It is almost time for the gridiron fanatics to dust off their megaphones and fluff up their pompoms!
College football, sporting several new and exciting realignments, is back on the horizon, ready to rise into full view in early September.
No conference has changed its traditional season lineup more than the Big Ten, divided into two divisions starting with the first non-conference games of 2011. This was accomplished once the admission of the Nebraska Cornhuskers into the Big Ten was finalized.
Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern
Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin
Each Big Ten team plays eight conference contests, including each team in its respective division, plus three conference games outside of its division, called crossover contests.
In total, each team in the Big Ten plays 12 games, starting on September 3, 2011.
The season concludes with the Big Ten Championship Game played on December 3, 2011 in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium.
While most pundits haggle over “Legends” and “Leaders,” the titles selected for the two divisions, few have complained about the actual division itself. Most view the two divisions as equitable.
As preparations for the 2011 season get underway, pundits are already rolling out their “best” lists for each conference. In keeping with this annual rite of passage, the following are the Big Ten players at each position deserving of a Grade A rating as the 2011 season gets underway.
Here is our compilation of the All-Big Ten preseason team, ahead of action in the newly aligned Big Ten Conference.
These players are the cream of the crop, as they say, in the Big Ten who will help their respective teams climb the rankings ladder, as they try to bulldoze their way into the Big Ten Championship Game.
First Team: Denard Robinson (Michigan)
If you watched Big Ten football last season, you had to emerge impressed by the play of Michigan’s quarterback, Denard Robinson. In fact, Robinson was Michigan’s offense, winning the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
Still, there are many unknowns coming into the 2011 season for Michigan. A new head coach and a new offensive coordinator will be trying to initiate a more pro-style offense, with Robinson frequently operating out of the pocket.
Still they will not desert the shotgun altogether. What is certain, however, is that Robinson will once again be the focal point of the offense. His ability to scramble and run the ball will make Robinson potentially more dangerous than he was a year ago––after adding in the experience of a year where he was pursued by the best that opposing teams could throw at him.
Second Team: Dan Persa (Northwestern)
Second to Robinson—and only a short step away from the top spot—is Northwestern’s quarterback, Dan Persa, who finished the 2010 season injured. You cannot, as they say, keep a good man down, and Persa will be back for his senior season, champing at the bit to make his annual assault on the Big Ten record book.
Third Team: Kirk Cousins (Michigan State)
Michigan State's quarterback returns for his senior season and will operate the offense out of the pocket, perhaps better than any other quarterback in the country. This could be a breakout year for the Spartans.
Fourth Team (Tie): Nathan Scheelhaase (Illinois) and Taylor Martinez (Nebraska)
First Team: Edwin Baker (Michigan State) and Montee Ball (Wisconsin)
Edwin Baker, of Michigan State, spent his summer in the weight room getting ready for his junior season in the Spartans backfield. Last season, he was the Big Ten’s returning leading rusher as a running back. In 2010, Baker ran for 1,201 yards on 207 carries, scoring 13 rushing touchdowns.
The running back helped Michigan State compile an 11-2 record last season. Even though Michigan State will introduce a new offensive coordinator, the running game should not be impacted. Baker will continue as the backbone of the running game. Expect the junior to emerge as the best in the Big Ten in 2011.
Montee Ball, of Wisconsin, joins Baker as a member of the first-team offense as a running back. Ball amassed 996 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns at the season's end, averaging 6.1 per carry. Even though the Badgers lost senior John Clay, they return junior running back Ball and James White, who carried for 1,052 yards, scoring 14 touchdowns in 2010.
Ball came on strong the last five games of the 2010 season, eating up 777 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns. During that final push, Ball had nine carries of over 20 yards. He has prepared for the 2011 season by shedding some excess pounds and hitting the gym hard. The Badger running back is in fine shape and ready to rumble in the Wisconsin backfield.
Second Team: James White (Wisconsin) and Rex Burkhead (Nebraska)
Third Team: Marcus Coker (Iowa) and Silas Redd (Penn State)
Fourth Team: Jason Ford (Illinois) and Ralph Bolden (Purdue)
First Team: Jeremy Ebert (Northwestern) and Derek Moye (Penn State)
Jeremy Ebert, of Northwestern, will once again be quarterback Dan Persa’s primary target as a versatile wide receiver in the open field, as well as in tight spots near the goal line. Last year, Ebert caught for 953 yards on 62 receptions with a 15.4 average.
With Persa in the pocket this year, the receivers for the Wildcats should be kept mighty busy, because this is an offensive powerhouse of a team. This year, with added experience and Persa healthy again, Ebert is expected to have a standout senior year while closing out his career as a Wildcat.
Derek Moye, of Penn State, will also be adding his share of yardage at the wide receiver spot in the Nittany Lions offensive scheme. Last year, Moye ranked second in the Big Ten in average yards per reception at 16.7. He has all the tools to have a stellar senior season for the Lions.
The only issue that might hold back the impact of a fine receiving corps at Penn State this fall is the unresolved issue of who the quarterback will be. Will it be last year’s starter Rob Bolden, or Matt McGloin, who stepped into the quarterback spot after Bolden went down with a concussion in late October? Expect that issue to be resolved immediately, as the Penn State season begins.
Second Team: Marvin McNutt (Iowa) and Roy Roundtree Jr. (Michigan)
Third Team: B.J. Cunningham (Michigan State) and DeVier Posey (Ohio State)
Fourth Team: Damario Belcher (Indiana) and Keshawn Martin (Michigan State)
First Team: Kyler Reed (Nebraska)
The man on everybody’s list for preseason first-team All-Big Ten at tight end is junior Kyler Reed from Nebraska, who managed to produce some spectacular results even as part of an often sputtering offense.
Reed had 22 receptions for 395 yards with an average of 18 yards per catch, scoring eight touchdowns during the 2010 season. With the run game as the key for the Nebraska offense last year, the receivers got little attention. The hope is that the Cornhuskers can present a more balanced attack, earmarking the obvious talent of Reed to bolster Nebraska’s ability to score through the air.
Nebraska will spend its first season in the Big Ten trying to learn opposing teams' defensive proclivities. At the same time, the Cornhuskers will be building an offensive line to allow the receiving corps to enjoy some much-needed success.
Second Team: Drake Dunsmore (Northwestern)
Third Team: Eric Lair (Minnesota)
Fourth Team: Jake Stoneburner (Ohio State)
First Team: Mike Brewster (Ohio State)
Mike Brewster, out of Ohio State, will sit front and center on the Buckeyes offensive line. The senior who comes from Orlando, Florida has all the makings of an All-American at center.
He will become the fulcrum of a rebuilt offensive line as the Ohio State Buckeyes try to reestablish themselves at the top of the Big Ten, after a disastrous offseason that saw the departure of coach Jim Tressel, as well as vaunted quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
Luckily, Brewster is not one of the Ohio State players sitting out a five-game suspension. The Buckeyes center will continue to be the rock he has proven himself to be in previous seasons.
Second Team: David Molk (Michigan)
Third Team: Peter Konz (Wisconsin)
Fourth Team: Graham Pocic (Illinois)
First Team: Joel Foreman (Michigan State) and Kevin Zeitler (Wisconsin)
Joel Foreman will start his senior season at Michigan State at the offensive guard position. He will become the first four-year starter at that position since 1988. Foreman is the anchor up front and will be a force for the Spartans, as they do some rebuilding on the offensive line.
Although coach Mark Dantonio speaks highly of the athleticism of the new guys up front, they will need some serious seasoning. Plus, the linemen will have to age fast if the Spartans expect to win the Legends Division in its debut year. Foreman could serve as a real leader, as the offensive line begins to jell.
Wisconsin offensive guard Kevin Zeitler is a two-year starter on the Badgers offensive line. It is true that the Wisconsin line lost some real talent by graduation, but Zeitler’s work ethic and dedication to improving his game inspire his teammates.
With the departure of All-Americans John Moffitt and Gabe Carimi, there will be a definite drop-off, but Zeitler vows to work even harder to keep the Badgers running backs moving downfield.
Wisconsin is known for its O-line. Even though Zeitler did not receive the recognition of his more well-known teammates, he will be a tremendous asset on the line, as well as an inspired leader for the Badgers offense.
Second Team: Ken Plue (Purdue) and Chris McDonald (Michigan State)
Third Team: Nolan MacMillan (Iowa) and Patrick Omanmeh (Michigan)
Fourth Team: Johnny Troutman (Penn State) and Brian Mulroe (Northwestern)
First Team: Riley Reiff (Iowa) and Jeff Allen (Illinois)
Riley Reiff will head up a seasoned offensive line at Iowa. Reiff is a probable All-American candidate at left tackle for the Hawkeyes, who bring back experience at all five offensive line positions.
This bodes well for a relatively inexperienced starting quarterback, as the season gets underway. Reiff has started the last 24 games for Iowa, standing 6’6", weighing 300 pounds. He has pounded his way to being one of the top of offensive linemen playing in the league. Iowa will need Reiff’s prowess at protecting the quarterback, as well rushing opposing defenses, opening holes for the Iowa running backs.
Jeff Allen is senior starting on the offensive line for Illinois for the third year. Illinois—which not only had a winning season, but also won its bowl game—comes into the 2011 season with its offensive line virtually intact. Allen, along with his teammates, wish to build on the success of 2010, with Allen serving as a leader on the offensive side of the ball.
With the additional impetus of a seasoned quarterback and an experienced corps of receivers, Allen and the Illini are looking forward to another good season––an even better one than 2010.
Second Team: Dennis Kelley (Purdue) and Al Netter (Northwestern)
Third Team: J.B. Shugarts (Ohio State) and Ricky Wagner (Wisconsin)
Fourth Team: Ed Olson (Minnesota) and Jeremiah Sirles (Nebraska)
First Team: Vince Browne (Northwestern) and Broderick Binns (Iowa)
Vince Browne is a senior defensive, who managed to notch seven sacks, as well as 15.5 tackles for loss in the 2010 football campaign. He applied some much-needed pass-rushing pressure from a defense last year, which, overall, did little to apply pressure most of the time.
This year, for Northwestern to advance from mediocre to the top of the Big Ten, Browne will need some help up front on defense. Still, the senior will be on hand to provide leadership on the field. Browne, along with his teammates, wishes to insure greater success this year for the Wildcats.
For Broderick Binns, it will be difficult plugging the holes in Iowa’s defense with the departure of stalwarts Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug leaving for the NFL. But, expect the senior to live up to his billing, stepping in to fill the vast void left by departing seniors of a year ago. Binns has started 18 games as defensive end and has the experience necessary to do the job effectively.
Second Team: John Simon (Ohio State) and Cameron Meredith (Nebraska)
Third Team: Nathan Williams (Ohio State) and Jack Crawford (Penn State)
Fourth Team: Ryan Van Bergen (Michigan) and Louis Nzegwu (Wisconsin)
First Team: Jared Crick (Nebraska) and Mike Martin (Michigan)
Last year for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Jared Crick led the team with tackles for a loss and sacks with 9.5. The dominating strength for the 'Huskers has been their defense, which has shut down some pretty impressive offenses the past two years.
Crick, as a legitimate All-American candidate, has led the way on the defensive line, allowing Nebraska to build impressive defensive numbers. Expect Crick to continue to dominate on the defensive line for the Cornhuskers.
In 2010, Mike Martin was Michigan’s best defensive player, which often led to many teams trying to double-team him. Noted for his superior athletic ability and his quickness off the ball, Martin will become one of the anchors on the defensive line as the new Michigan defense takes the field in 2011.
As a senior, Martin has been mentioned in connection with the Outland Trophy and the Bronko Nagurski Award for the best defensive player. It promises to be a stellar season for the defensive tackle as he takes the field for the Michigan Wolverines.
Second Team: Jerel Worthy (Michigan State) and Kawann Short (Purdue)
Third Team: Mike Daniels (Iowa) and Devon Still (Penn State)
Fourth Team: Baker Steinkuhler (Nebraska) and Johnathan Hankins (Ohio State)
First Team: Lavonte David (Nebraska), Chris Borland (Wisconsin) and Michael Mauti (Penn State)
Transferring in, Lavonte David stepped into the position of middle linebacker and managed to break the Nebraska single-season record for tackles with 152 in last year’s campaign. There is no reason to expect that David’s output will lessen in 2011, as Nebraska heads into its first season as a member of the Big Ten Conference. There will be a slight learning curve for Nebraska linebackers; but with the Big Red defense, no one doubts their ability to adapt.
The Wisconsin linebacker, Chris Borland, is back from a season of injury after being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009. Assuming he stays healthy, Borland has unending talent at the linebacker position and will be needed to bolster the Badgers defense, moving to the middle linebacker position. There is great hope by the new linebacker coach Dave Huxtable that Borland will live up to his potential and plug the middle, as well as serve as an edge-rusher in their nickel package.
Penn State returning starter at linebacker Michael Mauti will be moving to middle linebacker when the 2011 Nittany Lions season gets underway. In 2010, Mauti recorded 5.5 tackles for a loss plus two sacks. As a sophomore, Mauti was working from the outside linebacker position and battling ankle and shoulder injuries.
The shuffling of personnel at the linebacker positions will hopefully strengthen Penn State’s defensive output in the red zone. Mauti resumes the linebacker spot in the middle, fully healthy and ready to help the Lions battle their way to the top of the Leaders Division.
Second Team: Mike Taylor (Wisconsin), Andrew Sweat (Ohio State) and James Morris (Iowa)
Third Team: Ian Thomas (Illinois), Gerald Hodges (Penn State) and Gary Tinsley (Minnesota)
Fourth Team: Chris Norman (Michigan State), Tyler Nielsen (Iowa) and Max Bullough (Michigan State)
First Team: Shaun Prater (Iowa) and Alfonzo Dennard (Nebraska)
Shaun Prater, the standout Iowa Hawkeye at cornerback, was tempted to turn pro, like Iowa safety Tyler Sash. However, Prater returned to Iowa for his senior season, allowing the Iowa coaches to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
A first-team All-Big Ten selection after the 2010 season, Prater amassed 68 tackles and four interceptions, as well as a fumble recovery. These accomplishments have added Prater to the Nagurski Award watch list for the nation’s top defensive player. From the backfield, Prater gives Iowa a decided edge in facing Big Ten opposing offenses.
The Nebraska Cornhusker, Alfonzo Dennard, comes into his senior season after having a very successful junior season, where he started 13 of 14 games. With four interceptions on the season, Dennard finished second for the Huskers, ending fifth in the Big 12. At his cornerback position, Dennard also had seven pass breakups, as well as 30 tackles––12 were solo stops.
His play helped the Nebraska defense hold opposing passers to less than 49 percent of their pass attempts. With outstanding quickness and leaping ability, plus good ball-handling skills, Dennard should help the Huskers contain opposing offenses in their inaugural season in the Big Ten.
Second Team: Ricardo Allen (Purdue) and Antonio Fenelus (Wisconsin)
Third Team: Terry Hawthorne (Illinois) and Jordan Mabin (Northwestern)
Fourth Team: D’Anton Lynn (Penn State) and Tavon Wilson (Illinois)
First Team: Trenton Robinson (Michigan State) and Brian Peters (Northwestern)
Michigan State senior Trenton Robinson feels that it is dangerous to believe your own press. The free safety for the Spartans, who will no doubt be a starter and a leader for the team, knows it is important to work hard for your spot on the team in order to instill a winning spirit in your game. In 2010, Robinson started 12 games, garnering 76 tackles and four interceptions. He was also there to interrupt 12 passes, finishing second in the Big Ten.
He became the anchor of a secondary unit that improved vastly over the course of the season because of Robinson’s speed and his balance. His potential to improve during his senior season are excellent, which is great news for the Spartans.
Now a Northwestern senior, Brian Peters has played in every game for the Wildcats for the past three seasons. He brings much experience into the backfield for Northwestern as it begins its 2011 campaign. In 2010, Peters led the team with 107 tackles, four for a loss, as well as three interceptions. In fact, Peters managed three interceptions in 2009, as well.
Last year, as a junior, Peters was named to the second-team All-Big Ten and this year, he expects to go one better. Along with three other defensive backs from the Big Ten, Peters has been named to the Jim Thorpe Award watch list. His play will be an important ingredient for coach Pat Fitzgerald’s demand for a better defensive showing in 2011.
Second Team: Aaron Henry (Wisconsin) and Micah Hyde (Iowa)
Third Team: Drew Astorino (Penn State) and Trulon Henry (Illinois)
Fourth Team: Orhian Johnson (Ohio State) and Nick Sukay (Penn State)
First Team: Troy Stoudemire (Minnesota)
Senior Troy Stoudemire, out of the University of Minnesota, promises to lead the Big Ten in yardage for returning kickoffs. Stoudemire has proven himself to be a real asset to the Gophers backfield on offense and defense.
He is an all-around football player, who returned 29 kicks for 789 yards (27.2 yards per return) with a long of 90 yards.
Second Team: Jordan Hall (Ohio State)
Third Team: Venric Mark, (Northwestern)
Fourth Team: Jaamal Berry (Ohio State)
First Team: Keshawn Martin (Michigan State)
Keshawn Martin, as a junior on last year’s Michigan State team, had 16 returns for 228 yards, averaging 14.2 yards per punt return. He ran one punt back for a touchdown.
Martin returns to the Spartans lineup this year as a senior, with returning punts as a big part of his duties for the Spartans. With Kirk Cousins back to lead the offense, Martin’s receiving duties will add to his value as part of the Spartans' high-flying offensive capabilities.
Second Team: Devon Smith (Penn State)
Third Team: Jordan Hall (Ohio State)
Fourth Team: Justin Brown (Penn State)
First Team: Philip Welch (Wisconsin)
There are several top-rated place kickers in the Big Ten. One of the very best is senior Philip Welch of Wisconsin, who scored 118 points last season.
He was a perfect 67-of-67 in PATs and made 17 out of 22 field goals for the Badgers. He averaged 9.1 points per game, second only to Devin Barclay of Ohio State. Welch’s longest field goal was 49 yards.
Welch will return for his senior year in Madison, hoping to help the Badgers equal their offensive production from one year ago.
Second Team: Derek Dimke (Illinois)
Third Team: Dan Conroy (Michigan State)
Fourth Team: Carson Wiggs (Purdue)
First Team: Will Hagerup (Michigan)
As a freshman, Will Hagerup learned the fine points of punting under fire. He managed only 33 punts for 1,440 yards, with his longest punt recorded at 72 yards. His season averaged out at 43.6 yards per punt.
As he returns for his sophomore year, he has assumed the punting duties once again for a newly retooled Wolverines offense. Hopefully this year, the total times the Wolverines need to punt will be even fewer. In the meantime, the coaches are trying to shore up other kicking areas of the Michigan game.
Second Team: Cody Webster (Purdue)
Third Team: Brad Nortman (Wisconsin)
Fourth Team: Anthony Fera (Penn State)