Although their longtime Rose Bowl dance partner also jumps to a 12 team conference this season, the Big Ten has made the biggest splash to date in conference expansion by adding Nebraska. The Cornhuskers begin Big Ten play as an immediate favorite despite a brutal opening conference schedule and the usual adjustment period for new teams in new leagues. However, the new kid on the block cannot hide the other compelling storylines in the conference this season. First and foremost, will Ohio State be able to keep the streaks of six straight conference championships and seven straight wins against Michigan alive without Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor (as well as half the offense for the first half of the season)? Will Wisconsin and Michigan State repeat as champions? Who in the packed middle ground of the conference steps up to be a major player among these other schools? With two division races having 6 teams instead of a larger 11 team pool, more teams will stay relevant in the conference championship chase later in the season. Although we do not know who will play in the first Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis in December, one thing is for certain: fans are in for a great ride in the first year of "B1G" play.
The Badgers looked like a solid number two team behind Ohio State before Memorial Day, but then transfer senior QB Russell Wilson decided to come to Madison and Ohio State lost their quarterback and coach. Now Wisconsin is a prohibitive favorite in the Leaders division despite only having six returning starters on each side of the ball. Bret Bielema has the Badgers hungry for more success after just falling short in the Rose Bowl a season ago. Although John Clay is gone, Wisconsin still has two thousand yard rushers returning in Montee Ball and James White. Wilson also brings some running ability to the table, so expect the zone blocking offensive line to blow open big holes for each of these players to run through again in 2011. Wisconsin should not miss a beat from last season on offense, which is a scary proposition for their conference opponents. The Badger defense slipped a bit against the run last season despite the great season from JJ Watt, but the numbers may turn around with seven of the top eight defensive linemen returning. The defensive backfield is loaded with seniors and experience, led by CB Antonio Fenelus and FS Aaron Henry. Wisconsin is also solid on special teams with senior kicker Philip Welch and senior punter Brad Nortman returning. With Russell Wilson, Wisconsin is the most complete team in the Big Ten. The season will likely come down to two back-to-back road games at East Lansing and Columbus. If Wisconsin sweeps those two games, then an undefeated season is possible.
If the story off the field in 2011 was Ohio State, the story on the field in 2011 will be how Nebraska adjusts to Big Ten play despite having the toughest schedule possible. Bo Pelini waited a long time to finally get his chance as a head coach, and he has taken the bull by the horns with 29 wins in three seasons. Nebraska rushed for nearly 250 yards per game a season ago with RB Roy Helu, RB Rex Burkhead, and QB Taylor Martinez. Martinez was prone to inconsistent play and was challenged mightily for his starting job this spring and fall, yet kept the starting job as fall practice wound down. Burkhead also returns and will be the primary running back behind a mostly rebuilt offensive line. Assuming the going will be tougher against Big Ten defensive fronts, Nebraska will need to identify second and third running backs to contribute heavily and take the load off Martinez in the running game. If Martinez is as involved in that side of the offense as 2010, Martinez will be lucky to survive the season uninjured. Pelini has prided himself on building one of the strongest defenses in the country and seven returning starters will continue the proud Blackshirts tradition in Big Ten play. Baker Steinkuhler and Jared Crick should be highly disruptive through the middle of offensive lines, in a similar fashion to Ndamakong Suh from a few seasons ago. One potential weakness for Nebraska is the special teams, which replaces returners and both kickers. As mentioned above, the schedule is brutal with roadtrips to Wisconsin and Penn State along with a conference home opener against a full strength Ohio State team in cross-divisional play. However, if there is any team that can handle that tough schedule, it is these Cornhuskers. Unless those cross-divisional games get the best of Nebraska, the Cornhuskers will be in yet another conference championship game.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Although Miami may be grabbing the NCAA compliance headlines going into the season, the major controversy of the offseason happened in Columbus, with last season "wiped from the books," Jim Tressel fired, and Terrelle Pryor gone to the NFL amongst other penalties. What looked like the sure favorite has now become an underdog in their 6 team division, let alone the whole conference. With only a few days left until the first game, interim coach Luke Fickell has not named his quarterback, although the four man race is down to two: senior Joe Bauserman and freshman Braxton Miller. Miller would be a choice for the future and a choice for continuity, as he has dual threat talent like Pryor, while Bauserman is the safe choice who may guide this team better through rocky times similar to a Craig Krenzel or a Scott Tolzien. No matter who is guiding the offense, a bigger question may be who will catch the ball, especially during leading receiver Devier Posey's five game suspension. Corey Brown and chris Fields should pick up the slack but both are unproven. Expect a similar conservative run-heavy offense with three returning linemen and a stable of running backs that only gets stronger when leading RB Dan Herron returns from suspension in October. The defense must reload with 7 new starters, although that is not usually a problem for the good recruiting Buckeye program. Look for new starters Johnathan Hankins on the line and linebackers Etienne Sabino and Storm Klein to make immediate impacts. OSU will also have solid special teams as usual. The schedule is relatively forgiving early, although a road game at Miami and Michigan State at home could be tricky before Herron, Posey, and lineman Mike Adams return for the biggest game of the season at Nebraska. If Ohio State defends the home turf, they will likely squeeze past Wisconsin and Penn State into the championship game.
Michigan State Spartans
Mark Dantonio led Michigan State to its most successful season in two decades last year with a shared conference title and an 11-2 finish despite being blown out in the bowl game against Alabama. Senior QB Kirk Cousins is back for one more season at the helm and should improve his 20-10 touchdown-interception ratio from a season ago. Cousins will likely be on the same page with all three of his senior starting receivers, led by BJ Cunningham. RB Edwin Baker was all conference last season and has a talented stable of running backs ready to give him spells after he breaks down opposing defenses. The Spartans offense will rely heavily on the offensive line, which must break in three new starters and may take a step backward in production this year. On the other side of the ball, the defense will be led by the strength of their defensive line, which returns three starters and plugs in sophomore end William Gholston. The line will need to step up because two all conference performers are lost in the next level of the defense (Greg Jones and Eric Gordon). Michigan State does pull Wisconsin and Ohio State from the Leaders division and so does not have a big advantage over Nebraska in the division. If Michigan State can steal a road win against the trio of Ohio State, Iowa, and Nebraska, then the Spartans might find themselves in Indianapolis in December playing for another conference title.
IN THE MIX
Penn State Nittany Lions
Joe Paterno enters his 46th season at State College and seems to still be going strong despite some up and down seasons in the past decade. Last year the Nittany Lions failed to win nine games for the first time since 2004, and part of the problem was inconsistent play from young quarterbacks Matt Mcgloin and Rob Bolden. It is unclear who will be the primary starter this season, but hopefully the competition has made them both better for this season. The Nittany Lions also return three offensive linemen to open holes for new running back Silas Redd, who outgoing star RB Evan Royster said will break his school rushing record in the next three seasons. Part of Penn State's slip to under 150 yards per game rushing had to do with the offensive line, but those problems should be turned around so that the offense is successful running first again in 2011. The defense struggled mightily against the run last year, dropping from five straight seasons of allowing less than 100 yards per game rushing to 166 per game on the ground. All four of the new starters on defense are on the defensive front, but the linebackers are stacked with talent and should be back to PSU's high standards. The defensive backfield returns all four starters and should dramatically improve on the six interceptions generated a season ago. Although Alabama and Iowa could be tough tests at home, it is very likely that Penn State will be 5-0 in conference play heading into their bye. The key stretch to close the season includes Nebraska at home followed by OSU and Wisconsin on the road. If Penn State splits those road games correctly, then the Nittany Lions will be representing the division in the conference championship.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Ron Zook may only have two winning seasons in his tenure, but the talent level continues to be high in Champaign and Illinois is always seemingly a couple of breaks away from the Rose Bowl. Seven starters return on offense including sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who was impressively steady in his freshman season. Scheelhaase will run the ball from time to time, but the offense may rely much more on his throwing arm with excellent RB Mikel LeShoure gone to the pros. The offensive line should maintain their high level of play with Graham Pocic, Hugh Thornton, and Jeff Allen back for another season. Illinois had a solid defense a season ago, but four new starters in the front seven may undermine the progress from a season ago. Senior linebacker Ian Thomas will be an absolute key to reading opponent offenses and leading the rest of the defensive front to success and good form. The defensive backfield should be even stronger than a season before with cornerbacks Vaon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne back. The schedule is very favorable with eight home games and only one moderately difficult road game at Penn State (the other road games are Indiana, Purdue, and Minnesota). If Illinois can continue to be a thorn in Ohio State's side and perhaps pull an upset against Wisconsin at home, then the Fighting Illini will shock the world with a division title.
Although Iowa had Wisconsin on the ropes last season, the Hawkeyes could not finish that victory or others against Arizona, Ohio state, and Northwestern. Thus, a season with much promise ended in a disappointing 4-4 conference record and fourth place in the conference. Now Kirk Ferentz will have a tough coaching job on his hands as Iowa returns only 9 starters. Junior QB James Vandenberg is far removed from his trial by fire two years ago when the Big Ten title was on the line in Columbus Ohio and Vandenberg led Iowa to within a field goal in overtime of victory. Now Vandenberg and a group of skill position players that did not start last year take the reins of the offense, with the exception of senior WR Marvin McNutt. RB Marcus Coker ran for 622 yards behind Adam Robinson a season ago but will now carry the bulk of the load behind a very talented and experienced offensive line. Expect Iowa to rely heavily on the run to generate offense this season, although Vandenberg can throw if he needs to. The defense only returns four starters and may struggle to keep the strong front against opposing running games that Hawkeye fans are accustomed to. Broderick Binns will be one bright spot on the line as he finally earns a starting role in his senior season. Look for improvement from middle linebacker James Morris, who may be the star of the defense the next two seasons. Iowa does avoid Wisconsin and Ohio State, which means that the schedule is favorable to sticking around with Nebraska and Michigan State until November when both those teams come up on the schedule. If Iowa ends up in the conference championship, Kirk Ferentz has earned every penny of the highest salary in the conference.
Pat Fitzgerald has done the unthinkable at Northwestern, guiding the Wildcats to Rose Bowl appearances as a player and now three straight bowl games as coach. Fitzgerald may have his best team yet with 16 starters returning from a team that may have ended up with nine wins had Dan Persa not been lost for the final three games. Persa returns with a gimmicky marketing campaign from Northwestern trying to raise national awareness of his talent for Heisman consideration. Although gimmicks may introduce the nation to Persa, leading the Wildcats into a conference championship game would actually put him in the Heisman ceremony in all likelihood. Persa threw for 2500 yards in 10 games and rushed for 519 more, nearly leading the team in both categories. RB Mike Trumpy will be expected to carry more of the rushing load, although expect both the rushing and passing numbers to go up this season on offense. The defense had its poorest season under Fitzgerald last year and as a former linebacker, he will want to turn that around immediately. One of his biggest goals will be plugging in two new starters David Nwabuisi and Ben Johnson at linebacker. The defensive front should be much better against the run after surrendering over 180 yards per game a season ago. As long as the defensive issues can be overcome, then Northwestern will be right in the mix for the division title and perhaps even a Heisman Trophy.
ALL THE REST
The Rich Rodriguez era was an unmitigated failure in Ann Arbor, even though he was finally beginning to turn the corner and make the offensive-based system work in the Big Ten. In order for the Wolverines to start another 40 year streak of winning seasons and consistency under Brady Hoke, the focus on recruits and a defensive-minded system will need to shift back to where it was in 2007 and before. Thus, Michigan returns 16 starters but not for the systems they will be expected to run, so expect a lot of younger players moving into the limelight often this season. Hoke will continue to use all of QB Denard Robinson's skills, and Robinson proved he can pass the ball accurately last year. Look for Robinson to thrive with returning receivers Junior Hemingway, Roy Roundtree, and Darryl Stonum all back. Hoke will also expect more from running backs Michael Shaw and Vincent Smith to take pressure off the legs of Robinson. As long as Robinson adjusts quickly to a more pro-style offense, then the highly effective offensive numbers will continue. In order to turn around the defense, Hoke will need to teach better football instincts and better tackling as the basics this season in order to begin the turnaround. Michigan will likely struggle to return to a bowl this year, but Hoke will almost certainly have the Wolverines back atop their rivals before too long.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Tim Brewster never quite got the engine going in Minnesota, so now Jerry Kill takes over the Gophers after three successful seasons in Northern Illinois. Kill will have a rebuilding job on his hand but does have 15 returning starters if you count QB Marqueis Gray, who returns to quarterback after moving to receiver during Adam Weber's tenure. Gray can make plays both with his feet and his arms, and should test opposing defenses this season. Kill is known for strong rushing attacks and he will have a three-headed monster unit with Lamonte Edwards joining DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett. The key to improving the offense this year will be finding improvement on the offensive line. The defense will also need to find improved play on the line with three returning starters. All three linebackers also return and so the Golden Gophers should dramatically reduce the nearly 200 yards per game surrendered on the ground a season ago. Minnesota may now struggle to keep opposing passing games from knocking them out of games, at least until Kill can train up better replacements in the defensive backfield. Minnesota will likely be a better team this year but that will not be enough to get them out of the basement in the new Legends division.
Although Indiana has only been to one bowl game in the last 18 years, excitement is higher in Bloomington thanks to the arrival of Kevin Wilson, who led Oklahoma's successful offense the past few seasons. Wilson is bringing a spirit of pride and competition back to the Hoosiers and will not accept medicority, especially on offense. Thankfully Wilson is walking into a program that has done offense relatively well the past few seasons. Although Indiana's offense will certainly miss quarterback Ben Chappell, sophomore Dusty Kiel will grow quickly under the tutelage of Wilson and his assistant coaches. Kiel will primarily target another pair of sophomore recievers in Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes. The offense will likely take a slight step backwards because of all the holes to be plugged, but Wilson will have them running smoothly by the time November rolls around. Indiana's defense has been the program's achielles heel this decade and this season may be no different with only six starters returning. Of the six returning, LB Jeff Thomas may be the best athlete. Indiana will once again hope to win a lot of shootouts this season, but the division looks too tough for Wilson to make much progress in his first season. Indiana will struggle to win any road games with one of the toughest conference slates including Wisconsin, Iowa, OSU, and MSU. Indiana takes a step back in 2011.
Although Purdue took a step forward last season in Danny Hope's second season, the boilermakers actually ended with one fewer victory thanks to being absolutely decimated throughout the offense and the defense with injuries. This season seemed to have to be better on the injuries front, and then starting quarterback Robert Marve tore his ACL and is gone for the season. Although Miami transfer Robert Marve appears to be clear of the mess in Miami, Purdue fans are probably waiting for the other shoe to drop and leave them with a third string quarterback. Marve should thrive behind an experienced offensive line led by senior guard Ken Plue. On defense the Boilermakers must replace only two starters, but one of them is 2010 Big Ten defensive player of the year Ryan Kerrigan. Robert Maci will fill Kerrigan's end slot on the line but it will be nearly impossible to replace the production and effect Kerrigan had on a game. Look for defensive tackle Kawann Short to try and take the mantle of most disruptive defensive player on the team after racking up 6.5 tackles for loss opposite Kerrigan. The linebackers and defensive backfield should improve overall against opposing passing games, which will be critical to keeping Purdue in games so that the offense has a chance to win. Purdue has a tough schedule overall but does miss Michigan State and Nebraska in cross-divisional play which could help them get to the magic 6 wins for the first time under Hope.
Although it may seem anti-climatic for two teams with at least two losses to be meeting in Indianapolis for the first Big Ten Championship, Nebraska and whomever wins the tiebreaker in the Leaders division will be battle tested and ready for success in bowl season. The Leaders division may be slightly better this season thanks to the rebuilding going on in Iowa, but look for some surprises in the state of Illinois and the Fighting Illini and Northwestern both become competitive in their respective divisions. Will new head coaches in four locations (Columbus, Ann Arbor, Minneapolis, and Bloomington) survive their first seasons well or will they each falter as more experienced head coaches get the better of the new guys? Will Nebraska come in and do what they failed to do the past two seasons in the Big XII (win a championship game)? Will Ohio State's run end? So many questions and not many answers, but football is on the way this week to begin settling who will be the best in the Big Ten this season. No more split titles will be a good thing for this conference.