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IUSC’s Cody Harner and Will Chukerman take an in depth look at the Legends and Leaders of the B1G Conference
NCAA Football is primed and ready for kickoff this weekend. The National Championship race begins in week 1 and each game could mean the difference between success and failure for each team and their respective fans. The Big Ten hopes to contend as a top conference this year, and coaches in the Legends division seemed very eager when discussing the start of the season in the weekly Big Ten teleconference.
Michigan 0-0, No. 8 ESPN/USA Poll
Michigan has some of the highest expectations of any team in the Big Ten this season. As a preseason No. 8 ranked team, a bowl bid has to be a top priority for this season to be considered a success. However, the Wolverines start the season with perhaps the toughest game of anyone else in the country. At a neutral site, Michigan will take on the preseason consensus No. 2 ranked team and defending National Champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide. Brady Hoke, head coach of the Wolverines, had this to say about facing such a tough test to open the season; “We’ll have our hands full, but at the same time you look forward to playing these kind of games, at different sites, and playing great football teams.” Under coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide have been nothing less than great and coach Hoke and Michigan know this. It would be a huge win not only for Michigan, but for the Big Ten if they could take down the champs. This game could be a precursor for what is to come this year for Michigan. Beating Alabama would be a great way to take that next step in becoming one of the most elite teams in the country for the Wolverines. One thing is for sure, coach Hoke will have his team ready to go come game day, as it doesn’t get much more exciting than this match up.
Nebraska 0-0, No. 17 ESPN, No. 16 USA Today
Nebraska is yet another Big Ten team in the preseason top 25 rankings this year. Being in the top 25, there is a certain level of expectation, and Nebraska hopes to live up to them. Bo Pelini, Nebraska’s head coach, believes him and his team have grown. “I’m more experienced and feel like I have a little better handle on it [coaching].” Nebraska debuts Saturday against Southern Miss at home in Cornhusker country. The dynamic Taylor Martinez returns as quarterback for the Cornhuskers as well as their one thousand yard rusher, Rex Burkhead. Nebraska finished 5-3 in the conference last year, but hope to improve on that. They will have to go through talented Michigan and Michigan State teams, but they have playmakers that could help make this a reachable goal. We will see how much coach Pelini has helped improve his team on Saturday when the Southern Miss Golden Eagles come to town.
Minnesota 0-0, Unranked
Minnesota is coming off of a rough 3-9 season (0-5 in the Big Ten), but the Gophers are hoping to turn it around this year. With four ranked opponents on the schedule (Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota), it will be a tough test for them. However, head coach Jerry Kill believes his team can make the transition and be a solid team. “We do have a young team, but I think they are a hungry team and they’ve worked hard, and I think we have a better team than we did a year ago. But, we have to go out there and prove that. Quarterback MarQueis Gray was forced to be the central focus of the offense both on the ground and in the air. He passed for nearly 1,500 yards and rushed for close to a thousand. If Minnesota can create some more balance offensively, they may be able to put up some more points and be more competitive this season. Time will only tell for the Gophers, as they continue to rebuild their program and strive to be a top conference contender in the future.
Iowa 0-0, Unranked
Iowa is coming off of an average season. It seemed as though they were on the brink of success, but came up short a few times. James Vandenberg is coming off a solid season in which he threw 25 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. However, he was sacked 29 times, proving that the offensive line needed some work. But, that is not the biggest question of the Hawkeyes right now. The topic of discussion seems to be how the Hawkeyes are unsure what direction they are going to go in at the running back position. When asked about this situation, coach Kirk Ferentz said, “Basically anybody that is healthy and with us will play. So, we’ve got three guys that figure in the running back position (race). We have Damon Bullock, who had a good spring, and then two freshmen in Greg Garmon and Mike Malloy. We also have Brad Rogers and Mark Weisman.” With five guys named, it appears as this is going to take some trial and error. At a skill position like running back, this is something that a team does not need to go through. However, with a senior quarterback leading the way, this will make the transition easier. Iowa opens its season against Northern Illinois will hope to solve this dilemma and have a successful season.
Northwestern 0-0, Unranked
Northwestern is another team coming off a subpar season. With a 6-7 record, the Wildcats saw the need for much improvement. The Wildcats will have several holes to fill as starting quarterback Dan Persa graduated, as did their thousand-yard receiver, Jeremy Ebert. With the program in a transition phase, Northwestern still believes they can be successful. When asked about Northwestern’s goals for the 2012 season, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said “In the micro it obviously is to win the opener.” He then later went on to say, “We [need] to compete for championships, that’s the logical next step and that’s what we’ve been working towards.” Northwestern only has three ranked opponents on the schedule (Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State) and some manageable non-conference games, so an improvement is not out of the question. How will the newcomers in these skills position handle the added pressure? This will be a key question that will determine the success or failure of Northwestern this year.
Michigan State 0-0, No. 13 ESPN/USA Today
Michigan State has some major pressure to be successful this year, second only perhaps to Michigan. With the departure of quarterback Kirk Cousins and leading receiver B.J Cunningham to the NFL, returning running back Le’Veon Bell could see a lot more touches in what could turn into a run heavy offense. However, only time and player progression will determine how the game plan is adjusted accordingly. Although Michigan has perhaps the toughest opening game with Alabama, Michigan State will face an early challenge against a proven, successful team in No. 24 ESPN/No.22 USA Today, Boise State. “We are looking forward to a great football game. I think Boise State is a tremendous opponent as evident by their 73-6 win/loss since coach Peterson has been there.” There is obviously a mutual respect between the programs, which recognize the level of success they have both had. From opening week, Michigan State will be challenged. They face several tough opponents, most notably including Boise State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska. This team will need to fill the voids lost from the departure of Cousins and Cunningham in order to have a successful season.
The Big Ten legends division is full of fierce competitors. With three of the six ranked in the top 25, and the other three hungry for victory, don’t be surprised to see a lot of success from the division. College football season is here and the Big Ten is ready for a successful year with high hopes. All members of the Legends division have their eyes set on this prize and will do all they can to achieve it.
Head Coach Bill O’Brien has seemingly faced the toughest challenge he will encounter in his tenure at Penn State, as NCAA sanctions rocked the program this past offseason.
Leading rusher Silas Redd was the highest profile player to leave, as he bolted to USC. However, Penn State also lost their top two returning wide receivers in Justin Brown and Devon Smith, as they transferred to Oklahoma and Marshall, respectively.
The focus is now on their week one battle against Ohio University from the Mid-American Conference.
Knowing it will be an emotional game; O’Brien knows his players can’t let their emotions get the best of them.
“It’s a very important football game,” O’Brien notes. “But we have to play within ourselves.”
After being asked how his team planned on coming out of the tunnel, the head coach cited that he had “more important things” to worry about in anticipation of Saturday’s game in Happy Valley.
Saturday will surely be a test for the Nittany Lions as they look to put the tumultuous offseason behind them and face a 10-4 Ohio team. The team is excited to welcome back quarterback, Tyler Tettleton, who threw for over 3,300 yards and 28 touchdowns last year.
“This is a very focused team,” O’Brien said of his Penn State squad. “There’s a bunch of really good senior leaders on this team.”
Fifth-year senior, Matt McGloin, is one of those guys. The starting quarterback will look to find new targets this year in attempt to build off his pedestrian numbers from a year ago, where he shared the quarterback spot with Rob Bolden, who has since transferred to LSU.
Its tough to get a read on how this team will respond come Saturday, but after listening to Bill O’Brien, you better believe he will do his best to have his team ready for kickoff.
Although they can’t participate in postseason play this season, things are looking bright in Columbus as the Urban Meyer era begins. After taking a one-year hiatus from coaching, the northern Ohio native is coaching the team that he grew up watching.
Meyer’s style should translate very well with this Buckeye offense, led by sophomore quarterback, Braxton Miller. The dual-threat quarterback is both Ohio State’s returning passer and rusher.
The quarterback position is one where Meyer has had great success grooming dual threats with his patented spread offense. Miller is another quarterback who could, when all is set and done, be compared with those two.
“I made the comment about a caged tiger,” Meyer said on how eager Miller was to finally be allowed to run in practice.
Other then Miller on offense, there really isn’t too much returning talent with the departures of Dan Herron and Devier Posey to the NFL.
Jake Stoneburner, a preseason Mackey Award watch list nominee, will surely be Miller’s security blanket early on as he looks to find others to throw to. The 6-5, 245-pound senior only caught 14 passes last season, but seven of those were for touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, Meyer’s coaching staff includes co-defensive coordinators, one being last years interim head coach, Luke Fickell, and other one being Everett Withers, who Meyer brought in this season. It’s unclear yet how the new will mix with old, but the Meyer didn’t seem concerned.
“It’s a good thing we got two guys without egos call the defense,” Meyer noted. “It’s been very positive so far.”
The Buckeyes will host Miami Ohio in week 1, who went a disappointing 4-8 last season after winning the MAC in 2010.
Even during last years disappointing season, the Redhawks had the 14th best passing game in the country, led by quarterback Zac Dysert, who threw for 3,513 yards. A big chunk of those went to junior wideout, Nick Harwell, who had 97 catches for 1,425 yards and nine touchdowns.
When talking to the media, Meyer acknowledged that this would be a tough team to stop, especially with that potent passing attack.
The homecoming ends at noon on Saturday, after that, the only things Ohio State fans will care about is wins and losses.
Wisconsin #12 in AP and Coaches
Heisman hopeful Montee Ball has been through a lot this past offseason. A ticket for trespassing he received in May was quickly forgotten when in early August, Ball was attacked by three men, which left him concussed. Insisting he will play in the season opener, it will be paramount that Ball isn’t just 100% physically, but also mentally.
Head coach Bret Bielema also assured the media that Ball will be ready to go this weekend.
“100 percent ready to go,” Bielema said. “He’s been chomping at the bit.”
The senior accounted for 2,230 yards and 39 touchdowns. And even with talented backup James White, a Wisconsin offense without Ball in the backfield will surely be affected.
Heading into the offseason, it was a question as to what the Badgers would do with the quarterback situation. Those questions were answered when former Maryland and 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year, Danny O’Brien, transferred to Madison.
Much to the dismay of people around the country, Wisconsin will start another “rent-a” quarterback this season.
After a freshman season in which he threw for 22 touchdowns, O’Brien took a major step backwards in his sophomore season as he passed for only 1,648 yards, threw for seven touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions. Much of the lack of success can be attributed to O’Brien running a new offense that was the result of a coaching change for the Terrapins.
The staples of typical Wisconsin teams will be the same this season with the strong running game built behind a bevy of 300-pound offensive lineman and an experienced smash-mouth defense.
Junior linebacker Chris Borland, who had 143 tackles and 2.5 sacks last year, will lead the defense this season and surely be one of the best linebackers in the country.
To go along with a strong offensive line, the Badgers will also be stout up front on the defensive side of the ball as they return all four from their defensive front.
Northern Iowa is the Badgers week 1 opponent. The Panthers are in the top 10 of the FCS rankings coming into this season.
Expectations are high for the Badgers, as a trip to Indianapolis this December to represent the Leaders division seems likely with the amount of talent on this team.
There are three new coaches in the Big Ten this season, one of which is Illinois head coach, Tim Beckmam. After coaching Toledo for three seasons, Beckman was hired in December to replace former coach, Ron Zook.
The defense returns some key players, even with the loss of first rounder Whitney Mercilus. Depth is a concern, but if the starters are as good as advertised, that may not be a big concern. Defensive end Michael Buchanan had 4.5 sacks in the spring game and looks to continue that momentum this season.
Also returning is linebacker Jonathan Brown and defensive back Terry Hawthorne, to name a few. The head coach is very excited to inherit such a talented unit.
“They’re outstanding football players,” Beckman said of the returning players on defense. “I think they’ve also shown they can step up and be leaders.”
Surely, the defense will keep the Illini in games, but it will come down to the offense scoring points, which was an issue at times last season.
The team loses A.J. Jenkins, who had 1,276 receiving yards and eight touchdowns last year. With that loss, the team really doesn’t have another offensive threat other than quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse, who was Illinois’ leading rusher last season.
“Nathans been outstanding these past eight months,” Beckman said. “He’s not just a great football player, he’s a great person.”
It should be reassuring to Illini fans that their new head coach is behind their starting quarterback, who shared snaps with Riley O’Toole last season.
In their week 1 matchup, Illinois will face Western Michigan, who went 7-6 last season, losing to Purdue in the Little Caesars Bowl.
The defensive will have their hands full versus the Broncos as they’re a pass happy team, led by senior quarterback Alex Carder, who threw for 3,873 yards to go along with 31 touchdowns last year.
Beckham acknowledged that he would have to keep his defense fresh and alert this week so that they can matchup well with the Broncos passing attack.
Optimism may not be too high in Champaign, but keep an eye on the Illini, as Tim Beckmam has already shown how invested he is in winning.
Last season, the roller coaster ride that was the Purdue season ended in a Little Caesars Bowl win over Western Michigan. The team seemingly flip-flopped winning and losing every week, as they never were never more than a game over or under .500.
Although it may be unfair to speculate, head coach Danny Hope could be on the hot seat this season, as he was saved last year after the team’s bowl victory. Going into last season, Hope was 9-15 after taking over for long-time coach, Joe Tiller.
To go along with the majority of teams in the Leaders division, one of Purdue’s strengths is their defense considering there are many returning playmakers led by defensive tackle Kawann Short, who is one of the better linemen in the Big Ten.
Another one of those returning defensive players is linebacker Dwayne Beckford, the team’s leading tackler from a season ago. However, he was suspended indefinitely following his arrest on Monday. It will be a tough void to fill, but Hope still believes he has talent at the position.
“It will temporally be a void,” Hope admits. “ But we have some guys who have played well there.”
The rest of the defense will have to pick up the slack in order to mask the loss of one of their best players.
Purdue faces Eastern Kentucky in week 1, and will be also without another one it’s key players. Running back Ralph Bolden will not play due to a knee injury, which means fellow senior, Akeem Shavers likely will get the start.
After devastating injuries to their quarterbacks the past three seasons, Purdue finally has three healthy, with Caleb Terbush getting the start.
Purdue will look to build on their finish from last season and continue to be competitive in the Leaders division.
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