This week we continue our series of Conference Conversations by taking a look at the Big Ten football landscape. Today we start with the first of four Big Ten football Q & A sessions by looking at the teams that can challenge Michigan and Wisconsin for the Big Ten title.
Joining us this week to discuss Big Ten football will be Joe Beale of the Ohio State blog Eleven Warriors. We have Kevin McGuire of the Nittany Lions Den. Eric Cooper of Buckeye House Call will also be joining us, as will Andrew Coppens of the Wisconsin blog MadTown Badgers and Ryan Aylsworth of the Michigan blog Midnight Maize. We are also proud to introduce our own Big Ten football expert, Maggiore. He will be managing the Big Ten football section for The Saturday Edge this fall, so make sure you stop by and check out his game analyses and Big Ten picks. Let’s talk Big 10 football.
Question # 1: Las Vegas has installed Michigan as the favorite to win the Legends Division this year (+110) and Wisconsin to win the Leaders Division (-195). What other team(s) could realistically surprise the oddsmakers and challenge those two teams for the division & conference title? Why?
Joe Beale - Eleven Warriors: Obviously Michigan State is the big one to watch in the Legends Division, since they have had the better of the rivalry with UM of late. Kirk Cousins is gone, but the defense and the running game will keep them competitive until their new QB comes around. MSU has always been a run-first team under Dantonio anyway, so I think that will continue.
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Also don’t go to sleep on Nebraska. They get Michigan at home and they will be anxious to take revenge for the whipping they received at Ann Arbor last year.
In the Leaders division, Ohio State cannot win the conference but they will make things difficult for Wisconsin in the division. The Buckeyes will have a solid defense with a dominant defensive line. If the offensive line and the receivers mature, Urban Meyer’s offense could be surprisingly potent.
A sleeper team to keep an eye on is Purdue. They have Rob Marve back to join Caleb TerBush at QB and they get Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State at home this season.
Kevin McGuire - Nittany Lions Den: I think you have to keep an eye on two teams in the Legends Division that could challenge. Nebraska returns 16 starters this season, including Rex Burkhead at running back and a decent defensive core that should keep the Cornhuskers in most games this season. Nebraska also gets Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State at home this season, which should be a nice advantage.
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The Spartans lose some key players such as Kirk Cousins and B.J. Cunningham and Edwin Baker, but the defense will be formidable once again. If Michigan State can find a sufficient player to assume the quarterbacking role, which seems to be placed in Andrew Maxwell’s hands, then you cannot rule out Sparty, although they must play at Michigan and Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks in October before hosting Nebraska.
In the Leaders Division I believe Wisconsin is the clear team to beat, but with Ohio State ruled out of the picture I consider Penn State and Illinois to be on even playing ground to play the role of spoiler. Penn State’s defense is going to be in decent shape as long as DE Pete Massaro and LB Mike Mauti stay healthy but the offense is a major work in progress with Matt McGloin at QB and a new system being used under Bill O’Brien. Running back Silas Redd should be a leader though, and the Nittany Lions host Ohio State and Wisconsin this season.
Illinois will not be as much of a question on offense with the return of Nathan Scheelhaase, who can be capable of taking a game over and could be ready for a big season under a new head coach . The Illini defense has a few holes to plug and they have a tough road schedule including games at Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Eric Cooper – Buckeye House Call: With the coaching changes in Champaign and Happy Valley, and the loss of Cousins, Baker, Cunningham, Martin and Worthy in East Lansing, 3 of the top teams behind TSUN and Wisconsin with postseason eligibility can almost be ruled out of the race.
Expecting O’Brien and Beckman to have a Brady Hoke type first season is being way too optimistic. Iowa could be on the verge of having a great season if Vandenberg can step up hs game and the stable of young running backs can adequately replace the departed Marcus Coker.
Northwestern could also surprise with the super athletic Kain Colter leading their spread attack and a rock solid defense.
The safest bet to challenge however is either Michigan State or Nebraska. The Huskers, while losing Alfonso Dennard, Lavonte David and Jared Crick, return QB Taylor Martinez, running back Rex Burkhead and a defense that with a year of Big Ten football under their belt will only improve.
If Andrew Maxwell can fill the shoes of Kirk Cousins and lead the Spartans, I believe that Michigan State will once again have a great chance at the conference title lead by backs LeVeon Bell and Larry Caper, and freak defensive end William Gholston.
Andrew Coppens - Madtown Badgers: I think in the Leaders division you have to look at Purdue as a dark horse candidate. They have all three of their QB’s healthy entering fall camp and Danny Hope could finally look to use the two-QB system he’s always looked to employ. They also have a great group of RB’s and the defense is pretty solid as well.
On the Legends side of the Big Ten I would watch out for Nebraska. They made some changes, Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead are a great backfield tandem and they’ve run the gauntlet that can be the Big Ten for a full season, so there shouldn’t be any surprises in style of play. I also think they have a favorable schedule in that a lot of the nasty games take place in Lincoln (ie Wisconsin, Michigan, and Penn State).
Ryan Aylsworth – Midnight Maize: This one is petty easy for the Legends Division. It has to be Michigan State. I know they lost their QB and captain Kirk Cousins but their defense should be a top 15 defense in the nation. If their new starter Maxwell can get on the same page with a young but talented receiver group then they should be pretty tough for anyone to beat, including Michigan.
As for a dark horse I have Iowa. Just when they have run out of running backs or have lost good linemen to the draft they just find a way to compete and stay in it. They could give Michigan and Michigan State a run for their money in the division.
In the Leaders it will be more of a toss up. I like Wisconsin but Penn State and Ohio State will not go with out a fight. Any of these three teams could take the division. All three teams have major QB questions. Who ever figures that out will take the Leaders.
Ohio will be in a whole new offensive system with Braxton Miller who struggled with accuracy last season. Penn State still has McGloin and Wisconsin will be doing the free agent thing again as they took on Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien who was pretty terrible last season after having a very solid freshman year.
So all three of those teams have big questions. I just give Wisconsin a slight edge with Ball in the backfield. But make no question about it, this division should be more of a toss up.
The Saturday Edge - Maggiore: When you look through the Leaders Division, Wisconsin appears to be the only legitimate contender in the bunch. The Legends division battle should be more interesting. Michigan is the favorite mainly due to the return of Denard Robinson, but Michigan State and Nebraska will present serious challenges. I go into a lot more detail on both divisions here.
Please let us know who you think will challenge Wisconsin and Michigan this year for the Big ten title by leaving a comment. Thanks – Pez.