Big Ten Preview: Legends Division
As the college football season gets underway this weekend, the oldest Division I college football conference in the nation adds a powerhouse program with a long history of winning. The Big Ten has added the Nebraska Cornhuskers and their five national championships to the conference this year. The addition means the twelve teams will be split into two divisions, the Legends Division and the Leaders Division. It also means for the first time, the Big Ten will hold a conference championship game at the end of the season. Today I'll take a look into the Legends Division followed up by my prediction tomorrow for the Leaders Division.
The Cornhuskers are the obvious favorite to win this division. Head Coach Bo Pelini is in his fourth year at Lincoln and boasts a 30-12 record. Sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez should improve on his up and down fist year and brings a dynamic rushing ability to the offense. The famed "Blackshirts" defense will be as good as ever despite recent defections to the NFL. DT Jared Crick and LB Lavonte David are on the All-America watch list.
The Spartans are led by fifth-year senior Kirk Cousins who may be the best pure passer in the conference. It also helps having the top returning rusher from the Big Ten in Edwin Baker. Head Coach Mark Dantonio is coming off a 7-1 conference record but lost critical players on what was a top notch defense. The Spartans should finish second in the division if young players can step up and fill the holes defensively.
It's not often when a first-year coach has a make or break year, but that's what Brady Hoke could be facing in Ann Arbor. Hoke will bring a much-needed kick in the pants to the conference's worst defense, but the question will be how he'll use "superfreak" QB Denard Robinson. Hoke threw out the spread offense that allowed Robinson to run ragged over Big Ten defenses and is asking him to pass more this year. Will Robinson be able to put up anything close to his 32 TD's last year? He'll have to if Big Blue plans to finish in the top three of the Legends Division.
How do you put a glorified Ivy-League school ahead of a storied football program like Iowa? Because of returning senior QB Dan Persa. Persa threw for nearly 2,600 yards and 15 TD's before rupturing his Achilles tendon with three games remaining. He also rushed for 519 yards and 9 more scores last year. But, can Persa regain his pre-injury form in 2011? Coach Pat Fitzgerald is counting on it. The Wildcats should be fine offensively but must improve a weak pass rush.
QB Ricky Stanzi is gone and several members of a top rushing defense are also gone including All-American DE Adrian Clayborn and All-Big Ten selections Karl Klug and Jeremiah Hunter. And, DT Christian Ballard is making a name for himself on the Vikings roster this year. That's a lot to replace in 2011. Junior QB James Vandenberg takes over the offense and has game experience from when Stanzi got hurt in 2009. RB Marcus Coker has to show his 219-yard Insight Bowl performance was not a fluke and that he can replace dismissed RB Adam Robinson on a full-time basis. It will be a down year for Kirk Ferentz' Hawkeyes in 2011.
Could it actually get worse than 2010...possibly, but not likely. Head Coach Jerry Kill takes over a program that went 3-9 last year and 2-6 in the Big Ten. The Gophers have a roster of borderline Division I players with only two real stars to speak of. QB MarQueis Gray makes the switch back under Center after playing WR last year. He'll be throwing to the only other known commodity in senior WR Da'Jon McKnight who had 750 yards and 10 TD's last year. If Gray gets into trouble, his tremendous athleticism will provide for some rushing highlights this season, but don't expect miracles. Defensively, the Gophers were absolutely torched through the air last year, but the front seven returns six and can only get better under Coach Kill's direction. Gopher fans will have to hope for an upset or two to even sniff a .500 record in 2011.