Commentary: 2011 Big Ten Preview
by Jonathan Hodges

The Big Ten will split into two divisions for the first time this season, and I will align my preseason rankings to reflect each division independently. I will also point out the Big Ten teams in the opposite division that each team DOES play, as well as their non-conference opponents.

This year, the Big Ten is certainly in flux: Nebraska joins the fold, Ohio State will begin to suffer the consequences of NCAA violations, and there were three other head coaching changes (Minnesota, Indiana, and Michigan). Wisconsin will look to replicate last year's success on the field, while Michigan State continues to seek that elusive BCS bowl berth. All-in-all, it will likely be a very close race with the representatives to the inaugural Big Ten championship game on December 3 likely not being decided until the Saturday following Thanksgiving. This close race will, of course, make things very interesting but will likely prevent the Big Ten from being represented in the national championship game.

With fans and the media constantly comparing conferences, perception is vital and this season may not be the best for the Big Ten's image on the gridiron: the aforementioned lack of a viable national championship contender, the poor bowl record last year (that included five losses on New Year's Day), and the possibility of newcomer Nebraska winning the conference. Also, it doesn't help that the conference will likely lose some of the higher-profile non-conference matchups (Penn State vs. Alabama and Minnesota at USC). If the Big Ten can exceed expectations in any of these areas, it will certainly help the standing of the conference, although the ultimate trend-changer is winning the national title.

The breakdown of each team is below, but the conference title favorites are led by Nebraska and Wisconsin from the Legends and Leaders divisions, respectively. Ohio State still has the talent to make noise in the Leaders, with Penn State also in the mix. As for the Legends, MSU will be a deciding factor (and will want to avenge last year's bowl sleight), while Michigan, Northwestern, or Iowa could prove to be a dark horse. It will certainly be fun to watch, and it will all culminate with that aforementioned championship bout in early December which should be fun to watch.

Note: * designates cross-division "rival"

Legends Division

1. Nebraska: They come in with what should be the best defense in the conference led by DT Jared Crick and LB Lavonte David, and feature an offense that did a lot of great things last year and will have a healthy QB Taylor Martinez heading into 2011. Unfortunately, they have a brutal conference schedule (see opposite division foes listed below) and must make some tough road trips (including their inauguration into the Big Ten, a trip to Camp Randall to face fellow top-15 team Wisconsin). They are the favorite to win the conference in this, their first year, but they still have some lingering questions on offense (which caused them to falter down the stretch last season) and that plus the tough slate opens the doors to the next bunch of teams.
Opposite Division Opponents: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State*; Non-conference opponents: Chattanooga (FCS), Fresno State, Washington, at Wyoming; Likely Bowl: BCS/Rose.

2. Michigan State: MSU follows up last year's conference co-championship effort by returning most of the key skill players on offense, including QB Kirk Cousins, as well as their trio of RBs and some talented wide receivers. On the other side of the ball, DT Jerel Worthy has next-level abilities and although the squad must replace a couple of very talented LBs, they have enough talent to effectively reload. They do have a somewhat tough slate, though, having to face some tough cross-divisional opponents as well as their annual bout with Notre Dame, who many predict will have a rebound season.
Opposite Division Opponents: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana*; Non-conference opponents: Youngstown State (FCS), Florida Atlantic, at Notre Dame, Central Michigan; Likely Bowl: Outback.

3. Iowa: The Hawkeyes lost some key component from last season but come back with a typically-strong defense and a prototypical Iowa offensive line (i.e. a good one). Marcus Coker ran wild in their bowl win and will be the go-to RB this year, while QB James Vandenberg has garnered some praise and will have a top receiver in Marvin McNutt to target. Their schedule is manageable, with their toughest game being the new rivalry bout with Nebraska the final week of the regular season that very well may decide the division champion.
Opposite Division Opponents: Penn State, Indiana, Purdue*; Non-conference opponents: Tennessee Tech (FCS), at Iowa State, Pittsburgh, Louisiana-Monroe; Likely Bowl: Gator.

4. Northwestern: Anyone who is reading this doesn't need a whole lot of information on NU, but despite a lot of potential, they face an uphill battle to eclipse the three teams above them in this division. The offense has question marks all over the place, including with all-conference QB Dan Persa who is coming off of the Achilles injury, while the defense must rebound from the epic breakdown at the end of last year. But this squad knows how to win close games and the schedule looks like they will be in virtually every game, and some of the key matchups (PSU and MSU, in particular) are at home. Although things will be pretty close between Iowa, NU, and Michigan, if the 'Cats can sweep the other two they may find themselves in the hunt for the division crown.
Opposite Division Opponents: Illinois*, Penn State, Indiana; Non-conference opponents: at Boston College, Eastern Illinois (FCS), at Army, Rice; Likely Bowl: Texas.

5. Michigan: Brady Hoke has come in and reinvigorated the Michigan attitude, but there is a long way to go to translate that into on-field results, particularly on defense. While there's nowhere to go but up for the D, there is a long way to go there. DT Mike Martin is very good and there should be some actual personnel available for the secondary this year, while the coaching staff is certainly better. The offense was impressive last year, but that scheme is gone and the huge question is how lightning-fast QB Denard Robinson will be utilized in their new "pro style" attack. Given the issues on defense and the change of scheme on offense, there will likely be pains this year, although the long term prospects are brightening for this traditionally strong program.
Opposite Division Opponents: Purdue, Illinois, Ohio State*; Non-conference opponents: Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, San Diego State; Likely Bowl: TicketCity.

6. Minnesota: This team's continued failures led to an expected regime change, and Jerry Kill seems to be the guy for the job as he has a proven track record of turning around programs at various levels (most recently Northern Illinois). Unfortunately the cupboard is relatively bare this year and they'll surely take their lumps before beginning to move up the ladder. QB MarQueis Gray will be the multi-dimensional focus of their offense, but they just don't have enough threats to outscore many teams. And there are numerous questions on defense to go along with a tough schedule.
Opposite Division Opponents: Purdue, Wisconsin*, Illinois; Non-conference opponents: at USC, New Mexico State, Miami (OH), North Dakota State; Likely Bowl: None.

Leaders Division

1. Wisconsin: Although Wisconsin lost a handful of key seniors on offense both on their vaunted line and also at skill positions, they look like they should be able to reload and will present a huge threat on the ground thanks to the RB duo of Montee Ball and James White. QB Russell Wilson has transferred in from NC State and provides a dual threat at that position, and should be able to step in nicely after having put up big numbers down south. And on defense, the Badgers look to be tough yet again as they return Chris Borland from an injury and will likely
Opposite Division Opponents: Nebraska, Michigan State, Minnesota*; Non-conference opponents: UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois (at Soldier Field), South Dakota (FCS); Likely Bowl: BCS/Rose.

2. Ohio State: The Buckeyes' loss of head coach Jim Tressel and QB Terrelle Pryor coupled with the five game suspension of key players on both sides of the ball (including their starting RB) bumped them down a notch in 2011 and has a good chance of keeping OSU out of the inaugural title game which looked like an almost sure trip after their win in the Sugar Bowl in January. But, despite those tough losses, OSU may be the most talented team in the conference top-to-bottom and field a very tough defense that will be the key in their level of success in 2011. QB is between veteran Joe Bauserman and freshman Braxton Miller; it will be interesting to see who they go with and how much success they have, although they have a favorable early schedule that should assist them getting through those aforementioned suspensions. The key game during that stretch is Michigan State, who missed a shot at the Buckeyes last year, while later in the season OSU must visit Lincoln, Nebraska in what should be a great game.
Opposite Division Opponents: Michigan State, Nebraska, Michigan*; Non-conference opponents: Akron, Toledo, at Miami (FL), Colorado; Likely Bowl: Capital One.

3. Illinois: The Illini showed vast improvements last year with new coordinators on both sides of the ball shaking things up, and this year they'll have some continuity with QB Nathan Scheelhaase looking ready to step up from a nice freshman campaign. Illinois gets a very favorable schedule by avoiding MSU and Nebraska from the opposite division while having to leave Champaign just four times this regular season. While they are typically an enigma and usually fail to live up to higher expectations, they seem to have enough things going their way this season to climb up closer to the conference elite. And if they can get things rolling early, watch out, as an upset win over one of the Leaders' preseason favorites could propel them into the title game.
Opposite Division Opponents: Northwestern*, Michigan, Minnesota; Non-conference opponents: Arkansas State, South Dakota State (FCS), Arizona State, Western Michigan; Likely Bowl: Insight.

4. Penn State: PSU is a team that usually ranks near the top of the conference; unfortunately they have a number of question marks after a subpar 2010 campaign. The QB situation is still unsettled between Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin, and the defense will need to recover from a substandard season last year. Plus, they will have a rather tough schedule, facing preseason number two-ranked Alabama, plus facing nemesis Iowa, conference favorite Nebraska, and having to make a tough trip to Evanston. The Nittany Lions are certainly capable of more, but some team must take a slide and they are it, with what could amount to be a .500 record sending them to an undesirable bowl game.
Opposite Division Opponents: Iowa, Northwestern, Nebraska*; Non-conference opponents: Indiana State (FCS), Alabama, at Temple, Eastern Michigan; Likely Bowl: Pizza.

5. Purdue: The Boilermakers have the defense to be solid, but their offense remains in flux as yet another player went down with an ACL tear before the year (this time, expected starting QB Rob Henry). Kawaan Short is yet another talented DT (the Big Ten has quite a few of those this year), and the defense showed flashes at times a year ago, but they will be forced to carry this team who will once again face big question marks on offense due to injury. Unfortunately, that likely means another year without bowl eligibility.
Opposite Division Opponents: Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa*; Non-conference opponents: Middle Tennessee, at Rice, Southeast Missouri State (FCS), Notre Dame; Likely Bowl: None.

6. Indiana: Kevin Wilson certainly seems like the man for this job and has already upgraded recruiting by hauling in the nation's number one QB recruit for the 2012 class, but unfortunately he was handed a team that lost it's experienced QB and has a defense that has seemingly regressed over the past few seasons. This is certainly a rebuilding year and while they may show a flash here or there, it is unlikely that they will be able to do much in the short term and will likely be the weakest team in the conference (unfortunately they will not face Minnesota this year to potentially decide that on the field).
Opposite Division Opponents: Iowa, Northwestern, Michigan State*; Non-conference opponents: Ball State (at Lucas Oil Stadium), Virginia, South Carolina State, at North Texas; Likely Bowl: None.


The Big Ten will certainly be a competitive league this year with a handful of teams that could possibly make the first title game and a number more who are relatively close together and will be fighting for bowl standing throughout the year. This may keep the national perception lower, but it will certainly make it an entertaining race to the finish for everyone watching the games. Now, time to buckle up for the exciting ride ahead.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

Previous jhodges commentary

jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.