The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 30, 2011

2011 Big Ten Conference Preview

2011 Big Ten Conference Preview

 

Call this conference the “B1G Conference.”  The new logo is about as wacky at the Leaders and Legends Divisions.  Who did Commissioner Jim Delany hire to come up with this new marketing scheme?  Maybe, the same people that told the Fords to build the Edsel?

 

No, this conference is not going to be a big flop.  Unfortunately, as of late, it has not been what it once was.  Ohio State finally beat an SEC team in a bowl last year, but they used players that should not have been eligible.

 

Which brings us to the next topic of conversation—the historically “Big Two” both must break in new head coaches.  Michigan hired Brady Hoke from San Diego State, while Ohio State was forced to elevate Luke Fickell to head coach after Jim Tressel resigned under fire.

 

There are three other new head coaches in the league.  Kevin Wilson, the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma for nine seasons, takes over at Indiana.  Jerry Kill, the former head coach at Northern Illinois, takes over at Minnesota.

 

Of course, the third new head coach is only new to the league and not his team.  Bo Pelini brings the Nebraska Cornhuskers to the league.

 

For the most part, the stronger teams from the top have taken a minor step backwards, while the weaker teams at the bottom have improved a little bit.  It adds up to more parity and less chance of sending a team to the National Championship Game.

 

 

Leaders Division

WISCONSIN

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Wisconsin came up with the big bonanza this summer, when Russell Wilson signed to play in Madison.  Coach Bret Bielema has a passer capable of getting the Badgers back to Pasadena.

 

Wilson completed 58.4% of his passes for 3,563 yards and 28 touchdowns last year.  His interception percentage was a miniscule 1.7% (former QB Scott Tolzien’s was 2.3%).

 

Wilson took a lot of sacks at North Carolina State, but in offensive coordinator Paul Chryst’s offense, he will throw quicker passes.  He may not pass for 275 yards per game like he did in Raleigh, but his completion percentage should head north of 60 this year.

 

Receivers

Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis do not appear on All-Big Ten watch lists, but they are solid and can deliver the mail.  They combined for 56 receptions and 748 yards with six touchdowns last year.

 

The Badgers are known for developing terrific tight ends.  UW will use many two tight end sets.  Jake Byrne and Jacob Pedersen may not be able to approach the production of graduating tight end Lance Kendricks (team-leading 43 receptions and five scores), but together they may equal his production.  The duo scored touchdowns on 23% of their 13 receptions last year.

 

Running Backs

The Badgers fell four yards short of having three 1,000-yard rushers last year.  Two of the three return this year.  The Badgers could have had another three-headed monster, but one of the heads decided to find a new situation.

 

James White led the Badgers with 1,052 yards at 6.7 yards per attempt.  Montee Ball rushed for 996 yards and 18 touchdowns, while averaging 6.1 yards per rush.  White has more outside speed, but Ball runs with more authority and will be the starter.

 

Bradie Ewing will start at Fullback and supply interference for Ball and White.

 

Offensive Line

The Badgers had the best offensive line in the nation last year, and they still have a top notch blocking quintet, but it will not be as strong as last year.  The two graduating starters were 1st and 3rd Round NFL Draft choices.

 

Center Peter Konz will be flanked by guards Kevin Zeitler and Travis Frederick.  Zeitler has been dealing with an ankle injury.  Josh Oglesby and Ricky Wagner will start at tackle. 

 

The offensive line of 2010 gave up 14 sacks blocked proficiently enough to allow the running game to average 5.5 yards per rush.  Those numbers will be a tad weaker this year, but the Badgers will still be tough offensively.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Three starters return on this side of the trenches.  UW gave up 128 rushing yards per game last year and could equal or better than mark in 2011.

 

Jordan Kohout and Patrick Butrym started at tackle last year and teamed for 50 tackles.  However, Ethan Hemer has unseated Kohout and will start in his place.  Bielema will use a deep rotation, using more than just two-deep.  Louis Nzegwu starts at one end slot. He recorded 46 tackles with 7 ½ stops for loss.  He also knocked away three passes.

 

Linebackers

Chris Borland missed most of 2010 with an injury, and he will reassume the starting position he held in 2009 and the start of last season.  Kevin Claxton will be the new starter on the outside.  He made 24 tackles last year in relief.  Mike Taylor is the returning star of this unit.  He made 58 tackles with eight going for losses.  That performance earned him 2nd Team All-Big Ten honors.

 

Secondary

Two starters are back, and this is the team’s one Achilles’ heel.  Wisconsin gave up almost 200 passing yards per game last year, but against the bowl teams on their schedule, that number climbed to 217.

 

Cornerback Antonio Fenelus was a 1st Team All-Big Ten selection.  He intercepted four passes and was credited with 11 passes defended.  His running mate at the other cornerback position this year is senior Devin Smith.  Smith made 30 tackles in a reserve role last year.

 

Aaron Henry returns to one safety spot.  He had nine passes defended and two interceptions.  Shelton Johnson is the new starter at safety.  He saw limited action and made 15 tackles last year.

 

OTHER

The Badgers lost defensive coordinator Dave Doeren to Northern Illinois when Jerry kill left NIU for arch-rival Minnesota.

 

SUMMARY

Wisconsin was not going to be the highest rated team in this division.  They assumed this position following all the mess at Ohio State.  Their schedule gives them a chance to repeat their performance of last year, but it will not be easy.

 

Their non-conference slate includes games against UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois, and South Dakota, with the NIU game being played at Soldier Field in Chicago.  UW should go 4-0 in those games.

 

Inside the league, the Badgers welcome Nebraska for the Cornhuskers’ first official conference game.  They host Indiana, Purdue, and Penn State as well.  In road action, they visit Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota, and Illinois.  This has the look of a 10-win team.

 

 

PENN STATE

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin might platoon at this position all year long.  Almost on the eve of the Nittany Lions’ first game, Coach Joe Paterno has yet to make a final decision on which player will start.

 

Bolden had a higher completion percentage last year (58.0% to 54.9% for McGloin, but McGloin averaged more yards per attempt (7.2 to 7.0) and had a better TD/Int ratio (14/9 to 5/7).  Neither player is a spectacular runner.

 

Receivers

Penn State has an excellent collection of receivers, and this unit ranks high in the conference in both talent and depth.  Derek Moye returns to the team after leading the Lions with 53 receptions and eight touchdowns.  He averaged 16.7 yards per catch.

 

Justin Brown is the other wideout.  He caught 33 passes last year and averaged 13.7 yards per reception.  Devon Smith will start in the slot.  As a semi-regular, he grabbed 27 passes last year.

 

Tight end Kevin Haplea started three times and caught three passes.  Shawney Kearsey, Brandon Moseby-Felder, and true freshman Bill Belton will see action here this year.

 

Running Backs

Evan Royster topped 1,000 yards and gained right at five yards per carry last year.  He moved on, and the new feature back will be sophomore Silas Redd.  Redd rushed for 437 yards and two touchdowns and gained 5.7 yards per attempt.  His projected backup is Brandon Beachum.  Penn State routinely comes up with decent running attacks, and this group will find a way to top 150 yards on the ground this season.

 

Offensive Line

While not the strongest offensive line in the league, there is decent depth here.  Three regulars return from 2010, led by tackles Chima Okoli and Quinn Barham.  Guards John Urschel and Johnnie Troutman will flank center Matt Stankiewitch.  Look for slightly better numbers from this group.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Devon Still is solid and close to becoming a star.  The tackle recorded 39 stops with 10 going for losses.  He could become an all-conference pick this year.  Jordan Hill is quick off the ball and a perfect complement for Still at tackle.  He made 36 tackles as a second teamer last year.

 

Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore make a formidable, but not outstanding pair of ends.  Crawford starting seven times; Latimore started three games.  Last year, they combined for 20 tackles and seven for losses.

 

Sean Stanley and DaQuan Jones will make some plays in relief.

 

Linebackers

This unit is not going to be confused for the great 1969 team with Dennis Onkotz and Jack Ham, but the current version is mighty good.

 

Glenn Carson has won a spot in the starting lineup after making a dozen tackles in limited action as a true freshman last year.  Gerald Hodges is a potential all-star.  He started one time and saw action in all others, making 31 tackles.  Michael Mauti was a part-time starter last year, and he finished with 67 tackles and 5 ½ for losses.

 

In reserve, Nate Stupar and Khairi Fortt will see significant amounts of time. 

 

Secondary

This unit is deep and talented.  All four regulars return, and two defensive backs should earn all-conference honors.  Cornerback D’Anton Lynn finished with 75 tackles and seven passes defended.  Hero Back Drew Astorino made 70 tackles with six passes defended.  Both players could appear on a post-season all-star team.

 

The other two starters are cornerback Stephon Morris and safety Nick Sukay, who combined for 68 tackles.  Sukay had three interceptions.

 

OTHER

This is Joe Pa’s 46th year as head coach at Penn State.  Prior to becoming head coach, he was an assistant to Rip Engle from 1950 to 1965.  That makes this his 62nd season coaching at Penn State.  There have been 12 Presidents in that amount of time.

 

SUMMARY

This could be Paterno’s last season, and he has the talent to contend for the division title.  Penn State could be 6-0 in the Big Ten when they close the season at Ohio State and at Wisconsin.  Those will be tough games to play in consecutive weeks, but this schedule could give the Nittany Lions’ young players a chance to mature and gel.

 

Outside of league play, Penn State hosts Indiana State, Alabama, and Eastern Michigan, and plays at Temple.  They will win the three not against the top team in the nation.

 

It all adds up to a 9-10 wins and a probably January bowl.

 

OHIO STATE

OFFENSE

Quarterback

The difference between Terrelle Pryor and Joe Bauserman is about seven to 11 points per game.  Instead of 3,500+ total yards and 31 touchdowns, the Buckeyes get a journeyman senior who has thrown less than 60 passes in three seasons.  Bauserman will probably give way to true freshman Braxton Miller for two or three possessions per game.  Miller was almost as highly recruited as Pryor was four years ago.

 

Receivers

The Buckeyes relied on two breakaway threats last year, and one of them returns for his senior season; however, he is one of the players suspended for the first five games.  DeVier Posey grabbed 53 passes for 848 yards and seven touchdowns.  Helping interim coach Luke Fickell make up for the loss of Dane Sanzenbacher and to fill in for Posey is redshirt freshman Verlon Reed.

 

Corey Brown will start at one wideout.  The sophomore caught just eight passes last year.

 

Others sure to see playing time trying to replace Posey for five games include Devin Smith and true freshman Evan Spencer.

 

Tight end Jake Stoneburner caught 21 passes and will see more balls thrown his way. 

 

Running Backs

Here is another position that will take a hit for the first five games, as leading rusher Dan Herron is on the suspension list.  In his place, OSU will use as many as four backs.  Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry have experience, as they combined for 436 yards and three touchdowns last year.  Berry has been nursing a hamstring injury and may not be available for the opening game.  Rod Smith and Carlos Hyde could figure into the mix as well.

 

Offensive Line

Tackle Mike Adams is another five-game suspension starter.  Until he is eligible again, Ohio State has two returning starters here.  It helps that one of those two players is perhaps the best offensive lineman in college football.  Center Mike Brewster is the Rimington Award favorite and a reigning 1st team All-American.

 

Marcus Hall and Jack Mewhort are the new starters at guard.  Both were highly-rated in their recruiting class.  Andrew Norwell replaces Adams, while J. B. Shugarts will start at the vacant tackle position.  This is still a decent offensive line without Adams, and once he comes back, it will be excellent.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

At first, the loss of end Solomon Thomas for five games did not seem like a big loss, since he was a backup to Nathan Williams.  Then, Williams began missing practice-after-practice with an undisclosed reason. 

 

It looks like true freshman Michael Bennett could start at end along with John Simon, while Garrett Goebel and Johnathan Hankins start at tackle.  Simon is the only experienced player in this quartet.  He made 41 tackles with 4 ½ sacks and 9 ½ stops for loss.  This unit, while good, is not up to recent Ohio State standards and will give up more than 100 rushing yards per game for just the second time in seven years.

 

Linebackers

Andrew Sweat, Storm Klein, and Etienne Sabino make an athletic trio, although not very experienced.  Sweat started a majority of the games last year and registered 41 tackles.  Klein made 18 tackles in a reserve role, while Sabino redshirted last year.  Sabino fractured a bone in his hand in mid-August and may not be ready for the opening week. 

 

Secondary

Ohio State will use more 4-2-5 defense this year, and when they do, Klein will come out at linebacker for a nickel back.

 

One full-time player returns to this unit.  Safety Orhian Johnson is the leading returning tackler on the team.  He made 50 tackles and successfully defended three passes.  C. J. Barnett will start at the opposite safety.  In two years, he has made a grand total of nine tackles.

 

The two new cornerbacks are Travis Howard and Bradley Roby.  Both players are athletic, but inexperienced. 

 

Tyler Moeller and Christian Bryant will platoon at nickel back.

 

OTHER

There is too much pride and tradition for The Ohio State University to let the coaching change and suspensions affect them in a negative way.  The only effect will be in the talent not available to play.  Unfortunately, the Buckeyes will lose one or two games they would not have lost with Pryor.

 

SUMMARY

Fret not Buckeye fans.  Sure, a three or four-loss season is not what you want, but your team will recover and even challenge for a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game.

 

The five games the suspended players will miss are at home against Akron, Toledo, Colorado, and Michigan State, and on the road at Miami of Florida, in what will be given a catchy name due to the Hurricanes having to place 13 players on the ineligible list.

 

OSU must play at Nebraska and at Michigan, but they host Wisconsin in a revenge match.  The Badgers prevented Ohio State from playing in the National Championship game last year.

 

ILLINOIS

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Nathan Scheelhaase is “the best of the rest” in the Big Ten.  There are four top-notch quarterbacks in this league, and Scheelhaase is number five.

 

As a freshman last year, he topped 1,000 yards rushing (with sacks removed), and he completed 59% of his passes for 1,825 yards and 17 touchdowns.  Barring a sophomore slump, he should top 2,000 yards passing.

 

Receivers

Coach Ron Zook does not have a lot of experience here, and Illinois receivers only averaged 12.5 receptions per game.  A. J. Jenkins returns after leading the Illini with 56 receptions, 746 yards, and seven touchdowns.  Sophomores Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines earned starting spots in the spring.  They both averaged over 20 yards per catch, but they combined for just eight receptions.  Evan Wilson caught 10 passes from his tight end position. This position is a concern, but offensive coordinator Paul Petrino will get a lot of mileage with what he has to work with.

 

Running Backs

Mikel Leshoure finished second in the Big Ten with 1,697 rushing yards, missing out on the rushing title by a mere five yards.  He was the only reason to visit Wrigley Field in the last year.  He torched Northwestern for more than 300 rushing yards in the game played there last November.  However, he chose not to come back for his senior year, and he is now a Detroit Lion.

 

Jason Ford inherits this position.  He rushed for 480 yards and seven touchdowns and could top 1,000 yards this year, but he does not have the ability of the star he replaces.

 

Fullback Jay Prosch tips the scale at 250 pounds, and he can move a linebacker out of the way.

 

Offensive Line

This is a talented line with enough experience to lead the Illini to a repeat showing of last year’s excellent offensive showing.  Illinois averaged 32.5 points and almost 400 yards per game, and there is no reason to think they cannot top 30 and 400 this year.

 

Tackle Jeff Allen is the leader of the blocking corps.  After earning a spot on the All-Big Ten 2nd team last year, he should move up to 1st team this year.  Center Graham Pocic has all-star potential.  Guard Hugh Thornton is beginning his third year as a starter.  The new starters are guard Jack Cornell and tackle Michael Heitz.  Cornell played sparingly in his first three seasons, while Heitz is a redshirt freshman.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning runs his version of the Bandit Defense, where one player is half end and half linebacker.  The Bandit is Michael Buchanan, and he needs to greatly better his production of last season if the defense is to succeed.  Buchanan started eight times and played in three others, making 40 tackles and 5 ½ stops for loss.

 

The rest of the line is a liability.  Koenning likes his linemen to be aggressive and cause things to happen rather than react to what happened.  End Glenn Foster has seen minimal action in his first two seasons, but he will get a bulk of the reps opposite the Bandit.

 

Tackle Akeem Spence made 45 tackles as a freshman and earned a spot on the Freshman All-American team.  Craig Wilson moves across to the other side of the ball and will start at the other tackle position.

 

Linebackers

Ian Thomas is the top holdover in this unit.  He is also the leading returning tackler, having made 67 stops in 2010.  6 ½ of those stops were behind the line.

 

Trulon Henry has been moved here from the secondary.  He had six passes defended and made 64 tackles.  Jonathan Brown inherits the other vacant spot.

 

Secondary

The improvement in talent and experience here will allow Koenning to blitz more up front.  Expect Illinois to play more Cover 0 and Cover 1 defenses (man-to-man defenses) with an extra one or two pass rushers this year.  Having two cornerbacks that can cover without help is the reason.  Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson teamed for 13 passes defended and should improve that communal number north of 15 this year.  Two new safeties will start on the back line.  Supo Sani missed all of 2010 with an injury, while Pat Nixon-Youman saw playing time last year, making 15 tackles and intercepting a couple of passes.

 

OTHER

The hiring of new coordinators pumped life into this lifeless program.  Zook was on the way out, but he was rescued by Petrino and Koenning.

 

Illinois kicker Derek Dimke is worth a couple extra points in PiRate Rating.  The senior connected on all 43 PAT attempts and was good on 24-29 field goal attempts, hitting two from 50 yards+.

 

SUMMARY

Illinois will begin 2-0 and have a chance to improve to 4-0 before Big Ten play starts.  They host Arkansas State and South Dakota State before hosting Arizona State in what will be a pivotal game.  Then, a week later they host a tough Western Michigan team that could catch the Illini looking ahead one week to rival Northwestern.

 

The Illini do not hit the road until game six at Indiana.  They could be 6-0 when Ohio State comes to Champaign-Urbana on October 22.  The back end of the schedule has four tough games, but Zook should be able to coax eight wins out of this team.

 

PURDUE

OFFENSE

Quarterback

A school noted for excellent quarterbacks (Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Mike Phipps, Mark Herrmann, Drew Brees, etc.) finds itself in a quarterback quandary as the 2011 season begins.  Expected starter Rob Henry went down with an ACL injury in the late stages of preseason practice.  He could miss the entire season.

 

Former Miami quarterback Robert Marve split the signal calling duties with Henry last year, and he too has a knee injury, albeit not as serious as the one Henry has.

 

Caleb TerBush will start the opening game.  He has virtually no experience as a college quarterback.  Sophomore Sean Robinson had a tough freshman season, completing 48% of his passes with a 2/6 TD/Int ratio, and he will be the number two option until Marve is healthy again.  Look for a decline in production here if Coach Danny Hope has to go with his third and fourth options.  He will call more running plays, hoping to minimize mistakes.

 

Receivers

Three of the top four receivers have graduated, leaving this position a bit inexperienced and less talented.  Antavian Edison caught 32 passes but averaged less than 10 yards per reception.  O. J. Ross and Justin Siller are the next most experienced receivers, but they teamed for just 23 receptions and two touchdowns.  Purdue receivers as a whole averaged just 9.2 yards per catch.  A lot of their receptions were little more than glorified overhanded quick pitches just across the line. 

 

Running Backs

Henry was the leading rusher last year, so his loss hurts in more than one way.  Purdue used a lot of backs last year, but unfortunately most of them are now gone.  Edison is actually the leading returning rusher.  He ran the reverse sweep 36 times for 130 yards.

 

All is not lost. Junior Ralph Bolden ran for over 900 yards two years ago, but he missed 2010 with an ACL injury.  He has taken his job back and if he is fully recovered and can cut laterally, he could challenge for 1,000 yards rushing.  Of course, Hope likes to platoon here, and he signed multiple backs in this incoming class.

 

Offensive Line

This unit could have been a major strength this year, but instead, it will be closer to neutral.  Instead of two legitimate stars, PU will have to make do with just one.  Guard Ken Plue was placed on the Outland Trophy watch list, but he will be the one watching when the season begins, as he is dealing with academic issues.

 

As a result, Hope had to do some shuffling.  Tackle Nick Mondek was moved to guar to replace Plue.  Justin Kitchens moved into the starting tackle spot vacated by Mondek.  Additionally, center Peters Drey and guard Rick Schmeig switched positions.

 

Tackle Dennis Kelly stayed put where he is, and he is the one true star of this unit, at least until (if) Plue is allowed back. 

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Expect another good season in the trenches this year, even with the loss of the best defensive end that has played at Ross-Ade Stadium in many years; Ryan Kerrigan made a whopping 26 tackles for loss.  Three veterans return to the four-man line, while the new starter has a lot of experience.  Tackle Kawann Short made six sacks and 12 ½ stops for loss while coming up with 41 total tackles—all high for a typical defensive tackle.  His counterpart inside is Bruce Gaston, but Gaston could miss the opener due to a sore back.

 

Robert Maci will not replicate Kerrigan’s stats, but he will make a lot of tackles coming his way.  Gerald Gooden returns to the other terminal spot after making 35 stops a year ago. 

 

The Boilermakers should not give up too much more than the 138 yards per game they allowed last year, and they could come close to matching their 33 sacks.

 

Linebackers

There will be improvement in this unit in 2011.  Middle linebacker Dwayne Beckford and outside linebacker Joe Holland finished 2nd and 3rd in tackles with a combined 157 stops and 11 going for losses.  Will Lucas was the principle reserve here last year, and he came up with 43 tackles.

 

Secondary

While not as talented as Penn State’s secondary, this group has a lot of depth.  All four 2010 starters return, and there are capable backups at each spot.  Cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen teamed for 126 tackles and 14 passes defended.  Normando Harris will see considerable time here as well and will serve as the nickel back.

 

Safeties Logan Link and Albert Evans combined for just seven passes defended, but even worse, just two interceptions.  As a whole, PU had only 10 interceptions, which is the major reason they had a -6 turnover margin.  Additionally, Link led the team in tackles from his strong safety position.  That indicates a weak overall defense, and Purdue gave up 29 points and 370 yards per game last year.

 

OTHER

Purdue has endured three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the 12-year run of losing seasons from 1985 to 1996.

 

SUMMARY

The schedule just got a little trickier, as an unsettled situation at quarterback could present the Boilermakers with a couple of trap games to start the season.

 

Purdue hosts Middle Tennessee in week one and goes to Rice in week two.  They would have been easy picks to win both, but now both games move closer to becoming tossups.  Following a breather against Southeast Missouri and a week off, Notre Dame comes south to West Lafayette.  Purdue must be 3-1 after this game to have a shot at bowl eligibility.

 

In Big Ten play, PU hosts Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio State, and Iowa, and they visit Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana.  The Boilermakers can win maybe three of these games.

 

INDIANA

OFFENSE

Quarterback

The Hoosiers start over with new coach Kevin Wilson who ran Bob Stoops’ offense at Oklahoma after spending three years as OC at Northwestern.  Both the Sooners and Wildcats put up a lot of points on the scoreboard and placed a lot of quarterbacks on all-conference teams.

 

This year, IU replaces one of their best passers in history.  Ben Chappell was a prized gunfighter in the Pistol Offense.  He completed 62.5% of his passes for 3,295 yards and 24 touchdowns, and he did it with virtually no help from the running game.  His loss will keep the Hoosiers from competing with the rest of the league in 2011.

 

Dusty Kiel takes over under center.  As a freshman, he attempted 17 passes and completed just four with two interceptions.  Edward Wright-Baker performed little better in his brief time last year, completing 41.7% of his passes.  Expect both to see duty this year.

 

The passing statistics will take a considerable drop this season, from 287 yards per game to as little as 175.

 

Receivers

IU has one quality possession receiver in Damarlo Belcher.  He caught 78 passes last year, but his two principle cohorts are now longer around.  Defenses will concentrate on slowing him down.

 

Two starters expected to contribute will be missing playing time at the beginning of the season.  Tight end Ted Bolser and wideout Duwyce Wilson are the second and third leading returning receivers (59 receptions and eight touchdowns), but neither are on the depth chart for the opening game.  Dre Muhammad and Kofi Hughes will see more passes thrown their way.  It leaves an already suspect receiving corps in very weak condition.

 

Running Backs

Wilson’s teams were not strictly pass-crazy.  At Northwestern, his tenure as OC coincided with Damien Anderson’s years at running back.  He had Adrian Peterson and Demarco Murray at Oklahoma.

 

Wilson does not have a back on his roster that is capable of running 25 times for 125 yards.  In fact, IU’s leading rusher from 2010 gained just 352 yards.  Darius Willis returns this year, but he is facing a one-game suspension as well as a demotion into Wilson’s doghouse.  The new running back contingent will feature redshirt freshman Matt Perez and Juco transfer Stephen Houston.  There’s nowhere to go but up for this unit.

 

Offensive Line

There are no stars in the blocking corps, but at least there is some experience returning, and it can only mean some improvement will be made here this year.  The Hoosier offensive line only gave up 12 sacks last year, but Chappell’s quick read and release played a significant part in that.

 

Center Will Matte begins his third year as the starter, and he is the best pass blocker on the team.  Justin Pagan moves to guard after starting at tackle last year.  He has started at both positions throughout his career in Bloomington.  Marc Damisch moves from second team to first team to start at the opposite guard.  Andrew McDonald starts at one tackle position, while Josh Hager will man the other spot.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Three starters return to the trenches, led by end Darius Johnson.  Johnson made 65 tackles with seven going for lost yardage.  He led IU with 4 ½ sacks.  Redshirt freshman Ryan Phillis will start at the opposite end.  Adam Replogle and Mick Mentzer return at the tackle positions, but Larry Black has beaten out Mentzer.  The three combined for 67 tackles and 10 tackles for loss.  Overall, this is a weak unit for a Big Ten team, but it is not the weakest in the league.

 

Linebackers

Middle linebacker Jeff Thomas is the only player on this side of the ball with the potential to make 3rd Team All-Big Ten.  Thomas registered 82 tackles last year with 7 ½ for loss.  He also picked off a couple of passes.

 

Leon Beckum finished with 69 tackles and nine stops for loss.  Joining him on the opposite side is redshirt freshman Chase Hoobler.  While not as weak as the defensive line, this unit is still below par for the Big Ten.

 

Secondary

Unfortunately, the secondary is the weakest unit and most inexperienced on the entire team.  The Hoosiers gave up 238 passing yards per game last year, and they allowed enemy passers to complete better than 65% of their passes.  Two players with starting experience are back, but only one will start this year.

 

Greg Haban has moved from safety to cornerback.  He intercepted one pass and knocked loose five others while making 40 tackles last year.  Lawrence Bennett will start opposite him.  Bennett played sparingly at safety as a freshman.

 

Jarrell Drane and Chris Adkins will man the safety positions.  Both made seven tackles last year in limited action, but Adkins has prior starting experience.  Former Starter Donnell Jones will be the nickel back.

 

OTHER

Indiana has enjoyed just one winning season since 1994.  Bill Mallory produced winning regular seasons seven times in nine seasons, but before him, Lee Corso had just two winning seasons in his 10 years in Bloomington.  Wilson’s task is a tough one.

 

The movie “Hoosiers” is one of the all-time best sports movies, but we believe another movie could be made about the 1967 Indiana football team.  Picked to finish in the bottom two or three of the standings, the Hoosiers continued to upset opponents and pull victory out of the jaws of defeat week after week until they were Big Ten Champions and Rose Bowl participants. 

 

SUMMARY

2011 is going to be a long year at Memorial Stadium.  Indiana has three winnable non-conference games, and they better take advantage against Ball State, South Carolina State, and North Texas.  We do not see them winning a conference game this year.

 

Legends Division

NEBRASKA

OFFENSE

Quarterback

The Cornhuskers join the Big Ten at the right time.  Most of their adversaries in this division are in a rebuilding mode.  The Cornhuskers suffered some heavy losses on this side of the ball, but they had so much depth, they can reload rather than rebuild.

 

One place where Coach Bo Pelini does not have to reload is at quarterback, where Taylor Martinez was fabulous as a freshman last year.  Martinez rushed for more than 1,000 yards (sacks removed) and passed for more than 1,600.  He had a 241-yard rushing game against Kansas State, and he had a 323-yard passing game with five touchdowns against Oklahoma State.  Look for him to rush for a little less and pass for a little more in 2011.

 

If Martinez is injured for any amount of time, this position could become a big concern as three other QBs expected to contend for playing time are no longer in the program due to a transfer, an injury, and a professional baseball career.

 

Receivers

Nebraska’s most valuable receiver is tight end Kyler Reed.  He caught 22 passes for 395 yards and eight touchdowns last year.  Pelini liked to send him over the middle when the ‘Huskers penetrated the opponents’ 30 yard line.  Ben Cotton is an excellent second tight end, and NU will use two tight end sets.

 

Brandon Kinnie led NU with 44 receptions last year.  He scored five touchdowns and averaged 11.2 yards per reception.  Khiry Cooper saw some action as a starter and a reserve, and he will join freshmen Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner and junior Tim Marlowe as receivers who will see playing time.  It is a decent unit but not spectacular.

 

Running Backs

Rex Burkhead rushed for almost 1,300 yards as a freshman, and he added 951 in an injury-shortened sophomore season last year.  He could challenge for the Big Ten rushing lead this year, and we expect him to top 1,000 yards again.

 

Fullback Tyler Legate will open holes for Burkhead.  Nebraska used to utilize their fullbacks in their running and passing game, but now they are glorified third guards.

 

Offensive Line

This is the only concern on this side of the ball.  Three starters are missing from 2010, and only tackle Jeremiah Sirles can be considered an all-conference possibility.  Sirles missed Spring Practice, but he should be okay to start the season.  Center Mike Caputo is solid, but he will not remind Cornhusker fans of Dave Rimington or Rik Bonness.

 

Redshirt freshman Jake Cotton will start at the vacant tackle spot.  Sophomore Andrew Rodriguez will start at one guard spot, while true freshman Tyler Moore will man the other guard position.  There is depth here, but not like in past seasons.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini’s Blackshirt Defense regressed a little last year, giving up 17 points and 300+ yards per game after leading the nation in 2009 by giving up just 10 points and 270 yards per game.

 

The Cornhuskers return some stars, but they lost some as well.  They are loaded on this side of the trenches, as most of the two-deep returns.

 

Jared Crick will contend for All-American accreditation after making 70 tackles with 9 ½ sacks and 17 total tackles for loss.  He forms one of the nation’s best tackle tandems with Baker Steinkuhler, who registered 46 tackles and four for losses.

 

At end, Cameron Meredith is a potential all-conference player.  He made 64 tackles with eight stops for loss.  The new starter at end will be Jason Ankrah, who saw very limited duty but won the spot with a great showing in practice.  This looks like a line capable of holding opponents to less than 120 rushing yards per game. 

 

Linebackers

Lavonte David could become the first player to lead two different conferences in total tackles in consecutive seasons.  He led the Big 12 with 152 tackles last year.  The potential All-American also had six sacks and made 15 stops behind the line.  He also knocked away 10 passes.

 

Any two average linebackers could be put on the field with David and give the Cornhuskers the best trio in the Big Ten.  The two players joining him are more than average linebackers.  Will Compton was a Freshman All-American two years ago.  He made 15 tackles in limited action last year.  Sean Fisher missed more than half of 2009 and all of last year, but he should be ready to return to his pre-injury form.  As usual, the depth here is rather strong.

 

Secondary

If any teams exploit this defense, it will be the secondary that gets exploited.  It isn’t like this is a bad unit.  It’s a B+ unit with two A+ units in front.

 

The star of this group is cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, but he may miss the start of the season with a pulled leg muscle.  Dennard finished 2010 with four interceptions and 11 passes defended.  Ciente Evans inherits the other cornerbacks after seeing limited action last year, but he will not be able to replicate what Prince Amukamara did for the ‘Huskers (13 passes defended).

 

Austin Cassidy returns at safety after making 48 tackles last year (but only one pass defended), while Courtney Osborne made 41 tackles and five for losses in relief last year.

 

OTHER

Pelini felt as if biased Big 12 officiating cost the Cornhuskers a couple of games last year.  The Big Ten has been known for a lot of questionable officiating calls; might Nebraska have a rough Plebe year in this conference?

 

As strong as this program is, the Cornhuskers have not played in a BCS Bowl since they lost the Rose Bowl game to Miami 10 years ago.

 

SUMMARY

This team is strong enough to be the favorite in the Legends Division, but we cannot see Nebraska challenging for the National Championship Game.  They were hindered by their first Big Ten schedule forcing them to play Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State from the other division.  We’ll call this a nine or 10-win regular season and install NU as the favorite in the Legends Division.

 

MICHIGAN

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Last year, we told you to watch out for Denard Robinson, and that he could become the next Pat White.  At least we were right about something.  Robinson’s stats were on par with Cam Newton.  Let’s look at the comparison. 

 

Robinson rushed for 1,702 yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging 6.6 yards per attempt.  Newton rushed for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per rush.

 

Robinson completed 62.5% of his passes for 2,570 yards and 18 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.  Newton completed 66.1% of his passes for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns to seven interceptions. 

 

Robinson’s total yardage output was just 55 yards shy of matching Newton’s, and Newton played in one more game.

 

In new head coach Brady Hoke’s offense, Robinson will pass more and run less, but Hoke would be crazy not to use Robinson’s running skills.

 

Last year’s backup and former starter Tate Forcier transferred to San Jose State, so there is a concern should Robinson go down with an injury.  Sophomore Devin Gardner threw 10 passes last year.

 

 

Receivers

Robinson should top 3,000 yards passing this year because he welcomes most of his favorite targets from last season.  Roy Roundtree led the Wolverines with 72 receptions, 935 yards, and seven touchdowns.  Junior Hemingway caught 32 passes and averaged 18.5 yards per reception with four touchdowns.  Tight end Kevin Koger made 14 receptions and scored twice while averaging 14.2 yards per catch.

 

UM has a lot of depth here with Martavious Odoms, Kelvin Grady, and Jeremy Gallon.

 

Running Backs

The Wolverines will go with a two-man platoon here with Michael Shaw and Fitz Toussaint.  Shaw rushed for 601 yards and five scores, while Toussaint rushed for just 87 yards but averaged 11 yards per carry.

 

Vincent Smith will be the conversion back who comes in on 3rd and short and at the goal line.  He rushed for 601 yards last year and scored five touchdowns.

 

Offensive Line

Hoke’s offense will have a chance to match last year’s production because he has a strong offensive line.  Center David Molk was a 1st Team All-Big Ten choice last year.  Patrick Omameh starts beside him at guard for the second consecutive season.  Rickey Barnum is the new starter at the other guard.

 

Taylor Lewan returns to start at one tackle position after starting nine times last year, while senior Mark Huyge will start at the other tackle spot.  Huyge was a co-starter last year and a full-time starter in 2009.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

This is what cost Rich Rodriguez his job.  None of the units on this side of the ball looked like a Michigan defensive unit.  The maize and blue gave up 189 rushing yards per game and 262 passing yards per game, surrendering 35.2 points per game.  Five teams topped 500 total yards.  Unofficially, we do not believe the Wolverines gave up 500 total yards in any game coached by Bo Schembechler during his tenure in Ann Arbor, and we know his teams gave up 35 or more points one time in 21 seasons, and that was against a top-five-ranked Missouri team in his third game of his UM career.

 

Hoke hired former UM defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to turn this side of the ball around.  Expect immediate progress, especially up front, where three starters return to the trenches.

 

Ryan Van Bergen has been moved from end to tackle to join Mike Martin.  This tandem teamed for 74 tackles and 14 ½ tackles for loss.  End Craig Roh will team with new starter Will Heininger, who missed all of last year with an ACL injury.  Walk-on Nathan Brink has earned playing time with a great spring and August showing.

 

Linebackers

Middle linebacker Kenny Demens has the potential to make 100 or more tackles after making 82 stops last year.  Cameron Gordon finished with 77 tackles, and he finished with seven passes defended.  Mike Jones moves into the starting lineup after redshirting last year.  The depth is not all that strong.  Leading tackler Jonas Mouton will be sorely missed, and this unit will be the biggest liability on this team.

 

Secondary

Strong safety Jordan Kovacs made 116 tackles, which is not a good sign.  8 ½ of those tackles went for lost yardage.  He joins the other returning secondary starter, cornerback J. T. Floyd, who finished with 66 tackles and five passes defended.

 

Thomas Gordon has some starting experience, and he will get the nod at safety, while Troy Woolfolk returns from injury to regain the starting cornerback spot he had in 2009.  Carvin Johnson will be the nickel back.

 

OTHER

It has been 12 years since Michigan last won a BCS Bowl game (defeated Alabama in the Orange Bowl 1/1/2000) and 14 years since they last won the Rose Bowl.

 

SUMMARY

Are we crazy to place Michigan this far up in the Legends Division standings?  Probably.  However, we have a lot of confidence in Hoke.  He will prove to be the best coach at the Big House since Bo retired.

 

Michigan’s schedule is not a cakewalk.  They begin the season with one of the MAC’s tougher teams in Western Michigan.  Then, they host Notre Dame.  A breather against neighborhood rival Eastern Michigan precedes a date with Hoke’s former team—San Diego State.

 

We can see this team winning five or six conference games.  UM hosts Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska, and Ohio State, while they go on the road to Northwestern, Michigan State, Iowa, and Illinois.  This may be the year that UM breaks the seven year losing streak to Ohio State.

 

MICHIGAN STATE

OFFENSE

Quarterback

When last we saw Kirk Cousins, he was testing the feel of the turf at the Florida Citrus Bowl stadium.  He tested it five times thanks to the Alabama Crimson Tide.  Prior to the bowl game, Cousins was having an excellent season.  He finished the year with 2,825 yards and 20 touchdowns, while completing 67% of his passes.

 

Backups Andrew Maxwell returns after seeing limited action.  If called on, he can be a reliable emergency option.  However, he is no Cousins.  Cousins might be the best passer in the league.

 

Receivers

Spartans coach Mark Dantonio has one of the better receiving units in the Big Ten.  B. J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin return for their final seasons after teaming for 82 receptions 1,005 yards.  Cunningham scored nine times.  Keith Nichol began his career at Oklahoma.  In reserve last year, he caught 22 passes.  There is adequate depth at the wideouts.

 

Brian Linthicum and Garrett Celek will split the load at tight end, while Dion Sims has improved enough to see some time there as well. Linthicum started his career at Clemson.

 

Running Backs

Bulky Edwin Baker returns after rushing for 1,201 yards and 13 touchdowns last year.  He missed a game and part of another, so he averaged more than 100 yards per full game.  The 1st Team All-Big Ten selection could challenge for the conference lead this season.  He isn’t a breakaway runner, but he will aggravate defenses with several five to 10 yard gains. 

 

Larry Caper and Le’Veon Bell will back up Baker.  Bell gained more than 600 yards last year, while Caper added 144.

 

Offensive Line

The Spartans must rebuild a little in the blocking corps.  They lose three starters, including an all-conference star.  The returning starters are guards Chris McDonald and Joel Foreman.  Foreman is the leader of this group, and he could contend for 1st Team All-Big Ten accolades this year.

 

Redshirt freshman Skyler Burkland will start at one of the vacant tackle positions, while Dan France and Jared McGaha will platoon at the other tackle.  Travis Jackson and Blake Treadwell will both see time at center.

 

There is dept here, but this unit is barely above mediocre.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

The Spartans have excellent depth here, especially at end, where four players will share the load.  Marcus Rush and Denzel Drone will share one end spot, while William Gholston and Tyler Hoover will split snaps at the other. 

 

Jerel Worthy starts at one tackle position after making 40 tackles with eight for losses.  Anthony Rashad White has beaten out former starter Kevin Pickelman at the nose.  White made 17 tackles in relief last year.

 

Linebackers

There is a little depth here this season, but overall, this is just an above-average group.  Max Bullough is the only sure starter, and he will man the middle spot.  He made 23 stops as a backup last year.

 

The outside positions will be split by three players.  Chris Norman will start at the Star (weak side) position, while Steve Gardiner will start at the Sam position, but Denicos Allen will see time at both positions.  The trio combined for 88 tackles.

 

Secondary

Johnny Adams is the one of two stars in the secondary.  The cornerback made three interceptions and had 10 passes defended.  Free safety Trenton Robinson bettered that with four picks and 12 passes defended.

 

Daqueze Dennard will start at the vacant cornerback spot, while Isaiah Lewis will start at the other.

 

OTHER

Michigan State has enjoyed four consecutive winning seasons, and should make it five in a row this year.  The last time they had five consecutive winning seasons was 1985-1990, when they extended it to a sixth year.

 

It has been 24 years since the Spartans last went to the Rose Bowl.

 

For those old enough to remember, it is hard to believe that it has been 45 years since the Spartans and Notre Dame hooked up for their epic “Game of the Century” in November of 1966. 

 

SUMMARY

We are split here in our opinion about the Michigan State season.  One of us believes they should be the odds-on favorite to win the Legends Division and the Big Ten Championship.  One of us believes the Spartans will be affected by their 49-7 pasting from Alabama in the Capital One Bowl and struggle to break even at 6-6. 

 

The non-league schedule includes the toughie at Notre Dame and home games against Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic, and Central Michigan.  They draw Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders, and face Nebraska, Iowa, and Northwestern on the road.  It looks like a slight regression for MSU this year.

 

IOWA

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Ricky Stanzi had a splendid senior year in Iowa City, but the Hawkeyes disappointed their fans with an 8-5 record.  James Vandenberg takes over for Stanzi, and the junior has completed less than 50% of his passes in the short amount of time he has played.

 

Vandenberg attempted just eight passes last year, and he completed five for 45 yards and a touchdown.  He will not come close to matching Stanzi’s 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns.

 

Redshirt freshman A. J. Derby will be the number two option.

 

Receivers

It is hard to succeed with just one primetime player in your receiving corps, but Iowa has one star and “the rest.”  Marvin McNutt caught 53 passes and gained 861 yards with eight touchdowns.  Keenan Davis caught just 11 passes and has never become the star he was forecasted to be.  Tight end Brad Herman averaged over 17 yards per reception last year, but he only caught nine balls.  McNutt needs another receiver to have a breakout season, or else he will be shadowed by two defenders on every passing play.

 

Running Backs

Coach Kirk Ferentz must replace his top rusher from 2010.  Adam Robinson rushed for 941 yards and 10 scores, leaving Marcus Coker to replace him.  Coker was actually the better back last year, as he averaged almost a full yard more per carry while gaining 622 yards after not playing the first three games.  Coker was the star of the Insight Bowl, rushing for 219 yards on 33 carries.

 

Matt Meyers gets the start at fullback.

 

Offensive Line

Like a lot of the teams in this conference, Iowa has an average offensive line this year.  The line could be below average for the season opener, because guard Nolan MacMillan is recovering from hernia surgery and may not be ready.  Matt Tobin will replace him in the lineup until he is ready to go full speed again.

 

Riley Reiff made the All-Big Ten 2nd Team last year at tackle.  Markus Zusevics will start opposite him.  The other guard spot will go to Adam Gettis, while Coach Ferentz’s son James will start at center for the second year. 

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

This unit is the weakest link on the defensive side of the ball.  Expect the Hawkeyes to give up considerably more on the ground than the 102 yards per game they gave up in 2010.  Iowa loses the services of three NFL Draft choices, and their replacements are not NFL prospects.

 

Tackle Mike Daniels is the lone returnee.  He made 40 tackles with 11 stops for loss.  Thomas Nardo will start at the other tackle position after seeing very limited action in his first three seasons.  Lebron Daniel has made nine tackles in three years, but he will start at one end position.  Broderick Binns will start at the other end spot.  He made 36 tackles last year.  While not very talented or experienced, this unit is made up of four seniors, so there should be maturity here.

 

Linebackers

The Hawkeyes have talent at this position.  Middle Linebacker James Morris was a freshman All-American last year after making 70 tackles.  Tyler Nielsen started eight times and made 42 tackles.  He defended five passes.  Christian Kirksey takes over at the other linebacker spot after making six tackles in a short amount of playing time.

 

Secondary

This is sort of a hit and miss unit.  Two starters are as good as any two other teammates in the league.  Cornerback Shaun Prater and safety Micah Hyde combined for 150 tackles, eight interceptions, and 21 passes defended.  Prater earned 1st team all-conference honors and could compete for All-American honors this year, but only if the rebuilt line gets enough pressure on quarterbacks.

 

Cornerback Greg Castillo and safety Collin Sleeper are two juniors that are more like fourth year freshmen.  There isn’t much depth here either.

 

OTHER

Iowa lost a lot of their special team skill players.  Kicker Mike Meyer is the lone returnee of the key players, and he is not one of the better kickers in the league.

 

The Hawkeyes have given up less than 20 points per game the last four years.

 

SUMMARY

Iowa has two easy non-conference games, its annual rivalry game, and a tough game against a team that could be in a BCS Bowl.  The Hawkeyes host Tennessee Tech and Louisiana Monroe which will give them two wins.  The CyHawk game is at Iowa State this year, but Iowa should win that one.  If they can beat Pittsburgh to start 4-0, then they could build on the momentum and even exceed last year’s final outcome. 

 

We tend to believe they will go 3-1 outside of the Big Ten and then struggle to break even in league play with a lot of close games.  They will be bowl eligible.

 

NORTHWESTERN

OFFENSE

Quarterback

When Dan Persa went down for the season with an Achilles injury suffered after a big win over Iowa, it destroyed the Wildcats’ season.  They mailed it in against Illinois and Wisconsin, losing by a combined 118-50.  Persa’s absence wasn’t directly responsible for the defensive breakdown, but his replacement could not sustain long drives like Persa could, and it exposed Northwestern’s defensive liabilities.

 

Persa returns after completing 73.5% of his passes for 258 yards per game.  His TD/Int ratio was 15/4.  He rushed for close to 700 yards (sacks removed).  If he is 100% healthy, he could guide NU to an upper division finish in the Legends Division.  However, if his heel prevents him from being as mobile as he was, he could get clobbered.

 

Receivers

Persa has some tools to work with.  Jeremy Ebert earned 1st Team All-Big Ten honors last year.  He grabbed 62 passes and picked up 953 yards, while scoring eight touchdowns.  H-Back Drake Dunsmore caught 40 passes and score five times.  Demetrius Fields added 25 receptions.  There is depth returning here as well with Charles Brown, Tony Jones, and Rashad Lawrence.  Lawrence will probably start the opener. 

 

Running Backs

Mike Trumpy and Jacob Schmidt will share most of the carries.  Trumpy is more like a fullback from the old days when teams liked to run the ball between the tackles to set up the sweep.  Trumpy rarely goes down on first contact.  He gained 530 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per attempt.

 

Schmidt gained just 161 yards and scored four times.  Adonis Smith will see significant time as well.

 

Offensive Line

Considering that most of the offensive lines in the Big Ten are on the mediocre side, Northwestern’s blocking corps must be considered a strength when compared to the other teams.

 

Four starters return.  This is not a super unit, as their 40 sacks allowed can attest, but it is better than about seven or eight conference rivals.

 

Tackles All Netter and Patrick Ward are big and quick, while guards Ben Burkett and Brian Mulroe are quicker but maybe not as strong.  The new center will be redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

The Wildcats gave up 29 points and 426 yards per game last year, so there is a lot of room for improvement.  However, we are not sure NU can improve much this year because there is not enough talent.

 

One player that is talented is end Vincent Browne.  Of the returning Big Ten players, Browne led with seven sacks and 15 ½ tackles for loss.  Kevin Watt returns to the opposite end.  He made 29 tackles with 5 ½ tackles for loss, but he may be replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore Tyler Scott.  Jack Dinardo picked up seven tackles for loss and returns to one DT spot, while the new tackle will be Niko Mafuli.

 

Linebackers

This is the biggest weakness for NU.  Bryce McNaul returns after making 62 tackles with five for losses.  David Nwabuisi and Ben Johnson combined for 47 tackles in relief roles.  Behind this trio are untested players with Damien Proby the best of the rest.

 

Secondary

If the Wildcats can generate any pass rush, the secondary should do just fine.  The strength of this unit is at safety with David Arnold and Brian Peters returning after teaming for 149 tackles and 10 passes defended.  Arnold is nursing a sprained ankle and may not be ready to play in the opener.  If he cannot go at Boston College, redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell will go in his place.

 

Jordan Mabin returns to one starting cornerback spot after making 63 tackles with 15 passes defended (led Big Ten).  Jeravin Matthews inherits the vacant cornerback position.

 

OTHER

In the last 16 seasons, NU has had seven winning records, seven losing record, and two .500 records.  The Wildcats have enjoyed three consecutive winning seasons.

 

Prior to this run, the Wildcats had endured 23 consecutive losing seasons.  Their last three-year winning record streak came in 1958-59-60.  Their last run of four consecutive winning seasons came in 1928-1931.

 

SUMMARY

It is hard to list Northwestern as the number five team in the Legends Division, and we know that our PiRate Rating has underestimated their power based on how the Wildcats fell apart last year after Persa went out with his injury.

 

NU’s out-of-conference schedule offers only one sure win.  A week two game with Eastern Illinois is the only “gimme” on the schedule.  The other three non-Big Ten games include road trips to Boston College and Army and a home game with Rice. 

 

In this year with more parity in the Big Ten, Northwestern could finish go 6-2 at best and 1-7 at worst. 

 

MINNESOTA

OFFENSE

Quarterback

New coach Jerry Kill starts the rebuilding process at Minnesota minus the Gophers’ all time leading passer.  Adam Weber passed for 2,679 yards and 20 touchdowns last year.  Weber was criticized as the reason UM lost game-after-game, yet he is on the verge of making the Denver Broncos 2011 roster.

 

MarQueis Gray, Max Shortell, and Tom Parish will probably all see the field in September, as none of these three quarterbacks is a complete package.  Gray was actually UM’s second leading receiver last year, and he will be a better runner than passer.

 

True freshman Shortell is a more prototypical pocket passer, while redshirt freshman Parish is a little bit of both.  Regardless of who plays the bulk of the time, this unit will be considerably weaker than last year.

 

Receivers

The number of receptions this year could drop by as many as 50, as the Gophers will have to go back to a predominantly running team.  One receiver who should still see a lot of passes thrown his way is Da’Jon McKnight, who led the Gophers with 48 receptions, 750 yards, and 10 touchdowns.  Redshirt freshman Marcus Jones will start in the slot.  Brandon Green returns after missing all of last year with an injury, and if he can resume where he left off, this unit will be in good shape.  Watch out for Juco transfer Malcolm Moulton.  The late signee has been coming on strong in fall practice, and we would not be surprised if he snuck into the starting lineup.

 

Tight end Eric Lair returns after catching 39 passes and gaining 526 yards.

 

Running Backs

Duane Bennett, Lamonte Edwards, and Donnell Kirkwood will benefit from the new offense running the ball about seven to ten times more per game.  Bennett rushed for 529 yards and caught 33 passes last year.  Edwards is a redshirt freshman, and Kirkwood played sparingly.  With Gray likely running the ball 10-15 times a game, look for the Gophers to easily surpass last year’s average of 135 yards per game.  We are not talking Glen Mason era rushing yards, but they could average 175 yards per game.

 

Offensive Line

This is as big a concern as the quarterback position.  The starting five here is the weakest offensive line unit in the league.  None of the players on this roster look like candidates to make the 3rd Team All-Big Ten list.  Ryan Wynn will man the center position, while Ryan Orton and Chris Bunders start at guard.  Ed Olson will occupy one tackle spot, while redshirt freshman Jimmy Gjere starts opposite.  Bunders and Olson are the only returning starters, but Wynn has past starting experience from 2008.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

UM gave up 34 points per game in Big Ten play, and their 2011 conference schedule does not offer them much chance of shaving that number down into the 20’s. 

 

The defensive line returns most of the two-deep from last year and will be better.  Tackles Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs teamed for 69 tackles and 12 tackles for loss.  Ends D. L. Wilhite and Matt Garin combined for 27 tackles in part-time starting roles.  Ben Perry could crack the starting lineup, and Kendall Gregory-McGee will see significant playing time in reserve.

 

This unit finished dead last in the league with just nine sacks.  Three of those came against Illinois.

 

Linebackers

This unit is the strength of the team.  UM returns all three starters and welcomes a top reserve who was a highly sought after recruit that signed with Florida but never saw the field due to injury.

 

Gary Tinsley led the team with 90 tackles and 9 ½ for losses.  Keanon Cooper made 68 tackles with 4 ½ stops for loss.  Mike Rallis added 37 tackles with six stops behind the line.  Florida transfer Brendan Beal will supply quality backup.

 

Secondary

This unit is another major liability, but you have to place some of the blame on the lines’ inability to generate a pass rush last year.  UM gave up more than 200 passing yards per game and allowed 65% of enemy passes to be completed.

 

Cornerback Troy Stoudermire returns after registering six passes defended.  After him, the rest of this unit is new.  Brock Vereen made 10 tackles but did nothing else.  Safety Shady Salamon has seen little action in the secondary, but he will generate buzz with his name.  Kim Royston missed all of last year with an injury after performing admirably in 2009.

 

OTHER

Since firing Glen Mason after the 2006 season, Minnesota has gone 17-33.  Mason’s teams went 56-42 after his original rebuilding.

 

Kill was quoted as saying that most of the incoming freshmen would play this year because there was not enough depth to redshirt them.

 

SUMMARY

The Gophers were not that far from being a halfway decent team last year, but they face some rebuilding in Kill’s first year.  They could take a step backward, but they should find a way to match last year’s win total.  They have three winnable games outside of league play, and they may go winless in the Big Ten, since they do not play Indiana.

 

 

2011 Big Ten Conference Media Poll

Team

1st Place Votes

Points

Leaders Division

 

 

Wisconsin

22

141

Ohio State

1

113

Penn State

1

95

Illinois

 

76

Purdue

 

52

Indiana

 

27

 

 

 

Legends Division

 

Nebraska

19

139

Michigan State

4

118

Iowa

 

82

Michigan

1

71

Northwestern

 

69

Minnesota

 

25

 

 

 

Championship Game Winner

 

Nebraska

 

12

Wisconsin

 

11

Michigan State

 

1

 

 

2011 Big Ten Conference PiRate Ratings

Team

PiRate #

Prediction

Leaders Division

 

 

Wisconsin

116.2

6-2/10-3

Penn State

113.4

6-2/9-3

Ohio State

108.1

5-3/8-4

Illinois

107.8

3-5/7-5

Purdue

101.7

3-5/6-6

Indiana

86.5

1-7/4-8

 

 

 

Legends Division

 

Nebraska

116.4

6-2/11-2 *

Michigan

114.8

5-3/8-4

Michigan State

113.5

5-3/8-4

Iowa

107.8

3-5/6-6

Northwestern

101.2

4-4/7-5

Minnesota

101.1

1-7/4-8

   

 

* Nebraska to beat Wisconsin in

 

Big Ten Championship Game

 

 Coming Tomorrow: The PiRate Ratings For Week One–It’s Football Time!

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August 20, 2010

2010 Big Ten Conference Preview

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Go to www.piratings.webs.com where we beat the spread 60.4% in 2009!

 

2010 Big Ten Conference Preview

The Big Ten started all this realignment mess, but all they did in the end was add Nebraska.  While we wouldn’t be shocked to see Commissioner Jim Delany add two or even four more teams before the year is up, nothing will be more surprising than the Big Ten race this season—at least in our opinions.

We are not about to shock anybody and pick Indiana and Minnesota to split the title.  No, we believe, like most other pundits, that Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin are the main contenders, and Penn State and Michigan State are right behind.  We do throw in one surprise team that could contend this year.  Our big surprise is that we feel like the league has become as balanced as the Pac-10.  We actually expect that there is a possibility that four teams could go 6-2 and split the title multiple ways.  Every contender has a strength that can be used to exploit one of the other contenders’ weaknesses.  Thus, every contender also has an exploitable weakness.  It should be an interesting season, as the Big Ten sends its champion to the Rose Bowl (no BCS Championship Game again this year) to face a Pac-10 champion, just like the good ole days.

Note: The PiRate Ratings are not meant to be used to predict the outcome of future games.  They are usable only as a basis for the current week’s games.  We do not use these ratings to make our selections.  They are only a starting point.  The predictions given below, as for every college conference and NFL division, are not taken from the ratings themselves.

Predictions

Pos Team B10 W-L
1 Wisconsin 7-1 11-1
2 Iowa 6-2 9-3
3 Ohio State 6-2 10-2
4 Michigan 5-3 8-4
5 Michigan State 5-3 9-3
6 Penn State 5-3 8-4
7 Northwestern 3-5 7-5
8 Purdue 3-5 6-6
9 Illinois 2-6 4-8
10 Indiana 1-7 5-7
11 Minnesota 1-7 3-9

 

BCS (Rose) Bowl: Wisconsin

Capital One Bowl: Ohio State

Outback Bowl: Iowa

Gator Bowl: Michigan

Insight Bowl: Penn State

Texas Bowl: Michigan State

Dallas Football Classic: Purdue

Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl: Northwestern

 

 

Team By Team Breakdown

Team Illinois Fighting Illini
               
Head Coach Ron Zook
               
Colors Orange and Blue
               
City Champaign-Urbana, IL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 2-6
Overall 3-9
               
PiRate Rating 98.3
               
National Rating 63
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 2-6
Overall 4-8
               
Strengths: Running Back, Linebacker, Cornerback
               
Weaknesses: Wide Receiver, Safety, Special Teams
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Missouri (N), Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, @ Fresno State
   
Key Games: Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern (@ Wrigley Field)
   
Offense Pred. 22-26 points & 350-375 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

Ron Zook almost lost his job last year, and he will lose it this year if the Illini don’t return to a bowl.  He hired new offensive and defensive coordinators, but that may not be enough to turn the tide in Champaign-Urbana. 

 

Illinois will have a decent running game again this year, but we do not see the Illini averaging 200 yards a game like last year.  Quarterback Nate Scheelhaase does not have the wheels former QB Juice Williams had.  He will pass for more yards possibly.

 

At running back, the Illini will rely on a good tandem.  Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford could combined for 1,500 yards, but their average per gain will drop some without a mobile QB threat.

 

Scheelhaase will struggle against better secondaries, because his receivers are not that talented.  Jarred Fayson is the leading returnee after catching just 16 passes for 218 yards.

 

The offensive line is average at best, and they will give up considerably more sacks with a less-mobile QB.

 

Illinois stunk on this side of the ball last year, and things won’t be much better this season.  Illinois switches to the 3-4 defense this year, and the three-man line will struggle some.  Only one starter, Clay Nurse, returns to this unit.  He will see a lot of double team blocks, as the rest of the line will not pick up a lot of sacks.

 

Linebacker is the strength of this side of the ball, as three with starting experience return. 

 

The Illini are set at the corners, but safety is a concern.  Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne combined for 12 batted passes but intercepted just two.  Illinois finished #120 (dead last) in the nation in intercepted passes, so there is only one way to go in this category.

 

We do not believe the Illini have enough to get over the hump.  They had a lot better talent last year and won just three games.  Zook is headed back to the assistant coaches ranks after this season. 

Team Indiana Hoosiers
               
Head Coach Bill Lynch
               
Colors Cream and Crimson
               
City Bloomington, IN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 4-8
               
PiRate Rating 92.5
               
National Rating 82
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-7
Overall 5-7
               
Strengths: Wide Receiver
               
Weaknesses: Running Back, Offensive Line, Linebacker, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Towson, @ Western Kentucky, Akron, Arkansas State
   
Key Games: Michigan, @ Illinois, Northwestern, @ Purdue
   
Offense Pred. 24-28 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 31-34 points & 400-425 yards
               
Outlook

Three close losses were the difference in a 7-5 season and the 4-8 season in Hoosierland in 2009.  Indiana has a lot of talent on the offensive side and a lot of questions on the defensive side of the ball this year.  It looks like another year of close, high-scoring games with IU on the losing side.

 

Quarterback Ben Chappell returns for his senior year after completing 62.6% of his passes for 2,941 yards and 17 touchdowns.  His 15 interceptions have a lot to do with an offensive line that did not do its job.  He had to heave the ball in desperation too many times.

 

Chappell has some excellent receivers, and when IU plays teams with weaker pass rushes, the Hoosiers will generate a lot of passing yards.  Tandon Doss, Damario Belcher, and Terrance Turner teamed for 183 receptions and 2,175 yards last year, and they should top that contribution this season.

 

Indiana will pass the ball more this year, because their running game is still a problem.  Their offensive line does not block well for the run, and we don’t see the Hoosiers getting much more than 100 yards on the ground this year.  If they do, it will be because they fatten their stats against the non-conference opponents.

 

The Hoosiers were less than mediocre on the defensive side of the ball last year, and the news gets worse this year.  Seven of the top eight tacklers are gone, including the only two quality pass rushers.  IU has a decent tandem at defensive tackle, and Adam Replogle and Larry Black will stop up the middle running plays.  Replogle is the only pass rushing monster returning.

 

Only one starter returns at linebacker and in the secondary, and with a weaker pass rush, the Hoosiers will be quite generous through the air.  Look for IU to give up more than 250 passing yards per game in a conference noted for heavy running attacks.

 

A very easy non-conference slate will give Indiana four wins.  They will only need two conference victories to become bowl eligible, but getting one win will be tough.

Team Iowa Hawkeyes
               
Head Coach Kirk Ferentz
               
Colors Black and Gold
               
City Iowa City, IA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 6-2
Overall 11-2
               
PiRate Rating 119.8
               
National Rating 15
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: Defensive Line ***, Receiver, Defensive Back, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Linebacker
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Eastern Illinois, Iowa State, @ Arizona, Ball State
   
Key Games: Penn State, @ Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State
   
Offense Pred. 26-30 points & 360-380 yards
               
Defense Pred. 13-17 points & 275-300 points
               
Outlook

Iowa was a losing team last year if you look at their scores through three quarters.  They came from behind numerous times and barely earned victories over Northern Iowa and Arkansas State.  Of course, if you look at their bowl game against Georgia Tech, they looked like a top five team.

 

The Hawkeyes are the trendy pick to win the Big Ten this year because they host Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.  We won’t bash the Hawkeyes, but we see just enough exploitable areas to select them to come up a game short in the league standings.

 

Quarterback Ricky Stanzi completed just 56.3% of his passes last year and tossed 15 interceptions.  He forced passes at times, and he shut cut down on those this year.  On the other hand, some of those forced passes resulted in spectacular plays that helped Iowa move the ball in the fourth quarter. 

 

Stanzi will have two excellent weapons at his disposal.  Wideouts Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt combined for 79 receptions and 1,424 yards (18.0 per catch).  Their ability to break loose for long gains opened the running lanes for the backs.

 

Speaking of backs, Coach Kirk Ferentz welcomes the return of two fine runners in Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher.  Look for the two to team for 1,500 or more yards this year.

 

The one weakness on this side of the ball is in the offensive line, as three starters departed.  Iowa usually has excellent line play, but only tackle Riley Reiff qualifies for all-conference material.  Stanzi could receive a tougher pass rush this year, and if he reverts to his old ways…

 

Iowa won with defense last year, and they will probably rely on defense to win again this year.  Eight starters return on this side of the ball, but the Hawkeyes lost three excellent players who heard their names called in the NFL Draft.

 

The overwhelming strongest unit on this side of the ball is possibly the top in the nation!  All four defensive line starters return, and with North Carolina’s defensive line possibly missing the best player in the nation, we give the nod to Iowa.  In fact, we would not be surprised if all four starters (Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard, Karl Klug, and Broderick Binns) ended up on the 1st or 2nd Team All-Big Ten list.  Clayborn made 20 total stops behind the line last year.  The other three combined for 32 for an incredible 52 plays where the other team lost yardage!

 

The second line of defense is the vulnerable unit on this side of the ball.  Expect teams to use a lot of play-action passes and short passes into the seams of the underneath zones to try to exploit the youth in the linebacking corps.

 

The secondary is almost as tough as the defensive line, even with the loss of Amari Spievey to the NFL.  Safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood combined to defend 22 passes last year.  Sash proved to be very valuable in run support as well.

 

Most pundits believe the Big Ten race could come down to the two big games the Hawkeyes host at Kinnick Stadium—October 23 with Wisconsin and November 20 with Ohio State.  We believe they will win one and lose one.  We actually believe the race will be decided on October 16, when Iowa plays at Michigan.  We think the Wolverines might upset the Hawkeyes in that game, forcing Iowa to sweep the other two teams.  At 6-2, they may fall one game short.     

Team Michigan Wolverines
               
Head Coach Rich Rodriguez
               
Colors Maize and Blue
               
City Ann Arbor, MI
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 5-7
               
PiRate Rating 106.3
               
National Rating 43
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-4
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Linebacker, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Connecticut, @ Notre Dame, UMass, Bowling Green
   
Key Games: Michigan State, Iowa, @ Penn State, Wisconsin, @ Ohio State
   
Offense Pred. 30-34 points & 400-425 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 360-380 yards
               
Outlook

Coach Rich Rodriguez’s seat is just as hot as Ron Zook’s, but we believe he will right the ship in Ann Arbor this season.

 

Michigan will unveil a new quarterback that will remind folks of Pat White.  Denard Robinson has apparently beaten out last year’s starter Tate Forcier, and Robinson could easily rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 2,000 this year.  The Wolverines increased their offensive production from 20 to 30 points per game last year, and if Robinson is as good as advertised, they could top that number in 2010.

 

With Robinson set to get a lot of rushing attempts, look for running backs Vincent Smith and Fitzgerald Toussaint to benefit from the linebackers having to freeze to make sure they pursue the right player.  Toussaint has the potential to be an every down back in the Big Ten, as he combines power and speed.

 

Receiver Roy Roundtree may be the only deep ball threat for the Wolverines this year, but he will require double coverage by many opponents, and that will open up the zone read to explode.  If opponents put an extra man in the box to stop the run, Roundtree will burn them with a breakaway play.

 

The offensive line is the key to the offense moving from really good to outstanding.  The healthy return of center David Molk should give this line a chance to shine.  They will give up fewer sacks with Robinson taking the snaps.

 

The key to a possible surprise move into title contention is the progress of the defense.  UM has suffered through two dreadful seasons on this side under the Rodriguez tenure.  The Wolverines are switching to a 3-3-5 alignment this season, which is a gutsy move when you have to face Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State’s ground games.

 

Michigan still had a decent pass rush last year, but the man responsible for that, Brandon Graham, is now getting paid to play in the City of Brotherly Love.  End Ryan Van Bergen will be the new sack specialist after recording five a year ago, but the key to the front line will be nose tackle William Campbell.  If he can hold his own in the trenches, the linebackers can move and make plays.

 

Linebacker is the key to this defense; can the Wolverines find enough talent to make the 3-3-5 work?  Former end Craig Roh has the tools to play linebacker in the Big Ten.  Jonas Mouton has not lived up to his press clippings, but this new defense may suit him better.

 

The back line must improve by leaps and bounds for UM to have a chance at winning the Big Ten.  Losing Troy Woolfork to injury will make that impossible, but the Wolverines will improve just enough on this side of the ball to win two or three more times.

 

We believe Michigan can win eight games this year.  That would save Rodriguez’s job.  It would be funny if he won big this year and then went shopping for a possible vacant position if an opening popped up in the SEC (LSU, Georgia, South Carolina???). 

Team Michigan State Spartans
               
Head Coach Mark Dantonio
               
Colors Green and White
               
City East Lansing, MI
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 6-7
               
PiRate Rating 107.4
               
National Rating 42
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Receiver, Linebacker
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: W. Michigan, Fla. Atlantic (@ Detroit), Notre Dame, N. Colorado
   
Key Games: Wisconsin, @ Michigan,  @ Northwestern, @ Iowa, @ Penn State
   
Offense Pred. 31-34 points & 420-440 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 360-380 yards
               
Outlook

Here is a team that is not far from being ready to challenge for a conference championship.  The Spartans have a first-rate passing attack that rivals those of the great West Coast teams.  Unfortunately, a below-average secondary will allow opponents to pass like they are a West Coast passing team.

 

Quarterback Kurt Cousins returns to pilot the MSU offense after taking most of the snaps last year.  He tossed for 2,680 yards and 19 touchdowns to just nine interceptions.  Keith Nichol, last year’s backup threw for 764 yards, but he is now a starting wideout.  Cousins could easily approach 300 passing yards per game this year.

 

Besides Nichol, Cousins will have two excellent wideouts and a talented tight end to pass to.  B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin give Cousins two different types of receivers to aim for.  Cunningham is a possession receiver who can take a lick and hold onto the ball.  Martin can get open deep quickly and pick up a long gain.  He scored five times on just 18 catches last year.

 

With the passing game ready to excel, the running game may not produce a lot of yards, but the yards per attempt may go up.  Larry Caper is a bull who can get the tough yards inside, while Edwin Baker can get around the perimeter quickly.

 

The offensive line may be a small liability this year, as just two starters return.  Due to a lot of injuries last year, several players saw action.  So, this year’s starters are not totally raw.

 

The Spartans will use both the 4-3 and 3-4 defense this year.  The defensive line welcomes back two starters including tackle Jerel Worthy, who registered nine tackles for loss.

 

Middle linebacker Greg Jones is the real stud of this defense.  He led the Big Ten last year with 154 tackles and had nine sacks and 14 total tackles for loss.  Eric Gordon returns at Sam linebacker after finishing runner-up on the team with 92 stops.

 

The secondary is the big question mark on this team.  Even with an exemplary pass rush last year, MSU gave up 268 passing yards per game.  Two defensive back starters graduated, one to the NFL.  Chris Rucker is a Big Ten-caliber defensive back, but two or three more quality player must emerge for this team to compete with the elite.

 

Michigan State games will be shootouts this year, as the offense appears to be dominant and the defense is pedestrian.  It will keep MSU from winning the title, but they could play spoiler.  Expect at least eight wins and maybe nine.

Team Minnesota Golden Gophers
               
Head Coach Tim Brewster
               
Colors Maroon and Gold
               
City Minneapolis, MN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 6-7
               
PiRate Rating 100.7
               
National Rating 57
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-7
Overall 3-9
               
Strengths: Offensive Line, Safety
               
Weaknesses: Receiver, Running Back, Defensive Line, Linebacker, Cornerback
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ Middle Tennessee, South Dakota, Southern Cal, N. Illinois
   
Key Games: Northwestern, @ Purdue, @ Illinois, Iowa
   
Offense Pred. 23-27 points & 325-350 yards
               
Defense Pred. 30-34 points & 400-425 yards
               
Outlook

Minnesota fired Glen Mason after the 2006 season because they were fed up with seven, eight, nine, and 10-win seasons and no conference championships.  In the three years since, the Gophers have won one, seven, and six games.  With a major rebuilding job facing Coach Tim Brewster’s defense, Minnesota’s win total could drop 50% this season.

 

The Gophers return most of their offense from last year, but that offense was not all that good.  The best player, receiver Eric Decker, is now in the NFL.  

 

Quarterback Adam Weber returns for his final season after having a subpar junior season.  He threw 15 interceptions and completed just 52% of his passes. 

 

With Decker gone, the Gophers have few downfield weapons.  The leading returnee in reception yardage is Da’Jon McKnight.  He had 311 yards on 17 catches, most of them after Decker went down to injury.

 

The running game, which was always stellar during Mason’s tenure, has fallen to the bottom of the league.  The Gophers rushed for just 99 yards per game last year, but the offensive line gave up 41 sacks to skew that number a little.

 

All five starters return to the offensive line, so there should be some improvement both in pass protection and in opening holes for the run.  Guard Matt Carufel is the best of the five.

 

The defense could be the weakest stop unit in the Big Ten since the Minnesota defense of 2007.  Just safeties Kyle Threet and Kim Royston return to the starting lineup this season, and Royston has leg issues. 

 

Linebacker Keanon Cooper played quite a bit last year, and he is the only other experienced player on the roster.

 

In the defensive line, end Anthony Jacobs is the closest thing to an experienced player.  He registered 19 tackles in a backup role last year.  His career start total is three games, which is three more than the rest of the d-line.

 

To make matters worse, Minnesota must play Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, and Penn State, and they don’t play Indiana.  It is going to be a long year in Minneapolis, but at least the Gophers have a really beautiful stadium now.  Just how many people decide to come to TCF Bank Stadium in November when it is 25 degrees and windy…

Team Northwestern Wildcats
               
Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald
               
Colors Purple and White
               
City Evanston, IL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 95.7
               
National Rating 69
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 3-5
Overall 7-5
               
Strengths: Offensive Line, Linebackers
               
Weaknesses: Receiver, Running Back, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ Vanderbilt, Illinois State, @ Rice, Central Michigan
   
Key Games: @ Minn., Purdue, Mich. St., @ Indiana, Illinois (@ Wrigley Field)
   
Offense Pred. 24-28 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

The Wildcats may take a small step back this year but not enough to keep them from going to their third consecutive bowl.  Northwestern lost their starting quarterback and top two receivers on offense, and five starters on defense, so we expect NU to be a couple points weaker.  Thanks to a soft non-conference slate of opponents, they should win seven games and earn another bowl trip.

 

The new quarterback is Dan Persa.  He saw limited action last year, completing 59% of his 34 pass attempts.  Persa is a sneaky runner, so expect more rushing yards from this position than last year.

 

No NU backs rushed the ball with any competency last year; Arby Fields led with 302 yards.  Expect a big improvement, because Persa can run the zone-read quite well.

 

The running game has to improve, because the passing game will take a step backward.  NU lost 148 receptions and 1,783 yards when their top two receivers graduated.  The replacements are not as talented.  Nobody on this roster is a consistent deep threat; Drake Dunsmore is the closest thing to that, and he averaged just 11.1 yards per catch last year.

 

Helping make the running game improve this year is an experienced offensive line with four returning starters.  Tackle Al Netter was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten player last year.

 

The Wildcat defense is above average in the line, really good at linebacker, and below average in the defensive backfield.  End Vincent Browne tied for the NU lead with five sacks and had three other tackles for loss. 

 

The other co-leading sack man is linebacker Quentin Davie.  To Davie’s five sacks, he added 6 ½ other tackles for loss.  Fellow linebackers Nate Williams and Ben Johnson return to make this a solid unit.

 

Opponents with good quarterbacks (Ricky Stanzi, Kirk Cousins, Scott Tolzien, Robert Marve, Ben Chappell) will torch the NU secondary this year.  Jordan Mabin is the only returning starter, and he was more of a run-stopper than pass defender in 2009.

 

Look for the Wildcats to win all four of their non-conference games.  They will only need two conference wins to gain bowl eligibility, and there are four conference opponents that they can beat.  We’ll say they win three of those games and post another winning season.  Maybe, this is the year they draw an easier bowl opponent and finally win a bowl.

Team Ohio State Buckeyes
               
Head Coach Jim Tressel
               
Colors Scarlet and Gray
               
City Columbus, OH
               
2009 Record              
Conference 7-1
Overall 11-2
               
PiRate Rating 124.3
               
National Rating 5
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 10-2
               
Strengths: Quarterback,  Receiver, Offensive Line, Linebacker
               
Weaknesses: Not many, maybe slightly at Defensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Marshall, Miami (FL), Ohio U, Eastern Michigan
   
Key Games: @ Wisconsin, Penn State, @ Iowa, Michigan
   
Offense Pred. 30-34 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 13-17 points & 275-300 yards
               
Outlook

We could be far off base here, but we actually believe that Ohio State will not win the Big Ten and will not play in the National Championship Game this year.  The Buckeyes have an incredible offense returning, but it is not as good as Wisconsin’s or Michigan State’s offense, and is no better than Purdue or Michigan’s offense.  They have a very good defense, but it is not as good as Iowa’s or Penn State’s defense.  Thus, we believe they will fall twice in conference play and watch a rival lost just once.

 

Quarterback Terrelle Pryor is a Heisman Trophy contender.  He must be considered one of the top five preseason choices.  He ended the season on a roll with a dynamic Rose Bowl performance, but he was almost a non-factor passing in November.  He threw for less than 300 yards in the last three regular season games combined.  He also threw 11 interceptions (3.73%) and finished 8th in passing efficiency.  His ability to run made him a lot more dangerous than other QBs, but we believe Coach Jim Tressel will try to limit his runs this season and increase his passing attempts.

 

OSU is still a run first team, but Pryor has a plethora of good receivers to toss the ball.  DeVier Posey is a classic possession receiver, and his 60 receptions led the Buckeyes last season.  Dane Sanzenbacher is more of a deep threat.  Tight end Jake Stoneburner will be a new star for the Buckeyes this season.  He provides a large target with a good pair of hands.

 

The running game benefits from the return of Brandon Saine and Dan Herron.  The two combined for 1,339 yards and 11 touchdowns.  Saine is a weapon coming out of the backfield as a pass receiver as well.

 

The offensive line returns four starters, and all four are all-conference talents.  This is a one of the nations’ top five lines, but it is just number two in the Big Ten.

 

The defense will not crumble even though it lost five great players.  Tressel’s last four teams yielded just 12.5, 13.9, 12.8, and 12.8 points per game.

 

The defensive line is a minor strength, even with the loss of three starters.  Tressel rotated fresh players in every week, so the three new starters saw extensive playing time in big games.  End Cameron Heyward is ready to become the next great lineman to play at the Giant Horseshoe.  He registered 10 total tackles for loss, but he was not an every down player last year. 

 

Two players return to the second line of defense.  Brian Rolle earned 2nd Team All-Big Ten accolades after making 95 tackles.  Ross Homan was a 1st Team all-conference selection and led OSU with 108 stops.  He also recorded 10 passes defended with a team-leading five interceptions.

 

The back line of defense will be a team strength with three starters returning.  Cornerbacks Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence are among the best in the league.

 

The Buckeyes must travel to both Wisconsin and Iowa.  Home games with Penn State and Michigan will be toughies.  A September home game with Miami will be very interesting.  We think Ohio State will beat the Hurricanes, but the two road games in Big Ten play will be a bit too much.  Call it a second place finish.

 

Team Penn State Nittany Lions
               
Head Coach Joe Paterno
               
Colors Dark Blue and White
               
City State College, PA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 6-2
Overall 11-2
               
PiRate Rating 109.6
               
National Rating 38
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-4
               
Strengths: Running Back, Receiver, Defensive Line, Defensive Back
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Linebacker
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Youngstown State, @ Alabama, Kent State, Temple
   
Key Games: @ Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, @ Ohio St., Michigan St.
   
Offense Pred. 22-26 points & 350-375 yards
               
Defense Pred. 17-21 points & 300-325 yards
               
Outlook

Penn State will have to break in a new quarterback this year, and we don’t have much faith in the possible replacements for Daryll Clark.  Two sophomores and two freshmen will battle it out, but we believe sophomore Kevin Newsome will get first crack at the job.  Expect a major decline in passing yardage and more interceptions.  With just an average offensive line, we wouldn’t be surprised if the number of sacks rose as well.

 

The Nittany Lions will try to get the job done with a strong ground attack.  Running back Evan Royster is a great stone to build that running foundation.  Royster rushed for 1,169 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry.  Backup Stephfon Green added 319 yards.  Expect the two to combine for close to 2,000 rushing yards this year.

 

The Lion receiving corps has talent, so if a quarterback can emerge that can consistently deliver the ball on target, Penn State can still enjoy a decent passing attack.  Derek Moye and Graham Zug return after teaming for 94 receptions and 1,385 yards.  Expected starter Curtis Drake will miss at least half the season with a broken leg.

 

Penn State gave up just 12.2 points per game last year, the sixth consecutive season they held teams under 20 points per game.  Six starters are gone, but PSU had to replace seven starters last year.

 

The two returning starters to the defensive line are end Jack Crawford and tackle Ollie Ogbu.  Crawford recorded 5 ½ sacks and nine other tackles for loss, while Ogbu recorded eight total tackles for loss.  The two new starters are on par with those two, so Penn State should once again be dominating up front.

 

Ironically, the weakness on this defense is the one position football fans think about when they think about Penn State. “Linebacker U” will have an off season.  All three starters must be replaced.  Middle linebacker Michael Mauti missed last year with an ACL injury, and if he can return to his 2008 form, he will be the leader of this group.

 

The strength of the back line is at safety.  Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino are tough against the pass and the run. 

 

Not many teams contend for championships with poor quarterback play these days.  That’s why we cannot pick Penn State to contend for the Big Ten title.  They will be good with their defense and running game, but they will lose two or three times in conference play.

Team Purdue Boilermakers
               
Head Coach Danny Hope
               
Colors Black and Gold
               
City West Lafayette, IN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 5-7
               
PiRate Rating 99.4
               
National Rating 61
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 3-5
Overall 6-6
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Defensive Line
               
Weaknesses: Running Back, Offensive Line, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ Notre Dame, Western Illinois, Ball State, Toledo
   
Key Games: @ Northwestern, Minnesota, @ Illinois, Indiana
   
Offense Pred. 27-31 points & 400-425 yards
               
Defense Pred. 25-29 points & 375-400 yards
               
Outlook

After enjoying many years among the elite of the Big Ten, Purdue has fallen back among the also-rans.  The Boilermakers have endured losing seasons three times in the last five years, including back-to-back sub-.500 years.

 

Coach Danny Hope could guide the Boilermakers back into a bowl in his second season in West Lafayette.  The offense has to replace almost all of its running game and lost some quality receivers, but with former Miami of Florida starting quarterback Robert Marve becoming eligible this year, we believe Purdue will have a first class passing game again. 

 

Marve has a rifle arm, so he will tend to throw longer passes.  This could lead to a lower completion percentage but higher yardage per completions.

 

With Keith Smith returning after grabbing 91 passes for 1,100 yards, the Boilermakers have a potential 1st Team All-Big Ten pick.  Marve needs a game-breaking deep threat to emerge so he can air it out a couple times per game.

 

The running game has to start from scratch this year.  Sophomore Al-Terek McBurse had four carries for 10 yards, and he will open up as the new starter. 

 

The offensive line is going to be young as well.  Guard Ken Plue could contend for all-conference honors, but three new starters will line up in the trenches.

 

The defense gave up close to 30 points per game last year, and it will not be much better this season.  The defensive line will be much improved, but the secondary will be a major liability.

 

The front line features a great pass rusher in Ryan Kerrigan.  He registered 13 sacks last year.

 

All three starters return to the second line of defense.  Joe Holland, Jason Werner, and Chris Carlino finished second, third, and fourth in tackles.  Werner recorded 14 ½ stops for loss.

 

The secondary must replace all four starters, and only free safety Albert Evans saw any real game action last year.  Purdue gave up 203 passing yards per game last year with a really good pass rush.  They could give up 250+ yards this year.

 

Like Michigan State, expect Purdue games to be fast-paced and high scoring.  We believe they will just squeak by with six wins and garner a bowl bid for the first time in three years. 

Team Wisconsin Badgers
               
Head Coach Bret Bielema
               
Colors Cardinal and White
               
City Madison, WI
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 10-3
               
PiRate Rating 117.0
               
National Rating 20
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 7-1
Overall 11-1
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Running Back, Receiver, Offensive Line ***
               
Weaknesses: Defensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ UNLV, San Jose State, Arizona State, Austin Peay
   
Key Games: @ Michigan State, Ohio State, @ Iowa, @ Michigan
   
Offense Pred. 33-37 points & 425-450 yards
               
Defense Pred. 20-24 points & 310-330 yards
               
Outlook

The Badgers have quietly become the next most consistent Big Ten program after Ohio State.  They have been to eight consecutive bowl games and have won double digit games three of the last five seasons.  With 10 offensive starters returning from a fantastic offense a year ago, UW may have an unstoppable attack this year.

 

Coach Brett Bielema’s offense averaged more than 200 yards rushing and passing last year, and both phases will be even better in 2010.  Quarterback Scott Tolzien returns after passing for 2,705 at a 64.3% rate.  The Badgers have built a solid offense the last several years even though they have had to break in a new starter at quarterback the last three seasons.  Expect Tolzien to top 65% completions and 3,000 passing yards.

 

With Tolzien throwing the pigskin, the running game will have more holes available.  The Badgers have three running backs that they can unleash on opponents, and all three can rush for 100 yards in a game.  John Clay may not get much respect outside the league, but in our opinion, he is the near equal of Mark Ingram and LaMichael James.  Clay rushed for 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns last year.  Backups Montee Ball and Zach Brown may get more carries this year at Clay’s expense.  The duo combined for 670 yards last year.

 

The receiving corps is not far from being as talented as the running backs.  Nick Toon has exceptional strength and good hands, while Isaac Anderson has the quickness to turn a five yard catch into a 50-yard touchdown sprint.  UW has made a tradition out of developing all-conference tight ends, and Lance Kendricks should be the next one.  He comes off a season in which he caught 29 passes in a secondary role.

 

We saved the best for last.  The offensive line is not just the best in the league, we believe it is the very best in college football.  All five starters return including 1st Team All-Big Ten studs at center (John Moffitt) and tackle (Gabe Carmi). 

 

The defense will not be as dominating as the offense, but we don’t expect the Badgers to give up a lot of points this year.  If an adequate pass rush can be molded out of a rebuilt defensive line, the Badgers are going to grab their first Big Ten title since the days of Ron Dayne.

 

J.J. Watt is the lone returnee up front.  He earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors after recording 15 ½ total tackles for loss and batting down five passes.  Two of the new starters saw a lot of playing time, but this unit will be a little weaker than last year’s front four.

 

The second line of defense returns two talented starters.  Culmer St. Jean and Chris Borland are equally effective against the run and the pass.

 

The secondary is the real strength on this side of the ball.  With three competent starters back and with the new starter having past starting experience, teams will not burn UW for a lot of passing yards.

 

Throw in a great punter and placekicker, and this team looks primed to win the conference championship. 

Coming Tomorrow: The Southeastern Conference continues to produce national champion after national champion.  Can anybody challenge Alabama and Florida in the divisional races? 

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