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2013 Big Ten Preview

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At first glance it appears the muscle on display by the Big Ten Conference went steroid-free and softened up in 2012. A closer look tells a different story.

The conference flexed its power in 2011 when three Big Ten teams finished the season with 11 wins for the second-straight season. In addition, an NCAA record 10 teams went bowling in 2011. Along the way the league picked up its 3rd BCS bowl win in as many years.

That all changed in 2012 when the BCS bowl string was snapped and only seven teams from the conference hit the alleys. In addition only one team, Ohio State, managed to win more than 10 games.

It should be noted, however, that two teams were bowl ineligible (Penn State and the Buckeyes) while the league also suffered an onslaught of close-call losses last season.

That’s confirmed by the fact the Big Ten was 85-68 overall in 2012, with nearly 30 percent of the losses (20) by a field goal or less. Leading the charge were three teams – Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin – with four defeats by three or less points.

The good news is 30 all-conference players are back in 2013, the most since 2005.

The coaching turnstile continues with two new coaches this season, making nine of the current 12 coaches at the helm two years or less.

That number will grow by at least two next season when Maryland and Rutgers move into the conference.

In this crazy world of conference expansion, it’s been said that Big 10 commissioner Jim Delaney is secretly a plant in quest of more soil.

We couldn’t agree more.

Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Potential designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.

Leaders Division

ILLINOIS (*9/4)
Team Theme: BABY POWDER

A promising 2-1 start for new head coach Tim Beckman went down the drain faster than toot in a frat bust when the Illini went 0-9 to conclude a disappointing season last year. Beckman, who has coached under the likes of Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel, Mike Gundy and Pat Dye, immediately brought in five new assistant coaches, including Bill Cubit as his new OC and QB coach. The former Western Michigan head coach will look to fix the Illini offensive woes, a monumental task on paper considering Illinois finished second-to-last in the FBS in total offense and scoring last year. They will employ a high tempo no-huddle spread offense engineered by Nathan Scheelhaase or Reilly O’Toole. Look for the 18 freshmen that debuted last season to find plenty of playing time in 2013.

Stat You Will Like: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, a 3-year starter with 36 starts, ranks 5th all-rime in total offense (7,091 yards) at Illinois.

PLAY ON: vs. Indiana (11/9)

INDIANA (*10/9)
Team Theme: BLOOMING GARDEN

Kevin Wilson’s 3rd year at the helm in Bloomington was a relative success when his young Hoosiers showed dramatic improvement. Fielding the youngest team in the country (24 of 35 starters were underclassmen), Wilson parlayed playing time granted to 16 true freshmen and 16 redshirt freshmen in 2011 into 16 more newbie’s getting game time last year. As a result the new kids on the block led the Big Ten in passing offense in 2012 while setting school records in passing yards and total offense. They were so excited they ran one play every 20.3 seconds, with 23 TDs coming in under 90 seconds. Behind a bevy of returning starters, including 10 on offense, look for Wilson to take these pimply-faces places they’ve never been before.

Stat You Will Like: Despite trailing in time of possession by nearly 7 minutes per game last season, the Hoosiers led the opposition in plays per game (78.3-75.8).

PLAY ON: vs. Wisconsin (11/16)

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OHIO STATE (*9/4)

Team Theme: FOUR ON THE FLOOR

With two national championships and two undefeated seasons now under his belt, Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer will look to improve on an auspicious debut in Columbus last year – if that’s possible. With 47 of 82 scholarship players either freshmen or sophomores, and not having the benefit of extra practice time afforded to bowl teams before bowling last season, we’re selling rather than buying. Sure, the offense is loaded with nine starters including star QB Braxton Miller and four senior starters on the o-line, but the defense is shaky at best. Not only did it decline 37 YPG last season, the front seven returns only ONE starter, with the entire front four gone. Yes, Meyer has been a winner at every level, but you may be floored at this year’s slippage.

Stat You Will Like: The Buckeyes list only four seniors on defense this season.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Wisconsin (9/28)

PENN STATE (8/6)
Team Theme: SUPER GLUE

Through the eyes of many, Bill O’Brien was arguably College Football’s Coach of the Year last season. No, the Lions did not go bowling – they were not allowed - their win total actually slipped from the previous year, and the defense allowed 31 more YPG. What O’Brien did was bond a once proud program back together in spectacular fashion following the Joe Paterno scandal. The task becomes more difficult this season given the fact that emotional inspiration does not figure to reach last year’s levels. JUCO transfer QB Tyler Ferguson figures to be under center until mega-recruit Christian Hackenberg is ready. Meanwhile, WR Allen Robinson, the Big Ten’s active receiving yards leader (1,013) from last season, becomes the team’s go-to player.

Stat You Will Like: Three of the Lions’ four non-conference games are against foes that were in bowl games last season.

PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Nebraska (11/23)

PURDUE (5/9)
Team Theme: HAMMER AND RAILS

There are distinct differences, but in more ways than one, this squad is similar to Boilermaker teams from the past. However, Darrell Hazell - former Ohio State assistant and Kent State head coach - is the new sheriff in town and he’s looking to make changes this season. Quarterbacks Robert Marve and Caleb TerBush have moved on from the ‘Cradle of QBs’, as did leading wide receiver Antavian Edison and leading rusher Akeem Shavers. Considering Hazell’s Flashes dialed up 584 run plays compared to 358 designed passes last season, TB Akeem Hunt is likely to step into the spotlight this season. With fans railing for improvements both at Ross-Ade Stadium and on the field, look for Hazell’s tenure to start from the ground up with the Boilers this season.

Stat You Will Like: One of a handful of FBS schools without permanent lighting at Ross-Ade Stadium, the Boilermakers will have no primetime games on the Big Ten Network this season.

PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Ohio State (11/2)

WISCONSIN (*8/7)
Team Theme: PASA-THREE-NA
Big 10 champions three years running – albeit largely by default last season - the Badgers became only the third team in history to drop three consecutive Rose Bowls in as many years last season when they fell to Stanford, 20-14. An expected letdown was clearly in order when after a 39-point trouncing of Nebraska in the Big Ten title game, it was announced head coach Brett Bielema was departing for Arkansas. Through it all Gary Andersen arrives from Utah State where he managed to turn 13 straight losing seasons into a school-best 11-win campaign for the Aggies last year. With the Big Ten brawnier than ever, and Urban Meyer’s Ohio State squad both conference and bowl-eligible in 2013, FTD will not likely be delivering a fourth bouquet of roses to Bucky this season.

Stat You Will Like: Andersen's Utah State squad was No. 1 in red-zone scoring defense last season. Wisconsin was No. 120 (dead-last) in red-zone scoring defense last season.

PASS

Legends Division

IOWA (6/8)
Team Theme: BEAM ME UP

The result of facing too much stiff competition brought sober results to a Hawkeyes program that couldn’t find its way to the winner’s circle in close call games last season. When the smoke settled, half of their eight losses in 2012 were by a field goal or less, leading to a disastrous 0-6 finish. A closer look reveals nine of Iowa’s twelve opponents played in a bowl game, with another (Penn State) winning 8 games. Offensively, Kirk Ferentz replaces QB James Vandenberg with Jake Ruddock (led his Florida high school squad to 29-1 record and state title) and welcomes back last year’s top two running backs as well as four of the top five wide receivers. With the top three tacklers back on defense, expect Captain Kirk to right the ship… pronto.

Stat You Will Like: The Hawkeyes were the only team in the nation to have six regular season games decided by 3 or less points last season.

PLAY ON: vs. Iowa State (9/14)

MICHIGAN (*5/6)
Team Theme: TIGHTEN UP
Lost in the mix of another 5-loss season last year (3rd time in last four years) was the fact that the defeats came at the hands of teams that combined to go 58-8 on the season. In fact, four of the Wolverines’ five losses occurred away from the “Big House” against the AP’s top 10 teams: No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 8 South Carolina. Whew, talk about tight. Meanwhile, QB Devin Gardner stepped in for an injured Denard Robinson and ignited the offense by tallying at least two touchdowns in every game (5) he played at quarterback. By the time the dust settled Gardner finished with 18 TDs, including 11 by air and 7 by land. Revenge looms large in Ann Arbor.

Stat You Will Like: Brady Hoke became the first Michigan head coach to go undefeated at home in his first two seasons at UM since Fielding Yost in 1901-02.

PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Ohio State (11/30)

MICHIGAN STATE (*9/7)
Team Theme: LOCKED AND LOADED

Selected by most pundits as the team to beat in the Big Ten last season, the Spartans fell woefully short of expectations in 2012. The defense held up their end of the bargain. It was the offense that suffered major attrition, slipping 11 points and 31 yards per game. The upside was a stirring 13-point comeback in a 17-16 win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, giving them back-to-back bowl wins for the first time since 1990. With a stellar defense that ranked in the nation’s top 5 overall the last two years, many of those same experts will be right back on the Spartans in 2013. After all, eleven players on offense and twelve on defense own starting experience, including six OL with at least ten starts apiece.

Stat You Will Like: Michigan State has won more Big Ten games (27) than any other team in conference play the last four years.

PLAY ON: vs. Northwestern (11/23)

MINNESOTA (*10/7)
Team Theme: KILLING ME SOFTLY
In between seizures, Jerry Kill’s game plan is beginning to play out. After joining the Gophers two years ago, Kill’s clan is showing signs of the Glen Mason era in Minneapolis when anything less than a bowl bid was unacceptable. His troops found their way to the Meineke Car Care Bowl last year, losing in a shootout to Texas Tech. They return 17 starters from a team that improved its numbers on both sides of the ball from the previous year. With star athlete Marquies Gray having gone from QB to WR to the NFL (free agent with the 49ers), the ball is now in the hands of Phillip Nelson. He’ll need to improve on a sub 50% completion rate last year for the plan to progress.

Stat You Will Like: In his 3rd year at Northern Illinois, Kill went 11-3 SU and 10-2-1 ATS.

PLAY ON: vs. Northwestern (10/19)

NEBRASKA (*7/5)
Team Theme: LEGENDS IN THEIR OWN MINDS

Why is it a team that has had five straight nine-win seasons in as many years under its head coach, while also capturing the Legends division the Big 10 last season, can’t seem to command the respect of its peers? Maybe it’s the four losses they incurred each of the last five years. Or perhaps it’s the fact that they led the nation in scoring defense in 2009 (10.4 PPG), but have grown progressively worse (28 PPG last season) each year since. The bottom line is this program is certainly a ghost of the one that dominated college football in the 80s and 90s. QB Taylor Martinez leads an offense that improved 6 points and 81 yards per game last season. But their legendary status will remain a memory until the defense comes around.

Stat You Will Like: All 10 college football programs Bo Pelini has been a part of have won nine or more games each season.

PLAY ON: vs. UCLA (9/14)

NORTHWESTERN (*8/7)
Team Theme: PURPLE REIGN

Last year on these pages Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald was quoted as saying, “We’re not that far away… it’s all about chemistry. Are we eating and drinking and sleeping and just consumed with being a champion? We’re darn close, and that’s the goal.” His words proved prophetic as Northwestern proceeded to win 10 games for only the second-time in school history. As a result Fitzgerald enjoyed his best-ever recruiting class this year, paving the way for continuity to be in place for years to come. Adding to the good news is the return of 15 starters from last year’s record-setting class, including QB Kain Colter on offense and Tyler Scott on defense, the nation’s active sack leader last season. The saga continues.

Stat You Will Like: The last time Northwestern won back-to-back bowl games was 1949.

PLAY ON: vs. Michigan (11/16)

  
HEADLINES
Nelson: Week 1 Clashes
ASA: Top Big Ten QB's
Lawrence: 2014 Pac-12 Preview
Edwards: Pressing Mississippi State
Blankenship: Fade Alert - Ohio State
Edwards: Top 20 QB Changes
FSU QB Winston can't escape past
Auburn-Clemson to meet in '16 and '17
Stanford's Montgomery rehabbing shoulder
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