Fall Forecast (May Edition): It's Buckeyes' Year to Win Big Ten Leaders Title
Urban Meyer and the 2012 edition of the Ohio State Buckeyes are primed to prove that a first-year Big Ten head football coach can win the Coach of the Year award two years in a row.
Last year, first-year coach Brady Hoke took the Michigan Wolverines within one game of winning the Legends Division title. (The difference was a loss to division champion Michigan State.)
This year, Meyer steps in to lead a Buckeyes team that returns 16 starters. They have 25 letter winners returning on offense and 20 on defense.
Only Purdue with 18 players (nine on offense and nine on defense) has more starters returning for the 2012 Big Ten season. The Boilermakers are in a position to push last year's Leaders Division champion, the Wisconsin Badgers, down to third place in the division.
You cannot disregard Illinois under the leadership of new head coach Tim Beckman and the 15 returning starters they'll have this year.
Penn State graduated so many seniors that it may end up battling Indiana for the cellar in the Leaders Division.
Talent on Offense and Defense Make Ohio State No. 1 in the Leaders Division
Quarterback Braxton Miller should be the happiest Buckeye in Columbus. Both wide receivers and the starting tight end are back for the 2012 season, and Ohio State never seems short of running backs.
Miller (pictured) also should have plenty of opportunities to run the offense, as the Buckeyes feature the best defense in the Leaders Division with nine returning starters.
Ohio State has the best defensive front in the Big Ten. Nose guard Garrett Goebel is surrounded by returning starters Adam Bellamy, Johnathan Hankins and John Simon. Simon led the Buckeyes with seven sacks.
Safety C.J. Barnett, who led the team in tackles last year with 75, is back to start in the secondary with experienced cornerbacks Travis Howard and Bradley Roby.
On offense, Jake Stoneburner led all receivers with seven touchdowns in 2011. He'll start at tight end with Corey Brown and Chris Fields as the wide receivers.
Rod Smith and Carlos Hyde will battle for the starter's role at running back. Fullback Zach Boren and receiver Devin Smith round out a potentially excellent offense.
The Buckeyes lost three starters on the offensive live to graduation. It's not easy to replace a quality center like Mike Brewster and a talented, big offensive tackle like Mike Adams.
Their toughest challenge may be traveling to East Lansing to face 2011 Legends Division winner Michigan State on September 29 in Spartan Stadium.
Head Coach Urban Meyer has a great schedule that will enable him to go wire-to-wire in winning the Leaders Division title. It could be two "State" teams in the championship game if the Buckeyes and Spartans take their respective division titles.
Purdue Looks Primed to Finish No. 2 in the Leaders Division
"No excuses" should be the motto of the Purdue Boilermakers as they enter the 2012 Big Ten season. They have nine returning starters on offense and nine on defense.
Quarterback Caleb TerBush should improve on the 13 touchdown passes he threw last year, and the Boilermaker defense could be as good as the one that plays home games in Columbus.
TerBush (pictured) and Robert Marve provide solid leadership at quarterback. They will be surrounded by returning running back Ralph Bolden and wide receivers Antavian Edison and O.J. Ross. Three offensive linemen also are back for the 2012 football campaign.
Defensively, the Boilermakers have a strong defensive line led by tackle Kawann Short. Third-leading tackler, linebacker Will Lucas, returns, as does the No. 4 tackler from 2011 in cornerback Ricardo Allen. Allen also led the team in interceptions with three.
Linebacker and safety may be a concern, especially with 2011's leading tackler Joel Holland gone.
The schedule also presents a stiff challenge, as the Boilermakers face Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State the first three Saturdays of October.
Beating Notre Dame in South Bend on September 8 would certainly get the Boilermakers headed in the right direction, but they will still finish a game or two behind Ohio State in the Leaders Division.
Wisconsin's Success Depends on Montee Ball
There's no other way to say it: Wisconsin's success in 2012 is linked to its ability to exploit the running talents of Montee Ball.
The Badgers lost a lot of talent due to graduation, changed a bunch of coaches and once again have a new face at quarterback. This may be the year that tests the abilities of head coach Bret Bielema.
The Badgers know how to recruit running backs. Not only are Ball and teammate James White back, but Bielema may have to give redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon some carries this fall. Gordon had 30 carries for 159 yards in the spring game..
The top two tacklers on defense, linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, return for the 2012 season. They will be joined by two returning starters on the defensive line and two in the secondary.
It is a lofty task to replace quarterback Russell Wilson, center Peter Konz, guard Kevin Zeitler and wide receiver Nick Toon on offense.
The defensive line, linebacking corps and secondary have holes that need to be filled.
If the Badgers running game can be contained, then Joel Stave (the front-runner at quarterback) will have to find ways to move the football offensively. With teams like Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue on the rise, this may be the year that the Badgers are not at the top of the Big Ten heap.
Scheelhaase Must Shine for Illinois to Climb in the Leaders Division
Nathan Scheelhaase has proven to be a dangerous Big Ten quarterback. He will need to be at his best in 2012 because Scheelhaase (pictured) will be without his favorite deep threat, wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, and running back Jason Ford.
New head coach Tim Beckman is hoping the eight starters returning on defense can keep opponents in check, while Scheelhaase tries to pull together an offense that still has some punch to it.
Tight end Evan Wilson and wide receivers Spencer Harris and Darius Millines return to provide suitable targets for Scheelhaase's passes.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown, who led Illinois in tackles with 108 in 2011, anchors a formidable defense. Defensive linemen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence specialize in stuffing the run. The secondary's only loss is NFL-bound cornerback Tavon Wilson.
The Fighting Illini need a reliable running back to take the pressure off of Scheelhaase. It could be Josh Ferguson, who performed well in the spring game.
They also need to find someone to sack the quarterback, since Whitney Mercilus opted to enter the NFL draft and was a first-round selection in April.
Beckman's biggest challenge is to prevent a swoon in the last month of the Big Ten season. A 2-2 finish in November would be much better than the 0-4 experience they suffered in 2011.
Penn State Will Find a Way out of the Leaders Division Cellar
It is difficult to imagine the Penn State Nittany Lions finishing in the cellar of the Leaders Division. There are dealing with the aftermath of Joe Paterno's departure, the Sandusky scandal and the loss of 13 starters from their 2011 squad.
Yet Penn State proved last year that it doesn't need much to win football games. It is still amazing that it finished 9-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten.
Running back Silas Redd (pictured) is back and will capably carry the ball and the burden, while new head coach Bill O'Brien straightens out the rest of the offense. A big help will be the return of wide receivers Justin Brown and Devon Smith.
Leading tackler Gerald Hodges is back to lead an inexperienced defense.
Is this the year that Matt McGloin steps up as quarterback? Who is going to protect the quarterback? Only center Matt Stankiewitch is back from last year.
The Nittany Lions also need a secondary. Their defensive secondary was full of seniors in 2011.
Never count out Penn State, but expect it to be a bumpy year.
For Indiana, It's All Uphill from Here
Kevin Wilson started and played so many freshmen in 2011 that he has a roster full of experienced players. This year, we get to see how talented these returning Hoosiers are on the football field.
One pleasant discovery last year was quarterback Tre Roberson. Though Roberson (pictured) threw more interceptions (six) than touchdown passes (three), he did manage to finish with a 111 quarterback efficiency rating.
Roberson is the starting quarterback, and he has leading rusher Stephen Houston back for the 2012 season. The Hoosiers' best pass catcher in 2011, Kofi Hughes, will start at wide receiver.
Defensively, Indiana has eight starters from last year's squad and are led by safety Mark Murphy. Keep an eye on cornerback Greg Heban, who led the team in interceptions and was third in tackles.
Leading tackler Jeff Thomas on defense is gone, and the Hoosiers need to find two starters at linebacker.
Two linemen graduated on offense, so they must be replaced to protect Roberson and open running lanes for Houston.
If the Hoosiers are able to showcase talent that gets results, they should easily double or triple their win count this season. (They were 1-11 in 2011.)