About a year and a half ago, Big Ten officials spent hours on end attempting to find the perfect balance between the two, six-member divisions that the conference would be split into. Now though, the balance between the Leaders and Legends divisions already seems a bit unstable.
The Leaders Division already has two teams ineligible for postseason play in Ohio State and Penn State due to NCAA sanctions. Additionally, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue have all had recent coaching changes and have been anything but elite. That leaves the two-time defending conference champion Wisconsin Badgers as the frontrunner to head back to Indianapolis December 1st for the second annual Big Ten Championship Game.
Considering the ineligible teams, the marquee game in the division may very well boil down to Wisconsin at Purdue October 13th. If that doesn’t prove that we have a very unusual season ahead in the Leaders Division, I don’t know what will. After meeting up with coaches and players at Big Ten Media Days in July, here is a team-by-team preview of the Big Ten Leaders Division for the 2012 season.
Montee Ball is back. Every Badger fan reassured himself of this throughout the offseason when UW’s quarterback situation and coaching turnover was bound to cause trouble. It seemed for a while that the 2012 season would depend solely on Ball’s performance.
Now Badger fans can relax. The quarterback situation has been settled. Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien will start the season opener against Northern Iowa and seems much more comfortable after being reunited with the pro-style offense that he excelled in during his freshman year. O’Brien reportedly threw only two interceptions in fall camp.
Unsurprisingly, there’s plenty more that should comfort Badger nation, whether it’s the returning duo of linebackers, redshirt junior Chris Borland and redshirt senior Mike Taylor, the “big uglies” who will be paving the way for Ball and the rest of our extremely deep running back position, or the experienced secondary.
However, Badger players must adapt to six new coaches under Bielema (four on offense, two on defense) if they want another run to Indianapolis. Players seem to have adapted nicely, however.
“I wasn’t really worried at all,” Taylor said. “I feel like that’s what we do at Wisconsin, we have good years, we have good coaches, and eventually they’ll move on to bigger and better things and we’ll get new coaches that will do the same thing.”
They must also limit the big plays on defense, something they failed to do too often in their three losses last season.
Expectations are rarely this high for a team that loses 13 starters, but with only three other teams in between Wisconsin and Indianapolis, the Badgers season would be considered a disappointment by many if they can’t make their way back to Lucas Oil Stadium in early December.
New head coach Urban Meyer stressed at the Big Ten Media Days that his team wouldn’t be taking a breather by any means this season because of their postseason ban.
“There’s no such thing as a buffer year in college football, certainly not at Ohio State and certainly not with myself and our staff and our players,” he said.
Sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller returns and is looking to build on last season’s 13 touchdowns and 54 percent completion rate. He also ran for seven touchdowns in his Big Ten Freshman of the Year campaign. Miller took the reins during the fourth week of last season and should be much more polished this season under Meyer’s spread offense.
Meyer’s presence has already affected the coaching staff enormously, as seven of his 10 assistants are new to the program.
Don’t think for one second that Meyer and the rest of the team, which returns a whopping 16 starters, will be letting their foot off the gas in a season where postseason play is out of the question.
“Expectations are high,” senior defensive lineman John Simon said. “We’re just trying to go out and win every game if possible. We just gotta make sure we’re taking it one game at a time, we got a big training camp coming up and we just gotta make every day count.”
The Nittany Lions are beginning a brand new chapter. Their new promotional video for the 2012 season makes this clear.
“We’ve got a bunch of kids back in State College right now that are sticking together, that have been through a lot of tough times over the last six months but have turned the page and are ready to move forward,” head coach Bill O’Brien said.
Penn State fans know for certain that it will be a huge task to put points on the scoreboard. Losing junior running back Silas Redd to USC and having senior quarterback Matt McGloin under center isn’t necessarily a good formula for punching the ball into the end zone on a regular basis.
However, O’Brien seems quite confident in his quarterback.
“The quarterback situation, Matt McGloin is our starter,” he said. “He’s smart, tough, competitive; I’m proud to have him as the starting quarterback at Penn State.”
The defensive unit appears to be in much less trouble despite losing all four secondary positions. Defensive tackle Jordan Hill and linebacker Michael Mauti should anchor the unit but will have to step up enormously if they want a chance to keep their own offense within striking distance.
“I’ve heard the talk that (the NCAA santions are) so bad and what are we going to do?” O’Brien said. “I don’t see it that way. I see it as an opportunity. I see it as a little bit of adversity that we need to overcome.”
The Boilermakers appear to be a dark horse in many peoples’ minds for the upcoming season. That label may very well hold true, especially with head coach Danny Hope’s resounding optimism for this year’s squad.
“First time since I became the head coach at Purdue we potentially have a very good football team coming back,” he said. “We have a lot of experience. We have some maturity. We have a lot of team speed. For the first time in a long time experienced, accomplished quarterbacks. A lot of good signs for this upcoming season.”
One of those “accomplished quarterbacks” is senior Caleb TerBush, who started all 13 games last season and looks to separate Purdue from the middle of the pack.
“We’ve had a pretty good offseason. Everyone has devoted their bodies, their energy to getting better and making us one of those top-caliber teams,” TerBush said. “We’re really in it to just take it game by game and see what happens.”
They will start Big Ten play with home games against No. 8 Michigan, No. 12 Wisconsin, and then travel to No. 18 Ohio State. If Purdue can manage to earn just one win out of that brutal stretch, they could very well have a shot at making it to Indy.
If Illinois’ new head coach Tim Beckman had to bring one thing to Champaign, many Fighting Illini fans would certainly say the same thing: more consistency.
Beckman said that correcting the offensive line problems is key to turning in more consistent and well-rounded football seasons Taking care of this business might come easier this year, as 14 starters return.
“The major concern, as we all know, is the offensive line,” Beckman admitted. “The offensive line has got to be able to protect and block for you. And (junior quarterback) Nathan (Scheelhaase) is one of the great, great football players, there’s no question about it.”
Scheelhaase, who said he spent ample time in the offseason mentally preparing for the upcoming season, simply wants to see more guys making big plays.
“We have more guys than (former Fighting Illini wide receiver and current 49ers rookie) AJ Jenkins that are capable of making plays,” Scheelhaase said. “And if we use more guys like that, we’re going to be more dangerous as an offense. We expect a lot of guys to step up.”
Junior wide receivers Darius Millines and Spencer Harris may have to be those guys to step up, as Scheelhaase led the team in rushing last season at 624 yards.
Indiana’s poor defense has been in the spotlight year after year, but head coach Kevin Wilson wants that to change.
“Everybody talks about our D struggling. We average 18.1 points (per game),” he said bluntly. “That’s as poor an offense as I’ve been around since 1999. So we need to score points, because that will help our defense.”
The key to scoring more points will lie in the hands of sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson, who had a promising start to his career last season. He threw for 937 yards and rushed for 426 more. Expect Wilson to stress to his quarterback the need to take his time and keep the defense rested as long as possible. After all, Wilson himself isn’t 100 percent confident in his team’s defense and wasn’t afraid to admit to it.
“I think we’ll be a lot better on defense, but we’re not at a point physically in year two to play lights-out, great defense,” he said. “Scoring points is going to be critical for our football team’s success.”
Two bright points for Indiana this season include having 15 starters return, including all four defensive linemen, and that arguably their four toughest matchups of the season (Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa) all take place in Bloomington.