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August 6, 2011MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions
And then there were 12.
"I thought that 21 years ago with the addition of Penn State, that was the best single fit in any of the conference expansions of the '90s," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said at the time of Nebraska's announcement. "I feel the same way about Nebraska."
The Huskers' arrival has led the Big Ten to split into two six-team divisions. The division winners meet in December at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten championship game.
Most feel the league did a good job maintaining a balance of power in splitting the schools. But division splits also were about maintaining rivalries in a conference that is loaded with annual trophy games. The Big Ten did a great job preserving the traditions except for one: Iowa-Wisconsin.
The biggest beef about the new configuration is the names of the divisions. "Leaders" and "Legends" were savaged by critics upon their unveiling for a lack of creativity and overall blandness. At least Big Ten honchos have said they will look into possibly altering the names. But not even banal division names can quell the excitement of Nebraska's addition.
Nebraska's arrival improves the Big Ten's competitiveness, bringing some of the best history of any program to a league already steeped in tradition. The Huskers have won five national titles and produced three Heisman winners.
Perhaps even more important is that Nebraska enhances the conference's television footprint. The Big Ten must continue to feed The Big Ten Network with programming while also making it more attractive to cable and satellite providers. Nebraska's arrival does that.
And, who knows? The Huskers may win the Big Ten in their first go-around.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Michigan QB Denard Robinson. The man they call "Shoelace" is one of the most explosive players in the nation. The 2010 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Robinson is the quintessential one-man gang, a guy who can score every time he touches the ball. He paced the Big Ten with 1,702 rushing yards - an NCAA single-season record for a quarterback - despite missing significant chunks of games with injuries.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Nebraska DT Jared Crick. Crick leads what is expected to be one of the nation's top defenses. He's stout against the run and also a pass-rush force. He is joined on the Huskers' defense by LB Lavonte David and CB Alfonzo Dennard, two of the nation's best at their positions.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Iowa QB James Vandenberg. Iowa needs a quarterback with Ricky Stanzi gone. Vandenberg has first dibs on the quarterback job. A junior, Vandenberg started two games in 2009 when Stanzi was injured and went 1-1, playing well in an overtime loss at Ohio State. Vandenberg has hit 47-of-95 passes for 515 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions in his career, but he threw just eight passes in 2010. Because of what looks to be an easy schedule, Iowa can be a dark-horse league title contender, assuming Vandenberg plays steady football.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Wisconsin E Louis Nzegwu. With E J.J. Watt gone a year early to the NFL after a monster season, who will rush the passer? Nzegwu needs to step up. He started every game in 2010, notching 46 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. No one denies that Nzegwu is good against the run. But he needs to bring the heat off the edge.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. Miller, a true freshman, arrives with a ton of press clippings and has the fans excited, but will the staff really turn the offense over to a true freshman? Joe Bauserman may be the front-runner just because he's a senior and was Terrelle Pryor's backup the past two seasons, but he's a pedestrian talent. Miller is a physically gifted player who could be special and give the Buckeyes their best chance for success.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Michigan State LB Denicos Allen. Michigan State must replace two four-year starters at linebacker. Greg Jones was a two-time All-American, while Eric Gordon was an underrated force. The duo started more games at linebacker (95 combined starts) than any tandem in Spartans history. Keep an eye on Allen, a vicious hitter despite his smallish frame (5 feet 10/218 pounds). He switched from safety to the "star" outside linebacker spot, a position suited for his athletic ability.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. All eyes are on the true freshman, a four-star prospect and the No. 1 recruit in Ohio; he who graduated early and took part in spring drills. Miller is a dynamic athlete who possesses many of the same physical attributes as Pryor. Ohio State may need his ample skills to have a balanced offense.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Michigan LB Jake Ryan. A late growth spurt pushed Ryan from a MAC recruit to one who received an offer from Michigan. Ryan, a redshirt freshman, emerged in the spring as a playmaker. He simply has a nose for the ball. And playing strongside linebacker, Ryan has the size and toughness to take on blocks and stop the run.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson. Once he chose to transfer to Wisconsin, many anointed the Badgers as Big Ten favorites. Really? Wilson has talent and may be one of the most athletically gifted signal-callers in Badgers history. But Wilson never made N.C. State a serious contender in the ACC. And how quickly will he develop chemistry with teammates?
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Illinois' Ron Zook. In six seasons in Champaign, he has produced a 28-45 record with two bowls, including a Texas Bowl appearance last season. But Zook's long-term viability might be in peril because he has lost his biggest supporter in athletic director Ron Guenther, who retired. New ADs usually like to bring in their own coach. That means another 7-6 mark may not be enough for Zook to keep his job.
Nebraska over Wisconsin
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Wisconsin's Paul Chryst. In the past five seasons, Wisconsin has averaged 31.9 points and 408.6 yards. Last season, the Badgers finished fifth in the nation in scoring, averaging 41.5 points. In Big Ten action, Wisconsin averaged 45.2 points, the second-best average in league history. Entering 2010, Wisconsin had not scored 70 points in a game since 1915. The Badgers did it in three times last year. How he works with Wilson will be interesting.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Penn State's Tom Bradley. Entering his 33rd season in State College, Bradley annually forges a strong defense. From 2004-10, Penn State ranked No. 3 in the nation in scoring defense (16.4 ppg) and fifth in rushing (107.1 ypg) and total defense (298.7 ypg). In 2009, the Nittany Lions ranked in the top 15 nationally in the six primary defensive categories, and from 2004-09, PSU finished in the top 15 in total and scoring defense every season.
BEST POSITION COACH: Wisconsin OL coach Bob Bostad. Entering his sixth season in Madison, Bostad has emerged as one of the best in the business, forging some of the nation's top lines. The Badgers are one of just five teams in the nation that have averaged at least 200 yards rushing in each of the past four seasons. Credit Bostad.
THE OTHER STUFF
TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Michigan. Rich Rodriguez was inching closer to a breakthrough. Brady Hoke will do it. The roster has talent, especially on offense, and the defensive personnel is young and maturing. There's a standout coaching staff led by Al Borges (offensive coordinator) and Greg Mattison (defensive coordinator) to put everyone in place to succeed.
TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Penn State. It's really this simple: The Nittany Lions need to get better at running the ball and stopping the run. The offensive line and defensive front seven need to step up. Penn State also needs get the quarterback spot settled. If not, this could be a second-division club.
Notre Dame at Michigan, Sept. 10
Michigan State at Notre Dame, Sept. 17
Nebraska at Wisconsin, Oct. 1
Ohio State at Nebraska, Oct. 8
Wisconsin at Michigan State, Oct. 22
Michigan State at Nebraska, Oct. 29
Wisconsin at Ohio State, Oct. 29
Nebraska at Penn State, Nov. 12
Michigan State at Iowa, Nov. 12
Iowa at Nebraska, Nov 25
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Nebraska. Many feel this is the most daunting schedule in the Big Ten. Nebraska gets no breaks in its cross-division foes, playing Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State. Even September visits from Fresno State and Washington could be perilous. The last three games could make or break the Huskers: at Penn State, at Michigan, vs. Iowa.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: Northwestern. There is little heavy lifting in non-conference action, with a season-opening trip to Boston College the most treacherous game. Not playing Ohio State and Wisconsin is a big boon. There's a visit to Iowa, but the Wildcats have toppled the Hawkeyes in five of the past six seasons and won in each of their past three visits to Iowa City. The only flat-out scary game: at Nebraska. The schedule sets up for a fast finish with three home games.
We asked our five football writers to answer a few questions about the Big Ten. Here are their responses:
1. Wisconsin: The Badgers landed N.C. State transfer Russell Wilson, who immediately becomes the starter (sorry, Jon Budmayr). The Badgers haven't had a quarterback of this ability in years. Yes, RB John Clay left early for the NFL after running for 1,012 yards and Zach Brown transferred, but cry not for the Badgers. They remain loaded at running back with Montee Ball and James White. Ball ran for 996 yards and 18 touchdowns, while White was Big Ten Freshman of the Year after rushing for 1,052 yards and 14 scores. FB Bradie Ewing is one of the top blocking backs in the Big Ten and gives coaches a lot of versatility in the backfield.
2. Michigan State: QB Kirk Cousins enters his third season as the starter. He is first in school history in passing efficiency and completion percentage. Michigan State is loaded at running back, with its top three tailbacks returning. Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper combined to rush for 1,950 yards and 23 touchdowns. FB Todd Anderson is a powerful blocker.
3. Nebraska: QB Taylor Martinez was brilliant early as a redshirt freshman. Who can forget his four-touchdown, 241-yard rushing effort at Kansas State? But after suffering an ankle injury against Missouri on Oct. 30, he wasn't the same. Martinez tossed just one touchdown pass and four picks the rest of the season and ran for just 79 yards. Nebraska needs a healthy Martinez, as depth was depleted when Cody Green opted to transfer. Even with RB Roy Helu (1,245 yards) gone, Nebraska still has a good option at tailback in Rex Burkhead, who ran for 951 yards in 2010. The versatile Burkhead also will line up at receiver and take snaps in a Wildcat formation.
4. Penn State: QB Rob Bolden started the first seven games before suffering a concussion against Minnesota. Matt McGloin, a former walk-on, took over and led the Nittany Lions to four late-season wins. Keep an eye on this battle, as a quarterback controversy could ensue. The staff loves TBs Silas Redd and Stephfon Green. Joe Suhey and Mike Zordich are solid fullbacks.
5. Michigan: QB Denard Robinson is one of the most explosive players in the nation. But are his skills a good fit for coordinator Al Borges' offense? Robinson, the 2010 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, is the quintessential one-man gang who can score every time he touches the ball. Who will emerge at running back? Vincent Smith, Michael Shaw, Stephen Hopkins, Michael Cox and touted signee Justice Hayes will vie for the job.
6. Iowa: A quarterback is needed with Ricky Stanzi gone. James Vandenberg started two games in 2009 when Stanzi was injured and went 1-1, playing well in an overtime loss at Ohio State. RB Marcus Coker looks like a future star who broke out late last season as a true freshman. He must stay healthy, as depth is iffy.
7. Ohio State: Who will play quarterback with Terrelle Pryor gone? It likely will be Joe Bauserman or true freshman Braxton Miller, who enrolled in January. Miller arrives with a ton of hype. Ohio State should be fine at running back even with Dan Herron suspended for the first five games with Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry and redshirt freshman Rod Smith. FB Zach Boren is a good blocker.
8. Northwestern: Dan Persa set a Big Ten single-season record for completion percentage (73.5) last season. But his year ended early with an Achilles injury against Iowa that caused him to miss the last three games. The Wildcats need him. An anemic ground game needs to be juiced up. Northwestern hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher (Tyrell Sutton) since 2006.
9. Illinois: QB Nathan Scheelhaase returns and is a true dual threat. He ran for 868 yards, a school single-season record for a quarterback. Jason Ford, Bud Golden and Troy Pollard are the tailback candidates.
10. Purdue: Is QB Robert Marve over a knee injury that ruined 2010? Rob Henry is a returning starter and kept the starting job in spring drills; he led the team in rushing but needs to improve as a passer. Can RB Ralph Bolden regain the form that saw him run for 935 yards in 2009 after missing last season with a knee injury? Purdue signed JC transfer Akeem Shavers as insurance.
11. Minnesota: The team will miss QB Adam Weber, who made 50 consecutive starts. MarQueis Gray will move back to quarterback from receiver and take over. He's a big, strong athlete and an underrated passer. The new staff will have lots of running backs to work with. But how good are they?
12. Indiana: Who will play quarterback? Edward Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel (former Notre Dame and NFL QB Blair Kiel's nephew) are the top contenders. A big season is needed from RB Darius Willis, who has been dogged by injury and off-field woes.
1. Michigan State: Despite the loss of Mark Dell, the Spartans still have the best collection of receivers in the Big Ten with B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, Bennie Fowler and Keith Nichol. Michigan State also has three decent tight ends in Brian Linthicum, Garrett Celek and Dion Sims.
2. Michigan: Led by Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway, the receiving corps is deep and skilled. This group is even better with Darryl Stonum back from an indefinite suspension. Look for TE Kevin Koger to play a big role in this offense.
3. Northwestern: The Wildcats have perhaps the deepest group of receivers in the conference. Jeremy Ebert is back after leading the team with 62 catches and eight touchdowns. Demetrius Fields and Charles Brown are complementary weapons. TE Drake Dunsmore is a formidable weapon on third downs and in the red zone.
4. Penn State: With three of the top four receivers from 2010 returning, this looks like a good collection of talent. It's led by WR Derek Moye, who paced the team with 53 catches for 885 yards and eight scores in 2010. TEs Andrew Szczerba and Garry Gilliam are back from season-ending injuries in 2010.
5. Indiana: Even with the losses of Terrance Turner and Tandon Doss (who left early), receiver still looks strong with Damarlo Belcher and Duwyce Wilson. Ted Bolser led all freshman tight ends in the nation with 27 catches.
6. Nebraska: WR Brandon Kinnie is back after pacing the team with 44 catches. The staff needs some wide receivers to emerge as complementary targets. There are two good tight ends in Kyler Reed, who made a team-high eight touchdown catches in 2010, and Ben Cotton.
7. Wisconsin: This unit lacks depth and proven playmakers. The Badgers will miss star TE Lance Kendricks.
9. Ohio State: WR DeVier Posey is the star, but he has been suspended for the first five games. No other returning wide receiver caught even 10 passes last season. There are good tight ends in Jake Stoneburner and Reid Fragel.
10. Illinois: WR A.J. Jenkins is back after leading the team with 56 catches for 746 yards and seven touchdowns. But the Illini need some other receivers to emerge. TE Evan Wilson impressed as a true freshman and could be a future star.
11. Minnesota: There will be lots of competition among plenty of young talent. Eric Lair has a chance to be one of the Big Ten's top tight ends.
1. Wisconsin: Even without T Gabe Carimi and G John Moffitt, this still is the top line in the Big Ten. The unit returns three starters in Ricky Wagner (who will move from right to left tackle), Peter Konz (center) and Kevin Zeitler (right guard).
4. Michigan: Three starters return, though G Stephen Schilling will be missed. C David Molk could be special, but he must avoid the injuries that have nagged him during his career.
5. Illinois: Three starters are back from a line that helped the Fighting Illini pace the Big Ten in rushing (246.1 ypg). LT Jeff Allen and C Graham Pocic are standouts who should be among the best in the Big Ten at their position.
6. Northwestern: The unit has four starters back and is anchored by star T Al Netter. This line has 137 career starts, making it second in the nation in that category.
8. Purdue: With four starters back, the line has a chance to be solid with T Dennis Kelly serving as an anchor.
9. Nebraska: The jury is out. Two new guards and a new tackle must be broken in on a line that helped Nebraska pace the Big 12 in rushing (247.6 ypg) last season. The unit will be built around C Mike Caputo and T Jeremiah Sirles.
10. Michigan State: This unit is on the spot. For the second season in a row, the Spartans must replace three starters up front. G Joel Foreman is an unquestioned star.
11. Minnesota: The offense needs better production from the line to improve a rushing attack that ranked 10th in the Big Ten (135.3 ypg).
12. Indiana: Poor line play has been a recurring issue for Indiana, which ranked 112th in the nation in rushing (100.3 ypg) last season.
1. Ohio State: The line will miss E Cameron Heyward, a first-round pick, and T Dexter Larimore. But T John Simon is a star on the rise. E Nathan Williams is a returning starter who must bring the heat off the edge.
5. Wisconsin: This group could go 10 deep but who will rush the passer? Still, running on this team will be difficult.
6. Michigan: NT Mike Martin is a stud and a potential All-American. He may be moved around to make it more difficult for foes to locate and double-team him. Es Craig Roh and Ryan Van Bergen can be playmakers.
7. Iowa: This unit is a question after the departures of E Adrian Clayborn, E Christian Ballard, and T Karl Klug. T Mike Daniels is the lone starter back and has a chance to be a star. E Broderick Binns needs to regain his 2009 form.
8. Purdue: E Ryan Kerrigan leaves a massive void after earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. The line does have depth at tackle.
9. Northwestern: E Vince Browne is the key guy. Depth is needed at end.
10. Illinois: The unit suffered a blow when T Corey Liuget turned pro early. T Akeem Spence is a rising star.
11. Indiana: The strongest area is tackle, with four juniors back to anchor the front. T Adam Replogle is one to watch.
12. Minnesota: Time and again in 2010, Minnesota got run over, ranking last in the Big Ten against the run (191.4 ypg). Some playmakers are needed for this unit.
1. Nebraska: Lavonte David leads the way after setting a school single-season record with 152 tackles in 2010 after arriving from a JC. He also notched 15 tackles for loss and six sacks. Will Compton is back after his 2010 was shortened by a foot injury, and Sean Fisher returns after a broken leg forced him to miss last season.
2. Penn State: Despite some personnel losses, this should be a good unit. Injuries have hampered Michael Mauti, but he has the talent to contend for all-league honors. Gerald Hodges, who has star potential after arriving as a safety, and Khairi Fortt are ready to shine.
3. Wisconsin: The return of Chris Borland - the 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year - from a shoulder injury will be a boon to the defense. Mike Taylor was second on the squad in tackles for loss and interceptions last season.
4. Ohio State: The corps took a hit with the departures of Brian Rolle, the team's top tackler in 2010, and Ross Homan. Returning starter Andrew Sweat has All-Big Ten potential. Incoming freshman Curtis Grant needs to be the real deal, as depth is an issue.
9. Michigan: This unit's struggles were a major reason the defense was horrid last season. The starting trio should be fine, but depth is a major concern.
10. Illinois: The loss of star MLB Martez Wilson hurts.
11. Indiana: This group lacks bulk but has some speed.
12. Northwestern: There could be as many as seven players competing for playing time in a unit with underrated athletic ability.
2. Nebraska: Nebraska often used sets that included five or six defensive backs when facing pass-happy spread teams in the Big 12. That will change in the Big Ten. The new star will be CB Alfonzo Dennard, and this athletic unit will benefit from what figures to be a strong pass rush.
4. Illinois: The secondary was a mess last season but should be a strength this season. CB Tavon Wilson is the leader.
10. Purdue: With four starters back, the secondary may be the strongest area of the defense. CB Ricardo Allen is a future star who could play for any team.
11. Minnesota: This could be the most questionable unit on what might be the league's worst defense.
12. Indiana: FS Greg Heban looks like a rising star and potential leader. But these guys were torched often last season.
2. Penn State: P Anthony Fera returns, and he is a candidate to replace K Collin Wagner. The return teams are solid.
3. Northwestern: The competition to replace K Stefan Demos will continue in camp. The punting is set with Brandon Williams. The return teams were among the best in the conference last season, and the coverage teams were solid as well.
4. Wisconsin: The kicker/punter duo of Philip Welch and Brad Nortman should be one of the best in the nation, as each enters their fourth year on the job. But the Badgers will miss return man David Gilreath, and the coverage teams weren't that good last season.
6. Ohio State: There will be a new kicker, but Ohio State looks good at punter with Ben Buchanan back after averaging 41 yards per boot with five punts over 50 yards. Jordan Hall is a good return man, but the coverage teams need improvement.
7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes look set at kicker with Mike Meyer, though the punting duties are up for grabs. Big returns and blocked kicks cost Iowa in 2010.
8. Illinois: Derek Dimke may be the top kicker in the Big Ten. He nailed a league-best 24 field goals last season (on 29 attempts). But the return teams are awful, a punter must be found with the departure of Anthony Santella and the coverage units need improvement.
9. Nebraska: This area is undergoing a major overhaul. Star K/P Alex Henery must be replaced, and top return man Niles Paul also is gone.
10. Michigan: How bad was the kicking last year? At one point, then-coach Rich Rodriguez held open tryouts for the general student population. Will Hagerup is a solid punter, though the return teams and coverage units need work.
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes consistently compete with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State despite lacking the resources of those powers. Credit Kirk Ferentz, who is buoyed by a strong staff. Secondary coach Phil Parker is a future head coach, while Eric Johnson is a good tight end coach and recruiter.
2. Penn State: The beat goes on for Joe Paterno, who has two of the league's top assistants in defensive coordinator Tom Bradley and d-line coach Larry Johnson. Wide receiver coach/recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary has a bright future.
3. Wisconsin: Bret Bielema is proving to be a more-than-adequate replacement for Barry Alvarez. Paul Chryst is the league's top offensive coordinator, while Bob Bostad is the best offensive line coach.
4. Michigan: Brady Hoke won at Ball State and San Diego State. Now he gets to try his hand in Ann Arbor. Hoke may have the top set of coordinators in the Big Ten in Al Borges (offense) and Greg Mattison (defense).
6. Michigan State: This is one of the hardest-working staffs in the league, which is the only way Mark Dantonio will have it. Pat Narduzzi is a solid defensive coordinator, but the Spartans may miss offensive coordinator Don Treadwell.
7. Northwestern: Pat Fitzgerald has the makings of a big-time coach. How long will he remain loyal to his alma mater?
10. Minnesota: Jerry Kill was a good hire, and he brought most of his underrated staff with him from Northern Illinois.
11. Indiana: New coach Kevin Wilson has built a solid staff, but can they get enough top-tier talent?