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2012 Big Ten Preview – Hip Hop Hooray

September 29, 2012

With the first four weeks of college football in the books and the start of the Big Ten season upon us, it’s time for my Big Ten preview.  I’ve based my thoughts on what I’ve seen through the first weeks of the season.  This year, we’re taking a Hip Hop approach to things, pairing each team with a 80’s or 90’s Rap/Hip Hop anthem for the year.  WARNING – SOME OF THESE SONGS CONTAIN EXPLICIT LANGUAGE

Without further ado….

LEGENDS DIVISION

MICHIGAN

2012 Non-Conference Record: 2-2 (W – Air Force, UMass; L – Alabama (N) , @Notre Dame)

2012 Theme Song: More than any team in America, how far Michigan depends on one player – Denard Robinson.  Sure The Team, The Team, The Team will always be the mantra.  But sometimes, it’s just Me, Myself and I

What’s to Like?

  • Denard Robinson – As bad as Denard Robinson was on Saturday against Notre Dame, he’s still the most exciting player in the Big Ten, and perhaps the country.  Plus, given the landscape of the Big Ten, he may also be the best quarterback in the league (that’s scary).   Denard is a senior, a 3 year starter, and led Michigan to an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl win last year – needless to say, the expectations for this year are high.  A BCS Title is no longer in the cards, but a trip to Indianapolis and potentially Pasadena is something Denard is fully capable of.
  • “Michigan” Defense – Last year Greg Mattison took Michigan from one of the worst defense in 2010 to one of the Top 20 defenses in the country in 2011.  While there has been concern about the ability for the defense to reach those heights again in 2012, especially due to the departure of Mike Martin and Ryan VanBergen on the defensive line, this defense appears to be rounding into form heading into the Big Ten season.  After Alabama and Air Force gutted them for pretty much anything they wanted on the ground, Michigan has looked much better after the last two games against UMass and Notre Dame.  The key thing to remember here is that last year at this point Michigan had given up 31 points to Notre Dame and looked suspect against Western Michigan too.  Last year’s defense will improve, and this year’s will too.
  • Special Teams – For the first time in a long time Michigan seems to have its act together in all phases of special teams.  Will Hagerup is one of the better punters in the Big Ten, Matt Wile can send kickoffs through the endzone whenever he wants and as long as Brendan Gibbons keeps thinking of brunette girls, he is a reliable kicker.  On the return side, it seems like Dennis Northfleet is a touchdown waiting to happen every time he touches the ball and Jeremy Gallon is consistent on punt returns.  Consistent special teams is something you need to get through the grind of the Big Ten schedule, and Michigan appears to have it.

What’s not to Like?

  • Too Much Reliance on Denard – Last year I wrote that if Michigan’s strength is Denard Robinson, it’s also their weakness.  But the focus in 2011 was that if Denard was injured, we had nobody to step up and create offense the way he can.  That’s still an issue, but in 2012 the reliance on Denard is more focused on the fact that when he struggles, so does Michigan.  The Notre Dame is a perfect example of how much Michigan relies on solid play from Denard in order to be successful.  If he has a bad game, its tough for them to win.  With the emergence of Fitzgerald Toussaint in the running game in 2011, the expectation was that Denard would have some help.  Unfortunately for the Wolverines Fitz hasn’t gotten back to his 2011 form yet.  When he does, Michigan will have the balanced offense that helped them shred Ohio State and Nebraska last year.  Until then, they need Denard to bring his best most games.
  • The Schedule –  In 2011 Michigan benefited from home games against Nebraska and Ohio State and favorable timing for their matchup in East Lansing.  This year Michigan may have the toughest schedule in the Big Ten.  In addition to traveling to Columbus and Lincoln this year, the Wolverines also travel to a much improved Purdue and a currently 4-0 Minnesota. They get the Spartans at home in a game that could/should decide the Legends division which will help – but until Denard Robinson proves he can win a big game on the road, Michigan will be underdogs at OSU and Nebraska.

Prediction: Michigan’s non-conference has been something of a mixed bag.  They clearly aren’t in the same class as Alabama, but who is?  Air Force gave them fits with their gimmicky offense, but the defense has responded the last two weeks.  But for the 6(!) turnovers in South Bend, Michigan could be 3-1 and ranked in the Top 15 in the country right now.  But despite all that, the fact of the matter is that the Big Ten is down this year, which means you don’t have to be a national title contender to win the division, or even the conference title.  There is nobody in the conference clearly better than Michigan, which means every game is winnable.  Michigan isn’t good enough to win them all, but they’ll win most of them and should be in Indianapolis the first weekend in December for the Big Ten title game.

Big Ten Record: 7-1

NEBRASKA

2012 Non Conference Record: 3-1 (W – Southern Miss, Arkansas State, Idaho State; L – @UCLA

2012 Theme Song: For a Nebraska team that can run all day but needs to find a passing game to go the next level – a reminder that It Takes Two.

 

What’s to Like?

  • High Powered Rushing Attack – Nebraska currently has four players with 20 or more carries averaging at least 5 yards per carry.  And that’s not including returning 1,300+ yard rusher and senior Rex Burkhead who has missed two games with an MCL injury.  The Cornhusker rushing attack is anchored by QB Taylor Martinez, who continues to be the second best running QB in the conference behind Denard Robinson. Nebraska currently averages over 300+ yards on the ground, good enough for 5th in the country.  Teams that can run the ball usually are right in the thick of the Big Ten race – as will Nebraska.
  • Experience – In 2011 the Cornhuskers were new faces playing in new places.  They had never played most of the Big Ten teams and traveled to their stadiums.  In short, they were adjusting to a brand new style of play.  They also were adjusting to a new offensive coordinator at the same time.  Factor in a young QB and running backs, and Nebraska just wasn’t consistent enough to win the conference.  This year the Cornhuskers know what they are getting into.  With Taylor Martinez now an upperclassmen and Rex Burkhead a senior, I expect big things from their rushing attack.  Throw in some depth at wide receiver and Nebraska will be a much more consistent offense in 2012.
  • A Passing Game? – Taylor Martinez stated that his goal was to complete 70% of his passes this year – lofty expectations for a guy who completed less than 60% his first two years.  But lo and behold he’s at that 70% benchmark through 4 games.  There is no doubt Martinez is a better passer than he was a year ago.  How much better remains to be seen – Martinez has feasted on the likes of Arkansas State, Idaho State and Southern Miss, while reverting to his sub 60% numbers against UCLA.  But the hope is there. 

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 have some question marks heading into the Big Ten season.  Last year’s defense couldn’t deliver late in the year (see on the road against Michigan) and this year’s defense may have the same problem, giving up 36 points to UCLA on the road.
  • One Dimensional Offense – Despite Martinez’s goal and sudden improvement in the passing game, Nebraska still has a huge discrepancy between their rush offense (317 yards per game, 5th in the nation) and their pass offense (224 yards per game, 66th int he nation).  One dimensional offenses will eventually cost you a game or two due to injury, poor play by the wrong guy, or even just the wrong defensive opponent.  The inability to diversify makes it tough to adjust when your bread and butter isn’t working.

Prediction: There is a lot to like about this Nebraska team – great at running the ball, depth at running back, and an experienced QB.  And if the defense comes into form – watch out!  The schedule sets up well with home games to Michigan and Wisconsin but road games in Columbus and East Lansing against two opponents looking to get revenge for last year loom large.  The trap game might be in Evanston against a Northwestern team that upset Nebraska in Lincoln.   It wouldn’t surprise me to see them in Indianapolis, but I think they come up one game short.

Big Ten Record: 6-2

IOWA

2012 Non-Conference Record: 2-2 (W – Northern Illinois, Northern Iowa; L – Central Michigan, Iowa State)

2012 Theme Song: Every year Iowa manages to keep their head above water, but like the lyrics of The Message say – “It’s like jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under”.  That’s how I feel about Iowa every year.

What’s to Like?

  • Semblance of Defense – T The Iowa defense isn’t spectacular, but it’s the best the Hawkeyes have to offer so far this year.  Ranked 25th in total defense and 37th in scoring defense, the Hawkeyes have managed to scrap out their two wins largely because of defense.  Junior linebacker Anthony Hitchens leads the Hawkeyes in tackles, and is Top 5 in that category nationally with almost 13 per game.  He anchors the defense that is holding opponents to just over 113 yards per game.  It’s the only reason they have managed to get to 2-2 so far.
  • The Schedule – Like last year, the Hawkeyes drew the lucky straw in avoiding Ohio State and Wisconsin this year.  They travel to Michigan and MSU, but get Nebraska and Purdue at home.  Plus, their two Leaders division opponents are lowly Indiana and Penn State.  If they are going to salvage this season, it will be on the ability to take advantage of a favorable schedule.

What’s Not To Like?

  • The Offense – To be entirely fair, Iowa is where talented running backs go to die.  Not literally, but they’ve lost 3 running backs this year to injury or suspension, leaving them with sophomores Mike Weisman and Damon Bullock to carry the load – and they have a combined 10 carries between them coming into this season.  On the passing side of things, James Vandenburg has regressed from last year, leaving Iowa with the 91st ranked passing offense in the country.  The Hawkeyes aren’t even managing 400 yards of total offense, and that’s against doormats Iowa State, Northern Illinois, Northern Iowa and Central Michigan.  And they lost to Iowa State and CMU.  In short, Iowa can’t move the ball and they can’t score – they are only averaging 20 points a game – and again, that’s against some pretty weak competition.
  • It only gets worse –  Iowa looked bad against a non-conference schedule that frankly sucked.  When Iowa State is your best opponent, and you lose 9-6, things aren’t going well for you.  Pretty much every Big Ten team will be as good or better than Iowa’s first 4 games.  Which means that if the Hawkeyes could only squeak out 2 wins, its going to be a long, long season.

Prediction: Iowa won 9 games in six of the last 9 years coming into last year, before taking a step backwards last year to 7-6.  Unfortunately, it’s probably not going to get any better and it could get worse.  Road trips to East Lansing and Ann Arbor look like losses and I wouldn’t count on this Iowa team beating Nebraska, even at home.   Until they prove otherwise, they should be underdogs @ Northwestern as well.  Something tells me Kirk Ferentz keeps the ship from completely going under, but I’d be shocked if the Hawkeyes end up better than 4-4 in league play, which should place them in a lower-tier Big Ten bowl game.

Big Ten Record: 4-4

MICHIGAN STATE

2012 Non-Conference Record: 3-1 (W – Boise State, @Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan; L – Notre Dame)

2012 Theme Song: After back to back 11 win seasons the expectations for the Spartans are sky high.  This year they get to see how it feels to be the hunted.  Mo Money, Mo Problems

What’s to Like?

  • Defense, Defense, Defense – MSU fielded another stellar defense in 2011, leading the conference and among the best in the nation.  Despite the loss of All-Conference Defensive Tackel Jerel Worthy, Mark Dantonio has another top flight defense on his hands.  The Spartans currently rank 6th in Total Defense and 11th in Scoring Defense, which is basically the same as the 2011 team at this point. William Gholston, Marcus Rush, and Johnny Adams lead the charge, with linebackers Denicos Allen, Chris Norman and Max Bullough solidifying a stellar run defense.
  • Recent History – Despite not playing in a BCS bowl, MSU has been among the best of the Big Ten the last two years, winning 11 games each year.  Until proven otherwise, they have to be given consideration as a division and conference title contender.  They sat at 3-1 last year as well, including a double digit loss to Notre Dame, before winning 7 of 8 games on their way to the Legends Division championship.  With the exception of back to back Big Ten Champion Wisconsin, no other team has demonstrated an ability to consistently win in the Big Ten the last two seasons like the Spartans.

What’s Not to Like?

  • No Kirk Cousins –  With the graduation of Kirk Cousins, MSU lost the most decorated QB in program history.  Cousins led the Spartans to back to back 11 win seasons, and was the backbone and leader of the team.  Losing him has already proven to be a huge loss as the MSU passing game has suffered greatly.  Andrew Maxwell, though highly touted by many in East Lansing, hasn’t been able to pick up where Cousins left off, completing only 56.6% of his passes and generally struggling to move the ball through the air.   It’s not just the loss of Cousins that has been felt however.  Tight End Dion Sims is MSU’s #1 returning pass catcher from 2011, and he only had 12 receptions.  The losses of receivers BJ Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, Brian Linthecum and Keith Nichol have been felt hard by MSU, with Mark Dantonio even calling out his wide receivers after last week’s close call against Eastern Michigan.  The good news is that Dion Sims has proven to be a beast with 22 catches so far this year.  The bad news is that no other receiver has stepped up in the passing game.
  • One Dimensional Offense – What the loss of basically the entire passing game on offense means is that MSU must rely entirely on its running game for success.  Leveon Bell is a very good back, but if he has to go over for 200 yards for MSU to win (as he did against Boise State and Eastern Michigan) there is no chance MSU gets close to 11 wins this year.   With an offensive line that hasn’t yet come into form yet and no Edwin Baker to spell him, Bell just won’t be able to continue that kind of output for an entire Big Ten season.  Beyond that, with no passing game threat at this point, opponents will be able to stack the box and stop the run until MSU shows it has a downfield passing attack.  Something they have yet to show in any capacity through the first 4 games.

Prediction: MSUs defense may be as good as they were last year, but their offense is a far cry from where it needs to be in order to win the Big Ten.  They’ve only scored a touchdown in 1 on the last 8 quarters of football, and 4 of those quarters were against an Eastern Michigan team who gave up over 50 points to Purdue and 37 points to Ball State.  MSU currently ranks 102nd in the country in scoring at 20 points per game, which means the defense will have to pitch a couple of shutouts this year for the Spartans to repeat as division champs.  The schedule gives them OSU and Nebraska at home, with road trips to Ann Arbor and their new rival Wisconsin to navigate.  Getting Northwestern at home and avoiding a decent Purdue team helps, but probably not enough.   Like the last two years, MSU fans will get to enjoy the New Year in Central Florida.

Big Ten Record: 5-3

NORTHWESTERN

2012 Non Conference Record: 4-0 (W – @Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota)

2012 Theme Song: As the perennial David to the Goliaths of the Big Ten, Northwestern is constantly trying to Fight the Power.  This year is no different.

What’s to Like?

  • The Ground Game  – With the graduation of Dan Persa, Northwestern hasn’t missed a beat, averaging over 30 points per game.  Most of that is due to the 27th ranked rushing attack in the country, churning out over 220 yards per game.  Junior Venric Mark and QB Kain Kolter have both found success on the ground.  And Mike Trumpy has chipped in as well.
  • Doing it with Defense – One place Northwestern has really stepped up this year is on defense.  After allowing a season opening 41 points to Syracuse the Wildcats have held the following 3 opponents to an average of 11 points per game.  The key has been the rush defense, allowing just 73 yards per game, good enough for 11th in the country.   As the Wildcats head into Big Ten play those numbers will go up, but for a team that played 3 BCS opponents in the pre-season, it’s a promising start for the season.

What’s Not to Like?

  • Where’s the Pass? – Though the departure of Dan Persa hasn’t resulted in a significant decrease in points, it has left the Wildcats with a void in the passing game.  Kain Colter is a run first QB who doesn’t appear to have the tools to lead the Wildcats through the air.  Trevor Sieman has a cannon and has looked good, but there’s a reason he doesn’t have the full time job.  Pat Fitzgerald claims this isn’t a QB controversy, just two guys with drastically different skill sets splitting time.  That’s fine, but the old adage still applies – if you have two QBs, then you don’t have one good enough to play the whole game.  Northwestern has the 104th ranked passing attack in the country and is unsettled at QB.  This doesn’t bode well for a team looking to break into the upper echelon of the conference.
  • Pass Defense – So far we’ve concluded that Northwestern can run the ball and stop the run, but they can’t pass the ball.  Let’s complete the circle and talk about their pass defense that gives up almost 300 yards per game.  And although they may be the only Big Ten school to play 3 BCS schools in the non-conference, it’s still a bad sign when you’re giving up 300 yards passing every game.  Even with the mediocre QB play in this league, somebody is going to eventually torch them.

Prediction: If ever there was a year to pick the Wildcats, this would be it – if they didn’t unfortunately play in the Legends division.  There’s a lot to like about Northwestern – a solid running game, a decent defense, and a schedule that makes Nebraska at home their toughest test until coming to Ann Arbor and East Lansing in November in back to back weeks.  Its not absurd to think that the Wildcats could head to Ann Arbor with a perfect 9-0 record in early November.  Right now I’d favor them in every game except Nebraska, who they actually beat last year in Lincoln.  Eventually though I think they slip up somewhere and then lose in both Ann Arbor and East Lansing.  But they should enjoy New Year’s in Central Florida.

Big Ten Record: 5-3

MINNESOTA

Non-Conference Record: 4-0 (W – @UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan, Syracuse)

2012 Theme Song: With a surprising 4-0 start the Golden Gophers are either going to make a run to respectability, or revert to their 2-6 Big Ten record from a year ago.  More than any other team, they are sitting at Tha Crossroads.

What’s to Like?

  • Solid, not Spectacular – If you look at the scores, rankings and standings for Minnesota, the one thing that jumps out at you is average.  There is nothing the Gophers do particularly well, but there is no area that they particularly struggle in either.  They are ranked in the 40s – 60s in Rush Offense, Pass Offense, Total Offense, Scoring Offense, and Rush Defense.  And even better, they are 4-0.  That’s a HUGE step forward for a team that was 3-9 last year.
  • Life on Defense – Last year the Golden Gophers struggled mightily on defense, giving up over 31 points per game.  So far this year they have started to right the ship, almost cutting that number in half – giving up only 16.75 points per game.  It’s early, and the schedule will get much harder, but this is the type of ball Minnesota needs to play to be competitive in the Big Ten.

What’s not to Like?

  • Not Bad, Just Not Good – This Minnesota team looks pretty solid on paper.  They play good defense, they can score some points, and though they haven’t played anyone of significance, their non-conference schedule is respectable.  They managed to get to 4-0, something only two other teams (OSU and Northwestern) can claim. But here’s the problem – last year they went 3-9 and got killed in the Big Ten by the upper echelon teams.  I’m going to need to see some proof before I believe they are anything other than a middle of the road Big Ten team – which by the way wouldn’t be a bad accomplishment for them this year.

Prediction: Getting to 4-0 at this point is a huge accomplishment for the Golden Gophers – especially considering the 3-9 record they sported last year.  But now things get real – and the Gophers won’t go from 3-9 to 9-3 overnight.  Maybe they sneak an upset here or there against one of the middle of the pack Big Ten teams, but they aren’t knocking off the likes of Michigan, MSU, Wisconsin or Nebraska – which means their baseline is already 4-4 for me.  I think the Big Ten is average enough that the Gophers will squeak out a couple of wins in conference, but not much more.  But a bowl of any sort is something the Gophers can be proud of – and I think they’ll get there.

Big Ten Record: 3-5

THE LEADERS DIVISION

WISCONSIN

Non-Conference Record: 3-1 (W – Northern Iowa, UTEP, Utah State; L – Oregon State)

2012 Theme Song: With a brewing QB controversy in Madison, its clear they really miss Russell Wilson, even if they only had him for one year.  For that, we’re going with Diddy’s I’ll Be Missing You.

What’s To Like?

  • Montee Ball – Coming into this season Montee Ball was a Heisman candidate.  Unfortunately, injuries to him and a lackluster start by Wisconsin have probably killed that chance for him.  But he’s still one of the best backs in the conference, if not the nation.  Ball ran for a ridiculous 1923 yards last year, but he’s on pace for only half of that so far this year – partially due to the concussions he’s suffered.  All of that being said, having him on your team is always a good thing.  Last year he didn’t really find his groove until the Big Ten season either, when he picked up over 100 yards in 8 of 9 games (including the Big Ten Championship game).
  • Recent History – Despite a tepid start to the 2012 season, Wisconsin has been the most consistent team in the Big Ten over the last three seasons, winning 10 games each year, including two Big Ten championships and two Rose Bowl appearances.  But for two Hail Mary’s last year, the Badgers may have gone undefeated.  I know they’ve lost a lot of talent from last year’s team, but I don’t expect them to fall that far.
  • Lack of Competition – With Penn State decimated by sanctions and ineligible for postseason play and Ohio State in the same ineligibility boat, there isn’t much competition for the Badgers for the Leaders division title.  If they can manage to end up with a better record than Purdue, Illinois and Indiana, they’ll find themselves back in the Big Ten title game this year.  With Illinois and Purdue in back to back weekends to start October, we the Badgers could be squarely in the driver’s seat by sundown on October 13th.

What’s Not to Like?

  • Ugly Non-Conference –  Wisconsin is notorious for scheduling a weak non-conference slate, and this year was no different with UTEP, Northern Iowa, Utah State and Oregon State on the schedule.  But a funny thing happened this year – instead of four blowout wins, the Badgers dropped a game to Oregon State and squeaked by UTEP, Utah State and Northern Iowa.  Had Utah State converted a very makeable field goal, the Badgers would be 2-2 right now.   Its one thing to beat up on lesser non-conference foes.  It’s another to barely beat them at all.  This is a huge red flag as Wisconsin heads into the Big Ten season.  If they can’t handle the likes of Utah State and UTEP with ease, how will they manage the Big Ten?
  • QB Controversy – Unlike Northwestern, the Badgers actually seem to have a QB controversy on their hands.  5th year senior and Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien got the starting nod to begin the season but has since been benched in favor of walk-on redshirt freshman Joel Stave.  Neither have looked spectacular in their split time, and the feeling in Madison is that Stave may have the job for now, but if he struggles, expect to see O’Brien right back in there.  That’s a far cry from last year where Russell Wilson came in as a 5th year QB transfer and led the most dynamic Badger offense I can remember in my lifetime.   Again, two QBs usually means you don’t have one.

Prediction: This Wisconsin team is a serious downgrade from last year’s Top 1o squad.  The loss of Russell Wilson is being felt by the offense, as is the replacement of 6(!) assistant coaches who left in the offseason.  In a normal year, this Badger team wouldn’t stand a chance.  But these are not normal times in the Big Ten.  As previously stated, all the Badgers have to do is finish the season looking down at Illinois, Purdue and Indiana and they will be back in Indianapolis.  Avoiding Michigan and getting the Spartans at home should help them do that.  After a primetime game against Nebraska this Saturday, it should be mostly downhill for the Badgers after that.  This team may not be remembered as an all-time great Badger team, but they should still enjoy a New Year’s Day bowl game.

Big Ten Record: 6-2

ILLINOIS

Non-conference Record: 2-2 (W – Charleston Southern, Western Michigan; L – Louisiana Tech, @Arizona State)

2012 Theme Song: First year coach Tim Beckman got himself in hot water when he sent coaches to State College to try and lure Penn State players to transfer to Illinois (he eventually got one).  Apparently he’s down with OPP.

What’s To Like?

  • The Defense is O.K. –Honestly, I think that’s the nicest thing I can say about this Illinois team.  They have a rush defense holding opponents to just over 105 yards per game, and they are only giving up 329 yards per game total.  On the other hand, they gave up 45 points to Arizona State and 52 points to Louisiana Tech.  So this might be the biggest stretch of a compliment out there.   But it’s all I had, nothing is exciting about this Illinois team.

What’s Not to Like?

  • Struggling Offense – With junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase sidelined with a bum ankle, the rush first, second Illini offense has been stymied.   They are only averaging 26 points a game, and thats being propped up by their 44 points against Charleston Southern.   Without Jason Ford or Troy Pollard in the backfield, the rushing game has taken a huge step backward and though Reilly O’Toole has looked decent in replacing Scheelhaase at QB, Coach Tim Beckman says as long as Scheelhaase is healthy, he’ll play.
  • A Brutal Schedule –  Illinois is going to have the chance to get some momentum this weekend with a home game against a struggling Penn State team.  If they want to see any sort of momentum before November, it’s a must win game for them.  Road trips to Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State, with a home date with Indiana sandwiched in there make up the Illini’s first 5 Big Ten games.  Given what I’ve seen so far, I think it’s probably fair to just pencil those 3 road games as losses.  Illinois gets Purdue and Minny at home before closing out the season at Northwestern, so November should be kinder to them…if they make it through the first 5 weeks.

Prediction: Had the Illini managed to take down Louisiana Tech last week, I might be looking at them differently.  Instead, their second blowout loss of the non-conference doesn’t paint a pretty picture of what the future holds.  Anything can happen in the Big Ten this year, but given the mediocre defense and inability to score, I just don’t expect much out of the Fighting Illini this year.  Getting to 6-6 and bowl eligible would be an accomplishment, but I just don’t see it happening.

Big Ten Record: 3-5

OHIO STATE

Non-Conference Record: 4-0 (W – Miami of Ohio, Central Florida, California, UAB)

2012 Theme Song: A cynical person might suggest that I’m just piling on to the allegations of Ohio State boosters paying OSU players, but this really references the fact that OSU has nothing to play for this year other than their overall record.  In 2012, It’s All About The Benjamins in Columbus.

What’s to Like?

  • Braxton Miller –  As hard as it is for this Wolverine to admit, Braxton Miller is on his way to becoming a terrifyingly good college player.  He’s completing over 60% of his passes, has a 7/2 touchdown to interception ratio, and is averaging over 100 yards per game on the ground.  Reminds me of a guy I know in Ann Arbor.  Miller still is a little raw and can’t be counted on to win games completely with his arm, but he’s strong, fast, and is starting to get a hang of this throwing thing.
  • Nothing to Lose – The Buckeyes are in a unique situation this year in that they are really only playing for pride.  They can’t win the division, play in the Big Ten title game or even play in a bowl game.  In short, the only thing that matters week in and week out is getting better and the team in front of them.  It’s like they are a head coach’s favorite cliches put into action.  With nothing on the line, they can play loose and take risks, which makes them dangerous.

Whats Not to Like?

  • Pass Defense – When Jim Tressel left town, so did his trademark defenses.  Urban Meyer wants to play good defense, but I get the feeling he wants to play better offense.  Right now his pass defense is where he should be focusing his energy.  The Buckeyes are giving up 277 yards per game to the likes of UAB, Miami of Ohio, California and Central Florida.  In fact, three of those four opponents kept the games close well into the 4th quarter with their air attack.  When three average team throw the ball all over you – its probably a problem.
  • Squeaking By – Speaking of those 3 opponents, although OSU struggled with them probably more than they should have.  UCF was eventually a 21 point margin in the 4th quarter, but UAB was only down by 6 in the 4th quarter and Cal was driving for the winning touchdown before a turnover and a big play from Braxton Miller swung the game in OSU’s favor.  This is a 4-0 team, but by no means dominant.  They run the ball well with Braxton Miller, but have struggled to find a running game elsewhere.  And the defense isn’t your typical OSU defense despite some 5 star talent.  OSU may be one of the better teams in the Big Ten, but they are just as close to the top of the league as they are the middle.

Prediction: Does it really matter?  Seriously – the only thing we know to be true is that this team won’t be playing in Indianapolis or in a bowl game.  They may be the best team in the conference, but they won’t get the chance to prove it.  The schedule is about as balanced as you can get, with road trips to Madison and East Lansing and home dates with Michigan and Nebraska.  A win on Saturday in East Lansing will tell us a lot about how good this OSU team could be. Start the Big Ten season off right and they could get to 6-2 or maybe 7-1.  But the result will be the same – home for the holidays.

Big Ten Record: 6-2

PENN STATE

Non-conference Record: 2-2 (W – Temple, Navy: L – Ohio, @Virginia)

2012 Theme Song: Nobody has gone through more changes than Penn State in the last year.  Tupac. Changes. It fits.

What’s to Like?

  • No Quit –  As you might have heard, Penn State had some issues in the off-season.  A lot of people don’t even believe they should be playing football this year.  For better or worse, they are playing – and they aren’t nearly as bad as I expected.  After their opening home game loss to Ohio (not State), they could’ve packed in.  Nobody would’ve blamed them if they decided to just roll over after their last second loss at Virginia.  But the Nittany Lions have rebounded nicely with home wins against Navy and Temple.  Those who have stayed won’t necessarily be champions, but they at least can take pride in the fact that they are competing.  It wouldn’t surprise me if these guys steal a game or two they shouldn’t based on heart alone.

Whats Not to Like?

  • Change – Last year we thought OSU went through a major upheaval in its off-season.  But what the Buckeyes went through in the firing of Jim Tressel is nothing compared to what the Nittany Lions went through.  In the span of just a few months, Joe Paterno, the face off Happy Valley for 46 years, resigned in disgrace, passed away, and was replaced with a coach who has never been a college head coach.  And that’s not even mentioning the three ring circus of the Sandusky allegations, the cleansing of the entire coaching staff, several high profile transfers, and the 4 years of probation PSU is on.  One of the most successful NCAA programs in history was flipped on its head in the blink of an eye.  And I don’t care how much talent is left (and it’s not a ton) or what the tradition is, PSU is in trouble.  This year, and for several years going forward.

Prediction: Unfortunately, PSU fans are going to have to get used to whats about to come their way this season.  For this year and the foreseeable future, they are going to be less talented and not nearly as deep as their opponents.  At least not the opponents they are used to competing with.  It’s probably time to adjust expectations to that of a Minnesota or perhaps an Indiana.  Penn State is playing for pride this year, which can be a powerful tool.  But it’s just not powerful enough.  They might be lucky to squeak out two Big Ten wins.

Big Ten Record: 2-6

PURDUE

Non-Conference Record: 2-1 (W – Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan; L – @Notre Dame.  Marshall this week)

2012 Theme Song:  With OSU and PSU on the bench and Wisconsin struggling, this could be Purdue’s year to sneak into the Big Ten Title game.  It could be more than just A Good Day for the Boilermakers though.

What’s to Like?

  • Balance – One thing I always look for in a team is the ability to win more than one way.  Purdue appears able to do that.  They run the ball very well – averaging 219 yards per game on the ground led by Akeem Shavers, but they also have a solid passing attack, good enough for 251 yards per game courtesy of Robert Marve and Caleb Terbush. Though it should be noted that Marve is out indefinitely with a torn ACL.   They also have the ability to play defense, holding opponents to just 14 points per game (though to be fair, two of those opponents were directional schools).
  • Red Zone Prowess – The other thing I like about Purdue is that through three games they are a perfect 13 for 13 in the Red Zone (12 touchdowns).  Teams that make the most of their opportunities often find success.  Nobody is better than Purdue at converting in the Red Zone this year.
  • Badgers are the only Threat – With OSU and PSU out of the picture for the Big Ten title game, Purdue only has to finish ahead of Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin to win the Big Ten Leaders division.  And given where Illinois and Indiana appear headed, the only thing standing between Purdue and a December trip to Indianapolis are the Wisconsin Badgers.  Purdue lucks out and gets the Badgers at home in 3 weeks.  A win there could set the tone for a Big Ten division crown.  With no Nebraska or MSU on the schedule, the Boilermakers should be in good shape to finish near the top of the division/conference since Drew Brees was in West Lafayette.

What’s Not To Like?

  • Unproven – For all the talk that this could be Purdue’s year, we’re only basing that on the fact that OSU and PSU aren’t in the picture and Purdue has looked better than the other traditional cellar dwellers in the Leaders division.  However, the Boilermakers are largely unproven.  They’ve played three games – two blowout wins against Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan and a narrow lost to an over-hyped Notre Dame.  I THINK Purdue is better than the likes of PSU, Iowa, and Illinois, but I don’t know for sure.
  • In Like a Lion – We’ll know good Purdue is within the first three Big Ten games they play (Michigan, Wisconsin and @OSU).  Come away from those three at even 1-2 and I think Purdue still has a shot at the division crown, as long as the one win is over Wisconsin.  Much better teams would go 0-3 in that stretch however, which would probably require Purdue to be perfect the rest of the way to have even an outside shot at the Big Ten title game.

Prediction: To be honest, I liked Purdue as a Big Ten Leaders Division darkhorse a lot better before Robert Marve tore his ACL for the 3rd (!) time.  They say he is going to try and return this season, but how effective can he be?  All in all, I just feel for the kid – this was his 6th year of eligibility because of the previous injuries.  Caleb Terbush is a fine backup and can do a lot of the things Marve can do though.  If the defense and rushing attack can carry the load, I still think the Boilermakers could surprise just enough to finish in an awkward tie with OSU and Wisconsin for the Leaders division championship and sneak into the Big Ten Title game.  The key will be that first 3 game stretch.  I like the Boilermakers to be in the mix in November, but ultimately this is probably a .500 Big Ten team and not a Championship caliber one, even if 1/3 of the division in ineligible.

Big Ten Record: 4-4

INDIANA

Non-Conference Record: 2-1 (W – @Umass, Indiana State; L – Ball State; @Navy – 10/20

2012 Theme Song:  Sadly, every year is a Hard Knock Life for Indiana

What’s to Like?

  • Offensive Juggernaut – Through three games, Indiana has the 2nd best offense statistically in the Big Ten.  That is not a typo – the Hoosiers are putting up 538 yards per game.  Yes, it’s against the likes of Indiana State, UMass and Ball State, but it’s still there in the NCAA statbook.  The QB position has been a three headed monster that started with Tre Roberson, who was knocked out for the season with a broken leg.  Cam Coffman came in and didn’t miss a beat for Roberson leading Indiana to a win over UMass.  Coffman was injured against Ball State, but Nate Sudfield threw for 172 yards and two touchdowns in his absence on his way to being named Big Ten co-freshman of the week.  What all of this tells me is that its possible I could play QB for the Hoosiers and excel.  Sometimes, its the system, not the offense and new offensive coordinator Seth Litrell’s hurry up offense seems to be working for the Hoosiers.
  • Low Expectations – After a 1-11 season last year, nobody is expecting the Hoosier to do much this year.  But Seth Litrell’s offense has me intrigued.  The opponents have been mediocre, but they are certainly moving the ball and putting up points.  And they are doing it with fairly inexperienced players.  Indiana isn’t going to win the division, and they may not make a bowl game, but those expecting a 1-11 season again might get caught looking ahead.

Whats Not to Like?

  • Recent History  – The last time Indiana started the Big Ten with a winning record was 2010 when they were 3-0.  They promptly loss 7 of their next 9 to finish 5-7.  And that was their best year since 2007.  Last year’s squad finished a horrible 1-11.  Indiana is who we expect them to be – one of the worst teams in the Big Ten.  That’s not going to change overnight.

Prediction: The good news for Indiana – the rest of the Big Ten isn’t as good as they usually are.  The better news, the Leaders division is the weaker division.  The best news – the Hoosiers avoid Michigan and Nebraska.  What does that mean?  It means that if Indiana can get a few breaks, they might sneak into the Little Caesar’s Bowl.

Big Ten Record: 2-6

LEGENDS DIVISION CHAMPION: Michigan sneaks in past Nebraska and MSU.

LEADERS DIVISION CHAMPION: Despite a lackluster start, the Badgers right the ship

BIG TEN CHAMPION PICK: Michigan – hell yes its a homer pick, but the league is up for grabs to anyone this year, and Michigan has the senior QB and the experienced defense.

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