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2011-2012 marks the first season that Nebraska joins the Big 10 and that a championship game will be played to determine the BCS representative. This is still the black and blue division of college football, though the adaptations of the high-powered spread offenses would beg to differ. So without further ado, the Big 10 Preview:

Legends Division

Denard Robinson

Michigan

Speaking of Michigan, how has Denard Robinson slipped under the radar after exploding onto the scene last fall. “Shoelaces” struggled with injuries, but was taking a lot of shots. If he’s bulked up some he should handle that workload easier. New head coach Brady Hoke has brought in a modified spread offense which should suit Robinson well. Expect a return to the Heisman talk once the season picks up. He has weapons at RB and WR to balance the attack (WR, Roy Roundtree is a name you should pickup now) and his line has some experience now and has been heavily recruited, even through Rich Rod’s tenure. Hoke also brought in new ex-NFL defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Mattison was the man responsible for replacing the beloved Rex Ryan in Baltimore and he maintained the Raven’s top ten status his entire tenure. He’s not an aggressive play caller, but he should have this unit back in a 4-3 (not the ridiculous 3-3-5 of Rich Rod) and playing to their strengths. He’ll need to recruit better talent on that side of the ball, but they should be much, much better against the run, which will give them a shot at a nice bowl game this year. Look for Robinson to have to carry this team this year, but the year after should bring Michigan back to the promise land.

Michigan State

Mark Dantonio is one of the top coaches in this country and will soon find himself a nice job in the SEC (it’s where all the hot coaches get their big jobs at). We’ll start on defense, where maybe the best player in this conference resides in defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. He’s neck and neck with Jared Crick as the top defensive lineman. Behind him they have a couple really talented players they need to replace in Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. With a strong secondary full of veterans and an impressive front four, the middle unit needs to step up if they want to have a shot at moving into the Big Ten elite. The offense is the question mark for this group. Senior QB Kirk Cousins has tremendous potential, but hasn’t quite stepped into his own. If he can improve his game this season he’s a potential NFL draft quarterback (he already has a solid arm and size for it). At running back, Edwin Barker is a beast, and WR B.J. Cunningham should bring in another nice 7-10 touchdowns this year. If their offensive line can hold up better than it did last season this will be a balanced team. The Spartans have reshuffled the line in order to do that, but only time will tell whether it’ll work out.

Iowa

Kirk Ferentz is another impressive coach, always short listed by the NFL when they’re looking for an outside the box name. Iowa took some heavy losses via graduation this last season, none bigger than Ricky Stanzi heading to the Kansas City Chiefs. If there’s one thing we can be sure about, it’s that Iowa has one of the best offensive line’s in the country. The farm boys they routinely bring in are maulers up front and keep the guys behind them clean. They’re led by NFL Prospect Riley Reiff, but have no doubts that this is an elite unit. This should mean that Marcus Coker has a very nice season like that of Shonn Greene a few years back. The only concern is that Coker might not hold up the whole year and there is little proven talent behind him with Adam Robinson expelled from the program. While having an elite line and running game should help, the presence of Marvin McNutt should make the new quarterback James Vendenberg‘s life a little easier. He’s got a live arm and has looked solid in limited action, but you never know til they’re the guy. Defensively they may struggle this year. They lost two phenomenal defensive ends – Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard – to the NFL. Replacing that pass rush will be difficult this year and their linebacker corp is unspectacular, but solid. Most worrisome is the back-end which lost a lot of play makers. They currently don’t have a proven guy at either safety position as Tyler Sash has graduated. At corner, Shaun Prater is a stud and his opposite Micah Hyde is solid. There is talk of dropping Hyde back to safety because of his more physical play. With such critical positions to replace this year – QB, SS, and 2 DEs – it’s hard to pick Iowa to take hold of the Legends division, but Ferentz is such a strong coach that it’s still not out of the question.

The most talented man in the conference. Northwestern just has to keep him upright.

Northwestern

If you’ve been following college football this offseason, you’ve probably heard vague calls for to be in the Heisman talk. I won’t downplay his play because he had taken Northwestern to a 7-3 record before he was knocked out of the season by Iowa. His injury highlights the biggest weakness on this team – the line play. Both sides in fact, but we’ll focus on the offensive, which allowed the most sacks in the Big 10. This unit consists of all upperclassmen, which should help, but they definitely need to improve from last year or Persa will have a hard time staying upright. The skill positions also need to improve from last season.  Demetrius Fields and Jeremy Ebert should be solid at WR, and tight end Drake Dunsmore is a very reliable safety blanket for Persa to get the ball out to. Running back is the biggest concern as the Wildcats will need a stronger rushing attack if they want to take some heat off of Persa. The defensive line likewise returns several seniors including Vince Browne who has NFL potential. Besides him, the play is underwhelming. They need to find a presence on the inside to stuff the run. The linebacker corp is equally underwhelming. David Nwabuisi leads the group, but if this unit wants to compete for a Big Ten title the front 7 really needs to step up. Pat Fitzgerald, head coach, is a defensive guy so there’s hope, but without it Persa is going to have to do a lot more to carry this team to the promised land.

Minnesota

Tim Brewster is out, which is a smart move. He had a lot of talent move through the program without generating much success with it. In is Jerry Kill. Kill is coming off of a 10-3 season at Northern Illinois. He hasn’t had experience at a major DI school, but Minnesota doesn’t attract a lot of big names. He does sport a pretty solid overall record and some smart named friends (Gary Patterson of TCU and Dennis Franchione Texas State). Those figures combined speak for hope for the program, but he’ll have a way to go this year. Kill will bring in a spread offense ground and pound game and has thus converted his number 2 wide receiver MarQueis Gray – to quarterback. The 6’4 229 Junior is precisely the kind of player Kill wants at the helm. Running back Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge will rotate in the backfield, creating a nice three-headed monster for opposing defenses to deal with. The offensive line needs some retooling for this attack, but offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has a lot of experience in that field. Still, he needs to find something special there in order for the system to work. On defense they could almost blow up the team and restart and it would be better. They were dead last in sacks last season and didn’t feature many turnovers as a result. The problem is most of that unit returns. Expect a lot of transformation here as the season goes on as players will be on a short leash to produce now. This will be a rough season defensively, despite a new system, but if Kill can get his offense in place it won’t be a lost season for the Gophers.

Nebraska

Save the new guys for first. There’s a lot of people predicting the Huskers to walk away with the Legends division year one. Frankly, there’s not a lot in their path. Bo Pelini runs a smooth program. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is back and headlines a strong rushing attack behind a strong offensive line. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck has said this off-season that he’s looking to speed up the offense. He’s got the speed in the backfield, but the tempo is still a bit sluggish (I guess he’s looking to be more like Oregon than traditional Ohio State). Nebraska isn’t too big on the air raid, but they do have some talent there to work with. Still the offense revolves around the running game and Martinez. On defense, Jared Crick is one of the best defensive linemen in the country and conference. He was likely a 1st or 2nd round prospect if he’d left last season, so another year under his belt won’t hurt this defense. Besides him is Baker Steinkuhler who is only a step or two behind him. The defense also sports one of the top corner backs in the country in Alfonzo Dennard who will have to step up even more in the wake of Prince Amukamara‘s departure. Factor in several talented linebackers (Lavonte David SR, Will Compton, JR) and this is a pretty impressive unit. Expect a light-outs defense and power run game to put them into the picture for the Legends crown. The only thing that might stop them is that this is not the Big 12 that features teams like Kansas and Kansas State. With a much tougher schedule, Nebraska may take a year to get acclimated to a rough conference.

Leaders Division

Ohio State

The Ohio State is in some trouble. They’re stuck in a late transition between former head coach Jim Tressel and interim coach Luke Fickell. The NCAA hasn’t delivered any major sanctions on Ohio State after the initial suspensions from last season. Terrell Pryor will not be returning to the team either as he is officially an Oakland Raider. Those combined facts will make this a tough transition. Add in the losses of RB Dan Herron, WR DeVier Posey, OT Mike Adams, and DE Solomon Torres‘s for the first five games and the losses to the NFL this past season – DE Cameron Heyward, CB Chimdi Chekwa, S Jermale Hines, LB Briane Rolle, LB Ross Homan, G Justin Boren, WR Dane Sanzenbacker, RB Brandon Saine, and CB Devon Torrence – and you have the makings for a rebuilding season for the Buckeyes. There is a reason they have remained the cream of the Big Ten crop for so many years, and that’s talent. The Buckeyes out recruit every other Big Ten school by fairly wide margins, like an SEC school. This team is loaded with promise behind those losses that should ease Fickell’s year. At quarterback, 5th year senior Joe Bauserman will likely start the year at the helm. If the team struggles at the outset, expect true freshman Braxton Miller to get some reps and potentially take over. The Buckeyes lost starting running back, Herron, but have enough depth to cover that for 5 weeks. With their offensive line as talented as it is, this is a team that should be able to run the ball with authority behind All-Big Ten center Mike Brewster. The questions, besides quarterback, are at wide receiver, where they’ve lost some talent. New players will have to step up for the first year coach / QB combo. On defense, the Buckeyes should be scary. They’ve brought back some previously injured players, but it appears that this is a unit that will be much faster than before. This could cause problems with the likes of Wisconsin and Nebraska punching teams in the mouth via the run game, but it should help handle the speed teams of the Big Ten like Michigan and Michigan State. Expect some growing pains, but this should be a solid season for the Buckeyes if nothing further comes down from the NCAA.

Wisconsin

If there is a time for this team to take a stranglehold of this conference this is it. Penn State is still rebuilding, Ohio State is actively running their program into the ground. Indiana, Illinois and Purdue have all floundered in mediocrity. The time is ripe for Wisconsin to unload on this division and secure a nice little run a la Ohio State. Anchored by a vicious ground attack, the only thing lacking from last seasons team was an experienced quarterback. Enter Russell Wilson, who has eschewed baseball and calls from Auburn to land at Wisconsin and manage this system. Running backs James White and Montee Ball should split carries and come close to 1000 yards each, what with the committment to the ground attack. Nick Toon is a very good wide receiver to keep defenses honest in the back, but frankly this line is so strong an 8 man front might have a hard time holding them up. Defensively they feature a lot of solid players. J.J. Watt is out of the mix, but that is pretty much their only significant loss. There are several players here that are ready to step into stardom, and their defense will depend on one or two of them doing so. Keep an eye on Chris Borland, MLB, and Devin Smith, CB, along with defensive linemen Patrick Butrym and Jordan Kohout. All are solid, but could easily explode this year. Even if none of them do, the unit is talented enough to surpass all the best offenses, and the running game should keep those off the field for a nice long time.

Penn State

Is it just me, or is Joe Paterno finally losing his edge here. For years he’d been able to coach up enough talent to stay in the hunt as well as recruit a wide base. I see them doing both of those less in the coming years and in the last few. Randy Edsall has been charged with securing Maryland for the Terps, while Pittsburgh’s Todd Graham will be keeping a stronger eye on Pennsylvania. Penn State still has a lot of allure, as does Joe Paterno, but he does need to consider taking a lesser role if they hope to keep up in the football world. Last year, Rob Bolden was supposed to have some growing pains as a freshman taking the helm. Instead he split time with Matt McGloin who has a lot of fan support. Bolden has more upside, but in a division that’s very wide open, McGloin might give them the best chance to win. Like Ohio State, this will be a quarterback battle that doesn’t end before the season starts. Evan Royster was an excellent running back and his production will have to be replaced by Silas Redd. Unfortunately, his offensive line is atrocious. They’ve bulked up and look to specialize on the running game this year, if they can’t improve on last years results they may end up in mediocrity again. On defense, linebacker U had a down year. They did have to replace 3 NFL players so the expectations were high. The group of Michael Mauti, Nate Stupar, Khairi Fortt, Gerald Hodges and Mike Hull should yield at least three solid linebackers for the next couple of years. The secondary is still a work in progress but does feature some good safety play from Drew Astorino, SR, and Nick Suckay, SR. Corner D’Anton Lynn was solid, but needs to be better this year. The defensive line is equally solid, but underwhelming. All three units need to step their game up to help an offense that’s going to struggle again. If the coaching is there, this team will make strides and compete, if it’s not then they’ll be floundering in the same place. Their schedule will not help them in the least and will either create a hardened team from the fire or it will burn the program to the core and could result in the end of Joe Pa’s tenure.

Purdue

It’s put up or shut up time for the Boilermakers. Danny Hope is in his third year and has entered each with a fair amount of hype. His 9-15 record doesn’t say much for it. Injuries have been a problem, particularly to running back Ralph Bolden who is coming off a torn ACL. Quarterback Robert Marve had the same injury and receiver Keith Smith was out for the last season. All three are back and the experience the backups gained from being forced into play should help in the long run. The line is the biggest strength here, returning four starters that should operate the run oriented offense effectively. It will come down to health though, and if they Boilermakers can keep a healthy offense, it’ll go a long way into making a play at the top. On defense the unit seems solid around. The defensive line features two good defensive tackles – Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston – who will have another year after this as well. That experience should help with the loss of pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan. At corner, up and coming Ricardo Allen has looked like a play maker, but if the linebackers continue to step up that will be the unit to watch. With the injury bug behind them, this team looks poised to step up to play and their timing is good. They have Iowa and Michigan from the Legends conference, which doesn’t look too bad with Nebraska looming. We’ll finally see what Hope is made of this year.

Indiana

Let’s face facts. It’s a basketball school first and foremost. Still, they would like their football program to be better and have had some talented players drift through the program. New coach Kevin Wilson will try to turn it around where so many other coaches have failed. He’s coming from Oklahoma where, unfortunately, he had a lot more talent to work with. In Indiana he’s got to work on stealing some recruits from Ohio if he wants to compete with the big boys. The offensive line returns four starters this year, which should help as the unit only allowed 12 sacks. Pressure isn’t the problem, but experience. Ben Chappell graduated last season and now must replace him. Two different styles of quarterbacks will compete for the job. Dusty Keil is the strong armed passer of a more pro oriented style while Edward Wright-Baker is a duel threat guy who will force opponents to account for his feet. They’ll likely use both this year while they work on an offensive identity. Most likely they’ll attempt to turn a big play, high-octane offense into an efficient duel threatening attack. The defense is unspectacular as well and needs to be retooled. Five of their front seven return this year which should provide experience. Fifth year senior DE Darius Johnson led the unit with 4.5 sacks, which is a major problem if he’s the biggest bread-winner. They need to improve their pass rush and run stuffing abilities dramatically this year. DT Adam Replogle is okay, but needs to improve, as does Larry Black next to him. If those two can make strides in their junior years their defensive line should be good. At linebacker, seniors Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum bring leadership in. The secondary is a mess and needs influx of talent, so don’t expect the air defense to be worth much. In a conference like this it’s not as bad as having a porous run defense, but it definitely needs to improve in the long-term.

Illinois

Remember when Juice Williams was supposed to bring this program into the limelight? Those days have passed. Ron Zook is now in his 7th year and is 28-45. He should be on the hot seat this year and deservedly so. He has failed to turn this program into a force in the Big 10. Last year they installed a freshman quarterback – Nathan Scheelhaase – who looked promising. He threw 17 touchdowns to only 8 interceptions (6 in two games). With him came new offense coordinator Paul Petrino. A.J. Jenkins is a good target for Scheelhaase, but there’s not much besides that. Reshard Mendenhall led to Mikel Leshoure who has led to Jason Ford. Ford is a big question mark and is already banged up. Troy Pollard is probably the more explosive of the two, kind of like Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson in Alabama only nowhere near as talented as that duo. Still Pollard should secure the job by the end of the year. They also return a decently experienced offensive line. On the defense, Tavon Wilson is the biggest star at corner back. DT Craig Wilson is respectable but needs to improve and shore up a weaker interior. At linebacker, Martez Wilson is now in the NFL, but Ian Thomas should be able to step in as the play maker at the 2nd level. I fully expect Zook to see the ax at the end of this year, if not sooner, but there’s some bright spots if they can bring in the right coach to turn the team around.

Predictions

Leaders:                                         Legends:

1. Wisconsin                                  1. Nebraska
2. Purdue                                       2. Michigan State
3. Ohio State                                 3. Iowa
4. Penn State                                4. Northwestern
5. Illinois                                       5. Michigan
6. Indiana                                     6. Minnesota

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