By Marc Lawrence
It used to be that when you talked Big 10 Football you were talking Ohio State. After all, the Buckeyes won at least a share of the last six Big Ten Championships while compiling a 43-5 mark in conference play in that span. They’ve gone 106-22 in games over the last 10 years, winning a national championship and playing in eight BCS bowl games, including six straight the last six years. Ah, those were they days. Up until Jim Tressel received an e-mail alerting him to the fact that several players might be breaching NCAA rules. His reply, in apparent earnest, was: “Thanks, I will get on it ASAP.” He didn’t and the rest is history. His silence ended a decorated 10-year career with Ohio State when he resigned on Memorial Day this spring. A man many envisioned as possibly the next senator from the state of Ohio was caught, ironically like other scandalized politicians, with his pants down. Now, instead in a year when the conference expands to 12 teams and two divisions, the team to beat is newcomer Nebraska, formerly of the Big 12. The Huskers are a welcome addition to the Big 10 with five national championships and three Heisman Trophy winners dotting their resume. Behind seven returning starter quarterbacks (sans star QB Terrelle Pryor from the aforementioned Ohio State fallout), look for the conference to extend its eight-year streak of at least one non-ranked Big 10 squad pulling the rug on a Top 12 ranked BCS team. Looking back, the league flexed its muscles with three 11-win teams in 2010, including Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The question begs: can the Buckeyes win at the level they’ve reached with the current talent on hand, sans Tressel and Pryor? Ohio State football. Now those were the days. Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2011 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine (www.PLAYBOOK.com). Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
ILLINOIS - *7 / 6 TEAM THEME: EIGHT IS ENOUGH The good news is Ron Zook’s troops will be hosting eight games this campaign, including the first five of the season. The bad news is Zook’s troops will be hosting eight games this season. That’s because the Zooker is just 18-19 SU at home, including 9-18 from Game Four out. Bad history aside, it could be a banner year in Champaign as three of the Illini’s four roadies are against less than .500 opposition. Seven starters, including QB Nathan Scheelhaase, return from an offense that averaged 32.5 PPG, the most in school history. The defense also made a statement in 2010, improving by over 50 YPG. Yes, the good clearly outweighs the bad. Stat You Will Like: Since Zook arrived in 2005, Illinois leads the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 205.2 RYPG. PLAY AGAINST: at Indiana (10/8)
INDIANA – 7 / 6 TEAM THEME: LYNCHED Like a kid on prom night, the Hoosiers were fast starters (11-1 SU) in the first three games of the season under former coach Bill Lynch, but duds once the dress came off (8-29 SU from Game Four out). As a result, nine-year Oklahoma OC Kevin Wilson is in. Wilson is “an acclaimed offensive coordinator who will maximize Indiana’s underrated skill talent,” says Stewart Mandel of SI. Of the 21 new FBS coaches, Wilson received one of two ‘A’ grades from Mandel. If Wilson can find an ample replacement for Ben Chappell, it should be another fast start in Bloomington with the Hoosiers leaving the state of Indiana only once in their first six games. However, like the aforementioned kid on prom night, it’s all in the finish. Stat You Will Like: The 83 points surrendered to Wisconsin last year were more than 23 different IU teams allowed in an entire season. PLAY AGAINST: at Wisconsin (10/15)
OHIO STATE - *7 / 6 TEAM THEME: LIAR, LIAR, VEST FOR HIRE Caught in a red-handed lie with his not-so bulletproof vest down, Jim Tressel couldn't remove the stain from Tattoo-gate and resigned under pressure. And while the damage that Tressel created to his 'Mr. Rogers image' is permanent, five star players - including star QB Terrelle Pryor - will remain suspended the first five games of the season. Thus the Buckeyes' skein of being the only team in Big 10 history to win 10-plus games six consecutive seasons looks in peril as they tenuously move forward behind 38-year old interim coach Luke Fickell, the co-defensive coordinator and former two-time All Big 10 nose guard with Ohio State. The good news is the Big 10 won't need to rename its two new divisions, Legends and Liars. Stat You Will Like: Ohio State is a nation’s best 16-1 straight up in November since 2005. PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite at Miami Fla (9/17)
PENN STATE - *7 / 8 TEAM THEME: A STEP BACKWARD More so than the four additional losses following a pair of stellar 11-2 seasons, the young Lions took a serious step backwards on both sides of the ball in 2010 when the offense regressed 34 YPG and defense 72 YPG. Most alarming was an uncharacteristic 4.5 YPR allowed by the stop-unit. The good news is eight starters are back on defense, including the entire secondary. However, one of the two-headed quarterbacks, Matthew McGloin or Robert Bolden, will need to step up and assume the role of team leader, otherwise a talented receiving crops, led by Derek Moye, will go unnoticed and the offense will continue to slide. And these days, Heaven knows Joe Pa cannot afford any more backward steps. Stat You Will Like: Other than games with Ohio State, the Lions are 29-6 ‘In The Stats’ during the regular season over the last three years. PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Alabama (9/10)
PURDUE - *7 / 9 TEAM THEME: HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL It was Boiler-down in West Lafayette when a 4-2 start in 2010 ended with a season-ending six-game losing skid. A rash of injuries, particularly at the QB spot, proved too much for the Boilers to overcome as four different signal callers took turns under center. In addition, Purdue’s top three backs on the depth chart also missed the majority of the season. The good news is that well-traveled QB Robert Marve is finally healthy and he’ll look to resurrect an attack that slipped 79 YPG. Through all the bad, a lot of young players were forced into action a year early and it should pay dividends immediately in 2011 as four of the Boiler’s first five games are at friendly Ross-Ade Stadium. Stat You Will Like: Only eight seniors appear on this year’s team, with 53 sophomores and juniors populating the roster. PLAY ON: as a dog at Rice (9/10)
WISCONSIN – 5 / 6 TEAM THEME: RUNNING SCARED Unlike two years ago when the majority of their wins came against sisters of the poor, last year’s 11-win effort by the Badgers was legit. In the process, the co-Big Ten champs set a school scoring record, averaging 43.3 PPG during the regular season, despite a top-heavy 528 to 255 run-pass play ratio. If there was a hiccup last year, it was a rush defense that slipped one full yard against the run. That was certainly not the case on offense as the Badgers averaged 246 YPG and 5.5 YPC on the ground last season, while running for a school-record 46 TD’s. And if that’s not enough to scare the cheese out of anyone, two of the top three backs, James White (1.052 yards, 6.7 YPR) and Montee Ball (996 yards, 6.1 YPR), return to Madison. Stat You Will Like: The Badgers are 8-1 SU and ATS with revenge off a win under Bret Bielema. PLAY ON: at Michigan State (10/22)
IOWA – 5 / 5 TEAM THEME: RICKY DON’T LOSE THAT NUMBER Ricky Stanzi may have only been a 5th-round choice in this year’s NFL draft but he was the No. 1 man on campus in Iowa City the past three years, tossing for over 7,300 yards and 56 TD’s. More importantly he was 26-9 as a starter. Replacing Stanzi and his record-setting numbers is James Vandenberg, a two-time all Big 10 academic honoree who started two games in 2009. And speaking of bests, the Hawkeyes’ 80-45 record over the past 10 seasons was also the best decade in Iowa football history. Those big numbers are big shoes for Vandenberg to fill, especially with only five returning starters on both sides of the ball. Stat You Will Like: Iowa’s 11 losses over the last three seasons have been by a total of 39 points, with none by more than seven points. PLAY AGAINST: vs. Michigan (11/5)
MICHIGAN - *9 / 8 TEAM THEME: 2,926 AND COUNTING Around these parts when you lose three games in three years to arch rival Ohio State by a combined score of 100-24, you know your number is up. So it was for Rich Rodriguez, arguably the most controversial hire in Michigan football history. Enter Brady Hoke, a former eight-year assistant with the Wolves, whose pro-style offense has to be concerning to QB Denard Robinson and his run-for-your-life style of play. Seventeen returning starters bodes well as Hoke looks to return Michigan to its glory days. And FYI, that number atop this prognosis represents the number of days it will have been since Michigan last beat Ohio State when they meet on the final Saturday in November. Tick, tick, tick… Stat You Will Like: Since November 2007, Michigan is 0-18-1 ATS as a conference favorite or dog of four or less points. PLAY ON: vs. Ohio State (11/26)
MICHIGAN STATE - *7 / 6 TEAM THEME: WHAT GOES UP A school record 11 wins and a share of its first conference championship since 1990 earned Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio Big 10 Coach of the Year honors last season. Sparty was a perfect 5-0 in games decided by 10 or less points and may, once again, pull out its share of close calls thanks to the return of 5th-year SR QB Kirk Cousins. Captain Kirk is joined by his top three backs who combined to rush for 1,950 yards last season. State benefited from a reasonable four-game road slate last year but our feeling is trips to South Bend, Columbus, Lincoln and Iowa City will prevent Dantonio from carting hardware for a second straight season. Stat You Will Like: The Spartans’ 8-0 start last season was their best since 1966. PLAY AGAINST: vs. Michigan (10/15)
MINNESOTA - 6 / 8 TEAM THEME: TIME TO KILL After building an offensive juggernaut at Northern Illinois, Jerry Kill brings his playbook to the Twin Cities. Sporting News college football columnist Matt Hayes believes Kill will have the biggest impact of all the new head coaches this season. Interestingly, he’ll look to replace four-year starting QB Adam Weber with WR Marquise Gray, who moves back to the QB position, giving the Gophers a potential dual threat. Kill’s first priority, however, will be to mold a defense that allowed an unforgiving 5.3 YPR last season. That might not happen initially, but our best guess is that Jerry will be killing them softly with his schemes sooner rather than later. Stat You Will Like: Kill is 3-9 SU and ATS vs. winning opposition, including 0-5 ATS as a dog. PLAY ON: at USC (9/3)
NEBRASKA - *7 / 7 Team Theme: WHAT THE SHUCK The Big 10’s long-rumored plans for expansion became a reality when the Huskers opted out of its conference affiliation, leaving the Big 12 with 10 teams and the Big 10 with 12. If that sounds wacky, you’ll need to take off your shoes to count the number of squads that currently reside in the former PAC 10. One thing that remains constant is the stingy Nebraska defense. And there’s no denying the success that the Huskers have had under Bo Pelini, capturing three straight Big 12 North titles, while registering three straight nine-wins seasons for the first time since Big Red’s record-setting 33 consecutive nine-win campaigns from 1969-2001. By the way, Nebraska’s 403 wins since 1970 tops the nation, 24 more than new rival No. 2 Ohio State. Stat You Will Like: Nebraska is 20-3 SU and 15-7-1 ATS vs. Big 10 opponents since 1976. PLAY ON: vs. Washington (9/17)
NORTHWESTERN - *9 / 7 TEAM THEME: THE WINNING EDGE If you’ve bought into the job that Pat Fitzgerald has done with the Wildcats (and you should), prepare to go on a buying spree this season. A school-record 56 lettermen return to Evanston, including 21 seniors and 23 juniors. QB Dan Persa, a Big 10 first-team performer last season despite missing the final two games with an Achilles injury, leads the charges. “The importance of playing on January 1st is worth it… we’re in the best shape we’ve been in at this point maybe since I’ve been here. This group has bought in. The senior class can be the winningest in program history. A pretty special legacy,” gushes Fitzgerald. We’re buying in, too. Stat You Will Like: The Wildcats dot a roster that lost only 14 players to graduation last year. PLAY ON: as dog at Boston College (9/3) Be sure to check back here next Monday, June 27th for Marc’s 2011 BIG 12 CONFERENCE Football Preview!
Nice write-up, but don't think Purdue will be a dog @ Rice