12 Burning Questions for the New Big Ten (Part Two: Leaders Division)
Welcome to the second installment of a two-part series concerning perhaps the most compelling questions facing the teams of the Big Ten as they enter a new season, set against the ever-changing backdrop of modern-day college football.
This particular article focuses on the six teams that make up the Leaders Division. If you missed the first part from earlier in the week concerning the Legends Division, click here.
Naturally, every team, irregardless of conference affiliation, faces its own unique set of challenges as it embarks upon the 2011 campaign; the purpose of these two articles has been to put the uncertainties of each Big Ten team in the crucible and boil them down to one burning question that sums up their entire season.
Can Illinois' 2010 Midseason Momentum Carry Over to 2011?
It was a tale of two seasons in Champaign last year.
In the first six games, the Fighting Illini offense scored an average of 21.3 points/game while gaining 336.7 yards/game. Over their seven remaining contests, they averaged 42.1 points and 448.9 yards per game. In the end, the offense set a single-season school record for scoring with 32.5 points/game.
It was during that offensive flourish that the defense snagged 19 of its 27 takeaways, thus improving the team's national rank in that statistic from 108th to 22nd.
During that stretch, in which they won their first bowl game since 1999 (admittedly over Baylor), the team had a record of 4-3, but their largest margin of defeat was four points, while twice they fell by a mere two points (one instance being a triple-overtime road loss to Michigan).
Head coach Ron Zook, who probably wouldn't be entering his seventh season if not for the dramatic turnaround, credits the midseason acquisition of offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning for Illinois' 180.
During the offseason, the program suffered some heavy losses, most notably NT Corey Liuget and RB Mikel Leshoure and his single-season school record 1,697 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns but will return six starters on each side of the ball for 2011, including sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase.
Scheelhaase set records of his own by rushing for 868 yards (he also threw for 1,825 yards) and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week six times.
So there is good cause for optimism this season in Champaign, provided that the Illini can keep their momentum going.
Can a New Coach Bring Sooner-Style Success to the Hoosiers?
A welcome wind of change may soon be blowing over Bloomington.
OK, admittedly not soon enough for some, but new head coach Kevin Wilson is working on it.
Wilson, the architect of a record-breaking offense led by Heisman-winner Sam Bradford in Norman, Oklahoma, believes that sometimes the line between success and failure comes down to more than just talent. According to Wilson, winning teams have an expectation to win which translates into a more confident attitude and stronger work ethic.
Now before anyone believes that Wilson will just part the Big Ten waters and lead the Hoosiers to the promised land, they should understand that it isn't quite that simple. Changing the prevailing attitude and turning the team around will be a gradual task; after all, Indiana has had only one winning season in the past 16 and no bowl wins.
However, it would appear that the university is doing more than just paying lip service to the concept of a complete team overhaul. During the offseason, the powers-that-be ponied up with a $35 million check to fund facility improvements and then doubled the salaries of the new head coach and his assistants.
Nevertheless, the immediate task at hand will be daunting.
Though the Hoosiers return 12 starters, overall the roster is largely a mess.
The strength of the team will be on the offensive line (with four starters returning) and at wide receiver where the Indiana offense will feature a pair of sophomores, Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes and senior Damarlo Belcher, a preseason Big Ten selection according to several publications.
According to the latest media reports, the starting quarterback is still a mystery, and the running back spot has been hampered by injuries and limited by inexperience.
There is a lot of work to do defensively as well. Last season's unit surrendered 410 yards and 34 points per game. They also lost three starters from a secondary that was worst in pass-efficiency defense in the Big Ten.
As if that wasn't enough the Hoosiers face a five-game stretch in which they play four games on the road: Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State with a home game against Northwestern sandwiched in the middle.
So, while Wilson might be able to bring some Sooner magic to the Hoosiers it might be later...than sooner.
Will Controversy and Uncertainty Be Too Much To Bear for the Talented Buckeyes?
Even with an uncertain future and a 37-year-old head coach with no head coaching experience taking over at the helm, there is still a level of talent remaining in Columbus that most coaches could only dream of having at their disposal.
The benefits scandal, the resignation of "The Vest," the suspensions and the departure of the fairly over-hyped Terrelle Pryor and his entrance into the NFL's supplemental draft have all been plastered across every form of media and require nothing more than a mention in this context.
What merits discussion is the question mark looming over The Horseshoe—the level of distraction that those events might cause this season's bushel of Buckeyes, not to mention the continuing uncertainty, nipping at their heels with each stride they take, as they try to put the whole unpleasantness behind them.
First-year coach Luke Fickell's primary weapon to combat this seismic shift is the aforementioned subject used to open our story—talent.
The Buckeyes have had consistent top five recruiting classes the past four years, and according to Scout.com, the top-overall class of recruits in 2009.
So, while only eight returning starters will be available for the season opener vs. Akron, TB Dan Herron, WR DeVier Posey and LT Mike Adams will be available for the October 8th tilt vs. Nebraska in Lincoln.
Filling the vacated quarterback spot will be fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman instead of the highly-touted true freshman, Braxton Miller—for now. Bauserman, a former walk-on, is 25 years old who also pitched in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system. Fickell has indicated that Miller, a 5-star recruit from Huber Heights, Ohio, could start down the road...or the Buckeyes could sport a two-QB system for a while until a true front-runner emerges.
Such things don't seem to bother the unflappable senior All-America center, Mike Brewster, who will anchor an admittedly thin offensive line—that is until Adams returns from suspension.
Amid all this uncertainty, one thing is certain. Expectations will still be high in Columbus, and Fickell, a nine-year assistant under Tressel and former OSU nose guard, who landed his dream job under nightmarish circumstances will need to fulfill them to avoid being supplanted by "bigger hire" in 2012.
Can Penn State Show Stability at QB and Fill the Epic Void Left at RB?
2011 will be Joe Paterno's 46th year as the Nittany Lions head coach.
This writer tries hard not to interject himself into his articles as it is intrusive to the reader, however, today I turned 42. Four years less than Joe Pa's tenure at Penn State.
It is truly hard to fathom. I thought that the 25 years that the great Tom Osborne spent at the helm of the Nebraska Cornhuskers was remarkable, yet the venerable Paterno has nearly doubled that. He has truly forgotten more about the game of football than most of us will ever know.
But, I digress.
This season will be a challenging one for Paterno and his troops.
Not only have the Nittany Lions lost their all-time leading rusher, Evan Royster (3,932 yards from 2007 to 2010), but they still haven't decided who will step off of the bus first, sophomore Rob Bolden or junior Matt McGloin, as they welcome Indiana State to Happy Valley (PSU tradition dictates that the starting QB is the first player off the bus).
Beyond that, even though PSU returns 14 starters (as well as their punter), none of them were all Big Ten selections.
Hoping to fill the big shoes of Royster are sophomore Silas Redd and senior Stephon Green who totaled only 625 yards and three touchdowns between them in back-up roles.
Defensively, the outlook is good, as Penn State will do battle in the physical Big Ten with a proven unit. They have experience across the D-line, linebacking crew and secondary.
However, as late as yesterday, in his weekly recorded radio broadcast, Paterno gave no indication as to which player, Bolden or McGloin, would start under center but indicated that both players would probably see playing time.
Last season, Bolden won the starting spot, becoming the first true freshman to do so since 1992, however, he was injured in the second quarter of the Minnesota game.
McGloin stepped in and promptly threw his first pass for a 42-yard touchdown. Against Michigan, he became the first former walk-on in the Paterno era to start at QB.
Bolden returned against Northwestern but was pulled after a fumble ended the second offensive series. McGloin led the Nittany Lions to five straight touchdown drives (which included four TD passes) and erased a 21-point deficit, equaling the greatest comeback in Paterno's career and capturing Paterno's 400th victory.
By then, McGloin had wrested the starting spot away from Bolden and boldly predicted a big game at The Horseshoe against Ohio State, where no Penn State quarterback had thrown a passing TD since 1963. He ended up throwing two in the first half but ended up also tossing two pick-sixes in an eventual Buckeyes blowout.
Finally, in the Outback Bowl, McGloin threw a school-record five interceptions in a loss to the Florida Gators.
During the offseason, both players considered transferring but stayed put.
So while the running game is unsettled, it seems that, more importantly, one of the QB candidates must step up and play consistently in order for Penn State to be legitimate Big Ten title contenders.
Can Purdue Stay Healthy and Take Advantage of Their Wealth of Returning Starters?
First the bad news: Purdue lost Ryan "Superman" Kerrigan to the NFL. Kerrigan was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year with twelve-and-half sacks, five forced fumbles and 26 tackles for loss (which was the best in the country).
Now the good news: The Boilermakers return more starters than any other team in the Big Ten, 16, plus their punter and their strong-legged kicker and popular preseason All-Big Ten pick, Carson Wiggs.
Another player to watch is sophomore CB Ricardo Allen who, as a true freshman, had a 94-yard interception return for a touchdown against Michigan and another 35-yarder for a score versus Michigan State in consecutive weeks.
Also worth noting are junior DT Kawaan Short who had six sacks and twelve-and-a-half TFL, and sophomore QB Rob Henry, who led the team in rushing, with 547 yards and four touchdowns. Henry has also improved greatly as a passer during offseason practice, making himself more of a dual threat.
Two crucial keys for success in 2011 will be limiting injuries to a very injury-prone team and improving the defense.
To reduce the number of casualties, the team brought in San Francisco 49ers assistant Duane Carlisle in the offseason to emphasize movement and agility in the Boilermakers' strength and conditioning program.
But even if healthy, the team's biggest challenge might be to shore up the D. Last season, the defense ranked in the bottom third of nearly every statistical category in the Big Tenand that was with Kerrigan.
At least this year they will have nine returning starters on that side of the ball to try and bring the defense from a simmer to a boil.
Can a Transfer QB and a RB Tandem Lead the Badgers to Another Big Ten Title?
Reports surfaced about a few days ago stating that Badgers' QB, Jon Budmayr, will miss the season opener, and according to Wisconsin coach, Bret Bielema, could miss even more playing time.
And while Budmayr began preseason camp listed as the No. 1 quarterback, this shouldn't cause Badgers' fans too much concern considering the robust play of NC State transfer, Russell Wilson.
Added into Wisconsin's mix is a powerful running game, spearheaded by Montee Ball and James White. Last season, the pair combined for over 2,000 yards and 32 touchdowns.
So while the loss of John Clay, who rushed for just over 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, is a significant one, it shouldn't be terribly missed with the dynamic tandem of Ball and White in the backfield.
During the offseason, Ball shed around 10 pounds to be lighter on his feet while White has "been going hard in the weight room, squatting to become more of a power back."
WR Nick Toon, a fifth-year senior and son of NFL-great, Al Toon, is fully healed from a nagging turf-toe injury and should bring a wealth of leadership and guidance to the rest of the Wisconsin receiving corps.
On defense, the Badgers will be without their top three tacklers from 2010 but will return seniors Antonio Fenelus and Aaron Henry to their secondary.
To be sure, the Wisconsin defense needs to pressure opposing quarterbacks better than they did last season.
The pieces are certainly there to make another run at a Big Ten title, provided that the production from this year's batch of Badgers is as bountiful as before.