Big Ten Football: Player Award and Conference Champion Predictions for 2012
Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE
Football season is upon us, and it's time for the final predictions of the season. We brought you the predicted standings in the Legends Division and Leaders Division over the last two weeks, and like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Leonardo DiCaprio said..."we need to go deeper."
With that, here are our final picks for individual superlatives and the all-important Big Ten Championship Game. There's a lot on the line in this game, according to our projections, so the nation's eyes just might be on the Big Ten come December.
As always, these and all other college football predictions are only as good as the data they're based on, so don't be surprised if the Big Ten starts shaking out in a different way. The chaos of this sport is about as good as you'd ever hope—especially in this conference—so look out.
Offensive Player of the Year: Michigan QB Denard Robinson
Denard Robinson, as we've seen him in 2010 and 2011, is hardly the most complete quarterback the Big Ten has ever seen come through over the years.
And yet when he's truly and honestly on his game, he's not only the most heavily depended-on player in the conference, he's also the most electric and exciting. His performance at Notre Dame in 2010, when he racked up over 400 yards of total offense by himself and also broke a stadium record with an 87-yard touchdown run, would have been evidence enough of that fact.
Then, in 2011, he topped that performance by incinerating Notre Dame again, this time leading a 28-point fourth quarter outburst under the lights at Michigan Stadium. His final quarter began with scooping up a potentially disastrous goal-line fumble by Stephen Hopkins and running it in for the score before anyone knew what had happened.
And it ended with Robinson needing all of three passes (the first of which was incomplete) and 30 seconds to lead Michigan 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown after Notre Dame had gone up 31-28.
The story on Denard Robinson over the offseason was that he had rededicated himself to smarter play and leadership, and that his decision-making in the passing game had improved. If his bad throws are a thing of the past (or, at the very least, if they're as infrequent as most other quarterbacks' bad throws), Robinson is a legitimate Heisman contender. As it stands now, he's still the top choice for best offensive player in the Big Ten.
Defensive Player of the Year: Ohio State DE John Simon
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
The Big Ten promises to be an absolute tour de force on defense in 2012. Potential All-Americans loom everywhere in the conference, from Michigan's secondary to Penn State's linebackers to Illinois' pass rush and to Michigan State's, well, everything.
But for as many tackles as Wisconsin's linebackers promise to put up this season, and for as physically dominant as Spartans DE Will Gholston is, the defender with the best shot of putting together the best season in the Big Ten is the Buckeyes' heart and soul on D, defensive end John Simon.
Simon is an animal in workouts, and he has used his strength and motor to rack up 27.5 tackles-for-loss in his career, including 16 last year alone. This year, he comes into the season with a rapidly improving Johnathan Hankins right next to him, which means the double-teams that Simon had warranted last year may be in shorter supply as teams figure out how to keep Hankins from destroying their offense.
Simon was named a captain of the Buckeyes last week, putting him on a short list of Buckeye greats who have been two-time captains in their career—a list that includes Archie Griffin and James Laurinaitis. Steve Bellisari is also on the list, but let's not let that cheapen the moment.
Freshman of the Year: Penn State OT Donovan Smith
Photo via live.psu.edu
Rare is the offensive lineman who's an absolute no-doubter to start before he takes a single snap of college ball—especially at a physically demanding position like left tackle, where only the premier blockers of the line find themselves.
And yet, that's exactly where Donovan Smith has found himself entrenched since spring practice. The 6'5", 316-pound road grader spent time at both tackle spots over the offseason but stood out the most on the left side of the ball, protecting Matt McGloin's blind side and anchoring a front that looks promising despite losing four starters from 2011.
Penn State needs to be able to build around players like Smith, and his work against the premier pass rushers of the Big Ten is going to be crucial to keeping guys like QB commit Christian Hackenberg upright in the pocket in the future—to say nothing of Hackenberg remaining committed to Penn State until signing day to begin with.
Coach of the Year: Penn State's Bill O'Brien
Rich Barnes-US PRESSWIRE
Penn State's not going to be the best team in the Big Ten this season, and whether the Nittany Lions even crack .500 for the season (to say nothing of conference play alone) remains to be seen. There are plenty of teams who are going to be better than the Nittany Lions.
And yet if the Big Ten Coach of the Year award was strictly about teams' records at the end of the year, Jim Tressel would have won it over and over, instead of the zero times the Big Ten actually bestowed the award upon him.
No, this award is about exceeding expectations and overcoming obstacles above all else, and nobody has a tougher job in front of him than Bill O'Brien, who not only must replace a legend like Joe Paterno but must do so in the face of crippling sanctions that he and his players weren't involved in.
Furthermore, for as great a coach as Paterno was, the cupboard wasn't stocked full of talent even before the sanctions allowed numerous high-level players to transfer away, and O'Brien has also had to overhaul and modernize Penn State's offense and conditioning program.
O'Brien's going to try his best to lead Penn State back to glory—or at least through the coming darkness—and his ability to remain resolute in the process is going to win over enough fellow coaches that he's by far the strongest candidate for this award.
Big Ten Championship Game: Michigan State over Wisconsin
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Are you ready for chaos? Because in the fourth matchup of the Badgers and Spartans of the last two years, Sparty's going to exact epic revenge—and possibly spoil a BCS National Championship berth for Wisconsin.
Remember, we've projected Wisconsin to come into this year's Big Ten Championship with a perfect record on the line, including a regular-season victory at home against Michigan State. But we're also projecting Michigan State to win the rest of its games and come into Indianapolis at 11-1 with, at the very least, a top-5 ranking potentially at stake.
What will ensue in this game could be the best of the four games the two teams will have played in 2011 and 2012. Mark Dantonio should have no problem getting his elite defense fired up and prepared for the game, and Wisconsin's offensive line will be experienced enough that the line of scrimmage will be a war zone.
Look for this game to be a coming-out party for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell at QB for MSU, and his ability to keep the eighth man out of the box on defense should open things up for workhorse RB Le'Veon Bell and the Spartans' own vaunted front five.
Wisconsin's got the skill and brawn to put up some of the biggest numbers Michigan State will see in 2012, but it won't be enough, as a last-minute touchdown propels Mark Dantonio and his players to Pasadena for the first time in 25 years. Wisconsin, meanwhile, will see its perfect regular season ruined and will have to hope for an at-large BCS bid.
Final Score: Michigan State 33, Wisconsin 31