Big Ten Football: Predicting the Final Leaders Division Standings
Do you feel that in the air—that wisp of a chill in the early-morning hours? That's football weather making its way back to the Midwest.
In fact, in just 16 short days—seriously, 16—Minnesota heads to Las Vegas to take on UNLV in the Big Ten's season opener. Sure, it'll be a pillow fight, but it'll also be honest-to-goodness college football, and we can't wait.
Thus, it's time to predict the final standings in the Big Ten this year. This is not a power poll, but a game-by-game breakdown of how the conference standings will shake out over the course of the year. College football is weird and unpredictable, yes, and there will be several upsets we consider preposterous here in August.
But for now, here in the Leaders Division, here's how things should work out. Hey, it's August. All we've got for now is "should."
Sixteen more days.
6. Indiana Hoosiers: 3-9 (0-8 Big Ten)
It's Year 2 of the Kevin Wilson Era. Indiana can't possibly be as bad as it was last year, and it shouldn't be; the Hoosiers are more experienced, and they have decent talent at the offensive skill positions.
The problem with the Hoosiers is two-fold, though. First, neither the offensive nor defensive lines are terribly intimidating, and it's impossible to win in the Big Ten with poor line play. Indiana should take three of four against a humorously easy non-conference slate with that line, but the Big Ten—especially this year—is just too beastly in the trenches.
Secondly, Indiana's schedule does it no favors. Every winnable game in-conference comes on the road this season—and there are a few. Northwestern, Illinois, Penn State and Purdue are all better than Indiana on paper, but not so overwhelmingly so that the Hoosiers shouldn't pick up at least one win if the games were in Bloomington. Alas, those are Indiana's four road games.
Still, there's room for optimism. Quarterback Tre Roberson is the unquestioned starter on offense (though Wilson undoubtedly would like to have former commit and current Notre Dame freshman Gunner Kiel in on the competition), and he's got one of the Big Ten's most productive tailbacks behind him in Stephen Houston.
On the outside, Kofi Hughes is a legitimate wideout, though he's suspended for one game for a violation of team rules. Duwyce Wilson and Jamonne Chester are also capable receivers, so Indiana shouldn't have much trouble spreading the field.
As far as defense goes, the front four look decent. Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. are back at DT, and Bobby Richardson played his way into the starting lineup at DE as a true freshman last year. They need to be able to stop the run far better than last year, though; Indiana was third to last in the nation in rushing defense, and only seven teams fared worse in yard allowed per carry. That has to change.
Projected wins: Indiana State, at UMass, Ball State
Projected losses: at Northwestern, Michigan State, Ohio State, at Navy, at Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, at Penn State, at Purdue
5. Penn State: 5-7 (2-6 Big Ten)
There's no real need to rehash the last few months of off-field scandal for Penn State. Suffice it to say, the NCAA sanctions on the program are going to devastate Happy Valley for years to come, and that's a negative effect already being felt strongly by the football program.
Where the sanctions have hurt the most is, obviously, the defection of talent from the program. Rob Bolden's departure isn't going to sting much, but difference-makers like RB Silas Redd, WR Justin Brown, LB Khairi Fortt and K Anthony Fera will be sorely missed in Happy Valley this year.
The cupboard isn't completely bare, though. Running back Bill Belton has passed Bill O'Brien's eyeball test, and the first-year Penn State coach said he expects Belton to be able to handle 20 to 25 carries a game. That's huge.
And of course, Penn State wouldn't be Penn State without a devastating linebacker corps. Gerald Hodges might be the best linebacker in the Big Ten (and this year, that's saying a lot). Mike Mauti, when healthy, is tenacious and can play inside or outside. Junior Glenn Carson is also solid, and he's coming back for his second season as a starter.
The schedule's not great for Penn State, and even with a full crew of players, this looked like a seven-win team. Trips to Iowa, Nebraska and Virginia all look daunting this year, and the Nittany Lions don't have the firepower to outscore kingpins Wisconsin and Ohio State, even at Beaver Stadium.
The Northwestern and Purdue games are what a Penn State winning record hinges upon; right now, we've got them down as losses.
Projected wins: Ohio, Navy, Temple, Illinois, Indiana
Projected losses: at Virginia, Northwestern, at Iowa, Ohio State, at Purdue, at Nebraska, Wisconsin
4. Illinois 6-6 (3-5 Big Ten)
After seven thrilling seasons, the Ron Zook era is over. Sad news for everyone but new head coach Tim Beckman.
What Beckman inherits is a squad that probably won't run roughshod over the rest of the Big Ten, but there's some intriguing talent here—enough, and at the right places, that the Illini should be able to hang around in just about every one of their contests. And teams that hang around have a nasty habit of picking off a game or two they otherwise have no business winning.
The obvious top story in Champaign is the budding QB battle between Nathan Scheelhaase and Riley O'Toole. Scheelhaase is heading into his junior year and ostensibly his third year as a starter, but he started to lose playing time to O'Toole as Illinois' season crumbled last year.
O'Toole outperformed Scheelhaase substantially at the spring game, and all Beckman would commit to in that quarterback race is that Scheelhaase has "probably separated himself" as starter for now. If Scheelhaase reestablishes himself as the leader of the offense, he'll probably be a better quarterback for it, but as of right now, this is a mess.
The Illinois defense, however, looks strong up front. Defensive end Michael Buchanan nearly matched Whitney Mercilus' insane numbers in tackles and sacks, and Glenn Foster is solid at the other end spot. Meanwhile, LB Jonathan Brown is a versatile terror, and in most conferences, he'd be a near-lock for first team all-conference honors. He might still achieve it in the Big Ten anyway.
The schedule's not great for Illinois and, like Penn State, the difference between a winning and losing season is just a couple 50-50 games. Still, if Beckman can take over the team and not suffer a drop-off in wins and losses in his very first year, that's a sign that things are going well.
Projected wins: Western Michigan, Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue
Projected losses: at Arizona State, Penn State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan, at Ohio State, at Northwestern
3. Purdue: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
Don't look now, but Danny Hope's starting to make things happen at Purdue. Not big things, not Rose Bowl things, but things. The Boilermakers prevailed in the Little Caesar's Bowl over a tough Western Michigan squad last season, and the returning talent is experienced enough that another trip back to the bowls is likely for Purdue..
At this point, it looks like Caleb TerBush will be the starting QB, though Robert Marve and Rob Henry are likely to see playing time as well. All three are battle-tested starters, and all three appear to be more or less healthy at this point. Hope would probably like to have a few cupcake games out of the way before facing real competition, but Notre Dame lurks in Week 2 and it'll be interesting to see Hope's strategy with the rotation in the game.
In terms of skill positions, Purdue might be as close to "loaded" as anybody in the conference—but that says every bit as much about the Big Ten as it does Purdue. Regardless, the Boilermakers have three productive wide receivers back in Antavious Edison, O.J. Ross and Gary Bush. Ross (academics) and Edison (felony weapons charge, eventually dropped) have found themselves in Hope's doghouse, but both are eligible and practicing, so those soap operas should be over.
Meanwhile, Akeem Shavers was electric in his feature back debut in the Little Caesar's Bowl after Ralph Bolden went down with a knee injury in the final game of the season. Bolden's still recovering and not yet at practice, and with his history of knee problems (he missed all of 2010 too), he may yet take the season off and apply for a sixth year.
The defense features the stellar cornerback combination of Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson, and up front, Kawann Short is going to be a problem for most guards and centers in the Big Ten this season. If star linebacker Dwayne Beckford can keep his head screwed on straight, the Purdue defense should be able to hang with just about everyone in-conference.
Projected wins: Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, Marshall, at Minnesota, Penn State, at Illinois, Indiana
Projected losses: at Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Iowa
2. Ohio State 10-2 (6-2 Big Ten)
It's OK for Ohio State players to say the one-year bowl ban doesn't bother them and won't keep them from playing their hardest. That's in all likelihood true. After all, it didn't stop USC from wrecking fools in 2011, and Urban Meyer's got to be at least as good a motivator as Lane Kiffin.
What really stinks about the ban, though—the thing that the players will probably look back on and rue—is that Ohio State is a borderline at-large BCS team this year.
Braxton Miller should be better as a passer than last year (though the fact that Jake Stoneburner is now a wideout should tell you everything you need to know about the state of that unit). Still, with Stoneburner in a more creative role in the offense, Mike Heuerman installed at starting tight end, and 235-pound Carlos Hyde set to take first-team snaps in Jordan Hall's brief absence, the Buckeyes look ready to run on anybody.
The Buckeye defense is improving, though still not an overall elite unit. OSU was uncharacteristically soft in nearly every phase of the game last season, from being eighth in the conference in passing efficiency defense to being ranked 65th nationwide in third down conversion defense. The linebacking corpsl though, is young and improving by leaps and bounds, and the secondary looks like it's falling into place, at least.
But the real strength of the D is the defensive line, which is not only among the most talented in the nation, but arguably the deepest too. Defensive end John Simon and DT Johnathan Hankins are both legitimate All-American candidates, DT Garrett Goebel and DE Nathan Williams also are returning starters (though Williams missed last year to microfracture surgery), and Meyer's first class of DL terrors is progressing swiftly through camp.
Watch out for this team by late October and into November. There's a learning curve with a whole new offense and a mostly-new staff getting its first go-through against the conference, but by season's end, Ohio State should be playing as well as anybody in the Big Ten.
Projected wins: Miami University, UCF, Cal, UAB, Nebraska, at Indiana, Purdue, at Penn State, Illinois, Michigan
Projected losses: at Michigan State, at Wisconsin
1. Wisconsin 12-0 (8-0 Big Ten)
Not only will Wisconsin win the Legends Division, but it will go undefeated in the process and potentially have a BCS Championship Game berth on the line when it goes to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," you're probably saying. "Wisconsin was better last year, and those Badgers lost twice in the conference." Correct. But looking at this team and this schedule, there shouldn't be a single game where the Badgers aren't favorites in the 2012 regular season.
First of all, Montee Ball is back, and one has to assume that he'll be ready to go by the time Week 1 rolls around. Even if he's not, though—even if it takes him something ridiculous like eight weeks to recover from the recent late-night assault and concussion—Wisconsin still has James White and Melvin Gordon in the backfield to take them through a cakewalk of a non-conference schedule.
Second, Wisconsin appears to be having a legitimate quarterback battle with Curt Phillips challenging Danny O'Brien for the top spot, and it's because of Phillips' emergence. Even if O'Brien wins out, the competition can only help him and the team.
Third, that defense isn't going to win awards on its own, but it's also going to help Wisconsin outscore everyone it faces. The line is tantalizing when healthy, but that's fleeting. Defensive tackle Ethan Hemer and DE Brendan Kelly are returning starters, and they're legit. If DE David Gilbert is fully recovered from a season-ending foot injury, Wisconsin has the presence on the edge it needs to keep quarterbacks nervous.
Meanwhile, Chris Borland and Mike Taylor are the best one-two punch at linebacker in the nation, as the two combined for almost 300 (not a typo) tackles in 2011 alone. The secondary's also solid, especially with CB Devin Smith returning from a broken foot.
It takes a lot of factors for even the most talented of teams to go undefeated, factors that just don't show up on paper. It takes luck, perseverance, luck, leadership, luck, a favorable schedule and more luck for it to happen. The two Hail Marys that doomed the Badgers last year showed what happens when that luck's not on your side.
But UW absolutely has the talent and opportunity to run the table this year. And that schedule is embarrassingly easy—maybe even too easy. So let's see if they make the magic happen this time around.
Projected wins: Northern Iowa, at Oregon State, Utah State, UTEP, at Nebraska, Illinois, at Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan State, at Indiana, Ohio State, at Penn State.
Projected losses: None