Big Ten: B1G contender-pretender 13
The last installment in our series takes a look at Illinois.
Nathan Scheelhaase is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and players like Josh Ferguson, Donovonn Young and junior college transfer Martize Barr should help him make plays. The Illini lost some key players on defense but found a promising linebacker duo last year in freshmen Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina, and more junior college players like Eric Finney and Abe Cajuste add some much needed experience. People seem to have forgotten about Jonathan Brown, but he's still one of the best linebackers in the league when healthy. Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern all have to come to Champaign this year. One thing's for sure: the Illini won't have the pressure of preseason expectations.
Why they're a pretender: Did we mention that Illinois went 2-10 last year and has lost 14 straight conference games? Improvement should be expected, but to go from one of the worst major-conference teams to a Leaders Division contender in one year requires far too much of a logical leap. Besides, many of the best Illini players from 2012 -- Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan, Hugh Thornton and Terry Hawthone -- were drafted last month. If Beckman couldn't win a conference game with four draft picks, this year could be scary. There are still major questions on the offensive and defensive lines, at the skill positions and in general overall depth. The Illini's crossover schedule from the Legends Division -- Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern -- is unforgiving, and a nonconference slate that includes Cincinnati and Washington could lead to a couple of early losses. Maybe an unexpected run like the 2001 Sugar Bowl season is in the cards, but it would be unexpected by everyone.
Verdict: Only the most optimistic Illini fan would say anything other than pretender.
Now it's time to examine the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock, Jordan Canzeri and others. The quarterback competition rages on, but it won't be hard to replace James Vandenberg's numbers from last season. The players should have a better time implementing Greg Davis' offense, and Davis has made some tweaks to fit the players he has. Iowa will have the most experienced linebacking corps in the Big Ten, as James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens all return. Carl Davis had a breakout performance in the spring game at defensive tackle, and C.J. Fiedorowicz should be one of the league's top tight ends. Other than a trip to Ohio State on Oct. 19, the Hawkeyes' toughest conference road games before the finale at Nebraska are at Minnesota and Purdue. Ferentz's teams have surprised us before.
Why they're a pretender: Last year's 4-8 season was the continuation of a three-year decline, and the program's lack of top-end talent at key positions is evident. Iowa had one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten last year and now will be employing a quarterback who's never played a down in college. Davis' system, which relies heavily on speedy receivers making plays, remains an odd fit for a team that lacks great athletes at wideout. The defense has major concerns at defensive end and in the secondary, and despite their experience, those linebackers haven't yet played at an All-Big Ten level. Iowa just wasn't very good in most phases last year and only won four games despite a plus-12 turnover margin. The Hawkeyes have to play Wisconsin and Ohio State as crossover opponents, and they've got tricky nonconference games against Northern Illinois and at rival Iowa State.
Verdict: We don't expect Iowa to go 4-8 again. If the Hawkeyes can stay healthy and get off to a good start, they should have a good chance at getting back to a bowl. Ferentz's teams seem to have a habit of confounding your expectations, both good and bad. But the Hawkeyes simply have too many holes to compete with the best teams in the Legends Division. Pretender.
Next up: the Indiana Hoosiers.
Tre Roberson in Week 2 to a leg injury. Roberson is back, along with Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, as Kevin Wilson arguably has the deepest quarterback group in the Big Ten. The receiving corps is also among the very best in the league, with Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes and Shane Wynn all posing threats to score every time the ball is thrown their way. After playing several true freshmen the past two years, Wilson now has a more veteran team, with 10 starters back on offense and nine on defense. This is a team that scored 49 points on Ohio State and pushed Michigan State to the brink; now, it's a year older. If that defense can just get to a mediocre or better level, Indiana could make some serious noise in the Leaders Division.
Why they're pretenders: Yes, the Hoosiers can move the ball and score. But can they stop anybody? This is a team that gave up 52 points to Ohio State, 62 to Wisconsin and 56 to Purdue last year. A strong recruiting class should help bolster the ranks, but good luck trying to win in the Big Ten with true freshmen on defense. Indiana didn't lose much in the way of seniors, but two of them were very valuable in defensive tackles Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr., whose departure left a hole on the defensive line. The Big Ten remains a league where you win by running the ball and stopping the run, and the Hoosiers haven't been very good at either of those things the past two seasons. Then there's the schedule, which sees Wilson's team opening conference play by hosting Penn State before going to Michigan State and Michigan. Later in the year, Indiana has to play at both Wisconsin and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks. The Hoosiers would be bucking a lot of history by winning in those venues.
Verdict: We like Indiana to be much improved this year and contend for a bowl game. We also think the Hoosiers can pull off a few surprises in Big Ten play with that explosive offense. But there are just too many questions marks still on defense, and the schedule is a little too tough. Indiana is a pretender, albeit one with promise.
Next up: Minnesota.
Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams) to pound the rock. Quarterback Philip Nelson showed flashes of brilliance as a true freshman and should be better for it as a sophomore, with Mitch Leidner pushing him. Ra'Shede Hageman looks like one of the top defensive linemen in the Big Ten, and the back end of the defense is in good hands with safety Brock Vereen and cornerback Derrick Wells. Kill should finally have more depth and better overall athleticism to work with. The preconference schedule is very soft and ought to have the Gophers off to a confidence-building 4-0 start. This could be your Big Ten sleeper team in 2013.
Why they're pretenders: Minnesota is improving, no doubt. But the rebuilding project needs more time before the Gophers are ready to play with the big boys in the Big Ten. Nelson is precocious, but he's still just a true sophomore with a half-season's worth of experience, and the Gophers' weapons at wide receiver are suspect. Minnesota still needs to develop a downfield passing game, something it lacked most of last season. There are also major questions at linebacker, though junior college transfer Damien Wilson should help, and the defense must make up for the loss of top pass-rusher D.L. Wilhite from a year ago. While the overall depth is getting better, a few key injuries would still be devastating. But the biggest thing separating Minnesota from contender status is probably the depth in the Legends Division. Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern will all be Top 25 teams to start the season, and Michigan State should be improved. The Gophers play at both Michigan schools and at Northwestern, and must play Penn State and Wisconsin -- the latter of which they haven't beaten since 2004 -- from the other division. The gap is closing between Minnesota and the top teams in the league, but it's still there.
Verdict: Pretender. Minnesota should get back to a bowl, especially with four nonconference wins all but gift-wrapped for them. But while the Gophers could surprise a few teams in the league, asking them to climb over all the other Legends powers is too much at this point.
We're taking a page from our friends at the ACC blog and examining whether certain Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska -- three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict. We invite you to vote on whether a team is a contender or a pretender or send us your thoughts for mailbags here and here.
Next on our list: the Purdue Boilermakers.Akeem Hunt had a standout spring and no longer looks like just a track star. The Boilers have some nice options at the skill position with him and guys like Raheem Mostert, Gary Bush and Dolapo Macarthy at receiver. Kawann Short is gone, but Bruce Gaston and Ryan Russell are still strong anchors for the defensive line. If healthy, both can be among the best at their position in the Big Ten. And Purdue should be very good in the secondary, led by cornerback Ricardo Allen. A lot will have to go right, but maybe this is the year the Boilermakers actually fulfill that sleeper status.
Why they're pretenders: Purdue looked completely out of its league last year against Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State, and it lost some of its top players in Short, cornerback Josh Johnson, quarterback Robert Marve and receiver Antavian Edison. The quarterback situation is unclear right now, as it appears to be a two-man race between Rob Henry and Danny Etling. Henry is experienced but has never shown a great throwing arm, while Etling is a true freshman. The Boilers once again look to have some major issues at linebacker, a position that Hazell will have to shore up through recruiting. There is also bound to be an adjustment period for a new coaching staff. The biggest obstacle to Purdue contending, though, might be the schedule: three tough nonconference games (at Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois) combine with a Big Ten slate that sees the Boilers open conference play at Wisconsin, vs. Nebraska, at Michigan State and vs. Ohio State. An 0-4 start in Big Ten play is a real possibility.
Verdict: We liked the Hazell hiring and think he will do good things in West Lafayette. But with the coaching transition, the potential of a freshman starter at quarterback and a challenging schedule, we just don't think that will happen this year. Getting back to a bowl should be the goal in 2013. Purdue is a pretender.
Next up: the Michigan State Spartans.
Max Bullough, cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis. Pat Narduzzi will add some younger playmakers to the mix like Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas and Trae Waynes, and there's no reason to suspect that the defense will fall off from its elitel level. Even though Michigan State went just 6-6 in the regular season, it wasn't far away from contending, losing five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. A few key breaks went against Mark Dantonio's team -- ahem, that pass interference call vs. Nebraska -- and that luck could surely go the other way in 2013. Furthermore, after playing one of the more difficult schedules in the league last year, the Spartans catch a break with this season's slate. They don't play Ohio State, Penn State or Wisconsin from the Leaders Division, instead drawing Illinois, Purdue and Indiana as crossover opponents. All the Spartans really need to contend is some competency from the offense, which has a more experienced offensive line, more seasoned receivers and some actual competition at quarterback.
Why they're pretenders: Three words: offense, offense, offense. Michigan State simply couldn't score or move the ball when it needed to at times last season, and now its best two playmakers -- running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims -- are waiting for their NFL draft calls. Both running back and tight end were shaky positions this spring, so much so at tailback that linebacker Riley Bullough moved there late in spring ball and became the top option. The quarterback situation remains muddled, as Dantonio says Andrew Maxwell will go into fall camp at No. 1, with Connor Cook pushing him. Both guys struggled to complete passes in last week's spring game, and their receivers had problems with dropped balls, suggesting the passing game hasn't made that much progress. So new offensive playcaller Dave Warner will have to design an attack that works with shaky quarterback play, unproven running backs and tight ends and receivers who underperformed a year ago. At least the offensive line is veteran, though it's pretty much the same guys who didn't live up to expectations last year.
Final verdict: Contender. Michigan State might not always be pretty to watch this season because of that offense, but the Spartans will be a team no one wants to play because of that hard-hitting defense. Again, all they have to do is be mediocre offensively, because the defense will keep them in every game. And with that schedule, Michigan State should remain in the thick of the Legends Division race deep into the fall.
Next up are the Penn State Nittany Lions, a team that can't contend for a Big Ten championship because of NCAA sanctions but, like Ohio State in 2012, can win the Leaders division.
Allen Robinson, the Big Ten wide receiver of the year in 2012, returns along with the league's deepest group of tight ends. O'Brien likes what he has at running back with Zach Zwinak (1,000 yards last fall), Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch, who stood out in the spring game. The offensive line was a pleasant surprise last season and should be solid again as Ty Howle fills the center spot vacated by All-Big Ten selection Matt Stankiewitch. Penn State has good depth in the secondary, which could be the strength of the defense this season. Big Ten freshman of the year Deion Barnes returns at defensive end, and DaQuan Jones is stepping up to lead the line. Mike Hull finally moves into a starting spot at linebacker and will help fill the production void left by Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. The biggest reason to Bill-ieve is O'Brien, who has developed players extremely well during his short time in State College. If he can develop a quarterback, Penn State should win eight or more games again.
Why they're pretenders: There's a school of thought that at some point, the severe NCAA sanctions imposed on Penn State will catch up with the program. It could be this season. Although Penn State looks good at most starting positions, depth is a concern on both sides of the ball. Linebacker U isn't very deep at linebacker, and if Hull or Glenn Carson goes down, the defense might be in big trouble. Barnes looks like a superstar at end, but he'll face increased attention this year and won't have Jordan Hill for protection on the interior. The biggest question mark is quarterback, as Steven Bench barely played last season, while junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson and incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg have yet to take a snap in an FBS game. O'Brien is a quarterback guru and transformed Matt McGloin, but at least McGloin had a lot of experience at this level. Although kicker Sam Ficken made an impressive turnaround down the stretch last season, Penn State struggled mightily on special teams and was fortunate the kicking game only proved costly in one loss (Virginia). The Lions' division road schedule isn't easy with trips to both Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Final verdict: Contender. O'Brien has given us no reason to doubt him, and while quarterback is a significant question mark, it's also the position O'Brien knows best. The supporting cast will ease the transition for whoever lines up under center this fall. Penn State is thin on defense at positions where it traditionally produces All-Big Ten players, and while the unit can't afford to lose certain pieces, a major drop-off seems unlikely. Penn State should build some confidence during a favorable early season stretch before facing Michigan and Ohio State in a three-week span. Don't be surprised if the Lions' Oct. 26 game in Columbus once again determines the Leaders division champion.
Next up are the Wisconsin Badgers.
Montee Ball is gone, but the running game remains in very capable hands with James White and Melvin Gordon. For once, Wisconsin doesn't have to worry about quarterback depth. Linebacker Chris Borland is one of the best players in the Big Ten, and the defensive line is very underrated with guys like Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer making it tough for opposing run games. New head coach Gary Andersen is a proven winner, and he might be able to avoid some of the late-game questionable decision-making that fans lamented about when Bielema wore the headset. The Badgers continue to churn out impressive offensive lines, and few teams want to play at Camp Randall Stadium. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's crossover opponents from the Legends Division -- Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota -- don't exactly inspire fear.
Why they're pretenders: The biggest question for the Badgers really revolves around whether they can topple Ohio State. The Buckeyes won in Madison last year on their way to a 12-0 season, and Wisconsin will have to go to Columbus this year. Lose that game on the road, and it will be an uphill battle to get back to the Big Ten championship game for a third straight year. Don't overlook the transition factor, either. While Andersen looks like a terrific hire, it's usually not easy for first-year coaches, especially those who try to change things at programs that have been successful. Wisconsin will also be moving to some 3-4 looks on defense; we'll see if the personnel is right for that move. There are also major holes to fill in the secondary, and the offense still needs someone besides Jared Abbrederis to develop into a consistent pass-catcher. Competition at quarterback is great, but neither Joel Stave nor Curt Phillips has shown that he can take over a game with his arm. And don't forget that while the Badgers did play in the Rose Bowl last year, they also finished just 8-6 and needed some fortunate circumstances to get there.
Final verdict: The Ohio State matchup will be tough, but you can't base an entire season outlook on one game. The rest of the schedule is actually quite manageable, with the only other Big Ten road games coming against Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. Not playing Michigan, Michigan State or Nebraska is a huge advantage. This team still has plenty of talent and a winner's mentality. Don't write off the Badgers' chances of finishing ahead of the Buckeyes in the Leaders Division. They're a contender.
First up, the Northwestern Wildcats.
Kain Colter and Venric Mark, an All-Big Ten running back and an All-America all-purpose player. Quarterback Trevor Siemian, who shared time with Colter and improved as the season progressed, also comes back. The key receivers are back and could see enhanced roles in a more balanced offense, and tight end Dan Vitale, a weapon down the stretch last season, is just a true sophomore. Northwestern's speed-based recruiting efforts on defense are starting to pay off, especially in the secondary, where the team returns standouts Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose and boasts good depth at both cornerback and safety. Defensive end Tyler Scott, the Big Ten's leading returning sacks leader, is back, along with several exciting young edge rushers. Special teams once again should be a strength with Mark and Jeff Budzien, the 2012 Big Ten co-kicker of the year, back in the fold.
Why they're pretenders: It all starts up front, and Northwestern has question marks on both of its lines entering the fall. The Wildcats must replace three starting offensive linemen, including All-Big Ten guard Brian Mulroe. Several potential starters sat out spring practice, and while that gave young players increased reps, the first-team line will have limited time to bond before the season kicks off. Northwestern also is a little thin at defensive tackle after losing Brian Arnfelt. The biggest potential drawback is a schedule that definitely gets tougher and could be significantly more challenging than the 2012 slate. Northwestern faces Ohio State for the first time since 2008, and Wisconsin returns to the slate as well after a two-year break. The Wildcats open Big Ten play with the Buckeyes (home) and the Badgers (road). And while Northwestern has established itself as a solid Big Ten program under Pat Fitzgerald, it hasn't handled high expectations well, like in 2001 (preseason Big Ten favorites) and 2011.
Final verdict: The schedule is definitely a factor, but if Northwestern can split its first two Big Ten contests, it should be right in the mix for the Legends Division title. The Wildcats host the Michigan schools, and although they visit Nebraska, they won in Lincoln with an inferior team in 2011. Some still don't take Northwestern seriously because they can't shed the perception created in the program's dark days. Those days are over, the talent is much better and most of it returns. Northwestern is a contender.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Iowa 24 Pittsburgh 20 Final Eastern Michigan 14 11 Michigan State 73 Final Western Illinois 7 Northwestern 24 Final Southern Illinois 13 Purdue 35 Final Bowling Green 17 19 Wisconsin 68 Final Maryland 34 Syracuse 20 Final Utah 26 Michigan 10 Final Rutgers 31 Navy 24 Final Massachusetts 7 Penn State 48 Final San Jose State 7 Minnesota 24 Final Texas State 35 Illinois 42 Final Indiana 31 18 Missouri 27 Final Miami (FL) 31 24 Nebraska 41