Big Ten: 2013 team previews

Illinois season preview

August, 21, 2013
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Can Tim Beckman turn around Illinois in his second year? That's one of the many questions surrounding the Illini heading into 2013:

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI

Coach: Tim Beckman (23-26, 2-10)

2012 Record: 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten)

Key losses: WR Darius Millines, G/T Hugh Thornton, C Graham Pocic, DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, DT Glenn Foster, LB Ashante Williams, CB Terry Hawthorne, CB Justin Green, S Supo Sanni.

Key returnees: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Donovonn Young, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Ryan Lankford, WR Spencer Harris, LG Michael Heitz, RG Ted Karras, RT Simon Cvijanovic, DE Tim Kynard, LB Mike Svetina, MLB Mason Monheim.

Newcomer to watch: Defensive lineman Paul James III was the only ESPN 300 recruit the Illini picked up last season, coming in at No. 200 out of Miami. Considering the heavy losses for Illinois on its defensive line, especially Buchanan, James could have the chance to play early. On a roster in need of a lot of retooling, getting him some early playing time could be key.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhNathan Scheelhaase returns for his fourth season as the Illini's quarterback.
Biggest games in 2013: For a team still trying to figure out its way out of the depths of the Big Ten, this season’s schedule will not help. Nonconference games against Cincinnati and Washington will be tough -- even if both are in the state of Illinois (Cincinnati in Champaign and Washington in Chicago). The Big Ten schedule isn’t too favorable for Illinois, either, with a tough opening stretch at Nebraska and then home against Wisconsin and Michigan State. By the middle of October, Illinois might know if it still has anything other than pride to play for.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: There are a lot of them, but the overriding one is if the second season under Beckman will be better than the first. Theoretically it should be, considering Illinois returns a chunk of its offense, led by QB Scheelhaase. But its defense will have major retooling to do as only four starters return. Considering the potential strength at the top of the Leaders Division, it could be a rough season no matter what.

Forecast: Not good. With a tough schedule, a rebuilding roster and already some pressure to win and win now, Year 2 of the Beckman experience might look eerily like the first season.

If not for Scheelhaase, its offense would lack a lot of experience. And the defense is already filling a lot of holes left in the secondary and on the defensive line.

Beckman is attempting to change that. Hiring Bill Cubit, an experienced offensive mind with head coaching experience at Western Michigan, is a start. He should be able to help Scheelhaase improve, and the Illini have a good running back to work with in Young, a junior who started 10 games last season, averaging 4.4 yards a carry.

The other reasons for optimism in Champaign come from two junior college players who could make pushes to start: receiver Martize Barr and linebacker Eric Finney. Safety Zane Petty, another juco transfer, played Division I football before at Colorado State and could fill a need if he can move up the depth chart.

Illinois could also be strong at linebacker, led by Monheim, who led the Illini in tackles in 2012 with 86. Just a sophomore, he’ll be looked at to focus a young defensive group.

All of that said, for Illinois to have a successful season, it will need every possible thing to go right. If it doesn’t, the Illini will be watching bowl season from home again this winter.

Iowa season preview

August, 20, 2013
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Can Iowa rebound from a down year or will Kirk Ferentz find himself on the hot seat again? A look at the 2013 Hawkeyes:

IOWA HAWKEYES

Coach: Kirk Ferentz (100-74 overall, 100-74 at Iowa)

2012 record: 4-8 (2-6 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB James Vandenberg, WR Keenan Davis, OG Matt Tobin, C James Ferentz, DL Joe Gaglione, CB Micah Hyde

Key returnees: RB Mark Weisman, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley, TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, OT Brandon Scherff, C Austin Blythe, LB Anthony Hitchens, LB James Morris, LB Christian Kirksey, S Tanner Miller

Newcomer to watch: WR Damond Powell. He was No. 83 on the ESPN Juco 100, and Iowa's passing game sorely needs a boost after averaging just 5.8 yards an attempt last season. (Only eight teams in the FBS fared worse than that.) It might take a few more weeks for Powell to get acclimated -- he arrived on campus only earlier this month -- but the speedy wideout could develop into a big-play threat. He averaged about 30 yards a catch at Snow College.

Biggest games in 2013: at Iowa State (Sept. 14), at Ohio State (Oct. 19), versus Wisconsin (Nov. 2), at Nebraska (Nov. 29)

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
AP Photo/Matt QuinnanJake Rudock seems to have the inside track to be Iowa's quarterback in 2013.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Which quarterback will start this season, and can he be more effective than Vandenberg? It's a three-way race right now between Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard, but Rudock appears to have the edge. Ferentz could name a starter later this week, and Rudock received most of the snaps during a Saturday scrimmage.

The good news for Rudock is there's really nowhere for this pass offense to go but up. Big plays were few and far between in 2012, and Rudock is at least a bit more used to offensive coordinator Greg Davis now. (Davis took over in February 2012.) The Hawkeyes finished No. 99 in pass offense last season with Vandenberg, and it would be a huge disappointment if Rudock didn't improve upon those numbers. Expectations at quarterback are low enough for Rudock to exceed them.

Forecast: Ferentz is coming off his worst season since 2000, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that a lot of question marks are surrounding this team. The Hawkeyes finished with the No. 114 offense last season and Iowa lost its best defensive player in Hyde.

Still, there is some hope for these Hawkeyes. If the running backs can remain healthy -- and that's a big if for Iowa -- the offensive line is strong enough to pave the way and greatly improve upon the team's dismal rushing performance from last year. And, despite the downright awful pass game, Iowa lost by a field goal or less in four games, so the potential's there to add more marks in the win column. The Hawkeyes just need to find a downfield threat and a playmaker or two.

On defense, the line needs to generate more of a pass rush, but the talent on the other side of the ball isn't a huge concern (certainly not on par with the passing game). With a strong group of three returning linebackers, the Hawkeyes should have one of the stronger groups of the conference.

Iowa isn't going to compete for a division title, but it should improve upon last year's record. Five or six wins isn't out of the question. But if Ferentz can't meet those numbers, the chatter about a pending pink slip -- prohibitive buyout or not -- is sure to start up again.

Michigan season preview

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
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Can Michigan make the jump from the cusp to an actual Big Ten championship game? A look at the 2013 Wolverines:

MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

Coach: Brady Hoke (66-57, 19-7)

2012 record: 8-5

Key losses: QB/RB Denard Robinson; WR Roy Roundtree; RG Patrick Omameh; C Elliott Mealer; DE Craig Roh; DT Will Campbell; MLB Kenny Demens; CB J.T. Floyd; S Jordan Kovacs

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comCould running back Derrick Green be the key to Michigan's season? The touted freshman is expected to compete for the starting job right away.
Key returnees: QB Devin Gardner; RB Fitzgerald Toussaint; WR Jeremy Gallon; TE Devin Funchess; LT Taylor Lewan; RT Michael Schofield; DT Quinton Washington; DE Frank Clark; LB Jake Ryan (injured); LB Desmond Morgan; CB Blake Countess; CB Raymon Taylor; S Thomas Gordon

Newcomer to watch: There are a couple of freshmen who could see major snaps for Michigan, but the most notable is running back Derrick Green. He will push Toussaint for the starting job immediately and could end up as the featured back by the end of the season. The other two freshmen who could see major time are early enrollees: defensive back Dymonte Thomas and tight end Jake Butt. Neither will likely start, but both will be key reserves or used in subpackages.

Biggest games in 2013: Michigan had all of its key games on the road last season. This year, the Wolverines will have their two toughest games at home: Notre Dame on Sept. 7, and Ohio State on Nov. 30 in the regular-season closer. The Buckeyes, though, cap a difficult month for the Wolverines, who have trips to Michigan State on Nov. 2 and Northwestern on Nov. 16.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Who will run the ball? As the Wolverines complete their transition to a pro-style offense, they need a capable running back lining up behind quarterback Gardner. Considering the importance of play-action in what they will try to do offensively, they will need a back to gain yards to keep the whole offense balanced and a defense confused. The main candidates are Toussaint and Green, with freshman De'Veon Smith, redshirt freshman Drake Johnson and junior Thomas Rawls also pushing for time.

Forecast: Good. Like most teams that are near the end of a rebuilding phase, depth at certain positions is questionable, which means anything written here would be for naught if Gardner, Gallon or Lewan were injured for any length of time. Provided those three offensive stalwarts stay healthy, the Wolverines have a strong shot at making a run to the Big Ten championship game.

Michigan’s season could come down to whether it can beat Michigan State and Northwestern on the road. It is entirely possible that by the time the Wolverines and Buckeyes play in the regular-season finale that both will have wrapped up divisional titles and Big Ten title game trips. The best news for Michigan in all of this is how the schedule breaks down. After Notre Dame in Week 2, the Wolverines have only one real challenge -- at Penn State -- until November. This will allow a young offensive line to gain confidence and chemistry, and a young defensive line a chance to figure out how to beat Big Ten linemen.

A road win at any of those three places could lift Michigan into a different level, because one of the major issues with coach Brady Hoke has been his inability to win a game of any significance away from Michigan Stadium, where he has yet to lose.

Michigan State season preview

August, 16, 2013
8/16/13
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If the old adage “defense wins championships” always held true, then Michigan State would be a top team in most preseason polls. But they'll still have to play offense, and it might not be a good thing that the Spartans' success this season will hinge on how the unit moves the ball.

MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

Coach Mark Dantonio (69-45 overall, 51-28 at Michigan State)

2012 record: 7-6 overall, 3-5 Big Ten

Key losses: DE William Gholston, RB Le’Veon Bell, RB Larry Caper, TE Dion Sims, DB Johnny Adams, LB Chris Norman, K Dan Conroy

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Andrew Maxwell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWill Andrew Maxwell be able to hold off Connor Cook and lead the Spartans?
Key returnees: QB Andrew Maxwell, WR Keith Mumphery, WR Bennie Fowler, WR Tony Lippett, WR Aaron Burbridge, RB Riley Bullough, OL Travis Jackson, CB Darqueze Dennard, LB Max Bullough, LB Denicos Allen

Newcomer to watch: Running back Riley Bullough. The redshirt freshman converted linebacker can be considered a true newcomer because this is his first season at the position. The Spartans are looking for someone to step into the big shoes Bell left, and Bullough has seemed to rise to the occasion throughout fall camp.

Biggest games in 2013: at Notre Dame (Sept. 21), at Iowa (Oct. 5), vs. Michigan (Nov. 2), at Nebraska (Nov. 16), at Northwestern (Nov. 23)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Will the offense really be able to get it going? Maxwell remains the biggest question mark. Dantonio pulled Maxwell during the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl last season and put in Connor Cook. The same could happen this season as the two battle it out trying to find consistency in the offense and chemistry with wide receivers. Bullough should help, but neither he nor junior Nick Hill has ever been a featured back in an offense. Running back by committee could be the Spartans’ best bet.

Forecast: The Spartan defense will be stout, even without Gholston. It returns most starters and Max Bullough is ready to lead. It’s the offense that will struggle to find its identity, which happens to most teams when they don’t have a starting quarterback who has consistently proven himself. This season, Michigan State might head into the fall with that part still unanswered. The Spartans return multiple wide receiver threats, so Maxwell should have some kind of chemistry there, but how long his leash will be remains to be seen, and Cook could be thrown into the fire relatively quickly.

The schedule does set up the Spartans to play their best football later in the season. The front half of their conference schedule isn’t too bad. The Spartans should be better than the Hawkeyes, but playing at Iowa is never easy. Indiana and Purdue at home, as well as a road game against Illinois, should provide ample confidence building as the Spartans face a tougher three-game stretch in November. They’ll host in-state rival Michigan before hitting the road for Nebraska and Northwestern, which could be a true contest this season, unlike in most. Minnesota at home should be a fine way to close out, especially considering that will be the week that fellow Legends team Michigan faces a tough competitor in Ohio State, possibly with both teams vying for a spot in the Big Ten championship game the following weekend.

Minnesota season preview

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
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Minnesota hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 1967. Head coach Jerry Kill was 6 years old and most of the current fan base really can’t remember those “glory days.” Could it be another interesting year for the Gophers? Oh yeah sure, you betcha.

MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS

Coach: Jerry Kill (136-89 overall, 9-16 at Minnesota)

2012 record: 6-7 (2-6 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB MarQueis Gray, QB Max Shortell, WR A.J. Barker, WR Devin Crawford-Tufts, CB Michael Carter

[+] EnlargePhilip Nelson
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMinnesota QB Philip Nelson has an experienced offensive line but needs to find some chemistry with his receivers in 2013.
Key returnees: QB Philip Nelson, OL, NT Ra’Shede Hageman, LB Aaron Hill, TE Drew Goodger

Newcomer to watch: Freshman QB/WR Donovahn Jones. He played both positions in high school, but Kill would likely use him as a wide receiver who has the ability to really stretch the field vertically for Nelson. At 6-foot-2, 189 pounds, he’s big enough to create tough matchups, but his athleticism and speed (4.69 in the 40) could give him the edge in a lot of those scenarios.

Biggest games in 2013: vs. Iowa (Sept. 28), vs. Nebraska (Oct. 26), vs. Penn State (Nov. 9), at Michigan State (Nov. 30)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can Nelson run this offense? He spent last year getting redshirted, then not, then battling for the starting spot. Now, he’s the only Gophers signal-caller who has ever taken a college snap. If Minnesota has bowl dreams, they rest heavily on Nelson’s shoulders.

It doesn’t help Nelson that he really doesn’t have much established chemistry with any current receiver, however, the offensive line returns much of its experience, which will benefit the sophomore QB. At this point, it’s pretty much a toss-up. Nelson seems ready to lead the offense, but whether or not he’ll lead an offense that can actually make plays remains to be seen.

Forecast: The conference seems to be positioning itself, at least for this season, as a Big Two-Little Ten situation that dominated the conference for years. Michigan and Ohio State return plenty of experience and confidence -- and well, Minnesota just doesn’t.

However, the Gophers sit in that second tier of teams that could go either way. The home schedule provides plenty of interesting matchups for the Gophers to potentially pick up signature wins on their home turf. If they can take down Northwestern and/or Wisconsin in November, those could be wins that put Minnesota on the map for some bowl games. But in order to make those games worth anything, it will have to win the games earlier in this season, which hasn’t always been a strong point.

The offense is shaping up to be somewhat impressive, but there are also a lot of gaps at crucial positions. The individual skill of Hageman and a few other players could land them on some All-Big Ten teams, but there just isn’t enough talent to go around to really lift this team into the upper echelon of Big Ten football quite yet.

Schedule analysis: Wisconsin

August, 14, 2013
8/14/13
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Preseason practice is in full swing, and kickoff is just around the corner. To get you ready, we're analyzing every Big Ten team's complete 2013 schedule.

Let's take a closer look at what awaits first-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen this fall.

Nonconference opponents (with 2012 records)

Aug. 31: Massachusetts (1-11)
Sept. 7: Tennessee Tech (3-8)
Sept. 14: at Arizona State (8-5)
Nov. 9: BYU (8-5)

Leaders division games

Sept. 21: Purdue
Sept. 28: at Ohio State
Oct. 19: at Illinois
Nov. 16: Indiana
Nov. 30: Penn State

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
AP Photo/David StlukaNew coach Gary Andersen and the Badgers will have to hit the ground running with a tough early schedule.
Crossover games

Oct. 12: Northwestern
Nov. 2: at Iowa
Nov. 23: at Minnesota

No plays

Michigan
Michigan State
Nebraska

Gut-check game: Ohio State. We'll learn a lot about Andersen's team in the first month of the season, first during a trip to Arizona State and then with a visit to Ohio Stadium in prime time. The Badgers defended Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller better than any other team in 2012 and nearly handed Urban Meyer his first Big Ten defeat before falling in overtime. Everyone assumes Ohio State will run away with the Leaders division, but Wisconsin can shake things up in a big way with an upset in Columbus. If Wisconsin loses the division tiebreaker to the Buckeyes, it'll have a tough time continuing its streak of Big Ten titles.

Trap game: The Big Ten opener rarely can be designated a trap game, but it could be for Wisconsin this fall. Sandwiched between the tough road trips to Tempe and Columbus is a home contest against Purdue, a team the Badgers have dominated as of late, winning the past seven meetings and the last five by 21 points or more. Purdue plays a brutal stretch to open the season, but the Badgers shouldn't look past a team that has several pros on defense and some weapons offensively such as speedy running back Akeem Hunt.

Snoozer: What's worse: an opener against an FBS team that won one game in 2012 and was picked to finish last in the MAC, or a Week 2 matchup against an FCS team that won just three? Take your pick, it's Massachusetts or Tennessee Tech. Just wake me up when Wisconsin's plane lands in Phoenix.

Non-con challenge: Arizona State could be a very tough draw for the Badgers, who are replacing three of four starters in the secondary and could have a tough time keeping pace with the Sun Devils' up-tempo offenses. Big Ten teams typically struggle in Pac-12 venues, and while the game takes place at night, heat could be a factor in the Valley of the Sun. Wisconsin can get a big boost with a victory before its trip to Columbus two weeks later. The BYU matchup in November could be tricky, as the Cougars had the nation's No. 3 defense in 2012.

Telltale stretch: We won't have to wait long to find out what Andersen's first Badgers team is all about. After the two tomato cans referenced earlier, Wisconsin visits Arizona State and Ohio State in a three-week span, with Purdue in between. After an open week, the Badgers host Northwestern, another preseason Top 25 team. Wisconsin needs to be 2-1 at worst in this stretch to make a serious run for Indianapolis. Transition is the big challenge for a veteran-laden team, but a shaky start could derail the season.

Analysis: Many Big Ten schedules build toward November, giving teams time to work out the kinks before playing their biggest games. It's sort of the opposite for Wisconsin, which plays most of its better opponents -- at least on paper -- between Week 3 and Week 7. Wisconsin could be anywhere from 6-0 to 3-3 entering mid-October. Don't be surprised if the Leaders division title is decided Sept. 28 because of the all-important tiebreaker at stake.

Wisconsin's stretch run shouldn't be neglected here, as it plays rivals Iowa and Minnesota on the road and finishes at home against Penn State. The Badgers and Hawkeyes meet for the first time since 2010, continuing one of the more evenly matched long-term series (tied 42-42-2) in all of college football. A Nov. 16 home matchup against Indiana could be another potential trap game as the Hoosiers will test Wisconsin's shaky secondary for four quarters. But Wisconsin's second-half schedule is fairly navigable, and the Badgers miss three of the top four teams in the Legends division.

Bottom line: Wisconsin must show it can handle the coaching transition and all the changes in the first six games. If so, the Badgers will make another serious run at a league championship.

More schedule analysis

Legends: Iowa | Michigan | Minnesota | Nebraska | Northwestern

Leaders: Purdue | Penn State | Illinois | Ohio State

Nebraska season preview

August, 14, 2013
8/14/13
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Nebraska has averaged 9.8 wins per season under Bo Pelini, but it has also lost exactly four games in each of his five seasons. Can the Huskers break the pattern this year and deliver a long-awaited championship? Let's take a look at what to expect from Big Red:

NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS

Coach: Bo Pelini (49-20, fifth season)

2012 record: 10-4 (7-1 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB Rex Burkhead, LB Will Compton, DE Eric Martin, DE Cameron Meredith, S Daimion Stafford, TE Kyler Reed, K/P Brett Maher

Key returners: QB Taylor Martinez, RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell, OG Spencer Long, DB Ciante Evans, OT Jeremiah Sirles, DE Jason Ankrah, WR Jamal Turner

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelNebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez returns for his senior season.
Newcomer to watch: Defensive end Randy Gregory was rated by some as the top junior college defensive lineman last year. Though he did not arrive on campus until recently, Gregory could at the very least provide the Huskers with a much-needed situational pass rusher, and the 6-foot-6, 230-pound athlete has the potential to do even more than that.

Biggest games in 2013: Nebraska has it relatively easy in September and October, aside from a visit from UCLA on Sept. 14. The first three weeks of November will decide the Huskers' season and likely the Legends Division, as they open the month with Northwestern at home before going to Michigan and then hosting Michigan State.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Defense, defense, defense. The Huskers got steamrolled in losses at UCLA, at Ohio State, vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, allowing 214 points combined in those defeats. Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis have an extremely young defensive front seven and must replace both starting safeties. The coaching staff is optimistic that the defense will be much more athletic, especially on the perimeter and at linebacker, and that that improved speed will make up for some youthful mistakes. But there are only a handful of proven players, and the defensive line in particular must take a step forward.

Forecast: The expectation at Nebraska is that the team wins championships, and it has been a long 13 years in Lincoln without so much as a conference title.

The Huskers have come close under Pelini, and they played in the Big Ten championship game last season (though saying they actually competed in that game -- a 70-31 Wisconsin whitewash -- might be too kind). They will be one of the top contenders again in the Legends Division this year, but they'll need a young defense to rise up if they're going to clear that last hurdle.

The good news is that Pelini doesn't need his defense to be a top-10 national unit. That's because the offense, which averaged 34.8 points per game and led the Big Ten in total yards in 2012, returns most of its key pieces, including senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, 1,100-yard back Ameer Abdullah, a deep receiving corps led by Kenny Bell and an experienced offensive line captained by All-American guard Spencer Long. Turnovers have been a problem for Martinez and the offense as a whole, but ball security was an area they emphasized heavily in the spring.

"I wouldn't trade our offense for anybody's," Pelini said at Big Ten media days. "I really like what we're doing."

With that high-powered attack, the Huskers just need their defense to play respectably, especially in the big games away from home where things have been very shaky the past two years. Luckily, Nebraska gets its first five games at home, plus two byes in the first eight weeks of the season. That should help young players, like linebackers David Santos and Jared Afalava and defensive linemen Avery Moss, Aaron Curry and Greg McMullen, gain some early confidence.

That schedule should allow the Huskers to come roaring out of the gate. If they can handle UCLA at home, the team has a great chance of being 7-0 by the time that key November stretch arrives. Pelini's team should once again be right in the thick of the conference race. Nebraska still needs to prove it can separate itself from the pack.

Northwestern season preview

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
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Northwestern finally shredded the monkey Jan. 1 and won its first bowl game since the 1949 Rose, recording its 10th win in the process. Pat Fitzgerald's crew returns the core pieces from that team, but faces a tougher schedule featuring the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Can Northwestern take the next logical step and reach the Big Ten title game, or will it backslide in 2013?

NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Rich Barnes/US PresswireNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has a lot of returning talent, but faces a difficult 2013 schedule.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (50-39, seven seasons at Northwestern and overall)

2012 record: 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten)

Key losses: G Brian Mulroe, OT Pat Ward, DT Brian Arnfelt, LB David Nwabuisi, DE Quentin Williams

Key returnees: RB Venric Mark, QB Kain Colter, C Brandon Vitabile, TE Dan Vitale, DE Tyler Scott, S Ibraheim Campbell, CB Nick VanHoose, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, K Jeff Budzien

Newcomer to watch: Redshirt freshman cornerback Dwight White had an excellent spring as he makes a push to start opposite Nick VanHoose. White, a 5-foot-10, 178-pound speedster, has good ball skills and brings a playmaking threat to a secondary that, while improved, needs more difference-makers. White will push Daniel Jones and others for playing time this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: The Wildcats face plenty in Big Ten play, starting with the league opener Oct. 5 against Ohio State. If Northwestern and Ohio State both come in undefeated -- a good possibility -- it'll be Northwestern's biggest home game in Fitzgerald's tenure. Another big game follows Oct. 12 at Wisconsin, and Northwestern opens November with three Legends division tests, as it visits Nebraska (Nov. 2) and hosts Michigan (Nov. 16) and Michigan State (Nov. 23).

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Northwestern must shore up its line play on both sides of the ball after losing valuable veterans to graduation. Three starting spots must be filled on the offensive line, including right tackle, as Jack Konopka is expected to slide over to the left side. Several likely starters missed spring ball after offseason surgeries, which gave players like Shane Mertz and Ian Park added reps.

Northwestern also must find a space-eater or two on defense after losing Brian Arnfelt. The team has better depth at defensive end than tackle, where it needs more from veterans Will Hampton and Sean McEvilly.

Outlook: The arrow is definitely pointing up in Evanston after Northwestern recorded just the second 10-win season in team history and could have easily won more games. Many of the building blocks remain, including the dynamic backfield of Mark and Colter, who executed the zone-read game to perfection last fall. Northwestern has upgraded its recruiting efforts, especially on defense, and should boast more speed, athleticism and depth than it did in 2012.

So why is there a hesitation to buy into the Wildcats, who most are picking to finish third or fourth in the Legends division?

There's the Northwestern factor, as some still can't separate the program's current state from its pathetic past in the 1970s and 1980s. A more valid reason for concern is the schedule, as both Ohio State and Wisconsin return, and Northwestern skips the Indiana schools. There won't be many easy games during Big Ten play, and getting back to 10 wins will pose a significant challenge.

Northwestern once again will employ a quarterback rotation of Colter and Trevor Siemian, a big-armed junior who can spark the passing game. The receivers had a somewhat underwhelming season, but could be a bigger threat this season as almost everyone returns. Tight end Dan Vitale blossomed down the stretch in 2012 and will attack the deep middle along with wideout Christian Jones.

The defense generated 29 takeaways in 2012 and hopes to continue its playmaking ways with more explosive athletes at all three levels. Campbell is one of the Big Ten's best defensive backs, and VanHoose made a huge difference when healthy. Northwestern needs linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo to continue smothering the football, and for speedy down linemen like Dean Lowry to complement Tyler Scott on the pass rush.

Special teams was a huge factor for Northwestern's success in 2012, and must continue its upward trajectory. The Wildcats also hope to stay healthy after losing only five starts to injury -- the fewest in the Big Ten -- last season.

"To have the number of young men we have coming back in '13 from a starting standpoint," Fitzgerald said, "gives us great confidence we'll hopefully be able to take the next step."

On paper, this is a better Northwestern team than the 2012 version, but the tougher schedule will make it difficult to match or exceed last season's win total.

Penn State season preview

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
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Can the Nittany Lions build off last season and play the role of BCS spoiler? Let's take a closer look at this 2013 Penn State team:

PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS

Coach: Bill O'Brien (8-4 overall, 8-4 at Penn State)

2012 record: 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Matt McGloin, C Matt Stankiewitch, DT Jordan Hill, LB Michael Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges, CB Stephon Morris

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoKeep an eye out for rising star Adrian Amos, who will play more at safety this season for PSU.
Key returnees: RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, G John Urschel, DE Deion Barnes, DT DaQuan Jones, LB Mike Hull, DB Adrian Amos

Newcomer to watch: QB Christian Hackenberg. He was the top-rated quarterback in the 2013 class, and ESPN ranked him as the 15th-best high school prospect in the nation.

Biggest games in 2013: vs. Michigan (Oct. 12), at Ohio State (Oct. 26), vs. Nebraska (Nov. 23), at Wisconsin (Nov. 30)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: O'Brien turned this passing offense around last season with an up-tempo style and an efficient McGloin, who tossed 24 touchdowns to five interceptions. But he'll have to start a first-year QB this season, as none of PSU's five signal-callers -- three walk-ons, two on scholarship -- were on the roster last season.

The race is between Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson, a junior college player who missed about a month of voluntary workouts. O'Brien plans to name a starter about midway through camp. Whoever it is, he will have to learn quickly for the Nittany Lions to repeat the success of last season.

Forecast: Penn State overcame some huge question marks last year and went on to have a surprisingly successful season, but it's not going to get any easier in 2013.

The defensive front seven is short on depth and bigger on inexperience. Nyeem Wartman, a redshirt freshman, will take over for a Butkus semifinalist at linebacker. The starting DT opposite Jones -- projected to be Kyle Baublitz -- compiled just three stops last season and weighs in at just 281 pounds. A single injury at either spot would be devastating for the Nittany Lions.

On the bright side, there are clearly some strong leaders who could make up for some early missteps. Barnes was last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and he's already one of the league's most feared pass-rushers. Hull is poised for a breakout season, and teammates recently called his offseason improvement the most impressive.

But out of all the defensive stars, Amos might surprise fans the most. He moved from cornerback to his natural position at safety in the offseason, and last year's 50th-ranked pass defense should be better this time around.

On offense, just about every unit has improved, with one big exception at quarterback. It'll be difficult for any newcomer to match McGloin's performance, but there's a strong supporting cast. Robinson is the top wideout in the Big Ten, Zwinak reached the 1,000-yard plateau last season, and the tight ends will play as large a role in this offense as any other team in the country.

In short, like last year, PSU is a bit of a wild card. If it receives strong efforts from its quarterback and the front seven, it should surpass last year's record. If it doesn't, it might be fortunate to get to seven wins.

Purdue season preview

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
10:30
AM ET
Can Darrell Hazell bring Purdue back to contender status? Let's take a closer look at the 2013 Boilermakers …

PURDUE BOILERMAKERS


Coach: Darrell Hazell (16-10 overall, two seasons; first season at Purdue)


2012 record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten)


Key losses: DT Kawann Short, CB Josh Johnson, QB Robert Marve, RB Akeem Shavers, WR Antavian Edison, C Rick Schmeig


Key returners: DT Bruce Gaston Jr., DE Ryan Russell, S Landon Feichter, CB Ricardo Allen, RB Akeem Hunt, C Robert Kugler, TE Gabe Holmes


[+] EnlargeDanny Etling
AP Photo/Daryl Quitalig via Triple Play New MediaFreshman Danny Etling will battle senior Rob Henry for the Boilers' starting quarterback job.
Newcomer to watch: True freshman QB Danny Etling enrolled in January and was impressive during the spring. So impressive, in fact, that he emerged as one of the top two contenders for the No. 1 quarterback job, along with senior Rob Henry. Don't be surprised to see Etling starting early on.


Biggest games in 2013: The Boilermakers have a difficult nonconference schedule that includes trips to Cincinnati (Aug. 31) and visits from 2012 BCS bowl teams Notre Dame (Sept. 14) and Northern Illinois (Sept. 28). They open conference play at Wisconsin on Sept. 21 and also play Nebraska (Oct. 12), at Michigan State (Oct. 19) and Ohio State (Nov. 2) in their first four Big Ten games. They close the season on the road against rival Indiana.


Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The quarterback battle is obviously a big question looming over this team in preseason camp, and the Boilers might have to live with some mistakes there, especially if they start a true freshman. An even bigger question might be at linebacker. Though there is some experience at the position with Will Lucas, Sean Robinson and Joe Gilliam, Purdue has had subpar linebacker play the past couple of seasons, and that has held the defense back in some of its bigger games. Robinson did a nice job last season, but the fact that he converted from quarterback and earned a starting job tells you a lot about the depth at the position.


Forecast: Just about everybody loved the hire of Hazell, a former longtime Ohio State assistant who worked some magic at Kent State. Hazell has already won over players and fans with his upbeat yet no nonsense style, and he promises to bring far more discipline on and off the field than former coach Danny Hope, who was fired despite getting the team to a second straight bowl game last season.

But there's little doubt that Hazell faces a rebuilding job, even though the Boilers pushed both Notre Dame and Ohio State to the wire last season. There are question marks at quarterback and linebacker, and the team will need several young players to step forward at the skill positions. Hunt had a great offseason and could be a dynamic running back with a track star's speed, but he is small in stature and took only 42 carries last season. Can Purdue's offensive line mash people enough to play Hazell's preferred power-run style? The defense has some really strong building blocks in defensive tackle Gaston, defensive end Russell and cornerback Allen, but opposing Big Ten offenses have been able to exploit the Boilers' weaknesses the past two seasons.

The biggest hurdle for Purdue might be that schedule. The Boilers could be underdogs in six of their first seven games, and that might make getting back to a bowl difficult. Hazell doesn't want to settle for more 6-6 type seasons, anyway.

"One of the first things that I said to our team -- our very first team meeting on that Sunday night -- was Purdue was always a team that's perceived in the middle of the Big Ten," Hazell said at Big Ten media days. "And I told them it's going to take a lot of work, but we're going to climb ourselves out of the middle, and we're going to put this program in national prominence for a long point in time."

Hazell looks like the right coach to lift Purdue back up. It just might not happen this season.

Wisconsin season preview

August, 6, 2013
8/06/13
10:30
AM ET
Today we're looking at Wisconsin, the three-time defending Big Ten champion, which enters a new era under coach Gary Andersen.

WISCONSIN BADGERS

Coach: Gary Andersen (30-31 overall, five seasons; 0-0 at Wisconsin, first season)

2012 record: 8-6 (4-4 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB Montee Ball, C Travis Frederick, OT Ricky Wagner, LB Mike Taylor, CB Devin Smith, DE David Gilbert

Key returnees: RB James White, RB Melvin Gordon, WR Jared Abbrederis, OL Ryan Groy, TE Jacob Pedersen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward, DT Beau Allen

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
AP Photo/David StlukaIf Wisconsin wants to win a fourth straight Big Ten title, it will have to do so under new coach Gary Andersen.
Newcomer to watch: Freshman CB Sojourn Shelton stood out in spring practice for a secondary that needs bodies after losing three starters from the 2012 team. Shelton is a natural playmaker who should see plenty of field time, potentially as a starter opposite Peniel Jean.

Biggest games in 2013: The Badgers face two significant road tests in their first five games as they visit high-powered Arizona State (Sept. 14) and Big Ten favorite Ohio State (Sept. 28). They also have home tests against Northwestern (Oct. 12) and Penn State (Nov. 30), and face rivals Iowa (Nov. 2) and Minnesota (Nov. 23) on the road.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The quarterback competition between Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and possibly Tanner McEvoy is worth watching in camp, but it's more important for Wisconsin to figure out its secondary before a Week 3 trip to Arizona State. Safety Dezmen Southward is the only returning starter, and the admissions denial of junior college transfer Donnell Vercher hurts the depth there.

Opposing quarterbacks undoubtedly will challenge Wisconsin's young corners, and players such as Jean, Shelton and Darius Hillary will need to grow up in a hurry. Andersen will address the secondary through recruiting, but he and his staff must simply hold the group together through Year 1.

Forecast: No team in the country faces a situation quite like Wisconsin's entering the 2013 season.

The Badgers are a veteran-laden team, led by a 25-member senior class that knows only how to win Big Ten championships. They're also a team in transition after going through an assistant-coach overhaul following the 2011 season and the surprising departure of head coach Bret Bielema three days after the 2012 Big Ten championship game.

Bielema often cited 2013 as "The Year" even before the start of the 2012 campaign. But he's not around to see it in Madison. Instead, the Badgers turn to Andersen, who brought Utah State back from the depths but now steps onto a much bigger stage.

Andersen will keep Wisconsin's proven power offense in place, and for good reason. The Badgers return two dynamic running backs in senior James White and upstart sophomore Melvin Gordon. They're not deep along the offensive line but boast valuable pieces such as versatile senior Ryan Groy. Wisconsin must find a top quarterback, and Joel Stave and Curt Phillips will compete with junior college arrival Tanner McEvoy in camp. A greater concern is who will complement standout receiver Jared Abbrederis in a passing attack that plummeted to 111th nationally last fall.

The bigger changes will come on defense, Andersen's area of expertise. Wisconsin will be the only Big Ten team operating primarily out of a 3-4 set, which Andersen thinks will be used 60 percent of the time. The Badgers boast an excellent centerpiece in All-Big Ten linebacker Chris Borland, one of the nation's more decorated defenders. They'll need big years from linemen Beau Allen, Brendan Kelly and others, and the secondary is the biggest question mark, as only one starter returns.

"All defenses come with challenges," Andersen said, "but we've done it enough to make it fit."

Wisconsin's path to a fourth consecutive Big Ten title won't be easy, as it visits Ohio State in Week 5 and plays rivals Iowa and Minnesota on the road.

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