The tremors are picking up intensity. My typing fingers quiver over each key as I force a strike. It must be close to football season!
Yes, we’re only a couple of weeks away from the official kickoff of the 2012 football season. All of the off-field issues will dissolve into the background as gridiron greats take to the field to do Saturday battle. Man, how I’ve missed this time of year!
The Big Ten Conference has been much maligned the last couple of years. Off-field shenanigans and downright disgusting revelations have further sullied a once-proud conference. The play on the field is only getting better though, and this season could present a “coming back” party of sorts.
Here’s just a “quick hit” on what to look for from each team in the 2012 season:
1. Michigan: Brady Hoke nearly erased the legacy of the Rich Rodriguez catastrophe in just his first season at the helm. Look for the Wolverines to be even better in his second year, challenging for a conference title – possibly even more.
Who to watch: QB Denard Robinson came back for his senior season and another shot at the Heisman Trophy. Behind a veteran offensive line, he should find ample opportunity to showcase his talents. The real group to watch though, is the defense. It made great strides in 2011 under Greg Mattison and should turn up the heat on opponents in 2012.
Why to be excited: The offense was explosive even back when Rodriguez was running the show. Nothing has changed there except the key players have added valuable experience. The defense came around quite a bit last year and should be even better this year.
The Wolverines finished 2011 with a 11-2 record. If they continue to improve by two games as they did the last two seasons, they’d be looking at an undefeated season.
Why to be concerned: “Concerned” might be a harsh word, but getting to a BCS bowl won’t be a walk in the park. The schedule isn’t the easiest it could have been. Missing Wisconsin is a gift, but they have to go on the road to face defending national champions Alabama, as well as Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State.
There’s also that little tidbit about having lost to Iowa each of the last three meetings and that game happens in Iowa City right before “The Game” against the Buckeyes. Don’t quickly dismiss the road trip to Purdue following the showdown with Notre Dame either. It could be a letdown game against a team that might be better than advertised.
2. Wisconsin: The Badgers were supposed to suffer a little without QB Scott Tolzien last year. In stepped Russell Wilson and everyone nearly forgot who Tolzien was. Now Wilson is gone. Can Danny O’Brien fill the considerable shoes of his two predecessors?
Who to watch: O’Brien is the most interesting player under the spotlight. However, the receiver corps should be the main focus. Nick Toon is gone, and Jared Abbrederis takes over the most senior position on the squad with Jacob Pedersen. Pedersen had 30 catches last year for 356 yards and eight scores. Look for him to take a bigger role in Toon’s absence and for O’Brien to spread the ball around a little more than usual.
Why to be excited: RB Montee Ball is back for another season, automatically making the offense potent. Throw in a quality core of receivers, a beefy offensive line and another transfer quarterback to lead this crew and this season could be another continuation of the kind of success Wisconsin has enjoyed the last few years.
Having a wide-open division with Ohio State and Penn State out of the title race doesn’t hurt. Neither does having a very favorable schedule.
Why to be concerned: Losing Louis Nzegwu off the defensive line hurts. So does losing LB Kevin Claxton and D-backs Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus. The Badgers aren’t necessarily losing a lot of talent in terms of raw numbers, but they’re losing a lot of talent statistically speaking.
As good as their offense should be, they’ll need some new faces to step up on the defensive side of the ball if they want to get back to Indianapolis, nevermind getting back to Pasadena.
Projected Record: 11-1
3. Michigan State: The Spartans have put together back-to-back 11-win seasons, but have failed to secure a conference title along the way. How many years can they come so close without pulling down the top prize? Without Kirk Cousins at QB, their best chance may have slipped them by last year, but Sparty still has some tricks up his sleeve for the 2012 season.
Who to watch: WR Bennie Fowler. The junior has very limited experience and only caught two passes last year. However, the receiver corps is decimated with the departures of B.J. Cunningham, Keyshawn Martin, Keith Nichol and TE Brian Linthicum. Inexperience is the name of the game.
However, Fowler appears ready to take on a leadership role and has the attitude to potentially be a big playmaker for the Spartan pass game. With the focus so heavy on the run game, a breakout year for Fowler could propel this team back into the title mix.
Why to be excited: The defense this team fields this fall could be really good. LB Denicos Allen posted 11 sacks last year as a sophomore and comes back for more head-hunting this season with William Gholston (5 sacks) and Max Bullough (89 tackles) next to him.
The ball-hawking trio of Isaiah Lewis, Darquez Dennard and Johnny Adams combined for 11 interceptions and two touchdowns last year. With these guys covering the linebackers’ backsides, the defensive secondary should be downright scary.
The run game is about as safe as it gets with returning veterans Le’Veon Bell, Edwin Baker and Larry Caper all ready to go. Any one of them could be a featured back on a number of teams around the nation, but all together they add incredible depth and talent to an offense that needs their leadership.
Four of their tougher opponents (Boise State, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Nebraska) all come into East Lansing. If Michigan State can hold serve at home and take care of the winnable road games, they should be looking at a 10-win regular season, at least, with a potential third straight 11-win season hinging on a bowl victory.
Why to be concerned: While four of their tougher opponents may be at home, the toughest two – Michigan and Wisconsin – are both on the road. What’s more, they’re in back-to-back weeks in late October.
QB Andrew Maxwell has had plenty of time to study under Kirk Cousins, but he still won’t be Kirk Cousins. Considering the Spartans lost their top four receivers after last season, the lack of real game experience could be costly. The emphasis will obviously be on the run game and it’s never a great thing to have a one-dimensional offense.
The defensive secondary may be scary good, but the line has a couple of questions. Losing Kevin Pickelman and Jerel Worthy hurts to the tune of 7.5 combined sacks and 18 combined tackles for loss. If their replacements don’t step in and step up quickly, there will be a noticeable reduction in pressure generated from the front four. That, in turn, puts even more pressure on the linebackers and leaves them less free to swoop in and clean up plays.
It won’t cripple the defense by any stretch, but the losses on the line can slow down the overall production as linebackers are forced to stick to assignments and are less free to fly around looking for a ball carrier to crush.
Projected Record: 9-3
4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers now have a year under their belt in their new conference. The surprises should be much fewer and farther between as their competition becomes more familiar.
Nebraska brings back a lot of talent, but it’ll be a tough road to Indianapolis.
Who to watch: WR Kenny Bell. Bell had 32 receptions for 461 yards and three scores as a freshman last year. It’ll be interesting to see how well he’s developed and how Bo Pelini gets him into the mix this year.
Why to be excited: The offense should be at least as good as last year and probably better. QB Taylor Martinez is back for his junior season and RB Rex Burkhead is back for his senior year. The receiving corps is a little young, but not inexperienced.
The defense didn’t quite live up to the standard throughout most of last year, but they should have a much better understanding of what they’re facing this year and have enough experience to know how to make the necessary adjustments.
Why to be concerned: The schedule is pretty brutal again this year.
They start the year against a Southern Miss team that went 12-2 a year ago. A road date at UCLA, followed by home dates against Arkansas State and Idaho State are a welcome breather before things get ugly.
Late September through early November is a gauntlet that starts with a prime time showdown against Wisconsin, heads on the road to Ohio State and Northwestern (with a week off in between, thankfully), then comes back home to host Michigan before heading back on the road to take on Michigan State.
By the time the Huskers host Penn State on November 10th, they could either be flying very high or could be battered and bruised.
Projected Record: 9-3
5. Ohio State: The Buckeyes are banned from the post season, and last season was pretty much a bust by Buckeye standards, but don’t let those things make you think they’re going to have a bad season. Expect a pretty big turnaround from last year’s fiasco.
Who to watch: QB Braxton Miller. The youngster was thrown into the spotlight last year as a freshman. Now that he has a year of experience under his belt, expect big things. He’s no Tim Tebow, but he has the skill set to breakout explosively this season.
Why to be excited: Urban Meyer will re-energize a team that struggled under interim head coach Luke Fickell last year. They style of play may or may not be all that different from what we’ve seen in years past, but his approach will be a stark contrast to Jim Tressel’s relatively conservative approach. This could be a truly fun team to watch.
Miller is a pretty special talent and he has some help in the ground game coming from Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall (when he’s healthy). WR Devin Smith should be improved over last year (he wasn’t bad even as a freshman) and, if Jake Stoneburner is allowed to return, there could be plenty of opportunity to get the ball airborne.
If the defense is merely “acceptable”, Ohio State should be able to successfully navigate a schedule that isn’t overly tough.
Why to be concerned: Meyer’s first few months as the head coach at Ohio State haven’t exactly been smooth. Having Hall sit out for nearly 10 weeks with a bum foot hurts the running game and losing Stoneburner and OT Jack Mewhort further cripples an offense that’s frantically looking for key playmakers.
While the overall schedule isn’t that tough, there are places of deep concern. The Buckeyes have to go on the road to take on Michigan State and follow it up with a showdown against Nebraska. They also have to end the season with a road trip to Madison to take on the Badgers before coming back home to host a Wolverines team that could be downright scary by late November.
Projected Record: 8-4
6. Illinois: The Illini had a tremendous start to 2011, going 6-0. Then the wheels came off the cart and they sank to a disappointing 6-6 before salvaging the season with a bowl win over UCLA.
Illinois will have to get some younger faces to step up now with the experience to hopefully prevent the slide that ruined an otherwise great season. A good start is easily possible, but it’ll take a lot maturity and focus to get through the second half of the season.
Who to watch: RB Donovan Young. Jason Ford and Troy Pollard tag-teamed the bulk of the rushing yardage last season behind leader QB Nathan Scheelhaase. Ford and Pollard have graduated and the lead rusher position is now up for grabs. Young is the likely favorite to grab the most carries. His 5.81 yard-per-carry average was pretty impressive last year and his six scores tied for second on the team behind Ford’s seven.
This year could be his coming out party.
Why to be excited: Illinois proved early last year that it was on the cusp of being a real threat in the Leaders Division. Scheelhaase grew as the season progressed and brings back quality experience to help lead this team to the next step of its progression. There’s plenty of youthful energy, tempered with enough veteran experience to think this team could make that next step.
Why to be concerned: Scheelhaase may be back but his top two rushers and top receiver (by a country mile) are gone. The defense lost DE Whitney Mercilus, LB Ian Thomas and S Tavon Wilson. That’s not a lot, but their absence will most definitely be felt. Can this defense stack up when it matters most without their biggest players?
The schedule gets awfully tough in the second half of the season. A trip to Arizona State early in the season could be a serious test, but otherwise things are pretty smooth through September.
Starting in October though, the Illini have back-to-back road dates at Wisconsin and Michigan. Indiana provides a breather before they go back on the road to face Ohio State. Hosting Purdue might not be so easy and they end the regular season on the road against Northwestern.
Projected Record: 8-4
7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have languished under two very mediocre seasons of late. On paper, things don’t look any better for this year’s squad as they welcome a couple of new coordinators, turn over their defensive line, suffer through a continuing running back curse and search for a new star receiver.
Who to watch: TE C.J. Fiedorowicz. At 6-7, 265 pounds, the guy is a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses. Do you have a 195-pound CB manhandled by “the Polish Hat” or do you dedicate a 220-pound linebacker that probably couldn’t reach Fiedorowicz’s shoulder pads to defend him?
C.J. became a big part of the Iowa offense late last year and looks to be a huge part of it this year. He has good hands, great size and is getting better at playing the part Kirk Ferentz has always wanted him to play.
Why to be excited: Former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis is now a Hawkeye and bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience with him. While there are questions about depth and talent, when haven’t there been questions going into a season? Iowa always seems to answer them. The biggest problem has been a completely stale and predictable offense and Davis brings the promise of something new and exciting.
Listening to various reports coming out of Kinnick, the coaching staff is very pleased with the development of the players. It sounds as if there’s a great deal of progress being made from last spring. That’s good news for Hawkeye fans, but also somewhat new. Kirk Ferentz is the king of coach speak. He usually tempers any excitement and says a lot of nothing in the preseason.
That he seems excited about the team this year is confusing, but exciting as well.
Why to be concerned: Oh, shall we count the reasons? Phil Parker has been with Iowa since Kirk Ferentz arrived 14 seasons ago, but this is his first stint as coordinator. Greg Davis is new to the Hawkeyes. WR Marvin McNutt is no longer on the field. The running back position has been an even bigger revolving door than usual.
The defensive line will have to be rebuilt practically from the ground up and the offensive line has three new(er) faces. Oh yeah, and depth is an even bigger issue than usual on both sides of the ball.
This is one of those seasons that could shock the world and put Iowa right in the conference title mix – or it could all fall apart and the Hawkeyes could fail to even make a bowl appearance.
Projected Record: 7-5
8. Penn State: Of course Penn State is crippled for the foreseeable future with sanctions severely limiting their ability to recruit. And yes, there have been defections, including RB Silas Redd. However, the bulk of their issues won’t be felt for another year.
Who to watch: RB Curtis Dukes. Silas Redd bolted for USC and Stephfon Green graduated, leaving a gaping hole in the running game. Dukes averaged 5.78 yards over 41 attempts last year. Penn State will need him to be the next Redd if it has any hopes of generating a balanced offense…or maybe any offense at all.
Why to be excited: Everyone is writing this team off. They’re talking about the sanctions and the defections, but really most of the defections were from new recruits that hadn’t even stepped on campus yet. The core of the team that was set to take the field this year is still in State College suiting up to do battle.
There’s a real sense of “play for pride” with this group. Talent will take you so far. Hard work will take you farther. An “us against the world” attitude though, can take a haphazard team and make them champions.
Why to be concerned: Penn State still doesn’t have a proven quarterback they can really put their faith in. Matt McGloin looked okay at times and Rob Bolden was exciting when using his feet. However, Bolden is now a LSU Tiger and McGloin never really grabbed the bull by the horns and produced when he had the opportunity.
The run game will rely on a relatively unproven youngster and the defense loses seven of their top 10 tacklers from last year. This was a team that I’d have projected at 7-5 or 8-4 even without the defections.
Projected Record: 6-6
9. Purdue: The Boilermakers have struggled to get the right pieces in place at the right times to make a real splash in the Big Ten. They’ve had flash and occasionally a little bang. Unfortunately, a lot of that bang was their own players hitting the turf with injuries. The program is perpetually paper thin in the depth department and it has cost them dearly over the years.
Can Danny Hope keep it all together for one great season that could help open the recruiting doors to a brighter future?
Who to watch: WR Antavian Edison. The Boilers need a good air attack. The ground game is fine, but it won’t win many games unless the defense is fantastic and I don’t see that quite being the case. Edison led the team in receiving yards last year with 584 yards and three scores. Look for him to be a big part of the passing equation this year.
Why to be excited: This team returns 15 starters, fairly equally split between the offense and defense. There’s plenty of experience coming back on a team that finished last year with a 7-6 record that included a bowl win over Western Michigan.
If RB Ralph Bolden can stay healthy, I’m firmly convinced the guy can be a top tier Big Ten running back. The defense is decent enough to keep them in most games and the offense has just enough flash to be dangerous.
Why to be concerned: Can coach Danny Hope get the job done? In three years, last season’s 7-6 finish was the best he could muster. There’s very little room for error or injury and this team seems to always find a way to kiss a good season goodbye.
Projected Record: 6-6
10. Northwestern: The Wildcats have had three shots at getting that elusive bowl win. They still can’t claim to have won a bowl game since the late 1940′s. Now, it looks like their time may have passed.
Who to watch: RB Treyvon Green. Mike Trumpy is the heir apparent at running back, but only played three games last year because of injury. Green ended up third on the team in rushing behind QB Kain Colter and RB Jacob Schmidt. Schmidt is gone and Colter shouldn’t be asked to do it all. Trumpy is merely okay, but Green could explode on the screen as the go-to runner that balances the attack.
Why to be excited: Kolter has a new weapon at receiver in former USC five-star Kyle Prater. With an experienced offensive line, an exciting quarterback and a couple of options at running back, Prater makes the pass game suddenly very dangerous as well. The offense could be better balanced than its been in a while.
Why to be concerned: There aren’t many returning starters on this team. Less than half of last year’s starters are back for another round (10 total) and that’s always dangerous. Youth may be great for the future, but for the here-and-now, it can spell big trouble.
The defense wasn’t spectacular in 2011 and it needs to be if this team is going to challenge in a deep and talented division. The Wildcats ranked 10th in the conference in scoring defense last season and have to try to build on that with a lot of fresh faces.
Projected Record: 5-7
11. Minnesota: Minnesota should be higher on this list, shouldn’t they? Aren’t they better than this?
Yes and no. Minnesota isn’t really a bad team and there’s always hope that Jerry Kill’s team can turn the corner and become the kind of team their history suggests they should be. However, they never seem to get the pieces put together to make that leap. This season, they’re young and inexperienced, which doesn’t bode well for a great record.
Who to watch: QB Marquis Gray. He’s the lifeblood of the offense and his health will go a very long way in determining Minnesota’s ultimate fate.
Why to be excited: Jerry Kill’s history is phenomenal in rebuilding struggling programs. He did it at Southern Illinois and repeated it at Northern Illinois when he took both teams to 10-win seasons. If anyone can revive Minnesota football in just a few years, Jerry Kill is the man to do it.
Why to be concerned: Kill hasn’t had to rebuild a program in a conference as deep and talented as the Big Ten. This is the big leagues and he’s competing with the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin for talented recruits.
There are six returning starters on offense and six on defense. This team was last in the conference in scoring offense in 2011 and next-to-last in scoring defense. They needed a lot of returning veteran talent to make a splash this season. Next year might be a better story, but this year is a clear rebuilding year.
Projected Record: 3-9
12. Indiana: The Hoosiers brought Kevin Wilson in from Oklahoma to remind people in Bloomington that there’s a football team on campus. Wilson has the pedigree, but does he have what it takes to build a program in a power conference from the ground up?
Who to watch: RB Stephen Houston. Houston didn’t get a lot of carries last year (151), but made the most of them, averaging 5.31 yards per carry and scoring eight touchdowns. With a more experienced offensive line and QB Tre Roberson for defenses to key on, Houston could be the key to successfully moving forward in 2012.
Why to be excited: There should be improvement this year. The running game should be pretty good with Houston running behind an improved offensive line and Roberson going all “crazy legs” on opponents. The pass game was already fifth best in the conference last year. Indiana should be balanced enough on offense to put up pretty solid numbers this year and that should buy them at least a couple more wins.
Why to be concerned: The Hoosiers only return 11 starters. The defense was the worst in the conference last year and has to replace half of their talent. While Indiana might make forward progress, much of the rest of the league is also. It’s becoming a race of who can get better faster and Indiana has far less to work with than some other programs.
Roberson was great with his legs, but he was wickedly erratic, throwing six interceptions to only three touchdowns. If that doesn’t dramatically improve, it will spell disaster for the Hoosiers. With their defense, they can ill afford to give away extra opportunities to their opponents.
Projected Record: 3-9