Jim Delaney, the Big Ten commissioner, is a genius. If you don’t believe me, just ask him. He created the Big Ten Network four years ago. It made $227 million last year. He pulled Nebraska from the Big 12 last year. He subsequently decided to name the two six team divisions the Legends and the Leaders. Not the North/South, West/East, Big/Slow, Snow/Ice divisions…the freaking Legends and Leaders. College football fans everywhere had a good laugh (and still are) at his expense. However, he has created arguably the second best conference in the nation with the Nebraska addition. I believe the Legends division is probably the second toughest division in college this year behind the SEC West. Let’s dive into a talented Big Ten…
- Michigan State (10-3 overall, 7-1 conference): Mark Dantonio has proven that he can build a winner anywhere. He turned doormat Cincinnati around in his three years there and has built a 33-19 record at Michigan State in four years, including an 11-2 record last year that surprised a lot of people. The Spartans have Kirk Cousins back who threw for 2,800 yards and a 20-10 TD to INT ratio last year. They also have the conference’s leading returning rusher in Edwin Baker (1,200 yards last year). They return a good receiving corps with Cunningham, Nichol, Martin and Fowler. The defense returns six starters led by a strong defensive line. The road schedule is very difficult this year with games at Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern. They have Wisconsin at home in the middle of their schedule. I like the experience on both sides of the ball. They’ve been challenged last year and are a mentally tough team just like their coach. They will beat Wisconsin in the regular season but lose to them in the first Big Ten title game in Indianapolis in December.
- Nebraska (10-2, 6-2): The Huskers have their work cut out this year because they have to prepare for eight completely new conference opponents. There will be no looking back at last year’s tape to see how each team schemed against them. I think the Huskers do have the best team in the Legends division. I just don’t trust QB Taylor Martinez. In the first seven games last year, he rushed for over 800 yards; in the last seven last year, he rushed for 95 with no TDs. That is not a misprint. Granted he was hurt some of the time, but he also butted heads with head coach Bo Pelini. I noticed last year that the Huskers were also undisciplined at times. I did not realize until I read it in a magazine this summer that they set a school record for penalties in 2010. The previous record before that was 2009, and the previous record before that was 2008. All of these occurred with Pelini as head coach. The offense still has Martinez, RB Rex Burkhead, and a couple of decent receivers. The defense has a stud within each group – Jared Crick on the line, Lavonte David at linebacker and Alfonzo Dennard in the backfield. That is typically a recipe for great things. The schedule will ultimately bite the Huskers this year. Games at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan will challenge them in addition to home games versus Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa. A very tough schedule, but a ten win season in their first year in the conference ain’t too shabby.
- Iowa (10-2, 6-2): The third ten win team in the division makes for a really difficult division. Iowa lost Ricky Stanzi. The starter is likely James Vandenberg. He is Iowa’s equivalent to Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson. He hasn’t played much, but he filled in for Stanzi in a huge game in 2009 against Ohio State. Although the Hawkeyes lost by three, he passed for 233 yards and 2 TDs but 3 INTs in the high pressure late season game. They return three offensive linemen, all Big Ten receiver Marvin McNutt, and a talented young RB Marcus Coker. The defense returns five starters and may set them back some. Iowa has the easiest schedule of the top three in the Big Ten, and it is the main reason why I have them winning ten games. Not a great Hawkeye team but good enough to win ten when you factor in the schedule.
- Northwestern (7-5, 4-4): Dan Persa is a playmaker at QB. He’s a senior and passed for 2,500 yards and 15-4 TD to INT ratio last year before getting hurt in the 10th game of the year last year. The Wildcats went 0-3 without him. Northwestern will be no slouch this year as they return 8 starters on offense and 6 on defense although the defense was pretty bad last year. This team will be fun to watch this year for sure. There are just simply too many good teams in this division for the Wildcats to do too much record-wise. They will play every team tough though because that is all their head coach Pat Fitzgerald expects.
- Michigan (6-6, 3-5): A team that went to a bowl game last year and that is returning 17 starters should be expected to finish better than 6-6. However, the Wolverines have a new coaching staff and the schedule is tough. Denard Robinson, last year’s Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, is back and looking to do less running and more passing, which in turn should allow him to stay healthier than last year. He ran for a remarkable 1,700 yards last year. They have a deep receiving corps. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, it’s not Make It, Take It. Michigan’s defense was the worst defense in its storied history last year. They return 7 starters on the #110 defense in the nation from last year. Six of their last seven games are at Northwestern, at Michigan State, at Iowa, at Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio State at home. That is why they won’t do much better than 6-6, but like Northwestern, they will be really fun to watch.
- Minnesota (3-9, 0-8): Not a good year to be a really bad team in the stacked Big Ten.
- Wisconsin (11-2, 6-2 - Conference Champ): Ah Wisconsin – home of the fat running backs with really white sounding names. That’s right James White and Montee Ball are gonna run all over everyone this year. They combined for over 2,000 yards combined last year. I would expect 2,300 this year. The Badgers have three of their huge offensive linemen back this year. Nick Toon returns at receiver, and the QB position will have NC State transfer Russell Wilson, which is a huge upgrade from what they expected they would have in the spring. The defensive line loses star JJ Watt from last year but is really deep with experienced guys. The back 7 returns 3 starters. Wisconsin will benefit from the uncertainty surrounding Ohio State from the Tressel/Pryor fallout although they’ll have to go to Michigan State and Ohio State on back-to-back weeks.
- Ohio State (9-3, 5-3): What a mess in Columbus. Everyone knows about their offseason. Will the Buckeyes play inspired ball with interim coach Luke Fickell or mail the season in, especially when they lose a couple of games early? I’m really not sure what to expect from these guys; we do know they have a significant portion of their offense out the first five games still. That includes a home game versus Michigan State, which I think they will lose. They then go to Nebraska the next week. After that week, I think they have two losses, and they mail it in although they will still be significantly more talented than most of their opponents in the second half of the season. You heard it here first…this is the year Michigan breaks the seven game winning streak by the Buckeyes.
- Illinois (9-3, 5-3): Is the Zooker on or off the hot seat? It changes every year. He is definitely in good shape right now after his offense turned it around last year with a tough running game behind now departed Mikel Leshoure. Luckily for Zook, Nathan Scheelhaase is back at QB after a 17 TD and 8 INT season, which included a bowl win over Baylor. In total, the offense returns 7 starters and the defense returns 6. I expect a big year for the Illini with a manageable schedule where they can start out 6-0. An early under-the-radar, potentially good non-conference game is Illinois versus Arizona State.
- Penn State (7-5, 4-4): Weekend at Bernie’s is still coaching the Nittany Lions (we think). JoePa’s newest rebuilding project may take another year at least. The offense returns 3 linemen and Derek Moye at receiver who caught for almost 900 yards last year. The defense looks to be starting 11 juniors and seniors, so there is definitely experience there. The problem will be consistent QB play between Rob Bolden and/or Matt McGloin. The other problem is the schedule – Alabama at home in non-conference the second week of the season, at Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin, and home games versus Nebraska and Iowa. Don’t ever count JoePa out, but that may be too much to handle.
- Purdue (5-7, 2-6): All we need to know about Purdue is their schedule at the end of the season – a six game stretch at Penn State, Illinois at home, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, and Ohio State and Iowa at home. There are six conference losses. It would be tough for any team – much less a team that was #104 in total offense last year and is not returning too much talent.
- Indiana (4-8, 0-8): See Minnesota above. They did get a commitment from Gunner Kiel, a top ranked QB in the class of 2012. So maybe next year.
SEC up next…1 week till kickoff!