Predicting the Big Ten order: 4-6
Written by Matt Pargoff   

Taking a look at the Big Ten conference for the coming season, we break down each team, now looking at the projected fourth through sixth best. Learn about the star players, challenges and more that each team will face heading into the 2012 campaign.

4. Nebraska
2011 Record: 9-4 (5-3)

Scoring Offense (nat./conf.): 50/4
Total Offense (nat./conf.): 66/5

Offensive Starters Returning (8)
QB Taylor Martinez
IB Rex Burkhead
WR Kenny Bell*
WR Quincy Enunwa
TE Ben Cotton
OG Seung Hoon Choi*
OG Spencer Long
OG Andrew Rodriguez*

Offensive Starters Lost (5)
WR Brandon Kinnie*
FB Tyler Legate
C Mike Caputo
OT Yoshi Hardrick
OT Marcel Jones

Scoring Defense (nat./conf.): 42/7
Total Defense (nat./conf.): 37/7

Defensive Starters Returning(7)
DT Baker Steinkuhler
DE Jason Ankrah
DE Cameron Meredith
LB Will Compton
DB Ciante Evans
DB Daimion Stafford
CB Andrew Green

Defensive Starters Lost (4)
DT Jared Crick
LB Lavonte David
S Austin Cassidy
CB Alfonzo Dennard

Nebraska saw its first season in the Big Ten last fall under head coach Bo Pelini, after making the move from the Big 12. Finishing at 9-4, it was a solid season, and the Cornhuskers return many of the same players that helped them reach that level. Given their struggles against top end competition last fall, it is tough to see Nebraska cracking he top three this year, but they are a legitimate team that will contend for a good bowl game.

Offensive Star: Easily one of the top running backs in the conference, senior Rex Burkhead fit very well in the Big Ten last season, showing off an excellent combination of athleticism and toughness. He broke the 100-yard mark seven times in 2011, which helped him to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and media. On the season, he carried the ball 284 times for 1,357 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and 15 touchdowns. He added 21 receptions for 177 yards and two more scores. He should continue to be the major focal point of the Nebraska offense this fall.

Defensive Star: A junior college transfer, senior safety Daimion Stafford made a quick transition to Big Ten football last fall, starting in all but the Cornhuskers’ first contest. Finishing third on the Nebraska squad with 80 tackles, including three for a loss, he also proved to be an excellent pass defender, breaking up 10 passes. For his efforts, he was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by the media. Senior defensive end Cameron Meredith is also worthy of note after making five sacks last season.

Ready to Surprise: Junior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste began last season playing wide receiver, before making the switch to defense during conference play. Despite his inexperience, he played a critical role in Nebraska’s comeback effort against Ohio State, by making three second half tackles and the interception that set up the Cornhuskers’ go-ahead score. Standing in at 6-3, 215 pounds, he has rare size for a cornerback. As a junior college transfer, last season was his first action at the Division I level and he only started one game for Nebraska. Given the adjustments he made in both position and level of competition last year, he should continue to make strides this fall. With Alfonzo Dennard gone at the cornerback position, Jean-Baptiste will compete with Ciante Evans for a starting role.

The Question Mark: Nebraska must replace three starters on the offensive line, which is never an easy problem to address, but the bigger question mark could be the player directing the offensive behind them. Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez has started each of the last two seasons, and while he has put up a lot of big numbers both passing and running, most of those stats came against the weakest levels of competition. Arguably his only good game against a decent defense last year was in the comeback victory over Ohio State. His incredibly awkward mechanics really limit his development. While Martinez has been working to improve that area of his game, only time will tell if he is successful making the desired progress.

Why They’ll do Worse Than 4th: While the Cornhuskers had a solid season last year, finishing with a 9-4 mark, three of their losses were blowouts, falling to Wisconsin, Michigan and South Carolina by an average score of 41-16. While their surprising loss to Northwestern could be written off as a fluke, their victory over Michigan State the week before could be viewed through a similar lens. The bottom line is, Nebraska had a good solid team last year, but they didn’t really show signs of being an elite team in the conference. They will still be good, but that could leave room for another team to jump ahead of them.

Why They’ll do Better Than 4th: While Nebraska was not an overwhelming force last season, they just found a way to make it work. With the quality of players and coaching staff they have returning, there is no reason to expect that to change. Given that it was their first season of Big Ten competition, they were bound to be going through an adjustment phase. Moving forward, they will have a greater familiarity with the opponents they are facing each week, which should help them find greater success.

5. Ohio State
2011 Record: 6-7 (3-5)

Scoring Offense (nat./conf.): 41/8
Total Offense (nat./conf.): 107/11

Offensive Starters Returning (7)
QB Braxton Miller
FB Zach Boren
WR Corey Brown
WR Chris Fields
TE Jake Stoneburner
OG Jack Mewhort
OG Andrew Norwell

Offensive Starters Lost (4)
RB Dan Herron
OT Mike Adams
OT J.B. Shugarts
C Mike Brewster

Scoring Defense (nat./conf.): 27/6
Total Defense (nat./conf.): 19/5

Defensive Starters Returning (9)
DL John Simon
DT Adam Bellamy
NG Garrett Goebel
DT Johnathan Hankins
LB Storm Klein
S Christian Bryant
S C.J. Barnett
CB Travis Howard
CB Bradley Roby

Defensive Starters Lost (2)
LB Andrew Sweat
S Tyler Moeller

With the off-season firing of Jim Tressel as Ohio State’s head coach last year, the Buckeyes had a down season under the watch of Luke Fickell. While Fickell returns to Ohio State this fall, he will be resuming to his former role as defensive coordinator, making way for new head coach Urban Meyer. After a year away from coaching the game, Meyer takes charge in Columbus as one of the most decorated head coaches in college football. In just six years at Florida, he won two national titles. While Ohio State should not be nearly good enough to compete at that level this year, the Buckeyes can be expected to bounce back strongly from last fall’s disappointment.

Offensive Star: Ohio State fans would love to see sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller fill the role as the team’s star player on offense, but there just isn’t enough evidence yet to say he is ready for that. It is possible – the talent is there – but he was inconsistent as a player last fall and is in the process of learning a new system. As a result, we will highlight senior tight end Jake Stoneburner. It is unclear how he will be used in Meyer’s offense, but the talented athlete has a size/speed combination that creates significant mismatches. It should be expected that he will continue to play a major role. Last season, he only caught 14 passes, but seven of those went for touchdowns.

Defensive Star: Certain athletes can just be described as being “natural football players,” a designation that fits quite well for senior John Simon. Officially listed as a defensive end, he also has played at the tackle spot, where he has found nearly as much success. He is just one of those players that has a nose for a ball and when he’s not making the play, he is often involved in disrupting it. Last season, Simon made 53 tackles, including 16 for a loss and seven sacks, to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors from the conference coaches, along with second team recognition from the media.

Ready to Surprise: Sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier played in all 13 games for Ohio State last fall, but only took on a starting role in the final three contests. He played very well in those games and is projected to be the Buckeyes’ full-time starter this coming season. While he is still a tad bit undersized at 225 pounds, he makes up for that deficiency with excellent speed and athleticism. Despite seeing limited action as a freshman, Shazier made 57 tackles, including five for a loss. He should see a dramatic increase in production this fall.
The Question Mark: The offensive line could potentially pose major problems for Ohio State this fall, with the loss of starting center Mike Brewster and tackles J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams. Given that offense is where Ohio State saw most of its struggles last season, replacing a good portion of the offensive line, while simultaneously adjusting to a new offensive system, will not make things any easier. The Buckeyes plan to move former starting guard Jack Mewhort to the left tackle spot, while the right tackle will be manned by senior Reid Fragel, who spent the last three years playing tight end. It’s not exactly an ideal situation.

Why They’ll do Worse Than 5th: It is difficult to picture Ohio State doing worse than fifth in the conference for a second straight year. If it does happen, it will likely be because of the situation on offense. Aside from the concerns on the offensive line, it is anyone’s guess how well Miller will improve from his freshman season and none of the returning receivers stepped up last year in the absence of the suspended DeVier Posey. Furthermore, projected starting running back Jordan Hall injured his foot in the off-season and will be out of action until the start of September at the earliest.

Why They’ll do Better Than 5th: Despite Ohio State’s struggles last season on offense, they remained fairly strong on the defensive side of the ball. Tressel recruited plenty of talent to Columbus over the years, so there is still plenty there for Meyer to work with. A lot rests on Braxton Miller’s shoulders. He wasn’t ready to start as a true freshman, but that doesn’t mean he won’t improve. If he is able to take the next step in leading the Ohio State offense, given that the defense should still be quite good, then the Buckeyes could jump into contention for the conference title.

6. Illinois
2011 Record: 7-6 (2-6)

Scoring Offense (nat./conf.):
Total Offense (nat./conf.): 85/9

Offensive Starters Returning (7)
QB Nathan Scheelhaase
WR Spencer Harris*
WR Darius Millines
TE Evan Wilson
OL Michael Heitz
C Graham Pocic
OL Hugh Thornton

Offensive Starters Lost (5)
RB Jason Ford
RB Jay Prosch*
WR A.J. Jenkins
OT Jeff Allen
OL Jack Cornell

Scoring Defense (nat./conf.): 15/5
Total Defense (nat./conf.): 7/2

Defensive Starters Returning (8)
DT Akeem Spence
DT Glenn Foster
DE Michael Buchanan
LB Jonathan Brown
LB Ashante Williams
SS Steve Hull
FS Supo Sanni
CB Terry Hawthorne

Defensive Starters Lost (3)
DE Whitney Mercilus
LB Ian Thomas
CB Tavon Wilson

A year ago, Illinois began the season by winning six straight games, the program’s first 6-0 start since 1951. The Illini came crashing back to reality in Big Ten play, however, with a failure to produce offense leading to six straight losses. The horrendous turnaround led to the firing of head coach Ron Zook. Starting fresh with new head coach Tim Beckman, who led an impressive turnaround at Toledo, the Illini still have quite a bit of talent to work with, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They likely won’t challenge the top teams in the conference standings, but they do have the potential to pull off a few major upsets along the way.

Offensive Star: A team captain for Illinois as just a redshirt sophomore last fall, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase combines impressive physical skills with solid passing ability. While both his touchdown totals and rushing production declined from his freshman season, he still managed to complete 63.2 percent of his passes for 2,110 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He led Illinois in rushing as well, with 624 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Scheelhaase was named the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl Offensive MVP after helping to lead the Illini to a 20-14 victory over UCLA.

Defensive Star: Senior cornerback Terry Hawthorne is a player Michigan fans will remember from the 2009 contest in Champaign, where he ran down Roy Roundtree from behind to prevent a touchdown and shift momentum in favor of the Illini. Just a freshman at the time, he has developed into a strong player since then, breaking up eight passes last season and intercepting three. He was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by both the coaches and media in 2011. Hawthorne only slightly edges out linebacker Jonathan Brown, defensive end Michael Buchanan and defensive tackle Akeem Spence as the Illini’s top defender.

Ready to Surprise: Illinois had arguably the two biggest surprise players in the conference last season, with defensive end Whitney Mercilus and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins both coming out of nowhere to perform at elite levels. This year, the player to watch could be sophomore running back Donovonn Young. As just a true freshman last season, he rushed the ball 87 times for 451 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and six touchdowns. Illinois has put together an impressive string of quality running backs in recent years and with Jason Ford graduating, Young appears to be the next player in line to step up.

The Question Mark: What happened to Illinois’ offense last season and can it be fixed? Even with the loss Mercilus and cornerback Tavon Wilson, Illinois should be very good on defense this fall. What will ultimately determine the competitiveness of the squad will be its development on the offensive side of the ball. Last year, Illinois scored 34.7 points per game in its first six contests. That dropped to just 11 points per game in the final six matchups of the regular season. Certainly the improved level of competition contributed to that decline, but such a huge drop off can only occur when multiple factors are involved. Illinois will need to recover on offense to compete in the conference this fall.

Why They’ll do Worse Than 6th: While Beckman had excellent success in turning Toledo around, he is still an inexperienced head coach, with just three years under his belt leading a college program. He does have experience in coaching in the Big Ten as a former Ohio State assistant, but this will be his first time running the show at that level. His first season at Toledo was a rough adjustment, with the Rockets finishing at 3-9. There may be enough talent for Illinois to compete within the conference, but how well players adapt to new systems could make or break this Illini team.

Why They’ll do Better Than 6th: Playing strong on defense can keep a team in just about any game and there is plenty of talent there for the Illinois. There really is not a clear weakness to the Illini defense. While the offense was the weakness that crushed the hope of Illini fans last season, there is certainly a chance for the returning players to improve from that experience. Bringing back a talented quarterback with two years worth of starts under his belt can certainly help in achieving that goal.


Previous Ratings

7. Iowa
2011 Record: 7-6 (4-4)

Scoring Offense (nat./conf.): 58/6
Total Offense (nat./conf.): 76/7

Offensive Starters Returning (6)
QB James Vandenberg
FB Brad Rogers
WR Keenan Davis
TE C.J. Fiedorowicz
C James Ferentz
OG Matt Tobin

Offensive Starters Lost (5)
RB Marcus Coker
WR Marvin McNutt, Jr.
OL Adam Gettis
OL Riley Reiff
OL Markus Zusevics

Scoring Defense (nat./conf.): 46/8
Total Defense (nat./conf.): 60/8

Defensive Starters Returning (5)
DE Dominic Alvis
LB James Morris
LB Christian Kirksey
DB Micah Hyde
DB Tanner Miller

Defensive Starters Lost (6)
DL Broderick Binns
DL Mike Daniels
DL Tom Nardo
LB Tyler Nielsen
DB Shaun Prater
DB Jordan Bernstine
Iowa had a slightly subpar season last fall based on the standards established by head coach Kirk Ferentz. With a number of key losses, the picture doesn’t look much brighter this year. Post-season play should still be expected for the Hawkeyes, but it won’t be one of the top tier bowl games.

Offensive Star: Senior signal caller James Vandenberg is the clear choice as the conference’s top passing quarterback. In his first season as a full-time starter last fall, he completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 3,022 yards, 25 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. The loss of star receiver Marvin McNutt and running back Marcus Coker will not make his job any easier, but Vandenberg is the clear choice as the top returning player for the Iowa offense.

Defensive Star: One of the best run stopping cornerback in the conference, senior Micah Hyde made an amazing 72 tackles last fall. That was actually a slight dip in production from the year before, when he made 82 stops. More than just a good tackler, he also broke up eight passes in 2011, intercepted three and forced one fumble. Possessing the ability to play at either corner or free safety, Hyde earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media last year, gaining honorable mention recognition from the conference coaches.

Ready to Surprise: Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz only started five games last season, but still managed to pull in 16 receptions for 167 yards and three touchdowns. Standing in at 6-7, he has impressive athleticism for his size, and could certainly begin to flourish in an Iowa offense that is excellent at utilizing the position. We are reluctant to start bringing true freshmen into the discussion without seeing them against college competition, but former four-star running back Greg Garmon could also be one to watch out for. If he can stay out of trouble with the law, which he hasn’t so far, there’s an easy path towards playing time this fall.

The Question Mark: Iowa has had terrible luck with running backs over the past several years, with injuries, poor grades, wash outs, early departures to the NFL, run ins with the law and whatever else you can probably imagine. After missing the Insight Bowl for a violation of the Iowa Student-Athlete Code of Conduct, star running back Marcus Coker elected to transfer. Coker had gained the starting position the year before after former star Adam Robinson was kicked off the team for marijuana possession. Coker’s back up heading into last season, Mika'il McCall, broke his leg, was later suspended from the team and then also transferred. As noted, incoming freshman rusher Greg Garmon has already run into problems as well, after recently being arrested for marijuana possession. It’s really anyone’s guess at this point what will happen at the position this fall.

Why They’ll do Worse Than 7th: While it may sound cliché to say that championship teams are built on line play, there’s a reason that clichés like that exist. They’re generally true. Iowa must replace three starters on the defense line and three more starters on the offensive line. That isn’t something that is easy to overcome. Especially on the offensive side of the ball, where there is no clear answer at running back and an immobile quarterback. Realistically though, we don’t expect Iowa to finish any worse than seventh or eighth best in the conference.

Why They’ll do Better Than 7th: Having the top passing quarterback in a conference can count for lot and Iowa is also blessed with some talented pass catchers. Senior Keenan Davis is probably the best athlete among Big Ten receivers. If he can finally put everything together and catch the ball consistently, it would make the Iowa offense much more dangerous. While there are major losses to deal with on the defensive side of the ball, Kirk Ferentz teams have a way of excelling there, even when expectations are not high. Hyde is one of the conference’s best corners and junior linebackers James Morris and Christian Kirksey are both very solid players as well.

8. Purdue
2011 Record: 7-6 (4-4)

Scoring Offense (nat./conf.): 60/7
Total Offense (nat./conf.): 71/6

Offensive Starters Returning (9)
QB Caleb TerBush
RB Ralph Bolden
WR Antavian Edison
WR O.J. Ross
TE Crosby Wright*
TE Gabe Holmes*
RT Trevor Foy
LG Peters Drey*
C Rick Schmeig

Offensive Starters Lost (5)
WR Justin Siller
FB Jared Crank
LT Dennis Kelly
RG Nick Mondek
LG James Shepherd*

Scoring Defense (nat./conf.): 63/9
Total Defense (nat./conf.): 73/9

Defensive Starters Returning (9)
DT Kawann Short
DT Brandon Taylor*
DT Bruce Gaston*
DE Ryan Russell
LB Will Lucas
S Max Charlot*
CB Ricardo Allen
CB Normondo Harris*
CB Josh Johnson

Defensive Starters Lost (4)
S Albert Evans
DE Gerald Gooden
LB Joe Holland
S Logan Link*
Purdue head coach Danny Hope took the Boilermakers to their first bowl game under his watch last year and has aspirations of repeating that accomplishment this fall. While it is far from likely that the Black and Gold will compete with the top teams in the conference, a lower tier bowl game is certainly a reasonable expectation.

Offensive Star: Senior quarterback Caleb TerBush sat out the 2010 season due to academic issues, but claimed a starting role for the Boilermakers last fall. Still splitting time with Robert Marve in 2011, TerBush has further established himself as the starting signal caller since that time and has been elected as a team captain. A year ago, he put up solid numbers, completing 61.7 percent of his passes for 1,905 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He should be able to gain from that experience and further benefit from a reduced role for Marve.

Defensive Star: Senior Kawann Short returns as arguably the top defensive tackle in the conference for the coming season. Last fall he made 54 tackles, including an amazing 17 stops for a loss and 6.5 sacks. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media, with second-team recognition coming from the conference coaches. Honorable mention among Purdue defenders goes to both junior linebacker Will Lucas and junior cornerback Ricardo Allen, who both had excellent seasons last fall as well.

Ready to Surprise: A junior college transfer, running back Akeem Shavers had a solid showing in his first year of Big Ten action last fall, rushing for 519 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and six touchdowns. Given the injury situation at the position, he could be called on to carry the ball quite a bit more this coming season. If that is the case, he has a legitimate chance to break 1,000 yards as a senior.

The Question Mark: Can senior running back Ralph Bolden challenge former Ohio State star Robert Smith as having the most reparable knees in Big Ten history? He’s making a run for it. The small shifty runner tore his ACL in the second-to-last game of his high school career, but had a promising start at Purdue, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore in 2009. The following spring, he tore his ACL again, forcing him to sit out the entire 2010 season. In 2011, he rushed for 674 yards and six touchdowns before yet another ACL tear knocked him out of the lineup. Can Bolden come back from the injury once again? He’s at least giving it a try. How successful that comeback attempt will be remains to be seen.

Why They’ll do Worse Than 8th: While Purdue finished with seven wins last season, it was far from an impressive showing. In fact, it took a shootout victory over Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl to give the Boilermakers a winning record at all. While there are a few good players returning on the defensive side of the ball, the overall talent level in West Lafayette is not particularly high.

Why They’ll do Better Than 8th: The returning starters list at right is somewhat deceptive with so many split starters (mark with a *) listed, but there is quite a bit of experience coming back for the Boilermakers. That experience will help a lot, especially at quarterback. Expect Purdue to be solidly in the running for a lower tier bowl game. If they can catch fire in the final three games against Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, they have a legitimate chance to finish higher in the standings.

9. Penn State
2011 Record: 9-4 (6-2)

Scoring Offense (nat./conf.): 110/11
Total Offense (nat./conf.): 95/10

Offensive Starters Returning (5)
QB Matt McGloin
TB Silas Redd
WR Justin Brown
WR Devon Smith
C Matt Stankiewitch

Offensive Starters Lost (6)
WR Derek Moye
TE Andrew Szczerba
T Quinn Barham
T Chima Okoli
G DeOn’tae Pannell
G Johnnie Troutman

Scoring Defense (nat./conf.): 5/1
Total Defense (nat./conf.): 20/6

Defensive Starters Returning (4)
LB Gerald Hodges
LB Glenn Carson
DE Sean Stanley
DT Jordan Hill

Defensive Starters Lost (7)
DT Devon Still
DE Jack Crawford
LB Nate Stupar
S Nick Sukay
S Drew Astorino
CB D’Anton Lynn
CB Chaz Powell

While the scandal at Penn State is sure to act as a source of distraction during the off-season, that really did not factor into our rankings. When you look at how Penn State barely squeaked out wins last season, teamed with having more losses to graduation than any other team in the conference, plus adjusting to a completely new coaching staff and system under Bill O’Brian, it all just screams “down year.”

Offensive Star: While Silas Redd is far from the biggest or most powerful running back in the conference, the talented junior has plenty of speed and quickness to compensate. Last fall he carried the ball 244 times for 1,241 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns, earning second team All-Big Ten honors from both the conference coaches and media. Moving forward, however, there may be far less room to operate with four new starters on the offensive line.

Defensive Star: Senior Gerald Hodges continues the long Penn State tradition as Linebacker-U, ranking as one of the best in the conference. Earning first-team All-Big Ten recognition from the coaches, with second-team honors from the media, he made 106 tackles last fall including 10 for a loss. While he is certainly a talented player, he is one of only four returning starters on the Penn State defense.

Ready to Surprise: While his accomplishments were somewhat overshadowed by Hodges last season, junior linebacker Glenn Carson also had a solid showing with 74 tackles and two forced fumbles. A former four-star prospect in high school, 2011 marked his first season as a starter. Given the strides he is likely to make from that experience, he could step up as the next star linebacker at Penn State.

The Question Mark: There are more questions at Penn State than there are answers at this point. The defense outperformed the offense in their annual spring game, but it is always tough to draw conclusions from something of that nature. Was the defense good or offense just that bad? We’ll point to the secondary as the biggest question mark though. The Nittany Lions are primed to field four new starters there, and injuries in the spring limited some of the top returning players. The group pulled in three interceptions in the Penn State spring game, but it was mostly walkons that accomplished that feat.

Why They’ll do Worse Than 9th: Penn State won nine games last season by playing great defense, allowing quarterback Matt McGloin to manage rather than win games and by running the football. Keep in mind, of the nine wins, the victories over Temple, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois and Ohio State were each by a single score, along with 10 point victories over Iowa and Northwestern. That is walking a razor’s edge with a pretty bad season. Looking ahead, there are four new starters on the offensive line and a replacement must be found for the team’s top receiver, Derek Moye. So the offense will be even worse. The defense was the one saving grace last fall, and it loses seven starters, including some really good players like Devon Still, Jack Crawford, Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay. Toss in the growing pains of players adjusting to a new staff and the Nittany Lions are primed for a rough season.

Why They’ll do Better Than 9th: Penn State’s schedule sets up very nicely for some early season confidence building of a young team. While the second game of the year at Virginia could be a stumbling block, the first half of their schedule also includes Ohio U., Navy, Temple, Illinois and Northwestern. Furthermore, in Big Ten play, their schedule is free of Legends Division favorites Michigan and Michigan State. That could all translate to six or seven wins on the year. Finally, while Penn State hasn’t recruited great over the last several years, they haven’t recruited poorly either. There will be a lot of new starters, but that doesn’t mean they are devoid of talent.

10. Northwestern
2011 Record: 6-7 (3-5)

Scoring Offense (nat./conf.): 51/5
Total Offense (nat./conf.): 34/2

Offensive Starters Returning (5)
WR Demetrius Fields
WR Christian Jones
OL Brian Mulroe
OL Brandon Vitabile
OL Pat Ward

Offensive Starters Lost (6)
QB Dan Persa
SB Drake Dunsmore
RB Jacob Schmidt
WR Jeremy Ebert
OL Ben Burkett
OL Al Netter

Scoring Defense (nat./conf.): 66/10
Total Defense (nat./conf.): 80/11

Defensive Starters Returning (6)
DL Tyler Scott
DL Quentin Williams
LB Collin Ellis
LB David Nwabuisi
LB Damien Proby
S Ibraheim Campbell

Defensive Starters Lost (5)
DL Jack DiNardo
DL Niko Mafuli
DB Jordan Mabin
DB Jeravin Matthews
S Brian Peters

Pat Fitzgerald’s teams at Northwestern are usually good at finding a way to grind out at least six wins in a season, but with the defense struggling in recent years, the Wildcats may find that to be difficult in 2012. Seeing significant losses on both offense and defense, the coming season will be a major challenge for Northwestern to keep its four-year bowl streak alive.

Offensive Star: Junior quarterback Kain Colter saw extensive action last season as both a signal caller and wide receiver. Starting early in the year for the injured Dan Persa, Colter performed well in a key victory over Boston College. He later moved to receiver, but continued to rotate in for occasional plays at quarterback throughout the season. While he does not possess the same passing skills as Persa, he was effective throwing the ball and is a better all-around athlete. In fact, he finished the season as the Wildcats leading rusher, with 654 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.

Defensive Star: While safety Ibraheim Campbell was snubbed for All-Big Ten consideration last fall, he actually had a very impressive showing, leading the Northwestern defense in stops as just a redshirt freshman. On the season, he piled up an impressive 100 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss. He also intercepted two passes, broke up four more and recovered a fumble. Given that he was just a freshman seeing his first college game action, he should only improve this coming fall.

Ready to Surprise: While this may seem premature, incoming freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo of Centerville, Ohio is one of the highest rated prospects to ever sign with Northwestern. He is still undersized to play at defensive end, but his athleticism will likely earn him early playing time for the Wildcats. Making predictions on freshmen is always a little dodgy, but he should be given an opportunity to make an early impact.

The Question Mark: When followers of Big Ten action think of Pat Fitzgerald coaching, they generally expect to see tough sound defensive football. However, that hasn’t been the case in recent years. Over the last three seasons, the Wildcats have failed to finish in the top 50 scoring defenses nationally. With significant losses on that side of the ball from a year ago, particularly in the secondary and on the line, major adjustments may be needed to return Northwestern to a competitive position within the conference.

Why They’ll do Worse Than 10th: The good news for Northwestern is that Colter returns with plenty of experience at quarterback. The bad news is that he is probably the Wildcats’ best wide receiver. That’s not a combination that works out very well. Not even Denard Robinson can pass it to himself. All kidding aside, Northwestern won’t likely fall below the No. 10 spot in the final standings. They have a decent team that can compete, while the two below them are pretty helpless.

Why They’ll do Better Than 10th: Northwestern has found success over the years as a system team, rather than a program that out-talents the competition. While that has not given them much opportunity to step up to a higher level, the Wildcats have fielded at least a decent team in all but Pat Fitzgerald’s first season. That is likely how it will play out this fall as well. If a team above them falters, it will open the door for the Wildcats to move up.

Key Game: The game at Penn State on Oct.6 could be the swing game in determining if the Wildcats make it to a bowl.
11. Minneota
2011 Record: 3-9 (2-6)

Scoring Offense (nat./conf.): 111/12
Total Offense (nat./conf.): 110/12

Offensive Starters Returning (7)
QB MarQueis Gray
HB John Rabe
WR Brandon Green
LT Ed Olson
RG Zac Epping
LG Caleb Bak
LG Tommy Olson

Offensive Starters Lost (5)
RB Duane Bennett
WR Da’Jon McKnight
TE Collin McGarry
RT Chris Bunders
C Ryan Wynn

Scoring Defense (nat./conf.): 93/11
Total Defense (nat./conf.): 77/10

Defensive Starters Returning (5)
DE D.L. Wilhite
DE Ben Perry
LB Keanon Cooper
LB Mike Rallis
CB Brock Vereen

Defensive Starters Lost (6)
DT Anthony Jacobs
DT Brandon Kirksey
LB Gary Tinsley
CB Kyle Henderson
S Christyn Lewis
S Kim Royston

While 2011 was a rough first season at Minnesota for head coach Jerry Kill, the Golden Gophers did show occasional signs of life, playing tough against Southern Cal and Michigan State, while knocking off Illinois and stunning Iowa. Still, not much is expected of Minnesota this fall, nor should there be.

Offensive Star: After splitting time between quarterback and wide receiver through his first two seasons, MarQueis Gray established himself as the Gophers’ signal caller last fall. While his passing numbers were not great, he is a dynamic athlete who led Minnesota in rushing. On the season, Gray completed 50.7 percent of his passes for 1,495 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. He added 966 yards and six more scores on the ground.

Defensive Star: A high school safety and Under Armour All-American Game participant, fifth-year senior Keanon Cooper found a home at the linebacker position at Minnesota, where he has proven to have an excellent nose for the ball. Racking up 188 tackles in his career, he had his best season last fall. On the year, Cooper made 77 stops, including six for a loss. He also forced two fumbles and recovered one.

Ready to Surprise: It is difficult to put senior cornerback Troy Stoudermire in the “surprise” category rather than listing him as the defensive star, but he seems to have been generally forgotten among Big Ten followers. Already established as one of the elite return men in the conference, he had a solid junior season in 2010 after moving from wide receiver to cornerback. In 2011, he had an excellent start to the year with two interception and three pass breakups in four games, but had his season cut short by a broken arm. Granted a medical redshirt, he could be primed to surprise anyone that has forgotten just how good he was.

The Question Mark: There are a number of areas that appear uncertain at Minnesota, but the biggest concern may well be at the safety position, where the Gophers have to replace two starters. Among the departed players, Kim Royston was a three-year starter and by far Minnesota’s best defender a year ago. How well the replacements step up will play a major factor in the team’s defensive success.

Why They’ll do Worse Than 11th: What happens when you take the worst offense in the conference, one of the worst in the nation, and remove its star running back Duane Bennett and its best receiver Da’Jon McKnight? It’s probably not going to get a lot better. Minnesota’s one saving grace was a defense that kept the Gophers in games against USC, Iowa and Illinois, however, with six starters gone from that unit, there are certainly no guarantees of success on that side of the ball either.

Why They’ll do Better Than 11th: As with any team adjusting to a new head coach, there were some rough spots for the Gophers last fall. Players should make strides as they grow accustomed to the new staff and system. The return of Stoudermire should help not only help the Minnesota defense, but also the special teams units. The Gophers also possess a very solid kicking game, with Chris Hawthorne and Jordan Wettstein both proving to be dependable.
12. Indiana
2011 Record: 1-11 (0-8)

Scoring Offense (nat./conf.):
Total Offense (nat./conf.):

Offensive Starters Returning (7)
QB Tre Roberson
WR Kofi Hughes
WR Jamonne Chester
RB Stephen Houston
C Will Matte
OL Collin Rahrig
OL Bernard Taylor

Offensive Starters Lost (4)
WR Dre Muhammad
TE Max Dedmond
OL Andrew McDonald
OL Justin Pagán

Scoring Defense (nat./conf.):
Total Defense (nat./conf.):

Defensive Starters Returning (8)
DT Larry Black, Jr.
DT Adam Replogle
DE Ryan Phillis
DE Bobby Richardson
LB Chase Hoobler
CB Lawrence Barnett
CB Greg Heban
S Mark Murphy

Defensive Starters Lost (3)
LB Leon Beckum
LB Jeff Thomas
S Chris Adkins
Kevin Wilson returns for his second year as the Indiana head coach after a dismal 1-11 campaign last fall. Things don’t look much better heading into year two. The Hoosiers return a good number of starters, but still lack the talent needed to compete with the middle tier of the conference.

Offensive Star: A former 1,000-yard rusher at the junior college level, Stephen Houston had a strong first season for the Hoosiers last fall. Starting the final eight games of the year, he finished his sophomore campaign with 151 rushes for 802 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns. He was a rare bright spot for an Indiana offense that otherwise struggled.

Defensive Star: A team captain as a junior last fall, defensive tackle Adam Replogle led the way for the Indiana defense. His older brother, Tyler, was a star linebacker for the Hoosiers from 2007-10, and the younger Replogle has continued his legacy at the school. Last season, he made 49 tackles, including seven stops for a loss, four sacks and one forced fumble.

Ready to Surprise: Playing as just a true freshman last year, Mark Murphy started six games at safety and three more games at linebacker. He finished second on the Indiana squad with 76 tackles, intercepting one pass and breaking up four more. He was named to the Yahoo Sports, and Big Ten All-Freshman teams. Indiana’s top returning tackler, the versatile Murphy should improve from the experience he gained last fall.

The Question Mark: While Indiana is actually fairly solid at defensive tackle, the rush defense will face a major challenge in replacing two linebackers, including the team’s leading tackler, Jeff Thomas. Star linebacker recruit Zack Shaw, a rare four-star prospect on the Hoosier’s roster, redshirted last fall, then made the switch to defensive end this spring, providing few answers to filling the vacated position. Indiana will likely find itself counting on untested junior college transfers Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper to play a major role this fall.

Why They’ll Finish Last: Calling Indiana’s defense “terrible” last season would be putting things in too kind of terms. The Hoosiers finished dead last in the conference in rush defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense. Only six teams in the entire nation allowed more than the 37.3 points per game surrenders by the Hoosiers. While Indiana returns a lot of players to that side of the ball, there is no strong indication that they have found a solution to the problem. They really weren’t that great on offense either.

Why They’ll do Better Than 12th: When looking at Indiana, it is difficult to tell if returning a lot of starters is a good thing or a bad thing. Generally speaking though, players do improve with experience. One reason for hope among Hoosiers’ fans is the major move toward recruiting junior college prospects. Indiana signed seven jucos to the 2012 recruiting class. If they are able to provide immediate help, as Houston did last fall, the team could certainly benefit. The Hoosiers also have one of the best kickers in the conference in redshirt junior Mitch Ewald.


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