Spring football has ended for all 12 Big Ten schools, so we thought this would be a good chance to look back at what we learned and also look ahead to the season in the fall.
Three of the top returnees in the Leaders Division include OSU's John Simon, Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Penn State's Silas Redd
In late April, we published two articles looking specifically at the quarterback situation at each Big Ten school. (Click here for a look at the Leaders Division and here for a look at the Legends Division.)
Today, we start our comprehensive look at the conference with this analysis of the Leaders Division. We will be back in few days with a look at the six schools in the Legends Division.
It will be a season of change in the Leaders Division with three new head coaches. Tim Beckman, formerly of Toledo, takes over at Illinois. Former Florida coach Urban Meyer comes out of the ESPN broadcast booth to take the reins at Ohio State. And Bill O’Brien, recently the offensive coordinator for the NFL’s New England Patriots, becomes the new head coach at Penn State.
Both Ohio State and Penn State are hoping to put turbulent times behind them. OSU’s 2011 to forget included the ouster of 10-year head coach Jim Tressel in the wake of NCAA allegations. In fact, this will be Ohio State’s 100th year in the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes can’t play for the conference title or go to a bowl game due to sanctions handed down by the NCAA. Meyer, who won a pair of national titles at Florida, steps into the void after OSU endured its first losing season (6-7) since 1988.
Penn State was rocked to its core by a scandal surrounding former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. That led to the late-season dismissal of 46-year head coach Joe Paterno. The legendary 85-year-old coach then died of complications from lung cancer on Jan. 22.
On the field, Wisconsin won the first-ever Big Ten championship game last December with a dramatic 42-39 win over Legends Division champion Michigan State. Wisconsin, which also won a share of the championship in 2010, will be going for a third straight Big Ten title for the first time in school history.
Below is our team-by-team look at the Leaders Division after spring football as well as our early projections on how things could play out.
BIG TEN LEADERS DIVISION
* 2011 Record, Bowl: 7-6 overall, 2-6 Big Ten Leaders (fifth), defeated UCLA 20-14 in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
* Returning Starters (17): Offense (7): WR Spencer Harris, OL Michael Heitz, WR Darius Millines, C Graham Pocic, QB Nathan Scheelhaase, OL Hugh Thornton, TE Evan Wilson; Defense (8): LB Jonathan Brown, DE Michael Buchanan, DT Glenn Foster, CB Terry Hawthorne, SS Steve Hull, FS Supo Sanni, DT Akeem Spence, LB Ashante Williams; Specialists (2): P Justin DuVernois, P Ryan Lankford.
* Spring Game Recap: Freshman running back Josh Ferguson rushed for 150 yards on 20 carries to lead the Blue team to a 13-12 victory in the annual Orange and Blue Spring Game April 14 at Memorial Stadium. A 47-yard field goal by sophomore Nick Immekus with 1:22 remaining proved to be the deciding points for the Blue. Orange had one last chance to win the game, but defensive end Justin Staples' sack of Orange QB Nathan Scheelhaase in the final minutes sealed the win for the Blue.
* Summing Up The Spring: Beckman basically brought in a new staff, retaining just defensive line coach Keith Gilmore from Ron Zook’s staff. They sunk their teeth into the Illini on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, new coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty worked to install a spread offense that should play to the strengths of the athletic Scheelhaase at quarterback. Illinois was ninth in the Big Ten in total offense (355.7 yards per game) last year and averaged just 11 points per game in a six-game losing streak that sealed Zook’s fate.
Ferguson, although just 185 pounds, could be a difference maker as he replaces Jason Ford at the running back spot in the spread.
"We’ve got to get better, but not just at quarterback," Beckman said. "That's the one that's always looked at. That's the one that’s always critiqued. (But it's) every position. If we want to be a champion, and we have the capabilities of doing that, we need to step our game up this summer and in two-a-days.”
Defensively, new coordinator Tim Banks sought to replace early NFL draft departee Whitney Mercilus as well as two-thirds of the linebacker corps. But Brown will be a key building block at linebacker.
Beckman, who led Toledo to two winning seasons and two bowl berths in his three seasons there, brings high energy to the Illinois job.
“I’m proud of the way they have responded to new coaching and to the new things we’re doing,” he said. “I’m proud of how this senior class and these players worked to get better every day. The team as a whole is the first thing -- the installation of a plan on being better Illini.”
Scheelhaase believes the Illlini are poised to hit the ground running under the new staff.
“It’s been great getting to know our coaches,” he said. “They did a great job of coming in and getting to know us as players. That made the transition smooth.”
* 2012 Schedule: Sept. 1, Western Michigan; Sept. 8, at Arizona State; Sept. 15, Charleston Southern; Sept. 22, Louisiana Tech, 8 p.m. (BTN); Sept. 29, Penn State; Oct. 6, at Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m. (ABC); Oct. 13, at Michigan, 3:30 p.m. (ABC); Oct. 27, Indiana; Nov. 3, at Ohio State; Nov. 10, Minnesota; Nov. 17, Purdue; Nov. 24 at Northwestern.
* 2011 Record: 1-11 overall, 0-8 Big Ten Leaders (sixth).
* Returning Starters (16): Offense (7): WR Jamonne Chester, RB Stephen Houston, WR Kofi Hughes, C Will Matte, OL Collin Rahrig, QB Tre Roberson, OL Bernard Taylor; Defense (8): CB Lawrence Barnett, DT Larry Black, Jr., CB Greg Heban, LB Chase Hoobler, S Mark Murphy, DE Ryan Phillis, DT Adam Replogle, DE Bobby Richardson; Specialists (1): K Mitch Ewald.
* Spring Game Recap: The Cream withstood a late rally and defeated the Crimson, 19-16, in Indiana’s spring game April 14. After playing one quarter in Memorial Stadium, inclement weather forced the teams and fans into Mellencamp Pavilion for the remaining three quarters. Roberson threw for a touchdown and ran for one in the scrimmage.
* Summing Up The Spring: There is only one way for Indiana to go and that’s straight up. In Kevin Wilson’s first season as the IU coach, the Hoosiers did not defeat a Division I-A team. The lone win came over I-AA South Carolina State 38-21. Five of the 11 losses were by eight points or less, though.
"I don't think I'm fighting a battle I can't win," Wilson said. "That's why we're not moping around and why we're not feeling sorry for ourselves. We're going to see if we can take some nice steps this year and keep building."
Wilson played a ton of freshmen and sophomores last year. Indiana played a nation’s high 32 true and redshirt freshmen last season. Wilson hopes that experience will help translate to wins in the years ahead.
“We have a lot of guys who have played back in the program and I hope they understand how to prepare better in the off-season with the weight program and everything else,” Wilson said. “The sooner you play and the more you play, the easier it is to coach guys. For some of these guys, this was their first spring. That’s when you learn and grow.”
The offensive backfield seems to be in good shape with the sophomore Roberson at quarterback and Houston, who rushed for 802 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Seth Littrell has taken over as the new offensive coordinator.
“I think Tre can be a complete quarterback,” Wilson said. “He has a good skill set where he can move. He’s being pushed by some guys. We will keep some competition on him. But I think he can throw the ball and move the ball and become a quality college quarterback.”
Indiana was a distant 12th in the conference in total defense (458.7 yards per game – 51 yards more than 11th-place Minnesota) and 12th in the Big Ten in scoring defense (37.3 points per game – nearly six points more than 11th-place Minnesota as well).
“I think we know what we’re doing better on defense,” Wilson said. “We’re more assertive. We’re bigger, stronger and better. We have tweaked some things to play to our personnel.”
Senior defensive tackle Larry Black Jr. believes the Hoosiers will be improved in 2012.
“I think we made some pretty good strides, both offensively and defensively,” Black said. “I think we have come together as a team. We’re starting to bond and that just comes naturally. We’re starting to see what Coach wants out of us and we’re coming up to what he needs.”
* 2012 Schedule: Sept. 1, Indiana State, 8 p.m. (BTN); Sept. 8, at Massachusetts; Sept. 15, Ball State, 8 p.m. (BTN); Sept. 29, at Northwestern; Oct. 6, Michigan State; Oct. 13, Ohio State, 8 p.m. (BTN); Oct. 20, at Navy, 3:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network); Oct. 27, at Illinois; Nov. 3, Iowa; Nov. 10, Wisconsin; Nov. 17, at Penn State; Nov. 24, at Purdue.
* 2011 Record, Bowl: 6-7 overall, 3-5 Big Ten Leaders (fourth), lost Gator Bowl to Florida 24-17.
* Returning Starters (18): Offense (7): FB Zach Boren, WR Corey “Philly” Brown, WR Chris Fields, OG Jack Mewhort, QB Braxton Miller, OG Andrew Norwell, TE Jake Stoneburner; Defense (9): S C.J. Barnett, DT Adam Bellamy, S Christian Bryant, NG Garrett Goebel, DT Johnathan Hankins, CB Travis Howard, LB Ryan Shazier, CB Bradley Roby, DL John Simon; Specialists (2): K Drew Basil, P Ben Buchanan.
* Spring Game Recap: The Scarlet team took a 20-14 win over the Gray before a crowd in excess of 81,000. Miller led the way by completing 24 of 31 passes for 258 yards and an interception. He hit freshman wideout Michael Thomas 12 times for 131 yards. Rod Smith and Carlos Hyde each rushed for scores for the Scarlet, while Devin Smith had a TD catch from Kenny Guiton for the Gray. Guiton also rushed for a score.
* Summing Up The Spring: Meyer and his six new assistants presided over their first spring in Columbus. New offensive coordinator Tom Herman worked hard to install a spread offense. In the spring game, the teams combined to throw the ball on 55 of the 91 plays. It was all done to energize a passing game that ranked 115th out of 120 teams a year ago (just 127.0 ypg).
“We did some things offensively that … that is not who we are,” Meyer admitted. “However, I wanted to get something done. We are going to be a very balanced offense. That was very imbalanced. We are taking one of the worst passing teams in America from a year ago and we have to find out if we can do that.
“But we know if you can’t be balanced, you won’t win.”
Miller looked like he took to the new offense, which plays to his strengths as both a runner and a thrower. Aside from him, Meyer discussed who he plans to lean on in the fall.
“Right now, the top playmakers in order would be(tailback) Jordan Hall, (tight end) Jake Stoneburner, Carlos (Hyde) and then (receivers) Philly Brown, Michael Thomas and Devin Smith,” Meyer said. “And then we have (tight ends Jeff) Heuerman and (Nick) Vannett right there as well.”
Boren, back for his third year as the starting fullback, talked about the new OSU offense.
“Last year, we were much more of an I-formation team. It was a pro style offense with the quarterback under center a lot. This year, it’s all about spreading the field and making vertical plays and getting the ball up and down the field with speed. It’s about guys on the outside playing in space. We will still be a tough power running team, but we’ll do it out of different formations.”
OSU finished outside the national top 15 in total defense for the first time since 2004, allowing 323.5 yards and an uncharacteristic 21 points per game. The strength of the defense will be up front with All-American candidates Simon and Hankins, who some are already projecting as a possible first-round pick as a junior-eligible next spring. Hankins underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee, though, in late April.
The secondary with Bryant at safety and Roby and Howard at corner should also be strong. If sophomore linebackers Shazier and Curtis Grant come through, the defense could be dynamite (again).
Boren, a senior, said the Buckeyes pressed on this spring despite not having the ability to play for a championship in the fall.
“Coach Meyer is a great coach,” Boren said. “It’s just what he expects from you on a daily basis, going out there and competing. He preaches competitive excellence. He expects the most from you every single day. You know he will push you and you’ll become better as a football player.”
* 2012 Schedule: Sept. 1, Miami (Ohio); Sept. 8, Central Florida; Sept. 15, California; Sept. 22, UAB; Sept. 29, at Michigan State; Oct. 6, Nebraska, 8 p.m. (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2); Oct. 13, at Indiana, 8 p.m. (BTN); Oct. 20, Purdue; Oct. 27, at Penn State, 6 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2); Nov. 3, Illinois; Nov. 17, at Wisconsin; Nov. 24 Michigan.
* 2011 Record, Bowl: 9-4 overall, 6-2 Big Ten Leaders (tied for first), lost Houston 30-14 in the TicketCity Bowl.
* Returning Starters (10): Offense (5): WR Justin Brown, QB Matt McGloin, TB Silas Redd, WR Devon Smith, C Matt Stankiewitch; Defense (4): LB Glenn Carson, DT Jordan Hill, LB Gerald Hodges, DE Sean Stanley; Specialists (1): K/P Anthony Fera.
* Spring Game Recap: In a battle of offense versus defense, the blue-clad defensive squad posted a 77-65 win over the offensive unit in the Beaver Stadium debut of head coach Bill O'Brien in front of an estimated 60,000 fans. The defense tallied five interceptions and eight sacks in the win.
Paul Jones threw for 113 yards and a touchdown, while McGloin added 105 yards and a scoring strike as the Nittany Lions rotated in six quarterbacks during the spring game. Bill Belton and Zack Zwinak each had TD runs as well.
* Summing Up The Spring: O’Brien retained just two assistants, defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, from Paterno’s last PSU staff. O’Brien, fresh off a Super Bowl run with Tom Brady and the Patriots, will call his own offense.
O’Brien will try and jump start a PSU offense that was 10th in the Big Ten in total offense (318.2 ypg) and 11th in scoring (19.3 ppg). He only had 15 spring practice to install his new scheme, but believes they made the most of that time.
“Our theory was to throw everything at them,” O’Brien said. “We taught these guys a lot. I don't know if it was everything, but it was close. These guys had to work really hard at it because they have to balance school and also the things we were throwing at them. I thought, for the most part, they handled it pretty decently.
“I also have a much better understanding of our team now – our skill set at different positions, what things we should be pretty good at and what things we need work on.”
McGloin may be the leader at quarterback, but Jones and past starter Robert Bolden were also fighting for that spot.
"If having a package for a second quarterback helps us win the game, then I'll certainly look into it,” O’Brien said. “But I'm more of a one-quarterback guy."
Redd returns after rushing for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns last season, while Brown and Smith each have a year under their belt at wide receiver.
New defensive coordinator Ted Roof must find some new playmakers on defense. But he has some solid pieces with Carson and Hodges at linebacker and Hill returning at defensive tackle.
“We used the spring to get used to the new coaching staff and we’ve enjoyed that,” Hill said. “We had a lot of things thrown at us.”
* 2012 Schedule: Sept. 1, Ohio; Sept. 8, at Virginia; Sept. 15, Navy; Sept. 22, Temple; Sept. 29, at Illinois; Oct. 6, Northwestern, noon (TV TBA); Oct. 20, at Iowa, 8 p.m. (BTN); Oct. 27, Ohio State, 6 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2); Nov. 3, at Purdue; Nov. 10, at Nebraska; Nov. 17, Indiana; Nov. 24, Wisconsin.
* 2011 Record, Bowl: 7-6 overall, 4-4 Big Ten Leaders (third), defeated Western Michigan 37-32 in the Little Caesars Bowl.
* Returning Starters (19): Offense (9): RB Ralph Bolden, LG Peters Drey, WR Antavian Edison, RT Trevor Foy, TE Gabe Holmes, WR O.J. Ross, C Rick Schmeig, QB Caleb TerBush, TE Crosby Wright; Defense (9): CB Ricardo Allen, S Max Charlot, DT Bruce Gaston, CB Normondo Harris, CB Josh Johnson, LB Will Lucas, DE Ryan Russell, DT Kawann Short, DT Brandon Taylor; Specialists (1): P Cody Webster.
* Spring Game Recap: Rain storms forced cancellation of the April 14 spring game. The team moved inside for a scrimmage, which the Black team won 36-20. TerBush and backup quarterback Robert Marve each had two touchdown passes in the scrimmage.
* Summing Up The Spring: After two losing seasons under Danny Hope, the Boilermakers broke through and qualified for the postseason. The Little Caesars Bowl win over Western Michigan was Purdue’s first bowl win since 2007 and the only the school’s third since 1998.
“We created some momentum at the end of the season last year,” Hope said. “We had a winning season and got into postseason play. I think the postseason practices helped us improve almost to a man. I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen.
“We’ve had some signature wins the last two or three years. We’ve been .500 two of the last three years. But a winning season (overall) really meant a lot. We have some more pep in our step and we’re ready to take the next step.”
TerBush and Marve continued their roles in essentially sharing the quarterback job during spring football. Rob Henry, who was due to start last year before a knee injury, missed most of the spring before returning for the final week.
“That made a huge impact on what we were able to do this spring. We had two quarterbacks who were healthy this spring that have played for us quite a bit with Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve. We started off faster on offense and the execution was a lot better.”
The running back position is in good hands with Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers, although Bolden was arrested following an off-the-field incident at a campus area bar.
Purdue gave up 30 or more points five times in 2011. Hope replaced defensive coordinator Gary Emanuel by hiring Tim Tibesar. Some of Tibesar’s recent experience has been in the Canadian Football League and Hope thinks that could help craft schemes to contain opposing teams who utilize the spread.
“I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made defensively,” Hope said. “We play so many spread offense and the Canadian League is almost the epitome of the spread offense. I’m pleased with the way our guys have picked up the system.”
Defensive tackle Kawann Short opted to stay in school for his senior year after earning first-team All-Big Ten honors last year. Some have Short already projected as an NFL first-round pick for next year.
"We have a great opportunity right now," Short said. "We have a lot of starters coming back. Ohio State can't get back in conference championship, so it just gives us a little edge. We have to take advantage of it."
* 2012 Schedule: Sept. 1, Eastern Kentucky; Sept. 8, at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m. (NBC); Sept. 15, Eastern Michigan; Sept. 29, Marshall; Oct. 6, Michigan, 4 p.m. (BTN); Oct. 13, Wisconsin; Oct. 20, at Ohio State; Oct. 27, at Minnesota; Nov. 3, Penn State; Nov. 10, at Iowa; Nov. 17, at Illinois; Nov. 24, Indiana.
* 2011 Record, Bowl: 11-3 overall, 6-2 Big Ten Leaders (tied for first), lost to Oregon 45-38 in Rose Bowl.
* Returning Starters (11): Offense (5): WR Jared Abbrederis, RB Montee Ball, OL Travis Frederick, TE Jacob Pedersen, OL Ricky Wagner; Defense (6): LB Chris Borland, CB Marcus Cromartie, DT Ethan Hemer, SS Shelton Johnson, DE Brendan Kelly, LB Mike Taylor; Specialists (0): None.
* Spring Game Recap: This past Saturday, the Badgers wrapped up the spring as 10,419 attended the spring game at Camp Randall Stadium. RB Melvin Gordon, playing with Ball sitting this one out, had 30 carries for 159 yards and two touchdowns. Joel Stave completed 14 of 25 passes for 135 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Chase Hammond had four catches for 48 yards and a score. Isaiah Williams added five catches for 53 yards.
* Summing Up The Spring: Bielema had to replace no fewer than six assistant coaches after UW’s Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. That included offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who took several other assistants with him as he became the head coach at Pittsburgh.
Still, the Badgers are in position to try and defend their Big Ten championship. With Ohio State out of the running for a spot in the league title game, it would be a major upset if any school other than Wisconsin won the Leaders Division title.
“Our guys understand and appreciate the reason you have success is by doing your job every day,” Bielema said. “We’ve been to the Rose Bowl two years in a row, but we haven’t won it. To be able to say we’re the only team in the conference who can win it for the third straight year is pretty special and I think our guys are buying in.”
Matt Canada has stepped in as the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He will have no shortage of options in replacing the prolific Russell Wilson at quarterback. Following the Wilson plan – he transferred in after graduating from N.C. State last summer – Bielema has already agreed to accept Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien. O’Brien started two years for the Terrapins and will arrive in time for fall camp after graduating from Maryland.
This spring, Stave and Joe Brennan took most of the reps at quarterback. Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips are also in the running, although they each missed the spring nursing injuries.
“I thought both of them from the fall until the end of spring got better,” Bielema said of Stave and Brennan. “I was happy with the two of them and hopefully we got a jump on the fall. The fact of the matter is we have two guys who were banged up and Dan is going to come in here and have a great opportunity to show what he can do and the best man will win the job.”
Whoever is selected as the quarterback, they will have a lot of practice on turning and handing the ball off to Ball and key backup James White. Ball matched the NCAA record with 39 touchdowns and led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards. He was an All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist. This fall, he will try and become the first repeat Big Ten offensive player of the year since Indiana’s Anthony Thompson in 1988-89. White chipped in 713 yards rushing and six touchdowns as well.
Bielema rested his top two backs in the spring game, giving the redshirt freshman Gordon a golden opportunity to show his wares.
“Melvin is a tremendously gifted young man,” Bielema said. “He competes very hard. He is going to be an exceptional football player. And the good thing is we’ll have him for (the next) four years.”
Abbrederis returns after catching 55 passes (eight touchdowns) last year. The offensive line lost some standouts in Peter Konz, Josh Oglesby and Kevin Zeitler. But top line returnee Wagner is already getting some NFL first-round grades for next year.
Two All-Big Ten linebackers – Taylor (150 tackles) and Borland (143) – will anchor the defense. Johnson is also a standout at strong safety.
Ball knows the Badgers will be a marked team in 2012.
"We are the targeted team in the Big Ten because of what we've done the past two years," Ball said. "Everyone is shooting and gunning for us."
* 2012 Schedule: Sept. 1, Northern Iowa; Sept. 8, at Oregon State; Sept. 15, Utah State, 8 p.m. (BTN); Sept. 22, UTEP; Sept. 29, at Nebraska, 8 p.m. (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2); Oct. 6, Illinois, 3:30 p.m. (ABC); Oct. 13, at Purdue; Oct. 20, Minnesota; Oct. 27, Michigan State, 3:30 p.m. (ABC); Nov. 10, at Indiana; Nov. 17, Ohio State; Nov. 24, at Penn State.
Predicting The Division Race
OK, so we’ve looked at the personnel and what was accomplished this spring. Here is where the rubber hits the road and we make our first stab at some can’t-miss predictions for the new season. We will share our projected record for each team as well as thoughts on how each school will fare this season:
* Wisconsin: 10-2 overall, 6-2 Big Ten -- As noted above, if a team other than Wisconsin reps the Leaders Division there should be a federal investigation. Yes, the Badgers need to identify a new playmaker at quarterback. Ball will run behind a revamped offensive line and against defenses that won’t have to worry about Wilson’s throwing (and running) ability. So Wisconsin may be more of a station-to-station offense in 2012. Abbrederis doesn’t look like much standing there, but he plays big.
Danny O’Brien had some success at Maryland before the bottom dropped out last season. If he doesn’t win the job, whoever does should be a pretty good player. The defense should be solid as always. The coaching change provides some intrigue, but it also gives six new guys a chance at a Big Ten championship ring.
The schedule is not all that daunting. The toughest nonconference game is at Oregon State in Week 2. Big Ten road games at Nebraska and Penn State will loom large, but UW gets Michigan State and Ohio State at home. Even if OSU was eligible for the division title and a spot in the championship game, UW holding serve and beating the Buckeyes at home would tip that race in the Badgers’ favor anyway.
* Ohio State: 10-2 overall, 6-2 Big Ten – All eyes will be on Columbus for a good portion of the 2012 season as Meyer makes his debut with the Buckeyes. He left Florida just over a year ago, citing burnout and health issues. How long he’ll stay in Columbus is anyone’s guess as this job is a real meat grinder. (Just look at the before and after photos of John Cooper and Jim Tressel if you don’t believe me.)
Meyer’s No. 1 goal is to get the OSU offense back on track and producing touchdowns by the bushel barrel. He has started that process by empowering Miller in the spread offense. OSU will be as good as Miller’s decisionmaking and playmaking allows it to be. The receivers took a step forward in the spring, while there are a collection of serviceable backs. The defense will try and get back to its past stinginess as well with Luke Fickell taking over as the coordinator.
This year is almost a free pass for Meyer, regarded as a program savior in most corners of the state of Ohio. There is no pressure to produce a championship this year. Still, you know Meyer – a Type A personality if there ever was one – wants to set the right tone this season. OSU plays eight home games. The road games at Michigan State and Wisconsin and the home finale with rival Michigan – which could be regarded as OSU’s league title game/bowl game/national title game all rolled into one – will tell the tale.
* Illinois: 7-5 overall, 4-4 Big Ten – Beckman steps into a great situation with the Fighting Illini. Over the long haul, his success or failure will be dictated by how he and his staff recruit in the home state of Illinois as well as an emerging hotbed in neighboring Indiana and over to the Midwest’s top talent producing state in Ohio.
He inherits a veteran quarterback in Scheelhaase and the offense has at least a few weapons. Illinois has not been to bowl games in three straight seasons since going five years in a row between 1988-92. I think there is a good chance that will happen for the Illini this year.
For me, the Illinois season is pretty simple: I think the Illini look good to win their seven home games (Penn State is the toughest challenge) and could easily lose all five road games (Arizona State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern).
* Penn State: 7-5 overall, 3-5 Big Ten – Bill O’Brien will have the fewest returning starters in the Big Ten. As we discussed, he will try and bring the Penn State offense into the 21st century. That may hard to do as none of the quarterbacks seem to make PSU fans too excited, although Jones remains a mystery man somewhat.
The defense was as solid as it has ever been last year, but a number of the key tacklers and playmakers there will have to be replaced. I think over time O’Brien will stabilize the Penn State program. Playing in the same division with Ohio State and Wisconsin, he must work to upgrade the talent level that seems to have stagnated. His NFL track record as an offensive guru should help that cause.
There are a couple of nonconference challenges with a road game at Virginia and a home game with Navy. But nothing approaching the task of playing an Alabama, as PSU did the last two years. The Big Ten brings tough road games at Iowa and Nebraska as well as at division foes Illinois and Purdue, whom the Lions were lucky to beat at home last year. O’Brien will get a bowl game in his first year and it may even be on Jan. 1.
* Purdue: 6-6 overall, 3-5 Big Ten – Purdue used to be a bowl fixture under Joe Tiller, going to postseason play 10 times in his 12 years from 1997-2008. Hope got his first taste of it last year and I think Purdue will be good enough – at least offensively – to qualify for a bowl again in 2012.
Yep, they have three decent quarterbacks in TerBush, Marve and possibly Henry. I’m not sure they are going to win big with any of them, though.
The Week 2 game at Notre Dame could be pivotal. If Purdue can come back from South Bend with a win, it could be primed for a big year. The first three Big Ten games (home with Michigan and Wisconsin and at Ohio State) will also be huge. The schedule becomes much more manageable after that stretch.
* Indiana: 3-9 overall, 0-8 Big Ten – Wilson is still looking for his first win over a I-A opponent. I think he will clear that hurdle. But stacking more than two of those this season could be a real challenge. The Hoosiers still have a long way to go before they will be regarded as a respectable Big Ten opponent.
I think he has a nice building block in Roberson. He enjoyed some nice moments late last season after taking over as the starting quarterback. But he needs some help and needs to stay upright as well. The defense was one of the worst we’ve seen in the conference in forever. The hope has to be that all the pieces will come together for a .500 (or so) season and a bowl bid when Roberson becomes a junior in 2013.
The schedule includes road nonconference games at Massachusetts (a new I-A team in the MAC) and at Navy. The Big Ten home schedule has four blockbuster games with Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin all coming to Bloomington. IU lost those four games by an average of nearly 35 points last year. (Egads.) It's hard to see IU winning any of those Big Ten home games and I'm not sure the Hoosiers will be ready to win a conference game on the road.
Stay tuned in the next few days for our look at the Legends Division as well as our Big Ten bowl projections for 2012.
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