Wisconsin edged Michigan State in a thrilling inaugural Big Ten championship game last December, and could well return to Indianapolis this season. But like most teams, the Badgers and Spartans have significant holes to fill beginning this spring.
The Badgers and Spartans are also rarities in their conference, simply by virtue of having well-entrenched coaches. Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Penn State's Bill O'Brien and Illinois' Tim Beckman will be conducting their first spring camps with their new teams, while Indiana's Kevin Wilson, Michigan's Brady Hoke and Minnesota's Jerry Kill are coming off their first seasons. That's half the conference.
To put in perspective just how much the Big Ten has changed in such a short time, consider that at this time a year ago Jim Tressel and the late Joe Paterno were preparing their teams for practice, Nebraska was still technically a member of the Big 12 and Jim Delany was still adamantly opposed to a plus-one. But with spring comes change, and questions.
Illinois: Is Beckman the right man for the Illini?
Answering that will admittedly take longer than one spring. Still, the Illini's new coach, who spent the past three seasons at Toledo, is a bit of an enigma. He didn't come in and set the Big Ten on fire like Meyer or Hoke. He has a defensive background, but his Toledo teams were known for their prolific offenses. In Champaign, Beckman inherits talented junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, but faces an immediate challenge upgrading Illinois' rushing attack. Perhaps rising sophomore tailback Donovonn Young will benefit from Beckman's spread attack. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks, formerly of Cincinnati, takes over a unit that ranked in the top 10 nationally last season, but will have to find some playmakers to fill the void left by All-America defensive end Whitney Mercilus.
Indiana: Is the worst behind the Hoosiers?
First-year coach Wilson enjoyed a nice honeymoon last year -- until the Hoosiers began playing football games, at which point they regressed from 5-7 to a nightmarish 1-11, losing five of their last seven games by at least 21 points. However, they also played more freshmen (32) than any team in the country, including quarterback Tre Roberson, who looks to benefit from new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, formerly of Arizona. Meanwhile, the coaches will get a look at six juco transfers who enrolled early to help plug some holes, particularly on defense. This spring will provide much-needed practice reps for all those first- and second-year players.
Iowa: What's with all this change?
For 13 years, you knew exactly what you were getting from Kirk Ferentz's program, which enjoyed rare coaching staff stability. This offseason, however, offensive boss Ken O'Keefe (now with the Miami Dolphins) and defensive boss Norm Parker (retired), the only two coordinators Ferentz ever had, both departed. Ferentz stayed in house on defensive, promoting secondary coach Phil Parker to replace Norm (no relation). But Ferentz made a newsworthy hire by landing longtime former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis, mentor to star quarterbacks Vince Young and Colt McCoy. Davis, 60, has run a variety of offenses, but primarily employed the shotgun-spread with Young and McCoy. It will be interesting to see whether the more traditional Ferentz has Davis incorporate that style, or whether the Hawkeyes will retain the largely pro-style approach that's helped Ferentz to a 96-66 record.
Michigan: Can the defensive line reload?
While Denard Robinson remains the focal point of all things Maize and Blue, Hoke's primary concern in his second spring should be the position he once coached as an assistant: defensive line. Michigan must replace three starters up front -- most notably stalwarts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen -- who played a huge role in the Wolverines improving from 110th to 17th nationally in total defense. Former five-star recruit Will Campbell has yet to live up to the hype, but will be the most experienced tackle and needs to step up as a senior, as does junior Quinton Washington. And the coaches are keen on junior ends Jibreel Black and Nathan Brink, the latter a walk-on. They'll need to get ready quickly; Michigan opens against defending national champion Alabama.
Michigan State: Can the Spartans restock their passing attack?
For the first time in four years, the efficient Kirk Cousins will not be under center for Mark Dantonio's team this spring. His expected replacement, 6-foot-3 Andrew Maxwell, is a fourth-year junior well equipped to take the reins. But Maxwell still needs someone to throw to, and the Spartans have to replace career MSU receiving leader B.J. Cunningham, dependable Keith Nichol (the Hail Mary guy) and all-purpose threat Keshawn Martin. Two guys who figure to garner attention this spring are sophomore Tony Lippett, who impressed last preseason before briefly moving to defensive back, and DeAnthony Arnett, the Tennessee transfer who caught 24 passes as a true freshman last season with the Vols but wanted to play closer to home. It's not yet known whether Arnett will be granted a waiver to play this fall.
Minnesota: Is there a star in the Gophers' backfield?
Quarterback MarQueis Gray was Minnesota's leading rusher last season with 966 yards, and while he could well top that in 2012, second-year coach Kill would prefer to see someone emerge as a capable complement. The leading returning tailback, junior Donnell Kirkwood, ran for just 229 yards last season. Thus, expectations are high for James Gillum, one of five junior college transfers who enrolled in January. The former Louisiana prep standout (nearly 6,000 career yards at Pearl River High) gained 1,000-plus yards each of the last two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. While SEC schools shied away, he has a greater chance to make an immediate impact in Minneapolis, beginning this spring.
Nebraska: How will Bo restore the Blackshirts?
The Huskers' once-dominant defense took a step back in 2011, ranking just 64th nationally against the run and enduring blowouts to Wisconsin, Michigan and South Carolina. And that was before losing its three best players, linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and defensive tackle Jared Crick (who missed most of last season to injury) -- not to mention coordinator Carl Pelini, now the head coach at FAU. Bo Pelini promoted defensive line coach John Papuchis, 33, who brings a new energy to the position but will likely maintain much the same system. His main chore will be to identify and develop a new set of dominant performers. Veterans like defensive end Cameron Meredith and linebacker Will Compton have the best shot, but spring is a good time for new faces to emerge.
Northwestern: Can the 'Cats shore up their secondary?
Northwestern's pass-happy offense is exciting to watch, but its defense could not contain opposing passers last year despite the presence of two veteran starters, safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin. Freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell endured inevitable growing pains, converted running back Jeravin Matthews struggled at corner and the unit never got on the same page. Now, Pat Fitzgerald must find replacements for Peters, Mabin and Matthews (rising sophomore Daniel Jones started for an injured Mabin in the bowl game) while hoping Campbell, who finished as NU's leading tackler, makes significant strides this spring. It would also help the defensive backs quite a bit of if their teammates up front could generate a more formidable pass rush.
Ohio State: Who will surround Braxton Miller?
New coach Meyer is thrilled to inherit Miller, the dual-threat quarterback who took over as starter shortly into his freshman season and made considerable progress. Miller is a natural fit for Meyer's preferred offense, but the spread requires ample skill players, a notable shortcoming for Ohio State last season. No receiver had more than 14 catches, and star DeVier Posey is now gone for good. "Where's the Ted Ginns of the world?" Meyer said last month. "Were they hiding [last] year? I hope we have those guys. That's a big concern of mine right now." Devin Smith showed big-play potential as a true freshman and will get more chances this spring along with rising sophomore T.Y. Williams. Meanwhile, running backs Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde should prepare for more zone-read rushing.
Penn State: Can O'Brien make up for lost time?
It's hard to imagine any set of players being happier to get back on the practice field than the Nittany Lions. Once there, they'll get acquainted with Penn State's first new permanent coach since 1966. O'Brien, who didn't arrive on campus until after the New England Patriots' Feb. 5 Super Bowl loss, takes over a team that won nine games last year but struggled woefully on offense. Tom Brady's former position coach will attempt to do what his predecessors couldn't and turn either Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden into a consistent quarterback. But O'Brien's bigger mission will be to win over a roster of players still hurt by Paterno's passing and the departure of Tom Bradley and to mesh his imported assistants with the few holdovers from JoePa's staff.
Purdue: Will the quarterback picture ever clear up?
Injuries have so thoroughly ravaged the Boilers during Danny Hope's tenure that their roster includes four different quarterbacks with starting experience. Incumbent Caleb TerBush is one of them, but he's hardly got a lock on the job. Robert Marve, who saw action in 10 games last season, was granted a sixth year of eligibility. And Rob Henry, who took over for an injured Marve four games into the 2010 season, has been cleared to return for non-contact drills after tearing his ACL last August. (The fourth quarterback, Sean Robinson, started one game as a true freshman two years ago.) "We always have a plan to play two," said Hope, which means he'll need to start divvying up reps accordingly this spring.
Wisconsin: Who's coaching these guys?
While Bret Bielema is still squarely in charge of the back-to-back Rose Bowl participants, he had to replace a staggering six assistants this offseason. Former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst is now the head coach at Pittsburgh, where his staff includes two other Wisconsin imports. Respected offensive line coach Bob Bostad initially joined Chryst, too, but has since left for the Tampa Bay Bucs' staff. The replacements aren't all unfamiliar. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada spent last season at Northern Illinois and new offensive line coach Mike Markuson spent the past 14 years on Houston Nutt's SEC staffs. One thing that hasn't changed: Montee Ball's presence in the backfield. Ball will be the workhorse once again, though the new coaches must now find a replacement for one-and-done quarterback Russell Wilson.