Today at the NFP marks the third of seven pre-spring conference power rankings, continuing the series with the Big Ten.
After spring practice season, we will revisit these rankings before the dog days of summer kick in.
Here is the schedule for the rest of the week:
Friday: Big 12
Saturday: Big East
Click here to see when your favorite Big Ten team begins spring practice.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans begin life without Kirk Cousins, one of the Big Ten’s most impressive players both on and off the field. Andrew Maxwell will take the reins from the three-year starter, and he could inherit Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, a receiver who may be cleared to play for the upcoming season. But the team must identify other options at the position this spring in case Arnett isn't made eligible to play until 2013. So keep an eye on receiver Bennie Fowler. The running game will be strong, but the Spartans will miss do-everything receiver/returner Keshawn Martin. Defensively, finding a tackle to replace All-American Jerel Worthy is critical. Overall, the Spartans may be the most athletic team in the Big Ten.
ICONBret Bielema's coaching staff was shaken up this offseason.
2. Wisconsin: With success, comes attrition on the coaching staff. Head coach Bret Bielema has had to hire six new assistants this offseason, and all eyes will be on new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who replaces new Pitt head coach Paul Chryst. Russell Wilson is gone, so Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips will battle for the starting quarterback job along with Joel Stave and Joe Brennan. Budmayr and Phillips, however, are both coming off of injuries. Could Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien end up in Madison this summer? Prolific running back Montee Ball returns, but he’ll be running behind an offensive line that must replace three high-quality blockers. Defensively, end David Gilbert returns after missing most of last season with a broken foot.
3. Michigan: Greg Mattison was able to transform the Wolverines defense into a strength last season because of his emphasis on strong defensive line play. With Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen departing, this area needs extra attention this spring to help make up for a secondary that is still green. Offensively, Denard Robinson will enter his final season in Ann Arbor with a year of Al Borges’ offense under his belt. “Shoelace” is unquestionably a rare talent, but 15 interceptions cannot happen again if this team wants to return to a BCS game.
4. Nebraska: Head coach Bo Pelini must replace linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and defensive tackle Jared Crick — three of the Big Ten’s best defenders, although Crick missed most of last season due to injury. This Cornhuskers defense has underachieved the last few seasons, and they’ll be breaking in a new coordinator in John Papuchis. On the offensive side, Taylor Martinez must continue to develop as a passer after staying healthy last season. He still just completed over 56 percent of his throws last fall, but he will enter his second year in Tim Beck’s offense.
5. Ohio State: The Buckeyes will not be going bowling in 2012, but the program has been revived under former Florida head coach Urban Meyer, who brings two national championships to Columbus. But all eyes will be on the coach who burned out and suffered health issues in Gainesville. On the field, though, he has the prototypical quarterback for his spread offense in dual-threat Braxton Miller, and he’s coming off of a recruiting cycle that featured SEC-type defensive linemen — exactly the type of situation to excite co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Everett Withers.
6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes will have new coordinators on both sides of the ball this spring, as Phil Parker and Greg Davis will be running the defensive and offensive shows, respectively. For Parker, his main concern has to be along the defensive line, where the Hawkeyes lost three starters, including tackle and future pro Mike Daniels. Offensively, Davis will need to find a running back to replace Marcus Coker, who transferred to Stony Brook. Jordan Canzeri and Jason White will get the early looks, but will a freshman emerge in fall camp?
7. Penn State: Former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will be ushering in a new era of Penn State football this spring. The players on the Nittany Lions roster will need to get comfortable with the new staff, and the new coaches will need to implement their new systems. O’Brien will have to work wonders with quarterbacks Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden if the offense has any chance of complementing the defense, a unit whose strength will be at linebacker. Coordinator Ted Roof will look to rebound from a rocky stop at Auburn.
8. Purdue: The Boilermakers once again have a plethora of quarterbacks to choose from in the preseason, as Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve will be joined by Rob Henry and Sean Robinson in the derby — and all have starting experience. Keep an eye on Henry, who has been cleared to practice and likely would have started last season if not for a knee injury. However, TerBush started every game in 2011. Defensively, another new coordinator has arrived in West Lafayette — the third consecutive season a change has been made. Tim Tisebar takes over this spring and will look to infuse some new energy into a unit that struggled to create turnovers last season (bowl game aside).
ICONKain Colter will produce on offense no matter where he lines up. But can NU's porous defense improve?
9. Northwestern: The Wildcats are always going to score points while running the spread offense, and Kain Colter will likely be the quarterback operating the scheme in 2012. But head coach Pat Fitzgerald must be able to rely on at least an average defense, and that’s something he hasn’t been able to do since being the face of the program. Young players such as defensive end Tyler Scott and linebacker Collin Ellis saw action last year, and the hope is that they will mature as starters. But the woeful secondary will lose their best players — including All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters and four-year starting cornerback Jordan Mabin.
10. Illinois: The Fighting Illini will begin the Tim Beckman era after Ron Zook failed to win consistently in Champaign. The biggest loss for the Illini, however, may have been Vic Koenning, who left to run North Carolina’s defense. The Illini played hard for Koenning, so new DC Tim Banks will have to command respect immediately. He’ll have a good defensive line to work with despite the loss of All-American end Whitney Mercilus, who was nothing short of studly last fall. Meanwhile, co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty will have to choose between quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole.
11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill endured a rough first season with the Golden Gophers, both on and off the field. But if Minnesota is to improve in Year 2, dual-threat quarterback Marqueis Gray needs some playmakers to emerge around him. Defensively, coordinator Tracy Claeys may have to be creative in lieu of a lack of talent on all three levels.
12. Indiana: The Hoosiers hope to provide head coach Kevin Wilson a smoother campaign in his second year on the job. New offensive coordinator Seth Littrell will try to help quarterback Tre Roberson in the passing game, but this team cannot compete if the defense is as woeful as it’s been in recent years. Young players like safety Mark Murphy and end Bobby Richardson need to play consistent, and junior college players brought in such as linebackers Justin Rayside and Jacarri Alexander need to contribute immediately.
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