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A Closer Look at Nebraska and the Entire Big Ten Legends Division
John Mitchell: We hope you enjoyed our preview of the Leaders division of the Big Ten and now we move on to the Legends division. With me as always to dissect the division are Zach Bigalke and Matt Strobl.
Zach Bigalke: Every time I see those division names, I just can’t understand why the Big Ten wasn’t honest in its rationale for the way it split the teams and just called them the Hayes and Schembechler divisions. (Or, alternately for you history buffs, the Stagg and Yost divisions.) Why they passed up the opportunity to play off on an unparalleled depth of history is beyond me. But that’s neither here nor there… let’s dive in and get to this preview.
Matt Strobl: What makes these Legends? I’m hard-pressed to find anything remotely legendary about Minnesota football. Every time I look at the Big Ten standings this year I’m going to cringe.
Mitchell: Just like the Leaders division, the Legends division should be competitive and should provide high drama for much of the season. What are your overall thoughts on the division?
Strobl: I love the addition of Nebraska to the conference. It adds another high-end team that gives the Big Ten some balance. With an improving Michigan squad, Michigan State, and Iowa, this might be the better division, top to bottom. Even Northwestern has its moments of glory each season. The only weak link in the Gophers, but every division needs a doormat.
Bigalke: Nebraska enters the Big Ten as a favorite to win the conference in its first year. Mark Dantonio’s squad will have something to say about that, and despite losing Ricky Stanzi the Hawkeyes should still be as competitive as ever under Kirk Ferentz. Northwestern is tougher than they’re given credit. The weird thing is thinking of Michigan in the same sentence as Minnesota… which isn’t quite the case, but these two teams are the weaker teams at the moment in the division. (Don’t expect the Wolverines to last in the cellar as long as the Gophers, though…)
Mitchell: Nebraska looks to be the favorite right now, but Michigan State is coming off an 11 win season and has a lot of key pieces back in East Lansing. Michigan and Iowa should be tough teams as well, and you can’t count out Northwestern with Dan Persa back from the Achilles injury. Minnesota is really the only lame duck in the conference.
Expectations are considerably lower for the Hawkeyes in 2011 with last season’s collapse still fresh on everyone’s mind. But, it always seems like when the burden of high expectations aren’t on Kirk Ferentz, his team surprises. Will that be the case for Iowa in 2011, or are they who most think they are?
Bigalke: No team returns less talent in the Big Ten than the Hawkeyes, who return five offensive starters, just four from last year’s starting defense and their kicker. (Only defending BCS champion Auburn returns fewer starters from last year’s roster.) That much attrition is always going to be tough to overcome, and this year should really be no different for Iowa. As good a coach as Kirk Ferentz has proven himself to be, losing that much talent is destined to necessitate some growing pains in the season to come. That game at home against Pitt on September 17 should really tell us a lot about the Hawkeyes. Three years ago Iowa fell a point short at Heinz Field; if they lose again to the Panthers, this could really be a lost season in Iowa City.
Mitchell: Iowa always seems to surprise when they are flying under the radar, and that’s exactly what they are doing this season. The Hawkeyes were burdened with high expectations last season, and they collapsed in November with three straight losses to Northwestern, Ohio State, and Minnesota. James Vandenberg takes over at QB for Ricky Stanzi, and a lot is expected of him. Marcus Coker enters his sophomore season in the backfield, after rushing for 622 yards last season, including a 219 rushing yard day against Missouri in the Insight Bowl.
Iowa’s offensive line should be strong with three returning starters and the two new starters have started in the past. The defense will be the key with only five starters returning. Replacing All American defensive end Adrian Clayborn won’t be easy, and losing safety duo Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood won’t be easy either. Overall, the Hawkeyes should be solid, but I don’t expect them to seriously push for the division title.
Strobl: The loss of quarterback Ricky Stanzi is bad. The losses of tailback Adam Robinson and receiver Darrell Johnson-Koulianos are arguably worse. And defensively, the Hawkeyes were pillaged by the draft and graduation. This is looking like a rebuild year despite the return of WR Marvin McNutt and a quality offensive line. Avoiding Wisconsin and Ohio State will help, but Iowa must travel to Happy Valley and Lincoln. Homes games against Michigan and MSU could decide whether or not this is a lost season in Iowa City.
Michigan ended their two-year bowl drought last season, finishing 7-6 and getting pounded by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, but that wasn’t good enough for Rich Rodriguez to keep his job. Now, Brady Hoke enters and Wolverine fans are anxiously awaiting the return to the old style of Michigan football. What should we expect in year one of the Hoke era?
Mitchell: It’s going to be interesting to see how dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson transitions into Al Borges’ pro-style offense. Robinson was so great last season, because Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense was perfectly suited for his style of play. With nine starters returning on offense, even in a new system, the Wolverines should be potent. The real question mark is on defense. Michigan was one of the worst defenses in the nation last year, finishing 110th in the nation in total defense. Michigan returns seven starters on defense, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Troy Woolfolk’s return from a season-ending injury last season will upgrade the Wolverines secondary. Michigan should be improved defensively from last year, because really, they can’t get much worse. Even with a new offensive and defensive system, Michigan should be good enough to win 7-8 games.
Strobl: This is the hire Michigan should have made in the first place. Not that Hoke was ready three years ago, but the program should have gone with substance over style. Fans can close the book on the Rich Rod era and move on to bigger and better things as their Wolverines get back to basics. Hoke has plenty of talent in the place. His challenge will be adapting that talent to his system. It’s never easy to endure a regime change, and Michigan may have a few setbacks this year. The good news for 2011 is that Michigan gets Ohio State and Nebraska at home. The team also returns virtually its entire offense. A quality bowl game is well within reach.
Bigalke: Everyone seems bullish on Michigan now that Brady Hoke is installed in the place. But he wasn’t the team’s first choice in this most recent search, let’s not forget, and in the first year of installing a radically different offense could come with growing pains as players recruited for Rich Rodriguez’s up-tempo spread offense are introduced to a pro-style West Coast system. The problem last year, though, wasn’t Michigan’s offense (8th nationally in yardage, 25th in scoring, 13th/36th rushing/passing). No, it was a defense that was among the dozen most porous in the nation. And with seven players returning from last year’s starters, either they need to mature quick or Hoke needs to fix that problem or the Wolverines are going to be scrambling precariously for bowl position once again.
Michigan State is coming off of one of the best season’s the team has had in quite some time after reeling off 11 wins. But some thought Alabama exposed Sparty for a fraud with the 49-7 pounding in the Capital One Bowl. With a lot of talent returning, can Michigan State match their success from a year ago, or are they doomed to take a step back?
Strobl: Road games and a rebuilt defense will be Michigan State’s challenge this year. The Spartans must play at Columbus, Lincoln, and South Bend, and getting Wisconsin at home doesn’t make that matchup much easier. The offensive skill positions should be solid. QB Kirk Cousins, tailbacks Edwin Baker and La’Veon Bell, tight end Brian Linthicum, and receivers Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham all return. But the offensive line will feature three new starters, making protection a key concern. Defensively the team has a lot of holes to fill, and the schedule doesn’t offer many breaks. An eight-win season would be a solid result.
Bigalke: Look, the Spartans lost five players on both sides of the ball. They lost offensive coordinator (and the glue that held the team together when Dantonio’s health problems hit last season) Don Treadwell depart for the head coaching position with the RedHawks of Miami. This team caught a lot of magic last year, with all of its last-second gimmickry (see: Giants, Little; Trap, Mouse) keeping heartbeats rapid in East Lansing. But that luck isn’t guaranteed to translate across seasons, and remaining as consistent as Nebraska or other division opponents is going to be a lot tougher with the loss of Treadwell. They’ll more than likely win another over Michigan this year, they’ll get to bowl eligibility. But a trip to Indianapolis would require more injuries to division opponents AND more of last year’s luck to continue turning their way than I see happening.
Mitchell: There’s a chance that Michigan State might actually have improved from last season, but their record might not show it. They missed Ohio State on the schedule last year, but now they have to travel to the Horseshoe, along with playing road games against Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Iowa. Kirk Cousins is back under center for his senior season, and he has top targets like BJ Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, and Keith Nichol back in East Lansing. Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell should provide a formidable running game, but they do have to replace three starters on the offensive line. Sparty’s defensive line will be the strength of the defense led by Jerel Worthy on the interior and ends Tyler Hoover and William Gholston. Michigan State should be good enough to compete for the Legends division title, but I don’t think they’ll reach the eleven win plateau from 2010.
Minnesota fired Tim Brewster after last season’s four win debacle, and made a brilliant hire of former Northern Illinois head coach Jerry Kill. While Kill is a good coach, he certainly has his work cut out for him if he plans to resurrect the Golden Gopher football program. The outlook looks bleak for Minnesota, but is there any chance they can climb out of the cellar?
Bigalke: Kill did a hell of a job with the Huskies, though that stumble in the MAC Championship to Miami (in what might just have been Mike Haywood’s last game as a head coach) last December really was one of the biggest shockers of the season in my eyes. That team redeemed itself with a bowl victory over a strong Fresno State team, and just as his previous school rose to prominence Kill has the skills to help out this program. It won’t happen this year, though, everything aligning to make this a hellish season for the Gophers as their transformation to the new coaching style takes time to pay dividends.
Mitchell: I loved the Jerry Kill hiring, but it’s going to take some time before he gets results in Minneapolis. The Golden Gophers are coming off of a three win season in 2010, but did finish the season on a high note with wins over Illinois and Iowa at the end of the year. If Minnesota wants to get more than three wins this year, then they’ll have to do better in their non-conference slate. Their only win in the non-conference was against MTSU last season, and they lost to FCS foe South Dakota. The opening game in LA against USC will most likely be a loss, but they should be able to handle their other three OOC games. Former receiver MarQueis Gray takes over at QB, and should give the team a real duel-threat in the passing game. I think Minnesota will show signs of improvement this season, but I wouldn’t expect more than four wins.
Strobl: No. The Gophers have one conference game against a team that missed going to a bowl last year, and that’s the matchup with Purdue. Other than that, they’re staring at a long list of losses. Not only does Kill have to overhaul the program to fit his scheme, he has to do it will a serious lack of both talent and depth. He’s a good coach and should get the most of his crew, but the ceiling is just too low. At best, this is a four-win season in Minneapolis, assuming the Gophers can beat Miami of Ohio and the Boilermakers.
Bo Pelini and Nebraska departed the Big XII after a ten win season last year, a North title, and a close loss to Oklahoma in the conference title game. Now, they enter the Big Ten as the favorites to win the Legends division and play in the first ever Big Ten Title game. Can the Huskers have a smooth transition into a new conference and win the Legends division?
Mitchell: Nebraska has the feel of a Big Ten team, even after spending so much time in the Big XII. Their style of play will easily translate to the new conference. The success of the team will hinge on quarterback Taylor Martinez. He threw for 1631 yards last season and rushed for 965 more, but he’ll need to be much more consistent with his arm if the Huskers want to make waves in the Big Ten. They finished 113th nationally in passing offense in 2010. The transition from Roy Helu Jr. to Rex Burkhead should be seamless in the backfield. Defensively, the “black shirts” should once again be stout anchored by defensive tackle Jared Crick. This could very well be the best defense that a Bo Pelini Nebraska squad has fielded, and that should help them in reaching the first Big Ten Championship game. Nebraska gets Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa in Lincoln, but they do have to travel to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan.
Strobl: I think Nebraska will step in and win this division. When you look at the overall level of talent and the competition they’ll be facing, the ‘Huskers simply have the edge. Losing Roy Helu, Jr. is tough, but if Taylor Martinez can mature a bit as a passer it will ease the pressure on tailback Rex Burkhead. The defense should be dominant even without Prince Amukamara; Jared Crick anchors what could be the best d-line in the conference, and the secondary should be only slightly weakened. Keep an eye on Alfonzo Dennard this year as he becomes the go-to guy at corner. The real question about this team is can a new offensive line do its job. Martinez isn’t the most durable QB out there, and if he starts to take hits, Nebraska may need to worry.
Bigalke: That’s my big worry, Matt — that Martinez isn’t going to last an entire season against the defenses of the Big Ten, which by and large are going to punish him far worse than Big XII defenses proved ultimately capable of accomplishing last season. Because of that, along with the conference adjustment period for the Huskers all across the roster, this might just not be the year for Nebraska to come in and dominate like everybody is expecting. Like Iowa they lost a lot of players, needing to replace six offensive starters around Martinez (if he survives). And can Bo Pelini hold his temper for another season? Is it possible that the Big Ten blows his gasket? All things told, they’ll be a strong team, and perhaps I’m crazy for not picking them. But I’ll take that chance given the reservations I have about this season of transition in Lincoln.
Northwestern wasn’t the same team last year after Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles tendon in November, but the team was still able to win seven games and make it to a bowl game. With Persa back to full strength, can the Wildcats take the next step forward in 2011?
Strobl: I think they can, and it may be a bigger step than fans think. Persa could end up being the Big Ten’s best QB this year, and his offensive line is as veteran as it gets. Add to that two returning starers in the backfield and two more at receiver and you have the recipe for offensive success. My key for Northwestern this year is the defense. Can this unit put the brakes on good opposing offenses? Northwestern avoids both Ohio State and Wisconsin, which is huge, but must contend with Iowa and Nebraska on the road. Home games against Michigan State and Penn State could help decide the division.
Bigalke: This team is my darkhorse pick to take it all in this conference. That’s right, I said Northwestern will be playing in Indianapolis on December 3. Why am I confident enough about the Wildcats this season to make such a bold statement? Well, hope is high in Evanston with 17 of their 24 starters back (9 on offense including Dan Persa, 7 on defense and their punter). Only Michigan and Purdue have more players back, and neither team returns a team this good. There has been stability in the coaching staff, and it shows on the field. This team, as good as it is, should be 8-0 by the time they travel to Lincoln for the early-November showdown that is likely the de-facto division championship game. And I expect this team to surprise Nebraska just as they have done to Iowa in recent seasons. Yes, I said it — this team is more than a sleeper, they’re a legitimate division champion when all the box scores are online and fading from our memory.
Mitchell: Northwestern started last season 5-0, but ended up losing six of its last eight games, and a big reason for that was the loss of Dan Persa in November. With Persa back and healthy, the Northwestern passing attack should be a force to be reckoned with. The real key will be establishing a better ground game. Mike Trumpy is the returning leading rusher from last season with 530 yards and should settle in as the team’s featured back, but the Wildcats haven’t produced a 1000 yard rusher since 2006. An offensive line that has a combined 130 starts should help the ground game, and give Persa time to find his receivers. Defensively, the Wildcats will have to improve a pass defense that finished 95th nationally. Like Matt said, missing both Ohio State and Wisconsin is huge, and getting Michigan, Penn State, Minnesota and Michigan State all in Evanston will help. I think this team very well could make some noise in the division.
Strobl1. Northwestern 1.Nebraska 1.Nebraska 2.Nebraska 2. Michigan
State 2. Northwestern 3. Michigan
State 3. Northwestern 3. Michigan
State 4.Iowa 4.Michigan 4.Michigan 5.Michigan 5.Iowa 5.Iowa 6.Minnesota 6.Minnesota 6.Minnesota
Who do you see as the sleeper team in the Legends division?
Mitchell: It’s Northwestern. A lot of previews have the Wildcats pegged as 5th in the division, but I could definitely see them jumping up to third, but I don’t think they’re quite good enough to overtake either Nebraska or Michigan State. Dan Persa’s return from injury plus a favorable in-conference schedule should greatly benefit Northwestern.
Strobl: As I mentioned, Northwestern could sneak up on people this year. Don’t be shocked to see the Wildcats atop the division at some point. Dan Persa and the Northwestern o-line might be the best unit in the Big Ten, and if the defense can make use of its experience, this could be a great year in Evanston.
Bigalke: Look, I can’t also pick Northwestern — especially since I see them not just as a sleeper but as the division champ. So who else could be a sleeper in the division? Nebraska and Michigan State just don’t have that surprise factor, given that they would have been the top two teams in this division had it existed in 2011. So who among the other three is best poised to make some noise? Call me crazy, but Iowa is the closest thing this division has to a darkhorse this season. Michigan, if they take more immediately than I suspect they will to Hoke’s schemes, could be dangerous, but I don’t see it happening. The Hawkeyes are the more likely choice to make some noise and get to a bowl.
Who is the top pro prospect in the division?
Strobl: I like Jared Crick from Nebraska. Following the departures of Ndamukong Suh and Prince Amukamara, Crick has chance to be the next big name in Lincoln, and he shouldn’t disappoint. At 6’4”, 285 pounds he’s not the biggest defensive end around, but he’s quick (4.82 40 time) and aggressive. This season will give him a chance to hone his skills in the tougher Big Ten and could vault him into the top 10.
Bigalke: I’m going to look at the other side of the ball, where I think QB/WR MarQueis Gray is going to best translate his skills into a long NFL career. Why? With his 6’4” height, 230-pound strength and ability to play multiple positions with success, Gray is the prototypical Kordell Stewart/Antwaan Randle El type who can easily use his athleticism to ferret out which niche he can fill in an organization to best utilize his talents. We’ll see if he works as a passer this year, but if Kill’s early projections and excitement are accurate (Northern Illinois did recruit the kid out of high school with little obvious success, so Kill has long been high on his skill set) about the development of Gray we could see a future burner. After all, if Terrelle Pryor and Cam Newton will be given chances, why wouldn’t an NFL team take a long look at a guy who has already proven willing to move where he is most needed?
Mitchell: I’ll counter Matt’s pick with another defensive tackle in Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy. He saw a lot of double teams as a sophomore, and may be better suited for the NFL than Crick. I know a lot of people are high on Crick, but he’s been remarkably inconsistent so far in Lincoln. Worthy is just a junior, and could end up back in East Lansing for his senior season, but he could wind up as the top defensive tackle in the 2012 draft if he declares early.