NCF Nation: Gerald Gooden
Defensive tackle was the strongest position in the league in 2011, so that makes this a competitive situation. There are some major changes from our preseason order as well. Remember this is about overall production, and depth matters along with star power. The top four on this list are really, really strong.
Here we go:
2. Michigan: We projected the Wolverines would make a significant leap in '11, but the amount of improvement still surprised us. The combination of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both defensive line coaches at heart, and valuable seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen made this the backbone of Michigan's Sugar Bowl run. The Wolverines were especially tough in short-yardage situations because their defensive front was so stout.
3. Penn State: Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still wrecked just about everybody's game plan with a huge senior campaign. Jordan Hill had a solid, underrated year next to him inside. Jack Crawford stayed healthy and contributed 6.5 sacks, while Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley combined for another 7.5 quarterback takedowns.
4. Illinois: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was a consensus first-team All-American who led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles. Nobody saw that coming. He had good company along the line as well, with guys like Akeem Spence inside and Michael Buchanan at the other end spot. The Illini may have faltered down the stretch as a team, but the D-line stayed strong throughout the year.
5. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn't have many household names on the defensive line, and certainly no one stood out like J.J. Watt the year before. But Bret Bielema relied on a solid group of veterans that helped the team finish third in the league in total defense and fifth in sacks. Patrick Butrym, Louis Nzegwu, Brendan Kelly and Ethan Hemer were part of a group that played better than the sum of its parts.
6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had one of the best defensive players in the league in John Simon, who had 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks in a breakout season. Tackle Johnathan Hankins emerged as a disrupter at 335 pounds. But Ohio State didn't get its usual production elsewhere on the line, got beat up as the season went along and lacked depth, which is one reason why Urban Meyer went out and signed so many pass rushers in his first recruiting class.
7. Nebraska: The biggest disappointment from the preseason, as the Huskers tumbled from their No. 1 ranking last summer. Jared Crick's season-ending injury hurt the production, but he was not putting up huge numbers before he tore his pectoral muscle. Cameron Meredith, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin had some nice moments, but Nebraska wasn't nearly as fierce up front as we thought it might be.
8. Purdue: Kawann Short turned in his best season, with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from his interior spot, while Bruce Gaston and Gerald Gooden provided solid support. But the Boilermakers' pass rush off the edge lacked explosiveness until freshman Ryan Russell started to come on late in the season. Everyone except Gooden returns, and with a new position coach Purdue hopes this unit can go from decent to great in 2012.
9. Iowa: Another disappointing crew, as the Hawkeyes proved it's not easy to replace three draft picks off the defensive line and simply reload. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns were the senior anchors, but Iowa's pass rush was sluggish until late in the season. And there wasn't a whole lot of depth behind them. This group loses three starters and will be extremely young in 2012.
10. Northwestern: We ranked the Wildcats 10th in the preseason as well, but we still expected better things out of this group. Northwestern generated very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks. Vince Browne, a projected all-conference pick in the summer, had a subpar season with only 3.5 tackles for loss after putting up 15.5 in 2010. It's clear this group needs to get better for Northwestern to take the next step.
11. Minnesota: The Gophers weren't as terrible on the defensive front as they were in 2010, when they finished last in the nation with only nine sacks. In fact, they more than doubled that total with 19 last season. Still, it was a mostly anonymous crew that gave quarterbacks too much time to carve up the secondary in the passing game. Jerry Kill still needs to find more playmakers at this position.
12. Indiana: The Hoosiers had problems all over the defense, and the line was no exception. Adam Replogle and Larry Black gave the unit some veteran leadership in the middle, but Indiana resorted to playing a lot of kids at the defensive end spots. The results were about what you'd expect.
The Little Caesars Bowl delivered plenty of twists and turns, including two successful onside kicks, a flea flicker for a touchdown, a two-point conversion on a fake extra point and a kickoff return for a touchdown. And then they played the second half.
Purdue won in its first bowl appearance since 2007, when it also beat a MAC team (Central Michigan) in Detroit in what was then called the Motor City Bowl.
How the game was won: If all you knew about this game was that Purdue forced six turnovers, returned a kick for a touchdown, recovered a pair of onside kicks and got three fourth-down stops, you'd probably assume the Boilermakers blew out Western Michigan. But Purdue made plenty of mistakes of its own and had to hold on late to secure the victory. The game was decided by A) the kicking game, which the Boilers used to great effect with a 99-yard touchdown return by Raheem Mostert and two first-half onside kick gambles by Danny Hope that led to points; and B) the running game, as Purdue piled up over 260 yards on the ground to dominate the time of possession.
Turning point: Western Michigan got the ball back with 2:16 left and had a chance to win the game with its potent offense. But Purdue freshman defensive lineman Ryan Russell stripped the ball from quarterback Alex Carder, and teammate Bruce Gaston recovered to bring on the Boilers' victory formation unit. Carder threw for 413 yards but also tossed four interceptions and fumbled twice.
Player of the game: Though he came out on the losing end, Western Michigan receiver Jordan White showed why he led the country in catches and receiving yards this season. He finished with 13 catches for 249 yards and a touchdown despite the extra attention Purdue paid to him.
Player of the game II: Missing leading rusher Ralph Bolden, who tore his ACL in the season finale, Purdue needed someone to step forward in the running game. That someone turned out to be Akeem Shavers, who ran 22 times for 148 yards, nearly doubling his previous career high.
Unsung hero: Purdue suspended third-leading receiver O.J. Ross for the bowl game. No problem, as Gary Bush picked up the slack. The sophomore chipped in with six catches for a career-high 90 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown.
Spirit of giving: On two separate occasions, Purdue handed a turnover right back to Western Michigan. Both involved Gerald Gooden and Josh Schaffer. Schaffer, a receiver, stripped and recovered the ball from Gooden after one of the Boilers defensive end's two interceptions. Late in the fourth quarter, Gooden forced a Carder fumble that Russell picked up, but Schaffer hustled down the field again to knock the ball away and put the Broncos back in business.
What it means: Purdue, which beat Indiana in the regular-season finale, won back-to-back games for the first time all year. The Boilermakers had to win this game in order to build some momentum under Hope, who was rewarded with a two-year contract extension last week but still needs to convince fans and alumni he's the man to move the program forward. A loss would have opened up new questions about Hope, but instead Purdue showed creativity and daring -- if not always great attention to detail -- in its game plan. With Ohio State ineligible for the Big Ten title game, Illinois and Penn State both in transition and Wisconsin needing to replace important players and coaches on the offensive side, the Boilermakers just might be a sleeper in the Leaders Division in 2012. Western Michigan's mantra leading up to this game was "Make history." But the Broncos fell to 0-5 all time in bowl games and must regroup to try again without the top receiver in school history.
Record performance: With his big game Tuesday night, White broke MAC records for both single-season and career receiving yards.
What has been the key to your success so far this season?
Kawann Short: Just watching film, doing what the coaches tell me to do. I'm trying to be consistent, to not let up in practice and go hard all the time. And it's showing up in the games on Saturday.
Danny Hope said your improved conditioning has been a big key. How has that helped you this season?
How many more snaps can you play now with your better conditioning?
KS: I can play a whole game. At Penn State, I played the whole game, and at the end of the day, it wasn't bad. Last year, I could probably play no more than like 50 or 60 snaps. On Saturday [against Illinois], I played like 70 or 80, and I felt pretty good about it.
Are you seeing a lot more double teams now?
KS: Yeah. People told me it was going to happen. Teams see you getting better, and they start focusing on you more. I don't even acknowledge it, just because I've been in that position before. Now it's time for the younger guys to step up and beat the one-on-ones.
What did you learn in playing next to Ryan Kerrigan?
KS: Just as far as his intensity and energy and his drive. I've never seen that man take a play off or even mess up in a game. I'm trying to be like him now, where in meetings you never hear my name except when they say, "Good job here" or "Good job there." Playing next to Ryan gave me that energy, knowing that you've got to go every time you put your hand down in the grass and don't even think about tiredness. That's the biggest thing I learned from him.
Did you feel responsibility to become more of a leader after he left?
KS: Well, Gerald Gooden is the leader and a captain. But we're the two older guys on the line, so we have to set an example. He's doing it for the defensive ends, and I'm doing it for the tackles.
What was it like Saturday when you guys beat a ranked team for the first time since 2009?
KS: It felt great after the win. Holding them scoreless until the fourth quarter was a blessing, and it was great to see the whole team coming together like that. Now we know we're capable of doing it. Every Saturday, any team can be beat and you just have to be ready to play and bring it. We're going to try to do that the rest of these Saturdays in the conference.
You need two more wins, but do you feel like you guys can get to a bowl game for the first time since 2007?
KS: Most definitely. It's a must. We've got to. We've been out too long, and everybody is just hungry. We've been going home for Christmas and watching other teams and players and knowing we could be playing. We're trying not to go home this year.
Would not making a bowl be a disappointment now?
KS: Yeah, just because now we're a whole lot better team. Everybody's mindset is definitely different and we're working hard. That would hurt us. It would be a sharp pain in our stomachs just to know we could have been bowl eligible but we didn't do it.
What are the challenges for a defensive lineman when facing Denard Robinson this weekend?
KS: Just his quickness. You have to stay true to your assignments, because if you have any little mess-up, he can take off. He's a very good quarterback and runner. As far as the D-line, we've got to stay in our gaps. We've got to keep control and keep contain. If we do that, we should be in good shape.
You have four blocked kicks in your career. What's the secret to that?
KS: To be honest, I'm not doing it by myself. The guy next me helps me to get the push. All I'm doing is throwing my arms up and jumping a little bit. Ryan Kerrigan helped me do it a couple times. Bruce Gaston, Ryan Isaac and Brandon Taylor, all those guys helped me get one. I can't take all the credit, knowing those guys were with me all the time. All you need is that good push and to throw your hands up.
Is it true you didn't play football until eighth grade?
KS: Yeah. A lot of people were in my head telling me to go play. When I went to high school I wasn't even going to play, but one of the coaches told me to try out. I just stuck with it because it was something I was good at. I was more of a basketball player, but when I learned I could do both, I stuck with it.
And you won an Indiana state title in basketball with former Purdue star E'Twaun Moore as your high school teammate?
KS: It was in 2007, his senior year and my junior year. That was a great year, because it was also the year I committed to Purdue.
What position did you play?
KS: I played center. We had a 6-11 guy, but he played the 4 and the 3. I was going up against guys who were like 6-6, 6-7, but I was handling it pretty well. My big body kept me going.
You must have been a pretty good rebounder.
KS: Yeah, that was where all my points came off of. I was a double-double guy.
When did you know football was your future?
KS: Probably my sophomore year. I was just playing basketball because I really enjoyed myself and I couldn't see myself not playing. It helped me stay in condition and helped me get my footwork and coordination right. So it was definitely a plus.
Defensive end has been the league's strongest position the past few seasons, but there are few proven players entering 2010. The Big Ten had four defensive ends -- J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Heyward -- selected in the first round of April's NFL draft.
This list could look very different by mid October, but here are the top 10 entering '11.
2. Vince Browne, Northwestern, senior: No Big Ten defensive end boasts more impressive numbers than Browne, who has 16 sacks and 31 tackles for loss in his career. He has seen increases in both categories in each of the past two seasons, recording seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2010. Northwestern needs another big year from the second-team All-Big Ten selection.
3. Cameron Meredith, Nebraska, junior: Meredith earned second-team All-Big 12 honors from the coaches in 2010 after a solid performance in his first season as a starter. He recorded 64 tackles, including eight tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, and also had 10 quarterback hurries. Expect the junior to build on those numbers this fall.
4. Nathan Williams, Ohio State, senior: The Buckeyes return only four starters on defense, so they'll need a big senior season from Williams. He led Ohio State with 4.5 sacks in 2010 and complements the bigger Simon as a pure speed rusher on the edge. Williams is the most experienced member of Ohio State's line and must help lead the way.
5. Louis Nzegwu, Wisconsin, senior: After playing alongside All-Big Ten ends Watt and O'Brien Schofield the past two seasons, Nzegwu's time has arrived. Wisconsin will look for big things from the senior, who started every game in 2010 and played a lot as a reserve in 2009. Nzegwu recorded 46 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and a forced fumble last season. He's solid against the run but must be a bigger factor in the pass rush.
6. Broderick Binns, Iowa, senior: Binns had a disappointing 2010 season, but unlike several players on this list, he has shown he can be a difference maker in Big Ten games. As a sophomore in 2009 he recorded 10 tackles for loss, six sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a team-high nine pass breakups. If Binns returns to form in 2011, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors.
7. Darius Johnson, Indiana, senior: If the Hoosiers plan to turn things around on defense this fall, they'll need a big season from Johnson. He showed last season that when healthy, he can cause a lot of problems in opposing backfields. Johnson recorded 65 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He could be a very productive player for IU this fall.
8. Craig Roh, Michigan, junior: Roh and fellow end Ryan Van Bergen are among the Wolverines defenders who should benefit from the new/old 4-3 scheme. He's already bulking up for a defense that values size, hoping to reach 270 pounds by the season. Roh has shown flashes of promise and recorded 43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles last season.
9. William Gholston, Michigan State, sophomore: Here's a projection pick, but I see Gholston having a huge sophomore season. After trying his hand at linebacker in 2010, he settles into a more natural position at end. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Gholston could be a force for a Spartans line that must generate more pressure from the edges this season.
10. Gerald Gooden, Purdue, senior: The Boilers are thin at defensive end and need big things from Gooden, who can be effective when he avoids the injury bug. Gooden has started games in each of the past three seasons, recording eight tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2009 and forcing two fumbles in 2010. Health and consistency are the big questions for Gooden, but experience is not.
Just missed the cut: Michigan's Van Bergen, Michigan State's Tyler Hoover, Illinois' Michael Buchanan, Wisconsin's David Gilbert, Penn State's Jack Crawford.
The Big Ten had five defensive linemen, all from different teams, selected in the first round of April's NFL draft: Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward. Iowa lost three starting D-linemen to the draft, and almost every Big Ten squad has to replace major contributors.
The personnel losses make the preseason D-line rankings both tricky and fun. The first three groups look very good, while there's not much difference in the middle of the league.
Let's take a look:
2. Ohio State: Heyward's leadership and versatility will be missed, but Ohio State always finds ways to fill the gaps up front. Junior John Simon should be primed for a breakout season. Like Heyward, Simon can play both line spots but might see more time on the edge this fall. Nathan Williams adds experience at end, and promising sophomore Johnathan Hankins could wreak havoc on the interior this fall.
3. Michigan State: Like several Big Ten teams, the Spartans build their line around a potential superstar tackle in Jerel Worthy. The junior already is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2012 draft after recording four sacks last fall. Anthony Rashad White emerged this spring as a nice complement to Worthy. Michigan State needs a better pass rush from the end spots, and hopes are high for William Gholston and Tyler Hoover.
4. Wisconsin: Watt is a huge loss because he contributed in so many ways, but Wisconsin could account for his production with greater depth. Ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both have played a lot of football, and junior Brendan Kelly came on strong toward the end of spring practice. Senior tackle Patrick Butrym has emerged as one of the leaders on defense. Wisconsin needs young tackles like Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen to help Butrym.
5. Michigan: This is a projection pick, but I think Michigan's defensive front takes a significant step forward this season. Senior tackle Mike Martin is a bona fide NFL prospect and will lead the way, and players like Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh should be among the primary beneficiaries of the new defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. Michigan needs to build depth with Jibreel Black, Will Campbell and others, but there's great potential here.
6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes face a tough task in replacing multiyear starters in Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. Senior tackle Mike Daniels is ready to lead the group after recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. The biggest key is getting Broderick Binns back to his 2009 form. Iowa also needs to build depth with Lebron Daniel and others, and avoid major injuries.
7. Purdue: Defensive tackle is a major strength for Purdue as Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston Jr. form one of the league's top tandems. Short quietly turned in an extremely productive season last fall (12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks). The big unknown is how Purdue replaces Kerrigan. The Boilers need veteran Gerald Gooden to stay healthy and others to emerge alongside him.
8. Penn State: Much like Purdue, Penn State looks strong at tackle and has question marks at end. Devon Still could contend for All-Big Ten honors after a terrific performance in the Outback Bowl against Florida. Still and Jordan Hill should lock up the middle, but Penn State needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to get healthy at the end spots. If not, the Lions will turn to unproven players to spark their pass rush.
9. Illinois: Liuget is a significant loss in the middle and Illinois also must replace veteran end Clay Nurse. The Illini will rely on Akeem Spence to step in for Liuget, and Spence showed some good things this spring. There's talent on the edges with Michael Buchanan, Whitney Mercilus and others, but Illinois needs more consistent production.
10. Northwestern: This group took a step back last fall and got manhandled down the stretch as Northwestern hemorrhaged yards and points. Senior end Vince Browne is a playmaker who put up impressive numbers (15.5 TFLs, 7 sacks) in 2010. He'll need help from tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli, and Tyler Scott could provide a lift at the other end spot. The Wildcats need their line to regain the edge it displayed in 2008.
11. Indiana: It wouldn't surprise me to see Indiana's front four rise up these rankings during the season. There are some nice pieces back, namely senior end Darius Johnson, who can be a force when healthy. Junior Adam Replogle has been productive at defensive tackle. There's plenty of competition at the other two spots as Indiana tries to turn a page on defense.
12. Minnesota: The Gophers' pass rush was practically invisible in 2010, as they finished last nationally in sacks (9). The good news is new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will turn his linemen loose more often, giving players like Brandon Kirksey chances to make plays. We've heard a lot about Minnesota's talent up front but haven't seen nearly enough production on Saturdays.
You might ask: How is that possible? Hope's Boilermakers and the Fighting Irish don't even play until Saturday afternoon in South Bend.
But leading up to Saturday, Notre Dame has served its purpose for Purdue. The Irish have helped the Boilers practice harder. They have motivated the Boilers to show up for summer workouts. They have motivated Purdue's many young players to listen to the veterans.
"It was a blessing in disguise for this football team," Hope told ESPN.com earlier this week. "This is a developmental football team in a lot of ways, and the faster you can develop before you kick it off in the opener, the better chance you have of winning, but also the further along you get for the rest of the season.
"A very tough opener, but one that's created a heck of a sense of urgency for us to prepare."
The spotlight Saturday undoubtedly will be fixed on the Notre Dame sideline, as Brian Kelly makes his coaching debut. National media members will be on hand to watch Kelly, quarterback Dayne Crist, receiver Michael Floyd, linebacker Manti Te'o and others as a new chapter begins for the Irish.
Purdue will be an afterthought. Sure, there's some buzz about Miami transfer Robert Marve and his debut as Purdue's starting quarterback. Say the name Ryan Kerrigan and knowledgeable college football fans should know who you're talking about.
But for the most part, the Boilers are anonymous.
"You're going in there as an underdog, and you're going in there for the coming-out party for a new head coach at a storied program," Hope said. "Our guys see it, too. There will be millions and millions of eyes watching the Boilermakers and the Irish. What a great opportunity for us. We've got to go down there wide open and having fun.
"We certainly can't go down there motivated by fear or failure."
That part shouldn't be a problem, not after last season.
Purdue snapped a 19-game slide against ranked opponents by stunning No. 7 Ohio State, snapping the Buckeyes' 16-game Big Ten road win streak in the process. Three weeks later, the Boilers went to Ann Arbor and won at Michigan Stadium for the first time since 1966. Hope's players won't care that only one Notre Dame coach has lost his debut since 1934 (Lou Holtz in 1986).
"We've been jinx killers as of late," Hope said. "To me, [Notre Dame's success in the series] is just more numbers. It sounds like just the right formula for us, and that's exciting."
Hope acknowledges Notre Dame's talent and Kelly's sparkling coaching record, but he likes the matchup for the Boilers. Kerrigan and fellow defensive end Gerald Gooden could be a handful for a young Notre Dame offensive line.
Purdue's new-look secondary will be tested by Floyd, Theo Riddick and tight end Kyle Rudolph, but Hope points out that the Boilers' defensive backs practice daily against All-Big Ten senior Keith Smith and several other good receivers. Hope said ball security and quarterback performance will be major keys for both teams, as Marve and Crist take center stage.
"A win at Notre Dame would be a signature win for the program," Hope said. "It would be a historic win, a great springboard opportunity for this team and this program. There's a million things to gain from it. But win or lose, I don't see how we can go wrong playing Notre Dame in the opener.
"All around, it's been the best thing for our football team."
No intelligent fan base should be celebrating, "We're No. 6!" Truth: your team's unit is probably a lot closer to No. 11 than No. 1. If a certain position group is stacked at the top, I'm open to including multiple teams tied for the No. 5 spot.
The criteria: past performance, 2010 potential, game-changing players and overall depth.
Let's get it started with the defensive line.
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes' front four is not only the best in the Big Ten, but quite possibly the country (Rivals.com thinks so). Everyone knows about beastly defensive end Adrian Clayborn, but Broderick Binns can be just as effective on the other edge. Veterans Karl Klug and Christian Ballard solidify the middle. This group can flat out dominate games, as it showed last season against Penn State and Georgia Tech, and should be even better in 2010. My lone concern: depth.
2. Ohio State: You know a position group will be fine when three key contributors (Thaddeus Gibson, Doug Worthington, Todd Denlinger) depart and there's talk of even better days ahead. Cameron Heyward could be the Big Ten's most disruptive defensive player, as USC and Penn State learned last season, and there's a lot of optimism about young players like John Simon, Melvin Fellows and Garrett Goebel. Dexter Larimore brings experience to the interior line.
3. Penn State: Like Ohio State, Penn State can lose key players like Jared Odrick up front and not miss a beat. We should know better than to doubt veteran line coach Larry Johnson, who recruits and develops players better than just about anyone. Penn State has high hopes for defensive end Jack Crawford, and veteran tackle Ollie Ogbu also returns. Odrick leaves a major void in the middle, but the Lions expect big things from Devon Still if he can stay healthy.
4. Purdue: I'm taking a little leap of faith here, as Purdue has to get a lot better against the run. But the Boilers have a bona fide star in end Ryan Kerrigan, some experience with Gerald Gooden and Kawann Short, and they should benefit from coach Gary Emanuel's return to West Lafayette. Purdue is thin at defensive tackle after Mike Neal's departure to the NFL, but Kerrigan leads what should be a formidable pass rush after finishing third nationally in sacks in 2009.
5. Wisconsin: Here's a case where I feel great about one line position and nervous about another. Emerging star J.J. Watt leads a talented group of defensive ends -- ends, not tackles!-- that also features Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert. The situation at tackle is a bit shakier because Wisconsin lost both starters from 2009, but Patrick Butrym boasts experience, and hopes are high for Jordan Kohout.
Up next: Linebackers
Let's take a team-by-team look at who they are:
Illinois: Offensive tackle Jeff Allen. Illinois already has lost one starting offensive tackle to injury in Corey Lewis (ACL), placing a major burden on Allen to protect a young starting quarterback. Allen has started two seasons and should contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. He drew praise from the coaches this spring for absorbing Paul Petrino's new offense, and he'll anchor the line at weak-side tackle. If he goes down, Illinois likely will turn to Craig Wilson, who has played mostly special teams in his career.
Iowa: Quarterback Ricky Stanzi. This isn't a knock against backup James Vandenberg, who certainly proved himself last fall at Ohio State. But Iowa is simply a different team with Stanzi on the field, drawing confidence from him through his ups and downs. You could see how much Stanzi meant to his teammates on offense after he went down against Northwestern last November. Although offensive tackle Riley Reiff, defensive end Adrian Clayborn or safety Tyler Sash certainly can make their case to be in this spot, Stanzi is the player who shapes Iowa's success more than any other player. He's got the 'it' factor.
Michigan: Cornerback Troy Woolfolk. Woolfolk provides leadership and some experience in a Wolverines secondary that looks pretty shaky even with him on the field. The thought of Woolfolk being out would certainly raise the anxiety level among Michigan fans. Woolfolk had some good moments last fall and has a chance to be a very solid Big Ten cornerback this year. He also can play safety in an emergency. Given Michigan's lack of depth in the defensive backfield, Woolfolk's presence is crucial.
Michigan State: Linebacker Greg Jones. This one is pretty obvious. Not only has Jones led Michigan State in tackles in each of his three seasons on campus, but he's the undisputed leader on defense. Without Jones' tackling and play-making ability in the offensive backfield, an average Michigan State defense would be a lousy one. Although the Spartans boast some depth at linebacker with Chris Norman, Eric Gordon and incoming freshmen William Gholston and Max Bullough, Jones is the one guy the coaches are counting on for a ton of production.
Minnesota: Safety Kyle Theret. There's not an obvious choice for the Gophers, but the team's defense lost some major experience after safety Kim Royston broke his leg this spring. Theret, who was suspended during spring ball but should return, has started 32 games at safety. He ended the 2009 season on a strong note with two interceptions and a tackle for loss in the Insight Bowl. If Royston can't return or is limited, Theret will have to lead a young Gophers' secondary.
Ohio State: Quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Another easy choice, as Pryor has started 22 of Ohio State's past 23 games at quarterback. Although the Buckeyes have won games without major contributions from Pryor, the offense will be shaped around him more this fall. He'll need to build off of what he showed on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl against Oregon. Backups Joe Bauserman and Kenny Guiton lack game experience, and Ohio State would need everyone else to step up around the quarterbacks to survive without Pryor.
Penn State: Running back Evan Royster. An experienced running back can be a young quarterback's best friend, and Royster certainly qualifies as a veteran. He has started the past two seasons for the Nittany Lions, racking up 2,405 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. Penn State needs big things from Royster this fall as an inexperienced signal caller takes over for Daryll Clark. Backup running back Stephfon Green has shown flashes, but he lacks Royster's consistency.
Purdue: Defensive end Ryan Kerrigan. We'll find out if running back Ralph Bolden is replaceable this season, but Purdue doesn't want to see anything happen to Kerrigan. The senior is one of the nation's top pass rushers, and he's the most experienced member of a defensive line that loses standout tackle Mike Neal. Kerrigan led the Big Ten with 13 sacks last fall and will make life easier for those around him. Aside from Gerald Gooden, Purdue looks a little thin at D-end.
Wisconsin: Quarterback Scott Tolzien. If Tolzien's value wasn't known after the 2009 season, it became even clearer during spring ball after backup Curt Phillips tore his ACL. Tolzien led the Big Ten and ranked 22nd nationally in pass efficiency (143) last season, completing 64.3 percent of his passes. He limits major mistakes and spreads the ball around well to his receivers. Redshirt freshman Jon Budmayr has talent but lacks game experience and looked shaky this spring. Wisconsin would much rather let Budmayr have more time to prepare.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The real referendum on the Big Ten comes this afternoon and tonight, but the league avoided any setbacks in the early games. Michigan State's Javon Ringer can expect a helmet sticker in his future after rushing for 276 yards and two scores on 43 carries, but defense dominated in East Lansing and elsewhere in the early games.
Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern allowed a combined 10 points in victories. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio has to be thrilled with his defense, which underachieved earlier this year, and Iowa's looked solid protecting the red zone.
Illinois should be a little worried after having to hang on against Louisiana-Lafayette. The defense struggled in the fourth quarter and Juice Williams couldn't find a passing rhythm in the rain. A 3-point win at home could knock the Illini out of the polls.
Surprisingly, the sun is out here at Ross-Ade Stadium, but a strong wind is blowing to the northeast. Could be trouble for Curtis Painter and the Purdue offense. And there's still a chance for thunderstorms. Game-time temperature is 88 degrees (heat index of 92).
I'm no fashion guru, but Oregon's road unis look chic: green pants, white jerseys and white helmets. It's certainly an upgrade from these eyesores. The Ducks coaches look a bit like crossing guards in their bright yellow shirts, but overall, not bad.
The world's largest drum made its appearance with Purdue's marching band. Those guys with conquistador hats ran it around the field. A pretty funny sight.
A couple of depth chart changes for Purdue: