The Big Ten will continue to be a league full of talent this season, but will the Big Ten make a BCS championship game for the first time since 2008?
The Legends Division will be tighter than ever with not only Michigan and Nebraska competing for the top spot, but a dangerous Northwestern team getting into the mix as well. Ohio State is the top dog in the Leaders Division after finishing perfect last season. Wisconsin, though, will still have talent and be looking to earn their fourth straight Big Ten title. With so much depth in this conference, here are the 2013 Big Ten projections.
Michigan junior quarterback Devin Gardner.
Prediction: 10-3, 6-2 (Tied-1st in Big Ten Legends)
Michigan heads into the 2013 season with expectations of winning a Big Ten Championship and advancing to its second BCS Bowl game in three years.
The Denard Robinson era is over, but Brady Hoke and Al Borges can finally install their pro-style offense. Fortunately for them, junior quarterback Devin Gardner converted from wide receiver back to quarterback when Robinson was injured last season and was able to get valuable playing time. Gardner started the last five games of the season and passed for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Michigan backfield struggled last season and will be hoping to improve with a healthy Fitzgerald Toussaint and the nation’s top running back recruit Derrick Green. Senior wide receivers Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo will lead a receiving corps that lacks depth. Sophomore tight end Devin Funchess could end up being a bigger target in the passing game because of depth issues. The offensive line returns talented senior left tackle Taylor Lewan, but there are questions upfront surrounding the guard positions.
The defense has been one of the best in the country under Greg Mattison the past two seasons, but what will be of the Wolverine defensive unit this season? Michigan lost their leading tackler, junior outside linebacker Jake Ryan, to an ACL tear in the spring and there are other positions that need to be filled as well. With Ryan likely out until mid-October, three-year starter Desmond Morgan will shift from weak side to middle linebacker and sophomore James Ross will move to the weak-side position. Junior defensive end Frank Clark also has potential to be a big playmaker this season by stopping the pass rush.
The Wolverines play a home night game against Notre Dame in the second week of the season, which is always a dandy to watch. Starting 5-0 is in the cards, but games at Penn State (Oct. 12) and at Michigan State (Nov. 2) could be tricky. The last four games of the season will be no cakewalk either. A game at home against Nebraska on Nov. 9 could be the decider in who wins the Legends Division and there will be more trouble with road games at Northwestern and Iowa. The final game of the season against Ohio State could be the game where Hoke’s undefeated home game-winning streak comes to an end. The Wolverines should find themselves in the Big Ten Championship game against Ohio State, their second meeting in just a week, for the an automatic BCS bowl bid.
Nebraska senior quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Prediction: 10-2, 6-2 (Tied-1st in Big Ten Legends)
The Cornhuskers 2012-13 season ended ugly with a 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game and 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. In those two losses, the Nebraska defense gave up a gut wrenching 1,229 yards. Bo Pelini has won at least nine games in each of his five seasons with the Huskers, but has gone 0-3 in conference championship games and not played in a BCS bowl game. This is what has him on the hot seat.
Offense wasn’t the problem for the Huskers last season. Nebraska had the best offense in the Big Ten (460.8 ypg) and ranked eighth in the country in rushing with 253.4 yards per game. Four-year starter quarterback Taylor Martinez is back after putting up 3,890 yards of total offense and 33 total touchdowns last season. Martinez is a dangerous threat on the ground and continues to improve each year with his passing.
The Nebraska rushing attack is led by Ameer Abdullah, who rushed for 1,137 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Kenny Bell leads the Husker receiving corps and is joined by Jamal Turner and Quincy Enunwa. The offensive line returns All-Big Ten senior guard Spencer Long and senior right tackle Jeremiah Sirles. Nebraska relied heavily on its All-Big Ten kicker/punter Brett Maher last season and we’ll see if placekicker Mauro Bondi and punter Sam Foltz can fill his shoes.
People are probably still wondering if the Huskers’ Blackshirt defense has chased down Wisconsin running backs Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon yet? The offense will put up points, but the defense needs to improve. The Huskers ranked top five in the country against the pass, but the run defense ranked 90th. The defense returns senior defensive end Jason Ankrah and the secondary returns both senior cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Andrew Green. The linebacking unit will have three new starters.
The Huskers have a good chance of going 8-0 before they head to Michigan (Nov. 9). The only games where they could be upset prior to their trip to Ann Arbor would be home games against UCLA (Sept. 14) and Northwestern (Oct. 20). After playing a potential division title game at Michigan, a game at Penn State (Nov. 23) could be challenging. Nebraska should have no problem winning 10 regular-season games and will be in the mix for an at-large BCS bid. It would be their first BCS bowl appearance since 2002.
Northwestern senior running back Venric Mark.
Prediction: 9-3, 5-3 (Tied-3rd in Big Ten Legends)
The Fighting Fitzgerald’s are coming off a 10-win season and their first bowl victory in 64 years. Northwestern could have its most talented team under Pat Fitzgerald and there is no reason they can’t match last year’s win total.
Almost everyone returns to a Wildcat offense that ranked third in the Big Ten last season in scoring with 31.7 points per game. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian will be in the two-quarterback system again. Colter is used for his dangerous running ability and Siemian is for his passing. The Big Ten’s leading rusher, Venric Mark, returns and will be crucial for the success of this Northwestern offense. The Wildcats also return its top three receivers: Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Rashad Lawrence. The offensive line will be the weakest element of the offense with spots to fill, but All-Big Ten candidate Brandon Vitabile returns at center.
A majority of an improving Wildcat defense returns as well. Potential All-Big Ten defensive end Tyler Scott leads the line and an experienced linebacking unit includes last year’s team leading tackler Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo. The most talented unit will likely be the secondary. Sophomore cornerback Nick VanHoose and junior safety Ibraheim Campbell return and will cause chaos for opposing defenses.
Northwestern opens the season with a road game at Cal that’s followed by a home against Syracuse. The Wildcats could very well be 4-0 heading into a showdown at home against Ohio State on Oct. 5. Whatever may happen against Ohio State, they must be ready to play the following week at Wisconsin. The end of their conference schedule will be difficult with a road game at Nebraska and home games against Michigan and Michigan State. Look for Northwestern to hit the nine-win total and play in a New Year’s Day bowl game again.
Michigan State senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard.
Michigan State Spartans
Prediction: 8-4, 5-3 (Tied-3rd in Big Ten Legends)
There were high hopes in East Lansing, but the Spartans tumbled to a 7-6 finish. Mark Dantonio’s squad lost five games by four points or less last season. The defense ranked 4th nationally and dominated opponents, unfortunately the offense without Kirk Cousins didn’t quite pan out. We could see a similar Michigan State team this season consisting of a stout defense and inconsistent offense.
Senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell threw for 2,606 yards last season, but his starting job could be in jeopardy after sophomore Connor Cook's performance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Not only are there questions surrounding the quarterback situation, but the Spartan backfield may have more questions that need to be answered before the season with the loss of 1,000 yard rusher Le’Veon Bell. Former linebacker redshirt freshman Riley Bullough will compete for the the starting running back position, along with freshman Gerald Holmes and juniors Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford. The Spartan receiving game will be more experienced this season with senior Bennie Fowler and juniors Keith Mumphery and Tony Lippett. But the main target could be sophomore Aaron Burbridge. Up front, the Spartans should be improved if everyone can stay healthy, unlike last season.
Michigan State had the best defense in the Big Ten last season (16.3 points per game) and should be just as good this season with the talent it has returning. The physical Spartan defense returns All-Big Ten cornerback Darqueze Dennard, as well as linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen. Bullough was an All-Big Ten choice and recorded 111 tackles last season. The line should still be tough, even without defensive end William Gholston, who passed on his final year of eligibility to go to the NFL.
Michigan State avoids Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin this year. The Spartans will have trouble early in the season with games at Notre Dame (Sept. 21) and at Iowa (Oct. 5), who they were upset by in overtime last season. The month of November is where Michigan State must win if they want to have a shot at contending for the Legends Division. The Spartans host Michigan (Nov. 2) and have road trips to Nebraska (Nov. 16) and Northwestern (Nov. 23). Winning less than eight games this season would be a huge disappointment.
Iowa junior running back Mark Weisman.
Prediction: 6-6, 3-5 (5th in Big Ten Legends)
Head coach Kirk Ferentz heads into the season on the hot seat after going 4-8 last season, the Hawkeyes' worst record since 2000. The defense was average and the offense was dismal. It could be another one of those seasons, especially without a quarterback whose never taken a snap under center at Iowa.
James Vandenberg, who took every snap last season, is done after a disappointing senior campaign. The starting job is between three quarterbacks—Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard. The spark of the Hawkeye offense, junior running back Mark Weisman, returns and will try to top his 815 rushing yards and eight touchdowns from last season. The receiving unit must improve this season if the Hawkeyes want to average more than 19.3 points per game and the line, led by junior left tackle Brandon Scherff, should continue to be strong up front.
The Iowa defense basically has everyone back, including all three linebackers—James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. The defensive line, led by defensive end Dominic Alvis and defensive tackle Carl Davis, struggled to get to any sort of pressure on opposing team’s quarterbacks last season and needs to improve. The secondary also needs improvement as well, and will miss Micah Hyde. Free safety Tanner Miller and B.J. Lowery will need to step up and lead the secondary this season. The defense will have to put up gutsy performances if they want to win in low scoring affairs.
The Hawks have a tricky non-conference schedule and difficult conference schedule. They face last season’s BCS qualifier, Northern Illinois, at home the opening week and then play away in their annual game with Iowa State. Oct. 5 to Nov. 2 could be a nightmare with home games against Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and an away game at Ohio State.
The last two games of the season might not be pretty either with a home game against Michigan and a road game at Nebraska. Whenever anyone doubts Iowa and Kirk Ferentz they somehow surprise. Six wins this season and a bowl birth is possible. The Minnesota, Michigan State and Purdue games are all must win games.
Minnesota junior running back Donnell Kirkwood.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Prediction: 5-7, 1-7 (6th in Big Ten Legends)
As history has it, Jerry Kill turns his programs around in three years. At Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, he won 10-games in his third season. After a 6-7 record, which included the Golden Gophers' first bowl appearance since 2009, will Kill miraculously take this program to new heights in 2013?
It appears sophomore Philip Nelson will win the starting quarterback job over redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner. The running game should be fine with junior Donnell Kirkwood back after rushing for 926 yards and six touchdowns last season. The receiving corps is the biggest concern for an offense with no returner recording more than 19 receptions. Derrick Engal is the best receiver back and he only accounted for 18 receptions, 375 yards and one touchdown last season. Unlike the receiving corps, there will be talent up front with senior left tackle Ed Olson and junior left guard Zac Epping.
The Gopher defense ranked 12th in the nation in pass defense last season (186.6 yards per game), but struggled mightily against the run (172.0 yards per game). The defensive line has senior tackle Ra’Shede Hageman back after recording 35 tackles and six sacks last season. The linebacking unit has the most uncertainty with only senior Aaron Hill returning to defend the strong side. The secondary includes junior Derrick Wells, who recorded 74 tackles last season and switch from safety to cornerback. The secondary will also have senior safety Brock Vereen.
Kill’s group should start the season off 4-0. There two must-win games in conference play will be at home against Iowa (Sept. 25) and at Indiana (Nov. 2). These two wins will at least get them bowl eligible. Basically, the loser of the Iowa-Minnesota game is going to miss out on the postseason fun. Who knows what these Gophers have up their sleeves this season?
Ohio State junior quarterback Braxton Miller.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Prediction: 12-1, 7-1 (1st in Big Ten Leaders)
Urban Meyer comes into Columbus and goes 12-0 in his first season, but had nothing to show for it with the Buckeyes on a one-year bowl ban. The Ohio State heads into the 2013 season with unfinished business and a trip to Pasadena on Jan. 6 on their minds. Meyer could be in a position to win his third national championship in seven years.
The offense is led by one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football Braxton Miller. Miller proved to be a good fit for Meyer’s system as he rushed for 1,271 yards, 13 touchdowns and finished fifth on the Heisman Trophy ballot. The Buckeyes backfield will rely on their top returning running back Carlos Hyde, who rushed for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns, as well as fifth-year senior Jordan Hall. It has been decided that Hyde will serve a three-game suspension for his incident in July. The receiving corps will be solid with senior Corey “Philly” Brown and junior wide receiver Devin Smith. The offensive line is the most improved unit on the Buckeyes offense this year. Four starters return including all-conference senior left guard Andrew Norwell and an All-Big Ten candidate in left tackle Jack Mewhort.
The Buckeye defense was at times shaky last season. The defense was strong against the run (116.1 ypg) and only gave up 22.8 ppg, but the pass defense was the second worst in the Big Ten (243.5 ypg). The defense returns just four starters from last season, but it doesn’t mean their won’t be big playmakers. All-Big Ten junior linebacker Ryan Shazier returns after recording 115 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and 12 pass breakups for the Buckeyes. The Buckeye secondary looked to be in good shape with 2nd team All-American junior cornerback Bradley Roby, but his status is in question after being arrested on July 22. Safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett also return from last year. The entire defensive line will be new this season.
The Buckeyes have back-to-back games against Wisconsin and Northwestern early in the season that will test the toughness of this Meyer coached team. If the Buckeyes can get through those two games in late September-early October they will be fine until they travel to rival Michigan on Nov. 30. There is no reason why Ohio State can’t win a Big Ten Championship and be in the National Championship. The Rose Bowl is a consolation prize for the Buckeyes this season.
Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Borland.
Prediction: 10-2, 6-2 (2nd in Big Ten Leaders)
The Badgers have won the Big Ten three consecutive years and advanced to the Rose Bowl. Brett Bielema had an impressive seven year tenure with Wisconsin going 68-24 and shocked many by leaving for Arkansas. It’s now Utah State’s Gary Andersen that will be at the helm in Madison. Will the Badgers do it for a fourth straight year with a new head coach and Ohio State eligible for postseason play?
The offense struggled last season before humiliating Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship game 70-31. The quarterback situation was inconsistent last season and three different starters were used. Sophomore Joel Stave and senior Curt Phillips both started last season and will be neck and neck heading into the fall as they battle for the starting quarterback job. Junior transfer Tanner McEvoy could be in the mix as well.
The backfield will miss Wisconsin’s second all-time leading rusher Montee Ball, but have a talented senior in James White back and sophomore Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 216 yards on nine carries against Nebraska in The Big Ten Championship game. The receiving game will be led by senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who led the Badgers with 837 and five touchdowns, and senior tight end Jacob Pedersen. The offensive line has been talented over the years, but could have questions with center Travis Frederick and tackle Ricky Wagner gone.
New defensive coordinator Dave Aranda came with Andersen from Utah State and will run a 3-4 defense using different blitz packages. The linebacking unit will be strong again with two-time All-Big Ten linebacker Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong, who recorded 93 tackles last season. The defensive line is headed by All-Big Ten candidate nose tackle Beau Allen and defensive end Ethan Hemer. The secondary is left with just one starter in safety Dezmen Southward.
Wisconsin travels to Arizona State in Week 3. This is a big non-conference game that will either hurt or boost their confidence as a team. The Badgers schedule is not terribly tough, except for when they play at Ohio State (Sept. 28) and home against Northwestern (Oct. 12). If the quarterback position gets figured out, this could be another solid year for the program. Andersen has the talent and schedule to hit 10 wins this season.
Penn State junior running back Zach Zwinak.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Prediction: 9-3, 5-3 (3rd in Big Ten Leaders)
With so much turmoil and questions heading into the 2012 season, first year Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien led his squad to an unexpected 8-4 record and was a candidate for Coach of the Year. The Nittany Lions will serve their second year of a four-year bowl ban, so no bowl game again. Don’t be surprised if Penn State has another better than mediocre season, though.
Quarterback Matt McGloin is gone after a productive season where he threw for 3,271 yards and 24 touchdowns. The quarterback competition will be between junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and one of the top recruits in the nation, Christian Hackenberg. There are question marks at the quarterback position, but every other unit on offense will be in good shape.The backfield has 1,000 yard rusher Zach Zwinak back and the receiving corps returns All-Big Ten wide receiver Allen Robinson and first-team Freshman All-American tight end Kyle Carter. The offensive line returns three including All-Big Ten right guard John Urschel.
John Butler, who was the defensive backs coach last season for Penn State, will take over a defense that surrendered just 19.1 points per game. The defense must replace three NFL draft picks, which included linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti. The linebacking corps will be the only unit with questions surrounding it. The linebacking unit lacks depth with Glenn Carson being the only starter back, but O'Brien could have defensive backs Adrian Amos and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong step in at linebacker. The line returns defensive end Deion Barnes, who is a rising star and last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, as well as defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. The secondary will be more experienced and talented this season with Amos, who recorded 44 tackles and two interceptions last season, and safety Malcolm Willis.
The schedule sets up nicely as the Nittany Lions won’t be challenged until Oct. 12 when they host Michigan in Happy Valley. They will then have a bye week before traveling to Ohio State on Oct. 26. After traveling to Columbus, O’Brien’s team won’t face adversity until the last two weeks of the season when they host Nebraska and travel to Wisconsin. Again, Penn State won't be bowl eligible, but eight or nine wins is realistic.
Indiana junior wide receiver Cody Latimer.
Prediction: 6-6, 3-5 (4th in Big Ten Leaders)
Under head coach Kevin Wilson, Indiana has been making strides and this could finally be the year they go bowling with almost every starter back in the lineup.
The Hoosier offense will look to continue their dominance through the air under second year offensive coordinator Seth Littrell. The offense finished first in the Big Ten in passing with 311.2 yards per game. Sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson returns after breaking his leg in the second game of last season. Roberson put up 501 total yards and five touchdowns in just over five quarters of play. Roberson can scramble and has the ability to run the spread offense, but junior Cameron Coffman and sophomore Nate Sudfeld are also a part of the three-way starting quarterback battle. Coffman stepped in when Roberson went down and threw for 2,734 yards. Sudfeld also played at times last season. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will have good targets in the passing game.
All of Hoosiers’ top receivers return including Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn, and Kofi Hughes. Senior tight end Ted Bolser is also a big target in the passing game. The backfield will be stronger with more depth and experience this season. Senior running back Stephen Houston returns after rushing for 749 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. The backfield will also have sophomore Tevin Coleman, who looked good in the spring. The offensive line, which must improve, returns four starters from last season.
The Hoosier defense ranked dead last in the Big Ten in total defense (463.5 yards per game) and gave up 35.3 points per game. The last three games of the 2012 season against Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue, was proof of their struggles on defense as they gave up an average of 54.3 points. The defense is led by it’s returning leading tackler senior safety Greg Heban and second leading tackler junior linebacker David Cooper. A bright spot for the Indiana defense is the potential present and future of the new three 4-star recruits that decided to take their talents to Bloomington. Antonio Allen, David Kennedy and Darius Latham all decommitted from other schools in the BCS. The list of schools included were Ole Miss, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The Hoosiers will play a non-conference game at home against Missouri on Sept. 21, that will get them ready for conference play and be a crucial game for bowl implications. Indiana lost to Michigan State and Ohio State by a combined seven points at home last season. They must travel to both this season, making it much more difficult. The home games in November against Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue must all be won if they want to be bowl eligible for the first time since 2007.
Purdue senior quarterback Rob Henry.
Prediction: 4-8, 2-6 (5th in Big Ten Leaders)
Danny Hope’s mediocrity and two consecutive bowl appearances was just not enough success to keep his job of four years. In comes Kent State’s Darrell Hazell, who almost took his team to a BCS bowl game last season, to take over and revive a Purdue program that has not been successful since the early 2000s.
Senior Rob Henry is the likely starting quarterback, but will he fit into a pro-style offense? Purdue has ran a spread offense for years, but Hazell wants a more physical type of offensive attack. Highly recruited freshman Danny Etling and redshirt freshman Austin Appleby are in the mix to start at quarterback as well. The running game will be led by junior Akeem Hunt, who had a 100-yard kickoff return at Ohio State last season. Hunt will be a critical part to the offense this season with a bigger emphasis on the running game. The receiving corps is led by senior Gary Bush, who caught seven touchdowns last season. The offensive line returns three up front, including Robert Kugler, who will make the move from guard to center.
Greg Hudson takes over the defense after being a linebackers coach at Florida State for three years. He will have eight returning starters back. The defensive line will be strong with Ryan Russell on the end and Bruce Gaston at tackle. Depth at the tackle position will be a big advantage for the Boilermaker defense. The secondary will be key as well, with team-leading tackler safety Landon Feichter returning along with All-Big Ten candidate Ricardo Allen. The linebacking unit will be the weakest part of the defense even though Will Lucas returns.
The season starts out with tough non-conference games against Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois. Indiana State is mixed in there along with a conference game at Wisconsin. The Boilermakers' schedule is difficult until their last two games of the season against Illinois and Indiana. Hazell may be looking at a 4-8 record when it’s all said and done.
Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Prediction: 3-9, 1-7 (6th in the Big Ten Leaders)
What will be of Tim Beckman's Fighting Illini in year two after a disappointing 2-10 debut?
The Illinois offense was more than dreadful last season. The Illini ranked 11th or 12th in the conference in the four offensive categories. Fourth-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase has been adapting to Bill Cubit’s spread offense. This will be the third offense Scheelhaase has had to learn in four years. Besides Scheelhaase, the most dynamic player on the offense is junior running back Donovonn Young. Young rushed for 571 yards, had 38 catches and scored four touchdowns. Sophomore Josh Ferguson will also get in on the action as well. The receiving corps returns Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris. Look for both to get a lot of looks with the new offensive scheme intact. There were problems up front last season as the line gave up an astounding 39 sacks. Look for improvement in this area with three players back, including left guard Ted Karras.
The defense, which also struggled for the most part last season, has one problem the offense doesn’t. They lose basically everyone. The line and secondary return one starter each from last season. They are senior defensive end Tim Kynard and junior safety Earnest Thomas. The strongest unit will be the linebacking corps, consisting of sophomore middle linebacker Mason Monheim, who led the Illini in tackles last season with 86. Senior Jonathan Brown will also be back on the weak side after recording 59 tackles and seven tackles for loss before injuring himself at Ohio State in early November.
Illinois opens with FCS-Southern Illinois, but it may be all down hill after that. The next two weeks they get Cincinnati at home and Washington in Chicago. The non-conference schedule does not set up nicely and four games in a row against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State will be grueling. Three non-conference wins and one conference win could be a stretch for the Illini. Beckman’s seat may start getting pretty hot after year two.
Michigan vs Ohio State in 2012.
The Game: Part II just one week later in Indianapolis. One team will be seeking revenge after losing to the other a week before. The Buckeyes could be playing for a birth to the BCS National Championship game and Michigan will be playing for their first Big Ten Conference title since 2004 and a trip to the Rose Bowl. This will also be Braxton Miller’s last push for Heisman trophy votes. An upset victory for Brady Hoke’s group would be a boost for the program, but it will be hard to matchup two weeks in a row against the Buckeyes.