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2011 College Football Preview: Breaking Down the Big Ten

MonteeBallArizonaStatevWisconsin5OB1-krRP_mlAhh, the Big Ten. With 12 teams. And Legends and Leaders. And the Cy Hawk Trophy.

Yes, the Big Ten can be a punching bag nationally but they say sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you. That is exactly what the Big Ten should be thinking because the addition of Nebraska has leveled the playing field a bit and helped them in their efforts to catch up to the SEC. We’ll see what happens down the road but for now, the 2011 season is one of the more interesting ones in Big Ten history.

Think about it. New head coaches at Michigan and Ohio State (and Indiana and Minnesota). Nebraska (!) is now in the conference, allowing the adoption of division play and a conference championship game. There are three defending champions (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State) with a realistic opportunity to lay claim to an outright championship this season.

You want key non-conference games? The Big Ten has them. Ohio State vs. Miami. Penn State vs. Alabama. Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue all play Notre Dame. Minnesota travels to USC. Illinois plays Arizona State. Wisconsin plays Oregon State.

And to think, I managed to write 206 words before mentioning Joe Paterno. Carry on.

Offense

Best Quarterback: Dan Persa, Northwestern. I’m on the Persa Strong bandwagon. Why? Because he makes Northwestern relevant with his gritty attitude, precision passing, and ability and willingness to tuck the ball and run when needed. It was a shame to see Persa get injured last season, but as long as he comes back strong, he should once again be one of the top overall players in the Big Ten in 2011.

He’s also from my neck of the woods in eastern Pennsylvania, but that’s besides the fact.

Best Running Back: Montee Ball, Wisconsin (pictured, above). When you have such a strong offensive line in front of you, it is easy being the best running back in the conference. Montee Ball could probably be the best running back in the conference no matter what school he played for. No running back had more touchdown runs than Ball last year in the Big Ten and even though he did not rush for 1,000 yards like some other backs in the conference, Ball had the highest rushing average per attempt (6.1 ypa) in the conference except for teammate James White (6.7 ypa) and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson (6.6 ypa).

Best Wide Receiver: Roy Roundtree, Michigan. Michigan always has a good receiver or two. Amani Toomer, Mario Manningham, Steve Breaston and many more. Roy Roundtree may be undersized at just 6’-0” and 176 pounds, but he can work the open field with the best of them. Roundtree was the Wolverines’ leading receiver in 2010 with 935 yards and seven touchdown catches, and he should once again be the top target for Denard Robinson.

Best Offensive Lineman: OG Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin. I love those Wisconsin linemen, and when it comes to singling one out over another I tend to feel bad about doing so. Zeitler though is deserving of some of the singling out, as a Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy watch list player and as one of Phil Steele’s First Team All-Big Ten players for 2011 it is certainly warranted. Zeitler is one of three returning starters for the Badgers offensive line, along with Peter Konz and Ricky Wagner.

On the Spot: QB Russell Wilson, Wisconsin. With the addition of Russell Wilson at Wisconsin the Badgers elevated to the top of the conference in the national media, myself included. If the Badgers’ biggest issue in 2011 was replacing Scott Tolzien behind center, then consider that hole plugged. But the question will be if Wilson, who performed well in the ACC, can duplicate that level of play in a conference that I believe plays superior defense. I think with what is behind him that is certainly worth expecting, but he will be under pressure to perform right from the start.

Busting Out: RB Silas Redd, Penn State. Folks, if you don’t know anything about Silas Redd yet, brace yourself. He may not be Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina, but he isn’t all that far off. Redd will take over the starting running back duties in State College and he is flying under the national radar right now as a sophomore, but he won’t be hiding for long. If his offensive line is clicking, Redd is going to do some damage this season in the Big Ten.

Wildcard: QB Joe Bauserman, Ohio State. Ohio State is a wild card from top to bottom in my mind, but I think if they can get some dependable play out of their quarterback this season they should be more than capable of weathering the storm over the first five games, and the Big Ten opener in Lincoln, Nebraska. Bauserman does not impress anybody and is not in the same class as Persa, Robinson or Nathan Scheelhaase, but he does not need to be. What he needs to be is Ohio State’s next Todd Boeckman, a guy who can manage the offense and keep his team in position to win a game. There is enough talent in Columbus to make good things happen, and Bauserman appears to have the leg up in the competition.

Defense

JaredCrickKansasvNebraskaey_-ps1kn-QlBest Defensive Lineman: DE Jared Crick, Nebraska (pictured, right). Nebraska’s defensive line is going to be a beast this season, and defensive end Jared Crick will lead the attack, bringing pressure to opposing quarterbacks and shutting down the outside lanes for running backs more often than anyone else in the conference. Crick led the Huskers in sacks in 2010 with 9.5, ne fewer than Big 12 leader Von Miller’s 10.5 (you may have heard of that guy).

Best Linebacker: Michael Mauti, Penn State. Nebraska has some very talented linebackers and may have the best overall unit, but Linebacker U still has the top linebacker in the conference. Mauti may lack some of the physical attributes that flashier and more vicious linebackers sometimes possess, but Mauti is your typical linebacker, like Sean Lee, Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor and so on. He knows where the football is, he tracks it down, and brings down the carrier. Simple as that. Before you know it, he’ll be leading the Big Ten in tackles.

Best Defensive Back: FS Micah Hyde, Iowa. Micah Hyde led the Hawkeyes in interceptions in 2010 with four picks, tied with cornerback Shaun Prater. His seven pass breakups also led the Iowa’s defense. He is also Iowa’s leading tackler returning for 2011, recording 82 tackles last year.

On the Spot: Greg Mattison, Michigan defensive coordinator. The problem during the Rich Rodriguez era was never offense. Instead it was defense. Brady Hoke’s defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, who was the defensive coordinator for Michigan during the 1995 and 1996 season. The defense those years allowed an average between 13 and 18 points. Don’t expect those kind of results right away, but don’t expect Michigan to allow 35 points per game again either.

Busting Out: DE Devon Still, Penn State. Devon Still came on strong at the end of the 2010 season and had a decent bowl game against Florida. Penn State’s defensive line has been a bit of a walking M.A.S.H. unit over the last year (Pete Massaro already out for 2011 with an ACL injury and Jack Crawford still rebounding from a nagging foot injury from 2010), so Still has become one of the more important players on the line for Penn State.

Wildcard: FS Aaron Henry, Wisconsin. As odd as it seems, Wisconsin does not have too many playmakers on defense. They run the typical Big Ten defense, which is to say they play evenly and seem to share all of the defensive glory. If the Badgers are going to emerge as a legitimate BCS contender, they’ll need somebody to make plays on defense, and Aaron Henry may be the best option. Henry broke up seven passes in 2010 and picked off two passes, and he will probably have to come up with some more turnovers in 2011.

Coaches

Hottest Seat: Ron Zook, Illinois. Is this really a question? With Rich Rodriguez out of the picture, and a couple other coaching changes having already taken place, Zook will be the next to go without it being his decision (Paterno is a totally different story). A Texas Bowl victory just doesn’t enough to hang your hat on, and with a change at athletic director at Illinois, Zook’s writing may be on the wall. At some point, the record speaks for itself, and Zook’s record is 28-45 at Illinois (51-59 overall).

Up and Coming: Kevin Wilson, Indiana. We have yet to see this guy coach one game but he is already making waves heading in to the season. Landing the nation’s top quarterback recruit, and making a statement on local radio that he is not interested in laughing about Indiana’s past have me on board with what Wilson is trying to accomplish. I’m not saying Indiana is going to be a Big Ten title contender any time soon, but he has already caused me to talk about Indiana more in the off-season than I have ever talked about them before. That has to mean something, right?

Top Technician: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (pictured). Ferentz has enjoyed a decent career at Iowa, and I feel he is one of the best game day coaches in the Big Ten. Iowa is one of those teams that always seems to fly under the radar, and that is because they are never sexy. In the Big Ten, that is usually the way to go. Three straight bowl victories, four seasons with double-digit victories (Iowa only has six double-digit win seasons since 1899), and just two losing seasons since taking over the job (Iowa was 1-10 in his first season in 1999 and 3-9 in 2000) show that Ferentz has done some solid work at Iowa. Just ask Joe Paterno.

Games

Cupcake City: Illinois. Sure, Michigan plays two directional Michigan schools (Western and Eastern) but at least they play Notre Dame and San Diego State. Ohio State has the usual in-state romps scheduled with Akron and Toledo (and Colorado!) but they also make a trip to Miami. Penn State gets Alabama this season. Illinois? Arkansas State (4-8 in 2010), FCS South Dakota State (5-6) and Western Michigan (6-6). Playing Arizona State at home is going to be a decent challenge, but the Sun Devils were 6-6 last year and ineligible for a bowl game because of two (TWO) wins against FCS opponents. Oh, and all of these games are at home. The first road game of the season comes on October 8.

Death March: Nebraska and Penn State. I had a tough time picking between the two, so I’ll let you sound off on the subject in the comments section. Penn State and Nebraska each open the season with FCS opponents, but have a number of challenges ahead of them in 2011.

Penn State hosts Alabama, a legitimate BCS championship contender, and ends the season at home against Nebraska before taking to the road for the final two weeks at Ohio State and at Wisconsin.

Nebraska gets no favors entering the Big Ten. The Huskers get Ohio State ate home but must go on the road at Wisconsin, at Penn State and at Michigan (PSU and UM in back-to-back weeks in the two largest stadiums in the nation by the way).

Game of the Year (Non-Conference): Penn State vs. Alabama. Those plethora of Notre Dame games are always nice but the Nittany Lions and Crimson Tide is a little more special due to the rarity of the match-ups, and the fact that Alabama is going to be a beast this season. The game will not only be a measuring stick for the Nittany Lions, but it will also be a chance to see if a Big Ten team can compete at the level of one of the nation’s best, and of course one of the SEC’s best.

Game of the Year (Big Ten conference): Nebraska vs. Wisconsin. The Badgers get the honor of welcoming the Huskers to the conference when Nebraska plays their first Big Ten conference game on October 1. It could also be a Big Ten championship preview (more on that in a moment). The two division favorites (spoiler alert) square off in what could also play a factor in to the BCS standings down the line.

Predictions

I know I am seeing red. Nebraska looks like a team that can make a third straight trip to a conference championship game, but the question will be if the Big Ten can bring a new outcome to the Huskers after losing the past (and last) two Big 12 championship games. The Huskers have a tough slate, and they must also get by defending co-Big Ten champs Michigan State and what I believe will be an improved Michigan team.

On the other side, I have Wisconsin for the time being, although it would not shock me one bit to see Ohio State make a run in the Leaders Division. The Badgers have the offense, they have the defense, and they have the coach. When all is said and done, Wisconsin will be the favorite heading to Indianapolis, site of the first Big Ten Football championship game.

So which team wins the Big Ten’s automatic BCS berth? Unfortunately for Nebraska, you can change conferences but the result will be pretty familiar. I’m picking the Badgers to get by the Huskers to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl for a second straight season.

Here’s what the rest of the Crystal Ball Run staff has to say:

Allen Kenney: Man, the Big Ten is boring. Ohio State did its best to spice things up with Tatgate, but even that scandal is turning out to be underwhelming in the NCAA retribution phase.

Luckily, Nebraska and the high-strung Pelini brothers have joined the league to give these guys some personality. The Cornhuskers have been dealing with the high-flying offenses in the Big 12 for a while now, which should make the plug-and-chug attacks they will see this season feel like a Swedish massage. The people making up the schedule in the league office didn’t do NU any favors, including that daunting B1G opener at Madison. Still, I expect the ‘Huskers to waltz through the Legends.

On the other side, OSU’s eventful off-season isn’t going to sway me against the Buckeyes. Yeah, the Fickell factor troubles me. But it’s not like OSU’s defense is going anywhere. Also, Wisconsin and Penn State have to travel to Columbus, and OSU catches the Badgers following an open date.

As for the conference champ, give me NU in Indy.

Michael Felder: Gimme Wisconsin. I like what Bret Bielema is doing up there and with their solid stable of running back and a team committed to their identity they have the ability to go far.

On the other side I’ll take Nebraska. The Huskers be set to experience Big Ten teams but I don’t think a lot of the Big Ten teams will be ready to add another, legitimate beast to their schedules. Not because Nebraska is head and shoulders better or because the Big Ten isn’t prepared but merely from a bodies standpoint. The teams already had a tough grind in Ohio State, Wisconsin and the rest of the physical teams; now they’re adding another. To the mix, I expect Nebraska to persevere and that will make for a rematch in Indianapolis.

In Indy? Gimme the Badgers. All Russell Wilson Everything folks. The young man is going to surprise some people who continually discount Wilson because “he played in the ACC.” He brings something extra to their huddle from a leadership and physical standpoint and that cannot be overlooked. Expect him to be the difference maker in Madison.

Tom Perry: Nebraska is a popular pick, but I’m on the Wisconsin bandwagon. North Carolina State-transfer Russell Wilson is exactly what Bret Bielema needed to fill the void at quarterback.

Wisconsin is going to focus on Badger football, and that means pounding the ball with Montee Ball and James White. That’s possibly the best 1-2 punch in the nation. Wisconsin’s defense will be one of the top three in the Big Ten and the Badgers will beat the Cornhuskers in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.

As a side note, everyone is overlooking Ohio State because of all of the controversy this offseason, but don’t be surprised if the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin and make the title game.

Aaron Torres: Quite frankly, I think the two best teams in this conference (Wisconsin and Ohio State) are in the same division, robbing us of the best possible matchup in the first Big Ten championship game.

Either way, in the East (Instead of using the arbitrarily assigned “L,” words, I’ve decided to give the divisions my own arbitrary names), I’ll take Wisconsin. I wasn’t totally crazy about them coming into the off-season, but the marriage between Russell Wilson and the Badgers seems too good to be true. I had my doubts on how someone would fit on a new team on such short notice (we saw disaster last year with Jeremiah Masoli and Ole Miss in a similar situation), but Wilson’s game is tailored for Wisconsin’s scheme, and the fact that he’s already earned the respect of his teammates enough to be named captain is outstanding.

In the West Division, I guess I’ll take Northwestern. Quite frankly I really don’t think the buzz around Nebraska is warranted, and just don’t see why everyone is so excited about them. Their offense lost its second and third most important pieces from last year (Roy Helu and Niles Paul), and the chances of Taylor Martinez staying healthy the entire year are about as high as the chances of me going on a date with Mila Kunis next week. Not to mention that Nebraska will be going against much better defenses this year than last too. In 2010 they faced one of college football’s Top 35 defenses (Texas). This year, they’ll face four (Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin). Granted, a lot of good players have graduated off those four units, but I still like Big Ten defenses overall than I do their brethren in the Big XII.

As for the rest of the division, I think Iowa will be better than people expect, and Michigan too. But Michigan State? Vegas has the over/under win total for them at 7, which is about as fishy as fishy can get. I have a strong feeling this is a case where Vegas knows something we don’t.

Which leaves Northwestern. I’m not head over heels in love with them, but Dan Persa is amazingly underrated, and as long as the defense doesn’t fall flat on their face, they should be in every game. There isn’t a single game on the schedule (with the possible exception of a visit to Lincoln) that Northwestern shouldn’t be able to compete, if not win.

And in Indy, I like Wisconsin comfortably over Northwestern.

To Pasadena the Badgers go again.

The Big Ten will have three or four really good teams and two should make BCS Bowls.


Follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter at @CrystalBallRun.

Follow Kevin McGuire on Twitter at @KevinOnCFB.

Kevin McGuire

About Kevin McGuire

Managing editor of Crystal Ball Run and contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. College Football Hall of Fame voter. Also managing Bloguin's NittanyLionsDen.com and Macho-Row.com.

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