Big-10 Preview: Or Breaking With Tradition
The Big-10 for once was proactive in changing the college landscape. They expanded to add Nebraska, which was their first new team since adding Penn State in 1994. This was the first domino to fall in an expansion hurry that ended with Colorado and Utah in the PAC-10, leaving the Big-12 with ten teams, and somehow Texas Christian University ended up in the Big-12.
Ohio State wins the Big-10 award for worst offseason. If you just got out of a coma, live under a rock, or don’t have a pulse, there was this whole thing in Columbus where players sold memorabilia, including gold pants (which players only receive if they beat Michigan), in exchange for tattoos. Jim Tressel covered up the violations when it was brought to his attention by a lawyer who only came across the memorabilia in the store because the tattoo parlor was under federal investigation for drug trafficking. Turns out the players were also getting deals on cars from dealerships. The logical response of course is to throw a national champion coach who has beaten Michigan five times in a row is to throw him under the bus and let the bus go over and back a couple times. There’s no way all this activity went unnoticed by more than Tressel in the athletic department turning this in to a classic issue of the athletic director allowing things to happen as long as money comes in and then finding someone to blame when the gig is up.
The worst thing that happened to the Big-10 this offseason was the use of some sort of sports marketing firm that came up with “Legends” and “Leaders as the division titles. Seriously, name one division title in sports worse than that. You can’t. How are Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State leader? Penn State hasn’t changed their uniforms ever and Wisconsin plays in the 40’s when you couldn’t throw a football more than 15 yards downfield.
Then the weirdest move of the conference alignments is they put the championship in Lucas Oil Stadium, the covered and heated stadium the Colts use. The Big-10’s brand is tradition and old time football, which is why they always lose to teams that may be a little smaller but much faster, they actually live in the past. Why not put the game in Soldier Field and let the snowfall during the championship game? See, that’s logical thinking, which the Big-10 lacked this offseason in everything other than adding Nebraska.
1. Wisconsin (13/4) (over/under: 9.5)
Last year the Badgers won their first Big-10 title since 1999, although they shared it with Michigan State. After winning the tiebreaker the Badgers went on to play TCU in the Rose Bowl where they lost by 2 in the final minutes. They don’t have to play Nebraska or Iowa from the Legends division, but do have to travel to two tough games, at Michigan State and at Ohio State. The main badgers competition for the Big Ten title is Penn State, which they will get at home.
Scott Tolzien was a really reliable quarterback and was basically all the Badgers needed. Their offense revolves around ball control and pounding the rock on the ground. Last year Montee Ball was only 4 yards short of giving Wisconsin three 1000-yard rushers. Tolzien could keep a defense honest by making easy passes to receivers. It looked like Jon Budmayr would take over after only attempting ten passes last season. However, Russell Wilson, a transfer from NC State, comes in and should lead the offense. The learning curve may be easier in a running offense such as Wisconsin’s because so much of the playbook is running. It’s interesting how mobile quarterbacks almost always improve running back’s statistics, so this could be a lethal running attack.
Three starters come back on the defensive line, although they lose 1st team All-Big-10 defensive end JJ Watt. The badgers lose two linebackers to graduation and two defensive backs, but the depth is very talented and there could be an increase in production. One of my worries with this Badger team is they benefited from a +14 turnover margin, which would show a regression towards their norm of +-3. I like Wisconsin to beat Nebraska in the Big-10 championship game.
2. Penn State (11/2) (over/under: 7.5)
Contrary to popular belief Penn State makes changes to its uniforms. Last year the uniform featured a white collar, this year, they are moving back to a navy colored collar. Big changes, the fans are pissed that they are messing with tradition, but hey, this is progress. The hardest part of the Nittany Lion schedule is the trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin that come on consecutive weeks. The Lions also have one of the premiere games of the second week when they play Alabama in Happy Valley. This game is the second of two games in a home and home, Alabama won 24-3 last year.
I really think Matt McGloin should be the starting quarterback. He passed for 14 touchdowns and 1548 yards. Rob Bolden really struggled at times last year. Maybe after the quarterbacks split time with the first unit during the spring Bolden figured it out. McGloin though threw the first two touchdown passes in Columbus, Ohio since Penn State joined the Big-10 in 1994, and was the first Penn State quarterback to throw back-to-back 300-yard games. Evan Royster leaves the backfield after rushing for 1000 yards in three different seasons. Royster has said though that his replacement, sophomore Silas Reed, will probably break his records. Leading receiver Derek Moye is coming back after he had 53 receptions, 885 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns. There are three starters back on an offensive line that was good last year, and will be better this year.
Two starters are gone from last year’s defensive line that allowed 166 rushing yards per game. Linebacker U loses an inside linebacker and an outside linebacker but returns Nate Stupar and Michael Mauti to the corps, and the two-deep is full of guys that could start at other schools. Only one starter is gone from the secondary.
3. Ohio State (5/1) (over/under: 9)
Remember that whole thing where Terrelle Pryor and company promised to return for their senior season so that they could play in the Sugar Bowl and be suspended for the first 5 games of 2011? Yeah, it was a dumb idea then and everyone who agreed on it should be publicly shamed in Ann Arbor and Arkansas. Whoever ok’d that with the NCAA should honestly lose their job, seriously.
Joe Bauserman takes the wheel at quarterback now that Terrelle Pryor has left for the NFL. Now Bauserman comes in as a backup, but he’s not a slouch. Guys who go to Ohio State are almost always really good, the best coming out of high school. Rod Smith comes in at 6’3” 220 pounds and is a big power back. We’ll probably see more of a power rushing attack with this team. Dane Sanzenbacher who made some incredible catches has left but there’s a lot of talent returning.
Six of the top eight return on the defense, the two leaving include Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore. I don’t know exactly how the linebackers will fare after their top two both are gone and the secondary loses three starters, but again, there’s enough talent to go around. An interesting note, Ohio State, a fairly public team, went 10-2-1 last year.
4. Illinois (25/1) (over/under: 6.5)
One of the highlights of the 2010 Illinois season was their win in Wrigley Field, 48-27 over Northwestern. The only challenging away game is at Penn State on October 29th. They host Arizona State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Mike Leshoure was an impressive running back last year, but he is now a member of the famed Detroit Lions. The man filling in for him is senior Jason Ford who had 99 carries last year for 480 yards and 7 touchdowns. Nathan Scheelhaase returns to the quarterback position and is a dual threat player. He ran for 1048 yards before accounting for sacks and had a 59% completion percentage. AJ Jenkins is the returning leading receiver and is also the only receiver returning who caught more than ten balls.
Two starters are lost on the defensive line, one in the linebacker group, but have three defensive backs coming back.
5. Purdue (85/1) (over/under: 4.5)
Running back Ralph Bolden returns to the lineup after suffering an injury before the start of the 2010 season. This is great news to returning starting quarterback Rob Henry who had to be the leading rusher last year with 547 yards while also passing for 996 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. Four of the starters from last years offensive line return, which is great since I’m sure Rob Henry is tired of running for his life.
Defensive end Ryan Kerrigan is going to be a huge loss to the defense. Without the Big-10 Defensive Player of the Year, even with three starters back, this line is going to struggle. Linebackers Dwayne Beckford and Joe Holland were the second and third ranked tacklers last season and they are back again. The secondary is greatly improved upon from last season, and seven of the eight returning have considerable starting experience.
6. Indiana (125/1) (over/under: 4)
The Hoosiers were somehow picked by a local quarterback, who is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, as his destination school. I’m not saying cash was spent, because a local kid always wants to stay local, especially when he’s already a hero, but I’m just saying I wouldn’t be surprised.
The Big-10 did not do Indiana any favors and gave them Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan State all on the road. Dusty Kiel is the new starter along with new running back Darius Willis. Three starters return on the offensive line that only averaged 100 yards a game. The defensive line has five players returning with starting experience. Two starting linebackers and two defensive backs also return to a defense that was not good last year.
1. Nebraska (7/4) (over/under: 9.5)
The biggest winner of the conference expansion are the Blackshirts. Nebraska is a much
better fit in the Big-10 than the Big-12, and while Michigan Is down this is division is owned by the Cornhuskers. Not only did Nebraska escape the tyranny of Texas’ conference, they joined a conference that is more profitable and will actually be around in five years. I really like Nebraska to make it to the conference championship game, but lose to Wisconsin. There will be a first bout before the rematch on October 2nd when Nebraska travels to Madison. The road will be difficult in November as the Cornhuskers travel to Penn State and Michigan in consecutive weeks, all followed with a home game against Iowa.
Taylor Martinez enters his true sophomore season with a year under his belt. At times last year he was either injured or had his feelings hurt, no one knows. Last year McShay of ESPN said that Taylor Martinez’s throwing abilities were similar to that of a high school quarterback’s. Maybe in his second year he’s gotten more comfortable throwing pass forward. Taylor Martinez rushed for 965 yards last year and even backup running back Rex Burkhead (the white running back that could) rushed for 951. This will again be a deadly running attack. Three starters return on a line that has experienced replacements filling in.
The biggest question to me is how their defense will fare in the Big-10. It’s a different brand of football than the Cornhusker defense has been geared towards stopping. They only lose one defensive lineman from their two deep that only allowed 153 rushing yards per game in the supped-up world of Big-12 offenses. Lavonte David recorded 152 tackles last year, 103 more than departed 1st team All-Big-12 linebacker Eric Hagg. Two starters are coming back to the defensive secondary that was one of the best last year, and there could be a drop off in this group.
2. Iowa (15/1) (over/under: 8.5)
The Hawkeyes had a rough year in 2010, finishing 8-5, unranked, and leaving them with only 9 returning starters. They had a turnover margin last year of +13, which signals a regression, and averaged -15.6 yards per game compared to their opponent, another flag, However, there’s something about the Hawkeyes this year that pulls me in to believing they’ll finish second. Perhaps it was because of the 2009 season where Iowa couldn’t lose, no matter how poorly they played.
Ricky Stanzi has graduated, leaving the quarterback position to James Vandenberg. Stanzi was the first Iowa quarterback drafted since 1992. Vandenberg had eight pass attempts last year, one of which went for a touchdown. Marcus Coker looked really good when he played, especially in their bowl game. Marvin McNutt was last year’s best receiver and happens to be the only one returning. He led the team in receiving yards with 861. Three starters return on the o-line with 59 career starts among them.
The defensive line took the biggest hit with the top three linemen leaving, including NFL draft pick Adrian Clayborn. The linebackers return in good shape and even though the secondary has 1st team All-Big-10 corner Shaun Prater.
3. Michigan State (10/1) (over/under: 9)
The biggest thing standing in the way of Michigan State success is the schedule. They have to travel to Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Iowa. The only good team Michigan State was able to dodge is Penn State, who the Spartans probably had a good chance of beating.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins had a 66.9 completion percentage last season, one of the best in the country and had a 2:1 touchdown to interception ratio. The new workhorse in the backfield, Edwin Baker, took 207 attempts last year and turned it in to 5.8 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns. BJ Cunningham caught the most touchdown passes last season (9), and was one reception away from being the leading receiver last season. There are only two returning starters back on the offensive line with All-Big-10 linemen leaving.
Seven members of the two deep returns to give Sparta one of its best defensive lines in years. Only one starting linebacker returns and the secondary is going to be hurting now that Marcus Hyde and Chris Rucker are gone. There’s a lot of experience left and talent though so the secondary could still be really good.
4. Michigan (15/1) (over/under: 7)
Michigan has had a hard time since Lloyd Carr’s last season in Ann Arbor. Rich Rodriguez was basically fired last season and no other program picked him up. After missing out on Les Miles and other coaches Michigan settled on Brady Hoke, the coach who turned San Diego State in to a really good team.
Denard Robinson, a bigger version of Lil’ Wayne, running quarterback extraordinaire, was on pace to win the Heisman, is now learning a new pro-style offense. Immediately there were questions whether someone who was so athletic could throw an accurate pass in a pro offense. Little do people know that Denard played in a pro offense in high school, so it’s not like taking snaps under center is something brand new to him and foreign like mayonnaise on french fries (Brownie points if you can nail this reference in the comments). Michael Shaw could take over the running back position this fall. Junior Hemingway, Roy Roundtree, and Darryl Stonum are all incredibly fast and talented receivers so it’s going to be exciting to see them in a more balanced offense than what Rich Rodriguez ran.
The defense is moving back to a 4-3, which probably fits the power running attacks better than the 3-3-5 did. It’s hard to imagine this defense being much worse than it was last year when it allowed 189 rushing yards a game, 451 total yards a game, and 42.5 points a game. The defense was decimated by injuries before the season started, but no Michigan team should ever fall that far defensively.
Michigan has a really rough November, playing at Iowa, at Illinois, and then hosting Nebraska and Ohio State. Maybe Hoke can beat Ohio State in such a down year for the Buckeyes.
5. Northwestern (20/1) (over/under: 7.5)
Dan Persa’s Heisman campaign is in full swing. Northwestern sent out seven-pound dumbbells (7 is Dan Persa’s number) to all the college football writers to advertise Persa as the strongest pound for pound member of the football team. Once Persa went down with a torn ACL Northwestern didn’t win another game. Mike Trumpy returns after rushing for only 11 yards more than Persa and having a full season to do it. Top receiving target Jeremy Ebert, who caught 8 touchdown passes last season, will get even more looks this year after the departure of Sidney Stewart. All five of the starters this year on the line will have started more than 13 games in a season, totaling 137 collective starts, good enough for second best in the country.
6. Minnesota (125/1) (over/under: 5)
MarQueis Gray is the new quarterback replacing Adam Weber. Gray attempted all of eight passes last year, two of which were completed. DeLeon Eskridge got 70 more carries than the other backs. The top four receivers from last year’s squad also returns. Four of the starting offensive linemen will have more than eight career starts this season.
Seven of the eight come back from last years two deep that allowed an average of 191 rushing yards per game. Two starters from last year are back on the secondary. The Golden Gophers have to travel to USC, Michigan, and Michigan State.