- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Another great hoops weekend on tap, and then Big Ten spring ball gets in full swing next week.
Max from Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., writes: I enjoyed your take on MSU as they enter spring ball. With all of their returning talent, how can the "so called" experts continue to dismiss them? Every team losses their quarterback from time to time. Why is the loss of Cousins taken as a sign that MSU will some how fall back to the John L days. With our defense Andrew Maxwell will be a more than adequate replacement. After all both Alabama and LSU had quarterback play that was average at best last
Adam Rittenberg: You make some good points, Max. While Michigan State has had tremendous success in recent years, the Spartans haven't quite put themselves in the category of squads that outsiders expect to reload every year. Those who really study what MSU returns on defense will see the potential for the 2012 squad to be as good or even better than its predecessor. We shouldn't underrate the loss of Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. But it's not as if Maxwell is some true freshman being thrown into the fire. He has been prepared for this. That said, he'll likely have some growing pains. But as a mostly unproven quarterback, he'll inspire some skepticism about Michigan State's chances. Alabama and LSU have won national titles in recent years and have recruited consistently among the nation’s elite. Michigan State, fairly or unfairly, is viewed as a notch below those programs. The Spartans can do a lot to change that perception this fall with a third consecutive 10-win season
The Roaming Badger from The Burrow writes: Hey Adam,I haven't heard much talk about Illinois as a contender for a division title. They have been recruiting some top shelf talent for years under Ron Zook, what are the chances someone comes in and takes that talent to a title? Last time he left a team a coach took his recruits to a NC within two years. In fact, that coach could probably have taken over the Illinois HC position this last offseason if he wanted to. Now that would make for some fun speculation!
Adam Rittenberg: Always good to hear from The Burrow. While I wouldn't dismiss Illinois in a wide-open Leaders division, you might be overrating the talent level just a bit. Zook’s top recruiting classes were 2007, 2008 and 2009, and most of those players are no longer in the program. Illinois certainly has its share of talent, particularly in the defensive front seven with players such as Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown. But the overall depth of the past three recruiting classes doesn’t seem as strong.
Illinois has to find several playmakers on offense to help quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The Illini also need to build depth in areas like offensive line and the secondary. The defense should be good enough to make some noise in the division, but after watching the offense flounder so much in the second half of the 2012, the jury is out and Tim Beckman's staff has plenty of work ahead.
Brian from Whiteman Air Force Base writes: Hey guys, i need you to explain somethin to me regarding the future annual series of B1G vs Pac12. I understand it will generate more revenue and beef up the non-conference schedules of both conferences, BUT with the entire nation trying to play catchup to the SEC, wouldn't it be kindof detrimental for the best teams from the B1G and Pac12 to hand eachother losses so early in the year? I feel like we should be scheduling against more SEC teams to try to give them losses so we avoid more situations like last year's national championship game!
Adam Rittenberg: Brian, I see your point about the Big Ten and Pac-12 cannibalizing one another in the race to catch the SEC. But in terms of scheduling more games against the SEC, it’s easier said than done. How many SEC teams venture away from the southeast to play nonconference games? Still waiting … Anyone? Bueller? Yeah, it doesn't happen very often. SEC athletic directors would rather sacrifice their first born than give up home games, particularly in exchange for a trip to Big Ten territory. And Big Ten teams aren't going to visit Dixie without getting a home game in return. It's why we could see more neutral-site matchups like Michigan-Alabama. While I hope the Big Ten-Pac-12 partnership doesn’t totally stop Big Ten ADs from trying to schedule SEC foes, don't hold your breath. Nonconference scheduling goes both ways, and the SEC schools have to change their approach for anything to work. And right now, there's really no incentive for SEC schools to do anything differently.
Jim from Winchester, Va., writes: Nebraska played a few true freshmen at a few key positions (RB, WR, LT) and some young new corners on defense. What are the chances the Huskers creep up on folks and surprise some teams who might think they will be mediocre on defense and Martinez in his second year of a new offense shines.
Adam Rittenberg: There's a good chance, Jim. While Michigan State and Michigan likely will enter the season as the Big Ten favorites, Nebraska shouldn’t be overlooked. As you point out, the Huskers return most of their core on offense, and those young players, including quarterback Taylor Martinez, just a junior, will have another year of experience under their belt. Although Nebraska loses a few starting offensive linemen, I actually think the overall depth up front will be better as a lot of young players got their feet wet in 2012. The Huskers are strong at running back with Rex Burkhead leading the charge, and the wide receiver and tight end positions should get a boost.
The key on defense will be replacing star power -- Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard -- with better overall depth. You hear baseball managers talk about up-the-middle defense, and the same holds true for football. Nebraska needs to be better at defensive tackle and safety, and it needs to find someone to step in for David, the league’s top linebacker. Too many teams attacked the deep middle against the Huskers. I think the offense will need to win a few tough games, but Nebraska should be right in the mix in a competitive Legends division.
Kevin from Mt. Prospect, Ill., writes: Pat Fitzgerald has said in the offseason that he wants to keep his current staff around. The offense is certainly working for the Cats but the defense hasn't been doing their jobs in years. Is keeping Mike Hankwitz as defensive coordinator a liabity for the Wildcats after the poor defense the past couple years. How many more poor defensive seasons will it take for Pat to get rid of him and do you see the Cats improving to being an average defensive team in the big ten this year?
Adam Rittenberg: I thought there was a chance Fitz would make some staff changes after the season, especially with some of the admitted communication problems the defense had. Then again, he preaches the importance of continuity and has been extremely loyal to his assistants, firing only one -- defensive coordinator Greg Colby -- in six years on the job. Hankwitz played a big role in Fitzgerald’s best season, 2008, as he turned around one of the nation's worst units and made them respectable. But the past year and a half has been pretty awful on the defensive side. The challenge for Hankwitz is that the 2012 defense will be younger than its predecessor, and Northwestern loses its top two defensive backs in a secondary that struggled mightily last season. The coaches feel they've recruited well, but they need to have some players take significant steps this fall.
While Northwestern has struggled on defense since Fitzgerald played, the program produced a number of NFL defenders in the first part of the last decade. Other than Corey Wootton, there haven’t been many during Fitzgerald's tenure as head coach. So is it a talent issue or a lack of development? I think Northwestern has some intriguing players such as end Tyler Scott and safety Ibraheim Campbell, but they need to become difference-makers in 2012. Hankwitz is a seasoned coordinator, but his scheme relies on generating pressure strictly from the line and Northwestern generated virtually none last year. Will he mix it up more with blitzes? He might have to.
If Northwestern’s defense has another season like 2011, I don’t know how Fitzgerald retains the entire defensive staff again.
Kelley from Los Angeles writes: Hey Adam, I hope you had a great vacation! Let's just assume (and hope against hope) for the moment, that Danny O'Brien comes to State College for next season. With that vastly improved QB situation, do we have a legitimate shot at a B1G title? Or at least the Leaders division? I like how our schedule looks this season, but unless we get a good QB it could all be four naught. So does O'Brien squared get us the title?
Adam Rittenberg: Kelley, always great to hear from you. I think Danny O'Brien puts Penn State in position to challenge for the Leaders division title. It's not to say PSU can't win the division without him, but if O'Brien provides the upgrade the Nittany Lions desperately need under center, they could really make a run in a wide-open division. I think the Big Ten champion comes out of the Legends -- Michigan, Michigan State or Nebraska -- but we could see a mini-upset in Indy as well. I agree that Penn State's schedule sets up well, particularly within the division as both Ohio State and Wisconsin visit Happy Valley. You can also argue Penn State brings back the division’s top defense, although there are some question marks in the secondary and at the second defensive tackle spot. But everyone knows that with Penn State, it comes down to the quarterback spot and getting much better play than we've seen the past two years.