College Football Conference Preview: Big Ten

Will this be the year the Big Ten returns to the BCS conversation?



Quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse is on his fourth different offense in five years. He’s got three fellow seniors starting for him at receiver, and there’s decent depth at the running back spot. The offensive line is returning several players, but that unit gave up 39 sacks last year. The Illini were 0-8 in the Big Ten last season, and ranked last in basically every important offensive statistic. Their leading rusher, Donovonn Young, had just 517 yards. I’m not sure there’s anywhere to go but up for this group.

The defense was hit hard by graduation and the NFL draft, leaving just three starters returning. The line could see all new starters, with some sophomores and a freshman in the mix for playing time. Two linebackers return, including sophomore Mason Monheim, who led the team with 86 tackles as a freshman. Just one starter returns in the defensive backfield.

Punting was one of the few areas that was not a problem in 2012, and Justin DuVernois will be back.

Prediction: This is a team still in the early stages of a rebuild. 3-9.


The Hoosiers were very effective on offense last season for a team that finished 4-8. In fact, they led the Big Ten in passing offense and finished second in total offense. The best news for them is that 10 of those starters are back. Even the offensive line, an issue the last few seasons, looks as though it could be reasonably strong this year. Only the left guard is being replaced from last year’s unit.

The Hoosiers’ defense was at the opposite end of the spectrum, finishing last in the conference in scoring, rushing, and total defense. There are some talented incoming freshmen, but will they be able to contribute this soon? Seven starters are returning, and a number of sophomores could see significant time.

All aspects of special teams need improvement over last year’s numbers.

Prediction: The offense looks to be in decent shape. The defense is anybody’s guess. 5-7.

Ohio State

Braxton Miller returns at quarterback as a Heisman contender for the Buckeyes. He’s got a number of talented pass-catchers at his disposal, including two returning starters at receiver in Philly Brown and Devin Smith, and tight end Jeff Heuerman. Top running back Carlos Hyde is suspended for the first three games, but the games he’ll miss are Buffalo, San Diego State, and a road trip to Cal. It’s probably safe to assume he won’t be overly missed.  On the line, four starters are back.

Four defense starters return for Urban Meyer, including linebacker Ryan Shazier, who had 115 tackles a year ago. The front four are unproven, but sophomore end Noah Spence was a top recruit out of high school. Pass defense was an issue last year, with the Bucks ranking 11th in the Big Ten and 76th nationally. Cornerback Bradley Roby is suspended for the first game; when he returns he’ll have two fellow 2012 starters on the unit with him.

Drew Basil is expected to handle kickoffs, field goals, and punting.

Prediction: Ohio State should win the Leaders Division handily. There just isn’t much competition for them there. Unless they get decimated by injuries at some point, expect another unbeaten season. 12-0.

Penn State

The quarterback competition at Penn State is ongoing. Freshman Christian Hackenberg is considered the likely starter, but sophomore Tyler Ferguson can’t be counted out quite yet. Several receivers have returned, including Allen Robinson, who had over 1,000 yards and 11 TDs in 2012 and was named Big Ten Receiver of the Year. Running back, too, is in good shape with 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak back for his junior season. Zwinak broke his wrist in the spring, but it’s not expected to be a long-term problem. Three starters return on the offensive line as well.

Linebacker is a question mark, with seniors Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges gone. Inside ‘backer Glenn Carson is the only senior at the position, and the only returning starter. Two starters return in the front four, including 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes. The secondary is more experienced, with three starters returning; however, the Nittany Lions ranked just eight in the Big Ten in pass defense last season.

Kicker Sam Ficken struggled early in 2012, but improved down the stretch. Incoming walk-on Chris Gulla could challenge Ficken and/or punter Alex Butterworth.

Prediction: NCAA sanctions are starting to take their toll, as Penn State lacks depth at multiple positions. They could be in big trouble if certain players were to get injured. However, their schedule is not terrible- they face Ohio State and Wisconsin on the road, and Michigan and Nebraska at home. The rest of their games are very winnable. 8-4.


New head coach Darrell Hazell named senior Rob Henry his starting quarterback last week, giving him the nod over two freshman despite Henry last starting a game in 2010. There’s inexperience throughout the offense, as just four starters return and three of them are linemen. The other is wide receiver Gary Bush, a senior who scored seven TDs last season. Akeem Hunt is a smallish but shifty running back and kick returner who figures to see a fair number of carries. Tight ends Gabe Holmes and Justin Sinz may see more target in Hazells’s offense than they did under Danny Hope.

On defense, eight starters return to a unit that ranked at or near the bottom of the Big Ten in most statistics last year. Hazell was very happy with the play of senior tackle Bruce Gaston during the spring, but Gaston has dealt with a nagging hamstring problem through fall camp.  Three starters return in the backfield, where former walk-on safety Landon Fleichter hauled in four INTs last season. Senior cornerback Ricardo Allen, when healthy, is a standout as well.

Cody Webster is one of the conference’s best punters. It remains to be seen if Akeem Hunt will continue as a returner with his offensive role increasing.

Prediction: The Boilermakers have a tough schedule, with road trips to Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State, and home games with Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Nebraska. 5-7.


New head coach Gary Andersen has declined to name a starting quarterback before the season opener against Northern Iowa. Sophomore Joel Stave and sixth-year senior Curt Phillips, both of whom started some games last year, and juco transfer Tanner McEvoy are the candidates. Senior Jared Abbrederis returns at receiver, but everyone behind him is young and/or inexperienced. Luckily, the Badgers have a proven running back on the roster in James White, who had 806 yards and 12 TDs last year. Three starters return on the offensive line.

New defensive coordinator Dave Aranda says he’s a big fan of blitzing. The aggressive schemes he favors should take pressure off of a very green secondary. Multiple players in the front seven could see time at both end and linebacker, depending on the front. Senior linebacker Chris Borland led all returning starters in tackles last year with 104.

The Badgers used two kickers last year and were less than impressed with both. It’s unclear which of them will get the nod to start the season.

Prediction: This is the only team in the Leaders division with any chance to challenge Ohio State, not that I think they will. 8-4, but I could see them getting to 10-2.


Redshirt sophomore Jake Rudock has won the starting quarterback battle. Who his targets will be has yet to be determined, but receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz will likely be the top two. Iowa signed a receiver-heavy recruiting class in the offseason, so some youngsters may have the chance to step up. Three effective running backs return, as do three offensive linemen.

The Hawkeyes ranked last in the Big Ten last year in sacks, with just 13; the rest of their defensive stats were middle-of-the-pack. Seven starters return, including all three linebackers. The secondary is in a bit of flux after the departure of Micah Hyde; the depth chart, outside of returning starters Tanner Miller and B.J. Lowery, doesn’t list a single senior in the backfield.

Special teams were adequate, but nothing special, in 2012. Those starters are all back.

Prediction: Northern Illinois is the Hawkeyes’ only real test until October. After that, they’re in tough basically every week. 5-7.


Denard Robinson’s injury last season may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as it gave the Michigan coaching staff a chance to see Devin Gardiner in action. Gardiner, a high-school quarterback who played mostly at receiver for the Wolverines until Robinson went down, is not as mobile as his predecessor (who is?), but he’s a more accurate passer. Seniors Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo, along with tight end Devin Funchess, will be the main targets. In the backfield, Fitzgerald Toussaint returns from a gruesome broken ankle late last season. He’ll be joined by top running back recruit Derrick Green. Three offensive linemen are gone, but 6’8″, 315-pound senior left tackle Taylor Lewan returns to the surprise of many who assumed he would enter the draft.

Five starters return on defensive, but top lineman Craig Roh and top defensive back Jordan Kovacs aren’t among them. Linebacker Jake Ryan is also out of the lineup to start the year with a torn ACL, although he could be back sometime in October. Senior Cam Gordon will start in his place. Two starters return in the secondary, and sophomore Blake Countess returns from an injury suffered early in 2012.

Punter Will Hagerup is serving a suspension, but Matt Wile is an adequate backup. Kicker Brendan Gibbons is very reliable. Sophomore Dennis Norfleet will return both kicks and punts.

Prediction: Ohio State and Nebraska should be the toughest two games on the Wolverines’ schedule, and both are in Ann Arbor. Road trips to Northwestern and Penn State could prove challenging as well. 10-2.

Michigan State

Mark Dantonio has declined to name a starting quarterback thus far. Andrew Maxwell, who started most of last season, is considered the more likely candidate, but Connor Cook played late in the Spartan’s bowl win in January. Two freshmen are also in the mix. There’s a battle going on at running back as well, with Le’Veon Bell now on the roster of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Juniors Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill are being pushed by a couple of freshmen, as well as redshirt freshman Riley Bullough, a 230-pound converted linebacker. Last season’s top three receivers are back, as are three members of the offensive line.

The front four is a question mark this season, with just one starter returning. The linebacking unit should be solid, with Max Bullough and Denicos Allen returning, and talented junior Taiwan Jones stepping into a starting role. Three starters are back in the secondary as well, including senior Darqueze Dennard. Opposing quarterbacks would be well advised to throw toward Dennard’s side of the field as rarely as possible.

Punter Mike Saddler led the Big Ten in net average last season.

Prediction: The Spartans have road trips scheduled to Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Northwestern, plus Michigan at home. 7-5.


Quarterback Philip Nelson was un-redshirted mid-season in 2012. He looks to be the favorite to start this season, although freshman Mitch Leidner could see time as well. The biggest issue facing the offense isn’t who’s going to throw the ball, but who’s going to catch it? An already-thin receiving unit lost junior Devin Crawford-Tufts over the summer to focus on track. Center Zach Mottla has also decided not to play football after breaking his leg last season and undergoing a slower-than-expected rehab and healing process. Running back is one of the few bright spots, as junior Donnell Kirkwood and sophomore Rodrick Williams combined for 1,187 yards in 2012 and have both returned.

Three starters return to the front four on defense, including senior tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who had six sacks last year. However, the linebackers and the secondary return just one starter each. Stopping the run was a big problem last year, as the Gophers gave up nearly 200 yards per game in conference play.

Aussie punter Christian Eldred didn’t have a single punt blocked last season. NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne will be the kicker.

Prediction: As the daughter of two U of M alums, both of whom speak highly of the school and of Minnesota in general, I wish I had better news for Gopher fans. Unfortunately, the best I can see them finishing is 6-6. On the bright side, hockey season is just around the corner.


Taylor Martinez returns  for his eighteenth season at quarterback. (Ok, it just feels like his eighteenth). Last season Martinez set Nebraska records with 3,890 yards of offense and 33 total TDs. On the other hand, he also lost eight fumbles and threw 16 INTs. His top three targets return, as well as running back Ameer Abdullah. Abudullah started in place of the injured Rex Burkhead for part of the 2012 season, and finished the year with 1,137 yards and 8 TDs. Three starting linemen return, including senior All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long.

The secondary looks to be the strongest defensive unit this season. All four starters have started at times, while the front seven will feature just one returning starter. In fact, there are quite a few sophomores and even freshmen on the defensive depth chart. Junior linebacker Zaire Anderson, coming off an injury last September, has reportedly looked very good in camp.

Mauro Bondi is likely to start at kicker for the first time. It’s possible he will punt as well.

Prediction: The offense should be prolific, but there are a lot of unknowns on the defense. 8-4.


Senior quarterback Kain Colter returns alongside All-Big Ten rusher Venric Mark. Junior quarterback Trevor Siemian is also back and could also see playing time. In all, eight starters return on offense and the depth at the skill positions is good throughout. The only question mark is the offensive line, where three starters need to be replaced.

Seven starters return on defense, where senior end Tyler Scott led the team with nine sacks and 3 forced fumbles last season. Two starting linebackers return, and the depth at the position is good. Three starters are returning to a defensive backfield that seems to get faster every year. However, last year’s unit ranked last in the Big Ten in pass defense.

Kicker Jeff Budzien was All-Big Ten in 2012, hitting 19 or his 20 field goal attempts.

Prediction: There’s a lot of experience on this team, and the guys clearly love playing for Pat Fitzgerald. 9-3.

Conference Prediction:

Leaders Division

  1. Ohio State
  2. Penn State
  3. Wisconsin
  4. Purdue
  5. Indiana
  6. Illinois

Legends Division

  1. Michigan
  2. Northwestern
  3. Nebraska
  4. Michigan State
  5. Minnesota
  6. Iowa


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