When a college football fan thinks about offense, images that come to mind are that of wide-open passing attacks in the Big 12, high-octane scoring machines in the Pac-12 (a.k.a USC and Oregon) and, occasionally, an SEC one-and-done explosion of points, like Cam Newton’s Auburn of 2010 and Arkansas last season.
Whatever those pictures of offense are, they certainly haven’t been of the Big Ten within recent memory. The conference has often been viewed as a group of grind-it-out teams that offer nothing but defensive slugfests and low-scoring affairs.
Some of this is true, however Big Ten teams have some of the most versatile and game-changing athletes in the country heading into the 2012 season.
Given that the Big Ten is traditionally run-oriented, the majority of these playmakers are carrying the football 25-plus times a game. However, there is a quarterback or two (see Denard Robinson) and a few wide receivers that could make all the difference for their squads in the upcoming season.
Let’s take a look at Robinson and the rest of the offensive weapons in the Big Ten that will make an impact and headlines.
A finalist for the Heisman trophy last year, Montee Ball has personified the traditional bulldozing, yard-grabbing Big Ten running back over the past two years and, barring any injuries, will do the same this season.
Ball turned in a monster 2011 campaign for Wisconsin, tying Barry Sanders for most touchdowns in a single season with 39.
Along with the ridiculous amount of touchdowns, he lugged the ball for 1,923 yards on 307 carries, averaging 6.3 yards per attempt.
While he is an absolute workhorse, his numbers were definitely helped out having an effective passing game with Russell Wilson to keep defenses off-balance.
With the departure of Wilson and a new, inexperienced signal-caller, Ball will be looked upon to replicate the production he put up last year, and then some.
When you talk about carrying an offensive load, you can’t leave out one of the Big Ten’s breakout stars of 2011, Penn State running back Silas Redd.
With the well-documented quarterback ineptitude last season and an injury to the Lions’ best wide receiver Derek Moye, Redd made the backfield and the offense his own.
While he only scored seven touchdowns, he made his presence felt with 1,241 yards and 5.1 yards per attempt average on the season, along with a scintillating month of October.
Within the month’s five contests, Redd compiled 733 yards, including a 30-carry, 137-yard performance against Illinois—a game that certainly has some historical meaning.
Even though Bill O’Brien’s new offense is one that focuses on the air attack, the fresh coaching staff and the Nittany Lion faithful will be counting on Redd to do most of the work on offense once again this year.
Another grind-it-out, yet versatile running back that the Big Ten has to offer is Nebraska’s go-to offensive player, Rex Burkhead.
Throughout last season, the Cornhuskers had their hands full with streaky quarterback Taylor Martinez, but Burkhead’s running ability was always a constant in the backfield.
Raking in over 1,350 yards and logging 15 TDs, the rising senior made things easier for a Nebraska defense that carried the team at some points.
Not only does Burkhead have the ability to get tough yards between the tackles, but also he possesses the burst to hit the holes with speed and bounce it the sideline if need be.
It will remain to be seen if Bo Pelini continues to implement direct snaps to his best back, but it's a known fact that Burkhead will be putting most of the offense on his back in 2012.
Even though Denard Robinson gets all the love in the Michigan backfield, running back Fitzgerald Toussaint stepped up and executed in big spots for the Wolverines in 2011 and will look to do the same next season.
With a plethora of young and talented running backs on the 2011 Wolverine depth chart, Toussaint separated himself toward the end of last season, with huge games against Illinois (27 carries, 192 yds.) and Nebraska (29 carries, 138 yds., two TDs).
Toussaint's running capabilities will be put to the test right off the bat in 2012 with the season's first game against the Alabama Crimson Tide in Arlington, TX. If the explosive back can make a dent in the 'Bama defense, he should be able to carry that momentum and build on it in following contests.
After earning preseason Second Team All-Big Ten honors, a decent amount of pressure has shifted to Touissant to help out Robinson and his receivers with a balanced and potent running attack.
Not only will Montee Ball have to help take pressure off a fresh Badger quarterback this upcoming season, but also someone is going to have to step up as a leading target in the receiving corps.
That target will most likely come from highly touted wide receiver Jared Abbrederis.
Abbrederis broke out last year and played an enormous role in Wisconsin’s passing attack, hauling in 55 receptions for 933 yards and eight touchdowns.
The rising junior capped off the season with 346 all-purpose yards in the Rose Bowl against Oregon, one yard shy of breaking Ron Dayne’s school record.
Because of the expected drop off from the quarterback position this upcoming season, Abbrederis’ numbers may also take a fall, however, he is still a player not to be taken lightly by opposing defenses in 2012.
With the departure of Marvin McNutt and his 1,315 receiving yards, quarterback James Vandenburg and the Iowa Hawkeyes will be looking for Keenan Davis to fill in to the No. 1 receiver spot in 2012.
Davis, a rising senior, was the team’s second-best receiver in 2011 with 713 yards and 50 receptions.
Although he only had four touchdowns, Davis showed his potential to bust out huge games, especially against Pitt (10 rec., 129 yds., one TD) and Northwestern (5 rec., 109 yds., one TD).
With the Hawkeyes’ weak early season schedule against opponents like Northern Iowa and Central Michigan, it shouldn’t be too hard for Davis to get things rolling and gain some momentum in 2012.
The Northwestern Wildcats entered spring practice this year with fresh faces on offense as savvy veterans like Dan Persa, Drake Dunsmore and Jeremy Ebert all moved on.
With this sudden change on the offensive side of the ball, all-purpose player Kain Colter will most likely stick to quarterback duties in 2012, leaving Pat Fitzgerald and staff searching for a reliable wide receiver option to emerge in their quick-trigger attack.
The guy that the Wildcats will look for to provide that target is rising senior Demetrius Fields.
Despite an abundance of offensive weapons for the Wildcats in 2011, Fields still got his touches with 32 receptions, 382 yards and three TDs.
However, expectations for Fields is through the roof as he is the guy who will need to perform out of his mind if Colter wants any help this upcoming season.
After starting off last year as Joe Bauserman’s backup, Big Ten Freshman of the Year Braxton Miller polished some of his quarterbacking skills and get the job done, both with his arm and feet toward the end of the season.
While his numbers weren’t the flashiest and didn’t always have numerous passing attempts, the young signal-caller did a great job of managing football games and using his legs to bail him out of tough situations.
In 11 games played, he had a 133.6 quarterback rating with 11 TDs and only four picks.
Fast forward to 2012 and now heralded coach Urban Meyer is at the helm and Miller is only going to get better with additional practice and learning.
With a little tutelage from Meyer, the young Miller will likely put the Buckeye offense on his back this year and put up some gaudy numbers.
Whether it was the Michigan-Notre Dame game under the lights, or the shootout win against Ohio State, Michigan Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson owned the national spotlight anytime he touched the field in 2011.
“Shoelace” put up absurd stats last season, throwing for over 2,100 yards, rushing for over 1,176 yards, and had 36 all-purpose TDs.
The Wolverines will be returning a pretty deep and talented pool of receivers, so Shoelace will have many options to sling it to, and, of course, he always has the chance to break things open with a devastating scramble.
The only noticeable flaw with Robinson’s game has been throwing errors, with his 15 interceptions last year as evidence. If he can cut down on the mistakes and reduce the amount of balls he underthrows receivers, he’ll compile better numbers and help the Wolverines win more games.
When you talk about offensive weapons, Denard Robinson fits that description to a tee, and barring any injury, the rising senior will look to lead the Wolverines to a potential National Championship.