Big Ten Football: Post-Spring Practice Power Rankings Featuring 007
Minnesota and Iowa wrapped up spring football in the Big Ten this past weekend, which means we have reached the halfway point of the offseason. Only four more short months remain until college football returns, and if you watch the NBA or NHL playoffs that will take half that time or more (they go on...and on...and on).
That makes this as great a time as any to dust off the old record collection and invite in some artists to help provide themes for another Big Ten power rankings. If you follow my weekly power rankings during the season, you will know that every week brings a new artist to provide team theme songs for the week.
This week, the featured artist includes a bunch of artists, as the theme is James Bond movie theme songs. With the latest entry Skyfall being available on DVD now, it is a great time to go back and watch some Bond movies while you wait for college football to come back. Bond is also the king of cool, much like Jim Delany.
As far as the rankings themselves, I have considered as much as possible from spring football, but those practices are less relevant than who is coming back from last year's team. New freshmen have not been considered at length in this ranking because they have had no impact on the team, thus far—anticipate those early enrollees in some spots.
Thus, some teams will get a big boost in the preseason power rankings, thanks to the top talent coming in for the 2013 class of recruits. Until then, let's just jump right in with rankings For Your Eyes Only.
1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Last Season)
Theme Song: "Nobody Does It Better"
The Ohio State Buckeyes closed out last season as a clear top seed in the Big Ten power rankings, and nothing has changed in the last four months to divert them from this perch.
Urban Meyer and his legion of recruiting coaches hauled in one of the best recruiting classes in America, quickly restocking a cupboard that was not left too bare by the departure of Jim Tressel. Add to that an offense returning all starters of note except for a right tackle and this offensive juggernaut looks ready to rock Big Ten defenses in year two under Tom Herman.
Especially with Braxton Miller at the helm, this should be the best offense in the conference. The questions regarding losing six of the starting front seven on defense appear to have been answered well in spring practice, as young talent steps into starting roles quickly.
This might not be another 12-0 season, but a conference championship is not out of the question. In fact, it will be a disappointing season in all likelihood if there's not some hardware returning to Columbus in the last year of Legends and Leaders.
2. Michigan (8-5, 6-2 Last Season)
Theme Song: "Diamonds Are Forever"
Brady Hoke came into quite a mess at Ann Arbor two seasons ago, especially considering he would be throwing away three years of progress under the Rich Rodriguez system to go back to a pro-style offense. However, he and his coaching staff were wise enough to use the athletes granted them, including Denard Robinson, to the best of their abilities.
Now the spotlight will really shine on the Michigan Wolverines, as the schedule lets up significantly in a similar way as in 2011, when Hoke debuted to an 11-2 record.
Although the Ohio State Buckeyes and Wolverines will be in the same division (finally) after this year, the likelihood of a Big Ten championship rematch between these rivals seems high for the first time in the era of conference championship games.
Hoke has recruited his tail off and now has a significant portion of the roster filled with who he wants. As a result, bringing back only 12 starters (lowest in the conference) is not much of a concern. Replacing Robinson with another talented quarterback like Devin Gardner and keeping tackle Taylor Lewan on offense certainly helps the outlook significantly.
The Legends Division will be a track meet again, so the Wolverines will need to be prepared to win the big games against Nebraska, Northwestern and Michigan State if a trip to Indianapolis is in the cards. On paper, this team should be there in December.
3. Northwestern (10-3, 5-3 Last Season)
Theme Song: "All Time High"
Northwestern has finally reached the pinnacle by winning a bowl game, something that had not happened in half a century. Now, Pat Fitzgerald will want to go from regular bowl participant and bowl champion to division champion and beyond.
Everybody was pointing to 2013 as the next big year for the Wildcats, but Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian willed the team to unexpected great levels last year—a full season ahead of schedule. Considering Northwestern has 15 starters returning this season, the drop-off will be non-existent, if it is there at all.
Still, this team struggled mightily during non-conference play and had many escapes before figuring out the groove during conference play. Had it not been for two late blown leads against Michigan and Nebraska, the purple power would have invaded Indianapolis and likely would have given Wisconsin a better run than Nebraska did that night.
There's just something special about this core group of players, most of whom will be gone following 2013. It would be a fitting way for this class of seniors to go out by continuing to be a thorn for Nebraska and finally knocking off Michigan to steal a conference crown. Think it's unlikely? Don't bet against these cats.
4. Nebraska (10-4, 7-1 Last Season)
Theme Song: "Live and Let Die"
Taylor Martinez has come a long way since his Nebraska Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten two years ago. Many Cornhusker fans thought he was in jeopardy of losing his job, but he just kept outperforming the competition, leading the Cornhuskers to two great offensive seasons to start their new conference resume.
Nebraska sits in an almost identical spot as Ohio State, with nine starters returning on offense and only four on defense. Also like the Buckeyes, Nebraska seems to have found plenty of replacements ready to step up and take a shot at earning the Blackshirts label.
Bo Pelini's teams have been defined by four-loss seasons and big disappointments on the biggest stage. The defense will need to get better to win those tougher games.
However, a great offense like Nebraska will allow the defense to not work as hard. Look for the Cornhuskers to outgun many teams in 2013, playing a loose style, ready for shootouts with any opponent. Michigan and Northwestern will be tough outs, but Nebraska has to be considered one of the co-favorites for the Legends Division after winning that title last year.
This is one of the last chances for Nebraska to win serious bragging rights over Michigan. Cornhusker fans would love to see the Big Ten blue bloods never win a division title in this conference arrangement, and a road win in Ann Arbor would likely do just that in the biggest game of the year for NU.
5. Michigan State (7-6, 3-5 Last Season)
Theme Song: "You Only Live Twice"
Michigan State was a decent team for the first few years under Mark Dantonio, but then the Spartans finally broke through with a shared Big Ten title in 2010 and a division title in 2011.
Expectations were high with a strong defense and a big-threat running back coming back last season, but those expectations hit with a thud as the Spartans could only manage two consecutive 10-win seasons.
Now, thanks to early departures, Michigan State will have to live without the only consistent offensive player (Le'Veon Bell) from 2012 and also without some of the top talent on defense.
Still, a whopping 15 starters do return, and Andrew Maxwell should be significantly improved in his senior season. The passing game will have to be better, with the defense expected to take a small step back.
Michigan State was built just how Dantonio likes them last season, and yet, the result was a disappointing 6-6. That makes one wonder if the defensive-first mindset will continue to work as the offenses of teams like Nebraska and Michigan just get better and better. If Jim Tressel could dominate, then Dantonio should be able to—even in East Lansing.
Plus, if the Spartans continue to play poorly, the best mascot in the conference will go out there and take the snaps himself. In a loaded Legends Division, Michigan State has a long way to climb to get back to the top right away.
6. Wisconsin (8-6, 4-4 Last Season)
Theme Song: "Thunderball"
Wisconsin fell back in a similar manner as Michigan State did last year, but the Badgers returned to the conference championship and a third-straight Rose Bowl, thanks to some well-timed sanctions on the best two teams in the Leaders Division.
Now Wisconsin welcomes a new coach, Gary Andersen, into the fold following a shocking departure of Bret Bielema.
Even though Andersen brings a whole new look on defense, do not expect the Badgers to stray too far from the formula that has helped the program reach the top levels of the conference. A strong defense and a thunderous running attack will again be the hallmarks of the team in Madison.
This will also be a last chance for Wisconsin to hold bragging rights over Penn State and Ohio State. The Badgers would love nothing more than to finally knock off the Buckeyes again with OSU on top of the college football landscape (like they did in 2010).
Considering that Melvin Gordon and James White will be running behind an experienced offensive line, look for Wisconsin to actually improve on offense this year.
What will make the difference between upsetting Ohio State and finishing third or fourth in the division will be whether the 3-4 defense will work right away. This will be an interesting experiment, but it can never hurt for Wisconsin to have more athletic, big linebackers on the field. Look for improvement from the Badgers in year one under Andersen.
7. Penn State (8-4, 6-2 Last Season)
Theme Song: "Goldfinger"
Bill O'Brien fell into a tough situation coming into the college coaching ranks for the first time, but he rallied a team and a community through the toughest year we've seen in quite some time in all of college football.
The reports of Penn State's demise were overrated and way too early, considering the nucleus of players who stayed to right the ship in Happy Valley.
Unfortunately, many of those senior leaders are now gone due to graduation. Still, the rotation of some young talent into starting spots last year leads to 15 starters returning, with an even split of eight on offense and seven on defense.
That means, even with reduced depth caused by scholarship reductions, the Nittany Lions will still have a strong first line and two-deep.
If Penn State can avoid the injury bug and find a quarterback to take over the reins definitively, then a division title (no conference championship game, though, as the probation continues) is not out of the question.
True freshman Christian Hackenberg will have a great shot to win the job in the fall, and he could be the next golden-touch quarterback from a great tutor of that position, Bill O'Brien.
This team will be defined by more than a quarterback, though. Look for Zach Zwinak to be a much better back in 2013, and the defense should improve even without Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti. Don't sleep on the Nittany Lions—at least not yet.
8. Indiana (4-8, 2-6 Last Season)
Theme Song: "Tomorrow Never Dies"
This could be the official theme song of the Indiana Hoosiers, as the promise of a better tomorrow is always there even in the darkest times for a football program. And Indiana has not been near the top of the heap anytime recently.
A great opportunity passed the Hoosiers by with only Wisconsin to beat for a conference championship berth in 2012. However, Kevin Wilson has continued the tradition in Bloomington of a pass-happy offense and a defense with some serious holes.
Wilson will quickly become exasperated if he cannot turn this defensive secondary around, especially considering the higher talent level he has been able to bring in, so far, during his tenure.
No other team returns more than 16 starters (and only Minnesota has 16), but Indiana brings back 19 starters. That means, even with Ohio State back to being postseason-eligible and a tougher road schedule, the Hoosiers should be better than a fifth-place finish in the division.
Of course, that requires the Hoosiers to leapfrog Wisconsin or Penn State, at a minimum (in addition to Purdue, which should happen). That will be a tall order, but a first bowl may depend on this team not falling apart against lesser competition.
That will make the win much bigger when it finally does happen against one of the teams ranked ahead of them on this list.
9. Iowa (4-8, 2-6 Last Season)
Theme Song: "Another Way To Die"
Iowa's season kept finding another way to die as more running back injuries racked up and more off-the-field problems mounted in the program during the 2012 calendar year. The 2013 year has been far more kind, so far, to the Hawkeyes, including the spring practices that just wrapped up last Saturday.
Iowa had an offense just as defective as Michigan State a season ago, but the Hawkeyes were not nearly as clutch on defense, and that led to a 4-8 finish.
For Kirk Ferentz to avoid the hot seat and a second straight losing season, the 14 returning starters must play better. Thankfully, reports were positive in spring practice that both the offensive line and the defensive line showed signs of improvement.
Expect Iowa to enjoy a bounty of running back talent, including bruising fullback Mark Weisman, who will continue to see some carries after shouldering much of the load last year.
That will help whomever wins the starting quarterback job have an easier transition to starting than James Vandenberg ever did. Look for Iowa to be more balanced as well, with the offensive line giving more time and better lanes.
As far as being truly competitive again, the Hawkeyes may have to wait another year or two. Once the divisions split Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois into the West, Iowa will immediately become a major player in the middle of the race if the rebuilding project goes well now. All hope is not lost on 2013, but a bowl game would be a good accomplishment for this team.
10. Minnesota (6-7, 2-6 Last Season)
Theme Song: "A View to a Kill" (get it?)
The Minnesota Golden Gophers continued to improve in year two under Jerry Kill, managing a 6-6 record after sweeping the non-conference schedule. Minnesota will likely have a chance to repeat this success, which enables bowl games even when the team sits at the bottom of the conference standings.
Minnesota will get an assist by missing Ohio State for another rotation in the Big Ten schedule process, although Penn State and Wisconsin make the home schedule significantly tougher than a year ago.
If the Golden Gophers do not start the season 5-0 with a conference home-opening win versus Iowa, then the road back to a bowl will be tough considering the schedule.
Minnesota returns 16 starters, and while the reports from Minneapolis were not as positive as those out of Iowa City this past weekend, the spring practices will help fill those gaps such as at linebacker.
Minnesota has lived well when the defense holds opponents around 20 points or less, and a new group of linebackers will need to be strong in the middle of the defense to avoid the team getting picked apart by offenses like Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan.
Until the division race gets a bit easier (in all likelihood) in 2014, the Golden Gophers will have to survive with the same formula. Unfortunately, it just does not seem likely to work this season. A 6-6 record may be the top end for this team, despite the good amount of experience returning.
11. Purdue (6-7, 3-5 Last Season)
Theme Song: "You Know My Name"
A rocking and contemporary James Bond theme seems like a good fit for this team, which will enter a brave new world by leaving Danny Hope in the past and welcoming Darrell Hazell into the fold. Hazell had good success at his first stop in Kent State, but the stakes and the pressure will be much higher to succeed in the Big Ten.
Purdue did get a big program assist by being pushed into the West Division, arguably the weaker of the two over time. That could let Purdue grow into a competitor once again if Hazell can bring the same defensive toughness to his team that he has preached since coaching under Jim Tressel at Ohio State a few years ago.
For the immediate future, Purdue may be able to build upon the three-game winning streak at the end of the season before the bowl-game debacle against a much-better Oklahoma State squad.
The defense returns eight starters and gave teams like Ohio State fits a year ago, so don't expect too much of a step back even with a new coaching staff and scheme being put into place.
The offense will be what likely holds back the Boilermakers. In the Leaders Division, three wins are possible if everything breaks correctly. However, this looks like another bowl season at home while Hazell builds his program back up from the depths of the Danny Hope era.
12. Illinois (2-10, 0-8 Last Season)
Theme Song: "Skyfall"
We turn to the most recent James Bond theme song to play out the bottom end of the power rankings, as Illinois holds strong at the basement just like last season. Although Illinois played tough against teams, more often than not, the team was blown away during Tim Beckman's first season.
A lot of those struggles came from the continued decline of starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. He is training to get the ball out quicker this season, which could cause fits to defenses that cannot pursue short passing routes fast enough. The "dink and dunk" offense is what Illinois will need to thrive on if any wins are to be stolen this season.
The offense actually will not be the problem, as the defense is the unit with only three returning starters. Sometimes, that can be a blessing in disguise when more talented young players are waiting in the wings, but Illinois is having trouble on the recruiting trail since Ron Zook left.
This spells serious trouble and a snowballing problem for Beckman, who got off on the wrong foot by openly recruiting on Penn State's campus following the NCAA sanctions.
This season will be a step in the right direction only if Illinois can steal a couple of Big Ten wins or a huge win over a team like Wisconsin or Ohio State. If that happens, Beckman will likely see a third season, which is a ludicrous thing to say, but indeed, two seasons is sometimes all a coach gets in this new college football landscape.
Just like the end of Skyfall, it's time to rally the troops in the darkest of situations to stand tall and face it all together in Champaign.
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See you next week!