Will Michigan State hoist the Paul Bunyan Trophy in 2012?
Last week, we brought you the predicted order of finish in the Leaders Division for 2012. No surprises in the predicted order of finish there, but Wisconsin did come out undefeated in that initial projection. At the very least, the Badgers should be favored in every game they play, though college football usually finds a way to introduce disaster to everybody's season.
The real logjam in the Big Ten will be coming from the Legends Division, however. Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska are all serious division title contenders this year, and Iowa is capable of throwing a wrench into those plans. Meanwhile, Northwestern is a beast in November and Minnesota's on its way up in terms of overall quality.
In other words, easy wins will be in short supply in the Legends Division this fall.
That all said, let's take a look at how everything should shake out in a land of no surprises. That's college football, right? Entirely predictable? Right?
Is there reason for optimism in Minnesota? Quite possibly, yes. Jerry Kill's team looks better on paper than it did last year, and with MarQueis Gray set for a big senior season, there could be a few teams that the Gophers knock off out of nowhere.
The problem with Minnesota, however, lies where it did last year: the defense. The secondary continues looking like a mess, while there isn't any elite talent up front.
Additionally, Minnesota's schedule does it few favors. In the last six weeks of the season, Minnesota should face six bowl teams; the only squad that might be staying home in December is Illinois, and even then, that game's on the road.
Still, Minnesota should just plain look better on the field this year, even if its record doesn't immediately comply.
Projected Wins: at UNLV, vs. New Hampshire, vs. Syracuse, vs. Northwestern
Projected Losses: vs. Western Michigan, at Iowa, at Wisconsin, vs. Purdue, vs. Michigan, at Illinois, at Nebraska, vs. Michigan State
Six wins for Northwestern would be a bit of a disappointment, and considering the long, dire history of Northwestern football, that's an odd statement. But it's true. Northwestern hasn't missed a bowl since 2007, and even then that year the Wildcats went 6-6. Even last year, the 'Cats went 6-7, but that was with a horribly young defense that should make significant improvement this year.
All that said, this is not Northwestern's easiest schedule, and wins could be hard to come by at times. In particular, Northwestern gets Nebraska and Iowa at home (not sure losses, but tough opponents all the same), takes a week off, then travels to Michigan and Michigan State. If Northwestern gets even one win out of that five-week stretch, fans should be happy.
At the very least, fans should also be excited about the return of Everything-Man Kain Colter, who led the team in rushing, was second in passing and was third in receptions and receiving yardage. He'll be spending a greater portion of his time at QB, but just the potential versatility he brings to the field is enough to give opposing offensive coordinators nightmares.
Projected Wins: at Syracuse, vs. Boston College, vs. South Dakota, vs. Indiana, at Penn State, vs. Illinois
Projected Losses: vs. Vanderbilt, at Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State
POP QUIZ: Which team had the highest pass-run ratio in Big Ten play last year? You probably guessed Iowa, since you're on the Iowa slide and all, and you're right; per TOC's metrics, in conference play, Iowa threw the ball on nearly half its snaps.
It's good that James Vandenberg got that experience, because with workhorse RB Marcus Coker gone and the rest of the tailback corps perpetually decimated by the ongoing presence of Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God (AIRBHG), Iowa's going to need Vandenberg to throw a LOT in 2012.
Fortunately, there are many soft secondaries awaiting Vandenberg and new offensive coordinator Greg Davis on this 2012 schedule. Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern were all ranked worse than 90th in the nation in pass efficiency defense, and that non-conference slate doesn't have any defensive titans hanging around this year. So wins should be rather plentiful.
That said, Iowa's not on the level of the Big Three in the Legends Division, and of them only Nebraska (who just plain out-muscled Iowa last year in a way that's unfamiliar to most Hawkeye fans) actually comes to Kinnick in 2012. This really looks like a .500 team wearing a nine-win schedule. But hey, wins are wins.
Projected Wins: vs. Northern Illinois (at Chicago), vs. Iowa State, vs. Northern Iowa, vs. Central Michigan, vs. Minnesota, vs. Penn State, at Northwestern, at Indiana, vs. Purdue
Projected Losses: at Michigan State, at Michigan, vs. Nebraska
Here's the uncomfortable truth about Michigan: That team is going to miss DT Mike Martin and C David Molk more than anybody wants to admit. The defensive line looks average at best, and the offensive front doesn't look any more prepared to handle the rush of a team like Michigan State or Ohio State than it was last year.
Fortunately, Denard Robinson is back, and if he's even competent as a passer now, Michigan's offense should be in relatively good hands. Further, realize that for as mediocre as Michigan's defense looks up front, it's strong in the secondary; Blake Countess and J.T. Floyd might comprise the best cornerback tandem in the conference.
But that schedule. Man, that schedule. In a sport where teams aren't explicitly rewarded for tough opposition, scheduling a game with Alabama down in Dallas seems ludicrously unwise—especially when non-conference records can factor into divisional tiebreakers and Nebraska's over here scheduling cupcake city.
At the very least, Michigan will be compelling in just about every game it plays this season, win or lose. And though this team is flawed in several areas, it's also brilliant in others, and brilliant players can sometimes make wins appear out of nowhere. You know, like Michigan-Notre Dame last year.
Michigan needs a lot more of that in 2012.
Projected Wins: vs. Air Force, vs. UMass, at Notre Dame, at Purdue, vs. Illinois, at Minnesota, vs. Northwestern, vs. Iowa
Projected Losses: vs. Alabama (at Dallas), vs. Michigan State, at Nebraska, at Ohio State
Feelin' good, bro.
The one constant in Nebraska's time with Bo Pelini is that the Huskers will lose four games. It might take 14 games to get there, but it's coming. And sure enough, assuming these predictions hold true, Nebraska will be in perfect position to lose in the Outback Bowl and get back to familiar territory.
Snark aside, this is a rather under-appreciated Husker team, all things considered. Taylor Martinez is, for better or worse, a third-year starting quarterback, and Nebraska should have his role figured out as well as ever this year. Rex Burkhead is the heart and soul of the offense, and he's back. The line did some retooling, but there's experience all over the place (even without Tyler Moore, who left the team in August).
On defense, though, there aren't enough elite players to really make a difference against the best offenses in the conference. Daimion Stafford is a monster at safety and Will Compton is poised for a big year after moving to MLB, but by and large it's not a dominant unit at this point.
Still, the Huskers' non-conference slate is easy enough that if a tiebreaker situation arises, they could be in position to shake out as the Legends Division representative. They'll need to earn it with at least one elite victory, though.
Projected Wins: vs. Southern Miss, at UCLA, vs. Arkansas State, vs. Idaho State, at Northwestern, vs. Michigan, vs. Penn State, vs. Minnesota, at Iowa
Projected Losses: vs. Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Michigan State
Yes, it's going to be a rematch in Indianapolis for Michigan State and Wisconsin. And this time, the teams might be even better.
We're predicting 12-0 Wisconsin to be facing 11-1 Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship, and the only reason both of the teams can't be undefeated is Michigan State goes to Camp Randall in late October. Past that, neither of these teams are losing any of the rest of their games.
Well, until the Big Ten Championship, anyway.
Michigan State is loaded. Andrew Maxwell is as good as you could ask for from a quarterback with no starting experience; he's an Elite 11 participant and 4-star prospect in his fourth year with the program, all with the same head coach and offense. He's got the best offensive line in the Big Ten in front of him and a star waiting to bust loose in Le'Veon Bell at tailback.
And then, of course, there's the conference's best defense by far. There really aren't any weaknesses on the unit except for perhaps free safety—and even then, Michigan State is looking at four different players there.
This is a strong, strong team. And it'll be looking for revenge when it heads to Indianapolis. That was a recipe for brilliant football last year; let's hope for the same in 2012.
Projected Wins: vs. Boise State, at Central Michigan, vs. Notre Dame, vs. Eastern Michigan, vs. Ohio State, at Indiana, vs. Iowa, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, vs. Nebraska, vs. Northwestern, at Minnesota
Projected Losses: at Wisconsin