BY MICHAEL LEESE
NEBRASKA Senior Quarterback Taylor Martinez returns for his senior season. He has 24 career starts and has gotten better every year. Last year, he completed 62% of his passes with 23 touchdowns, threw for 2,871 yards and rushed for more than 1,000. The Huskers also welcome back top tailback Ameer Abdullah and his 1,371 yards from scrimmage! They are among eight starters returning to an offense that averaged 34.8 PPG. Finding two replacements on the offensive line should be easy as 10 of the top 12 on last year’s depth chart return. I think the offense should easily surpass last year’s totals. On defense, the Huskers gave up 27.6 PPG last year the most since 2008. Only four starters return from last year’s squad, leaving many holes to be filled. Head coach Bo Pellini made the defense a priority during the spring, including completely rebuilding the front seven. The Cornhuskers do have several highly touted athletes to fill the void and I look for several underclassmen to play a significant role early. The good news comes in the form of a soft schedule! The only non-conference challenge is in week three when the Huskers get UCLA at home. They don’t play either Ohio State or Wisconsin and get Northwestern and Michigan State in Lincoln. They have a very good chance to have an undefeated season if the can beat Michigan on the road.
- KEY GAME……….NOVEMBER 9 AT MICHIGAN
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..DT Vincent Valentine, DE Greg McMullen, LB David Santos
- MY PREDICTION 11-1 OVERALL, 7-1 CONFERENCE
MICHIGAN Brady Hoke enters his third year here, welcoming back six starters on offense, led by QB Devin Gardner. Gardner stepped to the forefront last year, replacing an injured Dennard Robinson. He immediately injected life into the passing attack. The 6-4 QB also has the ability to run, making the Wolverine offense more balanced. The Wolverines welcome back both starting running backs from last year, but I expect SUPER frosh Derrick Green to step in and start. If Hoke can find three offensive linemen to step up, I would expect the offense to put up much bigger numbers than last seasons 29.8 PPG. On the defensive side of the ball, the secondary is my main concern. The front seven looks to be in good shape as Desmond Morgan, Jake Ryan and Cameron Morgan form a terrific linebacking core. There are also several key incoming freshmen who could make an immediate impact this year. I love this team, and think the Wolverines will surprise many. They draw Notre Dame at home in September and a win could propel the Wolverines to a 9-0 start. I believe a November road trip to Northwestern could spell trouble! They close the season at home with Ohio State. A victory at home against Nebraska puts the Wolverines in the BIG 10 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME!
- KEY GAME…..NOVEMBER 9, HOSTING NEBRASKA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH……. RB Derrick Green, DE Taco Charlton, LB James Ross
- MY PREDICTION – 10-2 OVERALL, 7-1 CONFERENCE
NORTHWESTERN With eight starters back on offense, three offensive linemen are all that Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald must replace. If the line comes together, the Wildcats offense could be the best in the conference! They’ll be led by QB Kain Kolter, an incredible athlete who passed for 872 yards, rushed for 996 and accounted for 20 touchdowns. He also will see action at both running back and receiver. Running back Venric Mark rushed for 1,416 yards last year and is one of the most dynamic punt/kickoff return men in the country! Nine of the top ten receivers also return, this offense is loaded. On defense, the Wildcats return seven starters, including DE Tyler Scott who led the team with nine sacks last season. Improving the run defense has been a priority this off-season. Last year, the Wildcats allowed 3.8 yards-per-carry. The secondary will be the strength of the defense as three starters return. I really believe the Wildcats have built the program up to a level where they can compete year in and year out. The schedule is tough, but with a loaded offense, I expect the Wildcats to be in all games. With a veteran team, look for another outstanding season!
- KEY GAME…….OCTOBER 5, HOSTING OHIO STATE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH……DT Chance Carter, DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, LB Collin Ellis
- MY PREDICTION – 9-3 OVERALL, 5-3 CONFERENCE
MICHIGAN STATE Many expected the Spartans to have a big season last year, but I wasn’t one of them! The Spartans welcome back eight starters on an offense that averaged only 20 PPG, including senior QB Andrew Maxwell. He threw for 2,606 yards last year with a 52 percent completion rate. The offensive line will be the strength of the offense as four out of five return. The big question is, who will replace Le’Veon Bell and his 1,793 yards. Several backs are in the mix, including true frosh Gerald Holmes. With questions at QB and RB, I don’t see much improvement on offense. Defensively the Spartans were outstanding last year, allowing only 16.3 PPG. They have one of the better linebacking and secondary corps in the country and will again have to rely on a suffocating defense to have any shot at winning the division title. Replacing All-American William Gholston will be the top priority on the defensive line. I have NO doubt the defense will continue to carry this team. The Schedule is soft early and they could actually be 7-1 heading into November when they play Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern consecutively. Those three games will define their season.
- KEY GAME……NOVEMBER 2, HOSTING MICHIGAN
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…….RB Gerald Holmes, DT Tyler Hoover, LB Taiwan Jones
- MY PREDICTION – 8-4 OVERALL, 5-3 CONFERENCE
MINNESOTA Minnesota will have a very experienced offense as head coach Jerry Kill welcomes back 10 starters! The Golden Gophers are very young, as the projected two-deep on offense features four seniors, only two of which are projected to be starters. Phillip Nelson started seven games as a freshman last year, and I look for big improvement over his 873 yards and 49-percent completion ratio. Donnell Kirkwood should also improve on last season’s 958 yards and six touchdowns rushing. The receiving corps should also only get better as they get more time working with Nelson. Overall I look for improve ment over last years 22.1 PPG. On defense, the Gophers actually played well last year allowing only 24.7 PPG. Kill has done a good job recruiting the past few years and I expect the Gophers to put up similar numbers. I think the Gophers start the season with a 5-0 stretch. A week six encounter at some Wolverines in Ann Arbor begins a brutal conference schedule. I think a win over Penn State at home should get the Gophers bowl eligible.
- KEY GAME……NOVEMBER 9, HOSTING PENN STATE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..WR Andre McDonald, LB De’Vondre Campbell, LB Damien Wilson
- MY PREDICTION 6-6 OVERALL, 2-6 CONFERENCE
IOWA Kirk Ferentz enters his 15th season as the head coach, and I believe this could be a “Make it or break it” season for him, as Iowa has fallen on hard times over the last few years. The once-powerful offense has gone stagnant over the past couple years. Injuries have been a big part of that, as the Hawkeyes have seen numerous running backs lost for the season thru both season ending injuries and disciplinary actions. RB’s Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock both return to provide what should be the strength of the offense. All of the quarterbacks have no experience as no QB on the roster has even attempted a pass here! It will be tough for the Hawkeyes to top last season’s 19.3 PPG. The Hawkeyes will have to rely on a defense that features seven returning starters, including four of the top five tacklers. The front seven figures to be the strength of the defense. All three linebackers are back, and it’s good thing as Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian kirksey combined for a whooping 332 tackles last year. I think this season will be another tough one for Hawkeye fans. I do think they can go 3-1 in non-conference, but I just don’t see them winning any conference battles.
- KEY GAME……AUGUST 31, HOSTING NORTHERN ILIINOIS
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH……QB Cody Sokol, TE Jake Duzey, DB Jordan Lomax
- MY PREDICTION 3-9 OVERALL, 0-9 CONFERENCE