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Buckeyes Buckeye Archive Big Ten Preview - Legends Division
Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar

GholstonMSU1With the 2012 football season now just a month away, it’s time to roll out the preview of the Big Ten Conference teams, beginning this week with a look at the Legends Division. Last year was an overload of “new” for the Big Ten. It was the first year of the divisional alignment with the catchy division names...the inaugural conference championship game...and a whole new logo. All that to go along with four first-year coaches and a new member school in Nebraska.

Although six time defending champion Ohio State suffered through its worst season in two decades, on balance the conference had to be happy with the results of their new-look league. Wisconsin won the league’s first title game in a 42-39 thriller of a rematch with Michigan State, after the Spartans had prevailed during the regular season in one of the most dramatic finishes in recent memory.

It was something of a surprise that after Big Ten officials took great care to divide the four traditional “power” programs (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska) equally between divisions, it was two teams from what was thought to be the league’s second tier, Wisconsin and Michigan State, that rose to the top to square off in Indianapolis in December.

The balance in the conference that we saw a year ago may be even more pronounced in 2012. Counting the conference championship game, no 2011 team finished the season with less than two losses in league play (although both Wisconsin losses were by game-winning Hail Marys). There does not appear to be one dominant team this year either, although the Badgers clearly have the easiest path to the title game, as both OSU and Penn State are ineligible for any postseason play.

There will be time later on to discuss the competitive balance (or lack of same) between the two divisions of the conference, and the ways in which Penn State’s recent sanctions will have an impact on that balance in years to come. For now though, I don’t think I’d get much of an argument if I said the Legends is the stronger of the two divisions top-to-bottom, as we sit here at the beginning of the 2012 season.

(Incidentally, if you’re still having a hard time remembering which schools are in which division, here’s my memory crutch. Legends is Iowa and all the “M” and “N” schools. The rest are Leaders.)

Rankings Code: PS = Phil Steele’s   Lindy = Lindy’s CFB   Ath = Athlon’s CFB

Link to: Leaders Division Preview


LegendsLogoThe Legends Division

Bunched at the top of the preseason rankings in the Legends are three teams, each with a legitimate shot at the division title. Nebraska, Michigan State and Michigan stand well above the other three teams in the division, although comparatively softer schedules for Iowa and Northwestern could tend to make the gap appear smaller. And Minnesota is probably in the wrong division to climb out of the cellar this season.

It really is a coin flip here at the top, but I’m going with the Spartans, who came through for me as predicted last year, after several seasons of playing the bridesmaid...


MichiganStateLogo31) Michigan State - Coach: Mark Dantonio (6th Yr)   -  2011 Record: 11-3, 7-1

Big Ten Rank: PS: B1GLeg  T#1,  Lindy: B1G  #2,  Ath: B1GLeg  #3
National Rank: PS: #19 , Lindy: #12 , Ath: #18

I’m picking the Spartans to win the Legends for the second year in a row, mostly on the strength of their lines on both sides of the ball. I also think they have a coaching edge on their top division rivals. Dantonio has beaten the Wolverines four times in a row, and has taken his team to five straight bowl games.

Offense: A first year starter at QB usually translates to 1-2 losses in conference, and that could indeed happen to Sparty under junior Andrew Maxwell. His receivers will be equally inexperienced, although freshman Aaron Burbridge could help right away. The offensive line, led by guard Chris McDonald, is arguably the league’s best, and the running game should be solid with Le’Veon Bell (pictured) and Larry Caper rushing. Dion Sims is a breakout candidate at tight end.

LeveonBellMSU4Defense: MSU returns eight starters to a unit that was 1st in the Big Ten in both total defense and rushing defense in 2011. Vernon Gholston (pictured at top) is a physical freak at DE, just beginning to tap his potential, and he’ll be complemented by sophomore Marcus Rush at the other end. In Denicos Allen (11 sacks in ‘11), Max Bullough (89 tackles in ‘11), and Chris Norman (76 tackles, 2 sks), the Spartans are experienced and productive at linebacker. Akron’s Johnny Adams is on everyone’s preseason All-Big Ten team at cornerback, and overall three starters return to the secondary.

Schedule: Early season slate is favorable, as both tough non-conference games (Boise State and Notre Dame) and the conference opener (Ohio State) are at home, but they have a brutal three week stretch in October with back to back road games at Michigan and Wisconsin before coming home to host Nebraska. MSU Roster - MSU Schedule


Nebraskalogo12) Nebraska - Coach: Bo Pelini (5th Yr)  - 2011 Record: 9-4, 5-3

Big Ten Rank: PS: B1GLeg - T#1,  Lindy: B1G  #5,  Ath: B1GLeg  #3
National Rank: PS: #17 , Lindy: #25 , Ath: #14

The Cornhuskers had an up and down season in their first taste of Big Ten football last year, beating powers like Ohio State and Michigan State, but getting drilled by Michigan and Wisconsin, and falling to Northwestern at home. The keys to their 2012 season will be turning around a defensive unit that disappointed a year ago, and getting consistent performances from QB Taylor Martinez.

Offense: RB Rex Burkhead (pictured) is the unquestioned leader on offense, coming off a season with 1357 yds rushing, with 17 total TD’s. The run threat from Martinez (874 yds, 9 TDs) opens it up for Burkhead, and they have good skills on the outside with Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell at WR. Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed are a solid duo at TE. The offensive line replaces three starters, but new starting tackles Tyler Moore and Jeremiah Siries have started games in the past, and join a solid unit.

BurkheadNebraska6Defense: The Husker defense had a tough first year in Big Ten play, finishing in the bottom half of the league stats in just about every category...and they lost their three best defensive players (Crick, David, Dennard). The defensive line returns Eric Martin, Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith, a very capable trio, and Will Compton is back to anchor the LB corps in the middle. The team’s best overall player might be punter/placekicker Brett Maher, who was arguably the best in the conference in both categories a year ago.

Schedule: If they get by UCLA in Pasadena in Week Two, the Cornhuskers will probably open 4-0 before they look for revenge on Sept. 29, hosting a Wisconsin team that dismantled them 48-17 in Madison last year. They’ll be making their first trip to Ohio State since 1956, and will also renew old acquaintances in East Lansing (first since 1995), and Iowa City (first since 1999) Nebraska Roster - Nebraska Schedule


UMLogo23) Michigan - Coach: Brady Hoke (2nd Yr)  - 2011 Record: 11-2, 6-2

Big Ten Rank: PS: B1GLeg - T#1,  Lindy: B1G  #1,  Ath: B1GLeg  #1
National Rank: PS: #22,  Lindy: #7,  Ath: #7

Forgive me if I’m not ready to imbibe of the corn-colored Kool-Aid that has national publications placing Michigan in the nation’s top seven teams. While I’ll be the first to admit that they’re “back”, I see a team that went 11-2 a year ago when everything went right for them, including a down year for the Buckeyes. A much tougher schedule this time around, with some of the same question marks in terms of personnel, combine to make me think this is a 3-4 loss team, and more suited to the Top 25 somewhere than to the Top 10.

RobinsonUM2Offense: QB Denard Robinson (pictured) is the star of this offense, and if he stays healthy and under control, the Wolverines can score points. Starting tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint went from asset to question mark recently with a DUI arrest, and in Ray Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon, the Wolves have good, but not scary starting receivers. Tackle Taylor Lewan is getting lots of preseason love, but this offense begins and ends with Robinson’s dynamic run/pass threat. He passed for 167.5 ypg and rushed for 90.5 ypg a year ago. Their season will hinge on how well his senior campaign goes.

Defense: Michigan’s defense had a remarkable one-year turnaround in 2011 under Greg Mattison, and they have a very strong crop of incoming freshman defenders this fall, especially at linebacker. They’ll be counting on defensive linemen William Campbell, Craig Roh and Jibreel Black to dominate up front, because two of last year’s top three tacklers were defensive backs, and linebacking has been a weak unit for them in recent years. Look for some of the freshman LB’s to play early, or this defense could have problems.

Schedule: An opening day test on a neutral field against defending champ Alabama will tell us a lot about what the Wolverines are made of. Later on they travel to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, but they do avoid Wisconsin, unlike their two primary rivals for the Legends crown.
Michigan Roster - Michigan Schedule


iowa 124x1394) Iowa -  Coach: Kirk Ferentz (14th Yr)  - 2011 Record:  7-6, 4-4

Big Ten Rank: PS: B1GLeg - #4,  Lindy: B1G  #7,  Ath: B1GLeg  #5
National Rank: PS: 38,  Lindy: #41,  Ath: #50

All of a sudden, Kirk Ferentz finds himself the dean of Big Ten coaches, and his Hawkeyes have an outside shot of pulling off an upset or two and finding themselves in the Legends race. They’ll need to find an answer at running back, a perennial source of trouble for them in recent years, and they’ll need to play better defense if they are to improve on a 4-4 conference mark of a year ago. Ferentz has revamped the coaching staff, bringing in new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

VandenbergIowa4Offense: James Vandenberg (pictured) leads the Iowa offense, as he comes off a 2011 season in which he passed for 3,022 yds and 25 TD’s. The revolving door at running back, a function of transfers, injuries and discipline issues may stop with a true freshman Greg Garmon stepping into the role. Marvin McNutt is gone at WR, but senior Keenan Davis (50 rec, 713 yds, 4 TD) should fill the primary receiver spot capably. Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz is as difficult to cover as he is to spell. The coach’s son James is the most experienced O-lineman at center, but the Hawkeyes will be replacing 60% of their line.

Defense: Iowa was in the bottom half of the league’s defensive statistics last year, and they lost two key defensive linemen in Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels. They do have two productive linebackers, as OLB Christian Kirksey and MLB James Morris each racked up 110 tackles in 2011. The secondary features Micah Hyde, an all-conference caliber cornerback, and safety Tanner Miller, who finished fourth on the team in tackles last season.

Schedule: Non-con games against N. Illinois and Iowa St. won’t be walkovers for this young Hawkeye team, but they open B1G play with Minnesota and a bye week, so it’ll be mid-October before it gets tough. They get Nebraska and Penn State at home, and avoid OSU and Wisconsin altogether. Upset one of the two Michigan schools on the road and you never know... Iowa Roster - Iowa Schedule


NWLogo5) Northwestern -  Coach: Pat Fitzgerald  (7th Yr)  -  2011 Record: 6-7, 3-5

Big Ten Rank: PS: B1GLeg - #5,  Lindy: B1G  #9,  Ath: B1GLeg  #5
National Rank: PS: NR,  Lindy: #55,  Ath: #49

Fitzgerald has taken the Wildcats to an unprecedented four bowl games in a row, and his recruiting classes over the last few years have given him his deepest squad ever at Northwestern. But the ‘Cats will have to protect the passer better than they did a year ago, and find a way to keep opposing offenses under 400 yards per game (407.7 ypg in 2011) if they plan to keep on bowling.

Offense: Kain Colter (pictured) takes over for Dan Persa at QB, and he’ll benefit from some good experience as a backup in 2011, completing 67% of his throws (55 for 82, for 678 yds, and 6 TD’s). Demetrious Fields and Christian Jones give him two strong WR targets, and speedy Tony Jones returns after missing the ‘11 season. Jordan Perkins and Malin Jones are two young running backs that could step in and contribute right away for Fitzgerald’s offense, but the offensive line remains a huge question mark for the Cats. They gave up 42 sacks a year ago and lost two key starters. Good thing Colter can run.

CoulterNW3Defense: The Wildcats were dead last in pass defense in the conference a year ago, and safety Ibraheim Campbell was their leading tackler with 100 stops. The bad news is that he’s the only returning starter in the secondary. Something has to change on defense if NW is going to aspire to contention in the Legends. They improved at the end of the season with DE’s Quentin Williams and Tyler Scott improving up front, but only five starters return, so the 2012 unit will be very young.

Schedule: The Wildcats open at Syracuse, and then have winnable home games with Vanderbilt and Boston College in non-conference play. Like Iowa, they avoid the top two teams from the Leaders, OSU and Wisconsin, and they get Iowa and Nebraska at home. The Iowa game might be only for bragging rights to the division’s No. 4 spot. Northwestern has won three of the last four in the series. Northwestern Roster - Northwestern Schedule


MinnyLogo6) Minnesota -  Coach: Jerry Kill  (2nd Yr)  -  2011 Record: 3-9, 2-6

Big Ten Rank: PS: B1GLeg - #6,  Lindy: B1G  #11,  Ath: B1GLeg  #6
National Rank: PS: NR,  Lindy: #74,  Ath: #62

The Gophers started 2011 boldly, playing USC tough in a 19-17 loss in L.A., but things went south rapidly after that. Their only conference wins were a 22-21 squeaker over Iowa and a 27-7 win over a collapsing Illinois team in the season finale. Coach Kill has his work cut out for him, but he does have a quality talent in Marqueis Gray (pictured). If they can win three of four non-conference games, a bowl-qualifying six-win season isn’t out of the question.

GrayMinnesota3Offense: Marqueis Gray (1495 yds passing, 8 TD’s, 966 yds rushing) will try to improve on 2011’s 50.7% completion rate this year, and in order to accomplish that, the Gophers will need to find some other offensive weapons to place around him. JC transfer James Gillum at running back may be one of those pieces, and several talented but green wide receivers will also have to grow up in a hurry. The offensive line will feature three sophomores and two juniors, but three of them are returning starters.

Defense: The Gophers were not good defensively a year ago, and their coaches are emphasizing the need to get better tackling technique out of their guys. Linebackers Mike Rallis (83 tackles) and Keanon Cooper (77 tackles) return as the top defenders from a year ago, and cornerback/kick returner Troy Stoudemire is back for what seems like his seventh season as a Gopher after being granted an injury redshirt season of eligibility.

Schedule: The non-conference slate looks soft (UNLV, New Hampshire, W. Michigan, Syracuse) but you know the opponents are looking at the Minny game as winnable too. Northwestern and Purdue at home, and possibly Illinois on the road look like the best chances at Big Ten wins for the Gophers. Minnesota Roster - Minnesota Schedule


2011 Big Ten Statistics

See Part Two: Big Ten Preview - Leaders Division


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