After a long off-season where scandals rocked the college football landscape, including in the Big Ten's backyard at Ohio State, football returns this weekend. Today, the focus is on the newly formed Leaders division, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, and Wisconsin. Check back tomorrow for the preview of the Legends division.
The Legends division features two defending conference champions and three programs on the rise. Even Indiana should improve this season under new head coach Kevin Wilson. Without further ado, let's jump right into the team previews.
The Badgers looked like a solid number two team behind Ohio State before Memorial Day, but then transfer senior QB Russell Wilson decided to come to Madison, and Ohio State lost their quarterback and coach. Now Wisconsin is a prohibitive favorite in the Leaders division despite only having six returning starters on each side of the ball.
Bret Bielema has the Badgers hungry for more success after just falling short in the Rose Bowl a season ago. Although John Clay is gone, Wisconsin still has two thousand yard rushers returning in Montee Ball and James White.
Wilson also brings some running ability to the table, so expect the zone blocking offensive line to blow open big holes for each of these players to run through again in 2011. Wisconsin should not miss a beat from last season on offense, which is a scary proposition for their conference opponents.
The Badger defense slipped a bit against the run last season despite the great season from JJ Watt, but the numbers may turn around with seven of the top eight defensive linemen returning. The defensive backfield is loaded with seniors and experience, led by CB Antonio Fenelus and FS Aaron Henry.
Wisconsin is also solid on special teams with senior kicker Philip Welch and senior punter Brad Nortman returning. With Russell Wilson, Wisconsin is the most complete team in the Big Ten.
The season will likely come down to two back-to-back road games at East Lansing and Columbus. If Wisconsin sweeps those two games, then an undefeated season is possible.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Although Miami may be grabbing the NCAA compliance headlines going into the season, the major controversy of the offseason happened in Columbus. With last season "wiped from the books," Jim Tressel fired, and Terrelle Pryor gone to the NFL, amongst other penalties, the six time defending champion has now become an underdog in their 6 team division.
With only a few days left until the first game, interim coach Luke Fickell has not named his quarterback, although the four man race is down to two: senior Joe Bauserman and freshman Braxton Miller. Miller would be a choice for the future and a choice for continuity, as he has dual threat talent like Pryor, while Bauserman is the safe choice who may guide this team better through rocky times similar to a Craig Krenzel or a Scott Tolzien.
No matter who is guiding the offense, a bigger question may be who will catch the ball, especially during leading receiver Devier Posey's five game suspension. Corey Brown and Chris Fields should pick up the slack but both are unproven.
Expect a similar conservative run-heavy offense with three returning linemen and a stable of running backs that only gets stronger when leading RB Dan Herron returns from suspension in October.
The defense must reload with 7 new starters, although that is not usually a problem for the good recruiting Buckeye program. Look for new starters Johnathan Hankins on the line and linebackers Etienne Sabino and Storm Klein to make immediate impacts.
OSU will also have solid special teams as usual. The schedule is relatively forgiving early, although a road game at Miami and Michigan State at home could be tricky before Herron, Posey, and lineman Mike Adams return for the biggest game of the season at Nebraska.
If Ohio State defends the home turf, they will likely squeeze past Wisconsin and Penn State into the championship game.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Joe Paterno enters his 46th season at State College and seems to still be going strong despite some up and down seasons in the past decade. Last year the Nittany Lions failed to win nine games for the first time since 2004, and part of the problem was inconsistent play from young quarterbacks Matt Mcgloin and Rob Bolden.
It is unclear who will be the primary starter this season, but hopefully the competition has made them both better for this season. The Nittany Lions also return three offensive linemen to open holes for new running back Silas Redd, who outgoing star RB Evan Royster said will break his school rushing record in the next three seasons.
Part of Penn State's slip to under 150 yards per game rushing had to do with the offensive line, but those problems should be turned around so that the offense is successful again in 2011.
The defense struggled mightily against the run last year, dropping from five straight seasons of allowing less than 100 yards per game rushing to 166 per game on the ground. All four of the new starters on defense are on the defensive front, but the linebackers are stacked with talent and should be back to PSU's high standards.
The defensive backfield returns all four starters and should dramatically improve on the six interceptions generated a season ago.
Although Alabama and Iowa could be tough tests at home, it is very likely that Penn State will be 5-0 in conference play heading into their bye. The key stretch to close the season includes Nebraska at home followed by OSU and Wisconsin on the road.
If Penn State splits those road games correctly, then the Nittany Lions will be representing the division in the conference championship.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Ron Zook may only have two winning seasons in his tenure, but the talent level continues to be high in Champaign. Illinois is always seemingly a couple of breaks away from the Rose Bowl.
Seven starters return on offense including sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who was impressively steady in his freshman season. Scheelhaase will run the ball from time to time, but the offense may rely much more on his throwing arm with excellent RB Mikel LeShoure gone to the pros.
The offensive line should maintain their high level of play with Graham Pocic, Hugh Thornton, and Jeff Allen back for another season.
Illinois had a solid defense a season ago, but four new starters in the front seven may undermine the progress from a season ago. Senior linebacker Ian Thomas will be an absolute key to reading opponent offenses and leading the rest of the defensive front to success and good form.
The defensive backfield should be even stronger than a season before with cornerbacks Vaon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne back.
The schedule is very favorable with eight home games and only one moderately difficult road game at Penn State (the other road games are Indiana, Purdue, and Minnesota). If Illinois can continue to be a thorn in Ohio State's side and perhaps pull an upset against Wisconsin at home, then the Fighting Illini will shock the world with a division title.
Although Purdue took a step forward last season in Danny Hope's second season, the Boilermakers actually ended with one fewer victory thanks to being absolutely decimated throughout the offense and the defense with injuries. This season seemed to necessarily have to be better on the injuries front, and then starting quarterback Robert Marve tore his ACL and is out for the season.
Although Miami transfer Robert Marve appears to be clear of the mess in Miami, Purdue fans are probably waiting for the other shoe to drop and leave them with a third string quarterback. Marve should thrive behind an experienced offensive line led by senior guard Ken Plue.
On defense the Boilermakers must replace only two starters, but one of them is 2010 Big Ten defensive player of the year Ryan Kerrigan. Robert Maci will fill Kerrigan's end slot on the line but it will be nearly impossible to replace the production and effect Kerrigan had on a game.
Look for defensive tackle Kawann Short to try and take the mantle of most disruptive defensive player on the team after racking up 6.5 tackles for loss opposite Kerrigan. The linebackers and defensive backfield should improve overall against opposing passing games, which will be critical to keeping Purdue in games so that the offense has a chance to win.
Purdue has a tough schedule overall but does miss Michigan State and Nebraska in cross-divisional play which could help them get to the magic 6 wins for the first time under Hope.
Although Indiana has only been to one bowl game in the last 18 years, excitement is higher in Bloomington thanks to the arrival of Kevin Wilson, who led Oklahoma's successful offense the past few seasons. Wilson is bringing a spirit of pride and competition back to the Hoosiers and will not accept medicority, especially on offense.
Thankfully, Wilson is walking into a program that has done offense relatively well the past few seasons. Although Indiana's offense will certainly miss quarterback Ben Chappell, sophomore Dusty Kiel will grow quickly under the tutelage of Wilson and his assistant coaches.
Kiel will primarily target another pair of sophomore recievers in Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes. The offense will likely take a slight step backwards because of all the holes to be plugged, but Wilson will have them running smoothly by the time November rolls around.
Indiana's defense has been the program's achielles heel this decade and this season may be no different with only six starters returning. Of the six returning, LB Jeff Thomas may be the best athlete.
Indiana will once again hope to win a lot of shootouts this season, but the division looks too tough for Wilson to make much progress in his first season. Indiana will struggle to win any road games with one of the toughest conference slates including Wisconsin, Iowa, OSU, and MSU. Indiana takes a step back in 2011.
1. Wisconsin (6-2, 10-2)
2. Ohio State (6-2, 9-3)
3. Penn State (5-3, 8-4)
4. Illinois (4-4, 7-5)
5. Purdue (3-5, 6-6)
6. Indiana (1-7, 3-9)
Division Pre-Season Players of the Year
Offense: Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Defense: Nathan Williams, DL, Ohio State
Special Teams: Jordan Hall, KR, Ohio State
The first season of 12 teams and two divisions in the Big Ten could turn out to be one of the most competitive, as the schedules shape up tougher for teams with slightly better talent. Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin will split their games against one another, but Wisconsin will win a tiebreaker as a result of head-to-head victory and PSU losing two other conference games.
Although it is feasible that only four teams will be bowl eligible in the division, Purdue could overcome the late loss of their quarterback to rally for Danny Hope to reach a bowl. If that happens, this will be one of the most competitive divisions in college football this year.
Join us tomorrow for a preview of the Legends division and later in the week for first week power rankings and previews.