Take Two: Struggling units on the way up?

April, 17, 2013
4/17/13
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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.

Spring is a time for optimism and for making improvements on last season's problem spots. So Today's Take Two topic is this: Based on what we've seen so far this spring, which struggling unit from 2012 will make the biggest strides: Illinois' offense, Indiana's defense, Iowa's offense, Michigan State's offense or Nebraska's defense?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

All five of these units have significant question marks entering 2013. Three of them have new coordinators/play-callers -- Illinois' offense (Bill Cubit), Indiana's defense (William Inge) and Michigan State's offense (Dave Warner and Jim Bollman) -- and only the Nebraska defense saw no coaching changes during the offseason. To me, it's between the Blackshirts and Michigan State's offense, although as I wrote earlier this week, Iowa could take steps because of a decent supporting cast around its new quarterback. While Indiana's defense and Illinois' offense should be better, both units lack enough depth to make dramatic strides. For me, it comes down to whether Nebraska can rebuild its front seven or whether Michigan State can spark a passing attack with many of the same characters who struggled to do so last season.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Maxwell
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAndrew Maxwell is one of the Spartans eight starters returning on offense.
My faith in Michigan State burned me last season, and maybe it will again, but I'm going with the Spartans offense. An improved offensive line will be the biggest difference-maker for MSU, which will protect its quarterback and create room for a committee of running backs (I don't see a featured back emerging this fall). I also see Michigan State's receivers using last year's disappointment as fuel and performing much better this season. Aaron Burbridge, one of few bright spots among the MSU receivers, told me the group definitely has something to prove. The same goes for quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who took a lot of criticism and is working to reclaim his job this spring. The competition element should help Maxwell, and from watching MSU practice, I see enough talent at receiver if the consistency comes along. I also like the fact that the coaches are recognizing that college offenses are, to a degree, about improvising and going beyond the traditional quarterback mold. I expect MSU to be more creative with the playbook and mix and match personnel.

There are definitely concerns with the unit -- losing Le'Veon Bell and Dion Sims stings -- but I see the Spartans taking some big steps behind an offensive line that starts to turn a corner.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

Oh, Adam. Did you learn nothing from 2012, when we both were burned by the Spartans? I know you saw them in person in East Lansing earlier this month, so maybe you have some insight that I'm missing. But I don't see how an offense that was pretty terrible last year and lost its two best playmakers in Bell and Sims is suddenly going to become a powerhouse.

For me, Michigan State is near the bottom in this list of choices. I think you'll see significant improvement on Indiana's defense because the Hoosiers will add some athletes they simply haven't had in recent years when the recruits arrive. I also liked what I saw from Illinois' offense during the Illini spring game, as Bill Cubit showed he's going to throw the ball around. That team will definitely score more than the paltry 16.7 points a game it managed a year ago, even if it won't morph into a high-flying attack overnight.

But I'm going to choose Nebraska's defense here, despite some obvious concerns. True, the Huskers defense did not look great in the spring game, but it was going against one of the top offenses in the nation. You can't really judge the Big Red 'D' on what it is now but rather what it will become. Bo Pelini and coordinator John Papuchis are replacing eight or nine starters, depending on how you calculate that stat, and are mixing in a ton of raw, but talented, guys in the front seven.

Here's the thing, though: Nebraska's huge defensive breakdowns last year in games against UCLA, Ohio State and Wisconsin happened in large part because there wasn't enough speed and strength on the field. That won't be nearly as big of an issue in 2013, as guys like David Santos, Zaire Anderson and incoming defensive end Randy Gregory add some impressive athleticism. The Huskers will make some mistakes as they struggle to learn Pelini's scheme, but they also have time to grow. Apart from the UCLA game, which is conveniently at home, Nebraska doesn't play anybody with a potent offense until the Nov. 2 contest against Northwestern, also at home. The Huskers will get a bye week before Big Ten play opens and again after their first two league games against Purdue and Illinois. By then, the young defenders will have plenty of experience and plenty of opportunities to fix their mistakes.

Also an advantage: There's no Ohio State or Wisconsin on the schedule. Remember, in Nebraska's 10 wins last year, the defense allowed only 266.9 yards per game, compared to nearly 600 yards per game given up in losses. All the Huskers have to do is avoid those nuclear meltdowns in order to make major gains both statistically and perception-wise. A few growing pains aside, I say that will happen.

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