The Big Ten will gain a new member this upcoming football season, but if you’ve only followed the conference for the past few months, you might not even know it.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers are the newest addition to the now 12-team Big Ten, which has led the conference to divvy up its members into “Legends” and “Leaders,” two grossly under-thought (or, perhaps, over-thought) division titles. Since that fateful December announcement revealed the Big Ten’s new makeup, though, the conference has been rocked and rattled numerous times.
Ex-North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson, you may know, is now a Badger. Ohio State, you also may know, no longer has head coach Jim Tressel or QB Terrelle Pryor. Those Buckeyes also recently had the top prospect from the state of Ohio, offensive tackle Kyle Kalis, decommitted for the suddenly greener pastures of their bitterly execrated rivals, the Michigan Wolverines.
But now, with the controversy in Columbus at least temporarily subsiding to the relentless, unforgiving confines of the blogosphere, real football talk can begin in earnest. For instance, how much success will Wilson find in Madison? Can Penn State, once again lacking a concrete solution at the quarterback position, return to elite status? And what about the Cornhuskers? Are they instantly the favorites in their new conference, or is a rude awakening in store for head coach Bo Pelini and stud QB Taylor Martinez?
So much lies in wait for a conference that once again enters the fall with great expectations. The Big Ten went 2-5 in the 2010 bowl season, ratcheting up the pressure on the conference for 2011. Simply put, questions regarding the Big Ten abound, and answers to most of them do not. But that’s never stopped anyone from making some bold predictions about what’s in store, so without further ado, here’s what you can expect from the Big Ten this football season.
1. Ohio State is still good enough to be a threat in the Big Ten
When Pryor and four other Buckeyes (running back Daniel “Boom” Herron, wideout DeVier Posey, tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas) were suspended for the first games of this season in December, the doom and gloom clouds were quick to gather over Columbus. When Tressel was suspended three months later, they erupted into a full-blown storm. And when Tressel resigned and Pryor left the university eight days later? Forget about it.
Still, don’t forget — this is Ohio State. While the Buckeyes will have to adjust to a new quarterback — likely senior Joe Bauserman — they should be able to survive those first five games without Herron, Posey and Adams (Thomas isn’t likely to start) relatively unscathed. After beginning the season by hosting Akron and Toledo, the first test will come Sept. 17 at Miami. Then, the Buckeyes will host Colorado before an Oct. 1 showdown with Michigan State in the Big Ten opener. Winning four of those five should keep Ohio State afloat until the suspensions are ended in time for a trip to Nebraska the next week.
An Oct. 29 home battle with Wisconsin still looms, as does a final stretch of games with Penn State and Michigan (in the Big House, no less). Nevertheless, the offense returns six starters and the defense brings back four. Mike Brewster, one of the premier centers in the nation, will anchor the athletic and physical offensive line. While the receiving group is shallow behind Posey, senior tight end Jake Stoneburner returns to give Bauserman (or Braxton Miller, Taylor Graham or Kenny Guiton) another steady pass-catching option.
Make no mistake — OSU’s glory days under Ol’ Sweater Vest are over. At this point, Wisconsin and Nebraska seem slightly out of Ohio State’s reach in the Big Ten picture. But a second-place finish in the Leaders division, as well as yet another bowl berth, figure to be attainable for the new-look Buckeyes.
2. Jerry Kill will rebuild Minnesota — slowly
Hiring a coach with a badass name couldn’t be a bad start, right? After former head coach Tim Brewster failed to live up to the lofty campaign promises he laid out upon being hired in 2007, Jerry Kill was brought in after three seasons at Northern Illinois (his position was filled by former Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Doeren). Kill is tasked with rebuilding a program that was not bowl-eligible last year, has not won more than seven games since 2003 and also has not won a conference championship in more than 40 years.
Matt Limegrover is the Gophers’ fifth offensive coordinator in six years, and he will be responsible for a unit that returns just five starters from 2010. MarQueis Gray, a former wide receiver, is all but certain to start at quarterback, barring injury. Gray caught 42 passes for 587 yards last season, and his top receiving option in 2011 will be senior Da’Jon McKnight, a preseason Biletnikoff Award candidate. At running back, the Gophers have several candidates but no standout leader for the spot that senior DeLeon Eskridge won by default in 2010.
On defense, Minnesota also returns five starters, three of which come on the defensive line. That’s not necessarily a positive, though, as the Gophers recorded an NCAA-low eight sacks last season and the Big Ten’s worst rushing defense (191.4 yards allowed per game). The other two returning starters on the defense are linebackers Keanon Cooper and Gary Tinsley, leaving a secondary led by former wideout Troy Stoudermire with a glaring lack of experience.
Minnesota begins the season with a trip west to face Southern California, meaning it could be rough early for the Gophers. But Kill has already done a good job of boosting morale around the team, as his track record of turning around weak programs and his straight-talking attitude have gone a long way in helping to erase the nightmares of Brewster’s tenure. It won’t be hugely successful, but the 2011 season will be a step in the right direction for Kill and the Gophers.
3. The inaugural Big Ten Championship Game will feature…
Wisconsin triumphing over Legends division-winner Michigan State. Nebraska seems well adjusted to make the transition to the Big Ten, especially on defense, but questions persist for the offense. The key game for both teams, of course, will come Oct. 29, when the Spartans travel to Lincoln, Neb., for what is certain to be a highlight of the Big Ten schedule. Michigan State does have to face Ohio State (they got a year off in 2010) and Notre Dame this season — both on the road — but Nebraska’s transition to a no-huddle offense, along with significant turnover on the coaching staff, present significant issues for the conference newcomer.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, does not face an easy schedule by any means. The Cornhuskers will play their first conference game under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium Oct. 1, which figures to give the Badgers a fairly significant advantage. The two other most daunting matchups for Wisconsin will come two weeks later at Michigan State, and then one week after that, a trip to Ohio State. If the Badgers can exit that stretch with just one loss, the remainder of the season bodes well for a trip to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis Dec. 3.