Monday, August 29, 2011
New Big Ten finally on display this week
By Adam Rittenberg
Luke Fickell, Brady Hoke and Jerry Kill will make their debuts as Big Ten head coaches Saturday.
Every college football season brings new faces and new storylines, but the Big Ten hasn't had a makeover like this before.
The conference will feature a new member (Nebraska), new divisions (Legends and Leaders) and a new championship game, the first in its history. Five new coaches join the league, and at least six teams will start new quarterbacks. Not surprisingly, the league race appears wide open.
As the Big Ten season kicks off Thursday night in Madison, let's take a look at all the newness around the conference.
Nearly 15 months after being admitted to the Big Ten, Nebraska will play its first game as a member of the league. The Huskers have enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts as the rest of the league familiarizes itself with the program's history, the school and a talented team projected to be in the mix for the Big Ten championship.
There will be much more hype surrounding Nebraska's first Big Ten game -- Oct. 1 at Wisconsin -- and rightfully so, and Saturday's opener against FCS Chattanooga won't be the best barometer for Bo Pelini's squad. The game will, however, provide a look at Nebraska's new offense under coordinator Tim Beck. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is healthy and supposedly more mature, while running back Rex Burkhead has received high marks throughout the offseason. Who steps up among Nebraska's talented young offensive skill players?
Those of us who haven't watched Big Red regularly also will get a sense of the defense and the complex scheme defensive tackle Jared Crick, coordinator Carl Pelini and others have cited. Don't expect Nebraska to reveal too much against Chattanooga, but after discussing the Huskers ad nauseum, it'll be nice to see them on the field.
Four Big Ten coaches will make their debuts with new teams Saturday, while Nebraska's Pelini works his first game as a Big Ten member.
Luke Fickell's job interview at Ohio State begins Saturday against Akron, as the former Buckeyes defensive lineman and longtime assistant makes his head-coaching debut for his alma mater. Fickell's in-game decisions, sideline demeanor and perhaps even his game-day attire (vest? no vest?) will be closely examined. Ohio State shouldn't have trouble with Akron, and anything less than a strong opening statement after a tough offseason will elicit some grumbling.
Another highly anticipated debut takes place in Ann Arbor as Brady Hoke leads Michigan out of the tunnel. Hoke has made few missteps since his hiring in January, and his approval rating among Michigan fans has soared. But things can change on game day, and a team going through quite a bit of transition must deliver a strong performance against Western Michigan.
Jerry Kill also has energized a fan base in Minnesota, and he begins another turnaround project with the Gophers after successfully rehabilitating programs at lower levels. Kill has been realistic about his team's prospects this season, and an opener at USC provides a huge challenge for Minnesota.
After years as one of the nation's top assistants, Kevin Wilson begins his head-coaching career Saturday as Indiana takes on Ball State at Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the Big Ten championship game. Wilson's personality and coaching style differ sharply from his predecessor, Bill Lynch, and Indiana fans hope the on-field results do, too. A new attitude certainly is taking root in Bloomington.
Russell Wilson will make his highly anticipated debut under center for the Badgers on Thursday.
At least half the Big Ten will be starting new quarterbacks in Week 1: Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin. Penn State could play two quarterbacks with previous starting experience (Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin), while Northwestern might have to play multiple signal-callers because of Dan Persa's lingering injury issues.
Terrelle Pryor's departure from Ohio State in June leaves the Buckeyes with virtually no proven experience under center. Senior Joe Bauserman and freshman Braxton Miller emerged in camp, and both men could see significant time against Akron.
The Big Ten's most anticipated player debut takes place Thursday in Madison as Russell Wilson leads the Wisconsin offense against UNLV. Wilson, who started the past three season at NC State, has seamlessly transitioned to a new team and performed well in preseason practices.
Familiar names step into leading roles at Minnesota and Iowa. MarQueis Gray, the Gophers' No. 2 wide receiver in 2010, will start at quarterback, while James Vandenberg, who nearly led Iowa to a Big Ten championship in 2009 after Ricky Stanzi went down, leads the Hawkeyes offense against Tennessee Tech.
Purdue didn't expect to be in this category again, but Rob Henry's knee injury last week marked the latest blow for a star-crossed team. With Robert Marve still hobbled, Caleb TerBush will start the opener, making his first appearance since 2009.
Indiana's quarterback competition has been wide open throughout camp, as Dusty Kiel, Ed Wright-Baker and Tre Roberson try to separate themselves.
The season also brings some new challenges for returning quarterbacks. Michigan's Denard Robinson will have to adjust to a new offense after flourishing in the spread, while Northwestern's Persa might have to reinvent himself as a pocket passer because of limited mobility. Nebraska's Martinez aims for greater consistency in Beck's offense after mixed results in 2010.
As you can see, new is the norm for the Big Ten in 2011. Enjoy the ride.