By Marc Lawrence of Playbook.com
If a league’s muscle is measured by victories, there’s a good chance the Big 10 is on steroids.The conference flexed its power in 2011 when three Big 10 teams finished the season with 11 wins for the second-straight season. In addition, an NCAA record 10 teams went bowling in 2011. Along the way the league picked up its 3rd BCS bowl win in as many years, second only to the SEC with four.
And the heavy lifting looks to continue in 2012 with 26 all-conference performers from last year returning, including nine from the first-team and 17 from the second-team. Not to mention nine of last year’s top 10 rushers are back. In addition, nine returning starting quarterbacks return, six of whom rushed for 600 or more yards last season including: Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase, Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez, Northwestern’s Kain Colter, and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller. Amazingly, all but Martinez led their team in rushing.
Meanwhile three new head coaches join the loop including celebrated Urban Meyer at Ohio State, who suffered its first losing season since 1988 and it’s first seven-loss season since William McKinley called the White House home.
The conference saw its eight-year streak of at least one non-ranked Big 10 squad pulling the rug on a Top 12 ranked BCS team last year. Don’t be surprised should a conference lightweight manage to clean-and-jerk such an unsuspecting foe in 2012. After all, teams in this league know their way around the weight room.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2012 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
ILLINOIS – (*7/8)
Team Theme: BEND IT LIKE BECKMAN
In our opinion Illinois made an excellent hire in luring Tim Beckman away from Toledo. After all, the Ron Zook jokes were becoming all too commonplace. Ironically, the Illini won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history but the damage was already done after a 0-6 finish overshadowed a 6-0 start (best in 60 years). In his three years in Toledo, Beckman won a division title and took the Rockets to two bowl games. He’ll rely on JR QB Nate Scheelhaase, the MVP in the Fight Hunger Bowl, to lead an offense that declined drastically last season. Scheelhaase started all 13 games and was on the Davey O’Brien watch list in 2011.
Stat You Will Like: Beckman has coached under Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel, Mike Gundy and Pat Dye.
PLAY AGAINST: at Arizona State (9/8)
INDIANA – (*7/8)
Team Theme: A FROSH APPROACH
It was an indoctrination new head coach Kevin Wilson was not contemplating when he took over at IU last year. The former Oklahoma OC, who helped season Sam Bradford, inherited a baby-faced bunch of Hoosiers and the results spoke volumes in a 1-win campaign. Forty-six different players started in 2011 while a total of 32 freshmen cut their teeth (the most in the nation) playing their first collegiate game. In fact, Tre Roberson was the first true freshman in school history to start at the QB position. While we like the fact that Indiana lists the Big Ten championship game (12/1) on their 2012 slate, they’ll first need to crawl to a single conference win.
Stat You Will Like: The Hoosiers were outgained in every lined game in 2011.
OHIO STATE – (*7/9)
Team Theme: URBAN RENEWAL
If ever a team was in need of a clean slate, it’s Ohio State. The Buckeyes’ fall from grace was so fast, the ink from Tattoo-Gate still isn’t dry. They had no choice but to make Ohio native Urban Meyer, the only college coach to win 13 games in consecutive seasons, an offer he couldn’t refuse as OSU suffered its first seven-loss season since 1897 (also dropped out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2004, a run of 103 weeks). It was no surprise to see Meyer peg interim coach and DC Luke Fickell to head up the defense (see Stat below). With no bowl game in the offing, you can bet (and we will) that November 24th is circled in red on this year’s calendar.
Stat You Will Like: This is Meyer’s 4th BCS head coaching job. He has retained the previous staff’s defensive coordinator all four times, all four of who were, or have become, head coaches.
PLAY ON: vs. Michigan (11/24)
PENN STATE – (*5/5)
Team Theme: THE MAN WHO STAYED TOO LONG
Talk about a pair of thick-rimmed glasses to fill. New HC Bill O’Brien will be the first full-time head football coach to roam the Happy Valley sidelines since a brash youngster from Brooklyn agreed to do so in 1966. 409 wins, 37 bowl appearances, four undefeated seasons and a national championship later, Joe Paterno has passed and in his stead arrives O’Brien. Some insist that Paterno should have retired long ago and, in doing so, would have avoided the black clouds that float over his legacy. Ironically, the Lions ended the 2011 campaign as the top BCS academic team in the land. Rest assured that’s the best stamp Joe Pa would choose to leave on his program. RIP.
Stat You Will Like: Joe Paterno was the only coach to ever win the Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar Bowls.
PLAY ON: at Nebraska (11/10)
PURDUE – (*7/7)
Team Theme: HOPING FOR MORE
The Boilers had hoped Danny was their man when they hired him on in 2009. A promising first season was followed by a year ravaged by injury. Finally healthy, Hope sprung eternal last year when Purdue won its first bowl game in five years. 2012 could bring more of the same as QB Robert Marve was granted a 6th year of eligibility and will, once again, form a two-headed QB attack with Caleb Terbush. On the other side of the ball, College Football News.com’s Pete Fiutak feels Kawann Short may be the best DT in the land. With that being said, we’re always a bit leery of programs that finally achieved success after having been losers the previous three seasons.
Stat You Will Like: The Boilermakers are 1-5-1 ATS at home off a win under Danny Hope.
PLAY AGAINST: at Illinois (11/17)
WISCONSIN – (5/6)
Team Theme: ON THE BALL
On the heels of back-to-back Big Ten titles and looking to join Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota (yes, Minny) as the only programs to win three straight Big 10/12 conference crowns, the Badgers may be a tad light on returnees but not on talent. RB Montee Ball led the nation in rushing last year while his 39 TD’s tied an NCAA record. Wisky also landed another top-flight QB from the ACC when Maryland graduate Danny O’Brien opted to follow Russell Wilson’s path to Madison. O’Brien was named ACC Rookie of the Year in 2010 before falling out of favor with new coach Randy Edsall. Since O’Brien has graduated, rules state he can play right away. As usual, this Wisky is worth a shot.
Stat You Will Like: Six new assistant coaches join the Badgers in 2012.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Ohio State (11/17)
IOWA – (*6/5)
Team Theme: FATHER KNOWS BEST
Kirk Ferentz, the dean of Big Ten coaches, enters his 14th year with the Hawkeyes. The three-time conference Coach of the Year has made it a family affair in Iowa City as his oldest son, Brian, is in charge of the offensive line while his middle son, James – an honorable mention Big Ten performer last year – starts at center. Ferentz will also call on new offensive and defensive coordinators as the Hawkeyes look to bounce back from their first six-loss season since 2007. Their loss to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl also snapped a three-game bowl win streak. Seven home games could provide the tonic as Ferentz and company are 55-12 SU at Kinnick Stadium.
Stat You Will Like: Of Iowa’s 17 losses over the last four seasons, only three have been by more than 10 points.
PLAY ON: vs. Minnesota (9/29)
MICHIGAN – (*6/7)
Team Theme: SHOELACES ON THE OTHER FOOT
Denard Robinson is one of nine returning-starter QB’s in the Big Ten, five of whom lead their team in rushing. Robinson also scored 16 rushing TD’s and along with RB Fitzgerald Toussaint gave the Wolves their first pair of 1,000-yard rushers since 1975. Major losses on the ‘D’ line likely means the 129-yard improvement they saw on defense could fall by the wayside as 10 bowl teams dot the 2012 slate. However, the Maize and Blue’s long-awaited 2,926 day drought since it last beat OSU also is a thing of the past and UM backers are quick to point out that it will have been 728 days since they’ve lost to the Buckeyes when these to get together on November 24th.
Stat You Will Like: Brady Hoke became the first Michigan coach to win 10 games in his first season with the Wolverines since Fielding Yost in 1901.
PLAY ON: vs. Iowa (11/17)
MICHIGAN STATE – (5/8)
Team Theme: TOP CLASS OPERATION
When defense is the lynchpin of your team and you return eight starters from a unit that was No. 1 in the conference, you’ve got to be looking toward the 2012 season with eager anticipation. And when five of those performers were named to the All-Big Ten team, you’re assuredly ecstatic. A lot of good has hit East Lansing since Mark Dantonio came aboard five years ago: the 2011 group surpassed the previous one as the winningest class in school history, Sparty registered back-to-back undefeated home seasons for the first time since 1955-56, and 11 wins tied a school record en route to the Legends Division title. A late-October road trip will decide this class’s fate.
Stat You Will Like: Mark Dantonio is 12-9 SU and 14-7 ATS in his career versus undefeated opponents.
PLAY ON: at Wisconsin (10/27)
MINNESOTA – (*7/6)
Team Theme: A TIME TO KILL
The Jerry Kill project went awry in more ways than one last year as the 51-year old Kill was admitted to the hospital on two different occasions after suffering seizures during the opening month of the season. Despite the traumatic times, Minny backers finished 2011 on a positive note as the Gophers covered the final five games of the season and retained the Floyd of Rosedale trophy with a win over rival Iowa. QB Marqueis Gray is back under center but a lot of work remains ahead. One thing is for sure, though: the Gophers will give Kill, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Coach of the Year in 2010, an inspired effort from the opening kickoff in 2012.
Stat You Will Like: Kill is 10-2 ATS as a dog versus sub .500 opponents.
PLAY ON: vs. Michigan State (11/24)
NEBRASKA – (*8/7)
Team Theme: AS THE SILK WORM TURNS
For all intents and purposes, Year One in the Big Ten was a success for the Huskers. Sure, they lost three conference affairs but, then again, they’ve done exactly that in each of Bo Pelini’s four years in Lincoln. They also managed to win nine games for the 38th time in the last 42 years. Jekyll-and-Hyde QB Taylor Martinez returns for his junior season but the real catalyst on offense is RB Rex Burkhead, arguably the second best back in the loop behind Wisky’s Montee Ball. However, if the Huskers are to improve on a nation’s-best 412 wins since 1970, it’s imperative that a not-so silky DL steps up and performs like past editions, as they were 11th in the league in sacks last year.
Stat You Will Like: The Huskers are 2-16 SU of late in games versus Top 10 ranked opponents.
PLAY ON: vs. Wisconsin (9/29)
NORTHWESTERN – (5/6)
Team Theme: NO TEARS ON MY PILLOW
Don’t shed any tears for Wildcats HC Pat Ftizgerald. Despite graduating the all-time winningest class in Northwestern football history – including former all-Big Ten QB Dan Persa – Fitzy is a man with a plan. He’s already formed a ‘Leadership Council’ with eight of this year’s 12 members being first-timers. “We’re not that far away… it’s all about chemistry,” insists Fitzgerald. “Are we eating and drinking and sleeping and just consumed with being a champion? We’re darn close, and that’s the goal.” Meanwhile, Kain Colter, a fomer WR who started the first three games of the season at QB last year, takes over in ‘Persa-ute’ of the aforementioned championship.
Stat You Will Like: The Wildcats have lost nine straight bowl games.
PLAY ON: vs. Iowa (10/27)