by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor


1. NEBRASKA (2012 SUR 10-4, PSR 7-7)...It's fairly evident that Nebraska should have the best attack in the Legends Division in 2013. Multi-threat QB Taylor Martinez is primed for his fourth year as the Cornhusker regular, and he’s coming off a season in which he threw for 2,871 yards and ran for 1,019 more. His work on his throwing motion and accuracy paid off last season, as he went from completing 56% as a redshirt soph in 2011 to 62% in 2012. He’s come a long way since arriving in Lincoln in 2009 as a scatterarm, run-first athlete. All of his key receivers return, as jr. WR Kenny Bell (50 catches, 17.3 ypc), sr. wideout Quincy Enunwa (42) and jr. Jamal Turner (32) are in place. That group could be much deeper if redshirt frosh Jordan Westkamp and Alonzo Moore live up to their considerable reputations.

Jr. RB Ameer Abdullah is the latest in a long line of quality I-backs at Nebraska, and his 1,137-yard production and 5.0 ypc gives the Huskers a top-drawer complement to Martinez. The offensive line boasts a couple of 2012 all-Big Ten selections and is pretty deep, so there’s no reason to think Nebraska won’t match last year’s 35 ppg output.

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Now, about that defense. This doesn’t figure to be a vintage group on defense for Nebraska, as few true “blackshirt” players are on hand. Only five starters return, and last year’s crew was battered and bruised on more than one occasion. The Husker “D” couldn’t handle UCLA QB Brett Hundley or RB Johnathan Franklin, yielding 653 yards in a loss at the Rose Bowl in game two on September 8. Ohio State’s Braxton Miller & Carlos Hyde shredded Nebraska for nine touchdowns last October 6. Then there was the way the season ended. A 70-31 woodshed-whipping at the hands of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game (the Badgers ran for 539 yards and eight TDs) followed by a Capital One Bowl fiasco against Georgia (Bulldog QB Aaron Murray threw for 427 yards and 5 TDs). It was enough to leave the Lincoln faithful shaking in their boots.

This season there’s far less experience on defense, so Bo Pelini has stepped in, rolled up his sleeves and devoted much more personal attention to this side of the ball. In 2012, the defense was under the direction of relatively new management, as John Papuchis was in his first season as the d.c., and both the secondary and defensive line coaches were also in their first year at their positions. This season the staff has more experience and, although Papuchis is still the coordinator, Pelini is expected to call the defense personally, as he did successfully in the past at Oklahoma, LSU and at Nebraska before inheriting the HC job.

Coaching tweaks can be effective, but it takes players to make plays. Nebraska will need a full, healthy season from DT Thad Randle, a substantial contribution from ex-juco LB Zaire Anderson (started 1 game last year before a knee injury finished his season), and solid performances from a trio of redshirt freshmen moving into starting roles on the defensive side of the ball in order to return to the Big Ten title game.

However, in this age of video-game football, maybe Martinez & Abdullah might generate enough offense to outscore what appears to be a much softer schedule in 2013.

2. MICHIGAN STATE (SUR 7-6, PSR 5-8)...Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State team underachieved last season due mainly to an inexperienced receiving corps that had a case of the dropsies. Dropped passes retarded the maturation of QB Andrew Maxwell, who had the lowest completion percentage in the Big Ten. Consequently, the offense leaned heavily on RB Le’Veon Bell, who took his talents to the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers rather than return to complete his eligibility. A rash of offensive line injuries resulted in the Spartan attack sinking to 10th in the conference in scoring. Defensively, it was a different story, as d.c. Pat Narduzzi’s defense led the Big Ten in all major categories and ranked fourth in the nation in total defense. The Spartan’s best defender, DE William Gholston, also left for the NFL a year early. All that being said, we believe MSU will push for a spot in the Big Ten title game this season.

First, entering fall camp, the offensive line is healthy, as left tackle Fou Fonoti’s broken foot and C Travis Jackson’s broken leg have healed. Last year this unit also had to patch less-serious injuries to guards Blake Treadwell and Dan France and, as a result, is a significantly deeper unit this season. With a year of starting experience under his belt, Maxwell should improve significantly, and he’ll have to, as the competition will be breathing down his neck. Soph Connor Cook (led bowl-winning scoring drive in 17-16 win against TCU LY), highly-touted RS frosh Tyler O’Connor and dual-threat incoming frosh Damion Terry are all chomping at the bit.

The receiving corps is unlikely to have the same magnitude of problems with dropped passes this season after gaining a full year of experience. Sr. Bennie Fowler (41 recs.), jr. Keith Mumphery (42), soph Aaron Burbridge (29 catches as a true frosh LY) and jr. Tony Lippett (36) give MSU four solid threats from the wideout position.

The offense should get a lift from the mild coaching shakeup Dantonio instituted on that platoon, as he hired ex-Ohio State assistant Jim Bollman as co-offensive coordinator along with Dave Warner, who was promoted internally. Replacing Le’Veon Bell, who was responsible for 92% of MSU’s rushing yardage last season, will be a bit of a challenge. That being said, RB is a position where true frosh often step in successfully, and Dantonio has a pair for recruits that might fill the bill in Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams. In addition, 240-lb. Riley Bullough converted from linebacker and could contribute as a “thunderbolt” back. Speedy RS frosh Nick Hill and jr. Jeremy Langford will get carries as well. Whether it’s from a committee of running backs or an emerging star, the Spartans will likely exceed last year’s 152 ypg on the ground, which only ranked 7th in the conference despite Bell’s best efforts.

Defensively, the outlook is rosy. With seven regulars returning, Narduzzi’s crew has a legitimate shot to lead the Big Ten defensively for the third straight year. There are a handful of future NFL draftees in the back seven of the defense in sr. LB Max Bullough (111 tackles; 1st team all Big Ten), LB Taiwan Jones, S Isaiah Lewis (preseason All-American) and CB Darqueze Dennard (projected first-rounder). Although it will be difficult for the defense to continue a trend that’s seen it give up fewer points each of the last three seasons, if the pass rush picks up Narduzzi’s “D” should hold foes below 20 ppg for the third straight year.

MSU lost five games by a combined total of 13 points and won four by four points or fewer, so the Spartans’ volatility rating was high in 2012. Interestingly, Dantonio is 11-3-1 as a road favorite since moving to East Lansing from Cincinnati, but his Spartans were 0-7 against the points at home last season. Anticipating a step up in QB production might be a bit dicey, but the rock-ribbed defense and deep, experience offensive line make this edition of the Spartans look like an undervalued stock. Buy!

3. MICHIGAN (SUR 8-5, PSR 6-7) ...The staff at TGS has been around the block enough times that we rarely give in to hype tossed about by local scribes or SIDs, but Brady Hoke might have something cooking in Ann Arbor. Wolverine QB Devin Gardner, who was granted an extra year of eligibility for his injury-shortened 2010 campaign, will be in the saddle for the next two years, that is unless the pros come calling. Gardner has been drawing comparisons (conditional comparisons, but comparisons nonetheless) to ex-Baylor star RGIII. Closer examination might indicate this bit of hyperbole might not be totally off base. Gardner showed he was a multi-talented athlete last year by starting the first four games last season at wide reciever, catching four TD passes in his first five games in that spot. Hoke then moved since-graduated star Dennard Robinson out from behind center and Gardner into the starting QB postion. Gardner threw for 1,219 yards (244 ypg passing) and 11 touchdowns in five games and impressed with his accuracy and elusiveness. While he doesn’t have nearly the sheer speed of RGIII, Gardner has tremendous upside and could rapidly develop into one of the most potent weapons in the Big Ten.

Hoke has his best team this season. That claim comes despite the fact the Wolverines are returning just 12 starters, and lost defensive lynchpin LB Jake Ryan (led team in tackles, sacks, forced fumbles, etc.) to an offseason ACL injury that will keep him out until at least October. Hoke has his best team because he’s hit the recruiting trail hard the last two years. Consider The Wolverines lost backup QB Russell Bellomy to an ACL tear in spring. Originally he was searching for a juco or graduate student to transfer in as an insurance policy for Gardner. After getting a closer look at what’s out there, he deduced incoming true frosh Shane Morris was the best option in case of emergency. The Wolverines attracted the top tailback in the country in the person of Derrick Green, and he’ll have a chance to play right away in Ann Arbor despite the fact that Michigan has a 1,000-yard back (Fitzgerald Toussaint) chomping at the bit to return after an injury-shortened 2012. At WR, Hoke has returning regular contributors at both WR (Jeremy Gallon; 49 recs., 17 ypc), slot (sr. Drew Dileo; 20) and TE (soph Devin Funchess; team-high 5 TD catches), but onlookers can’t wait to see 2012 recruits Amara Darboh, Jehu Shesson and Dennis Norfleet get a chance to catch and run in the fall.

Hoke’s specialty is the offensive line, and this season’s edition has a pair of dynamite tackles including LT Taylor Lewan, who was expected to go in the first round of the NFL draft had he not decided to complete his eligibility at Michigan. The center of the line will be anchored by more of the 2012 recruiting class, but it doesn’t appear to be a worry.

Defensively, some shuffling at linebacker will be necessary, but improvement in other areas will come quickly. The defensive line should get a lot more pressure on opposing QBs from super-quick DE Frank Clark, and the secondary will have experience at all four spots if jr. Blake Countess can return to form after suffering a season-ending injury in the opener against Alabama last season. And, just for good measure, the Wolverines have the best pair of kickers in the league in PK Brendan Gibbons (made 29 of his last 35 including his last 13 FGs) and all-conference punter Will Hagerup.

Hoke’s Wolverines are a perfect 14-0 SU at “The Big House” since he took charge (8-5-1 against the number), and the road slate is considerably easier than a year ago, when they traveled to play ‘Bama, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. If they can balance the turnovers (nine more giveaways than takeaways last season), a double-digit win total should be within their grasp.

4. NORTHWESTERN (SUR 10-2, PSR 12-1)...Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern have turned the corner on several fronts. The Wildcat defense made a major leap last season, shaving more than 5 ppg off its 2011 allowance and holding foes to just 3.8 ypc while allowing the fewest rushing yards since 2008. Northwestern teams are not known for their defense, especially against the run, so a 21st-ranked finish against the rush represents a departure from the norm. Much of the credit has to be given to Fitzgerald’s placing emphasis on recruiting speed on that side of the ball, and the stop unit seems to be reaping the benefits. Along with the added speed came aggressiveness, as NU forced 29 turnovers, fueling a +14-turnover count that was the team’s best since the Wildcats were Big Ten champions in 1995.

That unit returns seven starters led by MLB Damien Proby, who led all tacklers with 112 stops and jr. LB Chi Chi Ariguzo (91 tackles; helped force six turnovers), S Ibraheim Campbell (89 tackles, 12 pass breakups), and DE Tyler Scott (a power rusher with 9 sacks LY). The defensive line returns 6 of the top 8 from last year’s rotation and Fitzgerald is very happy with the team’s depth at cornerback. It’s all good.

If the offensive line develops, the attack is going to be one of the more productive units in the midwest. Northwestern has increased its scoring output from the previous season the last four years, and the Wildcats are at least two-deep at all the skill positions. Kain Colter (68% passing; 894 YR) and Trevor Siemian (59%, 1,312 YP LY) shared the QB position, with o.c. Mick McCall often putting them on the field together. RB Venric Mark had 1,366 YR, averaging 6.0 ypc and was named to several All-America teams as a return man. The diminutive (5-8, 175-lb.) Mark piled up 105 ypg rushing despite being knocked out of three games. Mark is backed up by Mike Trumpy, a senior and ex-starter who’s averaged 4.7 ypc in gaining 1,061 yards rushing during his injury-shortened career. Christian Jones (35 catches), Rashad Lawrence (34) and and Tony Jones (29) are a trio of reliable wide receivers and slot Dan Vitale caught 28 balls in 10 starts as a true freshman last season. Showing the unique nature of Northwestern’s zone-read run option offense is the fact that Colter, Mark and Trumpy combined for 44 receptions in ‘12.

The offensive line had a rough spring, as a pair of potential starters (RT Paul Jorgensen and G Matt Frazier) missed workouts with injuries, but third-year soph C Brandon Vitabile has 26 starts in the middle, and LT Jack Konopka (13 starts on the right side last year) should make a seamless transition. Redshirt frosh Ian Park had a great spring and might’ve usurped Frazier’s hold on the starting spot at right guard. Soph G Geoff Mogus is in his third year in the system and was groomed to start this year by appearing in all 13 games last season. If the front fills in, look out.

Last season the Wildcats won 10 games despite returning just 10 starters from 2011, so this should be an up year for Fitzgerald’s crew. The problem is that the schedule will be considerably tougher, as Northwestern draws Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders Division. On the other hand, the Wildcats are at home against Legends foes Michigan & Michigan State after splitting on the road against the Wolverines and Spartans a year ago. Interestingly, after logging a 10-22 spread mark at home in the first six seasons under Fitzgerald, Northwestern was a perfect 7-0 against the points at Ryan Field in 2012 en route to a sparkling 12-1 overall mark vs, the line.

5. IOWA (SUR 4-8, PSR 3-9)...Last season for Iowa can be looked at two ways. One might say the Hawkeyes collapsed down the stretch after a promising 4-2 start, including an upset at Michigan State, losing its last six games to finish 4-8. On the other hand, Iowa lost four games by three points or fewer, and with a key play here and there would’ve been in a bowl game again. Iowa HC Kirk Ferentz seemed confident and cool as always during the spring, and he’s expecting a bounceback season.

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis decided to switch things up a bit in spring after the team lost QB James Vandenberg to graduation. The offensive playbook has been augmented with some in-fad, fast-paced, no-huddle, zone read segments this fall. Vandenberg threw for 5,271 yards and 32 TDs the last two years, mostly out of pro sets. However, Iowa ranked 114th in total offense despite Vandenberg’s contributions in 2012. Thus, some new wrinkles accompany a new QB. The no-huddle looked “awful” at times during the spring according to Ferentz, but at least the Hawkeyes are trying to keep pace with the hybrid offenses that prevail in modern football.

Who will be at the controls when Iowa opens the season August 31 against Northern Illinois won’t be decided until mid-August, according to Ferentz, although speculation is that RS soph Jake Rudock has the edge over both sr. Cody Sokol and RS frosh C.J. Beathard. Be forewarned, none of the three has attempted a pass at this level. Whoever ultimately wins the job will have two of last year’s top three receivers to target, as WR Kevonte Martin-Manley (52 recs.) and TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (45) both return. In addition, RS frosh WR Cameron Wilson made quite a splash in the spring game with 10 catches for 131 yards.

The OL returns three starters, and four others with starting experience to fill in, but some replacements aren’t up to past Iowa standards. In particular soph G Jordan Walsh was manhandled at times in spring work.

In contrast to last season’s injury-plagued disaster at the position, Ferentz likes his returning RBs for 2013. Punishing Mark Weisman (who converted from FB after two games and was sent into the breech) and Damon Bullock combined for 1,328 yards last year and seemed much more confident in spring. The return to health of RS soph Jordan Canzeri, who was out all of last season, coupled with the development of a pair of RS frosh (Barkley Hill and Michael Malloy) have created added depth at what was an extremely thin area last year. That depth allowed Ferentz to toy with the idea of moving Bullock to WR in order to afford more play-making opportunities for him.

The Iowa defense stands a solid chance of improving on last year’s 33rd spot in scoring defense (49th in total “D”). The Hawkeyes are blessed with a dynamic trio of returning senior starters at linebacker who ranked 1-2-3 on the team in tackles, combining for 332 stops. Anthony Hitchens, MLB James Morris and Christian Kirksey will be a difficult group to penetrate. Outstanding cover corner B.J. Lowery leads a group of three returning regulars in the secondary. The pass defense ranked 44th last year, remarkable considering that Iowa got very little pressure on opposing QBs (113th in sacks). Returning starting DE Dominic Alvis (3 sacks, only 1 QB hurry) is the top pass-rusher on paper. Last season DT Louis Trinca-Pasat’s job was basically to keep opposing offensive linemen from getting at the linebackers.

Last year’s 4-8 straight-up record and 1-6 mark as a favorite were not the norm for Iowa under Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes are 100-74 in 14 years on his watch, and he’s taken the team to 10 bowl games, including four straight from 2008-2011 (3-1 SU in that recent run). That being said, the truth is Iowa lags far behind the Big Ten upper crust in recruiting, and until that changes, double-digit wins in a season (of which the Hawkeyes have had one in the last eight years) will be scarce. The move to spice up the attack is admirable, but it might be a bit like getting new tires and a fresh set of spark plugs for a ‘96 Dodge Caravan...it’s still a ‘96 Dodge Caravan.

6. MINNESOTA (SUR 6-7, PSR 6-7)...Last season was head coach Jerry Kill’s second at Minnesota, and the Gophers made progress. Minny started 4-0 and finished at 6-6, just enough to get Kill’s team back into a bowl (a Kill priority) for the first time since 2009. Kill has a history of building teams quickly, as his teams at Saginaw Valley State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois went a combined 27-8 straight-up in his third season in charge.

The Gopher offense returns 10 starters, but the attack has a long way to go. Kill’s attack ranked 105th in passing in 2012, after scoring just 18 ppg in his first season with the team in 2011. The passing game starts with soph QB Philip Nelson, who started seven games a year ago as a true frosh, but had very limited success, throwing for 873 yards, completing just 49% with 8 TDs and 8 interceptions. Nelson, who rushed 69 times for 184 yards, dropped 10 pounds between the end of last season and the end of spring football, gaining speed and mobility. He was the most effective QB in the spring, completing his first 10 passes in the spring game. The coaching staff is confident 6-4, 233-pound soph Mitch Leidner can play in the Big Ten as well. Leidner was a drop-back passer in high school, but he’s adapted to the Gopher offense and is just as fast as Nelson.

If the passing game is going to improve, Minnesota needs to have some playmakers step forward at wide receiver. Graduated QB-turned-WR MarQueis Gray and WR A.J. Barker were the most dynamic playmakers on offense for the Gophers last season, so the search was on for replacements in the spring. Jr. Isaac Fruechte (19 recs., 2 TDs last season) and Derrick Engle (18 catches, 20.8 ypc) will get their number called a lot more in the fall, but there’s doubt the offense can stretch the field adequately with just those two. RS frosh Jamel Harbison looked as if he could fill the role during spring work, provided the knee injury that forced his redshirt last season has healed. He indicated he was healthy during spring, although classmate Andre McDonald (10 catches LY) was on the sidelines watching the spring game but not enrolled in school due to a personal matter at the time.

The running game should be improved, as the injuries that forced younger Gophers into action last year have resulted in much more depth in that unit for 2013. The first group is very capable of giving 223-lb. jr. Donnell Kirkwood (926 YR, 4.2 ypc LY) and soph Roderick Williams (235-lbs., 261 YR, 4.6 ypc as a true frosh) enough room to move the chains against most offenses. Kirkwood & Williams are bruisers, but the attack could use a speed back, and the most likely candidates are incoming frosh Berkley Edwards (first-team all-state in Michigan) and RS jr. Cole Banham (ex-Mankato St. transfer), both more scatbacks, going around 5-9, 189-lbs. each.

Kill has made a significant impact on the defense in his first two seasons at Minnesota. In 2010 (before Kill) the Gophers ranked 98th in points allowed, giving up 33 a game. Last season they gave up 24.7 ppg, ranking 43rd, and the pass efficiency defense improved to 23rd from 113th in ‘10. The defensive line needs to put more pressure on opposing QBs. Although that unit lost its top sack man to graduation, the other three starters return. The secondary likewise has some holes to fill, as CB Troy Stoudermire, the team’s top tackler, and CB Michael Carter (top interceptor) are both gone, and LB Mike Rallis (2nd) is gone as well. Replacing these defensive contributors will be a true test of Kill’s rebuilding ability. Fifth-year sr. DT RaSheed Hageman (6-6, 311; 6 sacks LY) has the potential to be an overpowering presence, LB Aaron Hill had 74 stops LY and safety is stacked with Derrick Wells (69 tackles), Cedric Thompson and Brock Vereen (all three had 2 ints. LY). Overall, however, the Gopher defense is bigger, deeper and more athletic in Kill’s third season.

While it’s obvious Kill has made a difference while with the Gophers, how much has really changed? Let’s remember the Gophers went to nine bowl games in the period from 1999-2009 under Glen Mason and Tim Brewster before Brewster crashed and burned in 2010. Minnesota has won more than eight games once since 1905, so perhaps there is a definite ceiling on Gopher success that might just be built in to where they stand in the recruiting pecking order. Kill has managed to finish 2-6 in the conference both seasons, beating Iowa, Purdue and Illinois (twice), so he’s yet to get the scalp of any of the “haves” of the Big Ten.


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