Around the Big Ten: Preview, predictions, links

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March 31, 2014 | 11:28 pm

Wisconsin's Bret Bielema got hitched and wisely told reporters it would make him a smarter and more mature football coach.

Ohio State newbie Urban Meyer doesn't want a buffer year before the Buckeyes are eligible for the postseason. Michigan's Brady Hoke called last year's 11-2 record a disappointment because the Wolverines failed to win the Big Ten title for the seventh straight season.

Combine those notions with a new dean of head coaches in Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, a rising force in Michigan State and a saga that staggered the whole league at Penn State, the Big Ten Conference is in a state of transition.

Just a year ago Joe Paterno walked the sidelines unopposed in stature and power at Penn State. With his legacy tarnished, Paterno died in January without the national pomp and circumstance befitting of a king but with the disgrace of an abdication. Paterno left his kingdom in tatters after shielding former assistant Jerry Sandusky from prosecution. The NCAA wielded a major slice through Penn State's football program, gutting the Nittany Lions' postseason hopes for four years, cancelling up to 20 future scholarships a year and costing the school $60 million in penalties.

The drama associated with Penn State will fade, as will the Nittany Lions' hopes of relevance under first-year coach Bill O'Brien. With several starters bolting, including top running back Silas Redd and wide receiver Justin Brown, Penn State will struggle to finish mid-pack in the Leaders Division. Although Penn State has the defense to stay competitive, its offense is too depleted and depth too slight to win any games of attrition.

Ohio State also received an NCAA bowl ban this season after "tattoogate" cost former successful coach Jim Tressel his job. Tressel won outright or shared six consecutive Big Ten titles before he lied to NCAA representatives investigating a tattoos-for-autographs scandal. Last year the Buckeyes went with interim coach Luke Fickell, who guided Ohio State to a 6-7 record. Fickell shifted back to defense to make way for Meyer, who led Florida to NCAA titles in 2006 and 2008 before burning out after 2010. Meyer is modernizing the offense with explosive QB Braxton Miller taking snaps as a multi-skilled player. Ohio State's defense is, well, an Ohio State defense. Don't be surprised if the Buckeyes turn the Leaders Division into an illegitimate title by becoming the division's best squad.

Purdue and Illinois each have starters returning at key locations on offense and defense. Purdue has three veteran quarterbacks but selected last year's starter Caleb TerBush to open. The Boilermakers also boast three defensive tackles with starting experience, including top talent Kawann Short, and all-league cornerback Ricardo Allen. Illinois returns dual threat Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback and three of the league's top defenders in DE Michael Buchanan, LB Jonathan Brown and LB Akeem Spence. The Illini never are short on talent, but the team also must adjust to new coach Tim Beckman.

Indiana was the only squad among the six BCS conferences not to defeat a Division I opponent last year. While the Hoosiers return 15 starters, envisioning more than one or two league wins is wishful thinking.

That leaves Wisconsin as the prohibitive favorite among Leaders Division teams. The Badgers return all-world running back Montee Ball (39 touchdowns), the league's leading returning receiver in Jared Abbrederis, the Big Ten's best offensive lineman in Ricky Wagner and perhaps the top linebacker tandem of Mike Taylor and Chris Borland. The Badgers have earned two consecutive Rose Bowl bids and won the inaugural Big Ten title game last year.

With Ohio State and Penn State out of contention and Illinois and Purdue unproven, Wisconsin should stroll to the Leaders Division title. If Illinois had one dynamic returning playmaker (outside of Scheelhaase) on offense, I'd give the Illini a chance. But Wisconsin is too strong and too deep to fall out of the division's top two.

The Legends Division could resemble a mosh pit with a tiebreaker likely deciding the divisional representative. Michigan is the favorite based (somewhat) on tradition and (mostly) on returning quarterback Denard Robinson, the nation's most dynamic player. But for Michigan to get past its divisional foes, it will need its inexperienced defensive line to take a giant step forward. But that's where head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. It will happen.

Michigan State clearly possesses the league's best defense. The Spartans present a dangerous end combination of William Gholston and Marcus Rush, combined with the league's top returning sack leader (Denicos Allen), a bulldog at middle linebacker (Max Bullough) and three top-caliber secondary players (Darqueeze Denard, Isaiah Lewis, Johnny Adams). The question is, can new QB Andrew Maxwell be as effective as Kirk Cousins? That will determine whether Michigan State will be the Big Ten's best team or simply rank among the league's top squads.

Nebraska has key returnees at QB with Taylor Martinez and I-back Rex Burkhead plus multiple contributors at tight end and wide receiver. The Cornhuskers are a little raw up front and must replace two key starters from last year's defense (LB Lavonte David, CB Alfonzo Dennard). Nebraska opens Big Ten play with six consecutive 2011 bowl opponents and faces the league's top two defenses (Michigan State and Ohio State) on the road.

Iowa has issues at running back, depth at wide receiver and defensive line. But the Hawkeyes return the league's best pure passer in James Vandenberg, a 50-catch wide receiver in Keenan Davis and a back seven on defense that rivals any other Big Ten squad save Michigan State. Plus no Big Ten program overachieves more under the radar than Iowa, which doesn't play Wisconsin, Ohio State or Illinois. In each of the last five years in Big Ten play, Iowa has beaten either a 10-win squad or a BCS bowl representative. Nobody sleeps on Iowa.

Northwestern will look different without longtime starter Dan Persa, but Kain Colter is a triple-threat quarterback who can pass, run and catch if necessary. The Wildcats lose its top two receivers but gain former national talent Kyle Prater, who transferred in from USC. The Wildcats boast three returning offensive linemen and three linebackers but must replace three starters in the secondary. Like Iowa, Northwestern misses Ohio State and Wisconsin, but bulked up the non-conference schedule with three BCS opponents.

Minnesota features a giant dual-threat quarterback in MarQueis Gray and a rapidly improving program under second-year coach Jerry Kill. But Minnesota lost its top running back, top two tacklers and best two receivers. With the depth in the Legends Division and an annual game with Wisconsin, it asks a lot for the Gophers to win every toss-up game on the schedule. It's possible (and it wouldn't surprise me if the Minnesota squeezes into 6-6 territory), but I think the Gophers are a year away from crashing the bowl party.

I see a tie with Michigan and Michigan State atop the Legends Division. The winner of the Oct. 20 game at Ann Arbor will decide the champion. Nebraska could play a factor, but with another difficult schedule — especially on the road — the Cornhuskers won't quite get there. Iowa is rebuilding but competitive, and Northwestern still is dangerous.

Here's how I see the Big Ten stacking up:

LEADERS DIVISION

  • Wisconsin 11-1, 7-1 (loss at Nebraska)
  • Ohio State 10-2, 6-2 (losses at Michigan State, at Wisconsin)
  • Illinois 8-4, 5-3 (losses at Arizona State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan, at Ohio State)
  • Purdue 6-6, 3-5 (losses at Notre Dame, vs. Michigan, vs. Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Minnesota, at Illinois)
  • Penn State 4-8, 1-7 (beats Ohio, Navy, Temple, Indiana)
  • Indiana 2-10, 0-8 (beats Indiana State, Navy)

LEGENDS DIVISION

  • Michigan 9-3, 6-2 (losses at Notre Dame, at Nebraska, at Ohio State — wins division on head-to-head tiebreaker)
  • Michigan State 10-2, 6-2 (losses at Michigan, at Wisconsin)
  • Nebraska 8-4, 5-3 (losses at UCLA, at Ohio State, at Michigan State, at Iowa)
  • Iowa 8-4, 4-4 (losses at Michigan State, at Northwestern, vs. Purdue, at Michigan)
  • Northwestern 7-5, 4-4 (losses vs. Vanderbilt, vs. Nebraska, at Michigan, at Michigan State, vs. Illinois)
  • Minnesota 4-8, 1-7 (beats UNLV, New Hampshire, Syracuse, Purdue)

BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

  • Michigan 44, Wisconsin 38

BOWL LINEUP

  • Rose: Michigan
  • Fiesta: Wisconsin
  • Capital One: Michigan State
  • Outback: Nebraska
  • Gator: Iowa
  • Insight: Illinois
  • Meineke: Purdue
  • TicketCity: Northwestern

These predictions contradict (slightly) what I said in the "On Iowa" podcast with my colleague Marc Morehouse. While I think Michigan State still is the best team in the league, the game-by-game results spell a different conclusion. You can listen to the podcast right here:

To read about each team (absent Iowa) this preseason, click on any of the below links. To read more about Iowa, click on Marc Morehouse's preseason links in his blog "On Iowa."

ILLINOIS: Illini QB bummed he won’t play in Kinnick

The Iowa and Illinois football teams are in the middle of a six-year scheduling break, and nobody is more disappointed than Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

MICHIGAN: Denard Robinson vital to achieving coach's goal

Brady Hoke’s Michigan coaching debut produced an 11-2 record and a No. 9 coaches’ poll ranking, yet he found disappointment at season’s end.

WISCONSIN: Badgers vie for first-tier status

When Bret Bielema plays blackjack in Las Vegas, he’s the type of player who get a pair of face cards off the deal. Whether he splits them or keeps the 20, he seems to come up roses.

MICHIGAN STATE: Spartans keep goals high, focus low

If life was fair, Michigan State would have earned back-to-back Rose Bowl trips.

PENN STATE: Nittany Lions try to maintain focus through turmoil

Penn State’s football program, the subject of much-deserved scrutiny, now tries to prevent an adverse situation on campus from becoming catastrophic on the football field.

NEBRASKA: More B1G experience, more success for Cornhuskers?

Nebraska’s first venture into Big Ten land ended with neither triumph nor failure.

NORTHWESTERN: Wildcats hope Kain is able

No team gets more out of its players than Northwestern. No player is exempt from playing multiple positions, even the quarterbacks. Former all-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa entered the game as a special teamer when backing up Mike Kafka. This year’s quarterback Kain Colter successfully split time between quarterback and wide receiver last year.

INDIANA: Hoosiers hope growing pains are so 2011

Kevin Wilson runs his football program like a drill sergeant. He’s trying to change everything about the Indiana Hoosiers from their losing ways to the inferiority complex. If that ruffles the egos of a few holdovers, well, that’s just too bad.

OHIO STATE: Simon says motivation not a problem for Buckeyes

Ohio State’s goals usually start and end with championships. From 2005 through 2010, the Buckeyes hoisted a Big Ten championship trophy at the end of a football season. Last year that trend ended in infamy.

MINNESOTA: Gophers hope 50 shades of MarQueis Gray is a best seller

The Big Ten’s best athlete might play quarterback for that team with a Block M. Only this quarterback wears maroon. MarQueis Gray stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 245 pounds and runs like a deer, both with his speed and his power.

PURDUE: Health could make Boilermakers a top team in Leaders Division

Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short has some lofty expectations, and this year they might have some merit.

MONTEE BALL: Touchdown at Iowa changed his life, Badgers' fortunes

Montee Ball nearly quit on the Wisconsin Badgers two years ago because he felt they nearly quit on him.

MICHIGAN: Players feel responsible to carry Big Ten banner against Alabama

The Southeastern Conference has turned the Big Ten from slow-footed Northern punching bags into a bona fide Yankee football punchline in recent years.

TOP 12 BIG TEN GAMES OF LAST 10 YEARS 1-6

TOP 12 BIG TEN GAMES OF LAST 10 YEARS 7-12

   

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