2011 NCAA Football Preview: Big Ten Conference

August 22, 2011
By K. Becks

Due to the location of many of my frequent readers, the Big Ten Conference is one of the more exciting conferences for me to cover throughout both the college football and basketball seasons. This year, with the inception of a new team rich with tradition and past success, the conference is all the more interesting.

Continuing the 2011 college football conference preview series, here is Around The Corn’s Big Ten Conference preview.

Overview

In the last year, the Big Ten conference has undergone major changes that would seem to indicate that the power conferences in college football and gearing up for what will eventually be a collection of super-conferences. Since July of 2010, the Big Ten has made several additions including a new team, a revised conference layout featuring divisions, and a championship game to accommodate the number of teams that comprise the conference.

For the first time in several years, there is no clear favorite in the conference. Ohio State has taken a small step back after the resignation of former head coach Jim Tressel, and the addition of Nebraska to the conference would have made it harder for Ohio State to win a share of it’s seventh straight conference title anyway.

With several teams having a legitimate shot at winning their respective division and playing in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, it should be a very interesting season of football in the Midwest. It isn’t crazy to think that a Big Ten team could run the table and end up in the national title game, either.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a National Championship Bid

Nebraska

The Cornhuskers are the only team in the Big Ten ranked in the preseason Top 10 in the AP Poll, but the expectations in Lincoln are always high for the football team regardless of where they are ranked to start the season. This year is no different, and for good reason.

Nebraska has one of the more talented defensive squads in the nation for the second season in a row, thanks to a defensive front headed by senior defensive tackle Jared Crick. Crick and his teammates will be tested this year like never before, as they are now in a conference that tends to favor the running game over the passing game that many Big 12 teams relied on heavily. It will be interesting to see if Nebraska’s defense holds up against the running attacks of teams like Wisconsin and Michigan.

The key for the Cornhuskers will be producing on offense. Last season, sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez’s ankle injury was a major factor in Nebraska losing three of their last four games of the year, including their bowl game against Washington. Assuming that Martinez stays healthy, Nebraska will be a tricky team to stop when they have the ball. Rex Burkhead is a talented running back that will complement Martinez’s frenetic style, and the passing game can’t be much worse than it was last year (Nebraska ranked 113th nationally in passing).

The Cornhuskers schedule sets up nicely. They have to travel to a hostile environment in Madison, and also make trips to Happy Valley and Ann Arbor. However, they play both Ohio State and Michigan State, two of the better teams on their schedule at home. It will be very hard for Nebraska to run the table in their first year in the Big Ten, but they have the team capable of pulling it off.

Wisconsin

The Badgers almost ran the table last season, suffering only one loss, to Michigan State in Lansing. This year, the Badgers have a decent shot at staying perfect.

Wisconsin loses a lot of pieces on the offense, but remains intact where it matters to them. The offensive line returns three starters, and running backs Montee Ball and James White are back to take over the bulk of the ball-carrying duties. The question mark on offense will be at quarterback, where sophomore Jon Budmayr will replace Unitas Award winner Scott Tolzien. Although Wisconsin is primarily a running team, Tolzien was extremely accurate and did an exceptional job running the offense. In fact, for as much as they ran the ball, the Badgers were ranked third in the Big Ten in passing offense. It remains to be seen how much, if at all, Wisconsin will suffer without Tolzien.

Wisconsin has an outside chance to remain undefeated and possibly play in the national title game thanks to their favorable schedule, which has them leaving Madison only four times all season. They do have to play at Michigan State and at Ohio State in consecutive weeks, but if they can get past those games and remain undefeated, they will definitely be a contender for a national title bid.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Illinois

Thanks to a surprising 2010 that ended with a lopsided 38-14 win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl, Illinois coach Ron Zook hopped off the hot seat. Now, Zook has a team that is capable of improving upon the success of last year, and maybe even good enough to steal a BCS bowl bid.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was one of the most surprising freshmen in the entire nation last season, and should be even better in his sophomore season. Scheelhaase has good movement in the pocket, but does not rely on his legs too much. He has the ability to open up the running game due to being a threat as a passer, and will be the reason why Illinois does not suffer in the running game even after losing Mikel Leshoure to the NFL.

The Illini do not have to play either Nebraska or Iowa, and get to play Ohio State and Wisconsin at home. If they can pull an upset or two in conference play and things fall their way, they could be headed to Indianapolis to represent the Leaders division in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Kirk Cousins (Sr.), Michigan State quarterback

The best quarterback in the Big Ten is from a team in Michigan, but it isn’t Denard Robinson.

It seems like Cousins has been around forever, and for good reason. He is a third-year captain for the Spartans, and has become one of the top pocket quarterbacks in the nation. If Michigan State expects to have anywhere close to the type of success they did last season, Cousins is going to need to perform well.

The Spartans have a tough schedule this season, but should be prepared because of Cousin’s leadership and poise in the pocket. Cousins may be one of the most underrated players in the country, but has a chance to show critics that last season was not a fluke. If he can do that, then he will almost undoubtedly show up on the candidate list for many of the postseason offensive awards.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Michigan State vs. Notre Dame (September 18th)

Is Michigan State really as good as they were last year? We’ll find out pretty early, as the Spartans will travel to South Bend to take on a Notre Dame team that has high expectations for the first time since Charlie Weis stepped on campus.

This will probably be a relatively high scoring game. Notre Dame returns eight starters to an offense that was beginning to find its groove near the end of last season. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio likes to control the game by running the ball, but may abandon that approach if Notre Dame shows the ability to score at will early in the game.

Last year’s game ended on a fake field goal attempt that turned into a game winning touchdown for the Spartans. These two teams appear to be pretty evenly matched this year, so a similar result in which the game is decide in the last few minutes is entirely possible.

In-Conference Game To Watch

Wisconsin vs. Ohio State (October 29th)

This game should be very important in deciding who wins the Leaders division. Both Ohio State and Wisconsin have tough games prior to this showdown and thus may be out of the national title race by this point, but it should still be an entertaining battle. Ohio State will look to exact revenge on Wisconsin for ruining their perfect season in 2010.

The Buckeyes will have the players that were suspended for the first five games of the season back for this game, which should only benefit their offense. However, the problem Ohio State had last year was stopping Wisconsin’s running game in the first half, and Wisconsin will be just as good in that department this season.

Wisconsin is pretty easy to figure out, but very difficult to stop. They will likely the same things in Columbus this season that got them out to a big lead last season against the Buckeyes, and hope for the best. Regardless, one can be sure that the Horseshoe will be rocking when the Badgers come to town at the end of October.

Conference Predictions

Leaders Division

1. Wisconsin (11-1, [7-1])

2. Ohio State (9-3, [5-3])

3. Illinois (9-3, [5-3])

4. Penn State (7-5, [4-4])

5. Indiana (4-8, [1-7])

6. Purdue (4-8, [1-7])

Legends Division

1. Nebraska (11-1, [7-1])

2. Michigan State (9-3, [6-2])

3. Iowa (9-3, [5-3])

4. Michigan (7-5, [4-4])

5. Northwestern (6-6, [3-5])

6. Minnesota (2-10, [0-8])

Championship Game (Wisconsin vs. Nebraska)

Winner: Wisconsin

- K. Becks

7 Responses to 2011 NCAA Football Preview: Big Ten Conference

  1. Guest on August 23, 2011 at 8:48 am

    With a violent assault by the Tigers football team, LSU says, “Hey SEC, anything Florida, Bama, Tennessee & Auburn do, we can do better!”

    • K. Becks on August 25, 2011 at 9:09 pm

      I’m not sure if you are excited for the fact that LSU possibly has one of their more talented teams in years, or if you are being sarcastic and commenting on the fact that some Tigers players may be suspended for a number of games for allegedly being involved in a bar fight.

      Either way, check out the SEC preview when it’s released, and thanks for checking out the Big Ten preview!

  2. Guest on September 3, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    My brother suggested I may like this blog. He was totally right. This post actually made my day. You cann’t imagine just how much time I had spent for this info! Thank you!

  3. Guest on September 20, 2011 at 11:28 am

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    • K. Becks on September 22, 2011 at 8:29 pm

      Thanks a lot, I appreciate it.

  4. Guest on September 27, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Great review! This is truly the type of blog post that needs to be shared around the web. Shame on the search engines for not ranking this article higher!

  5. K. Becks on September 29, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Thank you very much.

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