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TGS 2013 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE BIG TEN -PART I
Never mind all of that chatter regarding the SEC. If there’s a real trailblazing conference in college sports today, it’s the Big Ten. We’ll expand upon that in a moment.

In the meantime, the pieces seem to be in place for a revival of the glory days of one of college football’s great rivalries. That’s because the prospects of Urban Meyer’s resurgent (and once again bowl-eligible) Ohio State and Brady Hoke’s ascending Michigan, meeting for all of the marbles in their annual late-season grudge match, has rekindled memories of the great Woody Hayes-Bo Schembechler collisions four decades ago.

And more recently, not since 2006, when both sides were unbeaten and 1-2 in the polls when they clashed in late November at Columbus (with the Buckeyes prevailing, just barely, over the Wolverines by a 42-39 count), has OSU-Michigan held national implications for both sides.

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But there’s an extra kicker these days as we could get a double-dose of Buckeyes-Wolverines if each qualify for the Big Ten title game on December 7...which would happen the week following their regular-season showdown at the Big House! Even longtime Big Ten observers who have seen it all over the decades are having trouble wrapping their heads around that possibility.

(Can you imagine what might have happened in the ‘70s if the Hayes Buckeyes and Schembechler Wolverines had to go at it in back-to-back weeks, when their battles more resembled upheavals of nature than mere football games?)

Whatever, the Big Ten could use some good news on the gridiron after its best teams have mostly been humbled in BCS action during recent seasons. It’s been more than a decade since the last Big Ten entry (Jim Tressel’s Ohio State in 2002) laid claim to a national title. And the gap between the best in the Big Ten and the best from other conferences has seemed to be widening for many years. With apologies to Wisconsin and Michigan State fans, the thought in conference circles is that the league could really use the Buckeyes and Wolverines sustaining their recent gains and re-emerging as national powers; most believe the loop's best chances to compete on a consistent basis with the elite of the SEC, Pac-12, and Big 12 probably rests in Columbus and Ann Arbor. Especially with Penn State still facing a difficult slog for the next few years as it fights through the effects of probation and scholarship cuts, and the Tom Osborne glory years at Nebraska now a long way back in the rear-view mirror.

But where the Big Ten has made its real impact lately has been with its now wildly-successful TV network, which has provided the template for other leagues to follow. The driving force behind the network has been commissioner Jim Delany (right), whose job in convincing the many button-downed (haughty?) Big Ten school presidents to accept his vision of a new media platform has amazed many college sports insiders who still have a hard time believing the prexys have done such an about face, not only about their network, but the conference’s hearty endorsement of the 4-team playoff that will replace the current BCS for next season. The Big Ten had long been opposed to any changes in the status quo and had to have many conditions met before entering into past BCS agreements. Delany’s influence, however, and the fact the Big Ten Network has become such a money spinner, eventually got the presidents to see things the same way.

Make no mistake, the future additions of Maryland and Rutgers have everything to do with the many TV sets in their respective regions. Which will only add further to the real Big Ten Network strategy, which has been to muscle into the basic cable TV packages (where the big money lies) in all states with conference schools.

Helping in that regard is the Big Ten Network’s partnership with Fox. The Big Ten has been able to leverage that clout, and the potential is even more far-reaching with Maryland and Rutgers coming on board, bringing the Big Ten directly into more mega-TV markets from the mid-Atlantic to much further up the Eastern seaboard. Fox’s clout is going to be especially valuable in the Northeast because of its new partnership with YES and the Yankees; Fox is now so strong it can dictate terms to cable providers, which are desperate to provide many of the other Fox channels (such as "big" Fox and Fox News). Convincing regional cable outlets in the Northeast, especially in the tri-state, to take the Big Ten Network and put it on the basic tier will be well worth it to providers who so value YES and the Yankees and the other Fox properties.

And therein, folks, lies the genius of Delany and the Big Ten Network, especially compared to the fledgling network operation of the Pac-12, which has gone it alone on its venture and is having major problems getting clearance on some important outlets, such as Direct TV. Which is why, as of yet, Pac-12 schools are not calculating any still-evolving revenue projections from the new network into their budgets. Going to school on all of this has been the SEC, which rather than opt for the go-it-alone route as the Pac-12 has done with its network instead has chosen the partnership model of Big Ten and aligned itself with ESPN for its new media venture.

So, the next time you hear anyone bash the Big Ten, remind them that all of its schools (which split their TV network booty equally) are setting the standard for media revenue; even Indiana and Purdue are taking in more from TV deals than any school in the SEC, or Notre Dame, for that matter.

Just call the Big Ten the trailblazers instead.

Following are our Big Ten football previews for the fall, divided into two segments (Leaders and Legends Division) and courtesy of our Managing Editor, P. Carl Giordano, who ranks each team in predicted order of finish in their halves of the loop. Also included are straight-up and spread records for each school in 2012. --Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


BIG TEN LEADERS DIVISION

by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor


1. OHIO STATE (2012 SUR 12-0, PSR 7-5)... When a coach goes 12-0 and finishes his first season at a new school ranked third in the nation, what does he do for an encore? Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer faces just that prospect this fall, and the indications are the Buckeyes have a solid shot at carrying 2012's winning streak well into 2013, and they hold the potential to make a run at the national title. Meyer’s year-two track record bodes well for OSU’s fortunes. After taking Utah to a 10-2 SU record in his first season in charge in 2003, the Utes went 12-0, topped by a Fiesta Bowl win over Pittsburgh. In his initial season at Florida in 2005, the Gators were 9-3. The following season Meyer’s Florida squad won the national title with a 13-1 mark and BCS Championship victory (at the expense of the Buckeyes, by the way).

There are several reasons to believe OSU could return to the national championship game for the first time since 2007. The primary dynamic on the attack is defending Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year QB Braxton Miller. He had 3,310 yards of total offense and accounted for 28 TDs last season. Miller is an extremely productive rusher (1,210 YR LY with 13 TDs), and his 28-10 TD-interception rate in his first two seasons is more than acceptable. Observers feel if he can improve on his completion percentage (57% as a frosh and soph), he will be one of the most devastating offensive forces in college football. Miller showed signs of just such improvement in the spring, completing 16 of 25 passes for 217 yards and a pair of scores in the Buckeye spring game.

Miller is surrounded by a cast of characters that should give Meyer and o.c. Tom Herman lots of options. Nine starters return from a platoon that scored more than 37 ppg and finished 10th in the nation in rushing. Included in those returnees are four all-Big Ten representatives. Bruising RB Carlos Hyde (6-0, 242 lbs.) avg. 5.2 ypc last year and capped the 12-0 season with 146 YR against archrival Michigan. If Miller becomes more accurate, it will mean that already-adept returning WRs Corey Brown (60 catches, 669 yds. LY) and Devin Smith (20.6 ypc on 30 recs.) will see a jump in their numbers.

Normally, one might point to a defense returning just four starters as a potential weak spot, but that likely won’t be the case in Columbus. The four returning regulars are OSU’s top four tacklers. The front seven is being rebuilt after losing all four starters, including a pair of NFL draftees, but soph DT Adolphus Washington and soph DE Noah Spence looked like they were ready for prime time after combining for seven sacks in the spring game. Jr. LB Ryan Shazier was one of the best in the country at his position last season, recording 115 tackles (17 for loss) and five sacks in 2012. Shazier was first team all-conference, along with CB Bradley Roby (63 stops). Safety Christian Bryant had 70 tackles and was on the all-Big Ten second team. S C.J. Barnett contributed 56 stops in just nine games last season. Those returning regulars will be reinforced from a pool of 25 2012 defensive lettermen and a very promising incoming crop of frosh. Meyer’s first full recruiting class at OSU was ranked second-best in the nation behind Alabama (naturally), and includes extremely talented OLB Mike Mitchell (considered by some the best LB recruit in the country), impressive LB Trey Johnson, CB Eli Apple (the top recruit from New Jersey) and S Vonn Bell (a five-star stolen from the clutches of Tennessee), all of whom are thought to be Big Ten-ready.

Urban Meyer wasted no time making the Buckeye alumni forget the “Tatoo-gate” 6-7 straight-up mark of 2011 and the ensuing one-year ban on postseason play. Now that he’s raised expectations, the real work begins. Although we’ve painted a fairly rosy picture of OSU’s outlook for the fall, there is a caveat to consider. The team must stay healthy. Last year’s squad was remarkably injury-free, especially on offense, where Hyde’s three missed games were the only such absences among any of the Buckeye starters. The 2012 team was forced to overtime in wins against Purdue and Wisconsin, edged Michigan State 17-16, and had to hold off a late charge by Indiana in a 52-49 win. They weren’t that far from being 8-4. On the other hand, Ohio State is 43-20-1 against the number in Big Ten play the last eight seasons. Continued team health, improved passing efficiency from Miller, and the recruiting inroads Meyer has made could provide ample fuel for a berth in the Big Ten and perhaps BCS title games.

2. WISCONSIN (SUR 8-6, PSR 6-7-1)...The Badgers will essentially have a new coaching staff this season, but athletic director Barry Alvarez has put a machine in place, and Wisconsin’s look and performance levels won’t stray much from the pattern of the last decade. With highly-regarded HC Bret Bielema leaving for Arkansas (and taking much of the staff with him), Alvarez scooped up Utah State’s Gary Andersen, who took the Aggies from a losing bunch of scrubs to an 11-win bowl team in just four seasons. The cupboard is far from bare for Anderson. Wisconsin’s formula for success will remain the same...use a dominating offensive line and quality backs to produce a bone-crushing ground game, eat up the clock, allow a fresh defense to contain the opponent and come up with big plays.

Wisconsin has been an NFL assembly line for offensive linemen, H-backs and running backs for years, and the program has no shortage of current candidates for the pros. In some programs replacing Montee Ball (Doak Walker winner, 1,830 YR LY, NCAA career TD leader) would be an issue. But the Badgers have James White and Melvin Gordon at the ready. Those two combined for 1,427 YR and 15 TDs in 2012. The OL lost a pair of NFL draftees, but there are more where they came from thanks to a pipeline that dates back to when Alvarez was leading the Badgers to Rose Bowl victories 20 years ago.

Wiscy could be much more than a ground-and-pound attack this season, as soph Joel Stave and sixth-year sr. Curt Phillips combined for 1,604 YP and 11 TDs. With the writing on the wall in spring, and juco Tanner McEvoy due in Madison during the summer, Danny O’Brien packed his bags and left the program. McEvoy was a redshirt at South Carolina in 2011 and has three years of eligibility remaining. The New Jersey native is 6-5, 223, runs a 4.6 40-yard dash and was the top receiver in his high school’s history before moving to QB as a senior and throwing for 32 TDs while rushing for 1,196 yds and 14 more scores. He threw for 1,943 yds., 25 TDs (just 6 ints.), ran for 414 yds. after a very late decision to switch from South Carolina to a junior college (Arizona Western) last season.

The Badger defensive front seven was tough last year and will be better this season. All four along the defensive line are back along with a pair of active linebackers in Chris Borland (first-team all-conference) and Ethan Armstrong. That pair combined for 197 tackles LY. DT Beau Allen is one of just two returning Big Ten defensive lineman mentioned on the all-conference list last year. Safety Dezmen Southward is the only returnee in the secondary, but he had 69 stops and word is new d.c. Dave Aranda will tweak the schemes with a 3-4 alignment backed by a zone blitz along with a variety of fronts to keep opposing QBs off balance and on the run.

Madison is one of the top college party towns in the country, and the town was “jumping around” as the Badgers rolled to a third straight Rose Bowl and second trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship. That type of atmosphere makes recruiting good football players a lot easier. The job Gary Andersen did at Utah State was just this side of miraculous, building the Aggies into the best team in the state from a bottom-feeding afterthought. Anderson should have the Badgers in the running for a fourth straight Rose Bowl appearance. Same formula, same talent stream....same results.

3. PENN STATE (SUR 8-4, PSR 9-3)...Big Ten Coach of the Year Bill O’Brien took over a program in the middle of one of the messiest scandals in memory last season. With the players released from their obligations after sanctions over Jerry Sandusky’s arrest, the Nittany Lions lost a half-dozen starters, that many more reserves, their kicker and numerous incoming recruits to other programs in the wake of the mess. O’Brien persevered, dealt with the defections and recovered from an 0-2 start (including an embarrassing loss to Ohio U. in the home opener) to win 8 of the last 10, including an exciting OT victory over powerful Wisconsin.

Although the Nittany Lions are still feeling the sting of sanctions, O’Brien has been able to sell the school on the recruiting trail. Incoming frosh QB Christian Hackenberg is considered the nation’s top prospect at the position. He will compete with juco Tyler Ferguson (a dropback style triggerman) in the fall. Soph Steven Bench realized the futility of his situation after battling Ferguson in the spring and hit the road. The smart money is on Hackenberg to settle in quickly, and he’ll have the best receiver in the conference to work with in Allen Robinson (77 catches, 1,013 yards). Soph TE Kyle Carter was a revelation as a frosh in 2012, catching 36 passes in just 9 games. Penn State is 5-deep at wideout and 3-deep at tight end. The offensive line has 3 returning regulars including first-team all-Big Ten G John Urschel and potentially dominating soph left tackle Donovan Smith.

On the other side of the ball, d.c. John Butler has some work to do, rebuilding a front seven that lost three NFL picks. The good news is that Butler has some solid building blocks in MLB Glenn Carson (85 stops) and soph DE Deion Barnes (Big Ten Defensive Frosh of the Year). The secondary will be fine, with three solid starters returning, and run-stuffing DT DaQuan Jones will help make up for the loss of star LBs Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, who combined for 205 tackles.

O’Brien reversed a nasty slide by Penn State at home a year ago, as the Nittany Lions covered 5 of 6 as a favorite in Happy Valley in 2013 after going 4-13 as a home favorite the previous three seasons under the late Joe Paterno. O’Brien also reversed the downward trend on the recruiting trail, not only nabbing Hackenberg, but getting the No. 2-rated tight end in Adam Breneman and several highly touted linemen. Things are looking up at State College and the cloud is lifting from the program.

4. INDIANA (SUR 4-8, PSR 6-6)...Normally there might be little support for placing Kevin Wilson’s Indiana Hoosiers team on a “go-with” list. After all, he’s 5-19 SU and 11-13 against the number in two years in charge. The team lost and failed to cover its last three games of 2012 while yielding 54 ppg in those losses. But there is more to the story in Bloomington than if you read between the lines.

Wilson has 10 starters returning from an offense that led the Big Ten in passing yardage and scored 31 ppg. Among the numbered starters is QB Cam Coffman, who threw for 2,734 yards and 15 scores after taking over for the more dynamic Tre Roberson, who broke his leg in the second game of 2012. Roberson is back after generating 501 yards of total offense in 62 plays over 1½ games, but the Hoosier staff has yet to commit to a starting QB for the opener against Indiana State. Coffman improved as the season went on, throwing for 338 ypg in the last four games a year ago. An array of receivers is headed by jr. Cody Latimer, who was second-team all Big Ten last season after catching 51 passes for 805 yards. Fellow jr. WR Shane Wynn moved the sticks with 68 receptions.

The Hoosiers can run as well. Sr. Stephen Houston, soph Tevin Coleman and soph D’Angelo Roberts combined for 1274 YR. Houston scored 12 TDs and gained 4.7 ypc last season running behind an offensive line that was pretty solid considering it started then true freshmen Jason Spriggs at left tackle and Dan Feeney at right guard.

Indiana has nine defensive starters back, but that unit ranked 103rd in total defense and yielded more than 5 ypc on the ground, ranking 116th against the run. Don’t expect those players to automatically regain their starting positions. Four of Wilson’s top five recruits are defensive players, including a couple of defensive line steals from other programs. DT Darius Latham and DE David Kenney had committed to Wisconsin and Iowa, respectively, before Wilson changed their minds.

If the young defensive blood can give the Hoosiers an infusion, look for Indiana to ring up some covers along with more wins this season. Last year the Hoosiers were 4-8, but four of their losses came by a total of 10 points, so an updraft might be in the wind. Totals note: The Hoosiers have gone “over” 17-6 in Kevin Wilson’s two seasons as head coach.

5. PURDUE (SUR 6-7, PSR 6-7)...Despite bringing Purdue minor bowl appearances in the last two seasons, the Boilermaker brass fired HC Danny Hope even before he had a chance to coach in the January 1 Ticket City Bowl against Oklahoma State. Which surprised some Big Ten insiders who believed the Riveters' 3-game win streak at the end of the season, and bowl invitation, would keep Hope safe for another year. Not so. The reins had been transferred to interiim HC Patrick Higgins before the 58-14 bowl loss to the Big 12 Cowboys, who actually showed a bit of mercy despite the scoreline. Which indicated that the Boilers’ bowl bid had more to do with the ineligibility of Ohio State and Penn State than it did with Purdue deserving to represent the Big Ten in one of its guaranteed postseason slots.

Enter Darrell Hazell and a new staff. Hazell’s job at Kent State was shockingly good, to say the least, taking a team that hadn’t had a winning record in 11 years and hadn’t been to a bowl in 41 seasons to an 11-1 regular season mark and a January bowl bid.

Purdue doesn’t represent such a challenge, but Hazell must prove his results at Kent State weren’t just an instance of randomly catching lightning in a bottle. The Boilers figure to be a below-average offensive team this season, returning just a handful of offensive regulars. The QB situation is very iffy, as new o.c. John Shoop will choose from between fifth-year sr. Rob Henry (played in 22 games producing just 83 ypg total offense in his career), redshirt frosh Austin Appleby (6-5, 235; completed just 6 of 18 passes in spring game) and true frosh Danny Etling (an early enrollee in for spring who looked like a viable option).

The running game will be a guess, as the offensive line has three starters returning, but the best of the bunch, G Robert Kugler, will move to center. Lead back Akeem Hunt showed definite explosiveness last year, averaging 8 ypc on his 42 totes, and he ran for 134 yards with a score in the spring game. However, expecting Shoop and Hazell to boost the Boiler offensive output against a slate including Ohio State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Cincy, Penn State and Nebraska is a reach. Purdue scored 28 ppg a year ago, but rolling up 153 points in September games against Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan and Marshall padded the Boilermaker average.

Defensively, Purdue has lots of players back, but the team ranked 87th in scoring defense and gave up 416 ypg. The secondary should be a strength, but the defensive line was mediocre against the run and brought below-average pressure on opposing QBs (ranked 78th in sacks). CB Ricardo Allen is the only returning Boilermaker named on last season’s all-conference lists (voted second-team by the coaches). A shortage of defensive quality is part of the reason the “over” has been a 68% play in Purdue’s games the last two seasons.

Hazell’s new team figures to suffer through some growing pains adjusting to new systems and routines. Purdue lost 7 of its last 10 against the spread last season, so with the potential of a true frosh QB operating behind a potentially-shaky offensive line and backed by a mediocre defense, we feel it’s best to look for spots to go against the Boilermakers in 2013.

6. ILLINOIS (SUR 2-10, PSR 3-9)... Illinois was 119th in the nation in total offense and in scoring last season, so it was no surprise that HC Tim Beckman brought in a new offensive coordinator (Bill Cubit) to take over. Cubit is charged with figuring out how to best use sr. QB Nathan Scheelhaase, who took a major step backward last season and will be learning his fourth offensive system in five years at Champaign. Scheelhaase’s production fell to 1,660 yards of total offense after averaging more than 2,700 yards in the previous two years as a starter. The problem is, Scheelhaase really isn’t the issue. The offensive line doesn’t provide enough protection (111th in sacks allowed). The attack hasn’t had a back near the quality of ex-Illini RBs Rashard Mendenhall or Mikel LeShoure since those two went to the NFL. Jr. Donovonn Young and soph Josh Ferguson combined for 883 rushing yards last season, but scored just 3 TDs. Young led the team with 38 catches out of the backfield, but he averaged just 4.5 per catch. The offense also lacks playmaking wideouts, as Ryan Lankford averaged just 12.7 yards on his 37 receptions, and fellow starting WR Darius Millines (32 recs., 319 yds.) was kicked off the team in May for unspecified reasons. Not great news as Cubit tries to stretch opposing defenses this fall.

The Illinois stop unit returns only four regulars from a crew that yielded 32 ppg and ranked 107th in pass efficiency defense. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks got a surprise performance last season from LB Mason Monheim, who led the team with 86 tackles as a true frosh in 2012. Unfortunately, the Illini must replace three defenders drafted into the NFL, including DT Akeem Spence and LB Ashanti Williams, who combined for 150 tackles last year. The defensive line lost all four starters, including DE Michael Buchanan, who’s now a Patriot. Another setback was losing promising soph Darrius Caldwell, who was expelled from the program at the same time as Millines. Caldwell would’ve likely started after playing in all 11 games (17 tackles, 2½ sacks) as a redshirt freshman last season.

The secondary could get toasted, as there’s a distinct possibility a pair of true frosh could start at the corners. They might be talented, but it’s a big step up from high school to the Big Ten.

Beckman is floundering already. He took over a team that had posted back-to-back seasons in which they’d gone to and won bowl games. The Illini were returning 14 starters last season, but Beckman fell on his face and the team finished 2-10, losing the last nine straight (1-8 vs. the number down the stretch). Beckman brought in Cubit to light a fire under the attack. In his first recruiting class, the Illini didn’t have one junior college player. After last season, Beckman changed course and signed a conference-high five JC players. Considering the quick trigger-fingers athletic directors have these days (check with Danny Hope on that), Beckman might be in panic mode. That’s not good.


NEXT UPDATE: BIG TEN LEGENDS DIVISION!


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