Three Big Ten dark horses for this season

May, 23, 2011
5/23/11
4:30
PM ET
Earlier today, my colleague Edward Aschoff from the SEC blog took a look at three potential dark horse teams in that league for the 2011 season.

At the risk of playing catchup to the SEC -- something Big Ten folks hate to do -- I think it's a good idea. Who are the Big Ten's top dark horse candidates for 2011?

To be clear, a dark horse has to be a team not considered by most folks to be on the league championship radar entering the season. The 2010 Michigan State team probably qualifies, although those who really studied the Spartans' personnel -- like yours truly -- weren't surprised by their run to a Big Ten championship. The Illinois team that made the 2008 Rose Bowl following back-to-back 2-win seasons is a better example of a dark horse.

Let's take a look at three teams that could fit the description this fall. One common theme among them: a favorable schedule.

ILLINOIS

2010 record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten, beat Baylor in Texas Bowl)

I recently was on a radio show in Champaign and the hosts justifiably asked me about listing Illinois at No. 9 in my post-spring power rankings. As I told them, Illinois definitely has the potential to make a significant move up the rankings before the season ends. In fact, I'd be a little surprised if they remained at No. 9 The team has some confidence coming off of a bowl victory, and talent never has been the issue for Illinois during coach Ron Zook's tenure. Illinois boasts a talented quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase and one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, anchored by tackle Jeff Allen. There are question marks on defense after the unit lost first-round pick Corey Liuget and second-round pick Martez Wilson, but I really like what the Illini return in the secondary. If coordinator Vic Koenning pulls the right strings this fall, the defense should be fine. The schedule also favors Illinois, which opens with five consecutive home games and plays eight contests at Memorial Stadium.

MICHIGAN

2010 record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten, lost to Mississippi State in Gator Bowl)

Although Michigan increased its wins total in each of the past two seasons, few preseason prognosticators will place the Wolverines in the Big Ten's upper half entering the season. There are quite a few question marks as new coach Brady Hoke and his assistants install new systems on both sides of the ball. The defense should improve under coordinator Greg Mattison, especially up front and if the secondary gets better luck with injuries. And if the offense can maintain some of its explosiveness -- hello, Denard Robinson -- and limit turnovers against Big Ten competition, Michigan has a real chance to make noise in the Legends division. Like Illinois, the Wolverines also could get off to a fast start as they play their first five games at the Big House.

IOWA

2010 record: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten, beat Missouri in the Insight Bowl)

This is a role in which Iowa seems to thrive. The Hawkeyes fell short of expectations in 2010, and they might be dismissed by some after losing so many standout players. Iowa had three defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft -- Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug -- and also must replace its starting quarterback, top two safeties, leading rusher and a record-setting receiver. But the Hawkeyes have some nice building blocks, starting with one of the league's best offensive lines. Quarterback James Vandenberg is no stranger to the spotlight, and while Iowa needs to find more depth at running back, Marcus Coker looks like the real deal. There are some holes to fill in the defensive front seven, but Iowa typically finds ways to get it done on D. Like the other two dark horses listed, Iowa also could benefit from its schedule. Iowa plays three of the top Legends division teams -- Michigan State, Northwestern and Michigan -- at Kinnick Stadium.

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