Big Ten deep but lacks BCS title contender
The bowl season exposed the Big Ten as a league that lacked depth. Spring ball suggested things could change in 2011.
The Big Ten should have quite a few good teams this season. Nebraska enters the conference after recording back-to-back 10-win campaigns. Teams such as Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa have established consistent success. The arrow could be pointing up in places such as State College, Evanston, Ann Arbor and Champaign. And until the results change on the field, Ohio State is Ohio State.
So here's the problem: There might not be a great team among the cluster of potentially good ones.
Absent from the past three BCS National Championship games, the Big Ten lacks a bona fide title contender coming out of the spring. League commissioner Jim Delany and others acknowledge that leagues are judged by national titles, and right now the Big Ten doesn't look as if it will be competing for one.
Every good team in the Big Ten wears some warts coming out of spring.
A cloud of uncertainty hovers above Ohio State, and it has little to do with who will replace quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other players during the first five games of the season. The day before its spring game, Ohio State received a notice of allegations from the NCAA detailing potential major violations committed by coach Jim Tressel. Ohio State self-reported Tressel's transgressions in March, and Tressel increased his suspension to five games to go along with a $250,000 fine. But the prospect of additional penalties from the NCAA is very real. Tressel and top school officials likely will appear before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions on Aug. 12, just weeks before the season.
A Buckeyes team that has dominated the Big Ten under Tressel faces its most difficult challenge during the coach's sparkling tenure. It must block out the distractions and keep the focus on winning. Ohio State also must find early-season substitutes for Pryor, top receiver DeVier Posey and the other suspended players, in addition to replacing quite a bit of production on defense.
Despite all of these hurdles, Ohio State likely will be selected as the Big Ten preseason favorite.
Nebraska enters new waters and is poised to make an immediate splash. The Huskers reportedly think they have a championship-level defense, and players such as defensive tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David make it easy to believe. But the Huskers must make significant upgrades on offense and began the process this spring with mixed results. Although quarterback Taylor Martinez and others drew good reviews in spring ball, Nebraska's offense remains a question mark as an absolutely brutal schedule beckons.
Wisconsin and Michigan State shared the league title with Ohio State in 2010, but the Badgers and Spartans will be challenged to reload, not rebuild. This spring, the Badgers began the process of replacing four All-Americans and All-Big Ten quarterback Scott Tolzien. While Wisconsin should be solid along the offensive line and on defense, the quarterback spot is a concern, after projected starter Jon Budmayr and two freshmen struggled in the spring game. Like Wisconsin, Iowa must replace a group of stars, and while the Hawkeyes seem most comfortable flying under the radar, they need bodies at spots such as defensive line and receiver.
Penn State had a more spirited spring after Joe Paterno challenged the team's toughness. The coaches liked what they saw from top quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin, but the Nittany Lions must upgrade their play on both lines to regain their 2008 form.
Northwestern, Michigan and Illinois return dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks and veteran offensive lines. But all three teams face questions on defense, and in Michigan's case, players are adjusting to a new staff and new systems on both sides.
Purdue coach Danny Hope raved about quarterback Rob Henry and the team's overall speed this spring. The Boilermakers could be a surprise team, but they must replace All-American Ryan Kerrigan and limit the major mistakes that have been their downfall. Jerry Kill and Kevin Wilson set the tone in their first springs at Minnesota and Indiana, respectively, but both coaches face significant rebuilding jobs.
The spring provided clues the Big Ten will be good league in 2011. And while the league should avoid another early January disaster, it has a lot of work to do in the coming months to send a team to the Big Easy on Jan. 9.
What we learned this spring
Spring football in the Big Ten is in the books, and it's time to study up.
Here's a look at what we learned in the Big Ten's spring session:
1. Buckeyes' reign in jeopardy: The situation involving the NCAA and coach Jim Tressel could have crippling ramifications for the Big Ten's flagship program. Ohio State also faces significant personnel challenges, as it must replace starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four others for the first five games. No quarterback separated himself this spring, and while freshman Braxton Miller enhanced his popularity in the spring game, the race is far from over. If Ohio State can survive this mess to win another Big Ten title, it can overcome just about anything.
2. Nebraska enters the conference as an immediate contender: Both divisional races could be wide-open this fall, as all the Big Ten's projected contenders have significant question marks. New member Nebraska might have the most stable situation coming out of the spring. The Huskers boast the Big Ten's most proven defense, which should pay dividends in a potentially offense-driven league in 2011. Although the Huskers' new offense has plenty to prove, the personnel is there, especially at the skill positions.
3. The new coaches are spicing things up: Players at Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana exit the spring knowing exactly where they stand with their new coaches. Toughness was a big theme for Brady Hoke, Jerry Kill and Kevin Wilson, respectively, and all three men really challenged their teams. Hoke is trying to bring back the values, both schematic and intangible, that define Michigan football, while Kill and Wilson got their points across with brutally honest assessments of personnel.
4. Answers and lingering questions at quarterback: Several signal-callers emerged to take charge this spring, including Purdue's Rob Henry, Iowa's James Vandenberg and Minnesota's MarQueis Gray. Bo Pelini said Taylor Martinez would be Nebraska's top quarterback if the season began today. Penn State was pleased with its top two quarterbacks this spring, but there's still no answer on a starter. Wisconsin and Michigan need to see summer strides from their projected starters, while Ohio State and Indiana will look for separation in August.
5. Defensive replacements emerge for Badgers, Spartans: Reigning co-champs Wisconsin and Michigan State had to replace significant production on defense from 2010. So far, the coaches like what they've seen. Bret Bielema reportedly thinks the defense can be just as good if not better than last year's unit, led by All-American J.J. Watt. The Spartans must replace four-year starting linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon but have pointed to increased line depth and the emergence of several talented underclassmen.
Best of spring
As we put a bow on spring football in the Big Ten, here's a look back at several things that stood out from the past few weeks.
Best comeback: Michigan State offensive lineman Arthur Ray Jr., who beat leg cancer at the start of his college career, got the green light April 8 to practice with his teammates for the first time. Ray had been cleared in the winter but needed the go-ahead from the NCAA. "It was great, one of the best days of my life," Ray told ESPN.com.
Best hype-building performance:: Ohio State freshman quarterback Braxton Miller won over a chunk of the Buckeyes' faithful at the spring game by leading three scoring drives and completing 7 of 12 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. The Buckeyes saw little separation among the men vying to replace Terrelle Pryor for the first five games, but Miller remains right in the mix.
Top flip: Nebraska freshman receiver Jamal Turner flipped into the end zone after scoring an electrifying 49-yard touchdown catch and run in the spring game. Sure, he drew a penalty, but it was fun to watch. Turner starred in the game with four receptions for 93 yards to go along with returns of 59 yards (punt) and 54 yards (kickoff). Turner finished with 228 all-purpose yards.
Top T-shirt: New Minnesota coach Jerry Kill introduced the "Minnesota Loafer" T-shirts, worn by players who missed a class, showed up late to a workout or erred in some other way. The front of the shirt reads: "I let my teammates down." The back: "Minnesota Loafers." All the lettering is pink. "That brown shirt with those pink letters doesn't look too good," Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray said.
Best quarterback race: Several teams ended the spring with no clear No. 1 quarterback, while others had players take charge (Purdue's Rob Henry, Iowa's James Vandenberg). Penn State didn't name a starter before spring ball concluded, but the coaches were pleased with Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin throughout the session. Bolden and McGloin not only looked more comfortable in the offense but displayed the type of leadership Penn State lacked in 2010. "As far as the quarterbacks, I think we're in good shape," coach Joe Paterno said.
Best position switch: Turner's move from quarterback to receiver certainly seemed to work out well. Michigan's Cameron Gordon was on the move once again, this time to linebacker, and like last spring, he drew impressive reviews. Michigan State's Dan France switched from defense to offense and landed the starting left tackle position.
Best two-way performer: Michigan State's Tony Lippett generated a ton of buzz this spring, as he played both cornerback and receiver. The Spartans' coordinators are fighting over him, and a near roster switch in the spring game draft caused uproar. Expect the redshirt freshman to see the field a lot this fall.
Best quote: "Like Mickey told Rocky, 'The worst thing that can happen to a fighter is to get civilized. You've got to get back to old school.' In my opinion, we've got to get back to a little bit of old school. That's what we've got the rest of spring practice to do." -- Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, on the team's linebackers
Best fashion revelation: New Michigan coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com that he never wore red, "Ohio's color," when he coached at both Ball State, his alma mater, or at San Diego State. Cardinal is one of Ball State's school colors, and red is one of San Diego State's. "People understood," Hoke said. "They got the message, I guess. Right, wrong or different, that's me."
Big Ten Players To Watch
Team-By-Team Spring Reports
Indiana: Multiple players stepped up for an IU defense that needed a big upgrade. For more on the Hoosiers, click here.
Michigan State: An emerging D-line will help as the Spartans search for linebacker answers. For more on the Spartans, click here.
Northwestern: The Wildcats found some depth on defense and a No. 1 running back. For more on Northwestern, click here.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes leave spring still searching for the right replacements. For more on the Buckeyes, click here.
Penn State: Spring practice didn't end the QB decision subplot in Happy Valley. For more on the Nittany Lions, click here.
Wisconsin: Who will step up and make plays for the Badgers on defense this season? For more on the Badgers, click here.
Big Ten Games To Watch
Post-Spring Power Rankings
1. Ohio State: The off-field distractions and the early-season absences could derail the season, but the Buckeyes still have the personnel to continue their Big Ten dominance. Despite the loss of seven starters, the defense still figures to be among the nation's best, as Etienne Sabino and others stepped up this spring. Quarterback is certainly a concern for the first five games, but Ohio State likely will be able to survive, thanks to the run game, defense and special teams -- classic TresselBall.
2. Nebraska: This is a supremely confident defense, and for good reason. Nebraska coaches and players firmly believe they'll have a championship-level defense in 2011, and the return of stars such as Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard back up their claim. The revamped offense doesn't need to be overpowering, just not lifeless, as it was late last season. The coaches seemed pleased with quarterback Taylor Martinez's play this spring. Nebraska's running attack should thrive behind Rex Burkhead and others.
3. Michigan State: It's a close call between the Spartans and Wisconsin for this spot, but Michigan State gets a slight edge because of a more stable quarterback situation. Despite some hiccups in the spring scrimmages, Kirk Cousins should have a strong senior season. The defensive line built depth in spring ball, as players such as Anthony Rashad White and William Gholston took steps forward. The big question is how quickly a new-look offensive line can come together.
4. Wisconsin: There's no reason to worry about the run game or the offensive line, and coach Bret Bielema doesn't expect a drop-off on defense. The uncertainty here rests at quarterback. Scott Tolzien proved that despite Wisconsin's running identity the team needs an efficient and effective triggerman. Jon Budmayr will be the starter but needs to show greater consistency than he did this spring. The season-ending loss of Curt Phillips thins the depth at quarterback.
5. Penn State: I'm buying into the Nittany Lions in 2011, at least for now. Joe Paterno challenged his team to get tougher this spring, and the players responded with a more spirited session. Linebacker should be a major strength, and I like the potential at spots such as wide receiver, cornerback, running back and safety. The quarterback competition is a big question going forward, but Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin drew favorable reviews this spring. If the two lines get better during the summer, Penn State should have a solid team.
6. Northwestern: It was tough to get a full read on the Wildcats because All-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa didn't participate in most drills this spring and several other key contributors were held out as the coaches took no chances. Receiver will be a major strength, as Charles Brown stepped forward this spring, and the coaches see increased athleticism at linebacker and in the secondary. There's no reason why Northwestern's offense shouldn't be one of the Big Ten's best, but the defense still has much to prove.
7. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz and his staff have some holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but Iowa could be a sleeper team this fall in the Big Ten. Junior James Vandenberg solidified himself as the No. 1 quarterback; running back Marcus Coker built on his strong bowl performance; and Keenan Davis emerged as a potential No. 2 receiver. There are question marks at all three areas on defense, and I'm interested to see how things shake out in the secondary.
8. Michigan: Most players are responding well to the new staff, and Michigan is avoiding the turmoil that took place the last time it went through a coaching transition. The defense should improve under Greg Mattison, especially up front, where there's experience with Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh. There will be some growing pains on offense, as we saw in the spring game, and it's unrealistic to expect Denard Robinson to replicate his 2010 production. The summer will be huge for the Wolverines.
9. Illinois: I'm tempted to put Illinois higher, as I think when the Illini get healthy they'll be a solid offensive team. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's spring progress was encouraging, but the Illini still need a No. 1 running back and more reliable options at receiver. The defense will feel the losses of Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson, but I like the depth in the secondary. If the front seven can solidify this summer, Illinois can make some noise in 2011.
10. Purdue: The Boilermakers have playmakers on both sides of the ball. It remains to be seen whether they can come together and form a more consistent, less mistake-ridden team this fall. Rob Henry emerged this spring as Purdue's top quarterback and offensive leader, but he might have to win the starting job again this summer, when Robert Marve re-enters the mix. Cornerback Ricardo Allen leads a potentially dynamic secondary, but Purdue has questions at defensive end, linebacker and receiver.
11. Minnesota: New coach Jerry Kill made his demands crystal clear this spring, and we'll now see how many players are up to the task. Kill said Minnesota must get a lot tougher, a process that typically takes a season or two to fully sink in. Quarterback MarQueis Gray drew favorable reviews and established himself as the leader of the offense, and the linebackers should be a strength this fall. Many question remain, however, especially along both lines and at receiver.
12. Indiana: This spring, Kevin Wilson and his assistants provided the type of spark Indiana needs, but it will take some time for things to click on the field. The wide receivers look solid, as Kofi Hughes, who had a strong spring, adds to a deep group. There are some playmakers in the defensive front seven, but Indiana has a lot to figure out before Sept. 3, starting with the quarterback position. The Hoosiers also need more running backs and secondary help.
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