2011 Big Ten preview

The National Football Post continues its College Football Kickoff Week with the fourth of six BCS conference previews. Today, the Big Ten.

Let’s take a look at how the conference could shake out this season, in order of strength of team.

Nebraska: If you ask any Big Ten fan not stationed in Lincoln who he or she would least like to see win the Big Ten title this fall, the answer would most likely be Nebraska. With the Cornhuskers beginning their first season in the conference, old-school fans of the league probably wouldn’t take too kindly to the new kid on the block having such success right away. But with Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard pacing the Blackshirts, Bo Pelini’s squad could have a very strong debut campaign in the Big Ten. Pelini loves this defense despite losing Prince Amukamara, so it’s the offense that will have to do its best to complement its counterpart. Quarterback Taylor Martinez must stay healthy and revert back to his “T-Magic” form, and Rex Burkhead must be able to improve on a solid 2010 campaign with Roy Helu, Jr., gone. Really, the only thing stopping the Cornhuskers from having a very successful debut season in the conference is unfamiliarity with their new league foes. The Big Ten world awaits the Oct. 1 matchup at Wisconsin.

Luke FickellCan Ohio State's Luke Fickell find success in his first season as a head coach?

Ohio State: Despite the loss of its head coach, star quarterback and the absence of key players for the first five games of the season, don’t count the Buckeyes out quite yet. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see OSU earn a berth to the league’s debut championship game. The running game should be fine without Noah Herron early in the year, the defense should be solid and the team will have an “us against the world” mentality. However, career backup Joe Bauserman and true freshman Braxton Miller must provide solid play under center. And first-year head coach Luke Fickell must be able to navigate his team through an entire season, especially when they face adversity — although he’s done a solid job with the off-the-field distractions. If the Buckeyes could weather the five-game suspensions of key players, the game against Nebraska in Lincoln could be the best contest of the Big Ten season.

Michigan State: The Spartans looked overmatched in their two biggest games last season — at Iowa and against Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. That falls on head man Mark Dantonio and the coaching staff. But the Spartans return senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, a deep and strong running game, and a good set of receivers. If their offensive line develops some chemistry, this can once again be an explosive offense. Defensively, MSU will be replacing five starters, including All-America linebacker Greg Jones, and they’ll look to improve on their low sack total (20) from last season. The Spartans have a bear of a schedule — road games against Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern — so that will work against them as they look to earn a BCS berth.

Wisconsin: From all the accounts out of Madison, former NC State three-year starting quarterback Russell Wilson has picked up Paul Chryst’s offense nicely, which is a scary thought for opposing defenses. We’ll get to see the new Badger in action Thursday night in the team’s opener against UNLV, but he won’t have to do too much with a rushing attack featuring Montee Ball and James White behind an always-strong offensive line. The fact that Wilson is a dual-threat signal-caller, however, will only make this offense more dangerous under Chryst, who elected to stay in Madison despite having a chance to work under Mack Brown at Texas. Defensively, the Badgers are set along the line because of their depth. Their rotation should help ease the loss of star end J.J. Watt. The linebacker corps is young but intriguing, and the secondary will be very good if Devin Smith steps up opposite Antonio Fenelus at cornerback. Overall, Wisconsin could emerge as the best team in the Leaders division, but Bret Bielema’s squad does have to travel to Columbus.

Northwestern: The Wildcats gave a few games away last fall before their season really went downhill when star quarterback Dan Persa went down with his ruptured Achilles. It bears watching the health progress of the dual-threat signal-caller, who could split time with Kain Colter until that injury fully heals. With Pat Fitzgerald a fixture in Evanston, the Wildcats always seem to be on the brink of becoming an upper-echelon Big Ten squad. But they haven’t quite made it there yet. A healthy Persa, who was arguably the league’s best player last year, will be needed. In addition, the running game must be consistent from week to week with Mike Trumpy, Adonis Smith and Co. But the biggest test will come defensively, where the ‘Cats couldn’t stop anyone down the stretch. Sure, they were on the field a lot toward the end of the season, but their veteran leaders really have to make sure the ‘D’ doesn’t waste strong outings from their offense.

James VandenbergICONJames Vandenberg replaces Ricky Stanzi as the starting QB at Iowa.

Iowa: Kirk Ferentz always seems to do his best coaching jobs when the Hawkeyes are overlooked, and they will be in 2011 without quarterback Ricky Stanzi and a veteran defensive line having moved on. New starting quarterback James Vandenberg is ready to shine, though, after playing well two years ago at Ohio State when Stanzi was sidelined. And running back Marcus Coker could be primed to contend for Big Ten offensive player of the year. Keenan Davis should take pressure off fellow receiver Marvin McNutt, so this offense will be fine. Can the defense still be solid without so many veterans? Tackle Mike Daniels and end Broderick Binns will be the anchors of a line that should rely on its rotation to be effective, and there’s enough talent at linebacker and in the defensive backfield to make this unit solid as always. Never discount a Ferentz-coached squad, especially with perhaps the friendliest schedule in the entire league.

Penn State: Both Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden will see time under center early in the season. Will one of the signal-callers emerge, or will we see a QB tandem all season long? Bolden wanted out of Happy Valley this offseason, but he remained at the school and had a solid spring. He is the future, but McGloin seems to do enough to stay in the mix. The lines on both sides of the ball will tell the tale for the Nittany Lions in 2011. If they can rush the quarterback and create holes for the running game, Joe Paterno’s squad should be near the top of the conference standings. But we haven’t seen a dominant offensive line in a few seasons, and the final three games of the year — home versus Nebraska and road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin — will be tough to navigate.

Illinois: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wanted to make quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase a more polished passer this spring, and the dual-threat looked much improved this offseason. Losing Mikel Leshoure puts a lot of pressure on Jason Ford and Troy Pollard at running back, however, and A.J. Jenkins will need some help from his fellow receivers. Vic Koenning’s defense will feel the effects of losing top draft picks Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson, but Ron Zook told me earlier this spring that the secondary should be the strength of the team. Speaking of Zook, can the former Florida head coach deliver back-to-back winning seasons for the Illini? He better, because there’s a new athletic director in Champaign.

Michigan: Al Borges’ offense still needs some work as it shifts from the spread to a traditional pro-style scheme. However, don’t expect quarterback Denard Robinson to take snaps under center 100 percent of the time. Borges and new head coach Brady Hoke are smart enough to take advantage of Robinson’s athletic ability and allow him to use his running skills when necessary. But the goal is to keep him healthy all season long, so expect the Wolverines to rely more on Michael Shaw and Co. at running back while Robinson tries to be more efficient through the air. Still, all eyes will be on Greg Mattison’s defense following a couple of disastrous campaigns under former coordinator Greg Robinson. Craig Roh, Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen are solid up front, but young players such as defensive ends Jibreel Black and Brennen Beyer as well as linebacker Frank Clark will need to step up and help generate pressure. Pass defense remains a concern, so veteran cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd will need to bounce back from injuries and become the real leaders of the defensive backfield. Michigan is clearly on the right track under Hoke, and it always helps to have a talent like “Shoelace” leading the way.

Purdue: The Boilermakers just can’t seem to stay away from the injury bug, specifically ACL injuries. Purdue lost Rob Henry for the season earlier in the fall, and that was a big loss because he started to look more comfortable under center this offseason. Now Caleb TerBush assumes the starting role, and the 6-6, 230-pounder will get a chance to show off his strong arm and improved accuracy. The running game should be sound, but the loss of Keith Smith hurts the receiving corps. Smith was not given a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. The major question is whether Danny Hope’s team can grow defensively and take care of the football on offense. There was a newfound energy on campus this past offseason, and don’t count out the Boilers from earning a minor bowl berth in 2011.

Adam ReplogleICONIndiana DT Adam Replogle leads a defense that must improve in order to help out Kevin Wilson's offense.

Indiana: New IU head coach Kevin Wilson didn’t look overwhelmed in his first spring as the face of a program, and his no-nonsense style will play out well in Bloomington. His biggest task is changing the losing culture at IU, and he’s already made strides on the recruiting trail. His offense will always put up points because he’s such a great offensive mind. As always, the Hoosiers’ biggest problems will come on the defensive side of the ball. They have a nice tackle combo with Adam Replogle and Larry Black, but end Fred Jones and others will need to establish some sort of a pass rush to help the secondary.

Minnesota: All Jerry Kill has done throughout his career is rebuild and win. Even in a BCS conference, Kill should be able to do the same with the Gophers. MarQueis Gray is a talented, athletic quarterback, and Kill wonders how good the signal-caller would be right now if he stuck under center and did not play receiver last season. There are questions along the offensive line and at receiver, so it’ll be interesting to see if Gray becomes a one-man show for the Gophers. This team also needs help defensively, specifically against the run. Minnesota allowed 393.2 yards and 33 points per game last year, but the pass rush generated only nine sacks in 2010 — the worst in the country. Florida transfer Brandon Beal will help at linebacker and safety Kim Royston returns after missing all of last season due to injury.

Check out the 2011 Big East preview
Check out the 2011 SEC preview
Check out the 2011 Big 12 preview

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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