Big Ten Football: Quick Hits 2011 Preview
Spring practices are in full swing around the league as teams begin working toward their 2011 goals and fans try to get a grasp on what to expect.
At this point of the year, most everything is a matter of speculation. We know who is retuning from a year ago and we know who was brought in via the recruiting trail. However, we don't really know what injuries might crop up, who might step in and unseat a projected starter or what events might take place between now and kickoff.
With that in mind, let's just take a quick glance at the teams and what "might" be expected, based on what little we really know. We'll save the in-depth stuff for closer to August and leave the ranking out of it. Still, it won't hurt to toss a little prognostication into it for fun.
Division: Leaders (East)
2010 Record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)
Positives: The Hoosiers bring back RB Darius Willis and WR Damarlo Belcher. Those two represent a decent run game and a dangerous pass attack.
If the O-line can be even decent, the offense should be able to move the ball and put some points on the board.
Kevin Wilson is pouring new attitude into a team that sorely needed something to lift their spirits. According to Fox Sports' Inside Slant, Wilson has got the team expecting more of themselves, both on and off the field. Don't underestimate what an affect a simple change of attitude can make.
Negatives: Losing Ben Chappell is tough, but unavoidable. He was the undisputed field general of the team and his experience and leadership will be sorely missed.
Losing Tandon Doss is unfortunate, though. Doss would have been a senior this coming year, but chose to bolt for the NFL rather than hang around to see what might happen in Bloomington.
While Belcher is a solid receiver, having Doss opposite him would have really presented an offensive threat that defenses would have had to respect. Until someone else steps up and proves they're a real threat, defenses can key heavily on Belcher and whoever is under center.
The Schedule: Could be worse, but could also be much better.
The OOC portion of the schedule isn't terrible, but don't overlook Virginia and both Ball State and North Texas can be tricky if the Hoosiers come in with the wrong frame of mind.
The conference portion definitely isn't the easiest in the world. The Hoosiers get Penn State and Illinois at home, but play Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State all on the road. That's the three conference co-champions plus a team that tied for fourth (in overall wins) all away from friendly confines.
Needs for Spring: The quarterback situation needs to be figured out fairly quickly. It can be entertaining to watch a QB battle unfold on the field, but it's not the best situation for the team. The offense needs to get into a rhythm and that happens best when they've settled on one signal caller and given him enough time to work with the first string players.
The defense also has to get much, much better. The Hoosiers were too slow at getting to the ball and didn't wrap up well on their tackles last year. With the offense in something of a transition, the defense needs to step up and help provide good field position for the offense to work with and not let them get buried in a hole.
Best-Guess Prediction for 2011: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)
It won't look like much of an improvement over a year ago, but blame that on the schedule more than anything.
Look, this team is in transition. I firmly believe that Wilson was a great hire and that he'll make the Hoosiers relevant again...eventually. It takes time to rebuild a system that has been as broken as Indiana's has been and losing big players like Chappell and Doss (as well as RB Trea Burgess) doesn't make that transition easy.
The offense won't likely be as explosive as it was a year ago, but the defense should be better. It'll somewhat even out. Those tough road matches will hurt, but look for Indiana to at least be competitive in most of their games. Just don't expect them to win a lot of them.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Division: Legends (West)
2010 Record: 3-9 (2-6 Big Ten)
Positives: Welcome Jerry Kill to Gopher football. Kill has proven to be successful at virtually all of his previous football stops. His last stop--Northern Illinois--stands out as an exciting bit of evidence toward his ability.
If he can take the Huskies to an 11-3 record (8-1 in MAC), what can he do with the resources at Minnesota?
MarQueis Gray is a special talent. As the new QB, Gray will have an opportunity to make an instant impact. As the most athletic player on the field, he'll be a big threat to deal with.
Da'Jon McKnight comes back again after a very nice junior season. He'll provide a solid target if/when Gray does decide to launch the ball.
Negatives: Adam Weber might not be so easy to replace as just tossing Gray under center.
I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't a terribly big fan of Weber. It appeared that his best year(s) was when he had WR Erik Decker to throw to, and I questioned how much of Weber's performance stats were the result of Decker just being a fantastic receiver.
However, Weber was under center for four years and had seen Minny's ups and downs. Regardless of Gray's athletic ability, you can't replace that kind of experience just like that. Expect some growing pains from Gray, even though he's played the position before.
The defense loses S Kyle Theret. A unit that struggled mightily all year in 2010 can ill afford to give up the instincts and attitude that Theret brought to the table.
The Schedule: Should help them a little.
The OOC schedule isn't terribly bad. Yes, there's a nasty trip to Southern California to start the year, but the rest of the slate is very winnable. USC can prepare the Gophers for the conference schedule better than anyone else on the list.
The Gophers miss both Ohio State and Penn State, which is a pretty good break. They do have road dates at Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern, but get Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois at home.
Needs for Spring: MarQueis Gray needs to work hard on his passing. He's a mobile QB, but everyone knows how dangerous he is on his feet. He's got to show he can burn defenses with his arm as well.
Without Tandon Doss, that won't be easy. As mentioned above, Damarlo Belcher is a quality receiver, but if no one else really steps up, he'll be the only one. You just can't run an effective pass attack with one good receiver and a mobile quarterback. Unless another Erik Decker-type player emerges, it just doesn't work that well.
The defense has to figure out how to stop the run. Last year, they finished dead last in the conference in that category. The Big Ten is still largely an old-school conference with a solid emphasis on the run game. Even the hybrid offenses boast quality runners that bolster their pass attacks.
If they can't step up and shut down the run, their defense is going to get worn down time and again as they get run over and around.
Kill has to implement a winning attitude. This team has only won eight conference games in the last three years and that breeds a losing attitude. He has to turn that around and teach the team to celebrate the improvements that will ultimately lead to more victories.
Best-Guess Prediction for 2011: 4-8 (1-7 Big Ten)
As with Indiana, don't expect a whole lot out of Minnesota right away. They've got a lot of issues to work through and a new staff to adjust to.
They should enter the conference schedule with no more than one loss, but things could get really nasty after that. Michigan should be better than at any point in the Rich Rod era, Michigan State won't take too big of a step back, Iowa should never have lost to the Gophers a year ago and virtually everyone else has enough talent returning to potentially knock the Gophers around.
That's not to say there won't be improvement. There will be. It just won't show up on the record books.
Division: Legends (West)
2010 Record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)
Positives: Pat Fitzgerald always seems to put something together to get his team bowl eligible. They've yet to break that bowl winless streak that dates back to the late 1940's, but at least they're able to give it the ol' college try.
QB Dan Persa was the heart and soul of this team a year ago and he should be healthy enough to resume that position after rupturing his Achilles in the Iowa game last year.
RB Mike Trumpy also comes back from a "decent" season and looks good to add a little depth to the Wildcat attack.
WR's Jeremy Ebert and Demetrius Fields will help provide some balance to the offense as well. That is, if the line does its job.
Bringing Vince Browne back is big plus for the defensive line and having Brian Peters and Jordan Mabin back in the secondary is important.
Negatives: Losing Nate Williams and Corbin Bryant from the defense isn't great. Adding Quentin Davie to that list makes it outright bad.
Losing Sidney Stewart from the receivers corps doesn't help the offense any.
This is a team that just doesn't recruit very well. Their admission standards and program size makes recruiting difficult, but it's not helping their on-field endeavors. The Wildcats are perpetually one key injury away from watching their season come apart at the seams. The timing of said injury can make the difference between bowl eligibility and staying home for Christmas/New Year's.
The Schedule: Hurts more than it may appear.
Missing Ohio State and Wisconsin is a big boost. Getting Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State at home is also a plus.
On the flip side, they travel to Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska.
Out-of-conference, the Wildcats also start the year on the road at Boston College, which won't be easy regardless of how their record looked in 2010 (7-6), get a layup against Eastern Illinois, but go back on the road to take on an Army team that also boasted a winning record (7-6) a year ago.
It might look deceptively easy, but Northwestern will have their share of difficult challenges in front of them.
Needs for Spring: The Wildcats were ninth in the conference against the run and tenth against the pass a year ago. This defense has to figure out how to do something well or their back will be pinned against the wall even worse than it already is.
Dan Persa needs to get the passing game clicking and work on the timing with his available receivers. Mike Trumpy may not be up to Montee Ball standards, but he's good enough to present a respectable run game (and compliment to Persa's run ability). There just needs to be a bit more balance to the offense than we've seen.
Persa can't take the entire offensive load on his shoulders. He might be athletically capable of doing just that, but Northwestern can't afford for him to take a beating.
Best-Guess 2011 Prediction: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
Yes, the Wildcats may well take a step backward, despite the return of Dan Persa and Mike Trumpy. Boston College and Army on the road is a tough duo to take on in only the first three games. The rest of the OOC schedule is completely winnable.
The Wildcats can get Iowa and Indiana even though they're both on the road and there's no reason they can't take down Minnesota at home. However, the rest of the Big Ten schedule is a toss-up at best.
Michigan should be better, Illinois should be better, Penn State should be better, Nebraska is a killer road match and Michigan State probably won't drop off enough to be really excited about a win there. Sure, Northwestern could pull out one or two of those and get back to another bowl. At the same time, they could just as easily lose to Iowa and neither Jerry Kill nor Kevin Williams will be surprised by anything Northwestern brings to the table.
They've had a great run of three straight bowl appearances, but I'm not confident in predicting that streak to continue into a fourth. Things are looking awfully tough this year and Northwestern just doesn't have enough depth and balance (or quality playmakers) to comfortably expect another winning season.
Division: Leaders (East)
2010 Record: 4-8 (2-6 Big Ten)
Positives: Between Robert Marve and Rob Henry, Purdue has a couple of interesting and talented quarterbacks. Henry is less a QB than he is a running back, but he provides the kind of spark that is tough to account for. Marve is a better passer, but isn't as good on his feet.
Put the two together and Purdue might just have a very dangerous quarterback tandum. If they choose not to go that route though, having Marve healthy is a big boost.
Getting Ralph Bolden back could end up being huge. He can be the bang to Henry's flash that keeps the Boilers' run game relevant.
Gerald Gooden could become the next star for the D-line. Joe Holland and Chris Carlino could actually make a very solid duo at LB and Kawann Short should be even better at corner.
The move of Al Terek McBurse to receiver could be a big boost for a crew that is terrifyingly thin this year.
Negatives: How on earth do you replace a player like DE Ryan Kerrigan? Kerrigan was a once-in-a-decade kind of player who will see his next action on Sundays...eventually. Purdue just doesn't come up with players like him very often.
WR Keith Smith was denied a sixth year after tearing ligaments in his knee early last season, joining Cortez Smith and Kyle Adams in departing the Boilermakers.
Two of the top three running backs (Dan Dierking and Kieth Carlos) from a year ago's surprisingly good rush attack are gone.
Along with Kerrigan, Jason Werner takes his 9.5 tackles-for-loss and departs.
That's a lot of talent missing from a team that struggles to stay out of the cellar of the conference in the recruiting wars.
The Schedule: Could be tough.
Missing Michigan State and Nebraska is great. Those are a couple of tough opponents they won't have to deal with.
However, having to go on the road to face Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin isn't great. What's more, the Boilers have Penn State, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa all on consecutive weeks.
Sure, sure, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan are all beatable, but they're not well-placed on the schedule and they all could potentially be very tough.
The OOC schedule is pretty decent with Middle Tennessee opening the season, followed by a road trip to Rice and a home date against Southeast Missouri State. Following those up with a home date against Notre Dame won't be easy, but will go a long way toward preparing the team for conference rigors and give them a good feel for where they really are as a program.
Needs for Spring: The Boilers have obviously got to find some some way to try and minimize the loss of Kerrigan on the defensive line. Their schedule has plenty of talented offensive weapons coming at them. They need someone who can get pressure into the backfield and disrupt plays as well as be a solid force against the run.
Right now, Purdue needs to keep identifying talent that can help provide depth to the roster. Last year was supposed to be something of a coming-out party for a program heading on the way up the hill toward conference relevance.
Injuries turned it into another fairly dismal season and showcased once again how thin the team is. It's inevitable that injuries will happen. Purdue has to find people who are able to step in and keep the production from dropping.
The pass game has to pick it up as well. For years, the Boilermakers have been a pass-heavy team that utilized the run more as a means of keeping defenses honest than as a true threat. Last year, they turned the tables and became a run-heavy team that used the pass to back off defenders.
This year, they've got to put the two together and finally come up with a balanced offense that keeps defenses on their toes from the very beginning.
Best-Guess 2011 Prediction: 5-7 (2-6 Big Ten)
They can beat just about anyone on the schedule. They've proved that a number of times in the past. However, they can also lose to pretty much anyone on the schedule.
If they can pick up a win somewhere between Penn State, Illinois and Michigan, they might be able to avoid a full-on collapse and keep enough momentum to make this prediction too low--maybe by as many as two games.
However, if they can't sustain the momentum picked up during the early portion of the season, look for them to put up some pretty good performances, but fall short. Take that times about nine.
By the time they get down to Iowa and Indiana, they may be so beaten down that they can't pull it back together.
The best chance for this team to get a bowl victory may have been last year and that passed them by.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Division: Leaders (East)
2010 Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Positives: Nathan Scheelhaase has gotten some invaluable experience and should be more prepared to lead the Illini attack this year. He's a dual-threat quarterback that keeps opponents on their toes.
Jason Ford should be ready to carry the rush load, which won't be too bad considering Scheelhaase's ability to carry his share as well.
A.J. Jenkins returns as last-year's team leader in receptions. Along with him, sophomore Evan Wilson returns at tight end.
Ron Zook seems to have found the right assistants in Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning. The offense wasn't explosive, but it was serviceable and the defense took major strides forward last year. Now that those two are back again, expect the players to benefit from the continuity and build on that comfort.
Negatives: How about this for a list of departing stars? Mikel Leshoure, Martez Wilson, Corey Liuget, Jarred Fayson, Eddie McGee, Nate Bussey and Travon Bellamy (among others).
There are a couple of all-conference selections in there and all of them were solid contributors to the Illini success of 2010.
Every team has a certain amount of turnover every year and it's not uncommon to see juniors forgo their senior season. However, the Illini lose three in Leshoure, Wilson and Liuget. I don't care how improved the team may be, that hurts.
Scheelhaase improved markedly last year, but let's not forget that he's still just a sophomore. He has exactly one year of starting experience behind him. That's better than having none at all, but there will still be growing pains.
How much room do the Illini have for error?
The Schedule: I like this schedule. Check that. I love this schedule for Illinois.
The OOC portion starts out easy enough with Arkansas State, who provides a decent name, but are coming off a 4-8 season last year. It continues through South Dakota State.
The next two games are against Arizona State and Western Michigan. The Sun Devils finished last year at 6-6, as did the Broncos. Both teams will provide competition that can help prepare the Illini for the conference schedule without being so tough that they'll get derailed before the "real season" even starts.
The conference portion starts out against Northwestern, followed by a road trip to Indiana. Both are winnable, yet again, both could be just tough enough to keep Illinois focused and on their toes.
Next up is a home date against Ohio State (who will have their suspended players back by this point). Then it lightens up again somewhat, with a road trip to Purdue.
Getting Penn State on the road isn't great, but bringing the Wolverines to Champaign is nice. Getting to stay home against Wisconsin is nice also and finishing on the road at Minnesota is a nice way to end the season.
There's a nice balance of tough competition with very winnable opponents and the spread between those tough opponents affords Illinois the chance to recoup a little before heading back into the heat of battle.
Missing Michigan State and Nebraska helps but skipping Iowa doesn't necessarily benefit them much.
Needs for Spring: Scheelhaase still needs some work, but the backfield behind him really has to gel. Without Leshoure, the running game has to find a new hero. Ford is experienced and has been a quality back for Illinois, but can he be an every-down back? He needs to be.
The defense has to keep moving forward. It won't be easy with the losses they've sustained, but a good defense goes farther than a decent offense in this league. The secondary especially, needs to find something to build around this fall.
The team needs to embrace their success from a year ago, but not settle on it. It has to be a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Continued success won't come easily, but they have to see how far they came and commit to taking it further.
Best-Guess 2011 Prediction: 8-4 (4-4 Big Ten)
Could they finish better? They sure could. In fact, some of it has less to do with them than it does with others. For example: just how good will Michigan be this year?
Will Brady Hoke's crew help them break the bubble and get back into the upper echelon of the conference, or will that take another year? Will Penn State improve or will they look a lot like they did in 2010?
While Illinois holds their own fate in their hands, there's only so much improvement they can expect given the losses of certain players. If these other teams improve even marginally over last year, Illinois may still be just a half-step behind. If they don't, then things could get really exciting for Illini fans.
There's no one game on the schedule that the Illini can't win, but there are more than a couple they could easily lose. I'd put the ceiling at 10-2 and the basement as low as 7-5. To me, 8-4 is realistic with 9-3 as a definite possibility.
One thing is certain, it will be a dog fight to the end.
Division: Legends (West)
2010 Record: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
Positives: Believe it or not, there are some exciting positives in Iowa City this year.
Marcus Coker demonstrated that he's exactly the kind of running back that can carry Iowa's fortunes on his tough shoulders. Not only did he carry for 219 yards against Missouri in the Insight Bowl, but he averaged 7.78 yards-per-carry against Ohio State.
Marvin McNutt was last year's leading receiver and comes back for another go-round. The offensive line should be good with James Ferentz, Adam Gettis and Riley Reiff as experienced anchors.
All of that means that the offense at least has a fighting chance.
Defensively, Micah Hyde and Shaun Prater help spark the secondary, along with Jordan Bernstein. Where exactly they'll all play might still be a work in progress (between CB and S), but all three are quality pass defenders.
The linebacker corps keeps Tyler Nielsen and brings back James Morris, which should almost automatically make it better than last year.
Negatives: Sure, James Vandenberg looked really good against Ohio State in 2009, but what else has he done? I didn't think so.
Ricky Stanzi graduated and left a gaping hole at QB that almost has to take a step back.
All-time leading receiver, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos is gone. So too is RB's Adam Robinson and Jewel Hampton. So too is TE Allen Reisner.
There's a lot of production gone in those names.
Defensively, the line appears all-but decimated. Adrian Clayborn is gone and took Karl Klug and Christian Ballard with him.
Iowa's safeties (Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood) were some of the best they ever had. Greenwood graduated and Sash left early for the NFL.
On paper at least, things don't look good for the Hawks with that kind of talent gone.
The Schedule: I love this schedule too.
Out of conference, Iowa takes on Tennessee Tech, Iowa State, Pitt and Lousiana-Monroe. Of those four, only Pitt represents a truly difficult opponent (8-5 last year) and they've got a new coach taking the reigns there.
Right away, the conference schedule starts with a bang when the Hawks travel to Happy Valley to take on Penn State. They follow that up with home dates again Northwestern and Indiana.
They go back on the road against Minnesota, but then get to bring Michigan into the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium. Michigan State comes to call the following week.
The Hawks end on the road at Purdue and Nebraska.
The truly strong teams are spread out nicely. The rotation between home and away games fit nicely.
Getting Penn State and Nebraska on the road isn't great, but it's a small price to pay for missing Ohio State and Wisconsin. Skipping Illinois might not be a bad thing either.
The potential is there, based almost solely on this schedule, for Iowa to achieve much more than many pundits are giving them credit for.
Needs for Spring: The offense is actually in pretty good shape. That is to say, it is as long as most of the parts stay healthy. The line should be good, Coker can carry the load and there's at least two decent receivers to toss to.
Certainly, Iowa will want to work pretty hard with Vandenberg to bring him up to speed, but otherwise, they're in pretty good shape.
Identifying and clarifying the depth chart at running back is probably about the biggest concern there. The last couple of years has made it pretty clear how important quality depth can be.
Defensively, there needs to be a lot of work. A...lot...of...work.
The line should be decent, but the tackle positions really need to come together to keep the center of the line strong.
James Morris had something of a breakout year in 2010, but he really needs to bust it wide open in 2011 and bring Nielsen with him.
The rest of the secondary might end up being just as good as last year, but the entire unit needs to really come together early. There was so much talent lost from this defensive unit that the guys who are left will need to get down and dirty and help bring up the new guys.
Best-Guess 2011 Prediction: 8-4 (4-4 Big Ten)
Make no bones about this: Iowa can go either direction. 2010 was supposed to be a great season, but ended up as a merely "good" season.
This year "should" be a fairly good season based on the talent they have and the schedule they get to navigate. The potential is there for some really exciting things to happen.
However, there has been so much talent that graduated or departed early for the NFL that Iowa could also be fighting an uphill battle all season long.
As nice as that schedule may appear, it also is chalk full of teams that are perfectly capable of taking the Hawkeyes down.
Look for them to put together some exciting moments, grab an "upset" win or two, but also drop a game or two that they could have won.
Division: Legends (West)
2010 Record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)
Positives: Convincing Denard Robinson to come back was a big boost. He's going to have to learn the timing of a pro-style offense, but his sheer athleticism and dual-threat capabilities practically guarantee that this offense will pop.
Bringing Roy Roundtree back at receiver is another huge boost. With the new-old style coming to Ann Arbor, Roundtree will be a key part of the Wolverine attack.
DC Greg Mattison is a great addition to this team. If anyone can make that defense relevant again, Mattison can.
The biggest wild card in this ongoing experiment is new Head Coach, Brady Hoke. He does bring with him a history of success and he's got more at his disposal at Michigan than he's ever had as a head coach.
Negatives: Not to rain on the Brady Hoke love-fest, but just how high should the expectations be in the first year? He's not re-inventing the wheel here, so there's no need to spell doom and gloom. Success will come.
At the same time, his QB doesn't have a ton of experience in a pro-style system and there are subtle nuances that take more seasoned quarterbacks time to work out. Just look at Tim Tebow and the struggles he had throughout the combine and into his first year in the pros.
He will have to sell this team on his concept, re-structure the strength and conditioning system to build the kind of players he needs, and figure out who he has that can fulfill the team's needs effectively. Again, I'm not preaching doom and gloom; I'm just saying that maybe expectations need to be tempered with the knowledge that this is his first year putting together a different system. Keep it real.
Losing Jonas Mouton and James Rogers doesn't help the defensive efforts. Neither does losing Obi Ezeh and Greg Banks.
The Schedule: This could be a really interesting year.
The early schedule isn't bad. As per usual, the Wolverines will take on two of the "smaller" Michigan teams in Eastern and Western Michigan. Their other two OOC games come against Notre Dame and Hoke's former team, San Diego State.
All of those are winnable games. At the same time, Notre Dame is on the way back up and there should be some high drama in the SDSU game simply for the fact that Hoke will be facing a bunch of guys he coached just last year.
The conference schedule starts in the Big House against Minnesota, then the Wolverines go on the road to face Northwestern.
The first big conference test comes against in-state rival Michigan State at East Lansing. They get to come back home to face Purdue, but then go on the road to play Iowa in Iowa City.
Michigan stays on the road to take on Illinois, but then they face the real test.
Back home for the final stretch, Michigan has to take on Nebraska and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks.
The conference schedule has a great blend. It's not overly hard up front and sprinkles teams like Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois nicely throughout.
The end is killer, but by the time they get there, they may already have already exceeded last season's win total.
Spring Needs: Obviously, Denard Robinson needs to re-learn how to play under center. That will take some time, but Brady Hoke is no fool. He'll use Robinson's talents to his advantage and work out a system where Robinson is comfortable.
The main issue in my book is getting that defense locked down. A flashy, tough offense is great, but if you can't stop your opponents, it's a real crap shoot as to how it'll all turn out in the end. Just one error can spell doom.
What part of the defense needs work? All of it. From the line to the secondary, it all has to come together. With returning talent like Dex Jones and Paul Hazel (just to name two) there's great talent to work with.
Best-Guess 2011 Prediction: 8-4 (5-3 Big Ten)
You want to hear something crazy? That prediction could actually be way low.
Last year, Michigan stepped up by two games over the year before. It's not unrealistic to expect another two game bump with the talent they have returning. With the way the schedule lays out (and the infusion of Brady Hoke's system) you could bump that up another game.
However, I have to yet again, temper expectations a bit. The potential is there, to be sure. But don't count down teams like Notre Dame and don't count out the rest of the Big Ten.
Northwestern could be a trap game while the Wolverines are looking ahead to their showdown with Michigan State. Iowa might be trickier than expected. Illinois can't be overlooked and everyone knows that both Nebraska and Ohio State will be tough.
So, in fairness, until everything from spring and fall practices come together, let's play it a little safe. Michigan will be good and could very well challenge for the Legends Division title. But don't bank on that yet. There's still a lot of work to do and some tough competition ahead of them.
Michigan State Spartans
Division: Legends (West)
2010 Record: 11-1 (7-1 Big Ten)
Positives: Having Kirk Cousins back under center is huge. Cousins saw time in 2008 along with Brian Hoyer and split time again in 2009 with Keith Nichol. 2010 was the first year he was the one-and-only starter, but he has a truck load of experience, a solid arm and a good head on his shoulders.
Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell both averaged well over five yards per carry last year and return in 2011 as a dangerous tandem. Let's not forget that Larry Caper will be healthy and ready to challenge for his starting position back.
B.J. Cunningham, Keyshawn Martin and Keith Nichol will round out the offense nicely at receiver.
Negatives: A lot of attention has been paid to the fact that Greg Jones and Eric Gordon graduated. Those two losses are just short of being crushing blows. That's only the beginning, though.
Try this on for size:
The Spartans lose four of their top five tacklers. They also lose four of their top five in tackles-for-loss. Gone too are Marcus Hyde and Chris L. Rucker along with their five combined interceptions.
Jones and Gordon only play a part in all of that. Across the defensive board, the Spartans are losing a ton of talent and production.
The Schedule: Let me put it this way; if the Spartans come out of October without turning into a giant puddle of mud, it might be a miracle.
The season starts off easy enough with an OOC schedule that includes Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic and Central Michigan with a road trip to Notre Dame tossed in.
The conference portion starts out like a bad nightmare, though.
Starting off is a road trip to Ohio State. They'll catch a break that the "tattoo five" will still be serving the last week of their suspension (along with Head Coach Jim Tressel). That might be enough to help them get a win, but if that defense doesn't come together, will it be enough?
Immediately thereafter, the Spartans host their big/little (take you pick) brothers--Michigan. Right after that brew-ha-ha, they play host to Wisconsin.
As if all of that wasn't tough enough, they end October on the road to Lincoln to take on the Cornhuskers.
If they survive all of that, they come back home to face Minnesota, but then go back on the road to take on Iowa (who didn't buy into their national title hopes last year).
They end the season with a home date against Indiana followed by a road trip to Northwestern.
Look, I don't care how high the hopes are for this Spartan team. October is flat-out brutal. Virtually all of the toughest teams are lumped together and they're all up front, before the Spartans even get a chance to catch a breath.
This could either be one amazing season, or it could be a major letdown.
Needs for Spring: The offensive line has to be a major concern. Center, John Stipek, RT J'Michael Deane and LT D.J. Young are all gone. What's more, offensive line coach Dan Roushar has been promoted to Offensive Coordinator. So, the line is having to fill three key positions with a new coach trying to put it all together.
The defense should be obvious.
It helps that DE Will Gholston and Tyler Hoover are coming back and should be fantastic (both of them). That still doesn't address the rest of the defense.
The linebackers have to be priority number one. Losing Greg Jones is huge. Losing Eric Gordon is huge. Losing them both is...well...huge.
The rest of the secondary needs help. FS Trenton Robinson may be a god-send, but he's still just one man trying to fill at least two holes.
For Michigan State, it's going to have to be "next man in", but those next men have some very big shoes to fill.
Best-Guess 2011 Prediction: 8-4 (4-4 Big Ten)
You think I'm being harsh? That might be the case. Then again, it's possible I'm being a little generous.
They could come out of September looking very good. They might get past Ohio State to give the appearance that they're about to make a run at some big things.
But then, I'm really thinking that things just might take a bad turn (if that turn doesn't start against the Buckeyes).
Michigan will be better than during the Rich Rod era and will bring a ton of fire into this rivalry. If the Spartans do get by the Wolverines, they've got Wisconsin waiting in the wings. Don't expect the same results as a year ago.
Traveling to Nebraska won't be easy, to say the least.
November lightens up, somewhat. Minnesota might not be bad, but don't overlook Iowa just because they've suffered some losses too.
The rest of the schedule is winnable, but how much damage will have been done?
This is a team that could fly as high as 10-2, but could also fall as far as 7-5, depending on how good the O-line is and how well the defense comes together.
Until we see more from spring drills, I'm not confident giving them the nod. I look for them to take a step back, thanks to a brutal October and the lasting effects it may have.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Division: Leaders (East)
2010 Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Positives: The Lions have two experienced quarterbacks returning in Robert Bolden (we assume) and Matt McGloin. There's also solid talent fighting for a shot to be the lead signal caller.
Silas Redd averaged a nice 5.68 yards-per-carry in limited action last season and comes back ready to be the main man on the ground.
Derek Moye is a tremendous asset, providing the quarterback situation settles down enough to get a rhythm worked out.
The defense is young, but talented. Last year was something of a rebuilding year, but things are in place now for the Lions to be really tough.
Negatives: Quarterback controversies are entertaining, but they're rarely that beneficial to the overall system. At least, not in the short run. Not only does the eventual starting QB need to find a rhythm and work out their timing, the receivers and running backs do as well.
The whole system needs to be a well-oiled machine and it makes it difficult for that to happen when you're not really sure which parts you're going to be working with.
Silas Redd is a good runner (as is Stephfon Green), but losing Evan Royster still hurts a little. His production last year wasn't quite what was expected, but his opportunities were limited by comparison to years past.
Losing Brett Bracket and Graham Zug hurts some too. There's good talent waiting to step in, but these two, combined with Moye, were a fearsome threesome.
Ollie Ogbu, Chris Colasanti, Bani Gbadyu are all gone. Not only are they hard to pronounce, they're hard to replace.
The Schedule: Is comfortable up front, but gets really tough to close the season.
Certainly, facing Alabama in week two will be a shock after taking on Indiana State to open the season. The Crimson Tide could be back in the national title discussion this year, making for a nasty test right up front.
The rest of the OOC schedule is fine and Penn State should enter conference play no worse than 3-1.
The first part of the conference schedule isn't bad with a road trip to Indiana followed by home dates against Iowa and Purdue. That's followed up with another road trip to Northwestern.
The "home-stretch" of the schedule gets difficult, though.
A date with Illinois is followed up by a showdown with Nebraska. The good news is that both of those are at home, in white-out conditions.
The bad news is, as tough as those could potentially be, they're followed up with two road dates. The first is in Columbus to take on the Buckeyes and the season-ender is in Madison to face the Badgers.
Spring Needs: Not to beat a dead horse (as the saying goes), but the quarterback situation needs to be remedied quickly. Will Bolden resume as the Lions starter or will McGloin hold onto that place? What about Kevin Newsome? How about Paul Jones?
It needs to be figured out so the offense can get comfortable with the personnel they're going to field come September.
The offensive line needs work. The entire interior is rebuilding and, with a potential new QB calling the plays, there needs to be consistency and solid teamwork.
The defense just needs to break in the few new faces they have. It should be a strong suit again this year.
Best-Guess 2011 Prediction: 8-4 (5-3 Big Ten)
This is becoming an unintended theme.
I don't see Penn State getting by Alabama, even if it does take place in Beaver Stadium.
The conference portion could start out hot. This may well be the year that Joe Pa finally puts Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes to rest, but don't necessarily count on it either. That one's a toss-up that I hand to Penn State at the moment.
Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern should all be wins, but a couple of them could be closer-than-they'd-like.
Illinois is another toss-up, though playing at home helps.
The last three will make or break the season. Nebraska won't roll over for anyone, Ohio State will be in full swing by then and there could be a three-way dogfight for the Leaders Division when Penn State travels to Madison.
Until I see them in action, I'm not comfortable picking the Lions to win any of the last three. The fourth loss being 'Bama, it's not unthinkable that Penn State could also drop at least one to Iowa, Illinois or Northwestern.
That said, 8-4 could be the top end with a low end that could dip as low as 6-6. I don't think the Nittany Lions fall off though. They're bringing back too many weapons for me to gravitate toward a .500 record. Look for them to be players within their division, but not quite enough so to win it.
Division: Leaders (East)
2010 Record: 11-2 (7-1 Big Ten)
Positives: Welcome back James White and Montee Ball. While John Clay was the original face of the Badger rush attack, White and Ball exploded onto the scene and made the run game an opponent's nightmare. All three averaged over five yards per carry with White and Clay averaging over six.
Clay is gone, but getting White and Ball back will ensure that the ground game is once again ferocious.
Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis should make a solid receiving duo. Jacob Pedersen could be the next standout TE to wear the scarlet W.
Mike Taylor could be a star in the making at LB.
Negatives: Obviously, losing Scott Tolzien isn't something to celebrate as he had the second best passing percentage in the conference last year. Jon Budmayr will be good, but he lacks the experience Tolzien brought to the table.
The loss of J.J. Watt may be felt more than some Badger fans are willing to admit. Consider this: Watt racked up 20.5 tackles for loss last year. That's more than the next three players on the list combined.
Along with Watt, the Badger defense loses Blake Sorensen, Culmer St. Jean and Jay Valai. That's the top three tacklers from last year and one of the best defensive backs in the conference.
That outstanding offensive line that paved such a golden path for Clay, White and Ball is missing Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi and all-American John Moffitt. It'll be tough to find people who can sustain the level of production and leadership they brought to one of the most important units to the Badger attack.
TE Lance Kendricks and WR David Gilreath are both gone. That's two of the top three receivers from a year ago.
The Schedule: I'm not disappointed with this schedule. It'll be fun and slightly dangerous, but overall is pretty decent.
Oregon State and Northern Illinois shouldn't be looked at as total patsies. They're both very beatable, but shouldn't be taken too lightly either.
Starting the conference schedule against Nebraska isn't necessarily a great thing, but it's in Madison and could kick start the conference race on a high note.
The Badgers have to travel to East Lansing and Columbus to take on the Spartans and Buckeyes in late October.
They also have to play Illinois on the road in late-November and finish the season at home against Penn State.
Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota round out the conference schedule and two of the three are at home.
Spring Needs: The offensive line needs to be worked hard. Losing Carimi and Moffitt is a pretty big deal. Sure, there are some exciting young players that are hungry for a chance to shine, but you don't replace a couple all-Americans that easily.
The O-line paves the way for guys like White and Ball to put up the ridiculous stats they enjoyed a year ago and allow time for Budmayr to grow into his position. If the replacements aren't at least good, then Wisconsin could see a dramatic drop in offensive production.
Along with that, finding a way to replace J.J. Watt is going to be a high priority. In a strict-pro-style system, both the offense and defense lives or dies by the play at the line. Again, there are interesting (if not exciting) players that will get the chance to prove themselves, but Watt was something special. It will likely take more than one player to make up for what's lost there.
Budmayr needs a ton of reps. His action last season was incredibly limited last season (only 10 total attempts in three games), so he doesn't have a lot of real game experience to help him fill in for Scott Tolzien.
Best-Guess 2011 Prediction: 10-2 (6-2 Big Ten)
Yeah, Wisconsin has some big shoes they're going to have to fill and their losses will be felt. I'm betting though, that the offensive line will still be good enough to keep White and Ball chewing up yards. Maybe not as quickly and easily as they did last year, but they'll ground 'em out, nonetheless.
Budmayr will have some growing pains and the defense won't be quite as good as it was last year either. Still, Budmayr will have some quality targets, enough time to find them and the defense should be stiff enough to keep the Badgers fighting with the best of them.
What's more, looking at the schedule, who doesn't have some big holes to fill? Ohio State? Nebraska? They might be about the only ones, and even they will have some issues to work out.
Michigan State will have issues on defense that will open the door. Illinois is on their way up, but are they there yet? I don't think so, and they've lost some pretty big names of their own. Penn State could be trouble, but if the QB situation doesn't settle out effectively, their offense could sputter.
There are only two games that I feel really comfortable picking the Badgers to lose at this point--Nebraska and Ohio State.
Wisconsin could beat either (or both) of them, but they could also turn around and lose to the likes of Illinois and/or Penn State. This is a team that could continue from last year and put up another fantastic 11-win season, but they could also come away 8-4. The safest bet, prior to seeing how things will look post-spring, is a solid 10-win campaign.
Division: Legends (West)
2010 Record: 10-4 (6-3 Big XII)
Positives: Taylor Martinez is only a sophomore. He gained a ton of experience last season and should be ready to build on his 32 total touchdowns from last year.
Rex Burkhead is no Roy Helu Jr., but his 5.53 yards-per-carry should come back with him this year and provide a tremendous boost to this offense.
The receivers should be decent with Brandon Kinnie and TE Kyler Reed returning.
Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Baker Steinkuhler (among others) should lead a defense that was relatively young last year and will return a fair amount of talent and experience.
Negatives: Roy Helu Jr. is off (most likely) to the NFL. He's taking with him 1245 yards and 11 touchdowns. Burkhead is a solid running back, but he won't bring the same flash Helu did.
Niles Paul and Mike McNeill are both gone. Neither contributed a lot of points (one touchdown each), but Paul led the team in yards receiving and McNeill was a solid part of the Cornhusker attack.
Eric Hagg and DeJon Gomes have taken their eight combined interceptions and left the game, taking CB Prince Amukamara with them. Pierre Allen likewise is missing.
The Schedule: The conference portion of the schedule is just about as tough as it could get. The OOC portion is nothing to be concerned about.
There's the rematch with Washington, who the Huskers annihilated during the 2010 regular season, but lost to in the bowl. Then there's a road trip to Wyoming.
Despite the bowl gaffe, neither of these teams should give the Huskers too much concern. The rest of the OOC schedule (Chattanooga and Fresno State) is plenty easy enough for warm-ups.
The conference schedule starts right off with a road trip to Madison, followed by a home date with Ohio State. It doesn't get much tougher than that to kick things off.
A road trip to Minnesota will be something of a break before hosting Michigan State. Northwestern might be another quasi break before heading on the road to take on Penn State and Michigan.
The final game, at home against Iowa, isn't necessarily as easy as it may look on paper.
Heading on the road to face Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan is tough. Getting Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa in friendly confines is nice, though.
Spring Needs: This should largely be a fine-tuning process. While there have been some big losses and some changes on the coaching staff, there's no reason to rebuild any particular aspect of the team.
Bo Pelini should focus a little on getting the run game ironed out, and there does need to be a little clarification as to the depth at running back. Dontrayevous Robinson would have likely been Burkhead's backup, but has decided to transfer to Montana State.
Burkhead is the obvious first-string option, but who will step in behind him, and in what order?
The defense will have some questions to answer in the secondary with both safeties and a cornerback missing.
None of those are reason to believe that the Huskers will be sidetracked this season, though.
Best-Guess 2011 Prediction: 9-3 (5-3 Big Ten)
I'm sure there are those who think that's a low estimate. It might be.
When they play Ohio State, the Buckeyes will just be getting back their five suspended players and coach. Plus it's at home. Could the Huskers beat the Buckeyes? Certainly. They could potentially beat them even if the game were on the road and all of the players were there from the beginning.
Michigan State might be taking a bit of a step back with the losses they've sustained on defense. Wisconsin may not be as tough defensively as they were a year ago.
There's no one on this schedule that jumps out as a definite loss. So, theoretically, Nebraska could conceivably run the table.
Still, Ohio State is Ohio State. They've had tremendous recruiting classes and the staff knows what to do with that talent. They're not going to take as huge a step back as many might think.
Michigan State may have some holes to fill, but should have an offense that will give opponents fits. Wisconsin will have a tremendous rush attack and their defense should still be tough.
And don't overlook Iowa. Yeah, they're rebuilding at a lot of positions, but they thrive when people count them out and they tend to play to the level of their competition.
There are plenty of pitfalls along this tough road.
I expect Nebraska to make a real statement in the Big Ten and challenge immediately for the Legends Division and conference title. I just can't come out and predict amazing things with a schedule that tough, without getting to see how everything will come together in Lincoln and with no idea just how well they'll compete in their new conference.
A safe bet is a solid 9-3 season with the potential for more.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Division: Leaders (East)
2010 Record: 12-1 (7-1 Big Ten)
Positives: Terrell Pryor opted to hang around for his senior season and will lead this offense for another title run (after his suspension).
Dan Herron will also return (after the suspension) to lead the ground attack. DeVier Posey and TE Jake Stoneburner will keep pass defenses honest.
Nathan Williams and John Simon will have the opportunity to shine in a brighter spotlight than they have in the past.
The Negatives: Obviously, a bunch of the offensive weapons will be missing for the first five games. For the most part, that's not a problem. Having them gone for the showdown with Michigan State isn't optimal though.
Perhaps more damaging than that setback though, is the natural losses on defense.
Gone are linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan. Defensive backs Jermale Hines, Devon Torrence and Chimdi Chekwa. Just those four alone represent the top four tacklers from last year's Buckeye squad.
Add to that the losses of Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore from the defensive line as well as linebacker Tyler Moeller.
Ohio State loses seven of their top ten in tackles-for-loss and six of their top ten in tackles (including the top four).
The Schedule: The difficulty depends entirely on perception and how hard the Buckeyes reel from suspensions and losses.
Akron, Toledo and Colorado are no big deal for the Buckeyes. Even without their five suspended players and coach, they should be more than able to handle those teams.
The week three match at Miami (FL) suddenly looks even more interesting as it falls a full two weeks before the "tattoo five" and Tressel can return to action.
The conference schedule starts at home against Michigan State, whose offense could be a challenge for the Buckeye defense.
The suspended players come back the next week, but that week is on the road against Nebraska. It's not necessarily the most opportune opponent to break back in a group of contributors that haven't seen action since the bowl game in January.
Right after that, the Buckeyes are on the road again to take on a surging Illinois squad, then return home to face off with Wisconsin.
Things finally lighten a little as the Buckeyes play host to Indiana and then go back on the road to face Purdue.
The last two dates are at home against Penn State followed by a road date in "the Game" against Michigan.
If you think Ohio State is going to take a step back this season, then this schedule is fairly brutal. Playing Miami on the road isn't a plus with the suspended players missing the trip. Having Nebraska, Illinois and Michigan on the road isn't great either.
It's a good thing they get Michigan State, Wisconsin and Penn State in friendly confines, but the Michigan State game still falls during the suspensions and Wisconsin comes up so fast the Buckeyes will hardly have time to get their feet under them.
On the other hand, if you think Ohio State will merely toss in a new set of stars and keep rolling, then it really doesn't matter what the schedule looks like.
Needs for Spring: The offense needs to identify new stars and establish depth very quickly. Brandon Saine is no longer available (graduated) to hold down the run game until Herron's return.
Who will be the "replacement" quarterback? True freshman Braxton Miller has had his name thrown around. Could it be Joe Bauserman?
The defense is facing a fairly major overhaul. The losses (noted above) could be staggering to virtually any other team in the conference. Even for the Buckeyes, that's a ton of talent that has to be replaced.
It's going to be a very busy and interesting spring and summer for the Buckeyes.
Best-Guess 2011 Prediction: 9-3 (6-2 Big Ten)
Admittedly, this may be a little low. Ohio State does a fantastic job every year of simply moving the next superstar in when one graduates.
However, there are a LOT of missing pieces on defense this year. The five game suspension of players and coach don't hurt terribly, but could account for at least one (maybe two) loss(es) that might not have ordinarily happened.
The conference schedule isn't that easy. The road trips (less Purdue) are tough and the heaviest hitters in the conference hit them right up front. They won't have any time to get the suspended players back into the rotation comfortably.
The Buckeyes can beat any and every team on this schedule. Even with the suspensions, they should have the talent to win. But...should we expect it?
I don't think so. This is a time of turmoil in Columbus and I think it will spill over into the 2011 season. I'd expect a couple of losses in conference and wouldn't be terribly surprised if they lost to Miami on the road.
Conclusion and the Conference Title Race
I know what some of you are thinking. "Dude, the math doesn't add up."
Yes, I know. It's by design. They aren't hard-and-fast predictions, but rather "quick hits"--or off-the-cuff snapshots--of what I consider a fairly conservative idea of where each team might be. They don't take into account what is transpiring as we speak at college campuses across the conference. What transpires at spring practices will undoubtedly change much of what we think about these teams.
On many occasions, I looked at a particular game and picked one team to win, but when I looked at it from the other team's perspective, picked the second team to win as well. I know...it's confusing.
I'm saving the harder predictions for later in the summer. Then, I will look at every game in-depth and choose who I think will ultimately win and why.
The overall conference race should be an exciting one this year. Ohio State has largely dominated the last decade (give or take), but they may not do so again, necessarily.
Nebraska obviously adds some drama to the chase with their inclusion in the conference, and could make a run at the whole deal. Wisconsin should be back in the mix, but has vulnerabilities that could trip them up.
Michigan State shouldn't be counted completely out, but they too have some big issues that need addressed. Michigan might just be poised to throw their hat back into the ring.
Penn State could be back in the hunt, despite having to duel Ohio State and Wisconsin for their division.
Then there are teams like Illinois, Iowa and Northwestern (or Purdue) that may not necessarily be in the chase themselves, but could play a big part in the outcome.
Whatever happens this year, there's a lot to be excited about and no one should think they know the outcome of the season this early.
Oh yeah...just for fun, my early pick for the first conference title game is Nebraska (Legends) versus Wisconsin (Leaders). Just putting that out there.