Big Ten Football: 8 Most Overrated Units in the Conference
The 2013 college football season previews are starting to roll in, from magazines like Phil Steele's 2013 College Football Preview and Athlon, to beat writers getting their pens/keyboards ready for conference media days.
As the SEC kicks off media day frenzy beginning next week, the news cycle will finally get more interesting than the previous three months since spring football had ended. That makes this a perfect time to look ahead and project not just where Big 10 teams will finish, but also individual units as well.
Even a guide as prolific as Phil Steele's preview magazine is prone to make some mistakes when evaluating the units of all FBS football teams. In 2012, for example, Michigan State was picked by many to be the best offensive line in the conference and one of the best in the country.
Yet a lack of depth and a couple injuries made the Spartans' offensive line scuffle throughout the first half of the 2012 season. This ended up being a big reason why the Spartans' offense could not keep up anywhere near its 30-point-per-game pace of the previous two seasons, and that led to a poor record in conference play.
Although Michigan State's offensive line would have taken the honor for the most overrated (in retrospect) unit in 2012, let's take a look at the 2013 overrated units around the Big 10. There are some good players here, but cracks in the armor appear evident and that makes these units overrated and over-hyped.
After all, the season previews cannot always be positive. It would give readers nothing to comment about. Get your "hate hats" on, it's time to point the O-V-E-R-R-A-T-E-D finger.
Indiana and Nebraska get a lot of credit for having top quarterback units in the Big 10 conference (along with Ohio State, Michigan, and Northwestern), but neither of these teams really seems to have a superstar who is backed up by much depth.
At least Nebraska has a legitimate all-conference quarterback in Taylor Martinez, which may be good enough as long as he stays healthy. Indiana has three capable guys with significant playing experience in sophomore Tre Roberson, junior Cameron Coffman and sophomore Nate Sudfeld, but none of them will be mistaken for superstars.
Instead, Kevin Wilson has a conundrum on his hands: when to shift to find the hot hand and how to keep these players content. Roberson is more of a runner, but he is coming off a broken leg and needs to prove he will still have the slick moves he showed as a freshman.
Coffman threw for 2,734 yards last year, but Sudfeld came in during critical moments and had a nice 7-to-1 touchdown/interception ratio. Both have shown problems keeping hot enough to stay in the starting job and that makes things difficult on receivers and offensive linemen.
Make no mistake about it, the Indiana offense will put up some good numbers again in 2013. However, there are too many nagging questions about each of these quarterbacks to consider the unit a sure-fire top-of-the-conference unit in 2013.
Running Backs: Wisconsin
Wisconsin was rated as having the top running back corps in the country heading into 2012, and the hype might have been a bit much.
Montee Ball did not put up his monster numbers from 2011 (although it is hard to knock a guy for 1,830 yards in a season), and backups James White and Melvin Gordon has some real mediocre moments despite good yards-per-carry averages overall.
Now Wisconsin brings in a new coach and possibly a modified philosophy on offense. The Badgers will still run the ball a lot, but James White has never been big or strong enough to shoulder the starting job. Melvin Gordon will also slow down a bit as he takes more wear and tear.
In addition, Gordon is not that proven, especially not for a standard second-string Wisconsin back over the past few years. Gordon's average of 10 yards per carry will simply not happen when he carries the ball 200 or 300 times instead of 62, as in 2012.
All told, Wisconsin may not have the same type of speedy bruising running backs that have made this unit consistently great in the past decade. It will be key for freshman Vonte Jackson or someone else to step up as a viable third option if this team is to continue having one of the best running forces in the country.
Expect a small step back and a season slightly below expectations with this group.
Receivers: Ohio State
The Big Ten is largely out of the national limelight when it comes to having great receiver units, but there are a few like Indiana, Penn State, and Ohio State that get positive press in the conference, if nowhere else.
The pick for most overrated among those units has to be Ohio State.
This label comes because the group in Columbus appears to have a lot of raw talent and not much else compared to the receivers at Bloomington and Happy Valley.
Corey Brown and Devin Smith each grabbed more than 600 yards a season ago as Ohio State recovered nicely from its dismal passing game in 2011, which averaged 217 yards. Devin Smith was the home run hitter with an average of 20.6 yards per reception, and he will need to continue breaking big plays until someone else proves to be a deep threat in this unit.
Those upperclassmen, along with senior Chris Fields, may be the most likely starting trio for the Buckeyes heading into fall practice. Even with a star quarterback getting better at throwing the ball, this crew of receivers does not have the proven depth behind them to become one of the top units in the country right away in 2013.
Plus, this is just not as good as a starting combo of Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez, for example.
With new head coach Urban Meyer recruiting, the Ohio State receiving unit will get there, but the high expectations for 2013 will lead to some level of disappointment for Buckeye Nation.
Offensive Line: Michigan State
In hindsight, the biggest disappointment, from 2012 appears again on the list of most overrated units for 2013, that being Michigan State's offensive line.
The struggles of Andrew Maxwell and the entire Spartans' offense started up front, where a group of experienced starters was decimated by injuries.
Once again, Fou Fonoti and Travis Jackson will be back after recovering from broken legs, as the Spartans have nearly 100 starts returning in the offensive line. That statistic makes this unit the most experienced offensive line of the Mark Dantonio tenure, which has not been known for great line play.
However, there will be some shifting around in that line with the departure of Chris McDonald. In addition, the starters have a lot of experience, but the backups proved to be not all that great in 2012. That does not change in just a single season, especially when Dantonio has not been able to lure top-level offensive line recruits to East Lansing.
Add to that the lack of a great running back like Le'Veon Bell or anybody with more than 70 yards from a season ago, and the numbers for the Spartans' running game and opposing sacks are likely to get worse even if Michigan State stays healthy.
Unfortunately, that will likely keep this unit as underachievers in 2013.
Defensive Line: Ohio State
John Simon, Jonathan Hankins, Nathan Williams, and Garrett Goebel are gone. That leaves Ohio State with a ton of highly rated young recruits who must step up and be the most critical piece on a national championship-caliber team. There are some likely studs in the wings, but these are unproven diamonds at this point.
That is why it makes you scratch your head to see many previews arguing that Ohio State has the best defensive line in the Big Ten—or second-best behind Penn State. Yes, the spectacular sophomores Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, and Tommy Schutt all saw playing time last year, but only in minor reserve roles.
Keeping up the standards at Ohio State is also no easy task, even for units with way more returning experience.
Big plays, such as the Buckeyes' 30 sacks in 2012, may be met by these speedy youngsters (along with junior Michael Bennett anchoring the inside), but limiting opponents to 100 yards rushing per game or below seems unlikely.
That will put more emphasis on an equally inexperienced linebacker crew (except for Ryan Shazier) to continue playing above their heads. Ohio State's early schedule is very forgiving, and that may be just what this unit needs to come together and be elite by the time Wisconsin comes to town.
However, expecting this unit to step in and be the next coming of Hankins and Simon is just folly. Ohio State will be good here, but this could be an Achilles heel against the better teams like Wisconsin and Alabama, assuming OSU can get to a bowl game against the Tide.
Of all the position units, linebacker appears to be where the Big Ten conference is most stacked.
Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin all appear to crack the top-15 in national unit rankings heading into the season.
Of those units, Iowa stands out as the one poised for the most disappointment in 2013. At least, the most disappointment compared to the great statistics this group of players put up last season.
As juniors, linebackers Anthony Hitchens (124 tackles), James Morris (113 tackles), and Christian Kirksey (95 tackles) easily led all other defenders in that category with an important mix of speed and form tackling. Kirksey even added a couple of interceptions, showing some game against opposing passing attacks as well.
Even though all three of these players return as seniors to lead the Iowa defense again, the numbers likely will take a small step back. In addition, Iowa only generated a paltry 13 sacks in 2012, and these numbers will need to drastically improve if the Hawkeyes are to give their offense more opportunity to win games this fall.
That does not seem likely, especially with a defensive line that does not look like it will pave the way for many successful linebacker blitzes.
Not that Phil Parker is calling too many of those blitzes anyway. Iowa will have a good set of linebackers, but these Hawkeye players will not quite live up to the extremely high expectations for them in Iowa City.
Defensive Backs: Nebraska
Nebraska has almost made the list twice before this entry, but its defensive backfield is the only one in Lincoln, Neb., that takes the title of most overrated unit for the position heading into the season.
Nebraska returns three players with starting experience, losing only Daimion Stafford from last year. However, calling Corey Cooper a returning starter may be a bit disingenuous considering that he only had 17 tackles in 2012 and three starts.
There's no denying that Nebraska is ridiculously deep at cornerback, with Josh Mitchell and Stanley Jean-Baptiste playing well in reserve roles when called upon by head coach Bo Pelini last year. Those two will be primary backups to Ciante Evans and Andrew Green, who are the only two players on the Cornhuskers' defense returning from the top-10 team of tacklers in 2012.
But can two players carry an entire defense filled with new starters? That seems unlikely and Nebraska looks to take another step backward while Pelini and his staff figure out the riddle of stopping Big Ten offenses, which averaged about 25 points per game the past two seasons against the Cornhuskers. Nebraska allowed an average of 10.4 points per game in 2009 and 17.4 points per game in 2010.
Considering the severe lack of depth in the middle of this unit at the safety positions, expectations that Nebraska will be fine on defense based on its backfield are bound to be disappointed.
Look for a lot of shootouts for Nebraska again, which is not where Pelini really wants to be as he looks to get past the four-loss hump of his first five seasons at the helm.
Special Teams: Northwestern
Quite unlike most other positions, the Big Ten is not known for having too many special teams units that fight for top billing in the country.
One of those somewhat highly regarded units is at Northwestern, but this unit appears doomed to finish below expectations in 2013.
Northwestern does have one thing going for it, and that is experience. Running back Venric Mark will return punts for a fourth season and is only 115 return yards away from setting the school record. Mark will also return kicks, but it is unlikely that teams focusing on the first-team All American from last year will let him get away with multiple returns for touchdowns like they did in 2012.
Kicker Jeff Budzien and punter Brandon Williams will also return for their senior seasons after impressive junior seasons. Williams appears to have capped out, although averaging 40 yards per punt is acceptable for a top unit.
The real disappointment will likely come from Budzien, who has hit all 100 of his PATs over the past two seasons to go along with 19-of-20 on field goal attempts last year. Budzien is a good kicker with the ability to kick 50-plus yard field goals, but kickers tend to be cyclical and thus it will be highly difficult for him to remain perfect in 2013.
Northwestern may need perfect to win the Legends Division, but it is just not likely to happen. Northwestern will be good on special teams, but not one of the nation's best units, as some expect.
You can follow me on Twitter @DA_Fitzgerald and I look forward to seeing the grounds of disagreement for these units being overrated below.