in offensive coordinator Tim Beck's system.  While it is looking increasingly unlikely that Martinez will ever be anything other than a spotty down field passer, the dangerous run game should keep defenses honest and open up players down the field.  There was only one backfield combination more productive than Rex Burkhead and Martinez a year ago, and with those two leading the way Nebraska should be able to put up quite a few points.

    The biggest question lies on defense where Nebraska has to replace three standout players from three different position groups.  The team is already aware of what life is like without defensive tackle Jared Crick, and the defensive line should be better for having picked up the slack after his season ending injury.  However, it will be hard to replace the prolific production of Lavonte David in the linebacking corp.  Ditto for shutdown corner Alfonso Dennard.  Bo (Pelini) knows defense, but for this team to win the Legends division it will need to improve a defense that was torched in its two games against the league's top offenses.

1. Michigan State

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    Returning starters: 4 Off, 8 Def, 2 ST

    Key Losses: QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, OG Joel Foreman, WR BJ Cunningham, WR Keyshawn Martin, TE Brian Linthicum, DT Jerel Worthy, S Trenton Robinson

    Key returning players: RB Le'Veon Bell, DE William Gholston, LB Denicos Allen, LB Max Bullough, LB Chris Norman, CB Johnny Adams, S Isaiah Lewis

    Toughest conference games: at Michigan, at Wisconsin, vs. Ohio State, vs Nebraska

    In the fairly wide open Big Ten Legends division it is hard to pick against the defending divison champion Spartans.

    To begin anywhere but the defensive side of the ball would be an insult.  Michigan State's defense put up one of the best defensive performances of any team in the country (not named Alabama or LSU which were in a totally different league of performance).  The Spartans led the conference in rushing defense and total defense and were second in pass efficiency defense, sacks, and tackles for loss.  Michigan State was in the top 20 in all six major defensive categories nationally.  On top of that, nearly the entire defense is returning.  Michigan State will be fielding quite possibly the best linebacking corp in the conference behind a devastating defensive line and bolstered by a deep, hard hitting secondary.  The only downside is that Michigan State is going to need to replace arguably the two most important defensive pieces in DT Jerel Worthy and FS Trenton Robinson.  Even if the replacements for both are simply average this will still be a top-25 defense.

    Thanks to a vast amount of attrition on the other side of the ball, the defense will need to be very good while the offense sorts itself out.  Michigan State's Achilles heel is going to be an offense devoid of experienced skill position players.  New quarterback Andrew Maxwell will need to step in for departed three-year starter Kirk Cousins while throwing to all new receivers (the top four pass catchers from 2011 are gone).  Luckily, bruising running back Le"Veon Bell is back and should be able to shoulder a greater rushing load behind an offensive line that returns four starters and finally begins to build quality depth (after having to switch two linemen from the other side of the ball in 2011).  Losing Edwin Baker will hurt, but the Spartan run game should once again be the go-to element of the offense.

    And that, my friends, is why Michigan State tops the list (for now).  You don't need a dominant defense or strong running game to win the Big Ten, but that formula is the safest bet.  With the rest of the Legends division looking to take at most a lateral step in 2012, Michigan State's unit should be far and away the best in the conference.  If the running game can find a way to move the chains and take advantage of turnovers that should be enough.