Tag: 2013 preview

Weeknight MACtion Returns! 2013 Conference Preview

NIU QB Jordan Lynch

NIU QB Jordan Lynch

The MAC has become arguably the most entertaining league in college football over the past few seasons. Weeknight MACtion is one of the highlights of the college football season as MAC teams regularly put on fun, thrilling displays of football.

The conference features outstanding young coaches like Toledo’s Matt Campbell and underrated talent like Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch and Kent State running back Dri Archer.

The 2012 season was the best yet for the MAC. Both Kent State and Northern Illinois were regulars in the top 25 polls, and the conference placed a team in a BCS bowl for the first time after Northern Illinois knocked off Kent State in overtime in the MAC championship game.

There is plenty to be excited about for 2013. Besides the usual zany MACtion, the conference is deep and talented. Lynch and Archer are back and potential Heisman candidates. Lynch is looking to lead Northern Illinois back to the BCS and win this time, while Kent State wants to prove that its breakthrough success from a year ago was no flash in the pan.

Toledo has plenty of talent and looking to unseat Northern Illinois in the West while Ohio has become the model of stability under Frank Solich and will be looking to capture that elusive MAC title.

Bowling Green has one of the best defenses outside of the BCS, Ball State is unspectacular but effective, and Miami (OH) is looking to bounce back after a couple of down years.

One thing is for certain, the MAC won’t lack for entertainment.

Cream of the Crop

Ohio QB Tyler Tettleton

Ohio QB Tyler Tettleton

Northern Illinois, Ohio, Toledo, Bowling Green

Northern Illinois Huskies

The 2012 season went about as well as it could have for Northern Illinois. The Huskies went 12-1, captured another MAC title, and became the first MAC team to earn a berth in a BCS bowl. NIU hung tough with Florida State for awhile, trailing 17-10 going into the fourth quarter before finally succumbing and losing the game 31-10 to finish the season 12-2. Head coach Dave Doeren parlayed that success into the head coaching job at NC State, but all-everything quarterback Jordan Lynch returns to lead a team that hopes to cap 2013 with a return trip to the BCS.

The school promoted offensive coordinator Rod Carey to the head gig, and his transition will be made easier by a seasoned, experienced team.  Lynch returns for his senior season after a sensational 2012 campaign. He completed 60 percent of his throws for 3,138 yards and 25 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions. He was also the team’s best rushing threat, tallying an unfathomable 1,898 yards rushing with 19 touchdowns.

While NIU’s offense will have to find a new receiving threat to replace Martel Moore, senior running back Akeem Daniels and an experienced offensive line return to help Lynch carry the load.

The Huskies were deep on defense, so even though they lost some players, they ought to be in good shape in 2013. Non-conference trips to Iowa and Purdue, along with conference road games against Toledo and Kent State, figure to be the major challenges on the schedule, but all those games are winnable.

Another BCS appearance may be asking too much–neither Purdue or Iowa are great teams and won’t provide a boost like Boise State beating Georgia or Virginia Tech did in the past. Louisiana-Lafayette has a much tougher non-conference slate, for instance, with games against Arkansas and Kansas State, while the Mountain West has a stronger reputation that will benefit its champion.

Still, another season with double-digit wins and an appearance in the MAC championship game is likely. A win over Louisville and that elusive conference crown could take the Bobcats to unprecedented heights.

Ohio Bobcats

Ohio came into the 2012 with high expectations. An experienced team, favorable schedule, and a marquee non-conference game against Penn State had people thinking Ohio could become the first MAC team to qualify for a BCS bowl. The Bobcats took out Penn State and started the year 8-0 before slumping. The Bobcats dropped four-of-their-last five games before rallying to beat Louisiana-Monroe in a bowl game and finish 9-4. Injuries played a part, as many key players either had to miss time or were significantly hampered over the course of the season.

Having the offseason to heal all those banged-up players provides optimism, but the biggest reasons to be excited about the Bobcats are in the offensive backfield. Quarterback Tyler Tettleton and running back Beau Blankenship, both seniors, are back. Tettleton battled through a nagging abdomen injury for a good portion of the year yet still managed to throw for over 2,800 yards and 18 touchdowns against only 4 picks. He also added 455 yards on the ground. A return to full health means he should be even better in 2013. Blankenship rushed for 1,600 yards with 15 touchdowns, top wideout Donte Foster returns as well.

The defense was riddled with injuries last year, but while that didn’t help Ohio a year ago, it should pay dividends this year. The Bobcats lost two starting cornerbacks at the start of the season; their return combined with the experience their backups received last year after being thrown in the fire ought to mean the pass defense will be much-improved this year. The biggest issue facing the defense, however, is the defensive line. The unit wasn’t very good last year, and the Bobcats hope that a mix of recruits and JUCO transfers can shore things up.

Ohio failed in its quest in 2012, but the Bobcats will have the opportunity again this year. They start the year off with Louisville, and if the Bobcats can knock off the Cardinals, a BCS run is a definitely possibility. A three-game stretch late in the season against Buffalo, Bowling Green, and Kent State is a hurdle, but if Ohio can navigate that, an appearance in the MAC title game is pretty much a certainty. Ohio has come close to winning a conference title several times over the past few years but hasn’t been able to seal the deal, but they’ll have a good shot this year.

Toledo Rockets

The Toledo Rockets came into 2012 full of uncertainty. Coach Tim Beckman had left to take over Illinois, and the school promoted offensive coordinator Matt Campbell, just 32-years-old, to take over a team that had lost a huge chunk of its offense along with a number of starters on defense? The result? A 9-4 season that included an upset of Cincinnati and a near-upset of Arizona. Campbell has proven himself, and his young team has a year of experience under its belt, meaning 2013 could be the year the Rockets turn the corner and finally win the MAC.

Toledo’s identity for years has been an explosive offense, and 2013 should be no different. Quarterback Terrance Owens was given the reins full-time last year after spending 2011 splitting time with Austin Dantin, and he did not disappoint. Owens completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,700 yards and 14 touchdowns despite the Rockets having to break in a number of new faces along the offensive line and in the receiving corps.

Both of those units are tested and experienced now, so Owens ought to have an even better season this year. He’ll be helped by senior running back David Fluellen (1,494 rushing yards in 2012) and a pair of big-play wideouts in senior Bernard Reedy (88 receptions for 1,113 yards; 4 return touchdowns) and sophomore Alonzo Russell (55 catches, 953 yards).

The defense has to do considerable rebuilding in the front seven, but Campbell has recruited well and has brought in a multitude of highly-ranked recruits to fill the void. If they can live up to their potential, the Rockets will be in good shape. If not, they’ll be in trouble. The secondary is in a similar spot as the top two safeties are gone. They combined for 20 pass breakups; nobody else had more than five, so replacing their production will be a key for the Toledo defense.

The Rockets definitely did not take the easy road when it came to scheduling. Toledo opens the season against SEC heavyweight Florida and follows that with a visit to another SEC school, Missouri. The schedule gets considerably easier after that, though, and leads up to a showdown with nemesis Northern Illinois at home on November 20.

If all goes according to plan, that game will decide who represents the West Division in the MAC title game. The Rockets have the talent to make that happen.

Bowling Green Falcons

Bowling Green went 8-5 last year but really caught fire after September. The Falcons opened the year with four-straight losses then won seven-of-their-next-nine games before dropping their bowl game. Almost everyone returns from a dominant defense that will be asked to carry the load this year. The three returning starters on the line combined for 20 tackles for loss, and linebacker Gabe Martin had 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.

Quarterback Matt Schilz struggled with accuracy last year, completing only 55 percent of his passes and throwing 12 interceptions. Most of his receivers are back, so the familiarity ought to help a little, but the passing offense needs to improve. The running game should be okay even if star Anthon Samuel does not return after taking a semester off to spend more time with his family.

This year’s schedule is a lot friendlier than last year’s as Bowling Green replaces Florida and Virginia Tech with Tulsa, Indiana, and Mississippi State. The Falcons get Toledo and Ohio at home, too. As a result, Bowling Green is poised to make some noise in the MAC.

Middle of the Pack

Kent State RB Dri Archer (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Kent State RB Dri Archer (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Kent State, Ball State, Central Michigan, Buffalo, Miami (OH)

Kent State Golden Flashes

Kent State had a season for the ages in 2012, going 11-3, appearing in the top 25 rankings, and nearly winning a MAC championship and earning a BCS berth. Coach Darrell Hazell left to take over Purdue, meaning the Golden Flashes are now in the hands of rookie head coach Paul Haynes.

The bread-and-butter of the Kent State offense is running the football, and with Traylon Durham and Dri Archer, the Golden Flashes have two phenomenal backs. Durham posted 1,316yards and 14 touchdowns last season while Archer, a human highlight reel, torched opposing defenses for 1,429 yards with 16 touchdowns while averaging a mind-boggling 9.0 yards a carry.

Four of last year’s top five receivers also return, but the offense needs to find a new quarterback to replace departed senior Spencer Keith.

The defense is anchored by defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix, who posted 15 tackles for loss and 6 sacks in 2012. He’s joined by safety Luke Wollet (92.5 tackles and 7 interceptions) and leads a unit that ranked in the top 50 in points against a year ago, yielding only 24.5 points a game. There is plenty of returning experience along the line and in the secondary, but the team’s top two linebackers must be replaced.

A repeat of last year’s success is almost certainly not going to happen this year. Between adjusting to a new coaching staff and having to play LSU, Penn State, and Northern Illinois in the first half of the season, there is no way Kent State will be able to reach double digits in wins. The key will be surviving that brutal stretch of the schedule because the second half will be much easier. Figure 7-9 wins for Kent State.

Ball State Cardinals

Ball State has steadily improved under Pete Lembo and went 9-4 a year ago. Quarterback Keith Wennig returns after throwing for over 3,000 yards with 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He’ll look often for junior wideout Willie Snead, who caught 89 balls for 1,148 yards in 2012.

The running game is in capable hands with Jahwan Edwards (1,410 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Horactio Banks (586 yards, 4 touchdowns) but the offensive line loses four starters.

The defense was vulnerable last year, struggling against the run and giving up over 30 points a game. The linebacking corps was hit hard by graduation; only one returning linebacker logged more than 8 tackles last year. Losing all that experience is going to hurt, especially with a suspect defensive line.

A favorable schedule means another good season of 8 or 9 wins is likely, but the Cardinals don’t have explosiveness on offense or a sturdy-enough defense to challenge Northern Illinois and Toledo for the division crown.

Central Michigan Chippewas

Most of the starters return from last year’s bowl team, and Central Michigan is looking to build off that success. The Chippewas need to find a quarterback after senior Ryan Radcliff graduated, but whoever wins the job will have the benefit of handing the ball off to running back Zurlon Tipton.

The senior bulled his way to 1,492 yards and 19 touchdowns last year and is primed for another big year. Junior wideout Titus Davis had 850 receiving yards last season and is a big-play threat.

By far, the biggest issue facing the Chippewas is their porous defense. Central Michigan was 96th in the country in points against, yielding 32.4 point a game. The defense has a lot of returning experience, which should hopefully help, but experience doesn’t guarantee improvement. The defense will keep the Chippewas from threatening for a division title, but CMU should go to a bowl game for the second-straight year.

Buffalo Bulls

Buffalo went just 4-8 a year ago, but the Bulls are poised for a much better year in 2013. Buffalo is experienced on both sides of the ball and returns 17 starters. Unlike most of the other teams in the MAC, the defense isn’t the concern for the Bulls heading into the upcoming season; it’s the offense that needs to shape up. Both Alex Zordich and Joe Licata saw extensive action at quarterback last year, but neither one completed more than 53 percent of his throws.

They must improve upon those numbers in order for the passing game to become effective and take some pressure off what should be a decent rushing attack. Running backs Branden Oliver and Devin Campbell combined for 1,300 yards on the ground, and when you throw in Zordich’s 540 yards, it’s clear that Buffalo wants to run the football as much as possible.

Linebacker Khalil Mack has posted at least 20 tackles for loss in each of the past two seasons, and he leads a Bulls defense that is the clear strength of the team. Mack will be joined at linebacker by Lee Skinner and Jake Stockman, who combined for another 12.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks while defensive end Colby Way contributed 10.5 tackles for loss and 7 sacks last year. The secondary is deep and full of upperclassmen.

Buffalo does not have a fun start to the season, opening with Ohio State and Baylor in back-to-back weeks, but if the Bulls can avoid getting demoralized after that, they have a good shot at returning to a bowl game for the first time since winning the MAC in 2008.

Miami (OH) Redhawks

The Redhawks are coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons, and the pressure is on third-year coach Don Treadwell to turn things around. He’ll have to do it without four-year starting quarterback Zac Dysert. Senior Austin Boucher is the presumptive favorite, but whoever ends up replacing Dysert will have a pair of talented receivers to throw to in senior Nick Harwell and junior Dawan Scott.

The two each had about 850 receiving yards a year ago. They’ll need to get on the same page with their new quarterback quickly because the running game struggled mightily in 2012. Neither of the top two running backs who return from a year ago averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry.

The defense, particularly the defensive line, was ravaged by injuries last year, and that lead to opposing teams being able to run all over the Redhawks. A return to health should help immensely.

With a healthy defense, capable quarterback play, and a favorable schedule, there is no reason that Miami shouldn’t bounce back and return to a bowl game. Non conference games against Marshall, Kentucky, Cincinnati, and Illinois are all winnable, and the Redhwaks avoid conference powers Northern Illinois and Toledo.

Bottom of the Barrel

Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Akron, UMass

Western Michigan Broncos

The Broncos took a page out of Toledo’s program and hired a young, hotshot coaching assistant to become their new head coach. Thirty-two-year-old P.J. Fleck knows the MAC well, having been a standout receiver for Northern Illinois before later spending time on the Huskies’ staff as receivers coach.

Losing star quarterback Alex Carder hurts, but Tyler Van Tubbergen filled in admirably last year after Carder went down with injury. Van Tubbergen threw for 1,652 yards and 13 interceptions and gives Fleck an experienced quarterback to work with. Van Tubbergen will be aided by sophomore wideout Jaime Wilson, who caught 67passes for nearly 800 yards as a freshman.

Fleck has brought in former Rutgers co-defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham to coach the defense, but it’s going to take some time before this defense resembles the tough, effective units Pinkham led at Rutgers. Both starting defensive ends from last year are gone, and while the secondary is experienced, it wasn’t very good.

The schedule doesn’t do the Broncos any favors, either. WMU opens the year against Michigan State and its vaunted defense then has to travel to Northwestern two weeks later followed by a trip to Iowa. Conference play doesn’t offer any sort of breather as that Iowa trip is followed by a home game against Kent State and a visit to Toledo. Even if Fleck turns out to be a savant, it’s going to take awhile to turn around the Broncos.

Eastern Michigan Eagles

Eastern Michigan hasn’t enjoyed much success on the football field, and 2012 was no exception as the Eagles suffered through a 2-10 campaign. Highly-touted quarterback recruit Brogan Roback arrives, but if he’s not ready, Tyler Benz showed some promise last year. He threw more touchdowns than interceptions and threw the ball downfield, but he only completed 54 percent of his throws. The Eagles’ biggest offensive weapon, though, is running back Bronson Hill. The junior averaged 6.5 yards per carry en route to 905 yards rushing and 6 touchdowns.

With a 2-10 record, it’s no surprise that the defense struggled. Eastern Michigan couldn’t rush the passer, and once the ball was in the air, the Eagles couldn’t defend it. The team will also have to replace all three starting linebackers.

The schedule is too difficult, and this team needs too much improvement, for a bowl game to be realistic. Eastern Michigan may win one or two more games than last year, but that’s about it.

Akron Zips

Akron would most likely like to forget that 2012 ever happened after going just 1-11. The Zips will need to replace last year’s starting quarterback, but they do return running back Jawon Chisolm and his 953 yards rushing. Plenty of receivers return, but the offensive line needs to replace three starters. On defense, the Zips were undersized and not very good. Akron is taking steps to remedy that situation, but it’s going to take time. This year’s defense will still be undersized and not very good.

The schedule doesn’t help out Akron, either. Michigan, Central Florida, and UL-Lafayette are three tough non-conference opponents, and the Zips have to play all the elite teams in the MAC while missing out on most of the bad ones. Akron will be improved, but it’s not going to show in the standings.

UMass Minutemen

Wow, talk about a rough transition. In its first year playing FBS football, UMass was dismal, suffering through a 1-11 record and getting blown out on an almost weekly basis. UMass was an extremely young team and endured a lot of growing pains as freshmen were forced into starring roles. Injuries forced the team to play two freshmen at quarterback, and while neither played particularly well, the experience should pay off down the road.

The same goes for the defense as a number of freshmen saw extensive playing time. UMass is building for the future, so this year is all about creating a foundation for 2014 and beyond. The Minutemen will be more competitive in 2013, but it will be another long season.

East Division Champion

Ohio

UMass and Akron have no shot, and Miami (OH) has to replace a four-year starter at quarterback. Buffalo and Bowling Green have great defenses, but their offenses leave something to be desired. Kent State has Dri Archer and Roosevelt Nix but has to deal with a new coaching staff and tough schedule.

Don’t be surprised if Kent State retains the division crown, but of all the teams in this division, Ohio is the most balanced and has the fewest questions. Tyler Tettleton and Co. return to the MAC title game after missing out a year ago.

West Division Champion

Northern Illinois

The West boils down to three teams: Northern Illinois, Toledo, and Ball State. The Cardinals don’t have the defense to stop either Toledo or Northern Illinois and can’t hang with them in a shootout. Toledo has the talent and depth to take down Northern Illinois, and the Huskies have a new, unproven coach.

However, the Huskies have owned the division of late and have the conference’s best player in Jordan Lynch and can win with either defense or offense. That gives them the edge.

Conference Champion

Northern Illinois

Ohio and Northern Illinois staged an epic battle for the league title a couple years ago, and they’ll do so once again in the 2013 MAC championship game. Just like that previous game, Northern Illinois will come out on top. Lynch is just too good, and Ohio will have no answers for stopping the Huskies’ offense.

Tettleton will keep Ohio in the game, but Northern Illinois will make enough plays on defense to seal the deal.

 

 

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The Big 10 is more excited to see 2013 than any other conference

What a difference a year makes.

No conference is happy to see 2013 arrive than the Big Ten. Last year at this time, the conference was reeling, dealing with the aftermath of scandals at two of its most prestigious institutions. Both Ohio State and Penn State were banned from the postseason, and the Nittany Lions were hammered by the NCAA as a result of the Sandusky sex abuse scandal.

The additions of Maryland and Rutgers were panned, and Rutgers was embroiled in a scandal of its own that led to a shakeup of the administration.

On the field, things didn’t go according to plan.

2013 Big 10 College Football Preview

No Big 10 team was in the national title discussion, and the conference was absent from the top of the rankings. Only two Big Ten teams finished the year ranked in the USA Today/Coaches poll, and neither were ranked higher than 16.

Four teams cracked the final AP Top 25 poll, but other than Ohio State, all were ranked 17th or lower.

The Buckeyes finished the year 12-0 but were shut out of postseason play thanks to NCAA sanctions. Preseason favorites Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska, and Michigan State all failed to live up to expectations.

Michigan began the year in the top ten but finished 8-5. Wisconsin and Michigan State were in the top 15, but both finished with six losses and were unranked. Wisconsin made it to the Big Ten title game because both Penn State and Ohio State were ineligible. The Badgers then pummeled Nebraska 70-31 to keep the Cornhuskers out of the Rose Bowl.

On the bright side, Northwestern won 10 games for the first time since 1995 and just the second time in over a century.

Penn State defied all expectations and won 8 games in Bill O’Brien’s first year despite all the NCAA fines and sanctions, and Ohio State went undefeated in its first season under Urban Meyer.

Entering 2013, Ohio State is a top-five team and national title contender.

Quarterback Braxton Miller is a Heisman contender.

Michigan is on the rise, and Northwestern is primed for its best season in years.

There’s optimism at Indiana, and Purdue and Wisconsin are excited about their new head coaches.

Overall, things are much more positive for the Big Ten heading into the upcoming season than they were a year ago.

Cream of the Crop

Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska

2013 Big 10 College Football Preview

Ohio State enters 2013 with high hopes and even higher expectations. People expected big things from the Buckeyes under Urban Meyer, but it wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly. In Meyer’s first year, Ohio State ran the table and finished as the nation’s only undefeated team.

Quarterback Braxton Miller was sensational, throwing for over 2,000 yards with 15 touchdowns while adding another 1,400 on the ground with 13 rushing touchdowns. He is one of the Heisman favorites for 2013. The offense will be in good shape as Miller is joined by a loaded backfield and experienced offensive line, but the passing game does need to improve. Miller must become more consistent and better in the pocket, and the team could use one or two guys to step up at receiver.

Ohio State loses a lot on defense but has a number of highly-ranked recruits coming in to plug the holes.

Their potential is huge, but will they live up to it?

If they do, how long will it take? The Buckeyes are good and will certainly win 10-12 games, but they are overrated. Much was made about last year’s undefeated season, but it came against a soft schedule.

This year’s slate isn’t any tougher, so Ohio State has a good chance of running the table again. However, if they have to face an SEC team in the title game again, they’ll be exposed again. Meyer is bringing in a lot of talent, but the Buckeyes aren’t there just yet. Still, this is the beginning of another great run in Columbus.

Northwestern has been successful under Pat Fitzgerald, but 2012 was the school’s best season yet under its former linebacker.

The Wildcats won 10 games for the first time in nearly 20 years and just the second time in over a century.

In a remarkable stat, the Wildcats trailed for under five minutes combined the entire season last year.

If it wasn’t for some late-game collapses, Northwestern would have run the table in the Big Ten and played for a Rose Bowl berth. That, and the fact that most of the key players from a year ago return, has Northwestern thinking big this year, as in Big Ten title-big.

Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian and running backs Venric Mark and Mike Trumpy return to lead a powerful running game that was 19th in the nation last year.

The defense did well in limiting opposing teams to points (22.5 points a game) but was vulnerable to the pass. As a result, Northwestern’s defense struggled to get opposing offenses off the field. The special teams unit is solid, especially with accurate kicker Jeff Budzien and Mark returning.

The schedule is tough, but at least Northwestern gets Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State at home. Another 10-win season is a definite possibility, as is a Legends division title, but with a few lucky breaks, Northwestern could go even higher.

Bret Bielema took the keys to the Wisconsin program from Barry Alvarez and kept things humming. Under Bielema, the Badgers were 32-8 from 2009-2011 and have played in the past three Rose Bowls. Bielema’s teams ran all over opponents with bruising tailbacks like Montee Ball piling up yards behind a mammoth, road-grading offensive line. Then, in one of the more surprising moves of the offseason, Bielema left Madison to take over at Arkansas.

It’s hard to upgrade from such a successful coach, but Wisconsin may have done just that when they hired Gary Andersen away from Utah State. Andersen took Utah State to unprecedented heights, and the Aggies were not just the best mid-major team last year, they were one of the best in the entire country. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee success, but if anyone can do it, it’d be Andersen. He’s also brining defensive coordinator Dave Aranda with him, and if they can create a defense like the one they had in Logan, the rest of the Big Ten should be very, very afraid.

Wisconsin’s 8-6 record in 2012 was a big misleading, as each of the Badgers’ six losses was by a touchdown or less. Wisconsin has long had an identity as a power run team–the Badgers put up an incredible 640 yards rushing against Nebraska in the Big Ten title game–and that trend should continue under Andersen and new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. They’ll have to replace all-time great Montee Ball, who set the NCAA career record for touchdowns–but that is not as daunting a task as it seems. James White had over 800 yards rushing and averaged 6.4 yards a carry while Melvin Gordon added another 600 yards at 10.3 a pop. Jared Abbrederis is back and the only standout at receiver, but that’s not a big issue since Wisconsin doesn’t throw it much anyway.

Wisconsin’s defense played well last year, and most of it returns. Combine that experience with the defensive acumen of the new coaching staff, and you have a lot of excited fans in Madison. Even better, the players seem like a good fit for the new scheme. The one concern is that the team lost its top two cornerbacks from a year ago.

The schedule sets up nicely for the Badgers, as well. Arizona State provides an interesting out-of-conference matchup, as does BYU in a matchup of unstoppable offense meets immovable defense (seriously, watch that game if you can. It’s going to be fun), but the Big Ten schedule is pretty easy. Wisconsin avoids both Michigan teams and gets Northwestern at home. Wisconsin does play at Ohio State, but that is the only game in which Wisconsin will clearly be the underdog, and they are capable of pulling off the upset. Wisconsin will rebound in 2013 and win a ton of games, that much is certain. Ten wins seems like a given, but 11-1 or 12-0 are definite possibilities. If Wisconsin can get past Ohio State, they’ll likely play in the Rose Bowl for the fourth-straight year.

Michigan entered 2012 with high hopes–the Wolverines began the year ranked in the top ten–but did not meet those expectations.

A season-opening blowout loss to Alabama dashed Michigan’s national title hopes, and the Wolverines went on to lose to Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State, and South Carolina.

Star quarterback Denard Robinson battled with injuries, and with his departure, Michigan is implementing a more conventional, pro-style offense after running the spread for a number of years.

How quickly will the players adapt to the new scheme?

Devin Gardner filled in admirably for Robinson last year, and how well he performs as the full-time starter this year in a new system will go a long way towards determining how successful Michigan will be. He needs to be more accurate, but he also did a good job of taking care of the football as he threw over twice as many touchdowns as interceptions a season ago.

On defense, the Wolverines were solid against the run but vulnerable to the pass. Michigan’s schedule shapes up nicely, too. The Wolverines get Notre Dame at home in week two, but the rest of the non-conference slate should produce no challenges. Michigan avoids Wisconsin and gets Nebraska and Ohio State at home. Road trips to Michigan State and Northwestern are potential pitfalls, but both games are winnable. Michigan is a tough team to predict.

The Wolverines have talent and a favorable schedule, but they are switching to a new system with a quarterback who has yet to be a starter for a full season. While Michigan could certainly win 11-12 games, the most likely total is 8-10 wins.

Nebraska has been consistently good under Bo Pelini, but the Cornhuskers haven’t been great. Nebraska has won nine or ten games for five consecutive seasons but failed to win a conference title. Nebraska fans expect more. Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez returns, and while his throwing ability is questionable, he did throw nearly twice as many touchdowns (23) as interceptions (12) last season and has his top three receivers back.

A phenomenal runner, Martinez was Nebraska’s leading rusher with 1,255 yards and 10 touchdowns. With fellow 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah at running back, Nebraska should have one of the most potent ground attacks in the country this season.

The defense has been in decline ever since Ndamukong Suh left.

The front seven was unspectacular last year and is riddled with untested players this year. On the plus side, the secondary should be good.

With eight home games (seriously, how is that possible?) plus road games again Minnesota and Purdue, the schedule is there for another 10-win season. The only tough games appear to be Northwestern, at Michigan, and Michigan State. Another 10-win season is almost a certainty, and odds are good that Nebraska will go 11-1 or even 12-0.

However, that easy schedule means the Cornhuskers are likely to get exposed in postseason play yet again.

Middle of the Pack

Penn State, Michigan State

2013 Big 10 College Football Preview

Penn State had a wildly successful season in 2012. Considering all that had transpired in Happy Valley, expectations were low for Penn State. There were considerable doubts about first-year coach Bill O’Brien, but he was masterful. His tenure started out rocky with losses to Ohio and Virginia, but Penn State rallied to win five-in-a-row and eight-of-ten to finish the year 8-4.

Despite all that, things are about to get harder for O’Brien. Transfers and scholarship reductions left the Nittany Lions with an already thin roster, but now they have to replace numerous players and backups, including their starting quarterback, all-conference center, and top tacklers at every level of the defense. A few injuries could really decimate this team.

The defense was solid and should be again, although like the offense, depth is a concern. Of all the teams in the Big Ten, that makes Penn State the wildcard and hardest to predict. O’Brien is a fantastic coach, and a glance at the schedule reveals eight games in which Penn State should be favored. Of the remaining four, Penn State could pull out another one or two wins.

On the other hand, what happens if a key player goes down? Penn State has no margin for error. Some unlucky breaks could put this squad into 5-6 win territory.

Michigan State had a disappointing year last year. Under quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Spartans were one of the best teams in the country and went 22-5 in his last two seasons, but when Cousins graduated, the offense faltered under replacement Andrew Maxwell.

After going 11-3 in 2011, the Spartans dropped to 7-6 last season. The biggest culprit was the offense, particularly the passing game. Maxwell only completed 53 percent of his passes–in his defense, he wasn’t helped by 66 dropped passes by his receivers–and only threw 13 touchdowns against nine interceptions. Workhorse running back Le’Veon Bell departed for the NFL, leaving an untested crop of running backs and converted linebacker Riley Bullough to pick up the slack.

An experienced offensive line will help, but with Michigan’s State style of play, someone needs to step up big time in the backfield. Luckily, Michigan State doesn’t have to worry about the other side of the ball as the defense is one of the nation’s best. Six starters return, including linebacker Max Bullough and corner Darqueze Dennard, from a defense that is equally good against the run and the pass.

With such a stout defense, the Spartans will be in every game, but their mediocre offense doesn’t give them any room for error. With some improvement from Maxwell & Co., the Spartans could easily contend for the Big Ten title. However, I just don’t see that happening. The Spartans will certainly win 8-9 games, but that dreadful offense is enough of a concern to doubt they’ll reach higher than that.

Bottom of the Barrel

Purdue, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota

2013 Big 10 College Football Preview

This season marks the first year of the Darrell Hazell era at Purdue. Hazell guided Kent State to its best season in decades, leading the Golden Flashes to an 11-3 record and AP ranking while narrowly missing out on a MAC title and BCS bid.

He turned around the Golden Flashes in two years; the Boilermakers are hoping he can do the same for them. Hazell will have to break in a new quarterback and replace last year’s top running backs and top two receivers.

The situation is better on the other side of the ball, as plenty of experience returns in the front seven, although the loss of Kawann Short hurts.

The secondary is experienced and did a decent job last year. While Purdue is more talented and a better team than the rest of this list, the Boilermakers’ schedule does them no favors. Non-conference games against Cincinnati, Notre Dame, and Northern Illinois will be tough, and the first four conference games are against Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Purdue could easily start the season 1-7.

The Boilermakers will certainly be better than their record indicates, but with a new coaching staff and new systems, 2013 is going to be a transition year.

Iowa has been in decline for a few seasons now. After finishing 11-2 in 2009, the Hawkeyes have gone 8-5, 7-6, and 4-8. The Hawkeyes lost to Iowa State and Central Michigan before closing the season with six-straight losses.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz isn’t going anywhere soon, much to Iowa fans’ dismay, but he has turned this program around before.

The offense was abysmal while the defense fell apart. Unfortunately for Iowa fans, things don’t look like they’ll get any better this year. The run game should be better, but the annual decimation of Iowa’s running back corps will likely leave that unit depleted once again. James Vandenburg wasn’t great last year, but he was experienced.

Breaking in a new quarterback is rarely easy, and Iowa doesn’t have a lot of weapons to help with that transition.

On defense, the Hawkeyes are capable against the run but awful against the pass. To make matters worse, the Hawkeyes lost about half of their top defensive backs from last year as well as the best pass rusher. At best, this team could win six games and become bowl-eligible, but that requires everything going right.

On paper, the only winnable game in the second half is at Purdue, and of the non-conference games, Iowa State beat the Hawkeyes last year while Northern Illinois is coming off a BCS appearance. Two to four wins seems likely.

It’s apparently going to be a rough year for ‘I’ schools in the Big Ten. Iowa’s struggling, and Illinois is just as bad, if not worse. The Illini went 2-10 in Tim Beckman’s first year and looked pretty bad along the way. The offense was bereft of big plays while the defense gave them up.

Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse returns, but he only threw four touchdowns while tossing eight interceptions and was sacked a staggering 22 times. He doesn’t have any legitimate playmakers.

The defense faces a major rebuilding project, especially up front, so don’t look for any help on that side of the ball. On top of all that, Illinois has a difficult schedule with Cincinnati, Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Northwestern. Looking at the schedule, only the opener against Southern Illinois is anything close to a sure-win.

This team could go winless at worst and win maybe three games at best.

Unlike the other two ‘I’ teams on this list, Indiana has hope. The Hoosiers won four games, including their first back-to-back Big Ten wins in five years, and nearly made the Big Ten championship game (due to Ohio State and Penn State being ineligible, but still).

There is no way Indiana will compete for a spot in the title game, but a bowl game is a distinct possibility. Indiana lost close games to Michigan State and Ohio State. The Hoosiers return most of the starters from a productive passing attack that averaged over 300 yards and 31 points a game.

The defense was dreadful and won’t be much better, but there is help on the way. Indiana has recruited well, but it’s going to take time. The Hoosiers somehow have eight home games, and most are winnable.

Indiana will certainly win at least four games, and could very well reach six victories and a rare bowl appearance.

Minnesota won six games in 2012 and made a bowl game, but after starting the season off with a schedule full of cream puffs, the Golden Gophers went 2-7 the rest of the way. Minnesota wasn’t really great at anything and was bad at a lot of things.

Touted prospect Philip Nelson is the presumptive favorite to start at quarterback, and he’ll be helped by an offensive line that returns eight players with starting experience. The skill positions need to become more explosive, though. The defense needs to tighten up against the run, but it should be solid against the pass.

The schedule does Minnesota no favors, either. The first five games are winnable, but of the remaining seven, only the Indiana game gives Minnesota a chance, and that game is on the road. Figure 4-6 wins for the Gophers.

Legends Division Champion

Northwestern

The Legends Division is by far the deepest of the two Big Ten divisions–only Iowa doesn’t have a shot–but its champion will also be the underdog in the Big Ten title game. Each of the contenders is flawed. Michigan State has the best defense, by far, but the Spartans’ offense is atrocious. There is currently a four-man competition going on for the starting job, and that’s never a good sign. Sparty also lost its best offensive weapon in Le’Veon Bell. Michigan has to adjust to a new offensive scheme with a quarterback who hasn’t been a starter for a full season. Nebraska has an above-average running attack, but Martinez is erratic throwing the ball while the defense has declined in recent years. The Cornhuskers have been lit up fairly often on the defensive side of the ball, most notably in last year’s Big Ten title game.  Northwestern nearly ran the table last year and returns an experienced, talented team. They have the toughest schedule but also the fewest question marks.

A case can be made for any of these teams, but I feel that this year, the ball bounces the Wildcats’ way. Colter and Mark lead the way on offense, and the defense doesn’t cough up late leads like it did a year ago. The Wildcats finally break through and make the Big Ten championship game.

Leaders Division Champion

Wisconsin

Look, I know Ohio State is overwhelming favorite here. The Buckeyes went undefeated last year, they have Braxton Miller and Urban Meyer, and they are recruiting like gangbusters, I know. That being said, they remind me a lot of Florida State the past couple years. Everyone touted them and built them up yet ignored some red flags. Ohio State won 12 games last year, but it was against a fairly easy schedule. Even more, they struggled in quite a few of them. Plus, the Buckeyes have to replace much of last year’s front seven. That’s not a good sign when you have to play a Wisconsin team that will run right at the new guys. The Badgers are experienced and have the confidence born from playing in three consecutive Rose Bowls. Andersen and Aranda are phenomenal coaches, and they’re inheriting personnel well-suited to their scheme. Ohio State will face the pressure of national title hopes every week while Wisconsin will not.

In the end, an experienced, battle-tested Wisconsin team pulls off the upset in its one big game of the year and wins the Leaders Division.

Conference Champion

Wisconsin

The Legends Division is deeper, but the top of the Leaders Division is much stronger. Whoever wins between Wisconsin and Ohio State will be heavily favored in the Big Ten championship game. As much as I like Northwestern, I just can’t see them holding up for long against the powerful ground attacks of Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Since I picked Wisconsin to win the division, the Badgers are the pick to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.

[Image source 1, 2, 3, 4]

 

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