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Big 10 Footbal Preview
by Scott Spreitzer - 06/24/2011
Ohio State would have been the class of the Big-10, hands down, if not for the problems with the NCAA. No Jim Tressel and no Terrelle Pryor, not to mention potentially harsh sanctions yet to come, makes me reserve my thoughts on the Buckeye's 2011 season. Replacing Pryor and both offensive guards are the priorities on offense. The defense, meanwhile, did lose seven starters. And while there are blue-chip replacements waiting for their chance, we just don't know how many will remain once the sanctions are announced later this summer or early fall. With all of the changes, OSU could be anywhere from 5-0 to 2-3 by the time they land in Lincoln on October 8. At the time of this writing, I believe the Buckeyes will stand 4-1 through their first five games, with their only loss coming in Miami.
I believe Penn State and Wisconsin are the teams to beat in the Leaders Division, thanks to Ohio State's turmoil. The Nittany Lions are as "loaded" as they're going to get. The team returns seven starters on both sides of the line of scrimmage. They had their problems at the QB position last season, but I expect to see serious improvements, led by sophomore Rob Bolden. Evan Royster has run out of eligibity, but the RB corps is one of the stronger groups in the conference, and there won't be much of an overall drop-off, if any. The offensive line returns three starters and I believe it's a tad ahead of last year's version. Defensively, it all starts with the front-seven. And that's good news for the Nittany Lions because I expect major improvements up front. The Lions were anemic up front last season, but DE Jack Crawford and LT Devon Still are primed for big seasons. The defensive backfield was a mess last season despite returning all but one starter from 2009. They allowed a 61% completion rate and a 19-10 TD-INT ratio. The secondary is loaded with upper-classmen this season and will be stronger, thanks in part to better play taking place in front of them. They'll no longer need to "cheat-up" a DB to help stop the run or put pressure on the opposing QB.
A lot of people are calling for a huge season for the Wisconsin Badgers. It's possible, but not probable in my book. There's simply no replacing Scott Tolzien at QB. The position now has just two scholarship players who have combined to throw 10 passes at the collegiate level. A pair of All-Americans will be missing from the offensive line this season. And with teams "loading up" to force the passing game into action, I believe the offensive line, which rates a B-minus at this point...down from a solid A-grade in 2010 could take time to find their chemistry. TB Montee Ball is another in a long line of outstanding Wisconsin RBs. But opposing defenses will key on the running game until or unless Wiscy proves it can pass the ball effectively. And let's not forget that the Badger receiving corps will be without three top players from a year ago. It also must be noted that Nick Toon missed spring practice. The deciding factor between Penn State and Wisconsin is the schedule. The Badgers should be 4-0 when they open the Big-10 season against Nebraska on October 1 in Madison. But the Badgers could very well have three losses when they wrap-up the season on November 26 against Penn State. As far as the Nittany Lions are concerned, they do have to face Alabama at home on September 10. But they play four "softies" in their first five games, before hosting Iowa on October 8. PSU avoids Michigan & Michigan State, but they do wrap-up the season with a home game against the Huskers followed by "roadies" at Ohio State and Wisconsin. A 2-1 mark in that three-game stretch would be considered a success.
Illinois should go bowling and I won't be surprised to see Purdue playing in the postseason, also. In fact, the Boilermakers could be the surprise of the Leaders Division. Ohio State and Iowa better bring their "A-game" to West Lafayette in mid-November. Indiana...well, I just don't believe they'll reach the five-win mark they experienced a season ago.
Michiagn State and Nebraska should be at the top of the Legends Division at the end of the regular season. However, both teams are fragile "giants." The Huskers have just 12 returning starters and the offensive line will have three new faces up front, although I do believe they'll be a more productive unit than last year's. The team is solid at both RB and WR, but this season will be all about keeping QB Taylor Martinez healthy physically and about staying focused between the ears. The sophomore QB was a fragile one last season, both physically and mentally. Reportedly, he is not a leader, vocally. But he'll need to be a field general his team can believe in, whether he does it with his voice or his arm and feet. Any more pouting when the "heat is on" and the team could implode. Brion Carnes looked like the "real deal" in spring practice. But losing Cody Green and Kody Spano this summer truly hamstrings the "outs" that Pelini once thought he had if Martinez struggles. Defensively, Nebraska will be one of the nation's best once again. The front-seven should be nothing short of outstanding. The secondary will probably be down a notch, but will still be one of the stronger units in the Big-10. The Huskers better be 4-0 when they open Big-10 action in Madison on October 1. They follow the Badgers with a home game against Ohio State. The Huskers host Michigan State on October 29, which may be the game that decides the Legends Division. But then again, the Huskers play each of the final six weekends, including games at Penn State and Michigan in mid-November before closing the season in Lincoln with the Hawkeyes on November 25. Nebraska better hope they're healthy physically and emotionally by the time they hit that late season three game stretch. Nebraska is a solid top-10 contender talent-wise this season. I currently have them ranked 12th in my overall power ratings. But if everything doesn't fall into place with Martinez, and if Carnes is not ready to take over, UNL could finish the season with a disappointing three or four losses. When I look at Nebraska's upcoming schedule and the lack of a proven leader at QB, I'm reminded of one of my favorite sayings: "When the gods want to punish you, they give you just what you asked for." The move to the Big-10 may not be so fruitful in year one. After all, the Huskers were primed to be the "beast" of the Big-12 north for years to come.
So, if the Huskers slip at all, who will represent the division in the Big-10 title game? My first choice is Michigan State. The Spartans don't own the overall talent of Nebraska, but they aren't that far off and they have a leader at QB. However, like the Huskers, there are some serious landmines on the schedule. All five road games (four in conference) are going to be tough. Sparty has trips to Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa, and Northwestern on the slate. The good news is that they don't play two road games in a row the entire season. The Spartans are the only team in the conference with this luxury. It is Mark Dantonio's most talented team yet. But it does worry me that this team didn't distance themselves from some of their opponents last season - and I didn't like the way they were punished in Iowa City. While the Spartans did win 11 of 13 games, four of their wins were decided by 8 points or less. MSU was a handful of plays from a 7-6 season.
Iowa and Northwestern are pretty even, as far as I'm concerned. The Hawkeyes have a lot of new faces and they did have a lot of off the field problems this past off-season. The good news is that most of it came early in the year and they will have had time to recover, emotionally, more than anything else. The Hawkeyes, like Michigan State, played in several close contests. But unlike MSU, Iowa fell short in theirs. Kirk Ferentz' team suffered five losses by 7 points or less, and the win in Bloomington came by just five points. As most handicappers will tell you, normally this signals an improved record the next season. But Iowa did benefit from a strong turnover ratio and that's another tool we use to forecast an upcoming season. Unfortunately for Iowa, they may trend in the other direction in turnover margin, especially with six new starters on offense, including the QB position. If...and it's a big "IF," Ferentz can get this team on the same page at the start of the season, the schedule is manageable. Stay focused and healthy and a 9-3 season is not out of the question. Kirk Ferentz has been a strong coach as far as the "spread" is concerned. Be careful "jumping on the bandwagon" while this team gets used to their new parts.
Michigan and Minnesota are rebuilding with new coaching staffs. Both programs "hit the lottery," when it came to hiring new coaches, in my opinion. The Gophers return 14 starters, while the Wolverines return 16. Obviously, some of those starters may lose their jobs by the time each new HC gets done evaluating what they feel are the best players to win now. I expect the Wolverines to flirt with seven wins this season, although six is more likely. Either way - I'll be disappointed with their season if they aren't bowling in December. Brady Hoke is a serious talent, but it will take some time to get this program back on track. Meanwhile, Jerry Kill was a "steal" at Minnesota. While they do have a lot of returning starters and an underrated defense, it will be tough for this team to win more than four games in 2011.