Defense will rule in the Big Ten this fall
Written by Matt Pargoff   

One could argue that defense was king in the Big Ten last year. Five teams from the conference finished in the top-20 scoring defenses nationally, with six in the top-20 total defenses. By contrast, Wisconsin was the only Big Ten team in top-25 scoring offenses and the only squad in top-40 total offenses. While that sound like an extreme difference, that disparity between offense and defense may only widen this fall.

Star power and depth of talent

Between the media and conference coaches’ lists, there were 29 offensive players selected as first- or second-team All-Big Ten last fall. From that group, seven players return (24.1 percent), including Montee Ball, Jacob Pedersen and Travis Fredrick of Wisconsin, Rex Burkhead and Spencer Long of Nebraska, Silas Redd of Penn State and Denard Robinson of Michigan.

Redd may not return for his junior year, opting to transfer out, which would leave half of the returning All-Big Ten offensive performers on just one team.

On the defensive side of the ball, there were 31 players selected to the first- or second-team All-Big Ten lists. From that collection of players, 16 return (51.6 percent). Included among that group are Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown of Illinois, Mike Daniels and Micah Hyde of Iowa, John Simon and C.J. Barnett of Ohio State, Kawann Short and Ricardo Allen of Purdue, Chris Boreland and Mike Taylor of Wisconsin, Gerald Hodges of Penn State, and William Gholston, Max Bullough, Johnny Adams, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis of Michigan State.

In addition, there are a lot of very good returning defensive players that did not receive recognition on those lists. Defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins at Ohio State, Akeem Spence at Illinois and Jordan Hill at Penn State are all exceptional talents. In addition, linebacker James Morris at Iowa, safety Jordan Kovacs of Michigan, defensive end Cameron Meredith of Nebraska, cornerback Terry Hawthorne of Illinois and safety Daimion Stafford of Nebraska are likewise excellent players.

Furthermore, there are a large number of young defensive players that have already shown the skills to play at a very high level. Linebacker Jake Ryan and cornerback Blake Countess at Michigan, safety Ibraheim Campbell at Northwestern, defensive end Marcus Rush at Michigan State and cornerback, safety Mark Murphy at Indiana and cornerback Bradley Roby at Ohio State all played at a very high level as freshmen last season.

The same sort of analysis and praise of talent is not possible on the offensive side of the ball within the conference.

Taking a look at some offensive players that did not receive high end recognition, tackle Taylor Lewan and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint of Michigan, quarterback James Vandenberg at Iowa, guard Chris McDonald and running back Le’Veon Bell at Michigan State, and tight end Jake Stoneburner at Ohio State are all excellent players.

There is a major difference in numbers there between identifiable top offensive and defensive players. The bottom line is, right now, the Big Ten has more talent on defense than it does on offense.

Running backs up, receivers and quarterbacks down

The talent at the running back position is as good as ever. Ball at Wisconsin is a clear frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, while Burkhead, Toussaint, Bell and Redd are all exceptional players. James White at Wisconsin could start for most teams in the country. Stephen Houston at Indiana is a promising back, and Donovonn Young at Illinois may be one to watch out for. However, the surrounding talent is lacking. Ball, Burkhead and Redd (if he returns) will each have three new offensive linemen blocking for them.

Furthermore, there are very few passing games in the conference that will be able to keep opposing defenses honest. Because of that, defenses will be able to sell out to stop the run, limiting how well the running back position fairs.

This became very clear to us when earlier this summer we ranked the top wide receivers and quarterbacks in the conference.

Most of the best returning wide receivers are basically system players. Arguably the best physical talent at the position is Keenan Davis of Iowa, but his hands have proven to be less than consistent. There is not a single receiver returning that broke 1,000 yards last season. It is just a very average looking group.

At quarterback, arguably the top returning player is Michigan’s Robinson. But he has proven to be a far more consistent runner than passer. The one true great passing quarterback in the conference is Vandenberg at Iowa. He has the opposite problem from the rest of the conference in that the Hawkeyes are severely lacking at the running back position. Furthermore, he loses his top receiver Marvin McNutt and both starting tackles for protection.

There are some other quarterbacks with a lot of potential, but none that have proven they can play at a consistently high level. The result will be a conference that is heavily focused on running the ball.

On defense, there isn’t such a consistent imbalance that can be exploited each week. Some teams are weak in the secondary, while others may be weak on the line. But there isn’t a true conference-wide weakness like there is on offense. That will ultimately favor defenses.

On the line

Line play is often the deciding factor in the battle between offense and defense, and with experience and physical development being key factors to success, attrition from the previous year is an important measure to consider.

With 12 teams in the conference, there is room for 60 starters on the offensive line. Looking at returning players in the league, the Big Ten loses 30 offensive line starters. A full half of the starters from a year ago are gone.

On the defensive side of the ball, with 48 line positions, only 19 are gone from last fall’s rosters, or 39.6 percent. However, with six of those 19 coming from just Michigan and Iowa’s rosters alone, the rest of the conference actually loses very little at the position.  Those remaining squads lose only 32.5 of their starting defensive linemen.

Random notes of interest

-Five teams in the Big Ten last fall allowed fewer than 20 points per game, with Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Illinois all standing out on the defensive side of the ball. The Spartans and Illini each return eight starters, while Michigan returns seven. Wisconsin and Penn State are harder hit, with the Badgers returning six starters and Nittany Lions just four.

-Only two teams scored more than 30 points per game on offense, with Michigan averaging 33.3 points per game and Wisconsin averaging 44.1 points per game. The Wolverines and Badgers each return six starters on offense.

-While scoring defense was evenly distributed between divisions, five of the top six scoring offenses in the Big Ten last fall were from the Leaders Division.

-Illinois finished the season ranked No. 91 in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 22.6 points per game. However, the season can be broken into two distinct halves for the squad. Starting out 6-0 on the year, the Illini averaged 34.7 points per game. In the final six games of the regular season, Illinois went 0-6 averaging just 11.0 points scored per game. Had they performed at that level for the entire season, they would have ranked 120th in scoring offense nationally out of 120 teams.

-Minnesota and Indiana share the title for worst combination of offense and defense last year. The Golden Gophers finished 12th in the conference in scoring offense at 18.4 points per game and 11th in scoring defense, giving up 31.7 points per game. The Hoosiers finished 10th in scoring offense, putting up 21.4 points per game, while their atrocious 37.3 points allowed per contest ranked 12th.


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