2013 Big Ten Football Preview
By Jake Bockoven, NewsNetNebraska
Ohio State is going to run away with the Big 10 conference crown this upcoming football season. That is, if numbers crunched by NewsNetNebraska in an attempt to predict the 2013 season hold out.
Nebraska, according to the numbers, should make a return trip to the Big 10 title game, but Ohio State is clearly the favorite in the conference. Using a number of stats, ranging from elite level returning players to coaching continuity, NewsNetNebraska calculated how each team in the conference would finish based on these forward looking figures.
The results show a loaded Legends division, with three of the top five teams hailing from that side of the conference. Penn State and Wisconsin look to be competitive in the Leaders division, but Ohio State clearly is the best team in the league.
“I think they’re (Ohio State) more talented, they got a year of experience under coach Meyer’s offensive system,” said former Buckeye and current sports radio personality Bobby Carpenter. “They should be in the hunt for the national title,”
Here is a breakdown of each team, their predicted ranking and a podcast of the top teams from the Big Ten.
The student section at Nebraska named themselves “The Boneyard” last season in honor of their tradition-rich blackshirt defense. In hindsight, maybe last year was not the season to honor the defense. Nebraska gave up a staggering 53.5 points on average in their four losses last season (including giving up 70 in the Big Ten Championship game vs. Wisconsin). Nebraska loses many of it’s defensive starters from last season but with the exception of DE Eric Martin, most of those players will be replaced by younger and more athletic talent. JC transfer Randy Gregory and LB Thomas Brown are expected to fill Martin’s role as a pass rusher. The rebuilt front seven will have to be better at stopping the run this year after giving up more than 190 yards per game in 2012. Last season’s defense was very tough to beat through the air — opposing quarterback completed 47.1 percent of their passes. Though both safeties need to be replaced, all of the cornerbacks will be returning led by senior Ciante Evans. While the defense looks to be a project, the offense looks looks to be one of the best in the nation. Senior dual-threat QB Taylor Martinez returns for his final season after a stellar junior campaign. Shifty RB Ameer Abdullah is an all-conference-type back and he has solid but mostly unproven depth behind him. Nebraska may boast the best receiving corps in the conference, led Kenny Bell, and the offensive line returns three starters led by All-American guard Spencer Long. One thing the offense needs to improve on is their turnovers (led B1G with 35) which will help keep their young defense off the field. If the defense performs well, Nebraska can take advantage of a weak schedule and repeat as Legends division champions.
The era of one of the most celebrated quarterbacks in Michigan history is over. With it, comes the era of head coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges running the more traditional offense they had in mind when they took over for the maize and blue. QB Devin Gardner was able to get some experience under his belt when Dennard Robinson was injured last season. Gardner returns for his senior season to led the team under center. Gardner still has plenty of mobility but he is more of a traditional QB with a better arm than Robinson. Depth behind Gardner is non-existent, which will likely thrust highly touted true freshman Shane Morris into action at some point this season. Michigan may have the best offensive tackle combination in the nation, led by Taylor Lewan, who passed up potentially being a top pick in the NFL draft to return for his senior season.There is depth at RB but the lack of a threat out of the backfield caused problems for Michigan’s offense last season. RB Fitzgerald Toussaint looks to bounce back from a disappointing junior season, while highly touted freshman RB Derrick Green will likely push Toussiant for playing time. Michigan has threats on the outside to open up the middle of the field in WRs Jeremey Gallon and Drew Dileo, as well as TE Devin Funchess. On defense, coordinator Greg Madison may not have as many proven players as he would like but he has a track record of doing more with less. Michigan took a big hit in spring practice when stellar LB Jake Ryan suffered an injury that should keep him out until at least October. DB BLake Countess is returning from injury after suffering a season ending injury in the opening game last season. The Wolverines only return six starters on defense and they will be expecting big contributions from young players such as Freshman DE Taco Charlton. A tough schedule will challenge this team but if the defense can outperform expectations, Michigan will compete for the Legends division title.
Five minutes and three seconds. That is the total amount of time Northwestern trailed at the end of its three losses last season. That number can now be seen on the Wildcat’s practice jerseys. In 2013, one of Northwestern’s goals is to finish. Other goals include a Legends division title and B1G crown. Those goals were once a dream for this program. Northwestern is coming off one of its most successful seasons in the program’s history. In 2012, Northwestern was able to reach 10 wins and a bowl victory (1st since 1949) over an SEC opponent. How Northwestern will handle success has yet to be seen but they have talent. The offense is led by one of the best all-purpose players in the nation in running back Venric Mark, who led the conference with 167 yards per game in 2012. In addition to being a receiving threat out of the backfield and returning kicks and punts, Mark racked up nearly 1,400 yards on the ground. Both quarterbacks (Kain Colter and Trevor Siemien) return as part of a rare two-quarterback system that actually seems to work. Most of the receiving threats return as well, with graduating senior Demetrius Fields being the only exception. The defense returns seven starters including leading tackler LB Damien Proby and the B1G’s returning sack leader in DE Tyler Scott. The wildcats might also boast the best kicker in the conference in Jeff Budzien (19-20 on field goals). If there is a problem heading into the season it is the offensive line which has to replace three starters from a group that led the B1G in least amount of sacks allowed (16). The fact that Northwestern led the league in turnover margin (+14) should give the wildcat faithful another reason to believe Pat Fitzgerald and his staff are building a sound team. If Northwestern can take care of that extra five minutes and three seconds this season, they will be heading to Indianapolis.
Perhaps no team in the nation — aside from LSU — was hit harder by early NFL draft enrollees than Michigan State. Workhorse RB Le’Veon Bell, TE Dion Sims and DE William Gholston all decided to forgo their senior seasons to enter the draft. Michigan State’s defense should be able to take the hit but their offense has a lot of work to do. Bell accounted for more than 92 percent of the Spartans rushing yardage. Additionally Sims was the best play-action target on the field. Michigan State ran the offense through the run and play-action pass last year, while QB Andrew Maxwell and his wide receivers struggled to produce. Maxwell should be better going into his senior year but he will have to fight off back-up quarterback Connor Cook who led Michigan State to its bowl win over TCU. The good news for the offense is that four out of five starters return on the offensive line along with standout lineman Fou Fonoti, who missed 2012 with an injury. Dave Warner takes over as the new play caller on offense and the Spartans need him to do well. The defense looks like it will pick up where it left off last year as one of the best defenses in the Big Ten (1st in the conference in scoring defense, total defense, and rushing defense in 2012). LB Max Bullough returns and potential all-conference players joining him are DE Marcus Rush, LB Denicos Allen, S Isaiah Lewis, and DB Darquez Dennard, who often looked better last year than departed starting DB Johnny Adams. This defense should once again keep the Spartans in games. Getting over the hump will be the key as Michigan State lost five of their six games by an average of 2.6 points. The defense might be even better this year but the offense will need to at least get to the level it was last year if the Spartans want to contend for a Legends Division crown.
One of the biggest disappointments in the B1G last season was Iowa. The Hawkeye offense under Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis was the biggest problem as Iowa dropped its final six games. The running back curse at Iowa continued, as RB Jordan Canzeri got hurt in the first game and missed the rest of the season. RB Mark Weismann was able to perform rather well when he was healthy and gave Iowa its only real threat on offense. Both backs return along with speed back Damon Bullock. Iowa does lose starting QB James Vandenberg and one of its top receivers in Keenan Davis. Kevonte Martin-Manley was the other vertical threat for Iowa in 2012 and he will be back. The battle for the quarterback position will come down to Sophmore Jake Rudock and junior college transfer Cody Sokol. The defense returns most of its starters from a sub-par unit last season. The two players that graduated (DB Micah Hyde and DE Joe Gaglione) will be missed, but Iowa returns a very productive LB unit. Seniors James Morris, Christian Kirksley and Anthony Hitchens should be all over the field again. Iowa’s defense will see significant improvement if they can improve on last season’s paltry 13 sacks. Iowa draws a pretty difficult B1G schedule as every team they face in conference play were bowl eligible last season, so winning games before conference play will be crucial. If the offense doesn’t improve, Greg Davis will be shown the door. Kirk Ferentz needs to clean this thing up or he may be fired as well.
Few teams benefit from having a dual-threat quarterback going down with an injury early in the season. The 2012 Minnesota team may have been an exception. Though the offense didn’t fair particularly well, QB Phillip Nelson was able to get almost a full year of experience last season. Nelson led Minnesota to a bowl game and now his experience should pay dividends in 2013. All five of the Golden Gophers starting offensive linemen return from a pretty good unit last season. Junior RB Donnell Kirkwood, who rushed for almost 1,000 yards last year, also returns. The struggle for the offense may be to replace Marquies Gray (who played WR after returning from injury last season) and WR A.J. Barker, who was Minnesota’s go-to guy before he left the team late last season. While the offense returns most of its starters, the defense loses many of its key contributors. Gone is DE D.L. Wilhite, DB Troy Stoudemire, and LB Mike Rallis. Luckily DT Ra’Sheade Haegman decided to return for his senior season. The pass defense was the strength of the unit last season and while both cornerbacks need to be replaced, both safeties played very well and should help the new corners. S Derrick Wells is particularly good as he was among the nation leaders in breaking up 22 passes last season. The Golden Gophers took big steps by making a bowl last season. They may still be a year away from contending for a division title but improving on a 6-7 record is not out of the question.
After a 12-0 season, Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes are the favorites to win the conference and make it back to the Rose Bowl, if not the last BCS National Championship Game. The offense is stacked and led by Heisman candidate dual-threat QB Braxton Miller. Going into his junior season, Miller is the defending conference player of the year and the top play-maker in the league. Behind him is all-conference caliber RB Carlos Hyde and numerous weapons at WR, including Devin Smith, Corey Brown, and Chris Fields. Additionally, former RB Jordan Hall received a medical redshirt and will be back for another senior season. Hall is expected to be used as a weapon in the slot, much like Urban Meyer used Percy Harvin at Florida. The steady offensive line also return four of its five starters including T Jack Mewhort and G Andrew Norwell. Despite having one of the best offenses in the nation, the Buckeyes will only go as far as the defense takes them. The defensive backfield, which struggled to stop opposing passing games last year, looks to be the strength of the team this year with All-American candidate DB Bradley Roby leading the way. All-conference LB Ryan Shazier (led B1G in tackles for loss) is the only returning starter in the front seven, but Ohio State should have the least amount of drop-off in talent in the Big Ten when replacing starters given how they have dominated recruiting the past couple of years. Two of those replacements on the defensive line are former five-star recruits DT/DE Adolphus Washington and DE Noah Spence. Going undefeated in back-to-back seasons is always difficult, but if the defense grows as the year progresses to match the offense, Ohio State is going to have a chance to finish the conference season without a blemish.
Bill O’Brien heads into his second year at Penn State with what should be an easier summer to look forward to. Despite losing ten players in July and August last season due to the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal sanctions, O’Brien led Penn State to an 8-4 record. Many key pieces have since departed but no team in 2012 showed they could plug young guys in and succeed better than Penn St. WR Allen Robinson became the most productive receiver in the conference last season and he will return to lead an offense that has many skill position players coming back. Thousand-yard RB Zack Zwinak leads a crowded backfield, while the Nittany Lions boast perhaps the best TE group in the nation. Kyle Carter and 6’7 Jesse James will present plenty of problems, especially near the goal line, for opposing defenses. The only question is who will be throwing the ball to them. QB Stephen Bench decided he wanted to transfer after spring ball, leaving two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster who have never taken an FBS snap. Junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson had a good spring and he will likely battle highly touted true freshman Zach Hackenburg for the job when he arrives for fall camp. The defense was the strength last year but they lose key pieces from the from the defensive line and at linebacker. DE Deion Barnes will anchor the defense and build on his stellar freshman season. Special teams appears to be a concern once again. K Sam Ficken struggled last season and the offense had to play a longer field because of it. Ficken returns along with P Alex Butterworth, who also struggled in 2012. Of course, a huge obstacle Penn State will have to overcome is depth because of scholarship sanctions. The biggest key will be to keep even moderate contributors healthy, especially on the defense.
Only at Wisconsin could a running back break the NCAA record for rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns and be expected to be replaced with no drop off. The Badger faithful are expecting big things from senior RB James White, who rushed for 1,052 yards in 2010, and sophmore RB Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 216 yards on 9 carries vs. Nebraska in B1G Championship game. Big-play threat WR Jared Abbrederis leads a solid receiving corps. Who starts at quarterback will boil down to returning starter Joel Stave, Rose Bowl starter Curt Phillips, and junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy, who is a dual-threat QB. Wisconsin’s offensive line is expected to be solid this year with three offensive linemen returning. New head Coach Gary Anderson is expected to keep the same power offense that Wisconsin traditionally runs, but don’t be surprised to see some elements of the spread offense he ran at Utah State. Major changes will be made on the defensive side of the ball, where the Badgers will switch to a 3-4. Anchoring the middle of that defense will be LB Chris Borland. The strength of the defense is the front seven, which will return plenty of depth, with DE Brenden Kelly, who had 5 sacks in 2012. The question mark on the defense is going to be in the defensive backfield where the Badgers lose three starters. That defensive backfield will have to grow up quick as Wisconsin heads to the desert to play pass-happy Arizona State in September. Wisconsin welcomes in a new coach in 2013 but the expectations remain the same for the three-time defending B1G champs. In order to get to Pasadena, Wisconsin will likely have to go on the road and beat Ohio State in late September and then avoid slipping up more than once the rest of the B1G season. The schedule sets up well, but can the Badgers win in the Horseshoe?
While a 4-8 record doesn’t look like much, it represented progress for Indiana. With eight home games and a conference leading 19 returning starters, Indiana is thinking of going bowling in 2013. One of those 19 returning starters is QB Cameron Coffman, but his job is not entirely secure. Tre Roberson was the man Coffman replaced last year when Roberson went down for the season with a broken leg. If Roberson returns to his starting spot, he will bring the added dimension of a dual-threat quarterback back to the offense. QB Nate Sudfeild is also battling for the start under center. With so much talent at quarterback, expect to see Kevin Wilson and this Hoosier coaching staff to mix and match. Shane Wynn, Cody Latimer, and Kofi Hughes make for excellent targets at wide receiver and the Hoosier’s offensive line only allowed 17 sacks last season. However, Indiana was last in the B1G in 2012 in time of possession at just over 26 minutes per game. RB Stephen Houston should get more looks after nearly gaining 800 yards on more than 160 attempts last year. Houston is also a viable receiving threat. While the offense looks to be a strength for the team, the Hoosier defense needs to make major strides if Indiana is going to reach its goals this year. Nine starters return which should give Indiana the opportunity to improve. The Hoosiers will have to replace both tackles up front. Indiana’s defense looked particularly weak near the end of the season when it gave up a combined 16 touchdowns and more than 1300 yards in its final three games. Indiana’s coaching staff needs to work on depth and conditioning on defense when the season is winding down. Indiana will need to win the games they are supposed to and maybe sneak an upset or two in order to go bowling, but it is certainly possible.
The higher ups in West Lafayette are looking for more than mediocrity in their football program. Coach Danny Hope lost his job after a 6-7 season last season. New Head Coach Darrell Hazell is looking to take the Boilermakers to the next level. In order to do so he will have to decide on a QB. Senior Rob Henry is the only viable QB with experience on the roster but he is in a battle for the starting spot with three freshman, led by redshirt frehsman Austin Appleby. The Boilermakers lose their top running back in Akeem Shavers, but they have a solid replacement in Akeem Hunt, who is a threat in the passing game as well. Establishing depth behind Hunt will be key as new Offensive Coordinator John Shoop looks to run his pro-style offense through the run game. The offensive line will have to take big strides if the Boilermakers will be successful. At wideout, Purdue will need to develop more talent as top WR OJ Ross was suspended indefinitely for breaking team rules. New Defensive Coordinator Greg Hudson may have the biggest shoes to fill in the conference as DT Kawann Short heads to the NFL. DT Bruce Gaston and DE Ryan Russell will lead a very solid defensive line that needs to improve on putting pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. The weakness to Purdue’s defense is at linebacker. The DBs should be solid despite the loss of Josh Johnson. CB Ricardo Allen will lead that group this year. Hazell’s 2012 Kent State team thrived off of turnovers last season, so expect more of that from the secondary if the front seven can pressure the quarterback. A tough schedule may prevent Purdue from improving their win total from last year, but if the Boilermakers can remain competitive in most games and get back to a bowl game, this season will be seen as a success.
Stock in Illini football was rising in mid-October of 2011. Illinois looked to be a contender in the Big Ten, as it was 6-0 and had two conference wins. Since then, the Fighting Illini have gone 3-16. Coach Tim Beckman managed two wins in his inaugural season last year and neither of those wins were in conference play (one of the wins was against an FBS team). Given those results, it might be good or bad news that Illinois is replacing five coaches from last year’s staff. One of the replacements is new offensive coordinator Bill Curbit, who will look to spark Illinois’ largely inept offense from a year ago. The good news is most of the production comes back from last year’s unproductive offense. QB Nathan Scheelhause returns for his final season and Reiley O’Toole has seen plenty of game time at backup. Illinois returns it’s top two rushers from last season, though they combined for less than 900 yards. The WR group looks strong with the team’s top three receivers coming back for their senior seasons, led by Ryan Lankford. If Illinois offensive production is going to get better though, it will need more consistency and brute force from its offensive line. New offensive line coach A.J. Ricker will have to replace two starters from last year’s group. What may be even a bigger challenge this year will be to improve the defensive side of the ball with only three starters returning. One of those starters is athletic LB Jonathan Brown, who will be expected to lead the inexperienced defense. Illinois especially struggled against the run last season, so DT Akeem Spence could’ve done wonders for this program had he returned for his senior season. Instead Spence is off to the NFL, leaving a big hole to fill in Champaign. Unlike most teams in the Big Ten, Illinois’ goal should be improvement rather than a bowl game this season.