12 Burning Questions For the New Big Ten (Part One: Legends Division)
Another season dawns upon the Big Ten and, with the new sun, there emerges a whole new landscape.
New players, new coaches, a new logo and even a new member, laden with tradition, that will give a new sparkle to a conference already brimming with history, pageantry and respectability.
Some of the changes are generally viewed as good; for the first time an actual conference championship will be fought upon the field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Others were not met with as much approval; "Legends" and "Leaders"?
Who came up with those names and how much did they get paid? Fortunately, the Big Ten has said that they are going to "test market" them for a year and then re-evaluate them.
But with such superficial matters comes more weightier issues. Ones that will determine how this new-look, Big Ten's first season will play out on the field.
So without further ado, here is the first part of a two-part article with twelve burning questions for the Big Ten teams as they head into the 2011 season--Part One: Legends Division
Can Iowa Overcome a Lack of Experience and Off-The-Field Problems?
The Hawkeyes return only nine starters from last season's squad and it seemed for a while that the only media attention they could garner was bad press.
Several players were arrested, most notably RB Adam Robinson and WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for drug-related charges.
Robinson was Iowa's top rusher, having racked up 941 yards and 10 touchdowns before being suspended before the Hawkeyes' Insight Bowl win over Missouri. Both players are no longer with the team.
Then, during the off-season, 13 Iowa players required hospitalization for a muscle disorder that stemmed from a squat-lifting workout.
Longtime Iowa coach, Kirk Ferentz insists that the team has moved on since then, but moving on requires replacing QB Ricky Stanzi.
The player tabbed to do that is redshirt junior James Vandenberg, who threw only eight passes last season as Stanzi's back-up.
To his credit, however, Vandenberg did play in the last two-and-a-half conference games of 2009 due to a leg injury to Stanzi. Recent reports also quote Vandenberg's teammates describing him as fearless and more than ready to seize the opportunity to lead the Iowa offense.
Defensively, there are depth issues that might give some Hawkeye fans pause, especially the line.
One of the team's hopes is that sophomore RB Marcus Coker can build on his Insight Bowl record performance and WR Marvin McNutt Jr. can help ease Vandenberg's transition to starting QB.
Can Brady Hoke and the Wolverines' Shore Up Their Leaky Defense?
Three and out.
That normally refers to what a team hopes to do to an opposing offense--hold them to three downs and then get them out of the game.
In this instance, it refers to length of Rich Rodriguez's tenure as the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.
While Rodriguez's spread offense cranked out nearly 500 yards per game and ranked eighth nationally, his defense's glaring weaknesses (only 12 FBS programs allowed more points per game than the Wolverines) was his undoing.
No disrespect to Mississippi State intended, but allowing them to pile up 52 points on Michigan in the Gator Bowl was simply unacceptable.
Enter Brady Hoke, Michigan's D-Line coach from '95-'02, who promptly hired former Baltimore Ravens' DC Greg Mattison, who was also the Wolverines' defensive coordinator in the mid '90's.
Though the concept of recapturing the glory of former Michigan defenses is obvious and while they return eight defensive starters, keeping them healthy might be an issue.
Meanwhile, on offense, the explosive junior signal caller, Denard Robinson, must learn a new offensive style.
Last year, in the spread, Robinson averaged 328.6 yards per game, but it remains to be seen how he (and his eight fellow returning starters) will adapt to a pro-style offense.
In a recent interview he said that he is patterning himself after Michael Vick and Peyton Manning...and after a moment's thought, Tom Brady, too.
Can the Spartans Rebound from Their Blowout Loss to the Tide?
Mark Dantonio and the Spartans catapulted themselves from a 6-7 record in 2009 to an 11-1 record and a share of the Big Ten title in 2010.
On a national stage, against an SEC powerhouse, they had a golden opportunity to show the nation that they had truly turned the corner.
The Tide promptly swept them under, 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl.
Now the Spartans must pick up the pieces and recapture the glory before the fall.
The offense carries a lot of potential with a seasoned, third-year starting QB, senior Kirk Cousins, a deep stable of receivers and a loaded backfield featuring junior Edwin Baker, but it will be protected by an offensive line that has only two returning starters. The problem is that they started on the defensive line.
Factor in a tough road schedule with a particularly brutal October (at Ohio State, vs. Michigan, vs. Wisconsin, at Nebraska) and the magic might be even harder to recapture.
Will Guts and a Straight-Talking New Coach Be Enough to Make the Gophers Golden?
Jerry Kill, Minnesota's new head coach, faces a tough task, turning around a program that has gotten progressively worse over the last three years.
Not a popular hire after three-and-a-half years of misery under his predecessor, Tim Brewster, Kill has slowly been winning the support of Minnesota fans with his unapologetic, no-nonsense approach.
Having taken Northern Illinois to three bowl games the past three years, Kill was quick to point out the shortcomings of his new squad and to challenge his team and staff to improve before expecting to effectively compete with the upper echelon schools of the Big Ten.
To say that there is room for such improvement would be an understatement.
With his newly acquired defense ranked last against the run (in the conference) and last in quarterback sacks (in the nation) the D-line became his highest priority.
With his own NIU squad rushing for 297 yards last season against the Gophers and with all four starters on the defensive line returning, Kill sees no reason why they cannot become more aggressive and successful against the run.
On offense, Kill has moved MarQueis Gray, a former dual-threat quarterback prospect, from wide receiver to starting QB. DaJon McKnight should be his primary target, but there is little depth behind him.
At running back, Duane Bennett should shoulder the majority of the load as the Gophers are thin at that position also. In addition, Bennett will be running behind a line that will be forced to break-in three new starters.
And if things weren't difficult enough already, Minnesota opens the season on the road against USC.
We should learn how far candor and intestinal fortitude can take this team pretty quickly.
Will the New Kids on the Block Become the Neighborhood Bullies?
Here's a trivia tidbit for you diehard college football fans: If the Huskers make it to the Big Ten Title game, they would be the only college team to play for two different conference titles in consecutive seasons.
But let's not put the cart before the horse, shall we?
After three seasons of watching their hard-nosed coach, Bo Pelini, storming the sidelines, chewing his gum with ferocity, Husker Nation has come to expect that their team will play with passion, especially the defense.
This year should be no exception.
With senior DT Jared Crick, junior DT Baker Steinkuhler and junior DE Cameron Meredith terrorizing quarterbacks, hard-hitting senior LB Lavonte David punishing running backs and receivers alike and senior CB Alfonzo Dennard patrolling the secondary, the Blackshirts should fit right into their new conference with its more physical style of play.
Nevermind the reports that Dennard is out "indefinitely" with a pulled leg muscle and might miss the season opener against Chattanooga; Pelini views it as an opportunity for his other corners to get more practice time.
Suffice to say that Bo is confident in his defense.
Where most of the fans' curiosity lies is in the offense.
Last season, Taylor Martinez came out of nowhere, racking up Playstation-like numbers until injury began to slow him down. By then, opposing defenses were assigning players to shadow him and he became less effective and some drama erupted on the sidelines.
At one point, the quarterback position became so depleted that, during the Iowa State game, Pelini had junior RB Rex Burkhead take over for a series (Burkhead played QB in high school).
At season's end, the Huskers suffered a sputtering, turnover-plagued swoon, losing three of their last four games which prompted Pelini to fire OC Shawn Watson, junk his West Coast attack and promote running backs coach Tim Beck in favor of a simpler playbook.
Another issue that must be should be addressed is the loss of three starters on the offensive line, especially since Nebraska allowed 29 sacks last season.
The offense will feature Martinez primarily in the shotgun with Burkhead now taking over duties for Roy Helu Jr. following his departure to the NFL. Other than that, Pelini is being tight-lipped about the Huskers' up-tempo offense.
Simply put, Pelini says he's trying to win a national title and his new offense should fit in any conference.
Can a Wealth of Experience Translate into a Wildcats' Conference Title?
When quarterback Dan Persa hit the winning touchdown pass against Iowa, then blew out his Achilles tendon celebrating, it was as if all the air went out of the Wildcats' big, purple balloon.
Following that fateful day, Northwestern lost to Illinois by three touchdowns, had 70 points hung on them by the Badgers and then gave up 45 points to Texas Tech in a TicketCity Bowl loss.
During that total collapse, the Wildcats gave up an average of 344 rushing yards per game. In all of 2010, the NU defense gave up 5,540 yards of total offense. Not good.
However, this year with a fully healed Persa in his senior year and whom USA TODAY considers to be perhaps the best dual threat passer in the country, it's Big Ten title or bust for the Wildcats and head coach Pat Fitzgerald who was rewarded with a fat contract through 2020.
Northwestern returns fifteen starters this year all with a singular, conference-winning mindset.
Besides Persa, who led the nation in completion percentage (73.5%), WR Jeremy Ebert and SB Drake Dunsmore (both seniors) will be back and prominently featured in Fitzgerald's spread offense that averaged 391 yards per game last season.
If Persa stays healthy, the defense does its part and the 'Cats can survive the fact that six of their first nine games are on the road, culminating in a clash against the Big Red in Lincoln, Nebraska, they might convince the conference and the country that they're doing more than just drinking purple Kool-Aid.