BY MICHAEL LEESE
The Big 10 Conference is undergoing a major shuffle as Maryland and Rutgers have joined the league, and the divisions have changed. Legends and Leaders have been replaced by the East and West,and each division will now have seven schools, with a true geographic split. There are no longer any protected cross-over games other than Indiana-Purdue, but more rivals are now in the same division and will play every year.
INDIANA This is clearly the most experienced team in the conference. Seventeen starters return this year including nine that are seniors! Nate Sudfeld returns at quarterback behind the entire offensive line. Leading rusher Tevin Coleman is back. The defense is also loaded with experience, with 10 of the 11 tacklers coming back. I expect dramatic improvement over last years 38.8 PPG allowed. The season finale against Purdue could well decide if the Hoosiers go bowling.
MARYLAND The Terps join the Big 10 from the ACC. I like the move by Maryland and believe they will be highly competitive. The Terps are another team with loads of experience on the roster. Seventeen starters return as does senior quarterback C. J. Brown. Brown is a talented athlete who is a dual-threat and great leader. When he has been out of the lineup due to injuries the offense has really struggled. The defense has nine starters back and should be much better than last year, when the secondary was decimated due to injuries. I think the Terps will exceed expectations.
MICHIGAN The Wolverines started 6-1 last year, climbing all the way to No. 11 in the polls, before finishing 7-6. Fourth-year Head Coach Brady Hoke returns 15 starters and a several other players who saw crucial playing time. Devin Gardner is back under center and is poised for a huge season. Gardner is a dual threat quarterback who can take over a game. Derrick Green the No. 2 ranked running back out of high school two years ago figures to have a breakout season! The Wolverines have eight starters returning to the defense which struggled at times last year, and have several highly-touted players who haven’t seen the field yet. I think this will be a magical year in Ann Arbor!
MICHIGAN STATE The past few years the Spartans have had a tremendous team but lacked that proven guy that could get them to pay dirt. Connor Cook has given the Spartan faithful a reason to feel good about the quarterback position. Cook got better and better as the season went on last year, eventually leading a the Spartans to an upset victory over Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship game and an eventual 24-20 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl! Cook gets back his top five rushers and four out of five of his top receivers. The only question appears to be on the offensive front as four starters depart. Head coach Mark Dantonio always has one of the better defenses in the nation and this year will be no exception. The losses are heavy on this side of the ball, but several key performers do return including Shilique Calhoun and his 7.5 sacks and free safety Kurtis Drummond who had 91 tackles. The non-conference schedule features a trip to Oregon in week two, and the Spartans get Michigan and Nebraska at home.
OHIO STATE Urban Meyer returns for his third year and he has been masterful in leading the Buckeyes to a 24-2 record. This year should be no different as 11 starters return. I see two major concerns as four offensive linemen need to be replaced and someone will have to fill the void left of Carlos Hyde’s departure to the NFL. The Buckeyes will also miss the injured Braxton Miller who threw for 2,084 yards and ran for an additional 1,283 yards, and was the leader of the team. Sophmore J.T. Barrett will step-in, and he throws a nice ball. The defense should get better as the front seven is stout! The secondary could also be a major concern as graduation and suspensions have already thinned the position. The Buckeyes have to travel to East Lansing, but get the Wolverines in Columbus.
PENN STATE James Franklin moves to the Happy Valley from Vanderbilt, where he put the Commodores on the SEC map! Franklin is a great motivator and recruiter, and he has already received several big name commits for next season in just a handful of months on the job. He will have plenty to work with on the current roster, as quarterback Christian Hackenberg returns for his sophomore campaign. The true freshman delivered in a big way last season throwing for 20 scores. Thousand yard rusher Zach Zwinak returns to run behind an offensive line that will be looking to replace four starters. I expect the defense to be much better than last season, with seven quality starters returning and several other highly touted defenders are waiting to play key roles. I think the Lions will start 5-0 setting up an October showdown in Ann Arbor.
RUTGERS The Scarlet Knights make the jump from the AAC to the Big 10 this year. Rutgers was a big success playing in the AAC, where they had gone to bowl games in seven out of the last eight years. The jump to the Big 10 is a major step up. The Scarlet Knights will be faced with a very tough conference schedule as they must face Wisconsin and Nebraska from the West Division. Gary Nova returns as the signal caller and has started 18 games in his career. Last year he threw for 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. If the Scarlet Knights are to have any chance, he will have to raise the level of his game! Ralph Friedgen, the former Maryland head coach and quarterback guru joins the Rutgers staff as offensive coordinator and is working with him.
ILLINOIS Like Urban Meyer at Ohio State, Head Coach Tim Beckman enters his third season at the helm of the Fighting Illini. This season’s goal is to reach a bowl game. The key to this, will be the play of Quarterback Wes Lunt who transferred in from Oklahoma State. Lunt actually started as a freshman for the Cowboys before coming to deciding he was more of an Indian and transferring to Champaign. He is a 6’5″ quarterback with a “gun” for an arm. I look for huge improvements on the defensive side of the ball as seven of the top eight tacklers return. I think the Illini will need to win one of three games at the end of the season to reach the magic six win total, and go bowling. .
IOWA The Hawkeyes are my pick to surprise everyone this season and win the Win. Jake Rudock returns at quarterback after guiding the Hawkeyes to a 8-5 record last season. He’ll have plenty of help, as the top five running backs and the top two receivers are back. I think the offense will improve on last season’s 26.3 PPG mark. A strong defense did lose its top three tacklers, but the cupboard is not bare. But the schedule helps set Iowa apart from the rest of the division. They draw only Maryland and Indiana from the East, and get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home.
MINNESOTA The Golden Gophers could be the toughest team to handicap in the entire conference. An inexperienced quarterback and the toughest schedule in the conference have me calling for a long season. Sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner is a big physical kid who can also run, and has four career starts under his belt. If he develops into a solid thrower, he could be special. David Cobb, a 1,000 yard rusher also returns to provide the Gophers with a stout running game. The Gophers played solid defense all year last year allowing only two teams to top the 30 point mark. I expect much of the same from this year’s edition and I have the Gophers going 5-3 headed into November. They close the season with Iowa and Ohio State at home, then road games at Nebraska and Wisconsin! OUCH!
NEBRASKA When Nebraska moved to the BIG 10 in 2011 I honestly thought they would immediately dominate the conference. That hasn’t happened, and Head Coach Bo Pellini has heard rumors now for the past few years about how is job is in jeopardy. Last month he got a vote of confidence from the athletic director. Needless to say this is a big year for Pellini and the Huskers. Losses are heavy due to graduation, with 11 starters returning , five on offense and six on defense. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong has plenty of experience and should succeed under center, especially with the benefit of Ameer Abdullah, one of the top backs in the country. Abdullah rushed for 1,722 yards last year, turned down the NFL, and has emerged as a leader. My major concern on offense is the loss of four starters on the offensive line. The defense gets their top five tacklers back from a year ago, including Randy Gregory and his 10.5 sacks! The conference schedule is brutal as they take trips to Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State. I look for Nebraska to make some noise this year as they should start 5-0, but those road games are going to be tough. I’m calling for a third place finish in the division.
NORTHWESTERN Many prognosticators will have Northwestern being a solid bet to challenge for the division title. I just don’t see it. Yes, they have 17 returning starters and were simply devastated by injuries last season. But I think the loss of Venric Mark and a very difficult schedule will cost the Wildcats dearly. Trevor Siemien will take over full-time duties at quarterback after spliting time with Kain Colter. The defense could well be the strength of the team as eight starters return.
PURDUE Darrell Hazell has nowhere to go but up in his second season at the helm of the Boilermakers! Fifteen starters return but quite frankly this team will again suffer growing pains. Last year, the offense averaged a putrid 14.9 PPG, but they should improve with eight starters back. The defense was also a major concern last year allowing 38 points per contest. All in all, I think three non-conference victories are possible. This team is hungry and surprisingly confident.
WISCONSIN While most people are picking the Badgers to win the division, I simply think they have lost too much. The graduation of seven key performers in the front seven, will have a major impact on a defense that allowed only 16.3 PPG. It will be next to impossible to match that kind of production. The offense is in much better shape with the return of one of the top backfields in the country anchored by Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. Four out of five offensive linemen return, insuring a cohesive offense. They will need to find a replacement for the departed Jared Abberderis who led the team with 78 receptions and over a 1,000 receiving yards. The Badgers open the season August 30 in Houston against LSU.
How they’ll finish
- MICHIGAN 11-1 8-0
- MICHIGAN STATE 10-2 7-1
- OHIO STATE 10-2 6-2
- PENN STATE 8-4 4-4
- INDIANA 6-6 3-5
- MARYLAND 5-7 2-6
- RUTGERS 4-8 1-7
- IOWA 9-3 7-1
- WISCONSIN 9-3 6-2
- NEBRASKA 9-3 5-3
- NORTHWESTERN 5-7 3-5
- ILLINOIS 5-7 2-6
- MINNESOTA 5-7 2-6
- PURDUE 3-9 0-8