Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald have tried to up the ante in their teams' rivalry this offseason. So Today's Take Two topic is this: Which of the teams will have the better 2012 season?
Take 1: Brian Bennett
Both teams went 6-6 in the regular season last year and played an extremely close game in Champaign that the Illini won. Northwestern has an explosive offense but a lot of questions on defense, and Illinois is almost a mirror image of the Wildcats. Both also have some schedule difficulties. Northwestern opens with three games that could go either way against Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College, and has to go to Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. Illinois has road trips at Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State, plus a tough league opener at home against Penn State. I could see a scenario where the Illini and Wildcats have the same record and are jockeying for bowl position heading into their season finale in Evanston on Nov. 24. I like Northwestern to finish with a slightly better 2012 season. While Illinois' defense should be really stout, especially in the front seven with guys like Jonathan Brown, Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan, I think the offense will go through some growing pains while trying to adjust to Beckman's spread style. And the schedule is such that the Illini could be looking at a 3-4 record after seven games. Northwestern has its own issues, particularly with a defense that had trouble slowing anybody down last season. But if Kain Colter can develop as a passer, I really like what that offense is capable of with a deep receiving corps, and the defense simply has to get a little bit better. I don't see either team seriously contending in their division, and both might be around the 6-6, 7-5 area. But if Northwestern can protect its home turf (and its self-imposed title of "Chicago's Big Ten team"), then the Wildcats should finish slightly ahead in the Land of Lincoln battle.
Take 2: Adam Rittenberg
It really comes down to defense vs. offense. Illinois should once again be strong on D, especially in the front seven, while Northwestern's track record on offense under coordinator Mick McCall and during the better part of the past 12 seasons speaks for itself. Usually a good defensive team will have a better season than a good offensive team, and that could be the case here, especially if Illinois capitalizes on a fairly soft non-league slate. It'll be very important, though, for Illinois to avoid an 0-3 start to Big Ten play as it opens with Penn State (home), Wisconsin (road) and Michigan (road). The Illini play in what I believe to be the weaker division (Leaders), but their road schedule, as you point out, isn't very easy. Northwestern, meanwhile, has so many swing games early it could start anywhere from 6-1 to 2-5. The answer here could be which of the teams' weaker units -- Illinois' offense and Northwestern's defense -- makes strides this fall. I have some serious doubts about both units. Illinois returns a third-year starter at quarterback (Nathan Scheelhaase) but very few weapons around him. Plus, the Illini are operating in a new system. Northwestern is young on defense and needs players like Tyler Scott and Ibraheim Campbell to lead the way. The youth might not be a bad thing as Northwestern feels it has more overall talent, but the track record on defense in Evanston isn't good. I agree with you that both teams will be around the 5- to 7-win mark this season. Beckman needs a bit of time to get established in Champaign, while Northwestern has a bunch of new faces. I like Northwestern to end its recent losing streak to Illinois on Nov. 24, but Illinois will ride its defense to one more victory than the Wildcats (7 vs. 6).