What Can We Expect From the Big Ten's Leaders Division in 2011?

| by Sports Nickel

John Mitchell: We hope you enjoyed our SEC and Pac-12 previews, as we now move to Matt’s backyard in the Big Ten, starting with the Leaders division. With me as always are Zach Bigalke and Matt Strobl to break down the division.

Zach Bigalke: Ah, the land of my birth, the hearty Midwest… a land now carved up with two ridiculous division names. So let’s not get me any more fired up about that and get on with the preview, shall we?

Matt Strobl: If you won’t, I will.  Conference chair Jim Delaney has taken this once-proud league and reduced it to a punchline with these asinine division names.  “Leaders” and “Legends”?  It’s absurd and childish, the worst possible move for a conference begging to be respected and taken seriously on the same level as the SEC.

Mitchell: This is the first year of the split divisions of the Big Ten, and ignoring the dumb names of the divisions, this looks to be competitive. What are your overall thoughts on the Leaders division?

Strobl: Well, I have to refer to a damn map to know who’s in the division in the first place.  This Big Ten shakeup is going to take some adjusting on my part.  But despite their troubles, the Buckeyes need to head into this season with the mindset that they’re still the favorites.  I’ve seen recent articles talking about OSU embracing it’s “new role” as an underdog.  That’s nonsense. 

Ohio State has to keep its swagger and get back to work on the field, brushing off the recent debacle.  If the Buckeyes fail to do so, then Wisconsin is going to win this division.  Frankly, that could happen anyway; the Badgers could well be the best team in the Big Ten.  And the with the other four “Leaders” being anything but, this is a two-horse race.  I will say that Penn State could surprise, but we can save that for later.

Bigalke: If you can say one thing about these divisions, they seem reasonably split as far as competitive balance is concerned. The first of the two we’ll be discussing has the traditional dominant power versus their returning conquering foe. They’ve got the oldest coach in college football, coaches on the hot seat and a team already excited about landing a top recruit next year. All in all it should be a hell of a good time watching the Badgers (full disclosure: born in Wisconsin, raised a fan, can’t hide it any more than Matt can hide his Buckeye allegiance) drive toward another Pasadena trip (if not points eastward).

Mitchell: From the onset, this division looks to be a two team race between the Buckeyes and Badgers, despite the goings-on in Columbus. Penn State and Illinois are both solid teams, but not on the same level as Ohio State and Wisconsin, and Indiana, despite progress on the recruiting front, are still a year or two away from being anything more than a doormat. The October 29th date at the Horseshoe between Ohio State and Wisconsin should decide who plays in the first Big Ten title game out of the Leaders division.

Ron Zook was on the hot seat coming into last season, but he saved his job by leading Illinois to their first bowl berth in eleven years with a win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Now, fans are hoping for further improvement in Champaign, and the Ilini have a lot of talent returning. Will Illinois get back to a bowl game, and be competitive in the Leaders division?

Bigalke: I think that every year we consider Zook to be a hot-seat candidate is a season that we’re being proved fools. The Illini haven’t truly been relevant on a national level since the days of Bob Zuppke… or, to be fair, since 1951 when Ray Eliot led the team to the last of their national championships. As long as they are competitive every few years, pull off an upset here and there and reach a bowl game at least every other year, the board is going to be fairly contented with Zook’s position.

They’ve got the talent offensively to get back to a bowl; whether the defense holds will determine where that bowl ends up being. Look for them to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack, out of contention for the division title but at least competitive.

Mitchell: Expectations were low in Champaign last season, but we didn’t know what kind of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase would be. He threw for 1,825 yards and 17 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions, and set an Illini record for rushing yards by a QB with 868. Scheelhaase should only get better in his sophomore season under center, and his progression should help Illinois make their second straight trip to a bowl game.

Mikel LeShoure will not be easily replaced in the backfield, but Jason Ford has a lot of experience and gained 480 yards on the ground in 2010. Truthfully, the two biggest losses for Illinois probably came on defense with both defensive tackle Corey Liuget, and linebacker Martez Wilson both leaving a year early for the NFL. But, I think along with getting bowl eligible, Illinois could very well be competitive in the Leaders division, and could possibly push Penn State for 3rd.

Strobl: Things line up pretty well for Illinois this year.  The Illini get Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin at home and avoid Nebraska entirely.  They also have virtually their entire offense returning, with the notable exception of LeShoure.  If Scheelhaase can take another step forward in his development, Illinois could have a solid offensive attack.  But the defense troubles me.  There are big questions along the line and at linebacker, and I think that the unit will struggle against better teams.  A bowl game is almost certain, given the fabulously weak non-conference schedule.  But I still expect the illini to be fourth in the division.

Kevin Wilson has optimism rising in Bloomington, but his first year at the helm of Indiana looks like it’s going to be a tough one. What are the chances that the Hoosiers work their way out of the cellar in the division?

Mitchell: I don’t think it’s any secret that it won’t be long before former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has the Indiana football program back on the map, and out of the cellar of the Big Ten, especially after landing one of the nation’s top QB recruits for the 2012 recruiting class in Gunner Kiel. But, it will likely be Gunner’s brother, Dusty, leading the charge for the Hoosiers in 2011. Indiana was a few lucky breaks away from bowl eligibility in 2010, but after losing QB Ben Chappell, the Hoosiers should take a step back in Wilson’s first season. Indiana has some talent, but Wilson’s rebuilding project won’t happen overnight. This team will likely finish last in the division, and once again miss out on a bowl game. But, enjoy beating up on them while you can, because it won’t be long before they are competitive again.

Strobl: I love the optimism, John.  But until I see some proof on the field, my expectations will remain appropriately low.  Indiana hasn’t been football-relevant for a long time and this year will be no different.  With road games against Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State, the Hoosiers will be lucky to make a bowl game.  The non-conference schedule is soft enough to make that happen, but anything beyond 6-6 is probably too much to hope for.

Bigalke: Getting out of the cellar this year might be a tall task, though at least they are in the same division as state rival Purdue. The Battle for the Old Oaken Bucket could very well decide which of these two teams finishes dead last in the division. After losing nearly half their starters, Wilson has a tall task ahead of him. He is a skilled enough coach, but the Hoosiers will always have an uphill battle in getting to the top of this division. And getting a guy like Kiel can help motivate a better group of players to come to Bloomington in the future, but it can’t help that much this season. Look for the Hoosiers to desperately cling once again to hopes of bowl eligibility that will be dependent on beating the Boilermakers, running their non-conference schedule (of which Virginia is their main worry) and hoping for at least one more Big Ten upset.

There is a ton of uncertainty in Columbus with the NCAA investigation, Jim Tressel stepping down, and Terrelle Pryor going to the NFL via the supplemental draft. But, there is still a lot of talent at Luke Fickell’s disposal. Can Ohio State fight through all the distractions and play in the first Big Ten Title game?

Strobl: This offseason has been horrendous for Ohio State fans, and we need something to take our minds off of the whole mess.  Whether or not Luke Fickell can make that happen remains to be seen.  It’s hard to make any predictions for this team because there are so many unknowns.  Terrelle Pryor is gone for good, but what of the other suspended players?  Will their bans be lengthened?  Will Pryor’s replacement, presumably true freshman Braxton Miller, be able to step up and lead this team?  Will the defense be able to respond to loss of Cam Heyward and two key linebackers?  The Buckeyes have been so dominant in the Big Ten for so long that it’s hard to imagine a title game without them.  But if forced to make a guess right now, I’d say they’ll stumble in a couple of key games and will be forced to watch the first conference championship on television like the rest of us.

Bigalke: The Buckeyes will be competitive. They’ve loaded up on talent. But the problem for them is the fact that they have seen significantly weakened recruiting classes (from 2008-2011 from Rivals/ 4th/4th, 3rd/1st, 25th/20th, 11th/5th) and some heavy attrition heading into this year. The scandal of TattooGate was only a part of this team’s troubles — even if the offense had been as prolific as usual, Ohio State was already going to have problems maintaining that level of shutdown defense (after losing seven starters from last year’s Sugar Bowl team) that has allowed them to have such a dominant run. Ohio State will challenge, but they are not the class of the conference this year.

Mitchell: Along with replacing Terrelle Pryor at QB, the Buckeyes will be without  last season’s leading rusher Boom Herron, their top returning receiver DeVier Posey, and starting left tackle Mike Adams for the first five games of the season. Those five games include a trip to Coral Gables to take on Miami, and a home date with Michigan State. Even without Pryor, and Jim Tressel, Ohio State figures to have a plethora of talent available to make a run at the Big Ten Championshp. Jon Bauserman will more than likely start at QB at least early on, but look for freshman Braxton Miller to push for playing time if he struggles. Fortunately for Ohio State, the toughest road games within the conference that they face are manageable, coming against Nebraska, Illinois, and Michigan. They get the luxury of facing off against both Wisconsin and Penn State in Columbus.

The loss of Evan Royster and the question marks surrounding the QB position to accompany a tough schedule makes 2011 appear to be another rebuilding sort of year for the Nittany Lions. What should we expect from Penn State in Joe Paterno’s 46th season in Happy Valley?

Bigalke: Only 46?! Wow… it almost feels like he has to make it to that 50th anniversary now. Penn State has at least six winnable games on their schedule, so reaching a bowl shouldn’t be the question for this team. Sure, they lose some talent, but with seven back on each side of the ball the cupboard isn’t completely empty in State College. They’ve got two able if not-yet-distinguished quarterbacks to choose from, a few holes to patch on the offensive line but nothing insurmountable, and plenty of skill players to score enough points to challenge most opponents. The defense is solid if unspectacular, as unassuming as the classic look of those uniforms. Look for this team to be among the top three and bowling… but the BCS might be too much to ask for Paterno’s crew in January 2012.

Mitchell: The Nittany Lions have still yet to decide on a starting quarterback with sophomore Rob Bolden and junior Matt McGloin battling for the job. Regardless of who starts, Penn State should have a solid passing game with receivers Derek Moye and Justin Brown back for another season in Happy Valley. Losing Evan Royster certainly hurts, but he underachieved last season, and the coaches and fans seem to really be excited about Silas Redd as he takes his turn in the backfield. The biggest loss offensively for the Nittany Lions was on the offensive line in guard Stephen Wisniewski. Defensively, Penn State will have to improve a stagnant pass rush that ended up with only 17 sacks in 13 games last season. Fortunately, three of the team’s four starters in the secondary return a year after finishing 2nd in the Big Ten in pass defense. I’d say Penn State will look eerily similar to their 2010-selves, and I just don’t see them making a serious push for the division crown, especially since they play both Ohio State and Wisconsin on the road in consecutive weeks.

Strobl: I think Penn State’s 2011 hinges on Rob Bolden’s development.  Due respect to Matt McGloin, but I’m not sure he’s the guy to elevate this team back to the top of the division.  Bolden has the talent to make it happen, and he has the pieces in place around him.  Silas Redd is a quality back and should pick up where Royster left off.  The receiving corps is in good shape.  In fact, the only offensive question mark other than Bolden himself is his offensive line, where three new starters will get their shot to impress.  Defensively, Penn State should be as good as any team in the league, and that will help keep the Lions in games.  The schedule is favorable until its final two weeks; finishing at Wisconsin and at Ohio State will force PSU to earn its way to Indianapolis.

Purdue had to fight through a good bit of injuries last season, and finished just 4-8. The team brings back a lot from last season’s squad, and some people think the Boilermakers could surprise in the Big Ten. What will it take for Purdue to make their first bowl since 2007?

Mitchell: Injuries plagued the Boilermakers in 2010, and at one point they were starting their fourth string quarterback because of it. If Purdue wants to make a serious push toward bowl eligibility, then they’ll have to stay relatively healthy. Quarterbacks Rob Henry and Robert Marve should both see their fair share of snaps. Henry is the better runner, and is Purdue’s top returning rusher after totaling 547 yards on the ground last season, but Marve has the upper hand in passing, and completed 67.7% of his passes in 2010. Defensively, Purdue returns nine starters to a unit that made some strides last year. Unfortunately for the Boilermakers, it just seems unlikely that they make a bowl game with their schedule. They have tough home games against Notre Dame, Illinois, Ohio State, and Iowa to go along with road tilts against Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana. If Purdue wants to go bowling, they’ll have to win every game they’re supposed to, and pull off an upset or two.

Strobl: The year starts off well enough for Purdue, with a non-conference slate that should have the boilers at 3-0 heading into their bye week.  But then they get Notre Dame, which is sure to have an explosive offense under Brian Kelly.  And after a reprieve against Minnesota, things get brutal, as John showed.   Purdue is going to have to have everything break just right to get to .500.  The more likely outcome is yet another losing season.  There is plenty of veteran talent returning, but it simply isn’t of the same caliber as the division’s top teams.  The goal for Purdue should be to avoid a last place finish.

Bigalke: These sure aren’t Joe Tiller’s Boilermakers. The Cradle of Quarterbacks has some serious questions at the position; is Miami transfer Marve really the answer in West Lafayette? Like John says, health will be the most serious factor for this team. There are nine starters back on defense… but unless they all stay healthy, there isn’t much proven depth behind them to buttress any serious time lost. There is no margin for error, and even Purdue’s best effort is likely just not enough to eke out that sixth win to push to bowl eligibility. Right or wrong, we’re likely going to see the swan song of Danny Hope patrolling the sideline at Ross-Ade Stadium this season.

With all the uncertainty in Columbus, this could be a perfect opportunity for Wisconsin to step up and win the Big Ten Leaders division. With Russell Wilson at QB, a strong running game, and a lot of defensive talent returning, will the Badgers step up and take the Leaders division?

Strobl: It’s no sure thing for Wisconsin, even though Ohio State has been considerably weakened.  Losing QB Scott Tolzien isn’t as bad as it might have been with Russell Wilson coming over from NC State, but there will be a learning curve for him. He is a legitimate dual threat; can he pick up the offense in time to make an impact?  And then there’s the question of whom he’ll be throwing to.  Aside from senior Nick Toon, the receiving corps will feature new faces, and the backfield has to adjust to the loss of John Clay.  James White and Montee Ball should prove more than adequate replacements, though they’ll be running behind a revamped offensive line.  So there are some questions to be answered.  Defensively, the line should be stalwart, but linebacker is up in the air.  Wisconsin’s matchups in Columbus and at Camp Randall against Penn State could well determine the division.

Bigalke: There were definitely a lot of departures from last year’s Rose Bowl squad in Madison, and replacing that production will be key. The offensive line lost several more key cogs high in the NFL draft, but the pipeline has proven capable of filling holes as they arise. The backfield will be plenty fine with Montee Ball and James White filling the hole left by John Clay’s ill-fated decision to declare for a draft through which he sat idly by waiting in vain for that call that never came. The defense still has some question marks in the secondary, and that will be the biggest need for improvement on a team that was weakest in its pass defense last season. If that tightens up, Wilson should be able to benefit from the skill players around him (look for him and Nick Toon to hook up early and often in the passing game) to guide Wisconsin to the first Big Ten championship game.

Mitchell: It will be interesting to see how quickly ex-NC State quarterback Russell Wilson learns the offensive system in Madison after deciding to come and play for Wisconsin less than two months ago. Fortunately for Wilson, he’ll be able to lean on a terrific ground game until he feels comfortable in the offense. Even though the team lost John Clay, the Badgers bring back both James White and Montee Ball, who both had over 900 yards on the ground last season, with White going over 1000, and Ball falling just four yards shy of that mark. Losing Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt off of a dominant offensive line will hurt, but don’t expect the unit to take too much of a step back. Defensively, the biggest loss was at defensive end with JJ Watt now in the NFL. Losing his production rushing the passer will hurt, but the Badgers have some players on the defensive line that look ready to fill his shoes. With seven returning starters on defense, the unit looks to be in pretty good shape. I think the Badgers have what it takes to win the Leaders division and play in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.






1.Wisconsin1.Wisconsin1.Wisconsin2. Penn
State2. Ohio
State2. Ohio
State3. Ohio
State3.Illinois3. Penn
State4.Illinois4. Penn
State4.Illinois5.Indiana5. Purdue5. Purdue6. Purdue6.Indiana6. Indiana

Who do you see being the sleeper team in the Big Ten Leaders division?

Mitchell: I think it’s Illinois. The Illini aren’t expected to make a run in the division, and they very well could flop. It’s hard to have any faith in a team coached by Ron Zook, but I really like what I saw from Scheelhaase last season, and Jason Ford and AJ Jenkins should be big time offensive weapons. Illinois’ offense finished 4th in the Big Ten a year ago, and with a year of experience under Scheelhaase’s belt, the offense could conceivably be better. Illinois gets both Ohio State and Wisconsin and Memorial Stadium, and they avoid playing both Iowa and Nebraska from the Legends division. Look for Illinois to be extremely competitive, and if they catch a couple of breaks, they could have a realistic shot at the division crown.

Strobl: Penn State has the personnel to make something happen, but Rob Bolden must become the leader that this team needs (pun fully intended).  With a potentially great defense and talent at the key skill positions, PSU just needs to handle its business until the final two weeks of the season.  Sure, the non-conference meeting with Alabama will likely mean a loss, but in-conference this team has little to fear until its games against the Bucks and Badgers.

Bigalke: Call me crazy, but it just feels about time for Penn State to at least make a few new ripples of noise in the college football pond. That early game in Happy Valley against the Crimson Tide could put them on the radar — even in a tight defeat, I think. Other than that game they could reach their final three-game stretch against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin at 8-1 and hungry for validation.

Who is the best pro prospect in the division?

Strobl: Ohio State’s Mike Adams is likely to be a top 5 tackle before this year is out, and that should assure him of being a first-rounder.  At 6’6” and 310 pounds, Adams will be key to the Buckeyes’ success.  new QB Braxton Miller is going to need protection, and Adams will have plenty of opportunties to shine.  Conversely, if he stumbles then OSU will as well.  Adams has a great combination of footwork, strength, and of course size.  He should carry on the tradition of Ohio State players making an impact at the next level.

Bigalke: Call me a homer, but Wisconsin has consistently produced great offensive linemen who have gone on to NFL success. From “Iron Mike” Webster through to the seven Badgers linemen on current NFL rosters (Mark Tauscher, Joe Thomas, Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, Bill Nagy, Kraig Urbik and Casey Rabach), they know how to produce ‘em pro-ready in Madison. I have a feeling that several Ohio State linemen might go earlier, but watch out for RG Kevin Zeitler. At 6’4” and 315 he has that prototypical size to work the interior. While linemate Ricky Wagner might make more noise at left tackle, Zeitler should be on everyone’s map come draft time in Manhattan.

Mitchell: I would pick an Ohio State player, but they are already professionals (just kidding, Matt). On a serious note, I like Buckeyes center Mike Brewster, who has been a staple on Ohio State’s offensive line since he was a freshman. Brewster was an All American in 2010, and is one of the early favorites to win the Rimington Award for the nation’s top center in 2011. Brewster has the size to translate to the next level and he could end up being the top center taken next April.