Ohio State & Michigan Early Favorites in 2012 Big Ten Race

Deni Martin@@denimartinCorrespondent IDecember 15, 2011

Ohio State & Michigan Early Favorites in 2012 Big Ten Race

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    Urban Meyer, the new head coach at Ohio State, has stepped into a wonderful situation.

    Despite a disappointing 2011 season, the Buckeyes will have seven starters on offense and at least nine on defense returning next season. And guess which Leaders Division team based in Columbus is doing pretty well recruiting highly coveted athletes?

    The Legends Division race may be a lot tighter in 2012, but Michigan is an early favorite based on the talented personnel returning on offense.

    Here's a quick preview of the Leaders Division teams followed by the Legends Division teams, as we get closer to Christmas and bowl games.

Leaders Division Favorite: Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Head coach Urban Meyer should have the biggest smile in the Big Ten when he looks at his roster for 2012.


    Number of Returning Starters: 16  (Offense, 7; Defense, 9)



    Quarterback Braxton Miller (pictured) will be back and though star running back Dan Herron will be gone, the Buckeyes have Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde to run the football. The two underclassmen took on the rushing burden, while Herron served his suspension this season.

    Unless defensive lineman John Simon bolts to the NFL, the Buckeye defense returns with experienced personnel at every position for 2012. Playing together in 2011 is certainly going to benefit this unit next season.



    The Buckeyes have to replace their center and two offensive tackles, but many of their Big Ten opponents face a similar problem. A team with a strong defense like Michigan State could be tough for the Buckeyes to beat in 2012.



    A new head coach with great credentials, a defensive coordinator who was the 2011 Buckeye head coach and a talented squad of returning starters should lead to a Leaders Division title for Ohio State next season.


Leaders Division's No. 2 Team: No More 'Jekyll and Hyde' for Illinois

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    The "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" team of the Big Ten this year was the Illinois Fighting Illini.

    They entered the season with plenty of talent and the belief they could contend for the Leaders Division title. They ended the regular season without a head coach and a 6-6 record.

    Ron Zook was fired, because he couldn't win Big Ten games. Illinois lost their last six games of the season to finish 2-6 in the conference.

    New head coach Tim Beckman, formerly of the University of Toledo, inherits a pretty good squad. They should prove it on the football field, but lack the talent and depth to compete with Ohio State for the top spot in the division.


    Number of Returning Starters: 14  (Offense, 7; Defense, 7)



    Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (pictured) was statistically the second best quarterback (behind Wisconsin's Russell Wilson) in the Leaders Division this year. He had a 136,8 passing efficiency rating and threw for 1,971 yards.

    The Illinois defense specializes in sacks and forcing fumbles. They will return with seven, possibly eight, starters.



    On offense, the Fighting Illini lose their best running back in Jason Ford and record-setting wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. Ford's spot will be filled most likely by Donovonn Young.

    The defense will definitely feel the absence of Whitney Mercilus if he skips his senior year to participate in the 2012 NFL draft. Mercilus should be a first-round pick after leading the nation with 14.5 sacks this year.



    A new head coach with the right staff and personnel can turn an average year into a great year. Just look at the turnaround in Ann Arbor where first-year head coach Brady Hoke led Michigan to a 10-2 record.

Wisconsin May Rebuild Itself to the No. 3 Spot in the Leaders Division

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    If you think you saw a lot of Montee Ball, wait until next year. (Wisconsin fans have asked me not to mention the possibility of their star running back being eligible for the 2012 NFL draft.)

    With Wisconsin losing a total of 11 starters, the best strategy may be Ball (pictured) running left, right and up the middle.

    Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist hopes to succeed just like Russell Wilson did as Wisconsin's quarterback.


    Number of Returning Starters: 11  (Offense, 5; Defense, 6)



    Mr. Touchdown (Montee Ball) should be back with a shot at the Heisman Trophy. 

    The two leading tacklers, linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, will keep the Badgers defense in order.



    Outside of their apparent strength at running back, Wisconsin will have new starters at the remaining offensive skill positions. They also need one new guard and a new tackle.

    Wisconsin's defense needs to replace an end, tackle, linebacker, cornerback and safety.



    If Dayne Crist does nothing more than hand the ball to his running backs and minimize offensive turnovers, Wisconsin will battle Illinois for the No. 2 spot in the Leaders Division.

No. 4 in the Leaders Division Could Be the Boilermakers' Fate

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    Hope may be rewarded in 2012. 

    That is Danny Hope, who will start his fourth year as Purdue's head coach with an experienced quarterback, running back and receiving corps.


    Number of Returning Starters: 15  (Offense, 8; Defense, 7)



    Caleb TerBush (pictured) is a 6' 5" quarterback with strong leadership ability and a strong arm. He could be the next Purdue QB headed for the NFL after he finishes his college career as a Boilermaker in 2012.

    Ralph Bolden will lead the running attack and Antavian Edison should be TerBush's favorite receiving target.



    Purdue will need two new starting safeties, a defensive end and a linebacker on defense. They will also have open slots to fill at offensive guard, offensive tackle and one wide receiver spot.



    If TerBush excels in 2012, look for the Boilermakers to have their best season in years.

No. 5 in the Leaders Division will be Penn State

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    As Penn State's loyal fans discovered, it is a cruel world.

    Their legendary head coach is fired, a former assistant coach is arrested and the university leadership team had the added title of "interim" in front of many key positions.

    So the proud Nittany Lion winning football tradition will carry on?

    Not quite.  Penn State is graduating a lot of personnel and it leaves the football cupboard pretty bare on both sides of the ball.


    Number of Returning Starters: 10  (Offense, 5; Defense, 5)



    Running back Silas Redd (pictured) finished fourth in rushing in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions can also start and play an experienced running quarterback (Rob Bolden) and/or an experienced passing quarterback (Matt McGloin).

    The traditional set of superior linebackers should set the tone for the Penn State defense.



    Who is going to be the head coach in 2012?

    Who is going to start in the secondary? Seniors dominated the cornerback and safety spots in the Penn State secondary.



    I truly feel sorry for the Nittany Lions. Imagine telling recruits: "Well, we are doing a thorough national search for a new head coach."

Could Indiana Escape the Leaders Division Cellar in 2012?

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    The Hoosiers won't escape the Leaders Division cellar next year, but there may be brighter days to come in 2013.

    The word "freshman" seemed to be paired with the words "Indiana starter" during the 2011 Big Ten season.

    They started a freshman at quarterback, wide receiver and both offensive guard positions. There were three freshmen in the secondary, two on the defensive line and one first-year linebacker.


    Number of Returning Starters: 17  (Offense, 8; Defense, 9)



    Running back Stephen Houston (pictured) was the only Hoosier to crack the top 10 in a Big Ten offensive category. He was No. 10 in rushing with 802 yards.

    Losing just two starters on defense leaves the Hoosiers with a squad of players that have one year of conference experience under their belts.



    They had only one player finish among the "elite" in an offensive category.

    Their linebacking corps must replace two starters.



    The Hoosiers need another year of "seasoning" and more talent before they can compete with the top teams in their division.

Legends Division Favorite: Michigan Wolverines

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    Okay, Michigan fans, you've been patient enough. Let's talk about the "resurgent" Wolverines.

    Before you go plant yourself in a small seat in The Big House, here's some words: "Never assume."

    You may have the most impressive set of returning offensive weapons in the nation, but you still must learn how to win important road games.

    You may have the most inspiring head football coach in the Big Ten conference, but he can't tackle opponents or avoid costly turnovers. 


    Number of Returning Starters: 15  (Offense, 8; Defense, 7)



    Maybe it's me but Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson (pictured) and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint remind me of Batman and Robin. There's no doubt that Robinson is the marquee player, but Toussaint doesn't seem to mind being the sidekick.

    The Wolverine offense has a nice set of receivers and four linemen returning next year.

    Defensively, Michigan will get strong play at linebacker and in the secondary.



    Unless my chart is wrong, Michigan has only one starter on defensive line that will be back in 2012. A Wolverine game may turn into a track meet if they can't stop the run next season.

    Unless U of M polishes their passing game, opponents may "load up the box" to contain the Wolverine running game.



    Brady Hoke took the team he inherited from Rich Rodriguez and made them winners. Given a tough schedule, he will be hard pressed to go 10-2 again. But Hoke has enough firepower to edge out Michigan State and Nebraska for the Legends Division title.

Loss of Playmakers Push Michigan State to No. 2 in the Legends Division

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    The graduation of six seniors at key offensive skill positions will prevent the Michigan State Spartans from repeating as Legends Division champs.

    MSU will have new starters at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and fullback. It is not that the new starters are lacking in talent.  They are just untested.


    Number of Returning Starters: 15  (Offense, 6; Defense, 9)



    The Spartans have a strong set of running backs in Le'Veon Bell (pictured), Edwin Baker and Larry Caper. It also helps that four of the five starting linemen return on offense.

    We know the Michigan State defense was highly rated nationally this year. It should be as good, if not better, in 2012.



    Andrew Maxwell moves from Kirk Cousin's understudy to starting quarterback. Head coach Mark Dantonio did manage to get the sophomore QB some playing time this year, but it would be more helpful if Maxwell had wide receivers with more experience.

    If defensive tackle Jerel Worthy bolts for the NFL draft (as expected), the middle of the Spartan defensive line might become a weak spot.



    Circle Oct. 20, 2012 on your calendar. Michigan State plays Michigan in Ann Arbor in the game that will decide who wins the Legends Division title.

Nebraska May Be Locked in as No. 3 in the Legends Division Again

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    I am a Rex Burkhead fan, but even he cannot catapult the Cornhuskers past the Spartans and Wolverines.

    Nebraska was almost as unpredictable in the Legends Division as Illinois was in the Leaders Division. I still find it hard to believe they lost at home to Northwestern this year.


    Number of Returning Starters: 16  (Offense, 8; Defense, 8)



    When things are right, running back Rex Burkhead (pictured) and quarterback Taylor Martinez are awesome running the football. The rest of their offensive skill players will be back next year.

    The line is the strong suit of the Nebraska defense. Tackle Baker Steinkuhler and end Cameron Meredith should excel in 2012.



    The offensive line must be rebuilt. Both tackle spots and center require new starters, which means Martinez and Burkhead may find it tougher to run next season.

    The loss of linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and safety Austin Cassidy will hurt the 'Husker defense. David made tackles everywhere and is projected to be a high draft pick in the 2012 NFL draft.



    Nebraska's fate may rest on the rebuilt offensive line and the throwing ability of Martinez. If they falter, the teams based in Michigan will battle for the Legends Division title.

No. 4 in the Legends Division Is the Iowa Hawkeyes

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    As it frequently does in the Big Ten, it comes down to the quarterback and the running back.

    It's not that running back Marcus Coker (pictured) and quarterback James Vandenberg didn't play well this year, it's the fact that their burden will be greater in 2012.

    The Iowa defense loses six starters from this year's team. Its best wide receiver was senior Marvin McNutt. Plus they have to play Nebraska every year.


    Number of Returning Starters: 13  (Offense, 8; Defense, 5)



    Coker was the No. 2 rusher in the Big Ten with 1,384 yards. Vandenberg was second only to Northwestern's Dan Persa in passing yards per game with a 233.8 average.

    Cornerback Micah Hyde and linebackers Christian Kirksey and James Morris will anchor the defense.



    Besides McNutt, the Iowa offense needs to replace one guard and one tackle.

    Defensively, the Hawkeyes must find eight starters to play with Hyde, Kirksey and Morris.



    Iowa plays competitive football and is tough to beat at home, but it is not enough to compete for a division title.

Northwestern Is Full of Surprises at No. 5 in the Legends Division

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    "Unpredictable" is a fine word to describe Northwestern football.

    Kain Colter is a perfect example. Colter (pictured) played quarterback, running back and wide receiver for the Wildcats this year.

    Northwestern even managed to pull off one of the biggest upsets of the season by beating Nebraska in Lincoln after the Cornhuskers had throttled Michigan State.


    Number of Returning Starters: 12  (Offense, 6; Defense, 6)



    Running back Treyvon Green could be one of the Big Ten's leading rushers in 2012. Kain Colter will be the quarterback and he'll be tougher to tackle than Dan Persa.

    All three linebackers return next year on the Wildcat defense.



    Their two best receivers, Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, are graduating. They also need one guard and one tackle.

    Defensively, Northwestern needs two tackles, two cornerbacks and a safety.



    Northwestern football is entertaining, but they may struggle to become bowl eligible in 2012.

Minnesota Occupies the Legends Division Cellar

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    Minnesota started seniors at running back, fullback and wide receiver, and three offensive line positions.

    Makes you wonder if Golden Gopher quarterback MarQueis Gray is looking for help in the picture.


    Number of Returning Starters: 10  (Offense, 5; Defense, 5)



    Gray will be back and he was Minnesota's leading rusher with 966 yards.

    Half of the line and two linebackers will return for the 2012 season.



    Starting running back Duane Bennett and wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight won't be back.

    Defensively, Minnesota has to replace three quarters of their secondary and the other half of the defensive line.



    The Golden Gophers need some young talent to revitalize their team.