Big Ten Football: 10 Bold Predictions for the 2011 Season
It is the little, unexpected things that make a football season and a football game interesting. In fact, it could be argued it is the little, unexpected things that really differentiate the college game from the pro game.
After all, would the Michigan State fake field goal against Notre Dame have happened in the NFL? Would Denard Robinson have been able to accumulate his early season Tecmo Bowl numbers in the NFL?
In any event, I am not going to predict that Indiana will win the Big Ten East, or that whoever starts for Terrelle Pryor will be so good that Pryor will find himself benched when he returns from suspension.
I will keep my "bold" predictions within the realm of reality.
Of course, within that realm, anything could happen. Nine months from now, we'll find out if I am correct.
The Winner Of The Western Division...
...will have three conference losses. Moreover, it will be a three-way tie that will be decided by some legal mumbo-jumbo.
When you look at the six teams in the Western Division, the first team that pops out is Michigan, the winningest college football program of all time. They have 10 returning offensive starters and eight on defense.
Then you remember that their 2010 defense played like they were scared to tackle, their kicking game was no less than laughable, and for the third year in a row, they had the worst turnover margin in the conference.
Add to that a new coach in Brady Hoke. He may very well turn the ship around, but he will have to fix all of the aforementioned problems, and work with a quarterback who is more suited to playing slot receiver in his pro-style offense.
Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa all have some solid returning players, but none of them have more than 13 total returning starters.
Then there is Northwestern. They return nine and seven, respectively, but does the-little-engine-that-could really have the talent to best Michigan, MSU, Nebraska and Iowa? Maybe one or two, but all of them?
Finally, there is Minnesota. The Gophers are probably not championship material, but with a new coach and the right players for that new coach's system, they could manage an upset or two.
In short, when one looks at the Western Division, a single word screams out, and that word is parity. There is not one team that is heads-and-tails above the others. On the other hand, there is also not one team that is really "bad."
Consequently, it seems likely that the battle for the inaugural Big Ten West crown will be a war of attrition. Last team left standing wins.
The Penn State Pass Rush...
...will be amongst the top three in the conference.
That might not seem like that notable a "prediction," but consider the PSU pass rush of 2010. It ranked third-to-last in the conference with 17 sacks.
Then consider that between 2005-2009, the Nittany Lion pass rush averaged 39.4 sacks per year.
Finally, consider that the 2010 Penn State scoring defense was sixth in the conference, letting up 23.7 points per game. That is the worst PSU defense—statistically speaking—since 2001.
Needless to say, pass rush, or lack thereof, had a considerable amount to do with that. Of course, the drop off wasn't that surprising given that Penn State only had five returning defensive starters in 2010.
In 2011, the Nits return their entire defensive line and their entire secondary. Among the linemen, DT Devon Still is a likely all-conference player and the secondary should be amongst the best in the Big Ten.
I don't know if they'll manage 40 sacks next season, but it is safe to expect a major improvement.
On Opening Day, The Starting Quarterback For Ohio State Will Be...
...a true freshman.
Specifically, it will be Braxton Miller, who graduated early from high school in order to participate in spring practice.
He will have this opportunity due to Tattoo-gate, and Terrelle Pryor's subsequent five-game suspension.
This is despite the fact that OSU has three scholarship quarterbacks who have spent at least one year on campus, and two who have taken real-time snaps.
The first is 25-year old, fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman, who has been No. 2 behind Pryor for two full seasons. There is also third-year sophomore Kenny Guiton and redshirt freshman Taylor Graham.
The problem—at least for Bauserman, Guiton and Graham—is that the current offense is specifically fashioned for Pryor's skill set. It takes an athletically gifted quarterback who can run out of the read option.
If Jim Tressel puts a different type of quarterback in Pryor's place, that could cause considerable continuity problems when Pryor returns. Yes, a team has to adjust based on what type of talent it has, but a team cannot recalibrate game-by-game.
With that in mind, Bauserman and Graham are strictly pocket quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Guiton could conceivably fit into Pryor's offense, but he is nowhere near the athlete Pryor is.
On the other hand, Miller is not as big as Pryor, but he is the same level athlete. Moreover, he is a much more polished passer than Pryor was coming out of high school.
With Miller under center, the transition after five games should be relatively smooth. Yes, it might make for some early bumps in the road, but in the long run, it would be for the best.
The Iowa Offense...
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...will have a more productive 2011 than 2010. This will be despite the fact that it lost its all-time leading receiver (in both yards and receptions), its top rusher of the last two seasons and its starting quarterback of the last three seasons.
The reason for this productivity lies with the offensive line.
When one looks at the Hawkeyes' statistically most successful O's under Kirk Ferentz, one looks at 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2008.
In 2001, Iowa had to replace their all-time leader in receptions in Kevin Kasper. In 2002, the Hawks had a new quarterback, one new receiver and a new running back.
In 2005, Iowa had a new running back. Finally, in 2008, the Hawks had a new quarterback and a new running back.
Nevertheless, all of these units did have one thing in common: they all returned a lot of experience on the offensive line.
The 2001 and 2002 group returned all of their linemen. The 2005 group returned three, as well as one Juco recruit that is currently starting in the NFL. The 2008 group returned five experienced linemen.
In 2011, the Iowa offensive line will return five players with starting experience. Couple that with a sophomore running back that seems born to play in the Big Ten, and you've got a recipe for rushing success.
And when Iowa has success on the ground—generally via a strong, experienced offensive line—that means a successful Hawkeye offense.
When Dan Herron Returns From Suspension...
...he will split carries more or less evenly with Jamaal Berry.
Herron will miss the first five games due to the aforementioned Tattoo-gate. Moreover, due to quarterback Terrelle Pryor also missing the first five games, Jim Tressel will probably lean heavily on his running game.
That running game should fall on the back of sophomore Jamaal Berry, who was a highly sought recruit, as the No. 8 back in the country in 2009.
Last season, in limited play, Berry ran for 266 yards on 32 carries. Meanwhile, as the starter, Herron ran for 1,155 yards and 16 touchdowns on 216 carries.
By the time Herron gets back, Berry should have at least 600 yards on the ground and all the momentum in the world.
On the other hand, Herron will probably be hungry to get on the field, but also a little rusty.
Moreover, while Herron is a good, solid back, Berry is simply more talented, and inherent talent goes a long way at the running back position.
In the end, Herron will get worked back into the rotation, but when it's all said and done, he will probably find himself sharing carries with Berry.
Without Mikel Leshoure in The Illinois Backfield...
...sophomore quarterback Nathan Sheelhaase will struggle.
Last season, in Sheelhaase's first season as a starter, he had the luxury of sharing the backfield with Leshoure and his 1,706 yards rushing. In effect, he had a very productive, efficient season for a first-year starter.
This season, with Leshoure in an NFL-city-near-you, Sheelhaase's likely running mate will be senior Jason Ford.
Ford is a solid back, but he is nowhere near the talent that Leshoure was. In fact, as Leshoure's back up last season, Ford averaged 1.2 yards per carry less than the featured back. That was with the same offensive line, in the same offense and ultimately working against a D that had been softened up by Leshoure.
On top of that, there is Ron Zook's history of developing quarterbacks that seem to peak early in their careers.
First of all, there is Juice Williams. In 2006, Williams started as a true frosh, and he was terrible. He got much better in his sophomore year and led the Illini to the Rose Bowl. Then, for the remainder of his career, he seemed to stagnate.
It was much the same in Florida with Chris Leak. He started his first year on campus and did fairly well. Then, he had a sophomore slump, after which Zook was fired. Enter Urban Meyer and two years later, Leak was the quarterback of the national champions.
Is it fair to assume the same will become of Sheelhaase?
Maybe not, but there is no getting around the fact that the weight of the entire offense will rest squarely on his shoulders. My guess is that he will crumble a bit.
The Quarterback With The Most Rushing Yards Will Be...
...MarQueis Gray of Minnesota.
This is particularly remarkable when you consider the probable starting quarterbacks of next season's Big Ten.
There is Nathan Sheelhaase of Illinois (859 yards rushing last season), Denard Robinson of Michigan (1,702 yards), Dan Persa of Northwestern (519 yards), Terrelle Pryor of Ohio State (754 yards), Rob Henry of Purdue (547 yards) and Taylor Martinez of Nebraska (965 yards).
As regards the above quarterbacks, it goes without saying I think Robinson would easily outgain Gray if he were still in Rich Rodriguez's offense. But he's not, and while I think Brady Hoke will tweak his O to take advantage of Robinson's talents, there is no way he will allow his quarterback to rush anywhere near 25-30 times per game.
Sheelhaase will be keyed upon, as previously mentioned. Pryor will miss five games. The greatest strength of Persa's game lies more with his arm than his feet. As for Henry, it remains to be seen if he will even be starting next season.
That leaves Martinez. He will get his yards, but the Nebraska offensive line will be doing quite a bit of reshuffling this year. Moreover, the Huskers don't have any receivers that opponents will be forced to respect. This will allow teams to load up the box against Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead.
Finally, Martinez picked up 758 of last season's yards in his first six games. His opponents in those games were: Western Kentucky, Idaho, Washington, South Dakota State (FCS), Kansas State and Texas.
He won't have a schedule that soft this season.
On the other hand, Gray is a very good rusher. He also will have one of the best receivers in the conference in Da'Jon McKnight to keep the opposing D's honest.
On top of that, at 230 pounds, he has the build to take the pounding of a rushing quarterback considerably more than most of the aforementioned signal callers.
Outside of an early date against Southern Cal, Minnesota won't face any of top defenses until late October. That will allow time for growth and cohesion (and inflated stats).
Finally, new Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill's offense is tailor-made for a fleet-footed quarterback. Last season with Northern Illinois, his quarterback Chandler Harnish rushed for 836 yards on 137 carries.
Of course, Harnish also completed almost 65 percent of his passes, and this is an area that Gray has had trouble with. However, he will have all of spring and summer to figure that out. If he becomes even an adequate passer, look for him to pick up plenty of yardage on the ground.
A Michigan Running Back...
...will rush for 1,000 yards for the first time since 2007.
I previously said that Denard Robinson will not come anywhere near his 2011 rushing totals.
Even in Rodriguez's scheme, having your 193-pound quarterback run 25-30 times per game is unsustainable, and it leads, and led, to a worn down, oft-injured quarterback.
However, Brady Hoke will look to establish a rushing game in his more traditional offense, via his running back.
Last season, his top rusher at San Diego State—Ronnie Hilman—rushed for 1,532 yards. In 2008, his top rusher at Ball State—MiQuale Lewis—rushed for 1,736 yards.
As for the Wolverines, though Denard Robinson will have a substantially lighter burden to carry in the rushing game, he is still extremely dangerous and teams will have to respect that.
Furthermore, though he will never be a great passing quarterback, he will have arguably the most skilled group of receivers in the conference at his disposal. That will force teams to respect the Wolverines' passing game.
Finally, and most importantly, UM will return four offensive linemen with experience. They will miss guard Stephen Schilling, but center David Molk is all-conference and left tackle Taylor Lewan is a budding star.
If the linemen can make the adjustment to the new scheme, this should be one of the best positional groups in the conference.
As for the running backs, junior Vincent Smith and sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint look to be the most promising. Moreover, senior journeyman Michael Shaw will be waiting in the wings.
Toussaint missed much of last year with injuries while Smith was only nine months removed from a torn ACL. Put simply, neither of them were 100 percent, and both will be much stronger in 2011.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers...
...will find themselves on the losing end of a few bad calls and at least two, if not more, close games.
This prediction has nothing to do with stats. It has to do with psychological consistencies and a knowledge of the Big Ten's past.
Specifically, one needs look no farther than when Penn State joined the Big Ten (in football) in 1993. I am not going to tell the entire story, as the PSU blog, Blackshoediaries.com, does an outstanding job in detailing it.
Nevertheless, I will say that the conference did not make the Nits feel welcome. In fact, it could be argued that they are still treated like the red-headed stepchild.
Until now, that is, as there is a new red-headed stepchild on the block, and that institution is called the University of Nebraska.
Nebraska felt the first bit of Big Ten hazing when the conference passed out the 2011 schedules. The Huskers will miss Indiana, Purdue and Illinois; arguably the three worst teams in the Eastern conference.
Of course, that means they will be facing Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin, arguably the three best teams.
Their roadies will be at Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State.
Outside of Minnesota, those are unarguably three of the top five most intimidating road games in the Big Ten, along with Iowa and OSU.
Frankly, I'm surprised the Big Ten gave them the Minnesota road game instead of having them travel to Kinnick Stadium.
At the very least, I'm surprised they got Wisconsin and Minnesota in October, as Madison and Minneapolis can be brutal weather in November for a team that isn't used to it.
Regardless, I think one can state unequivocally that the Huskers' schedule is not just an unfortunate coincidence.
The Big Ten intended for them to get the toughest schedule in the conference, and I don't think that will be the end to the conference's harsh welcome.
One way or the other, expect head coach Bo Pelini to blow a gasket or two over the course of 2011.
Jim Delany and The Big Ten Brass...
...will stubbornly refuse to change their new, amateurish logo and the idiotic, and frankly embarrassing division names of "Leaders" and "Legends."
This is despite the fact that even Delany himself admits that anybody that isn't into Taylor Swift and the Twilight series has no use for this teal, Disney-esque garbage.
Nevertheless, I will just as stubbornly refuse to refer to the divisions as anything but "East" and "West."
And I absolutely will not buy any gear with that Computer Design 101-looking logo on it. Especially when one considers that there are a host of other quite appealing options out there.
I'm sure it's no skin off Delany's back, but we all have to have our little victories.