NCF Nation: David Molk

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
10:15
AM ET
Ten items to track around the Big Ten as Week 4 kicks off Saturday.

1. Notre Dame's nightmare: Few college players have tormented a rival like Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has tormented Notre Dame the past two years. After a record-setting performance in South Bend in 2010 -- 502 yards of total offense -- Robinson led an incredible comeback last season as Michigan stunned the Irish in the first night game ever played at the Big House. Robinson returns to South Bend on Saturday, and Michigan likely needs another special effort from its senior to knock off No. 11 Notre Dame. The Irish come off of a stifling defensive effort against Michigan State, and their offense should test a young Michigan defense. Notre Dame looks like the more complete team in this contest, but if the game is close and Robinson has a chance for fourth-quarter magic, the Irish should start to worry.

2. Penn State protects its house: NCAA sanctions have limited Penn State's goals this season, but a few remain on the table. The Lions can still win a Leaders Division title. They also want to keep their winning streak against Temple alive, particularly at Beaver Stadium, where the Owls have never won. Penn State hasn't lost to Temple since 1941 (seven PSU victories between 2003-2011 were vacated). Although Temple clearly has improved in recent years, Nittany Lions seniors like linebacker Michael Mauti don't want to be the ones who let the win streak end. Penn State finally got a chance to celebrate last week against Navy and looked strong on both sides of the ball. It's important to keep the momentum going before Big Ten play kicks off with a spicy matchup at Illinois.

[+] EnlargeMax Shortell
Marilyn Indahl/US PresswireReserve QB Max Shortell has made a solid impact to help Minnesota to a 3-0 start.
3. Minnesota takes it to the Max: Life is good in Gopher Country, as Minnesota sits at 3-0 with a chance to sweep its nonconference slate Saturday night against Syracuse at TCF Bank Stadium. Backup quarterback Max Shortell stepped up in a big way last week after starter MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain. Now Shortell makes his first start of the season -- third of his career -- against a Syracuse team that has performed better than its record (1-2) would indicate. Shortell and his pass-catchers take aim at a Syracuse defense that hasn't been efficient against the pass (97th nationally, 145.1 rating). He'd be helped by a boost from Donnell Kirkwood and the run game, but Minnesota likely will need to put up points as Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib will challenge the Gophers' defense.

4. Badgers' offense looks for leadership: Wisconsin's offensive downturn has been the most surprising story in the Big Ten through the first few weeks. Line play was in the spotlight after Week 2 as Bret Bielema dumped assistant Mike Markuson, and now the attention shifts to quarterback. Wisconsin benched Danny O'Brien in favor of Joel Stave in the second half of last Saturday's win against Utah State, and both men are listed as co-starters on this week's depth chart. Bielema has made his decision on the starter, but he isn't revealing it publicly. Stave, the former walk-on, reportedly took most of the first-team reps this week in practice. Ranked 116th nationally in total offense, the Badgers need to iron out a lot of things, including their quarterback situation, before Big Ten play begins next week at Nebraska.

5. Comm studies in Champaign: Illinois attributed some of its defensive struggles at Arizona State to poor communication against the Sun Devils' fast-paced offense. Despite allowing 45 points and 510 yards to ASU, Illinois isn't losing its swagger, and linebacker Jonathan Brown declared last week, "We've got the best front seven in the country. I firmly believe that." Brown and his teammates can back up that claim Saturday night in a tricky game against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs rank third nationally in scoring (56 ppg), fifth in total offense (603.5 ypg), ninth in rushing (289 ypg) and 17th in passing (314.5 ypg). They provide a very tough challenge for an Illinois team that says it has sorted out its communication issues. The Illini offense is banged up and still finding its identity, so Brown and the defense need a big effort Saturday night.

6. Buckeyes get back to basics: Ohio State has had quite a few highlights on defense through the first three games, but the Buckeyes' fundamentals aren't up to their typical standards. Missed tackles nearly cost Ohio State last week against Cal, and while the Buckeyes shouldn't have too much trouble with UAB on Saturday, Urban Meyer and his staff are looking for a more polished performance from the silver bullets. Meyer calls Ohio State's tackling woes "not acceptable," and he planned to double the amount of time his players spent on tackling this week in practice. As good as quarterback Braxton Miller has been, the Buckeyes need to tighten up on defense before Big Ten play begins.

7. Weisman for Heisman: Despite an inexplicable run of personnel problems at running back, Iowa always seems to find someone to step up and carry the rock. The latest back to emerge might be the most surprising: Mark Weisman, a walk-on fullback who transferred from Air Force and recorded 113 rush yards and three touchdowns in Iowa's much-needed win against Northern Iowa last week. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz quipped that Weisman "must have not liked having guys bounce quarters off his bed" at Air Force and left for Iowa, where he got the staff's attention in the spring and really stood out during fall camp. Iowa likely won't have top backs Damon Bullock (head) and Greg Garmon (elbow) for Saturday's game against Central Michigan, and Weisman is expected to get his first career start. Weisman is quickly earning cult hero status at Iowa, and it'll be interesting to see if he can follow up last week's performance with another big one.

8. Northwestern's quarterback rotation: If there's such thing as a functional quarterback rotation, Northwestern seems to have found it with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, neither of whom has thrown an interception this season. After Siemian led fourth-quarter drives in the Wildcats' first two wins, Colter was at the helm last week as the Wildcats put away Boston College. Coach Pat Fitzgerald seems content to stick with the rotation, go with the hotter hand when necessary and use matchups to his advantage. But in most of these cases, some separation occurs. Colter is a top-shelf athlete who extends drives with his feet but misses key throws at times. Siemian has better field vision and pure passing skills but isn't the natural playmaker Colter can be. Both men will play Saturday against South Dakota, and we could get some more clues about who will be leading the offense more as Big Ten play beckons. Despite a 3-0 start, Northwestern needs to start finishing more drives with touchdowns. The quarterback who does it best likely will be in a bigger role going forward.

9. MSU receivers look for green light: Mark Dantonio said Michigan State's staff would face some "tough decisions" after the team failed to score a touchdown or stretch the field in last week's loss to Notre Dame. Although the Spartans' depth chart for Eastern Michigan shows no adjustments at the wide receiver spots, Dantonio planned to evaluate the wideouts throughout the practice week and make no public announcements about changes. He noted that wide receiver is one of several positions where Michigan State has youth and equal ability level. If that's the case, we might see some new players in bigger roles Saturday, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who has barely played, and possibly freshmen Andre Sims Jr., Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Aaron Burbridge. Dantonio hinted that a lower-pressure game could help the young receiving corps. "We'll have to go through some of those growing pains," he said. "I think we have a lot of talent at that position, and it will show itself before the season is over. That talent will show itself."

10. Wolverines get nasty: If Michigan intends on beating Notre Dame for the fourth straight season, it must have season-best performances from both its offensive and defensive lines. Alabama overwhelmed the Wolverines at the line of scrimmage in the opener, and Michigan looks like a team missing its stars from 2011 (David Molk, Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen). Standout left tackle Taylor Lewan challenged the offensive line this week, saying, "You have to be physical, you've got to play angry, play nasty." The line faces a Notre Dame defensive front seven that overwhelmed Michigan State last week and has 11 sacks in the first three games. Coach Brady Hoke admits Michigan's defensive line remains a work in progress and doesn't generate enough push into the opposing backfield. It'll need to Saturday night against a Notre Dame team that Hoke says has superior speed to past Irish squads.
ESPN Insider recently completed its rundown of "20 teams that can win it all" during the 2012 season. Defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin made the list, as did Ohio State, even though the Buckeyes are banned from postseason play this season.

Who didn't make the list? Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska. Some would say these are three of the Big Ten's best four or five squads.

Michigan and Michigan State likely will enter the season as the Big Ten's highest-rated teams, and I've written repeatedly that the Wolverines and Spartans, along with the Cornhuskers, play in what looks like the stronger division (Legends). Brian and I also have written that the Big Ten's national title drought likely will continue this season for various reasons -- Michigan's tortuous schedule, new quarterbacks at Michigan State and Wisconsin, Ohio State's bowl ban, etc.

Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders agrees, including Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska are among five hyped teams that won't contend for the national title this season (Insider). Notre Dame and Kansas State also are included.

According to the Football Outsiders projections, none of the three will make a BCS bowl, which leaves me scratching my head a bit. These projections actually have all three teams finishing 8-4, which would be very disappointing to the respective fan bases.

While I'd be surprised if one of the three doesn't end up in Pasadena on Jan. 1, all three teams have some potentially significant flaws. Michigan State must replace almost all of its major offensive skill threats. Michigan loses several key defensive linemen and star center David Molk. Nebraska loses star power on defense and needs to see more balance on the offensive side.

It's hard to see any of these squads ending up in the BCS national title game. The more interesting subplot to me is which team earns the best record in the three-team pod, which likely will result in a Legends Division title. Michigan State visits Michigan and hosts Nebraska; Michigan visits Nebraska but hosts MSU; and Nebraska visits MSU but hosts Michigan. The team that can win its road game has an excellent chance to earn a trip to Indy.
Brady Hoke/Mark DantonioGetty Images, US PresswireBrady Hoke and the Wolverines square off against Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on Oct. 20.
During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.

Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. Check out the Leaders Division exchange here. They now turn their focus to the Legends Division.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's take a look at what I believe to be the stronger division in 2012. You spent a lot of time in the Mitten State last month, and while you didn't gorge yourself like you did in America's Dairyland, you got the money quote of spring ball from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who said, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" How spicy is the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry getting, and how good do you think these two teams will be this season after visiting both campuses?

Brian Bennett: Oh, there was some serious gorging going on at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor and Sparty's in East Lansing. Good thing there's only one spring practice session per year.

Anyway, I went into the spring thinking Michigan and Michigan State were the two strongest teams in the league, and I didn't see anything to change my opinion. While the Wolverines are more focused on Ohio State and even Alabama, they know they have to end their losing streak against Michigan State. And the Spartans take serious pride in that four-game run while bristling at all the offseason accolades thrown toward Brady Hoke's team. Oct. 20 can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

If the two teams played right now, I'd definitely take Michigan State. Dantonio has done a terrific job of developing depth on both lines and all over the defense. There's not a deeper team in the Big Ten, and the Spartans' physical play has given Michigan fits. The Wolverines still need to figure some things out in the trenches, especially on the defensive line, but that's one area where Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. I believe these two teams will be neck and neck all year for the Legends title.

Of course, there's another team lurking in the division, and that's Nebraska. You went to Lincoln this spring, and it sounded like the Cornhuskers are feeling mighty ambitious this season. Do they have the necessary tools to back up their lofty goals?

Adam Rittenberg: It was interesting to see a team openly discuss the national title, Brian, especially in a league like the Big Ten. Huskers safety P.J. Smith even went so far as to say a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship would be "kind of disappointing." That's bold. Nebraska would have to skip a step or two to reach that point, but I can see where the confidence stems from. There's a greater comfort level between players and coaches in Lincoln, and also between the coaches and what they face in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was candid about the difficulty of preparing for so many new opponents, particularly since Nebraska's offensive and defensive systems are a little different from what we see in the rest of the league.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez received good marks from the coaches, and his focus on footwork could translate into a more consistent passing attack. Beck certainly wants to be a bit more balanced, and Nebraska returns pretty much everyone at wide receiver and tight end. We often hear the cliche that it's all about the quarterback, but it holds true with Nebraska. If Martinez actually makes strides as a passer -- he'll be operating in the same offense as the starter for the first time in his high school or college career -- the Huskers will put up points this fall. But after watching Martinez last season, it's fair to have some doubts about No. 3.

The defense expects to exploit a schematic advantage we heard a lot about last season but didn't see much on Saturdays. I like coordinator John Papuchis, and Bo Pelini made two good staff additions in D-line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. They're all about details and accountability, and they believe they'll be able to replace star power with greater depth in certain areas. Nebraska also should be strong in special teams. Do the Huskers have a unit better than Michigan State's defense? Not right now. But Nebraska could end up being the division's most complete team by season's end.

Getting back to Michigan State and Michigan. Both teams lose tremendous leaders from 2011 (Kirk Cousins, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Joel Foreman, David Molk, Ryan Van Bergen). Who do you see filling those roles this year?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and one that will have to be answered this summer. For Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell impressed me as a guy who can lead in a similar way as Cousins did; he'll just have to play well at quarterback and battle through adversity. The Spartans have some seniors on defense who can lead, like Anthony Rashad White and Johnny Adams, but they also have some highly respected juniors in Max Bullough and William Gholston.

But they are replacing some very valuable leaders, just as Michigan is doing. Denard Robinson has worked on becoming more vocal and sounded like a different guy in interviews this spring. There's no question he has the respect of his teammates. Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs seem like natural leaders on defense, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says he wants to take on that role as well. But leadership can't be forced, and it remains to be seen if either team can find such strong captains as guys like Cousins and Martin were.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Speaking of question marks, I feel like Iowa and Northwestern are two of the bigger mystery teams in the league. Both have talent and potentially potent offenses, but they'll also need some players on defense to rise up out of the shadows. What did you take out of your visits to Iowa City and Evanston this spring?

Adam Rittenberg: Let's start off with Iowa, which underwent some major changes this spring with a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), a position coach promoted to defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) and several more assistants shuffling, arriving or being promoted. The players seemed to embrace the changes, and coach Kirk Ferentz basically said the team needed a fresh start even though he didn't want to lose his previous coordinators. There's a lot of excitement about Davis' offense, which will be more up-tempo than what we've seen in the past from Iowa. Quarterback James Vandenberg really seems to get it, but will he have enough weapons around him to execute? The running back curse struck again this spring with Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury. Iowa needs young and/or unproven players to step up there, and wide receiver isn't a deep group. It'll be a big summer for Keenan Davis.

The feeling I had coming out of Evanston is that Northwestern will be a younger team but potentially a better one. The Wildcats say goodbye to an accomplished senior class that featured some outstanding players like quarterback Dan Persa. But was it the most talented group? I don't think so. Northwestern has improved its recruiting efforts in recent years, and the team could begin seeing the benefits this year. There are a lot of new faces at spots like defensive back and defensive line. I was impressed with cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson. The wide receiving corps should be one of the Big Ten's best, even if Kyle Prater isn't eligible until 2013. The Wildcats might not have many familiar names at receiver, but they boast incredible depth there. This team still has question marks -- secondary, pass rush, running back, quarterback -- but the talent level is getting a bit better.

Neither of us made it up to Minneapolis this spring, but we both talked with Gophers players and coaches. What was your sense of the second spring under coach Jerry Kill?

Brian Bennett: We swear it's nothing personal, Gophers fans. Both of us would have enjoyed a trip to the Twin Cities, but the schedule just didn't work out.

Anyway, I did sense more confidence from the Minnesota players and coaches we interviewed. That's not surprising, given that it's the second year for Kill's staff and more familiarity almost always brings a better comfort level. MarQueis Gray really started to come on late last season and appears to have made strides as a passer. He could be one of the league's top playmakers this year. Overall, the Gophers look to have a little more talent this year, thanks to some junior college imports, youngsters who got experience last year and Troy Stoudermire coming back at cornerback. The defense should have more speed, though it remains undersized. The big question for me is who will emerge as weapons alongside Gray, especially at receiver.

But I think that, with a manageable nonconference schedule, Minnesota has a chance to win five or more games this year and it will be much more competitive in Big Ten play than it was early last season. The Legends Division looks more balanced top to bottom than the Leaders and should be fun to follow all year.
The NFL draft begins Thursday night. You probably weren't aware of that, because the draft, like most things associated with the National Football League, gets very little media coverage. Ahem.

Luckily, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett are stepping into this void to talk about the draft, and specifically the Big Ten prospects hoping to hear their name called over the long weekend.

Brian Bennett: Adam, we usually leave draft talk to people with better hair than us, like Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. But let's give it a shot. You know the NFL is a different game when Iowa's Riley Reiff is widely expected to be the top player taken from the Big Ten. Reiff is an excellent player and terrific pro prospect, no doubt. But if you would have asked league fans to pick a most valuable player from the conference this season, Reiff probably wouldn't have cracked the Top 10.

Speaking of the Top 10, the Big Ten hasn't had a player selected in that range for the past three years and is likely to make it four this year. What, if anything, does that say about the talent the league has been producing? And is Reiff the first guy you would take from the conference if you had an NFL team? (I'll resist from making wisecracks about your Big Ten fantasy team management last year).

Adam Rittenberg: Hey now, Year 2 will be different, my friend. The Shorties are coming for you. The Big Ten's Top 10 drought is certainly noteworthy, and I think it stems in part from the league producing fewer elite pro-caliber quarterbacks and cornerbacks in recent years. It does surprise me that the Big Ten hasn't had a defensive lineman in the top 10 recently, as the league has been very strong at both line spots. I think that will change in 2013. As for Reiff, he was about as under-the-radar as an elite player could get during his time at Iowa. He certainly performed well, but you didn't hear much about him, even compared to previous Hawkeyes standout linemen like Bryan Bulaga. Reiff is a masher, though, and while some say he's not the most dominant tackle, he should be able to help an NFL team this coming season.

I'd want to start my team with a potential difference-maker on the defensive line. The Big Ten has plenty of options, but Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is a natural pass-rusher who can put up big numbers. Have Merci? Yes, please. What's your view of the Big Ten's defensive line crop entering the draft?

BB: We both agreed that the defensive line, especially on the interior, is where the league's true strength lay in 2011. I'm a bit surprised that some mock drafts don't have Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, who has the chance to be a major presence on defense, in the first round and that Penn State's Devon Still, who was wildly productive last season, is being projected as a second-rounder at best. I'd rather take one of those guys than roll the dice on Memphis' Dontari Poe, a combine wonder who did next to nothing in college. And though Michigan's Mike Martin is a little short by NFL standards, I have little doubt he'll be a productive pro.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Riley Reiff
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PRESSWIREIowa's Riley Reiff could be the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft.
I'm also interested in seeing how the centers get drafted. Wisconsin's Peter Konz, Michigan's David Molk and Ohio State's Michael Brewster were arguably the top three centers in the nation last year. Molk, of course, publicly said he's the best of the three, and he did win the Rimington Trophy. Konz likely will go first, but I will be fascinated to see who ends up having the best career.

You mentioned quarterbacks. What do you think about Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson as potential NFL players? And will Dan Persa get a shot somewhere?

AR: Cousins should be the first Big Ten quarterback off the board, and many projections have him going in the second round. He clearly improved his stock during the predraft process. While everyone raves about the character of both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin -- and for good reasons -- Cousins, as we both know, certainly fits into the same category as those two. He's not the fastest or most athletic guy, but he's extremely smart and played in a pro-style system at Michigan State. He could end up being a solid pro quarterback.

The issue for both Wilson and Persa is size, Persa more so than Wilson. While Wilson boasts tremendous arm strength and athleticism, his height scares teams. He does a tremendous job of extending plays and can make all of the throws, but he'll have to prove himself as a consistent pocket passer in a league where everyone is really big and really fast. Looks like a midround selection. Whether or not Persa gets drafted at all will be interesting. The guy obviously has a ton of heart and tremendous leadership skills, but he's small and suffered a major injury at Northwestern. I think Todd McShay summed up the sentiment about Persa when he told the Chicago Tribune, "I want to like Persa, but as an NFL prospect, he is limited." Persa will find his way onto a roster, but he'll have a lot to prove.

We've read a lot of draft evaluations in recent weeks. Which Big Ten player could be a real steal for a team this weekend?

BB: The guy whom I think is really undervalued is Iowa's Marvin McNutt. I've seen him going as late as the fifth or sixth round, which seems (Mc)nuts to me. Sure, it's a deep draft for receivers, and McNutt might not have blazing speed. But we saw him make some absolutely spectacular catches last season, and he closed his career as the Hawkeyes' all-time leader in receiving touchdowns. He has good size and produced 1,300 receiving yards in what was clearly not a gimmicky, pass-happy offense. If I were a GM and he was sitting there in Round 4 or later, I'd happily grab him.

Two other guys I think can be big bargains for teams are Nebraska's Lavonte David and Ohio State's Mike Adams. Both are being projected as second-rounders for different reasons (David because of size, Adams for off-the-field issues in college), but I think both will have long and stellar careers. They'll bring first-round value without the price.

Who do you see as underrated, or possibly overrated, from the Big Ten in this draft?

AR: I would have put Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler in the underrated category, but it seems like teams have caught on to how good he can be. He'll likely be a late first-round pick. Same with Konz and maybe Adams. It baffles me why Devon Still isn't projected higher in the draft. Two others I'd put in the underrated category are Michigan's Martin and Iowa's Mike Daniels. You don't have to be Vince Wilfork to be an effective NFL defensive tackle. Both Martin and Daniels are smaller defensive tackles, but they're both extremely strong physical and play with sound fundamentals. Both men have been tutored by excellent defensive coaches, and the teams that select them will be inheriting very hard workers.

Two of the more intriguing Big Ten prospects are Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey and Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick. Posey, who I chatted with briefly last week in Columbus, played only three games last fall because of suspensions stemming from NCAA violations. He's clearly a gifted guy, but it'll be interesting to see how much the off-field issues and lack of playing time impact his draft position. Crick entered 2011 as an All-America candidate but missed most of the season with injury. He definitely can help an NFL team, but like with Posey, there are question marks.

OK, time to wrap up this draft discussion. What do you think the major story line regarding the Big Ten will be coming out of this weekend's festivities?

BB: I'll go out on a limb and say Reiff is not the first Big Ten player drafted, as someone reaches for Mercilus, Worthy or Konz first. And I think the other big stories will be with the quarterbacks, as Cousins is drafted in the second round and Wilson is picked higher than people expect. What are your predictions?

AR: I wouldn't mind if that someone landing Reiff or Mercilus is my Chicago Bears, but that's another debate. Worthy's selection will be fascinating, as his stock has been pretty volatile throughout the process. I think both Martin and Daniels go earlier than expect, while Wilson has to wait a while. It'll be fascinating to see where Molk ends up. No matter where he's selected, he'll feel overlooked. As a short guy myself, I'm definitely rooting for the vertically challenged (Molk, Wilson, Persa, Martin, Daniels etc.). Another story line: Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, whose draft stock already had dropped before his arrest over the weekend.

Should be a fun weekend.
Brady HokeAP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe goal for the Wolverines in Brady Hoke's second season is to win the Big Ten title.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan's players must have felt pretty good about themselves at the end of last season. The Wolverines won 11 games, captured the Sugar Bowl championship and ended a seven-year losing streak to Ohio State.

But head coach Brady Hoke delivered some sobering news in the first team meeting after the Sugar Bowl in January. Team 132, he told the players, failed.

"It probably surprised some of them a little bit," Hoke told ESPN.com about that message he delivered. "But if you have a goal and you don't achieve that goal, then you fail."

Hoke has made it clear that as long as he's the Michigan coach, the Wolverines will always have one main objective: win the Big Ten title. So even though his first team erased a lot of the bad memories from the three-year Rich Rodriguez tenure in a major bounce-back campaign, it still finished as the runner-up in the Legends Division.

"Oh, man, sitting at home watching the Big Ten championship game felt kind of weird," quarterback Denard Robinson said. "We're supposed to be the 'leaders and best,' so we sold ourselves short not being in that first one."

The motivation for Team 133 this offseason, then, became quite obvious. Michigan got back on track last season, winning 11 games for the first time since 2006 and bringing some momentum to the program. The Wolverines could enter this season ranked in the top 10 and might well be the favorite to win the Big Ten in Hoke's second year. Asked if he'd view any season that didn't end with a Big Ten title as a disappointment, Hoke didn't hesitate to answer, "Yep."

Does Michigan have what it takes to repeat and even build upon last season's success? This spring offered reasons for optimism and pessimism.

The biggest difference between Hoke's first year and the RichRod teams was the surprising defensive resurgence. After three years of futility on that side of the ball, the Wolverines finished 17th nationally in total defense and sixth in points allowed. Fueling that effort was a dominant defensive line led by seniors Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger.

By Week 4 against San Diego State -- a 28-7 victory -- safety Jordan Kovacs started to notice a major difference.

"I was getting bored as a defensive back because our front seven was controlling the game," Kovacs said. "One I realized our defensive line was pretty special, I knew we were going to have a heck of a team."

With three seniors gone and the lone returning starter, Craig Roh, switching from weakside to strongside defensive end, the D-line underwent some predictable growing pains this spring. The defensive tackle spot is a particular concern, with the undersized Jibreel Black moving in from end and senior Will Campbell getting one last try to live up to his once-immense recruiting hype. The line was inconsistent at best at stopping the run in practice this spring.

While the Wolverines should have more talent and experience at the linebacker and secondary positions than they did a year ago, there's little doubt where the focus lies for Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, as both cut their teeth as defensive line coaches.

"You can't have a great defense if you're not strong up the middle," Mattison said. "We need that position to become very, very strong."

On the flip side, Martin and Van Bergen were nowhere near the players they'd become at this time last year. Mattison said he expects his linemen to make a jump in the summer.

"Last year, it was a much uglier spring ball," Kovacs said. "That's what I try to remind myself."

[+] EnlargeCraig Roh
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioCraig Roh is the lone returning starter on the defensive line.
Depth is also a major worry, not just on the defensive line but on the offensive front. True freshmen are likely to crack the two-deep on both lines, which is not a great sign in the Big Ten. Michigan was fortunate last season to stay quite healthy in the trenches until the Sugar Bowl, when Heininger was out and David Molk played on a bad leg. Can the team get some luck on the injury front in 2012?

It may need to with a schedule that looks far more demanding than last season. The Wolverines had eight home games in 2011, including the first five contests of the season. That number dips down to six this season, with challenging road games at Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. And of course, there's the opener against defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

"All this offseason work is pointing toward that game," receiver Roy Roundtree said. "Everybody knows who we got. It's not like it's some cupcake opener; they're the national champions. We've got to bring our A-game."

The good news is that Michigan found ways to win without its A-game last season, especially in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech in which offensive coordinator Al Borges said, "we played really awful." Hoke proclaimed after the spring game that the Wolverines are much tougher than they were a year ago.

Robinson and running back Fitz Toussaint, who each ran for more than 1,000 yards last season, give the offense two special difference-makers in the backfield. Coaches say Robinson's throwing mechanics and decision-making looked greatly improved this spring, while Toussaint may get some help from emerging power runner Thomas Rawls.

Michigan figures to stay in the thick of the Big Ten race all season long, but getting close won't be good enough. Bo Schembechler's famous phrase, "Those who stay will be champions," wasn't referring to Sugar Bowl titles. The Wolverines won't be satisfied with anything less than their 43rd Big Ten championship, which is why veteran players weren't stunned by Hoke's failing grade in that January meeting.

"I think it was kind of the elephant in the room," Kovacs said. "At the end of the day, we didn't do what we wanted to do. That's what we've been about and what we'll continue to be about. And that's what is fueling us for this season."

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On paper, Ricky Barnum has one of the toughest jobs for Michigan this spring.

Barnum is stepping into the shoes vacated by David Molk, who won the Rimington Trophy last season as the nation's top center. Add in the fact that Barnum has never played center in a game, and that he missed most of last season with injuries, and that sounds like a tall order.

But the fifth-year senior is confident that the Wolverines won't miss a beat with him snapping the ball this season.

"It's not an easy task, because David Molk was a very talented player," he says. "But I have come a long way.

"I really like playing center a lot, and it's something I can see me doing strongly. I can be very good at it."

Barnum snapped to Denard Robinson as a backup when he was a freshman before eventually playing some at tackle and staring at guard. Some rust could have been expected when he moved back to center this offseason, especially in a Michigan offense that often puts Robinson in the shotgun. Yet Barnum proudly says he's had no bad snaps all spring.

Moving to center also brings far more leadership responsibilities than playing guard, as the center makes the calls for the entire line. Barnum says the rest of the line has supported him in that role.

"They all have a trust and faith in me," he said. "They all believe I'll make the right call. And if I do make the wrong call, they just go with it. But I haven't made too many. I haven't had anybody get on me and say, 'Ricky, you made the wrong call.' It's all been, 'Thanks, you made the right call.'"

Barnum has natural size for the position at 6-foot-3 and a large sub sandwich away from 300 pounds. He has good mobility when healthy, which he wasn't last year because of problems in both ankles.

He said Molk has given him pointers, mainly telling him to stay aggressive and showing him how push out with his non-snapping hand. Barnum is putting those ideas in practice this spring for a rebuilt offensive line that is coming along.

"He's working at it," Robinson said. "Ricky's getting better."

It's likely unrealistic to expect Barnum to match Molk's level of play. But he sure seems to have Molk's confidence.

"I see center as a great fit for me because I like to learn and I like to compete," Barnum said.
Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges likes what he has to work with this spring. And who wouldn't be excited about Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint returning in the backfield as the offensive core?

But like every team, the Wolverines have some issues. One of the key concerns is building a solid two-deep along the offensive line.

"It's a position where we feel good about the kids who are playing," Borges said. "We just need to enhance our depth."

Michigan must replace Rimington Trophy winner David Molk at center, and Ricky Barnum will get the first crack at the gig. Barnum was injured most of last season, and has played left guard in the past.

"He's athletic," Borges said. "Ricky can move. He's really has the profile more of a center. He's smart, he understands who to block and he's played some guard, which should have some carry-over to center. So I think Ricky is going to be fine."

Making up for Molk's leadership might be the toughest task this spring. Borges said Barnum, left tackle Taylor Lewan, and senior guard Patrick Omameh should help pick up the slack in that area.

The starting group up front should be solid, with senior Elliott Mealer taking over at left guard, and Michael Schofield moving to right tackle to replace Mark Huyge. Behind them is a lot of inexperience. Borges said redshirt freshmen Jack Miller and Chris Bryant should contribute. And an incoming freshman like Kyle Kalis has a chance to crack the depth chart.

"We'll see how quick they can pick it up," Borges said.

Another area of concern is tight end, which loses departed seniors Kevin Koger and Steve Watson. Borges said senior Brandon Moore, who has played sparingly, and Ricardo Miller, who's more of a receiving tight end, will get the bulk of the work this spring. But it's a position that remains unsettled.

"We're looking at other kids, and the jury is still out," Borges said. "It's a position where, if a freshman came in and showed something, he could probably make a contribution."

Incoming recruit Devin Funchess could be that guy, though he'll likely need to put on some weight. The Wolverines also signed A.J. Williams as a tight end prospect.

"Seeing who's going to come to the forefront and be our starting tight end this spring, that's huge," Borges said.
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.

Today's Take Two topic is this: Which Big Ten team will lead the league in scoring in 2012?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

This is a fascinating question after some of the changes -- both coaching and personnel -- throughout the Big Ten entering 2012. Wisconsin has led the Big Ten in scoring in each of the past three seasons, finishing in the top six nationally in both 2011 and 2010. But the Badgers lose star quarterback Russell Wilson and have major questions at the position as spring ball kicks off. Although Wisconsin returns Heisman Trophy contender Montee Ball at running back and what should be another strong offensive line, I can't see the Badgers coming close to their record-setting offensive production from the past two seasons. I'm going with the Michigan Wolverines here. The biggest reason is obvious: Denard Robinson. He's simply electric and will be in his second season in the offense and his third as a starter in the Big Ten.

Although Michigan had its growing pains last season in transitioning to a new offense, the Wolverines still ranked 26th nationally in scoring (33.3 ppg) and scored 40 points or more in five of eight Big Ten contests. Robinson made more mistakes than he did the previous season but still accounted for 36 touchdowns (20 pass, 16 rush). Michigan also returns running back Fitz Toussaint, who blossomed during Big Ten play and should only get better with experience. Although there are question marks at receiver and at center after the loss of Rimington Trophy winner David Molk, Michigan has a chance to be a more fluid and efficient offense in Year 2 under coordinator Al Borges. While most Big Ten teams are dealing with a quarterback change or a coordinator change -- or both -- Michigan's continuity should pay off on the scoreboard this fall.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

Michigan is an interesting choice and one I strongly considered. The Wolverines should score a lot of points, though that opener against Alabama might bring down their season average. I'm tempted to go the safe route with Wisconsin, because we know Bret Bielema won't take his foot off the gas pedal when the Badgers are clicking. But I'm going a different direction and choosing Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers finished fourth in the Big Ten in scoring last year, but I see a major jump in 2012. The reason is similar to what you said about Michigan: familiarity. This will be the second year in offensive coordinator Tim Beck's system, so the players should be far more comfortable. Early reviews of quarterback Taylor Martinez's work on his fundamentals have been resoundingly positive. Nebraska left a lot of big plays on the table last year in the passing game, but a stronger, more experienced Martinez and an improved receiver corps led by Kenny Bell should help that area get better. And the Huskers still have Rex Burkhead and some emerging young playmakers like Ameer Abdullah.

Nebraska had to get used to the more physical style of defense in the Big Ten last year. This season, I see Big Red putting up some big scoring numbers.

Michigan's Molk blasts Konz, Brewster

February, 29, 2012
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Michigan's David Molk believes he is the best center in the NFL draft, and he's not afraid to say it.

In an interview with AnnArbor.com, the Rimington Trophy winner says it's "pretty stupid" to think any other center should be drafted ahead of him, including Wisconsin's Peter Konz and Ohio State's Mike Brewster.

Molk
Molk had an impressive showing at the NFL combine, doing 41 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press. That was the second-best performance of all players at the event.

Konz, who some have projected as a first-round pick, did only 18 reps. That's one reason Molk says he is better.
"I have skills he doesn’t have. Obviously, my strength is far better, I’m faster, I would say I’m smarter. Obviously, he’s an intelligent person, I’ve talked to him, but I just think I have a technique that’s unmatched [by him]."

Molk also said that he was angry that Konz was named an AFCA first-team All-American after the season. Molk was a first-team All-America selection by the Associated Press, Football Writers Association of America and other organizations.
"Well, maybe [the coaches] should have checked in to who was All-Big Ten and the lineman of the year in the ... Big Ten before they did some stupid [stuff] like that," he said.

Molk also doesn't believe that Ohio State's Brewster, a four-year starter and 2010 All-American, should be drafted higher than him.
"He is nowhere near me as a player," he said of Brewster.

Brewster fired back on Twitter this morning, saying "If they are talking, then you are doing something right," then adding, "And Molk, keep my name out of your mouth...."

It looks like some Big Ten rivalries will continue into the NFL.

Big shoes to fill: Michigan

February, 13, 2012
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Spring practice kicks off in March, and each Big Ten team will be looking for some key replacements in their depth charts. We're going to take a look at two players on each Big Ten squad who leave big shoes to fill and who might be ready to step in at those spots.

Let's start off with the Michigan Wolverines.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Mike Martin, DT

[+] EnlargeMike Martin
Lon Hordwedel/Icon SMIMike Martin has been a consistent presence in the middle of the defense for Michigan.
Why: Three-year starter anchored the middle of the defensive line. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in both 2011 and 2010. Martin appeared in 49 games, starting 37 at nose tackle, and finished his career with 172 tackles, including 25 for loss and seven sacks. His value goes far beyond the numbers, as he consistently took on double-teams and topped the opponent's scouting report before games against the Wolverines.

Replacement candidates: William Campbell (6-5, 322, Jr.); Quinton Washington (6-4, 302, So.); Ondre Pipkins (6-3, 335, incoming freshman); Richard Ash (6-3, 301, Fr.) Kenny Wilkins (6-3, 280, Fr.)

The skinny: Head coach Brady Hoke, who works directly with the nose tackles, has some work ahead this offseason in trying to replace Martin, the heart and soul of Michigan's defense. Is Campbell finally ready to take the next step? The former blue-chip recruit has the talent but hasn't quite blossomed. Pipkins arrives with a lot of buzz and could work his way into the rotation at a position with few proven players.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: David Molk, C

Why: Four-year starter won the Rimington Trophy in 2011 as the nation's top center. Molk was a consensus first-team All-America selection in 2011. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches in each of his final two seasons. He started 41 games at center, and his absence was felt any time he wasn't on the field. Offensive coordinator Al Borges placed a great deal of responsibility on Molk last fall, and Molk delivered for a unit adjusting to a new system.

Replacement candidates: Rocko Khoury (6-4, 287, Jr.); Ricky Barnum (6-3, 292, Jr.); Jack Miller (6-4, 263, Fr.)

The skinny: Khory has been the heir apparent to Molk for several years, but his snapping struggles early in the Sugar Bowl sounded a few alarms among Michigan fans. If Khoury isn't the answer, Barnum might be. He started three games at guard in 2011 before being slowed by ankle problems. Miller is an intriguing prospect who needs to bulk up a bit.

Recruiting needs: Legends Division

January, 31, 2012
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Earlier today, we took a look at the recruiting needs of every team in the Big Ten Leaders Division. Now it's time to turn our attention to the Legends Division and see what positions each team needs to restock before next week's signing day:

Iowa

Running backs: Iowa's problems with keeping running backs in school has been well documented, and the Hawkeyes lost leading rusher Marcus Coker and backup Mika'il McCall after off-the-field problems last season. The team really needs some more depth in the backfield, and don't be surprised if incoming freshman Greg Garmon pushes for playing time immediately.

Defensive linemen: Iowa had three defensive linemen drafted off the 2010 team and now loses its top two guys up front in departing seniors Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels. That's an awful lot of talent to replace in a couple of years, and the Hawkeyes can't expect to improve their defense without doing so. Finding some more pass rushers off the edge will be key.

Wide receivers: Marvin McNutt had a wonderful senior season, but the passing game often stalled whenever he couldn't wiggle free. Now he's gone, leaving a void at the position. Kevonte Martin-Manley and Keenan Davis have shown promise, but James Vandenberg could use some more weapons. Iowa has secured commitments from three receivers in this class.

Michigan

Wide receiver: The loss of Darryl Stonum, who was dismissed following another run in with the law, created a void at receiver, especially with top pass-catcher Junior Hemingway out of eligibility. The Wolverines will have to hope Roy Roundtree can bounce back with a big season, because all other wideout options are unproven at this point. Three receivers are committed to Brady Hoke in this class.

Defensive line: Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen were key cogs in Michigan's run to the Sugar Bowl title in 2011, and they have both moved on, along with starter Will Heininger. Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are defensive line coaches at heart and will want to grab as many difference makers as they can at that key position. Ondre Pipkins, a 325-pound tackle, is the highest rated defensive lineman in the Wolverines' class right now.

Offensive line: While the Wolverines should be fine on the O-line in 2012, even without Rimington Trophy winner David Molk and starting right tackle Mark Huyge, they signed only four offensive linemen total in the past two classes. Since linemen are often slow to develop, they need to refill the cupboard now. Michigan has four offensive linemen committed in this class, including standout Kyle Kalis.

Michigan State

Offensive tackles: Thanks in large part to injuries, Michigan State had to move a defensive lineman (Dan France) to tackle last summer and plug in a junior-college transfer (Fou Fonoti) into the other tackle spot. That the Spartans won the Legends Division title despite that is kind of amazing in retrospect. France will be a junior in 2012 and Fonoti will be in his final year of eligibility. They need more depth at the position, and they've got commitments from two offensive tackles so far in this class.

Wide receivers: Two of the most successful receivers in school history are gone as Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham finished off wildly productive careers. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett is seeking a waiver to play immediately and will help the future even if he has to sit out a year. Michigan State is looking to sign three other receivers in this class to fill out the future two-deep.

Running back: Edwin Baker's early entry to the NFL draft came as a surprise. Michigan State is still in good shape at tailback for 2012 with Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. But after not signing a running back in last year's class, Mark Dantonio could use at least one more option in the backfield.

Minnesota

Defensive backs: It was no secret that Minnesota's pass defense was brutal at times in 2011, and top tackler Kim Royston leaves a hole at safety with his graduation. Getting Troy Stoudermire back for an extra year helps, but Jerry Kill needs to upgrade the talent in the secondary. That's why he has signed three junior-college defensive backs and secured commitments from four high school safeties so far.

Defensive tackle: One of the reasons the pass defense was so bad was a lack of pass rush applied by the front four. The Gophers had only 19 sacks this season, a year after registering just nine. Making matters worse, both starting tackles were seniors this season. Kill signed a junior-college defensive tackle and has two prep tackles committed. He needs to find guys who can find their way to the quarterback.

Overall talent and depth: Kill has said there are gaps in the Gophers' classes, and depth issues could plague the team during his rebuilding efforts. Including six junior-college players signed to help right away, Minnesota has a class of 28 right now. Minnesota simply needs more bodies everywhere.

Nebraska

Linebacker: Lavonte David leaves some rather large cleats to fill. Not only was he Nebraska's leading tackler the past two seasons, he was the only linebacker who played at a consistently high level. The Huskers' starters at the other two linebacker spots will be seniors this year, and depth is thin behind them. So it's little wonder why Bo Pelini has used four spots so far in what is expected to be a small class to fill that position, led by four-star prospect Michael Rose.

Tight end: Three of the top four options at tight ends will be seniors in 2012, leaving very little behind them. Sam Cotton, son of offensive line coach Barney Cotton and younger brother of current Huskers tight end Ben, is on his way to help.

Quarterback: Taylor Martinez is entrenched as the starter going into his junior year, and Nebraska never had to worry about playing Brion Carnes in a big spot this year after Bubba Starling opted for baseball. Still, it's dangerous to not have depth at quarterback, and so the Huskers need to add at least one signal caller in this class.

Northwestern

Defensive backs: The Wildcats were burned repeatedly in the passing game in 2011, and their best defensive back (safety Brian Peters) won't be around next season. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has commitments from three safeties in this class already.

Defensive playmakers: Northwestern was shockingly short on guys who could blow up another team's offensive play in 2011, so Fitzgerald's main mission had to be finding more guys who played like he did in college. That aim got a big boost when stud defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo committed to play in Evanston. That's a good start.

Wide receivers: Highly productive star receiver Jeremy Ebert is gone, along with starter Charles Brown. Venric Mark and Christian Jones have a lot of potential as the next big passing targets, but Northwestern's spread offense feeds off of speed and depth at the receiver position. Four receivers have given the Wildcats their pledge in this class.
The offseason is upon us, and earlier today Brian took a look at the to-do lists for each team in the Leaders Division. Let's now turn the attention to the Legends Division and what teams need to accomplish during the next seven-plus months.

As a reminder, these items aren't recruiting needs, which we'll address in the near future, but rather areas each team needs to repair or restock before Aug. 31 or Sept. 1.

Iowa
  • Reverse the RB curse: Iowa's inability to retain promising running backs is well documented, and the Hawkeyes now must replace prolific sophomore Marcus Coker, who led the Big Ten in carries per game last fall (23.4 a game). The team has shown it produces capable backs, and several players either already on the roster or entering the mix could emerge. But it's critical that Iowa develops multiple options in the backfield in case injuries crop up or the AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back-Hating God) decides to strike again.
  • Replenish the defensive line: A year after replacing three NFL draft picks from the defensive line, Iowa once again has to restock in its front four. The team loses three starters, including standout tackle Mike Daniels, and has very little proven experience back in the fold. Defensive line historically has been an area of strength for Iowa, but the team's new defensive coordinator (yet to be named) and the staff must make the front four a focal point as they try to identify difference-makers.
Michigan
  • Shore up the middle: Baseball general managers talk about the need to build a team up the middle. The same theory applies to football as teams that are strong in the center of both lines typically fare well. Michigan must replace two of the nation's best interior linemen in center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and defensive tackle Mike Martin. Both are NFL prospects and will be missed. The Wolverines need Will Campbell, Quinton Washington and others to emerge at defensive tackle. The center spot could be even more critical as coordinator Al Borges relied so heavily on Molk in 2011.
  • Tightening "Shoelace": Michigan won 11 games and a BCS bowl this past season despite enduring "good Denard, bad Denard" fluctuation at the quarterback position. Looking at the Wolverines' daunting 2012 schedule, they'll have no such luxury when September rolls around. They need Denard Robinson to perform like a senior and show good consistency and improved comfort in the offense. He'll need to cut down on turnovers and deliver more performances like the one we saw against Ohio State on Nov. 26.
Michigan State
  • Develop Andrew Maxwell: Michigan State returns the league's most dynamic defense and should be improved in the run game, too. The big question is whether or not the Spartans can replace quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. Andrew Maxwell has been groomed for the role and, barring a surprise, will lead the offense in September. It's a big offseason for Maxwell to establish himself in his own way and build chemistry with his teammates, particularly a new-look receiving corps.
  • Take line play to next level: Head coach Mark Dantonio understands that Big Ten success is tied to excellent play along both lines. The Spartans' defensive line looked elite at times in 2011, particularly when William Gholston and Jerel Worthy decided to dominate. Worthy is off to the NFL, and the Spartans will be looking to build more depth in the interior alongside Anthony Rashad White. More important, Michigan State must take a big step on the offensive line, a unit that lacked experience in 2011. The Spartans can't expect to win 11 games again with the nation's 78th-ranked rushing offense. They've established their identity on defense; it's time to return to their roots on offense and pound green pound.
Minnesota
  • Establish a defensive identity: Gophers coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to have an aggressive, pressuring defense, but the team had only 19 sacks and 61 tackles for loss in 2011. Those numbers need to increase and Minnesota must identify more playmakers along a defensive line that returns mostly intact. Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis will lead the linebackers, but Minnesota's defense needs a new quarterback after the departure of productive safety Kim Royston.
  • MarQueis to the max: We've seen snippets of brilliance from quarterback MarQueis Gray, but at other times he looks lost and fails to complete most of his passes (50.7 percent for the season). Minnesota needs to lean on Gray in 2012, not just as a difference-maker, but as a consistent leader every Saturday. Gray enters his second offseason in the system, and his days of splitting time between quarterback and wide receiver are in the rear-view mirror. He's the leader of this football team, and he needs to make the necessary strides to elevate his game.
Nebraska
  • Star search: Nebraska's defense loses two of the nation's best in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. The Huskers don't necessarily need their replacements to be stars, but they need difference makers to emerge on a unit that fell short of expectations in 2011. Defensive line figures to be a very strong area for Big Red, and players like Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith will be called upon to lead the way. Nebraska also must make some adjustments to better handle the big, physical offenses in the Big Ten. Linebacker is one position that could use a makeover.
  • Maturity on offense: Running back Rex Burkhead is exempt from this, as he figures to have a huge senior season after making big strides in 2011. But Nebraska's offense has plenty of players that need to mature for the unit to reach its potential this coming season. The offensive line was green at spots and should benefit from another offseason in Tim Beck's system. Nebraska has young talent at wide receiver with Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. If the wideouts can grow up, they'll be dangerous weapons in 2012. Quarterback Taylor Martinez also fits in here. He showed some good things in 2011, but must perform more like a third-year starter next fall.
Northwestern
  • Find playmakers on defense: Northwestern lacked difference-makers on defense this past season and loses one in All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters, who led the league with five interceptions. This might never be a shut-down defense, but it needs to identify more players who can influence games. Northwestern returns nine defensive starters and will look to players like defensive end Tyler Scott and safety Ibraheim Campbell to take their game to the next level. The Wildcats recorded a league-low 17 sacks in 2011 and ranked 104th nationally in tackles for loss (59).
  • Figure out the quarterback situation: Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has been masterful in turning inexperienced quarterbacks into All-Big Ten players at Northwestern. His next major project likely will be Kain Colter, who filled in admirably last season, but looked limited as a passer, and at times seemed better suited to play wide receiver. Colter will compete with Trevor Siemian and Zack Oliver for the starting job this spring. If he can make a similar jump as his Wildcats predecessors, he could be one of the division's most dangerous players in 2012.
Let's put a final bow on bowl season with our choices for the 2011 Big Ten All-Bowl team. As usual, some positions had more than enough worthy selections, such as defensive line, while other positions -- safety, offensive line -- left us scrambling a bit.

Despite a 4-6 bowl performance by the Big Ten, the league had some nice individual performances.

Here's the bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin: Though he threw a costly interception late, Wilson completed 19 of 25 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. That performance was good enough for him to finish the season with the NCAA record for pass efficiency.

RB: Akeem Shavers, Purdue: With leading rusher Ralph Bolden injured, the Boilermakers needed another back to step up. Shavers responded with a career high 149 yards on 22 carries in the Boilermakers' 37-32 Little Caesars Bowl victory over Western Michigan.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Kelvin Kuo/US PRESSWIREMontee Ball racked up 164 yards on the ground and scored his 39th TD of the season in the Rose Bowl.
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin: Ball carried 32 times for 164 yards against Oregon, and his touchdown gave him 39 on the season, tying Barry Sanders' Football Bowl Subdivision record. Ball was quieted late as the Ducks' defense made adjustments against the running game.

WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Like Wilson, Abbrederis had a costly second-half turnover, but his overall performance stood out in the Rose Bowl. The sophomore had four receptions for a team-high 119 yards and a touchdown and also had 227 return yards in the game, including a 60-yard kickoff runback.

WR: Junior Hemingway, Michigan: He only had two catches in the Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech, but both went for touchdowns. He caught the first one in traffic then juked his way toward a 45-yard score. He made a leaping grab near the back of the end zone for the second one.

TE: Brian Linthicum, Michigan State: The senior picked a good time to have a career day, coming up with seven catches for 115 yards against Georgia plus a catch on a two-point conversion. He took a tight end screen pass 50 yards during the fourth quarter for the longest play of his career.

OL: Peter Konz, Wisconsin: Konz made his first appearance since Nov. 13 and didn't look rusty after rehabbing a dislocated ankle. The All-Big Ten selection keyed a Badgers offense that racked up 212 rush yards, 23 first downs and 508 total yards against Oregon. Konz performed well in what turned out to be his final game as a Badger.

OL: Dennis Kelly, Purdue: The Boilers' offensive line overpowered Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, and Kelly, a mainstay at left tackle during his career, helped lead the charge. Purdue racked up 265 rush yards on 56 attempts and steamrolled the Broncos despite not having top running back Bolden (knee).

OL: David Molk, Michigan: A foot injury in warmups wasn't going to keep Molk from playing his final game with the Wolverines. The Rimington Trophy winner, who some thought wouldn't return to the field, missed only one series and did his part for the Michigan offense in its win against Virginia Tech.

OL: Jeff Allen, Illinois: Allen keyed an Illinois offense that showed some life in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after fading down the stretch of the regular season. He helped the Illini rush for 178 yards, while UCLA had only one sack in the game.

OL: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin: Like Konz, Zeitler delivered a typical performance in Pasadena and helped Ball and the ground game get going. Wisconsin's physical play along the offensive line gave Oregon problems for most of the game.

DEFENSE

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston seemed unstoppable in Michigan State's win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
DL: William Gholston, Michigan State: The sophomore announced himself as a likely breakout star in 2012 with a huge performance against Georgia in the Outback Bowl. Gholston had five tackles for loss, including two sacks, plus a fumble recovery in the Spartans' victory.

DL: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois: The nation's sacks leader went out with a bang before declaring for the NFL draft. Mercilus registered 1.5 sacks in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win over UCLA, tying him with Simeon Rice for the school single-season record of 16. He finished with three tackles for loss and gave the Bruins offense fits.

DL: Mike Martin, Michigan: The Wolverines repeatedly stuffed Virginia Tech in the red zone, and Martin was a big reason why. The senior had 10 tackles and 0.5 sacks while helping control the interior of the defensive line.

DL Mike Daniels, Iowa: The Hawkeyes defense showed up in the Insight Bowl, and Daniels led the way with five tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks. Oklahoma came into the game having allowed just nine sacks all season, but Daniels had two in the first half.

LB: Lavonte David, Nebraska: Though the Huskers lost to South Carolina, David had his usual brilliant game. He finished with 11 tackles and two sacks in the losing effort to cap a terrific career.

LB: Joe Holland, Purdue: The senior delivered in his final game as a Boiler, recording team highs for tackles (9), tackles for loss (2) and pass breakups (3) against Western Michigan. Holland was always around the ball and spurred a play-making Purdue defense in Detroit.

LB: Ian Thomas, Illinois: Like Holland, Thomas had a big performance in his final collegiate game as Illinois held UCLA to seven points through the first 59 minutes. Thomas finished with seven tackles, including two for loss and a sack, as well as a pass breakup against the Bruins.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: He got burned on a long pass in the first half but made up for it with two second-half interceptions, including one he returned 38 yards for a touchdown, in the win against Georgia. Dennard tied the Michigan State bowl record with the two picks.

CB: Terry Hawthorne, Illinois: Hawthorne's 39-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter gave Illinois its first lead against UCLA. It marked the second pick-six of Hawthorne's career and the first since 2009. He also had five tackles, including 1.5 for loss.

S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan: Kovacs capped a breakthrough season in the Allstate Sugar Bowl with a a team-high 11 tackles in the win against Virginia Tech. He helped limit the Hokies to just one touchdown on six red zone possessions and finished the season with 75 total tackles.

S: Brian Peters, Northwestern: Peters made a nifty interception against Texas A&M, his Big Ten-leading fifth pick of the season, and added seven tackles against the Aggies. He finished his career with 12 interceptions, the third-highest total in team history.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Brendan Gibbons, Michigan: Gibbons nailed all three of his field goal attempts, including the 37-yarder in overtime to win the game for the Wolverines.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: Sadler was big in the field position battle against Georgia. He averaged 50.1 yards on eight punts, placing four of them inside the 20-yard line.

KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue: Mostert returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in the win over Western Michigan. It marked the longest kick return in Purdue bowl history and helped Mostert finish the season as the nation's leading return man (33.5 ypr).

PR: Venric Mark, Northwestern: Not too many choices around the Big Ten, but Mark broke off a 47-yard return in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. He also had a two-yard rushing touchdown in the game.
A Big Ten coach recently told me that the league will be more wide open in 2012 than it has been in recent memory.

He's absolutely right.

While Ohio State's personnel issues changed the complexion of the league race in 2011, things went more or less as expected. Wisconsin, projected by many as the preseason favorite, won the Big Ten championship and advanced to its second consecutive Rose Bowl. Michigan State was a mini surprise, but more because of the Spartans' brutal schedule than their talent level. Michigan exceeded expectations, while Ohio State, Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern and Iowa fell short of them.

The forecast for 2012 is cloudy at best. Every potential frontrunner has some significant hurdles to overcome.

Let's look at seven of them:

Michigan's challenges: Brady Hoke's crew plays arguably the league's toughest schedule, opening against Alabama, playing road games against Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, and hosting Michigan State, which has won the teams' past four meetings. The Wolverines also lose standout defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, as well as center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and top receiver Junior Hemingway.

Michigan State's challenges: The schedule isn't as treacherous, but Michigan State loses several key pieces, most notably quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. The Spartans also must replace their top two receivers (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin), their top offensive lineman (guard Joel Foreman), All-Big Ten safety Trenton Robinson and two players making an early jump to the NFL draft (defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and backup running back Edwin Baker). The Spartans say goodbye to six All-Big Ten performers.

Wisconsin's challenges: Although the Badgers regain the services of running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist, they will be adjusting to plenty of new faces both on the field and on the sidelines. All-Big Ten quarterback Russell Wilson departs along with three starting offensive linemen, headlined by All-America center Peter Konz. While the defense returns mostly intact, Wisconsin will be replacing at least five assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and offensive line coach Bob Bostad, two of the best in the business. On the bright side, Wisconsin doesn't have to visit Spartan Stadium.

Nebraska's challenges: Along with Michigan, the Huskers return the most offensive firepower in the league and could take a significant step if the line comes together and the wide receivers and Taylor Martinez continue to mature. But if Big Red doesn't play the type of defense it did in 2009 and 2010, it could be another long season in Lincoln. Nebraska loses its top two defenders, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and must upgrade the defensive front seven to handle the more physical Big Ten offenses. The schedule might be a little easier, but not much as Nebraska visits both Michigan State and Ohio State.

Ohio State's challenges: Urban Meyer inherits a young football team with the chance to make big strides in 2012, but the Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA rules violations. It wouldn't shock me to see Ohio State have the best record in the Leaders Division, but its season will end Nov. 24 against Michigan as the Scarlet and Gray can't play in the Big Ten title game. There also could be some growing pains as players adjust to new systems.

Penn State's challenges: The Bill O'Brien era begins in 2012, and it's hard to know what to expect from a Penn State team going through a transition period. The Lions once again should be strong on defense, although they lose Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still and most of their starting secondary. O'Brien and his staff will upgrade the offense eventually, but there could be some struggles initially with a unit that has underachieved since 2008. Although the Leaders Division is up for grabs, Penn State has no shortage of hurdles.

Iowa's challenges: Kirk Ferentz's program reaches another crossroads in 2012 after losing momentum from the 2009 Orange Bowl run. Will Iowa move into the Big Ten's lead pack or take another step backward? There are significant concerns along the defensive line, and Iowa must replace the league's top receiver in Marvin McNutt. If Marcus Coker returns, the offense should be decent, but quarterback James Vandenberg must show he can be more consistent away from Iowa City.

The Big Ten doesn't have an obvious team to beat in 2012, like Wisconsin in 2011 or Ohio State in 2010.

If I had to pick a favorite at this point, I'd go with Michigan State because of the Spartans talent-stocked defense. But the Legends Division race will be extremely competitive -- undoubtedly the tougher division to win. Ohio State's bowl ban, Wisconsin's player/coach losses and Penn State's transition make the Leaders race nearly impossible to predict. While Wisconsin will be a popular pick, I could see several teams, including a sleeper like Purdue, make a run in 2012.

The season kicks off in 235 days.

When it does, buckle up and get ready for a wild ride.

Video: Michigan center David Molk

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
2:09
AM ET

Adam Rittenberg talks to Michigan center David Molk about the Wolverines' 23-20 overtime win over Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

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