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2011 Big Ten Preview – 80’s Hair Band Edition

October 1, 2011

LEGENDS DIVISION

MICHIGAN

2011 Non-Conference Record: 4-0

2011 Theme Song: A theme that resonates with all Michigan fans who’ve endured the last 3 years – We’re Not Gonna Take It by Twisted Sister

What’s to Like?

  • Denard Robinson – Simply put, he’s the best player in the Big Ten, and probably the country.  There is nobody capable of producing on the ground the way he can.  He’s on pace for over 1600 yards rushing, 1800+ yards passing, and 33 touchdowns overall.  And that’s with poor passing numbers so far this year.  He’s shown the ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and is the unquestioned leader of the Michigan team.  While some morons have suggested that Devin Gardner be given a shot because of Denard’s poor passing this year, there is nobody in the country more essential to his team’s chances of winning than Denard.
  • Greg Mattison’s Defense – Those in the know fully expected Greg Mattison to have an impact on this defense in a positive way.  I don’t think anybody could predict how successful he’d be out of the gates.  While there are still plenty of questions on defense, Michigan has made improvements by leaps and bounds from last year, particularly in their scoring defense – leaping from 108 out of 120 teams to 13th overall.  Whether they can sustain that for the Big Ten season remains to be seen, but so far, so good.
  • The Line of Scrimmage – Brady Hoke firmly believes that winning the Big Ten requires you to own the line of scrimmage.  Wisconsin, MSU and OSU all did that last year, and not surprisingly each finished 11-1.  With plenty of returning starters on both sides of the ball, Michigan’s lines have proven to be a strength early on.  If they can continue to matchup well as the Big Ten slate moves forward, Michigan will be in good shape.
  • The Schedule – Part of having a successful season is having a favorable schedule.  Last year MSU rode a favorable schedule that didn’t have OSU and included 7 of the first 8 games in the state of Michigan to an 8-0 start and an 11-1 finish.  Michigan has a similar slate this fall, with 7 of the first 8 in the state of Michigan, and no Wisconsin or Penn State to deal with anymore.  With a little luck, the Wolverines could be 8-0 when they head to Iowa City in early November.

What’s not to Like?

  • Too Much Denard – If Michigan’s strength is Denard Robinson, it’s also their weakness.  Nobody really knows what this offense is capable of if Denard goes down.  And given that he struggled to finish games last year, its more likely he’ll miss time this year than it is that he’ll play the whole season. He’s Michigan’s leading rusher, but he’s also the guy who carries the ball the most, allowing for the most hits.  Michigan with Denard Robinson could very well be in the hunt for the division championship heading into the last two games of the season against Nebraska and OSU.  Without him, they’ll be lucky to get to 7 wins.
  • Depth – Even if Denard Robinson goes down, most are very high on backup QB Devin Gardner.  That’s not the case at other positions, where Michigan severely lacks depth.  In particular, the offensive and defensive lines both have very good players starting, but a significant drop off when it comes to the backups.  If nose tackle Mike Martin or center David Molk were to go down, both lines would suffer.  Michigan needs to stay healthy at almost every position to compete for a Big Ten title.
  • Recent History – Up until 2007, a Michigan team starting 4-0 would be considered a national title contender.  Now a 4-0 Michigan team has trouble convincing people they are a Big Ten title contender.  That’s mostly because this is the 3rd year and a row that Michigan has started off 4-0, and we’re all aware of how they last two seasons ended.  There are plenty of positive signs that this is a different Michigan team.  And I believe it is.  But until they prove they can compete in the Big Ten, it’s understandable why many are still thinking they’ll finish with a thud.

Prediction: Despite a tremendous victory against Notre Dame, Michigan still has to prove it can play with the big boys in the Big Ten.  A favorable schedule and what appears to be a healthy Denard Robinson are definitely reasons for Wolverine fans to be optimistic.  But depth concerns mean Michigan is just one injury away from disaster at several positions.  That being said, don’t be surprised if Michigan heads into the Nebraska game on November 19th in the thick of the division hunt.

Big Ten Record: 5-3

NEBRASKA

Non Conference Record: 4-0

2011 Theme Song: In honor of Nebraska’s first year in the Big Ten, Welcome to the Jungle.  Like the song says, we’re gonna watch you bleed.


What’s to Like?

  • High Powered Rushing Attack – Nebraska and Taylor Martinez are picking up where they left off last year with an offense that currently ranks 13th overall in the country.  Next to Denard Robinson, Martinez is the best offensive player in the Big Ten.  Martinez is complimented nicely by Rex Burkhead, who is well on his way to a 1,000 yard season.  When it’s cold, windy, rainy and snowy – as it tends to get in the Big Ten in the fall – you need to be able to move the ball on the ground.  Nebraska does that very well.
  • Big Uglies – The Nebraksa rushing attack is led by the humongous lineman they have up front that average 303 lbs.  The lightest is center Mike Caputo, who weighs in at 275 lbs.  Typical of Nebraska, these guys are big, strong road graders who I’m sure are looking forward to their first taste of Big Ten action.
  • First Timers – With this being Nebraska’s first year in the Big Ten, they have something to prove.  For years they’ve heard from several schools in the Big Ten that Nebraska couldn’t compete with us.  Now they have the chance to prove it.  It works out nicely for them that their first year is a year in which they are loaded.

What’s Not to Like?

  • A Shaky Defense – While Nebraska has always been known for its rushing attack, the Blackshirts defense has also been a staple of the Cornhuskers.  While certainly not a bad defense, they’ve yet to be the dominant force so far this season.  Giving up 38 points to Washington and 29 points to Fresno State is not what Bo Pelini expected from his defense early on.  They’re still right around 50th in the country for both scoring defense (46) and total defense (52).
  • Taylor Martinez Injuries – Much like Michigan, Nebraska relies on its QB to make the offense go.  And also like Michigan, they let him carry the ball a lot.  Martinez is averaging almost 16 carries a game this year.  And while he’s effective, he is one hit from taking Nebraska from potential national title contender to middle of the pack Big Ten team
  • First Timers – While Nebraska does have the advantage of trying to prove their worth in their inaugural Big Ten season, this will also be the first time they get a chance to play and coach against the Big Ten.  Trips to Ann Arbor, Happy Valley, and Madison won’t make that any easier.

Prediction: This is a Nebraska team with playmakers in the backfield, and road graders on the front line.  The biggest questions are whether or not Taylor Martinez can stay healthy, and whether or not he can handle playing on the road in some of these big time games.  Given their talent, Nebraska could run the table.  But given their schedule, which includes six very tough games @Wisconsin, OSU, MSU, @UM, @PSU and Iowa, they’re going to stumble along the way.

Big Ten Record: 6-2

IOWA

Non-Conference Record: 3-1

2011 Theme Song: Every year it seems like Iowa is of the same caliber – not stellar, but capable of beating anyone in the Big Ten.  For that, they get Skid Row’s I Remember You.

What’s to Like?

  • Passing Attack – Though most expected Iowa’s passing attack to suffer with the graduation of Ricky Stanzi, Junior James Vandenburg has stepped in without missing a beat.  He’s completing 63% of his passes and averaging almost 274 yards per game.  Couple that with a 10/1 touchdown to interception ratio, and he’s been the best QB in the Big Ten in the non-conference schedule.  Vandenburg is helped immensely by senior Marvin McNutt, who by my count is on his 7th year of eligibility.  McNutt is one of the better receivers in the Big Ten.
  • The Schedule – Iowa absolutely drew the lucky straw when it came to scheduling this year, as they managed to avoid both Ohio State and Wisconsin.  They also lucked out by getting both Michigan and Michigan State at home.  They travel to Nebraska and Penn State, but also get Minnesota and Purdue on the road – both games they should win.  They also escaped the other 4-0 team in the Big Ten, Illinois.  If Iowa can win in Happy Valley against Penn State on October 8th, they might not lose again until the end of the season.

What’s Not To Like?

  • Young Defense – While Iowa’s offense has been a nice surprise, this is not a typical Hawkeye defense.  Though they still have playmakers in 2010 Freshman All-American linebacker James Morris and Christian Kirksey, they are clearly feeling the effects of the loss of Adrian Clayburn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug, all 3 of whom were drafted to the NFL in April.  Iowa is giving up almost 24 points a game and over 385 yards a game – up from 17 points a game and 335 yards – both of which were in the Top 25 last year.
  • Inconsistent Rushing Attack – Though running back Marcus Coker has looked good at times this year, he’s been inconsistent through 4 games.  Against Louisiana Monroe and Iowa State he went over 100 yards and was a factor.  But against Pittsburgh and Tennessee Tech he was held to 86 and 41 yards respectively for an average of only 3.7 yards per carry.  Though Vandenburg has been throwing the ball well, for the Hawkeyes to win the Big Ten, they have to be able to run the ball.

Prediction: Iowa has won 9 games in six of the last 9 years, and looks poised to make that happen again.  If you gave them anyone else’s schedule in the Big Ten, I’d probably predict a 4-4 Big Ten season, but given the way the scheduling god’s have blessed them, I’d be shocked if they aren’t in the think of it when they head to Nebraska the Friday after Thanksgiving.  They aren’t a great team, but they’re going to be solid enough to compete all season long.

Big Ten Record: 5-3

MICHIGAN STATE

Non-Conference Record: 3-1

2011 Theme Song: For every Spartan fan who thinks that MSU is a legit Big Ten Championship contender since they pulled off 11 wins last year we get Aerosmith’s Dream On.

What’s to Like?

  • Talented Offense – MSU has probably the most talented and experienced skill players returning from an offense that was very good last year.  Kirk Cousins was widely thought to be the most consistent QB returning in the Big Ten this year.  He’s coming off of a solid 2010 campaign where he threw for over 2800 yards and 20 touchdowns while leading MSU to an 11-2 record.  He’s picked up where he left off last year and is on pace for more yards, a higher completion percentage, and similar touchdown/interception numbers.  Wide Receiver B.J. Cunningham, now #1 on MSU’s all-time receptions list, is clearly Cousins favorite target, and has established himself as one of the better receivers in the Big Ten again.  The passing game is buoyed by the three headed attack of Larry Caper, Edwin Baker and Leveon Bell at running back, who are more talented than last year, but not as effective due to a patchwork offensive line.
  • Statistical Defense – Despite giving up 31 points in an 18 point loss to Notre Dame, MSU’s defense is stifling its opponents.  MSU is #1 in the country in total defense and #8 in scoring defense.  Incredible numbers when you factor in that Notre Dame game.  To be fair, the competition of Youngstown State, FAU, and Central Michigan hasn’t been fierce, but those are still impressive numbers.  MSU has yet to feel the loss of standout linebacker Greg Jones.  The heart of the defense is All-Big Ten Defensive Tackle Jerel Worthy, who has become a menace for opposing offenses to block.

What’s Not to Like?

  • Patchwork Offensive Line – MSU started the season with an unproven offensive line.  And then things got worse.  On Saturday against Central Michigan, MSU started an offensive line that had a combined 55 career starts between them.  The only problem is that 39 of those came from left guard Joel Foreman, and 12 of those came from right guard Chris McDonald.  Recent injuries to starting right tackle Skyler Burkhard (season), starting center Blake Treadwell (several weeks) and guard/tackle Jared McGaha (questionable for OSU) necessitated that MSU played 3 offensive lineman with a combined 2 starts against Central Michigan.  And given several off-season injuries, even if MSU gets Treadwell and McGaha back, they still have no depth.  MSU is already rushing for 90 yards less per game than they were at this time last year.  The line was a strength last year that helped MSU get off to an 8-0 start.  That’s not in the cards this year.
  • Increased Expectations – I’m not going to tell you that MSU’s surprising Big 10 title from last year is working against them this year.  I don’t think for a second they are resting on their laurels or that they are getting a big head.  But I do think that many in the media have some unreasonable expectations about MSU’s ability to compete.  Last year MSU needed everything to go right for them in order to get to 11-1 in the regular season.  They didn’t play OSU, they snuck by Purdue and Northwestern with some late game trickeration and special teams.  And they would have lost to Notre Dame if Brian Kelly knew how to coach and didn’t try and block a 45+ yard field goal in overtime.  MSU could have easily been 8-4.  Like last year, this is a good team.  But it is not a great team.  MSU is going to need luck to be great again.

Prediction: MSU got a bit of a mixed bag when it came to scheduling this year.  Starting off with OSU, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska looks like a murderer’s row.  But OSU will still have 4 suspended players when the play MSU this weekend, and they still haven’t adequately replaced Terrelle Pryor.  MSU then gets Michigan and Wisconsin in Spartan Stadium before heading to Lincoln.  If they can go 2-2 for that stretch, they could run the table with a road game at Iowa the only challenge left on the schedule.  An 8-4 record would be a good accomplishment for this team given the offensive line situation and the schedule, and that’s where they will end up.

Big Ten Record: 5-3

NORTHWESTERN

Non Conference Record: 2-1 (remaining game against Rice)

2011 Theme Song: Poor Northwestern, even when they’ve got a good squad and a QB like Persa, they still can’t vault to the top of the Big Ten.  They’re left wondering Why Can’t This Be Love by Van Halen.

What’s to Like?

  • Dan Persa – Northwestern spent plenty of time and resources on hyping up senior quarterback for the Heisman Trophy after a solid junior campaign.  A little optimistic if you ask me, considering Persa was recovering from off-season Achilles tendon surgery.  He’s yet to see the field as he recovers.  When he does get on the field, he’s one of the most versatile QB’s in the conference, who can throw and run with the best of them.  He had a stellar 15/4 touchdown to interception ratio through 10 games in 2010, and also added 9 touchdowns on the ground.  If he’s healthy, Northwestern can compete with most teams in the Big Ten.
  • Ground Game – In Persa’s absence, Northwestern has done a great job of amping up the ground game.  Persa’s replacement at quarterback Kain Colter and running back Mike Trumpy have Northwestern churning out 220 yards a game, good for 23rd overall in the country.

What’s Not to Like?

  • Persa’s Injury – Though expected to start the season, through 4 weeks Persa has yet to see the field.  He’s expected back for the Big Ten opener this week against Illinois, but nobody knows for sure what he’s capable of and how much that achilles injury will limit him.
  • Rush Defense – Northwestern’s rush defense has been abysmal this year, ranking 104 out of 120 teams.  A big chunk of that is due to Army racking up 381 yards, but both Boston College and Eastern Illinois found moderate success on the ground as well.  Playing in the Big Ten requires the ability to stop the run, something the Wildcats have yet to prove they can do.

Prediction: For years Northwestern has been the quintessential Big Ten team.  Good enough to beat you if you don’t bring your A game, but not talented enough to take you down on your best days.  That seems to be the case again, even if Persa is healthy.  They just don’t have the horses to compete over the long haul of the Big Ten season.  They are going to surprise at least one team this year, but if the Army loss is any indication, they may lose a game or two they shouldn’t as well.   They will be lucky to get to .500 in the conference.

Big Ten Record: 3-5

MINNESOTA

Non-Conference Record: 1-3

2011 Theme Song: It clearly isn’t going to be Minnesota’s year, but there are brighter days before.  So we’ll go with Guns N’ Roses Patience.

What’s to Like?

  • Not Much – I hate to be harsh, but this Minnesota team is in dire straits.  Quarterback Marqueis Gray is a talented player, who reminds me a little of former Illinois Quarterback Juice Williams.  Unfortunately, Gray is about the only thing the Gophers have going for them.  Through 4 games, they are 1-3,  and despite the close win against Miami of Ohio, the only real highlight was taking a fraudulent USC team to the wire.  Statistically, Minnesota has a decent rushing attack (44th in the country) and a decent rush defense (33rd in the country), but ranks in the 80’s and 90’s in almost every other major category.

What’s not to Like?

  • Hospitalized Coach – In addition to the limitations outlined above, Head Coach Jerry Kill has been absent for part of the season already due to seizures he suffers from.  The seizures started on the sidelines in the closing minutes of Minnesota’s loss to New Mexico State.  And though Kill returned to coach the next week, they resurfaced this past week and his timetable to return is up in the air.  At this point the uncertainty and worry have to be weighing on the team.

Prediction: This Minnesota team was going to struggle no matter what this season.  The added difficulty of playing without their leader means that Gopher fans could be in for a very long season.  While I hate to be overly pessimistic, I don’t see 1 guaranteed win on the schedule for them.  Without fellow Big Ten cellar dweller Indiana on the schedule, Minnesota’s best chance is probably a road game against Purdue.  At this point, finding 2 more wins on the schedule would be a huge moral victory.

Big Ten Record: 1-7

THE LEADERS DIVISION

WISCONSIN

Non-Conference Record: 4-0

2011 Theme Song: Wisconsin looks like the most complete team in the Big Ten and maybe a national title contender.  So I’m wondering where the flaw is.  Therefore we’ll go with Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn

What’s To Like?

  • NFL Style Offensive Line – It’s no secret that Wisconsin has had great offensive lines for the last 15 years, but this year’s might be among the best. they’ve ever had.  Featuring 5 starters with an average weight of 322 lbs, Wisconsin sports an offensive line that is heavier than all but 2 NFL offensive lines.  From left to right, Ricky Wagner, Travis Frederick Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby have steamrolled their first 4 opponents, helping Wisconsin put up 532 yards per game and 48.5 points per game.  These guys are big, strong, and athletic – and ready to keep plowing through the Big Ten.
  • Potent Offense – What separates this Wisconsin team from years past is that in addition to a great offensive line, they have some great players at the skill positions to benefit from the standout offensive line.  The headliner is North Carolina State transfer Russell Wilson, who terrorized the ACC before using an NCAA loophole  for graduate students to transfer to Wisconsin and play immediately.  Wilson is currently among the Heisman Trophy favorites, as he’s putting up some incredible numbers so far.  75% completion percentage, 1136 yards, and an 11/1 touchdown to interception ratio.  He’s the game changer Wisconsin has always lacked at QB.  But he’s just one of a few other weapons they have.  James White and Montee Ball are back at running back, with each already over 300 yards for the season, and Ball has a staggering 9 touchdowns already.   And at receiver, Nick Toon, the son of former All-Pro receiver Al Toon, is finally coming into his own and is on pace for over 1,000 yards receiving.  In short, this is not your typical Wisconsin offense.

What’s Not to Like?

  • Cupcake City – As usual, Wisconsin has spent the pre-season padding stats and egos by beating up on some of the weaker teams in college football.  UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota aren’t exactly the murderer’s row of college football, so despite the gaudy stats, its tough to tell how good Wisconsin really is.  After Wisconsin destroyed UNLV 51-17, the Runnin Rebels promptly lost 59-7 to a very average Washington State team the next week.  Wisconsin is good, but we won’t know how good until they take on Nebraska this weekend.

Prediction: This Wisconsin team is loaded on offense, solid on defense, and has a relatively favorable schedule as they get Nebraska and Penn State at home, while missing Iowa and Michigan.  They do have to travel to East Lansing (their only loss last year) and to Columbus, where I’m sure the Buckeyes would like to get revenge for last year’s loss.  Wisconsin is good enough to go unbeaten, but something tells me they won’t.  Either way, they’ll be in Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.

Big Ten Record: 7-1

ILLINOIS

Non-conference Record: 3-1

2011 Theme Song: Illinois has the toughest schedule of any team in the country in late October and throughout November.  This is a no-brainer – Guns N’ Roses November Rain.

What’s To Like?

  • Nathan Scheelaase – Last year Scheelhaase was an exciting freshman with both impressive and maddening moments as he led to Illinois to a respectable 7-6 record and victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl.  That included several close losses, included by 2 two Michigan and by 4 to Minnesota.  So far in 2011, Scheelhaase has shown he’s a much more consistent QB upping his completion percentage from 58% to 71%.  He’s also equally as dangerous as a runner this year, despite  running back Mikel LeShoure’s departure.  Scheelhaase reminds me a lot of Northwestern QB Dan Persa – he’s not a gamebreaker, but he’s maddeningly effective.  If Illinois can sort out the defense, he could lead them to a Big Ten title his senior year.
  • Rushing Attack – Illinois has done a great job of sharing the football in the backfield, with 3 running backs getting significant carries along with Scheelhaase, who is the second leading rusher.  Troy Pollard has emerged as their homerun threat, averaging over 10 yards a carry.  Jason Ford is the workhouse and gets most of the carries, and freshman Donovan Young is also Donovan Young is also a threat to score everytime he touches the ball.  With 4 players already at 200+ yards for the season, this might be the deepest rushing attack in the country.  It’s not surprising that they are 14th overall in the country on the ground.

What’s Not to Like?

  • Suspect Passing Game – As improved as Scheelhaase has looked in the passing game, Illinois still ranks only 95th in the country with 182 yards per game.  Part of that can be explained by a running game that is so solid it seems foolish to pass.  But Illinois also ranks 89th in the country in sacks allowed, so even when they do drop back to pass, they find some difficulties.  Watching Scheelhaase in the close game against Western last Saturday was interesting as he completed 14/20 passes, but only for 6.7 yards per completion.  Illinois seems to have a handle on the short passes, screens and slants, but struggles with the downfield stuff.  That won’t cut it when they can’t run all over their opponents.
  • Something isn’t Right – Illinois was an average football team last year, going 7-6 and though statistically very similar to last year, they’ve managed to start off 4-0.  Perhaps they’ve just learned how to win the close games, and are being aided by a year of experience.  But eventually a team that runs the ball well but can’t pass it will run into a team that can stop its running game and force them to pass.  In the Big Ten, there could be several teams that can do that.  So while I’m impressed by the Illini’s start, they weren’t good enough last year to have true staying power this year.  At some point, their weaknesses will shine through.

Prediction: As I said above, Illinois has taken care of business by starting off 4-0, but despite their win over Arizona State, they haven’t looked incredibly impressive in doing so.  The running game will allow them to defeat most middle of the road Big Ten teams, but the lack of a passing game means eventually Illinois will succumb to a team that can score like they can, or keep them from scoring.  The schedule does give them Michigan, Wisconsin and OSU at home, and perhaps the easiest road schedule in the conference (Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota, and Penn State).  Given the 4-0 start and favorable schedule, the Illini will play on New Year’s Day, but they’ll need to develop a better passing attack to win the division.

Big Ten Record: 4-4

OHIO STATE

Non-Conference Record: 3-1

2011 Theme Song: In honor of $500 handshakes, tattoo parlors and memorabilia sales, we’re going with AC/DC’s Money Talks

What’s to Like?

  • Tressel Ball Continues – Despite the off-season resignation of Jim Tressel, his sweatervest outline is still firmly imprinted on this team.  OSU hasn’t missed a bit defensively, ranking in the Top 30 in every major defensive category that the NCAA measures, including  Top 20 rankings in the 2 most important stats, Total Defense and Scoring Defense.  OSU also continues to do well in turnover margin and special teams, both Tressel staples.  Anchored by John Simon and Garret Goebel up front, the defensive line is formidable.  And Andrew Sweat and Etienne Sabino are following in the long line of great OSU linebackers.
  • Getting Whole – Despite the loss to Miami, if OSU can beat MSU at home this weekend, they will have survived the first 5 games without suspended players Daniel Herron, Devier Posey, Solomon Thomas and Mike Adams.  4-1 with a new head coach and without your two best offensive players is something most any coach would take.  The offense (which we’ll get to in a second), has been awful so far, but getting Boom Herron and Devier Posey back will be a huge lift for the Buckeyes.
  • Winners – Despite the loss of Tressel and Terrelle Pryor, this OSU team has won the last 6 Big Ten Titles and has won  at least 10 games every years since 2004.  While they’ve been through a rough offseason and aren’t as talented on offense as they have been, you don’t just suddenly forget how to lose.  There’s still a lot of talent and know how in Columbus.

Whats Not to Like?

  • Anemic Offense – Without Terrelle Pryor and Boom Herron, OSU’s offense has sputtered along this season.  Against Miami, they only put up 6 points, and despite higher point outputs against Toledo, Colorado, and Akron, they’re still sorely missing Herron and wide receiver Devier Posey.  Last week Luke Fickell benched senior Todd Bauserman in favor of redshirt freshman Braxton Miller – the next big thing in Columbus.  Miller immediately tweeted that the “future is now”, but despite a decent performance numbers wise, you could tell that Miller has a long way to go before he can be the type of QB Buckeye fans expect.  He’s clearly a talented player, but like all young players, he needs repetitions and time to grow, something he’ll have to do on the fly now.
  • Shell Shocked – Even if everyone in the State of Ohio tells you that “all is well”, you have to believe they are lying.  In the span of 6 months, they had 5 players suspended, saw their Heisman Trophy candidate leave school, and saw their leader, and one of the most successful coaches in college football over the last decade, resign.  Even if Luke Fickell was Jim Tressel’s heir apparent, it wasn’t supposed to happen this fast.  And when Tressel did hand over the reigns, I’m sure he would have done in it with a stable QB waiting in the wings, and a team full of stars, not ineligible players.  If Fickell beats MSU this week, he’ll have done an admirable job with this group so far given the circumstances.  But they are still adjusting, and when Herron, Posey and company return, there will be even more adjusting.  There are just too many distractions for OSU to keep focused enough to win a Big Ten title.

Prediction: OSU continues to be a great defensive team, but they are much weaker on offense than in year’s past.  That will improve with Posey and Herron’s return, but unless Miller grows up in a hurry, the QB position is still a liability in my opinion.  Factor in all of those distractions, a new coach, and a murderous opening stretch of Big Ten Play (MSU, @Illinois, @Nebraska, Wisconsin), and OSU fans should be worried that this is the first year since 2004 they finish with less than 10 wins.  At this point, they might be lucky to get to 8.

Big Ten Record: 5-3

PENN STATE

Non-conference Record: 3-1

2011 Theme Song: Joe Paterno is in his 46th(!) season as Penn State’s Head Coach.  A streak like that deserves a little White Snake and Here I Go Again.

What’s to Like?

  • The Best Defense in the Big Ten – Statistically speaking at least.  Even though Penn State’s non-conference schedule consisted of Alabama, and 3 cupcakes, they still managed to put up some pretty impressive defensive numbers.  Especially when you consider what Alabama is capable of offensively.  Currently, PSU ranks 8th overall in the country in total defense, and 10th overall in scoring defense.   The defensive line, led by senior Devon Still, has been stingy against the run, allowing only 100 yards per game.  The passing defense has been even better, only allowing 148 yards per game, 7th best in the nation.  Based on the opponents, its tough to tell if these stats mean anything, though in PSU’s only real test against Alabama, they held the Crimson Tide to 350 yards and only 27 points, which is below their season average.
  • Easing Into It – With an unsettled quarterback situation (see below), PSU is still working out the kinks on offense.  Luckily for them the early Big Ten season is fairly kind to them.  They begin by traveling to lowly Indiana before hosting Iowa and Purdue.  Though Iowa is solid, PSU could be 6-1 heading into their game at Northwestern.  While they need to figure out the QB situation soon, the defense is probably good enough to prop them up in the meantime.

Whats Not to Like?

  • If you’ve got 2 QBs, you’ve got zero QBs – It’s 4 games into the season, and Penn State is still trying to figure out who its quarterback will be, and that’s never a good sign. So far this season, senior and former walk-on Mat McGloin and heralded sophomore Robert Bolden have taken snaps for the Nittany Lions.  And headed into Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Indiana, who gets the nod is still a toss-up.  Bolden is the more talented and athletic  of the QBs, but McGloin is the most consistent.  At this point in the season, I think Penn State had hoped to have one of the guys emerge.  At this point, it looks like it will be McGloin, but if he struggles, Bolden will see the field plenty too.  Penn State’s offense has been pretty shaky this season, putting up only 14 points against Temple and struggling early against Eastern Michigan before pulling away.  As good as the defense may be, they won’t compete for the Leaders division if they can’t put points on the board.
  • Closing with a Flurry – As comfortable as Penn State’s early Big Ten schedule is, the 2nd half is absolutely brutal.  The last 4 games consist of Illinois and Nebraska at home, followed by trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State.  If the Nittany Lions can split those 4 games it will be impressive.  They do get a bye between Illinois and Nebraska, but that may not be enough.
  • Michael Mauti Injury – Penn State’s defense this year had been led by All-Big Ten linebacker Michael Mauti.  Unfortunately for Mauti and the Nittany Lions, Mauti tore his ACL last week and is out for the year.  Senior Nate Stuper filled in nicely against EMU, and is going to have to continue to do that for Penn State to be successful.

Prediction: Though there is a lot to like about this Penn State defense, the offense has trouble moving the ball across the street at times.  If McGloin or Bolden can get things moving, Penn State could be a sleeper in the division.  They’ll have some time to work out the kinks before that brutal final four game stretch, but I just haven’t seen enough from either Bolden or McGloin to believe they have what it takes to lead them through that gauntlet.

Big Ten Record: 4-4

PURDUE

Non-Conference Record: 2-1 (play Notre Dame this weekend)

2011 Theme Song:  A double meaning here – first to the Purdue fans who are probably in for a long season and second to Purdue Coach Danny Hope who seems to get upset about the little things – we’re going with Guns N’ Roses Don’t Cry.

What’s to Like?

  • A Real Rushing Attack – For the first time since perhaps Mike Alstott was there, Purdue feels like they have a legitimate rushing attack to help them move the ball.  Currently 10th overall in the nation at 239 yards per game, the Purdue ground game is led by Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers.  To be fair, 400 of these yards came against Southwest Missouri State, but Purdue has also put up decent numbers against Middle Tennessee State and Rice.  It’s not an unstoppable rushing attack, but for Purdue, it’s a start.
  • Return of Robert Marve – When Robert Marve transferred from Miami, he was supposed to be the guy to lead Purdue out of the wilderness.  Unfortunately, since he’s transferred, he’s suffered 2 torn ACL injuries.  He finally appears to be healthy, but now has to compete with junior Caleb TerBush who has taken over the starting reigns.  Marve looked good last week against SE Missouri State, going 7/8 for 91 yards in his only action of the season.  Danny Hope will have to figure out who his QB is sooner or later, but for now he’ll enjoy the luxury of having two guys.

What’s Not To Like?

  • Poor Early Returns – Despite the domination of Southeast Missouri State, Purdue has looked pretty shaky through the first 3 games.  Losing to Rice and struggling to get past Middle Tennessee State doesn’t bode well for the Boilermakers in the Big Ten Season.  Unless Notre Dame continues its charitable ways by giving up the football 4-5 times on Saturday night, Purdue will be 2-2 heading into the Big Ten slate.
  • That’s It? – If the return of a QB coming off of two torn ACL’s is one of two things to like about your team, you’re probably in for a long season.  After going 5-7 the last two years, Purdue was hoping a strong non-conference might help them get to a bowl this year.  The loss to Rice and poor performance against Middle Tennessee State didn’t help with confidence, and now they probably have to beat Notre Dame in order to find their way to six wins.

Prediction: Purdue was hoping for a fast start to get them over the hump and into the middle of the pack of the Big Ten this year. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen after the loss to Rice.  Given that they’ve only played three games, the jury may still be out.  And even though it was SE Missouri State, they were impressive in their 59-0 win.  But at the end of the day there just isn’t enough talent to be an overly competitive Big Ten team.   Purdue is dangerous enough to surprise a team or two, but that’s about it.

Big Ten Record: 2-6

INDIANA

Non-Conference Record: 1-3

2011 Theme Song:  Poor Indiana fans, the last time they were in the Big Ten title hunt was 1987.  All they want is Something To Believe In by Poison.

What’s to Like?

  • They’ve Won A Game – Sadly, this is about the only good news Indiana has going for it.  The fact that they managed to beat South Carolina State, a FCS school,  is the highlight of the year so far.
  • Low Expectations – After the 1-3 start with losses to Ball State and North Texas, Kevin Wilson’s squad has set the bar sufficiently low.  At this point, any additional wins would be a victory.  Though the talent isn’t really there, they may be able to catch a team or two by surprise.

Whats Not to Like?

  • 1-3 – 1-3 is a bad record for if your first 4 games are against the SEC.  When the schedule consists of Virginia, Ball State, North Texas and South Carolina State, it’s a disaster. Especially losing to Virginia and Ball State at home.

Prediction: At this point it just doesn’t seem fair to keep picking on Indiana.  They are going to be rebuilding, probably for a couple of years or two.  Kevin Wilson certainly has his work cut out for him.  The Hoosiers do catch a break by catching Northwestern and Purdue at home, so its possible they could steal one of those games.  But its going to be a long season for Hoosier fans.

Big Ten Record: 1-7

BIG TEN CHAMPION PICK: Wisconsin

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