College Football: 5 Reasons for and Against Each Team Winning the Big Ten
2011 looks to be one of the more competitive years in recent Big Ten history.
Going into 2010, there were three obvious favorites to win the conference: Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa. As it happened, Iowa fell off the map, and Michigan State surprised a lot of people (though they didn't surprise me).
Nevertheless, outside of the Iowa-Michigan State switch, there were three co-champions of the conference, and two of them were predictable.
In 2011, it will not be that easy.
Ohio State would be the obvious favorite, but they are having issues to the point that it is impossible to predict who will be coaching them tomorrow.
In most seasons, with 18 starters returning, Michigan would be an easy favorite. The problem is they are coming off the Rich Rodriguez fiasco, and Brady Hoke will attempt to implement a new system with players who were recruited specifically by and for Rodriguez's schemes.
Then there is Nebraska as the new kid in town, Penn State with its quarterback problems and Iowa, MSU and Wisconsin all with major holes to fill.
I also wouldn't completely count out Northwestern, Illinois or Purdue. Even Minnesota and Indiana will be competitive.
In the end, there are no 2011 Big Ten teams without any issues. On the other hand, there are no 2011 Big Ten teams without any decided strengths either.
The team that wins will be the team that answers the most questions. Here are five arguments for and against each Big Ten team winning the first-ever conference championship game in 2011.
Indiana Hoosiers: Point
- Though he comes from an offensive background, new head coach Kevin Wilson recognizes that the only way to bring success to Bloomington will come from an improved defense.
- He has consequently devoted an atypical number of his NCAA-allowed nine assistant coaches to the defensive side of the ball.
- Indiana's sophomore field goal kicker had the second-highest field goal success rate in the Big Ten last season. Championship teams win close games. Close games are won by a good kicking game.
- Though Indiana seems to consistently lack at every other position, they have fielded a strong receiving corps. That will continue in 2011 with the return of Damarlo Belcher, as well as sophomore Duwyce Wilson and tight end Ted Bolser.
- Indiana had the worst rushing offense in the conference last season. Part of the reason for that was the season-ending injury to tailback Darius Willis. Willis will be back and healthy in 2011, which should automatically add a shot to the IU running game.
Indiana Hoosiers: Counterpoint
- Indiana will be replacing four-year starting quarterback Ben Chappell. The combined career stats of the two sophomores vying to take his place: 9 COMP, 29 ATT, 151 YDS, 1 TD, 3 INT.
- Kevin Wilson will institute the no-huddle, which could be difficult for the offense—especially for the offensive line and new quarterback—to get used to.
- Indiana's scoring defense has not let up less than 25 PPG since 1993.
- IU has had five different coaches the last 11 years. That degree of instability lends itself to a dysfunctional, inconsistent and unsteady team.
- Come on. It's Indiana.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: Point
- New head coach Jerry Kill's offense is perfectly suited to probable starting quarterback MarQueis Gray's skill set.
- It is not well-known, but with the inclusion of Florida transfer Brandon Beal, the Gophers should have one of the best and deepest linebacking groups in the conference this season.
- Receiver Da'Jon McKnight will be one of the best receivers in the Big Ten next year.
- While the Gophers' defense was horrible last season, they have returning players with substantial experience at every position. Most notable is safety Kim Royston, who lost last season with a broken leg suffered in the summer. Look for an immediate upgrade.
- Erstwhile Minnesota coach Tim Brewster couldn't coach his way out of a paper bag. Kill is the antithesis of Brewster and will be a big improvement.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: Counterpoint
- Yes, Kill's offense is perfectly suited to Gray's skill set, provided Gray can pass with some degree of accuracy. His career passing stats thus far: 23 ATT, 8 COMP, 86 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT.
- It is true Minnesota has a nice group of linebackers—the problem is the defensive line. Though most of last year's starters are returning, those starters and that defense ranked last in the country in sacks. Will they improve with experience? Maybe, but they will need to make substantial strides to improve from last year's total of eight sacks.
- The grand total of receptions made in 2010 by a returning receiver not named Da'Jon McKnight: two.
- Special teams are something of an issue. The Gophers have a solid kick returner, but they have a new field goal kicker, a new punt returner and a returning punter who had the worst net average in the conference last season.
- Brewster is gone, but that doesn't mean his fingerprint is completely gone from the team. He recruited these players, and he coached these players for as many as four years. In short, it will be Kill's team, but he will be working with Brewster's players.
Illinois Fighting Illini: Point
- The Illini had an up-and-down year in 2010, but they finished on a very strong note, dominating a solid Baylor team in the Texas Bowl by a score of 38-14. While two other Big Ten teams had much more notable wins against much better teams, none had as commanding a performance.
- Returning quarterback, sophomore Nathan Sheelehaase, has Illini fans very excited. Not only was his overall rookie season impressive, but he improved tremendously as the year went on. His passer efficiency rating over the last seven games was a scintillating 151.51 with 13 touchdowns to one interception.
- The Illini have one of the best and deepest secondaries in the conference. They only graduated one starter, and they will be getting back two 2009 players—cornerback Terry Hawthorne and safety Sanni Supo—who projected to start in 2010, but lost much or all of the season to injuries.
- Illinois has the best in-conference schedule in the Big Ten. They miss Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan State; their roadies are at Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota and Penn State. They will also face a tough non-conference game against Arizona State with three other cupcakes at home.
- One of the keys to the relative success of last year's Illinois team was the re-commitment to the same strong running game that brought them success in 2007. They got away from that for a couple years, but new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has brought it back. Expect that run-first philosophy to continue.
Illinois Fighting Illini: Counterpoint
- The fact is, Ron Zook is not a good strategical coach, and there are many elements to that statement. The most damning is that he depends heavily on his assistant coaches. All coaches do in some capacity, but over time, Zook has proven with both Florida and Illinois that he is an inept in-game tactician. In effect, the key coach on the Illini really is Paul Petrino, and it is a strange, arguably dysfunctional team dynamic when the OC is more important than the HC.
- On the other hand, Zook has proven he is a top-notch recruiter. It was one thing to recruit top classes to Florida, but he recruited top classes to a down-and-out Illinois team. He did it based on promise though. That was more than three years ago, and as the promise has fizzled, most of those top recruits from those early, heralded classes have moved on. Now, Zook's classes are more apropos, given his record; he will have to win with coaching acumen instead of pure talent.
- The second week of January was a tough one for Illinois. It saw juniors Martez Wilson, Corey Liuget and Mikel Leshoure opt out of their senior seasons and declare for the NFL Draft. Before they declared I felt Illinois would win their division, and I would still feel that way if they had stayed. Without them, not so much.
- While the Illinois secondary will be superb, the front seven will have a a lot of holes to plug. That is never a good sign in the run-heavy Big Ten.
- Luck is a relative thing, but Illinois was a bit lucky last season. They played Northwestern without Dan Persa, OSU with a gimpy Terrelle Pryor and Penn State with half of the PSU defense on the shelf. I give them all the credit in the world, but I also don't think they would have beaten a healthy PSU or NU. And minus those two wins, Illinois would have been 4-8. They can't expect that kind of luck this season.
Purdue Boilermakers: Point
- Last season, the Boilers' leading rusher was their quarterback. Their second leading rusher was a fullback. Their third leading rusher was a converted wide receiver. Their fourth leading rusher is no longer with the team, and their fifth leading rusher was a wide receiver. In other words, Purdue ran out of bodies at tailback. This year, 2009's leading rusher Ralph Bolden will be back from an injury that ended his 2010 season before it began. That will immediately bolster the Purdue rushing game.
- Despite the lack of bodies at running back, despite starting a true freshman at quarterback and despite having a putrid passing game, Purdue was still an admirable sixth in the conference in overall rushing YPC. One has to give credit to the offensive line for that. That offensive line will return four starters and five players with experience.
- Head coach Danny Hope has placed team speed as top recruiting priority, and it appears he has been successful, especially at the wideout position. Specifically, junior Antavian Edison, and sophomores O.J. Ross and Gary Bush will keep cornerbacks on a swivel.
- Purdue's got a quarterback controversy like so many teams in the Big Ten. But unlike the other teams, both of Purdue's quarterbacks have plenty of experience. True sophomore Rob Henry was pressed into action last season and started the final eight games. Robert Marve is a Miami (FL) transfer who started 11 games for the Canes in 2008 and started four games for the Boilers last year before a torn ACL ended his season.
- The Boilers' 2010 scoring defense ranked seventh in the conference, but they were replacing a lot of bodies. Next year's defense returns 18 of its top 20 tacklers.
Purdue Boilermakers: Counterpoint
- Bolden puts a solid body at the starting tailback position, but after him, there is still no proven experience. Hell, there is no experience, proven or otherwise.
- The ever-mercurial NCAA recently denied receiver Keith Smith a sixth year of eligibility. In effect, while Purdue has plenty of bodies at pass-catcher, they lack any substantial experience. The 2011 Boilers will only have one returning receiver with more than 20 career receptions on his resume.
- Something to consider is even before the injuries began to pile up—more specifically, before Marve and Smith went down—the Boiler offense wasn't particularly good. In their two games with both Marve and Smith, they averaged 21.5 PPG. In the three complete games in which Marve was able to compete, they managed 22.3 PPG. Their opponents in those games were Notre Dame, Western Kentucky (FCS) and Ball State.
- In two years, Hope's Boilers have had their fair share of bad luck. Nevertheless, the defense has been healthy for the most part. Yet in two years, Hope's defense has ranked seventh and ninth in the conference in scoring. And that was with Ryan Kerrigan, one of the more disruptive players in the league over the last two seasons. This leaves one to ask, can Hope—an offensive coordinator in his day—coach up a defense?
- And speaking of Kerrigan, he will be renting his services out to the Washington Redskins. With his departure, Purdue has a huge hole to fill on the defensive line. His presence on the field opened up opportunities for the other linemen. Despite that, the grand total of sacks by returning linemen is 11. Will the returning linemen be able to create opportunities for themselves?
Iowa Hawkeyes: Point
- Statistically, Iowa's best offenses under Ferentz were 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2008. The only common tie between all those squads is that they returned a lot of experience on the offensive line. In 2011, Iowa will return four starters on the line and five players with substantial starting experience.
- While Iowa lost a lot of starters, they have experienced players ready to jump into most of the vacant positions. In fact, outside of punter, strong safety, one of the linebacker positions and one of the defensive linemen, there probably won't be any realistically competitive position battles.
- Next season, the Hawkeyes look to have the second-most favorable conference schedule in the Big Ten. Iowa misses Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois; their roadies are at Nebraska, Purdue, Penn State and Minnesota.
- While issues with the offense are nothing new with Ferentz's Hawkeyes, the defense's lack of ability to close out games in 2010 was anomalous. Much of that had to do with a conglomeration of problems, including the defensive coordinator's health issues, a plague of linebacker injuries, underachievement on the defensive line and frankly a schedule that featured a lot of very good, accurate, experienced quarterbacks. That sort of perfect storm is unlikely to repeat itself.
- Under Ferentz, Iowa almost across the board flops when they are laden with expectations. Conversely, they exceed expectations when expectations are low. Since 2002, Iowa has finished the season ranked in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2008 and 2009. On the other hand, they began the season ranked in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010. As is evidenced, those two don't usually match, and in the two seasons that do—2004 and 2009—Iowa initially fell off the rankings before moving back up. Next season, it is a strangely positive omen that the Hawks are certain to begin the season unranked.
Iowa Hawkeyes: Counterpoint
- Put simply, Iowa has zero depth at the offensive skill positions. Their only experienced starter at receiver is senior Marvin McNutt, and their only player in any capacity at tailback is sophomore Marcus Coker. While Coker was great in limited appearances last season, can he carry the rock 25 times a game, 12 games a year?
- Defensive coordinator Norm Parker is back, but can it really be said that he is healthy? He is 68 years old, lost a foot last year and has type-1 diabetes. This is not something one just walks away from, so how long before he needs another extended absence?
- Iowa fans like to remember the heroics of probable starting quarterback James Vandenberg when he went into his first-ever start at the Shoe in 2009 and almost upset the Buckeyes. While he played a great game (for a freshman), he was pretty lousy the week before against Northwestern and the week after against Minnesota; his combined efficiency rating in those two games was 64.15.
- Iowa used to be known for its special teams. On the other hand, the special teams were borderline deplorable last season and arguably cost the Hawkeyes the Arizona game. In the end, a conservative-minded team with mediocre special teams will underachieve every time.
- Okay, Iowa has players ready to go at most positions, but that doesn't account for anywhere near who they lost. Aside from the one-year starters and back-ups, 2010 Iowa said good-bye to a three-year starting QB, a two-year starting RB, one four-year starting OL, one four-year starting WR, two three-year starting DL, one two-year starting DL, one three-year starting LB, one three and one four-year starting safeties and a four-year starting punter.
Wisconsin Badgers: Point
- Wisconsin lost lineman Gabe Carimi, who was picked 29th overall, and John Moffitt, who went 75th. Most teams would be devastated by those losses, but the fact is the Badgers reload on offensive line. Certainly, there might be a slip, but Wisconsin will once again have one of the best lines in the Big Ten in 2011.
- John Clay's early departure won't be missed, as Montee Ball and James White will easily take on the load at running back. In fact, it was Ball who started and White who was the second man in during the Rose Bowl. Though Clay wound up with more carries than White, he still didn't see the field until late in the second quarter.
- The return of Chris Borland at linebacker will be a huge boost to the defense. Borland missed most of last season with shoulder surgery. But in 2009, he was all over the place, en route to being named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. His presence will force teams to game plan away from him.
- Yes, losing Scott Tolzien at quarterback does hurt, but the Badgers' O is predicated on a run-first (and second, and third) mentality. The 2010 offense ran on 68 percent of their plays from scrimmage. The 2009 offense ran 63.1 percent of the time. In short, the nature of the Wisconsin offense will minimize the inexperience at quarterback.
- Despite the early departure of defensive end J.J. Watt, there is a nice corps of returning players on the D, particularly at linebacker, where UW will have one of the best position groups in the conference.
Wisconsin Badgers: Counterpoint
- Wait a minute. Scott Tolzien can just be replaced? The guy completed 72.9 percent of his passes and had a 165.92 efficiency rating. Can you name one Wisconsin quarterback since Barry Alvarez took over who has been remotely close to those numbers? I'll go watch a movie while you come to the painful realization that such a quarterback has not yet played in Madison.
- I agree Wisconsin reloads on the offensive line, but you are talking about one of the two best lines in the Big Ten this decade (along with 2002 Iowa). The 2011 line will be good, to be sure, but the 2010 line was unstoppable. From unstoppable to just good is a decided step down.
- The Badgers lost three of their top five receivers. Their starters are fairly settled with Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis, but there is absolutely no depth behind them. Moreover, while Jacob Pedersen will be a solid tight end, it will take a lot replace Lance Kendricks' team-leading 43 receptions.
- Borland will be huge, but you can't minimize the loss of Watt. There are some decent returning lineman, but none who have demonstrated anywhere near the playmaking ability of Watt.
- Despite running a ball-control offense, Wisconsin has never really had a great defense under Bielema. The Badgers always have decent D, but none that have been great. Big Ten powerhouses have always played great defense. If the Badgers are to become a powerhouse, they will have to become a perennial force on D.
Michigan Wolverines: Point
- Despite Darryl Stonum's issues, Michigan still has arguably the best corps of receivers in the conference. Roy Roundtree was the Wolverines' leading receiver in 2010 and will vie for all-conference honors this season. Junior Hemingway was, in many ways, the team's most dangerous receiver with a team-high 18.53 YPC. Finally, Martavious Odoms missed six games with an injury and will be back to full strength in 2011.
- The offensive line returns three starters and four players with substantial experience. If they can adjust to the new scheme, they will be one of the league's best.
- Denard Robinson. He will be playing in a much different scheme, but the guy would be dangerous if he were playing in a flying wedge, wing-T or a power-I. Furthermore, he was hobbled by injuries last season, which were caused by playing in an offense that placed too much emphasis on him. Taking the running game off his shoulders could in fact improve his efficacy.
- The defense has some players to make UM fans optimistic. Kenny Demens could be an all-conference LB this season and Mike Martin played some very solid ball on the line.
- Last year's pathetic secondary will get an immediate upgrade with the return of Troy Woolfolk.
Michigan Wolverines: Counterpoint
- The Wolverines' kickers made 28.6 percent of their field goal attempts last season. Take a few seconds, and try to process that. After you've processed that number, consider that the kickers went 0 for 3 in the spring game. UM signed kicker Matt Wile in this year's class, and he will be on campus in August. Chances of him not taking kicks in 2011 are minimal. Still, he will be a true freshman with the weight of 110,000 fans on his leg.
- Remember the last time Michigan underwent a major scheme transition?
- Denard Robinson is dangerous, but he was recruited to run Rich Rodriguez's offense. This is a much different O that requires a much different QB—a QB who can win strictly with his arm. And before you remind me that Shoelace not only ran for a gazillion yards, but also completed 62.5 percent of his passes, I will remind you that in the red zone, Robinson completed only 44.1 percent of his throws. In other words, when the defense had the back of the end zone as its 12th man and could load up the box to force Robinson to pass, more often than not, he didn't come through.
- The Michigan defense may have a few players, but it is also carrying three years worth of awful habits in its back pocket, and I don't mean the freshman-playing-out-of-position variety of bad habits. I mean last year, the defense often played like it was afraid to tackle. Can they improve with a new coach? Absolutely, but you don't erase three years worth of bad habits in six months.
- Obviously, I'm not inside the UM locker room, but this is a very proud program that has had the worst three-year run in its history. Morale is, if not down, at least fragile. Can this bunch handle any more adversity?
Michigan State Spartans: Point
- MSU has the best offensive skill players in the conference. Kirk Cousins may not be the best quarterback, but he is the best returning quarterback with no question marks or issues. The Spartans have three solid receiving options in B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol.
- And then there are the running backs. Specifically, Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper form the best group of running backs in the conference. Caper, who is the third option, could probably start for half the teams in the Big Ten.
- Though Michigan State loses a boatload at the linebacker position, there is a ton of returning and talented experience on the defensive line. The solid line play will minimize the losses at linebacker and give the new linebackers a chance to figure things out.
- Speaking of linebacking corps, the demise of Michigan has opened doors for MSU. Marc Dantonio has been recruiting at a very high level, and this has been especially true at linebacker. The star of the 2009 class, Chris Norman, is ready to take on a role as team leader, and the star of the 2010 class, Max Bullough, is ready to assume a role as starter.
- Despite the loss of all-conference punter Aaron Bates, the Spartans will have exceptional special teams. They boast the conference's best kicker in junior Dan Conroy and the conference's best return man in Keshawn Martin.
Michigan State Spartans: Counterpoint
- Let's face it. Michigan State beat one quality team last year. They got smacked by seven-win Iowa and nine-win Alabama. They squeaked by seven-win Notre Dame and Northwestern, as well as four-win Purdue. In short, their 11 wins are impressive, but when taken in full context, how impressive are they?
- We will find out this season, as part of what brings last season's accomplishments into question was their cakewalk of a schedule. This season, their schedule is a bear. They miss Purdue, Penn State and Illinois; their road schedule includes Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa.
- The Spartans graduated three starting offensive linemen. As is true for any team but especially a power-based team, this will be an area of substantial concern.
- Don Treadwell is the former offensive coordinator at Michigan State. Following last season, he took the head coaching job at Miami (OH). Treadwell had been with Dantonio since his time at Cincinnati, and when Dantonio was out last season following his heart attack, it was Treadwell who called the shots. In fact, it was Treadwell who was the head man in MSU's only quality win of the season (against Wisconsin). It was Treadwell who called that hook-and-lateral against Iowa in 2009. It was Treadwell who called the Little Giants play against Notre Dame. It is possible that the loss of Treadwell might hurt the Spartans more than most are considering.
- Hold on. The Spartans are just going to replace their Mr. all-everything, three-time All-Big Ten, two-time All-American Greg Jones, simply because Bullough had a lot of stars next to his name? It might do MSU fans well to remember that Jones did not have a lot of stars next to his name.
Northwestern Wildcats: Point
- Outside of JoePa, neither Jim Tressel nor Kirk Ferentz is the most beloved coach in the Big Ten at his particular institution. It is Pat Fitzgerald, and that pays dividends in terms of team morale.
- Neither Terrelle Pryor nor Denard Robinson nor Taylor Martinez is the best dual-threat quarterback in the Big Ten. It is Dan Persa. In fact, Persa is the best QB in the Big Ten, regardless of style.
- Jeremy Ebert is one of the best receivers in the conference, and he will lead a strong NU receiving corps that returns nine of its top 10 pass-catchers from last season.
- Last season's so-so defense had to replace the majority of the front four and the secondary. This season, Northwestern returns most of the front four and the secondary.
- NU returns four offensive linemen.
Northwestern Wildcats: Counterpoint
- I'm willing to buy that Persa is the best QB in the conference. When healthy. You don't just walk away from a torn Achilles tendon though. This especially brings into question whether his dual-threat capabilities will be affected. If they are, the Cats' near-bottom-of-the-conference rushing offense will be in even worse shape.
- Regarding that offensive line, it let up 40 sacks last season. That was 114th in the country. Moreover, as already mentioned, they paved the way for a lousy 3.64 YPC. Are so many returning linemen really a good thing?
- The graduation of three-year starters Quentin Davie and Nate Williams leave NU bare at the linebacker position.
- Last year's Cats had a cakewalk schedule through the first six games, and they still dropped one to Purdue. This year's team won't be so fortunate. They face a tough roadie at Boston College and open the conference slate with games at Illinois and Iowa, plus home games against Michigan and PSU.
- Erstwhile placekicker Stefan Demos had a bad habit of missing big kicks in important situations. But he was evidently the best they had. Now he's gone.
Ohio State Buckeyes: Point
- I can think of six reasons why OSU will win the conference: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
- While they are unarguably down, when you look at their schedule—as well as the other teams in the Eastern conference—who will beat them? If PSU or UW were in up years, maybe, but as things stand, all the Bucks have to do is get to the conference championship, at which time they'll be at full strength. And this year, six conference wins against the right teams will probably get them to Indianapolis.
- Jim Tressel has only once led an OSU defense that let up more than 20 PPG; that was his first year. Statistically, his best D was 2006, when the Bucks let up only 12.8 PPG with two returning defensive starters. In short, if you're looking for OSU to fall off the map because they return only four starters on defense, you're going to be sorely disappointed.
- Getting Tyler Moeller back for a sixth season will be a huge boost to a young secondary.
- For the most part, OSU will be able to run their way to wins until Pryor gets back. Certainly, they will have to open up the offense in the games against Miami (FL) and MSU, but otherwise, they can go completely vanilla and still scratch out wins.
Ohio State Buckeyes: Counterpoint
- There is some really bad mojo in Columbus right now. It may or may not be cleared up for the 2011 season, but it is there, it is undeniable and there is no telling how it will affect the team.
- Yes, one can't deny that the OSU D reloads, but the offense does not. Starting anybody other than Terrelle Pryor on a trip to Miami (FL) and a game against Michigan State is anything but ideal.
- With Posey out, the Bucks don't have any established receivers. Through the first five games, the number of career receptions made by eligible returning receivers is 10.
- With all of that in mind, the mentality that Ohio State can just run its way to wins for its first five contests is foolhardy. I don't care which team you are, you have to at least threaten an opponent with a passing game. Otherwise, the opponent in question will load up the box and take your running game out.
- Cohesion and consistency is an issue. Changing so many pieces after five games is bound to have an effect on the team dynamic, especially the offensive team dynamic. Yes, Pryor and the other four will be back for Nebraska and beyond, but one can logically expect a bit of rust for at least a couple of games.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: Point
- On paper, this is unarguably the best defense in both the division and the conference. Linebacker Lavonte David will vie for all-conference honors, and lineman Jared Crick will look to call himself an All-American.
- Even more specifically, you don't lose Prince Amakumara and Eric Hagg—as well as two safeties—and reload in the secondary. Apparently, you do if you're Nebraska. Alfonzo Dennard will vie for All-American honors, while Austin Cassidy and Courtney Osbourne picked up plenty of playing time last season. Finally, JUCO transfer Damion Stafford will look to find his way into the mix.
- Losing Roy Helu shouldn't phase NU too much, as Rex Burkhead has plenty of experience and will step right in. He cannot produce the big plays Helu could, but he makes up for that with durability and versatility.
- Nebraska will get Ohio State in Lincoln for the Tattoo-Five's first game back. They could be a rusty bunch and ripe for the picking against a strong D.
- Taylor Martinez took his share of lumps last year, but remember, he was a freshman. He will only get better.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: Counterpoint
- Nebraska's offense is run-first, but as with all offenses, the strength of the run is predicated on the possibility of the passing game. The Huskers have only one returning receiver with any experience,—Brandon Kinnie—and he is a possession receiver. Nebraska will not only need to find some receivers, but they will need to find a big play receiver who will keep opposing defenses honest.
- Nebraska will be replacing three offensive linemen, one of whom was all-conference. Right now, the Huskers have three linemen with starting experience: center Mike Caputo and tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Marcel Jones. Whether you are an adherent of Phil Steele or not, there is no getting around that an inexperienced offensive line might be the worst thing next to an inexperienced quarterback. Nebraska brought in an extremely strong offensive line class, but not only are linemen the most difficult position to scout, they are also the least likely to be ready for immediate playing time. Usually, if you're starting a true freshman on the line, that is not a good sign.
- I would compile a list of Alex Henery's accomplishments as a Cornhusker, but it would take too long. Hence, I will simply say Nebraska graduated their All-American kicker, their All-Big 12 punter, and their punt and kickoff return man in Niles Paul. In short, the special teams are something of a quandary.
- As detailed at Blackshoediaries.com, the Big Ten has a history of giving new members a rocky welcome. That began for Nebraska when the conference doled out the schedules, making sure that NU got the most daunting conference slate. Though their non-conference is very winnable, they travel to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Penn State and Michigan; they miss Indiana, Purdue and Illinois. Coincidence? I don't think so. Could there be more hazing ahead?
- As has been mentioned, Nebraska is a run-first team. In 2010, they ran on 69.2 percent of their plays from scrimmage. In order to sustain that, they need bodies. In the Husker offense, the quarterback does a lot of the rushing. Also, Rex Burkhead will probably lock down the starting tailback spot, but there is almost no experience behind him. Last year, Nebraska had three players—Helu, Martinez and Burkhead—with more than 150 carries apiece. NU will need to find that third player.
Penn State Nittany Lions: Point
- Penn State returns three of their top four receivers in Derek Moye, Justin Brown and Devon Smith. Moye is the most experienced, having started for two years, but all of them are solid go-to options and will be a big help to whoever starts at quarterback. Also, sophomore Curtis Drake, who missed all of 2010 with a broken leg, will play a part in the offense, provided he can get healthy.
- Senior Stephfon Green and true sophomore Silas Redd will battle for carries. While many are writing Green off, it should be remembered that Larry Johnson Jr. didn't do much until his senior season, at which time he carried for more than 2,000 yards. In short, it is never a bad thing to have a crowded, competitive backfield.
- The probable starters at linebacker will be juniors Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges, and senior Nate Stupar. Last year, Mauti and Stupar split time at the outside linebacker position. There is no getting around the fact that last year, linebacker play was down. This season, despite having two new starters, it should be a return to "Linebacker U" for Penn State.
- The advantage of having issues in year one with any given position group is that in year two a team tends to have a wealth of players with experience in that position group. That is the case with the PSU offensive line, of which no fewer than 13 players saw meaningful game time last year. This season, with the departure of two full-time starters and one part-time starter, there will be plenty of experienced bodies to field a starting five.
- D'Anton Lynn is a lock-down corner and will vie for all-conference honors. Also, while short on depth, the safeties will play at a higher level than last season.
Penn State Nittany Lions: Counterpoint
- Put everything else aside. If Penn State cannot get its quarterback situation straightened out, none of the other things will matter. PSU runs a quarterback-heavy scheme. When their QB is solid—Michael Robinson, Daryll Clark—they are solid. When he isn't, they have a ceiling and/or flounder. In my opinion, junior Matt McGloin falls under the "limited" quarterback model, while sophomore Rob Bolden can take the Nits to much higher levels. Still, as was evidenced by the linebacker play last season, JoePa has the tendency to favor seniority over talent. If he goes in that direction with the quarterback, it could spell trouble in Happy Valley.
- Though there are plenty of offensive linemen, it seems like Penn State's line has been struggling with consistency the past two seasons. It is possible that will continue into 2011, as it was near impossible to lock down a starting lineup after spring practices. At this point, as many as 20 different players could find their way into the starting five Sept. 3.
- Last year was statistically the worst PSU scoring D since 2001. Part of that was injury-related, but part of the reason was JoePa's insistence on playing upperclassmen. Specifically, he had better linebackers than the seniors he fielded. Certainly this practice is admirable, but there are times when it will contribute to losing football games.
- Further contributing to the PSU defensive woes, the team had the fewest sacks since before I can find statistics for such things. Therefore, the Nits' 17 sacks were the fewest sacks they have had since at least 1996. Aside from Ollie Ogbu, every defensive lineman who took notable snaps in 2010 will return. If their pass-rushing abilities don't improve though, look for another lackluster defense.
- Yes, D'Anton Lynn may play at a high level, but the other corner is a bit of a mess. Penn State has three possible starters, but all of them have issues. Junior Stephon Morris' play has been spotty, and he has had notable tackling difficulties (a huge problem in a Cover 2 scheme). Meanwhile, sophomore Derrick Thomas continues to have off-the-field issues, and the coaches cannot seem to decide whether to keep senior Chaz Powell on offense or defense.