August 16, 2011
Big Ten 2011 Conference Report
How quickly can Ohio State reload? Can Nebraska's offense get it together? Is Denard Robinson more than just a spread QB? Stewart Mandel tackles that and much more in his Big Ten preview.
How They'll Finish
LEGENDS Conference Overall
Nebraska 6-2 10-2
Michigan State 6-2 9-3
Iowa 5-3 9-3
Northwestern 5-3 8-4
Michigan 4-4 7-5
Minnesota 1-7 4-8
LEADERS Conference Overall
Wisconsin 6-2 10-2
Penn State 5-3 8-4
Ohio State 4-4 7-5
Purdue 3-5 6-6
Indiana 2-6 5-7
Illinois 1-7 4-8
Conference Championship: Nebraska def. Wisconsin
Offensive MVP
Marcus Coker
2010 stats: 114 carries, 622 yards, 3 TDs
2011 projection: 296 carries, 1,630 yards, 15 TDs
Elevated into the primary role late last season after injuries and suspensions decimated Iowa's backfield, true freshman Coker exploded for 219 yards on 33 carries in the Hawkeyes' Insight Bowl win over Missouri. With four returning starters up front and Iowa lacking proven playmakers in the passing game, the 6-foot, 230-pound workhorse could be Iowa's 2011 version of Shonn Greene.
MANDEL: How will wide-open Big Ten shake out?
Defensive MVP
Jared Crick
2010 stats: 70 tackles, 17 TFLs, 9.5 sacks
2011 projection: 61 tackles, 19.5 TFLs, 10 sacks
Crick spent the past two seasons blowing up Big 12 offensive lines. In the Big Ten, he'll face more teams with fullbacks and bunch formations, which may block his path. But he's also now the Huskers' most experienced pass-rusher, and he'll have no shortage of support from blitzing linebackers Lavonte David and Sean Fisher and safety Courtney Osborne.
Crick headlines's preseason All-Big Ten Team
Impact Freshman
Braxton Miller
2010 stats (high school): 2,172 pass yds, 17 TDs; 921 rush yds, 17 TDs
2011 projection: 1,800 pass yards, 13 TDs; 460 rush yards, 9 TDs
It might not happen on opening day, but by Week 2, 3 or 4 the acclaimed dual-threat weapon will likely take over the Buckeyes' starting spot in light of Terrelle Pryor's early departure. Miller, an Under Armour All-American from Wayne, Ohio, enrolled early and showed promise in Ohio State's spring game. He's expected to eventually beat out little-used senior Joe Bauserman.
Debate: How soon will Ohio State bounce back?
Coach On The Hot Seat
Ron Zook
Last season: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Career at Illinois: 28-45 (16-32 Big Ten)
The Illini improved from 3-9 to 7-6 last season, culminating in a Texas Bowl win over Baylor. But after three of its biggest standouts (RB Mikel Leshoure, LB Martez Wilson and DT Corey Liuget) left early for the NFL, Zook's team could easily slip backward in 2011. What's more, longtime ally AD Ron Guenther, who stood by Zook for six seasons despite a 28-45 record, retired in June.
Three Key Nonconference Games
Alabama at Penn State
Saturday, Sept. 10
3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Big Ten fans relish any chance to beat an SEC foe, particularly that conference's preseason favorite and a likely top five team. But last year's clash in Tuscaloosa was over before it started, with the Tide rolling to a 24-3 win. The Nittany Lions will need an improved defense and more decisive leadership at quarterback while hoping 107,000 Beaver Stadium faithful rattle Alabama's new starting quarterback.
Notre Dame at Michigan
Saturday, Sept. 10
8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
There will be no shortage of pomp and pageantry for the first-ever night game at the Big House. Both teams will don throwback jerseys (Michigan's with shoulder stripes and a big block M on the front, Notre Dame's white with green lettering). But the more important showcase will take place on the field, where new Wolverines coach Brady Hoke will lead his team in its first marquee game.
Ohio State at Miami
Saturday, Sept. 17
7:30 or 8 p.m ET (ESPN or ABC)
A Buckeyes team in transition will face its first significant challenge of the post-Jim Tressel era. New coach Luke Fickell's team will be without four suspended players, including its top running back (Dan Herron), receiver (DeVier Posey) and tackle (Mike Adams), as a result of last year's tattoo-parlor scandal. Beating a senior-heavy Miami team on the road could be a significant confidence-booster.
Three Key Conference Games
Nebraska at Wisconsin
Saturday, Oct. 1
8 p.m. (TBD)
The Huskers' first Big Ten game could also have ramifications for the league's championship race. (As noted above, we see these two reuniting in Indianapolis two months later.) Wisconsin's touted transfer quarterback Russell Wilson will contend with a ferocious pass-rush, while Nebraska's Taylor Martinez will deal with 80,000 beer-sauced Cheeseheads "jumping around" at Camp Randall.
Top 25 scouting reports: Nebraska | Wisconsin | More
Michigan State at Ohio State
Saturday, Oct. 1
The Spartans are coming off the most overlooked 11-1 regular season in Big Ten history, and their offense -- led by senior quarterback Kirk Cousins and junior tailback Edwin Baker -- should be even better this year. Last year's squad didn't play Ohio State. This year's edition may need to beat the suspension-depleted Buckeyes for the first time since 1999 to contend for a spot in the championship game.
Nebraska at Penn State
Saturday, Nov. 12
As the championship race reaches its home stretch, this clash of soon-to-be annual cross-division rivals could have a huge impact on both sides' standings. This will be 84-year-old Joe Paterno's eighth meeting with the Huskers. He's gone 3-4 to this point, most recently falling 18-10 to Nebraska in 2003.
Five Key Questions
How quickly can Ohio State reload? The Buckeyes faced a significant amount of turnover, particularly on defense (seven departed starters), long before we ever heard the name Ed Rife. Luke Fickell must get a ton of young guys prepared to play immediately due to the early departure of Terrelle Pryor and the four suspended players for the first five games.
How good is Russell Wilson? Wisconsin answered its biggest offseason question with authority when it added the former N.C. State quarterback. The three-year starter is an exceptional athlete who often took the Wolfpack on his back, but also forced too many bad throws. If he emerges as a consistent downfield threat, watch out for the Badgers.
Can Nebraska's offense get it together? We know the Huskers will be dominant defensively, with the new guys likely producing the Big Ten's best defense right off the bat. But can new offensive coordinator Tim Beck's spread offense help resuscitate sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez, who struggled down the stretch last season due in large part to injuries?
Is Denard Robinson more than just a spread QB? The Wolverines' junior was spectacular running ex-coach Rich Rodriguez's shotgun-based attack, but new coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges are installing a pro-style offense in which Robinson will line up under center the majority of the time. Can he make the transition effectively?
Will Northwestern's defense rebound? The Wildcats were 7-3 when All-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in a 21-17 win over Iowa. Northwestern's defense then ruptured as well, allowing 48, 70 and 45 points its last three games. With Persa leading a senior-heavy lineup, the 'Cats can make a division run if the defense carries its weight.
Big Ten Video Preview
Top Big Ten contenders
Source:SI breaks down why Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State look like top Big Ten contenders.

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