Big Ten Preview: Leaders Division
Two Divisions make up this year's Big Ten football conference. Today I take a look at the Leaders Division. Lots of questions surround this six team division. Can Ohio State overcome the scandal that has plagued the Columbus campus? Can Wisconsin continue to establish itself as an emerging national powerhouse? Can the conference's elder statesman in Joe Paterno find the magic of old to bring Penn State back to national prominence? Check out my team by team synopsis below to see what's in store for 2011.
Bret Bielema may want to go buy a lottery ticket with the luck he's having these days. The Badger's sixth-year head coach went into the offseason trying to figure out who will replace QB Scott Tolzein who graduated last spring. Then, last year's ACC passing leader Russell Wilson fell into his lap. Wilson will run what's sure to be a ball-control offense, but his 8,545 passing yards and 93 TD's at N.C. State are not a coincidence. Wilson can air it out when needed. However, Wisconsin is a smash-mouth football team which looks to dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Gone is senior RB John Clay, but the Badger's have plenty of talent in the waiting. Their version of thunder and lightening are Junior bruiser Montee Bell who had 18 TD's last year and the speedy sophomore James White who averaged 6.7 yards per rush and 14 TD's of his own. Defensively, the Badgers lose J.J. Watt to the NFL but still should bring a formidable run defense to season. Mark the date October 29th on your calendar because the matchup with Ohio State will likely determine the winner of this Leaders Division.
What a difference an offseason can make for a major college football program. Coming off a 12-1 season, 7-1 Big Ten record and 31-26 victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, the Buckeyes program is dealing with NCAA infractions that cost the school its star QB and head coach. Gone are Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor, but new head coach Luke Fickell still has plenty of talent on the Buckeye roster. If predicted starting QB Joe Bauserman can steer the ship, the Buckeyes can make a case for the division title. Ohio State remains one of the most talented teams in the Big Ten but too many off-season distractions and on-the-field changes lead to a second place finish.
Head Coach Ron Zook needs a successful year to keep his job in Champaign. The Fighting Illini are coming off a 7-6 2010 record and only went 4-4 in the Big Ten. But, Illinois looked like a conference contender at times with a high scoring offense and stout defense. Four members of a solid offensive line return, as does sophomore QB Nate Scheelhaase who threw for 1,825 yards, 17 TD's and rushed for 868 yards and 5 more scores. Gone is Mikel Leshoure who broke team rushing records last year. Senior tailback Jason Ford has to step up. Defensively, the are some holes left with players departing to the NFL. The Illini need veteran DB's to step up and solidify a porous pass defense.
Who's going to be the QB of this team? So far, Joe Paterno isn't saying. The competition is between Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin. Both saw game action last year. The good news is that Penn State has a decent receiving corp led by senior Derek Moye and his 16.7 yards per catch. Question marks on the offensive line and in the backfield will leave the Nittany Lions passing early and often. Defensively, they should be one of the better units in the Big Ten if they can stay healthy. But, a brutal November schedule could derail this team with matchups against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Oh yeah, don't forget about meeting with SEC power Alabama two weeks from now.
Kevin Wilson takes over a Hoosiers program that was 1-7 in the Big Ten. The former Offensive Coordinator at Oklahoma is an offensive wizard but his task is tall. The Hoosiers lost their top three offensive weapons from last year including senior QB Ben Chappell. But, Indiana returns 9 men on offense and 6 on defense. The offensive line should be a strength but young backs Nick Turner and D'Angelo Roberts have to step up. The Hoosiers pass defense needs to improve especially with with road trips to Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa.
A school known for developing NFL QB's has big question marks at that position heading into 2011. Rob Henry and Robert Marve have knee injuries. QB's Caleb TerBush and Sean Robinson have to take the reins. RB Ralph Bolden is returning from a knee injury and will need to regain his breakaway speed to take some pressure off the QB's. The Boilermakers schedule is reasonable and their defense returns 9 starters from last year. But, those returning guys need to play better as a unit especially now that All-American DE Ryan Kerrigan is gone to the NFL. Too many questions at key positions leave the Boilermakers at the bottom of the Leaders Division in 2011.