You should check out the Buckeye Sports Bulletin football preview issue for my full view of the race, but here is how I see the top of each division shaking out.
The Division That Should Be the West:
Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska should stage an interesting battle for divisional supremacy.
MSU head coach Mark Dantonio will miss All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, but the front seven is remarkably deep as several years of strong recruiting seem to be paying off on the line and at linebacker. Worthy was a fine player, but some of his success might have been a product of the overall quality of the unit. William Gholston has the makings of an even bigger star at defensive end while Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are special talents at linebacker.
There are major questions on the other side of the ball in East Lansing, but I think they can get by with a so-so scoring unit thanks to the ‘D’. Dantonio claims to have supreme confidence in sophomore Andrew Maxwell, but he is an unknown at this point. All of his targets at receiver and tight end will be new, too, but new wideouts DeAnthony Arnett and Tony Lippett along with tight end Dion Sims are considered potential playmakers.
Junior running back Le’Veon Bell is an impact running back, but the Spartans have questions on the offensive front.
I was only one of many caught off guard by Michigan’s success last season, and I am still a skeptic of the Wolverines in 2012. They played far better fundamentally on both sides of the ball last season, but they also benefited from a remarkable run of beneficial bounces.
Even as a senior, I think Denard Robinson remains a wild card. He has dynamic talent but probably can’t get away with throwing another 15 interceptions this time around, as he did in 2011. Offensive coordinator Al Borges did an admirable job bending his pro-style attack to Robinson’s skills, and it will be interesting to see how that evolves this season.
Defensively, Michigan should continue to mature in the back seven, but the Wolverines will be green at key spots up front.
Ultimately, I believe the loss of All-America center David Molk and All-Big Ten defensive tackle Mike Martin will be tough to overcome, leaving the Wolverines vulnerable in the trenches, where depth remains a question until Brady Hoke’s recruiting classes get some seasoning. That could change if five-star defensive tackle prospect Will Campbell finally lives up to his billing. The bet here is that he won’t. Fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum, to now seldom-used, is the choice to replace Molk.
Then there is Nebraska. I picked the Cornhuskers to win the Big Ten in their first season in the league, but head coach Bo Pelini’s team faltered down the stretch and finished a disappointing 9-4 with three conference losses.
Year two in offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s unique option scheme should be better than year one, but will Taylor Martinez ever grow into a consistent passer? I am not sure that he will, but it might not be necessary if he and All-Big Ten running back Rex Burkhead can scare teams enough on the ground. The offensive line, with its fondness for cut blocks, could become a plug-and-play unit, while a callow group of receivers could show some improvement this season.
Things could look a little different on defense with new coordinator John Papuchis in charge, and that might not be a bad thing after the famed Blackshirts gave up 44 more yards and six more points per game than in 2010. Pelini hopes more experience will help in the secondary while better depth improves the front seven. Expect the coaching staff to use the benefit of a year’s worth of familiarity with league opponents when it comes to game-planning.
Division That Should Be The East:
While many expect Wisconsin to run away with the division as Ohio State and Penn State (who will probably be terrible) ineligible, Purdue and Illinois both have some darkhorse potential.
The Boilermakers have never been able to quite get over the hump in Danny Hope’s three seasons at the helm, but things might break right for him in 2012. He has three quarterbacks with starting experience – Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry – and a handful of potential contributors at the skill positions. If the offensive line improves, Purdue could have a puncher’s chance to reach the top of the division. Nine starters return on defense, including defensive tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen, two players among the best in the league at their positions.
Talent is less an issue than discipline and consistency for the Purdue during the Hope years.
Similar sentiments could apply to the Fighting Illini, but they are under new management this season in the form of head coach Tim Beckman. The former Ohio State assistant has solid building blocks on both sides of the ball: quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and linemen Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton on offense with linebacker Jonathan Brown, linemen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence and cornerback Terry Hawthorne on defense.
The onus is on Scheelhaase to pick up a new spread offense and lead on his side. He should get some help from running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovan Young as well as multitalented Miles Osei.
If the offense can improve from one of the worst in the country last season to even decent, it could offset graduation losses from what was a top 15 defense nationally in both yardage (seventh) and scoring (15th).
Then there is Wisconsin. The Badgers are two-time Big Ten champs and a fashionable pick to go for three, but that will be easier said than done. Stopping senior running back Monte Ball is a formidable challenge for any defense, and the Badgers figure to be strong as usual on the front line. However, expecting Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien to replicate the success of 2011 sensation Russell Wilson might be asking too much. O’Brien is a solid passer, but Wilson’s ability to freelance and create big plays after the initial plan broke down will certainly be missed. Will Jared Abbrederis step up as the No. 1 receiver with Nick Toon having graduated? Can Abbrederis, a former walk-on, replicate his 55 catches for 933 yards and eight touchdowns without Toon to draw attention on the other side?
My guess is the offense will not be as unstoppable as it has been the last two seasons, but it should still be quite good. The stop unit is another story. The propensity to put up huge point totals has masked a decline in defense the past two seasons, and another year of maturity might not do it for the six returning starters. Head coach Bret Bielema is banking on a big impact from defensive end David Gilbert and cornerback Devin Smith from injury, but neither of them were exactly All-Big Ten Players before they were sidelined. Last year teams like Ohio State and Oregon made the Badgers look slow on defense.
I think Michigan State will get just enough on offense to ride that defense to a 7-1 mark in the league with its only setback coming against the Cornhuskers. That could include close calls against Michigan and Ohio State, however, not to mention the annually kooky contest with Northwestern (set for the penultimate game of the regular season and the Spartans’ Senior Day this time around).
Illinois’ conference schedule is front-loaded with trips to Wisconsin and Michigan in early October, but the Fighting Illini could lose those games and still find time to come together down the stretch and get back into the race with Wisconsin. However, because of tiebreakers the Fighting Illini will probably have to be perfect the rest of the way if they lose to the Badgers and Wolverines, and I am not ready to say they will be able to pull that off. Thus, I’m going with Wisconsin.
The Spartans prevail in Indianapolis this time and go on to the Rose Bowl while Nebraska benefits from sitting at home on championship weekend and having a huge fan base, thus getting an at-large bid to the BCS.