Big Ten Football 2011: How the Conference Will Look at the End of the Year
With the addition of Nebraska, the Big Ten landscape will look much different this coming fall. Big Ten competition is sure to be as fierce as ever this year.
With the addition of divisions (and an ensuing conference championship game), nobody will have ever wanted to check the standings more consistently than during this season.
It was interesting to see a team like Michigan State make their run in 2010 to win their first Big Ten Championship 20 years.
It was also interesting to see Wisconsin get their shot at the Rose Bowl against TCU after a dominating 11-1 regular season.
What really mattered down the stretch was where teams placed, to determine who would represent the conference in which bowl. There was much controversy over who to send where, after three teams (Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State) were all tied with equal records at the end of the season.
This year will be much different.
With the implementation of divisions and a conference championship game, there will be no controversy over who deserves a BCS (or National Championship) berth.
Now at the point of post-spring and pre-summer ball, here is how I feel the Big Ten, ripe with excitement, will look at the end of the 2011 regular season.
Legends Sixth Place: Northwestern
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald is fortunate that he recently got a large contract extension to make sure his seat stays cool, since his team will most likely not finish too high in the division.
Dan Persa will be returning from a lower-leg injury and will look to continue where he left off. But when you are playing competitive, close games against teams like Indiana, you are not at a high enough level yet to be competing with teams like Michigan State and Nebraska.
They do return four starting offensive lineman as well as some good skill players. This is most likely irrelevant, though, as their overall talent level, a visit from Michigan State and trips to Lincoln and Champaign do not bode well for them.
Legends Fifth Place: Minnesota
The Golden Gophers are starting with a clean slate this year with the hiring of former Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill.
With Kill taking over the reigns of the team, Minnesota will look to take another step towards success. He was able to take an NIU team at the bottom of Division I football and turn it into a bowl-eligible team in a single season.
What will be interesting to see is if Kill can bring that same kind of turn-around to a team that won just three games last year.
Minnesota will be an athletic team with MarQueis Gray at quarterback, but they do not return too much talent on the outside.
They get three of their toughest Big Ten games at home, but a late October and early November gauntlet looks daunting.
Legends Fourth Place: Iowa
The Hawkeyes return with skilled players like wide receiver Marvin McNutt and tailback Marcus Coker, who had a dominating bowl performance. Plus, Kirk Ferentz is always a coach to have some faith in.
Where Iowa will struggle is in the trenches. They must replace most of their offensive line, as well as key guys on the other side of the ball like All Big-Ten performer Adrian Clayborn.
Guys who have been around, like defensive end Broderick Binns, will compete in that department—but they will not be an immediate solution.
Three of their final four games come against Big Ten competitors, and a trip to State College will be pivotal.
With a deep league to compete with in 2011, the Hawkeyes will not perform like they have in recent years
Legends Third Place: Michigan
Brady Hoke does not have the highest standards to live up to (see Rich Rodriguez's career at Michigan). However, he will be expected to bring success to a program that lately have not been their usual selves.
It is hard to argue that Michigan will not have success, as they return with the Big Ten Offensive Player of the year, Denard Robinson. What to watch for is if he can consistently produce like he did last year—and get the wins, too.
Michigan as a whole will also look to eliminate inconsistencies, and bringing in new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was a key step in that process.
Former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson had a lot to do with turning the Michigan defense into the glee club of Georgia State. This will be a different year under Robinson.
Mattison has his fair share of experience in the NFL, but knows the college game just as well. He is exactly what Michigan needs to get back to their old hit-you-in-the-mouth mentality.
For Michigan standards, third place may not be sufficient—but considering how the program has performed recently, a mid-level finish and a bowl appearance will do.
Legends Second Place: Michigan State
For many Big Ten teams, replacing the offensive line is key. It will be important to make sure quarterback Kirk Cousins stays safe.
Cousins had some untimely interceptions last year but really came on as an efficient passer. He was also a great game manager and leader.
Skill players certainly won't be a problem with outside threats like B.J. Cunningham. They also have an arsenal of running backs including La'Veon Bell, Edwin Baker, and Larry Caper, who all showed flashes of greatness last year.
The defense, on the other hand, will certianly need some tune-ups.
Losing All Big-Ten linebacker Greg Jones is the biggest loss from that side of the ball. They do not return much experience from a defense that had trouble in big games, so it will be like starting over again.
This Michigan State team knows adversity. Head coach Mark Dantonio was hospitalized shortly after their victory over Notre Dame last season, and they persevered. This is the same toughness they will need to be able to overcome some losses of key players.
Nobody considered them contenders last year, and they came up big. This year will not be quite as successful, but with the main pieces of the puzzle returning, they will win the games they need to.
Legends Division Champ: Nebraska
I do not believe Nebraska will win the division because they are incredibly talented, but rather their competitors are not quite as talented.
The conference can be categorized as a deep one with not a lot of contenders. Nebraska may be the only team that does not fit that generalization.
If Taylor Martinez is to have a Heisman-worthy season (like some claimed he had going at times during last season), he is going to have to get his offense up and running as soon as possible. He loses some key players around him and up front on the offensive line, so it will be on him to lead this team and produce.
If he can continue to improve as a passer, they will be a dynamic team to be reckoned with. If he falls into his tendencies to always tuck it and run, they will be in for some offensive struggles.
Nebraska will rely, as always, on the coveted Black-Shirt Defense.
Last year their defense fell apart in a couple big games and their offense bailed them out. With losses on the offense, Bo Pelini will not stand for anything less than defensive perfection. They return key big men in Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler to go with one of the nations premier linebackers, Lavonte David.
Bo Pelini and his brother Carl will make sure this squad is ready for every challenge that presents itself to them. Pelini is a hard-nosed coach with a will to win. He will not allow this team to beat themselves.
Even with some uncertainties coming into the Big Ten, Nebraska will be able to pick up where it left off in its old conference.
Leaders Sixth Place: Purdue
This year will be just like every year for Purdue.
I would expect Danny Hope, in his third year at the helm, would be able to make strides towards improvement in some way, shape, or form. He is a hard worker and won't give up, even with the odds stacked heavily against him.
A high spirit is good and all, but I highly doubt we will see this team go anywhere—especially in a top-heavy division. They are sure to hit some major roadblocks.
To be fair, they do return four starters on the offensive line. What will be key for them (if they want to improve from dull to mediocre), is getting a quarterback like Robert Marve to stay healthy and live up to his potential.
The Boilermakers will be in for a better season than their four-win outing last year, but nothing special.
Business as usual for a bottom-feeder in the Big Ten.
Leaders Fifth Place: Indiana
As Kevin Wilson takes over for Bill Lynch (one winning season), he will bring a little more of a lively attitude to another team that won't make much noise in 2011.
They lose one of the league's most efficient and accurate quarterbacks in Ben Chappell. He was a big reason for anything and everything Indiana achieved. Without Chappell and All Big Ten wide receiver Tandon Doss, this will not be a team you want to watch unless you absolutely have to.
They have scattered experience on defense, and the bulk of their offensive line is returning. This will not prove to be worth much of anything, and the state of Indiana will not be in for a great year of college football.
Leaders Fourth Place: Illinois
Illinois does not lose too many guys in one particular area. The biggest loss, though, will be running back Mikel Leshoure, who decided to declare for the NFL Draft.
The most important thing to watch is how Nathan Scheelhasse improves in his second season. Except for a couple big-time games, he was consistent and efficient as a passer.
Along with eight returning starters on defense, Scheelhasse will look to keep head coach Ron Zook's seat cool. Zook silenced some critics and had a good performance in 2010, but a lackluster 2009 still resonates, and a little more of a cushion couldn't hurt.
The Illini get division rivals Ohio State and Wisconsin at home, but those games will still be tough. Facing the two most talented teams in the division on your home field is still an intimidating task.
The key factor that will keep the Illini out of the upper half of the division will be their showdown with Penn State.
Leaders Third Place: Penn State
We saw flashes of talent in freshmen Rob Bolden last year. We also saw the capabilities of a consistent pocket passer and vocal leader in then-sophomore Matt McGloin.
Joe Paterno will have a quarterback battle on his hands this summer, much like he did last year. Only this year, it is down to two guys who have shown their strengths in game situations.
Talk about a win-win. I have no doubt that whichever quarterback takes the reigns will be able to command his offense without question.
The Nittany Lions will miss all-time leading rusher Evan Royster, but talent has been emerging through the youngsters who got their time. Silas Redd fits this description, as he will most likely take over Royster's spot.
With eight returning starters, the defense will look to reach its full potential. Last year, Penn State had a myriad of injury problems, and that was the only thing that slowed them down in key losses.
This year, if they can stay healthy, will be different.
The Joe Pa-lead squad has one of the toughest four-game stretches in the country to finish the year, but will be in the upper half of the division due to the tiebreaker they will hold over Illinois.
Leaders Second Place: Wisconsin
The glaring issues that need to be addressed immediately are the quarterback and offensive line.
Scott Tolzien was a great game-manager and came up big with his arm when the Badgers really needed it.
The offensive line's ability to open up holes so wide you could fit a semi-truck through was the biggest reason for success for the 5th-ranked offense in the country.
Finding a new quarterback won't be too tough considering that they don't need someone to jump in and immediately produce with his own skill set.
This offense will be mainly geared towards the run game with the tandem of Monte Ball and James White, who very much resemble the Ingram-Richardson team-up of 2009.
Finding replacements for offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt will be a top priority come summer camp, as they will want to focus on the power game again. That power game will not come if the big men up front can not open holes for the backs like they did last year.
The Badgers do return other skill players like Nick Toon as well, so they will already have some great talent. It will simply be a matter of plugging up the question marks on the depth chart.
Wisconsin will not quite have as solid of a year as in 2010, but they will be given some help at the end of the season.
Leaders Division Champ: Ohio State (empty)
This will be an empty first place-finish for the Buckeyes.
The most glaring issue in the Buckeye locker room will be if the team unites under the leadership of interim coach Luke Fickell, who has been given the entire year to prove his worth.
Ohio State always returns good talent on both sides of the ball.
On offense, the quarterback position will be the most scrutinized throughout the season. With Pryor's departure, it will come down to a decision between true freshman Braxton Miller and the fifth-year senior, Joe Bauserman.
My prediction is that Miller will step in and we will see this team go in the same direction they have recently, with a mobile quarterback. Although Miller is young, he is very talented.
Miller will not be the primary source of Ohio State's success, though. This year will be typical Ohio State football. They will run the ball well with a stable of running backs, and they will play great defense.
The Buckeyes will be without starting tailback Dan Herron, but have a wealth of talent behind him ready to step up.
The offensive line lost a couple guys this past year, but should still be in a good place nonetheless.
What will be interesting is the defense. Ohio State does not return many starters from last year's defense, but that should not be a problem.
The defense has always been a unit that rotates guys in and out. This year, it will simply be a matter of the players who are used to being subs getting acclimated to to more playing time.
With no shortage of talent, this defense should get better as the year goes on.
Overall, if the they take an "us against the world" mentality, the Buckeyes will perform well.
Because of likely NCAA sanctions, however, I predict Wisconsin will get the nod to the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game.
Big Ten Championship Game
Lucas Oil Stadium will be filled with red come championship Saturday.
The Big Ten Championship Game-era will begin with a stereotypical, physical Big Ten game. Wisconsin and Nebraska will not be holding anything back. As I said before, I believe Nebraska is probably the most talented team in the Big Ten and it will show.
I predict Nebraska's superior defense will outplay the Badgers.
Wisconsin will have the offensive advantage but, if Taylor Martinez can get close to reaching expectations, the Badgers will have a tough time since their team is not quite as complete.
The victor of the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game will be the Corn Huskers.
Nebraska will get a berth to a BCS or National Title game, depending on the overall final standings.