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Thursday, April 12, 2012
Leaders Division teams sense opportunity

By Adam Rittenberg

After an offseason jam-packed with change, most players and coaches in the Leaders Division haven't had time to examine anyone but themselves.

"I have no idea," first-year Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "I'm only concerned about one program, and that's Penn State."

The Big Ten had three head-coaching changes in the offseason, all of them in the Leaders Division (Penn State, Ohio State and Illinois). Wisconsin, the two-time defending Big Ten champion, had to replace six assistant coaches, including premier playcaller Paul Chryst and offensive line guru Bob Bostad. Purdue replaced its defensive coordinator, while Indiana brought in a new offensive coordinator.

Bret Bielema
Bret Bielema's Badgers are coming off back-to-back trips to the Rose Bowl.
All six teams have some new flavor and the uncertainty that comes with it. All six teams also sense opportunity in what could be a wide-open division race.

"Everybody has new people," Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill told ESPN.com. "Even Wisconsin, they've got six new assistants, and in most cases, the assistants are who deal with the players the most. So I feel it's wide open. Not that I don't feel that every year, but it's more than usual."

Wisconsin has reached the past two Rose Bowls and won 32 games during the past three seasons. The Badgers return Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball, the Big Ten's offensive player of the year in 2011, and recently added another quarterback transfer in Danny O'Brien, the former Maryland signal-caller.

Although the staff turnover is significant, Bret Bielema has replaced key assistants before, like defensive coordinator Dave Doeren after the 2010 season. There's still a strong case to be made that the Leaders Division title still goes through Mad-city.

"We are the targeted team in the Big Ten because of what we've done the past two years," Ball said. "Everyone is shooting and gunning for us."

Added Bielema: "Everyone thinks it's complacency that's going to affect us, but here at Wisconsin we've become greedy."

Ball lists Ohio State as the team Wisconsin is gunning for, and the Badgers and Buckeyes have a spicy rivalry brewing. Some think Ohio State will end up as the division's top team, but the Buckeyes are banned from postseason play and the Big Ten title game, adding a subplot to the division race.

"We have a great opportunity right now," Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short said. "We've got a lot of starters coming back. ... Ohio State can't get back in conference championship, so it just gives us a little edge.

"We've got to take advantage of it."

Purdue likely will be a popular pick as a sleeper team in the division. The Boilers return nine starters on both sides of the ball and three quarterbacks -- Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry -- who have started multiple games. They also have recorded two wins against Ohio State during coach Danny Hope's three-year tenure.

Indiana has a bigger hill to climb after a 1-11 season in 2011. But the Hoosiers are a year older and more familiar with the demands of coach Kevin Wilson and his staff.

"Last year we struggled in my first year, didn't play up to our capabilities," Wilson said. "Hopefully that'll lead to giving ourselves an opportunity to compete with some of those teams as they go through some transition."

While Ohio State can't make it to Indianapolis in Urban Meyer's first year, the other two division teams with new coaches could surprise people. Both Penn State and Illinois have similar profiles, boasting strong defensive front sevens but question marks on offense.

"At this time, everybody is saying the same thing, whether it's Illinois, Ohio State, Wisconsin," Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "... It really comes down to who’s going to go out there every day and get better, who's going to put in the extra work to be the best football team.

"Everybody wants to be, but ultimately one team is going to do it more so than anybody else."