2010 Big Ten Preview

NFP Director of College Scouting Wes Bunting contributed to this preview.

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Ohio State: After his performance in the Rose Bowl, will quarterback Terrelle Pryor get to run a more advanced offense this fall in Columbus? Buckeyes fans yearning for head coach Jim Tressel to be less conservative should see a more wide-open offense, but keep in mind this is still Ohio State. With DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, the Buckeyes have wideouts that can make plays. Throw in tight end Jake Stoneburner and Pryor will have a lot of options in the passing game. Brandon Saine and Dan Herron lead a loaded backfield, and both will run behind one of OSU's better offensive lines in some time. All-Big Ten linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle anchor a veteran defense. After winning or sharing five consecutive Big Ten championships, the Buckeyes are positioned to make sure that stellar streak does not end this season. The schedule, however, is brutal. In addition to a nonconference tilt with Miami, OSU must travel to Wisconsin and Iowa. Still, to adapt Ric Flair’s signature line, “To be the team, you’ve got to beat the team.” The Big Ten title still goes through Columbus.

Ricky StanziICONIowa went 10-0 last season when QB Ricky Stanzi started and finished a game.

Iowa: As always, Iowa’s success begins and ends with a strong defense and a solid rushing attack. The defensive line returns intact, led by disruptive end Adrian Clayborn, and the Hawkeyes once again will be set in the backfield because if history proves itself, a back always emerges in Iowa City in the face of adversity. So no matter who goes down with injury or however the Brandon Wegher situation plays out, the fact is that Iowa won’t miss a beat. Sophomores Jewel Hampton and Adam Robinson will produce on the ground, and all quarterback Ricky Stanzi does is win. In the last 14 games he has started and finished, the Hawks are undefeated. There was a little bit of concern at linebacker with the losses of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds, as well as on the offensive line with tackle Riley Reiff and guard Julian Vandervelde as the only two linemen returning with significant experience, but players stepped up this spring and fall, displaying the team’s depth for head coach Kirk Ferentz. Expectations are at an all-time high under Ferentz after winning the Outback and Orange bowls the past two seasons. If the Hawkeyes can beat the Buckeyes, things could be rosy.

Wisconsin: The Badgers have a Big Ten-best 18 returning starters, led by quarterback Scott Tolzien. Despite finishing No. 1 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency and completing 64.3 percent of his passes, Tolzien struggled mightily in losses to Ohio State and Iowa last season. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst pushed him this offseason, and he will benefit from having a healthy John Clay in the backfield. After undergoing surgery on both ankles, Clay hopes to run with even more authority and try to repeat as Big Ten player of the year. Nick Toon seems primed to emerge as an All-Big Ten receiver, and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge should have his unit ready to produce once again despite the loss of end O'Brien Schofield and three of the top four defensive tackles. The Badgers were very impressive in beating Miami in the postseason, and they get the Buckeyes at home. They do, however, have to travel to Iowa City.

Penn State: While everyone expected Kevin Newsome to run with the starting quarterback job this spring, Penn State received an unexpected surprise in the great play of early enrollee Paul Jones. Jones was then redshirted for the season when another freshman, Robert Bolden, took Happy Valley by storm. Head coach Joe Paterno has yet to decide on a starter between Newsome, Bolden and Matt McGloin. No matter who is under center, expect a lot of Evan Royster on the ground. Replacing three starters at linebacker usually would be cause for concern, but not at Linebacker U. Nate Stupar, Mike Yancich, Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti will all play significant downs, while Ollie Ogbu and Devon Still lead a defensive line that is deep. The chief concern is offensive line, where the Nittany Lions experienced with different combinations this offseason. Can it protect the quarterback and open enough holes for Royster? The Nittany Lions will be solid no matter what, but with Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State on the road, a third straight 11-win season won’t be in the cards.

Greg JonesICONGreg Jones leads a strong MSU linebacker corps.

Michigan State: While all the talk of a coaching hot seat in Michigan centers on Rich Rod, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio may be getting some heat sent his way if his Spartans don’t start playing up to their capabilities. With the fallout from the on-campus altercation at a residence hall in November still resonating, this is a big year for the program. With Kirk Cousins solidly entrenched as the starting quarterback and one of the strongest wide receiving units in the conference, the passing attack will be prolific. But what about the running game? Sophomores Larry Caper and Edwin Baker will be running behind an offensive line that replaces three fifth-year senior starters. The secondary lost five defenders, but the unit was atrocious last year. Can they eliminate the big play? The linebacker corps will be the strength of the defense, led by All-American and Big Ten co-defensive player of the year Greg Jones. Dantonio must get the focus back on the field — and win — to show the university that the program is making progress on his watch.

Purdue: Miami (FL) transfer Robert Marve is ready to lead the Boilermakers under center, as the coaching staff has been impressed with the maturity and leadership not seen during his days with the Hurricanes. He has a big arm and has talented skill players to work with in West Lafayette. Running back is a major concern, however, after projected starter Ralph Bolden suffered a torn ACL in his right knee early in the offseason. Bolden could possibly come back at some point this season, but sophomore Al-Terek McBurse really needs to step up in his absence. McBurse, however, has been slowed by a lower leg injury but is expected to play against Notre Dame on Saturday. The Boilers also must replace all four starters in the secondary. Still, I like what head coach Danny Hope is building, as a solid foundation was set with a 4-4 mark in conference play last year. The offense will score points under coordinator Gary Nord, so Purdue will compete every contest.

Northwestern: Under the direction of Pat Fitzgerald, who has grown into his role as head coach since replacing the late Randy Walker, Northwestern football is on the upswing. Junior Dan Persa is the new signal-caller in Evanston, re placing Mike Kafka, who led the conference in passing yards with 3,430 and total offense at 286.5 yards per game. Persa can run the ball effectively out of NU’s offense, but he needs to become a more polished passer. The staff believes, though, that the dual-threat QB will be a natural fit for coordinator Mick McCall’s spread offense. The ground game in Evanston, however, hasn’t exactly been productive the last few seasons, ranking eighth in the conference in ‘09. The ‘Cats return all five starters on their offensive line, so the continuity up front will help. But can a backfield led by sophomore Arby Fields and featuring Scott Concannon, Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons be productive? Fitzgerald is excited about his group of linebackers — a unit that is deep and talented and will likely be the strength of the defense as new linemen and the defensive backfield take time to gel. The Wildcats may take a step back this year and miss a New Year's Day bowl, but Fitzgerald is quietly building an emerging upper-tier Big Ten team.

Michigan: It’s pretty simple for head coach Rich Rodriguez: just win baby. And victories can only occur if the defense plays better than it did in ’09, when the team finished last in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense in Big Ten contests. Meanwhile, their best defenders, end Brandon Graham and cornerback Donovan Warren, are gone. And the secondary could be disastrous, especially with the unit becoming the focal point of the new 3-3-5 defense, the same scheme Rich Rod ran at West Virginia. Troy Woolfolk’s injury is devastating while highly touted cornerback Justin Turner transferred. In addition, cornerback Demar Dorsey was ruled ineligible to enroll at the school and ended up at Louisville. J.T. Floyd, who has only two starts in his career, will be the most experienced starter in the defensive backfield. I do like Cameron Gordon, however, at free safety. While a starter has yet to be named, the quarterback situation looks promising for Rodriguez, as Denard Robinson has been pushing Tate Forcier since the spring. But who will run the ball for the Wolverines? Redshirt freshman Fitz Toussaint, sophomore Vincent Smith and junior Mike Cox look like they may split carries. True freshman Stephen Hopkins could also be in the mix, as well as junior Michael Shaw if he is academically eligible. Even with some uncertainty on offense, the Wolverines should be able to put points on the board. But the new defense will determine whether the team suffers through a third consecutive bowl-less season — and ultimately costs Rich Rod his job.

Tandon DossICONTandon Doss finished with 77 catches in his sophomore season.

Indiana: Indiana possesses a nice aerial attack led by quarterback Ben Chappell that will give fans plenty of dramatic moments this fall. Junior wide receivers Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher combined for 138 receptions, 1,732 yards and 10 touchdowns in ‘09, highlighting one of the better units in the Big Ten. And running back Darius Willis offers the Hoosiers hope that the offense can actually have a balanced attack in 2010. The major question is whether IU can stop anyone on the other side of the ball. The team finished 10th in the league in points allowed (29.5 ppg) and yards allowed (401 ypg), and they lost three starters in the secondary, along with defensive end Jammie Kirlew. There is some newfound depth, however, with young recruits and JUCO transfers. They are switching to the 3-4 scheme, which could give the squad the necessary spark to turn things around on defense. While they don’t have to be great, they need to come up with big stops once in awhile in order to get to the postseason for just the second time since 1993.

Minnesota: After changing directions and switching from the spread to a more traditional pro offense last fall, Minnesota suffered tremendously on the scoreboard — twice getting shut out in conference play en route to finishing last in scoring (20.9 ppg), rushing (99.5 ypg) and total offense (306.5 ypg). Quarterback Adam Weber should benefit from a modified system that is easier to grasp under new coordinator Jeff Horton, but the rushing attack is still a concern — although the offensive line should be steady. The Golden Gophers will face a difficult schedule, however, with contests against USC, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa. Tough mountain to climb, even for being home dates.

Illinois: Illinois needs to show marked improvement in order for head coach Ron Zook to be able to return in 2011. The Fighting Illini will begin the post-Juice Williams era under center with athletic redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase, who won the starting quarterback competition with an impressive spring showing. New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino will have some playmakers in place in order to ease the transition of Scheelhaase under center. Running back Mikell Leshoure was one of the true bright spots of Illinois’ disastrous ’09 campaign, while Former Florida transfer Jarred Fayson will get his chance to be the go-to receiver. A.J. Jenkins, Chris James and former quarterback Eddie McGee round out a receiving corps that is hungry to succeed this fall. Meanwhile, new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning seemed to have a livelier group of players to work with this offseason, and it looks as if the line may be the strength of the unit with Corey Liuget and Clay Nurse leading the way. A major question for this ‘D’ besides the secondary, which has suffered some recent injuries, is whether linebacker Martez Wilson can remain healthy and play to the level that was expected of him when he arrived on campus.

Follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave or send your college football questions to dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com

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