2011 Preview Roundtable: Big Ten Favorite

Will the addition of N.C. State transfer Russell Wilson propel Wisconsin to the title?

Now that TWB has an actual staff of writers, we’ve decided to expand our preview content to take advantage of the variety of opinions among the three of us. This is the third in a series of roundtable posts previewing the 2011 season, and we’ll attempt to cover Michigan, the Big Ten, and the national scene as we approach football season. Previously, we covered our picks for this year’s breakout player and best freshman for the Wolverines. Today, we expand our outlook to the Big Ten, and pick our preseason favorite to take the conference title:

Ace: When making this pick, there were a few teams that I could eliminate immediately: I’ll believe a Northwestern title run when I see it; Iowa’s defense was ravaged by graduation and the NFL Draft; Penn State’s quarterbacks underwhelm and I just don’t think they’re a title-caliber team; Purdue, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota don’t have a chance; and Michigan State is Michigan State — they’ll find a way to take themselves out of the race.

That leaves four teams. No, I’m not picking Michigan. There are far too many variables that could easily submarine a conference title run, plus I’d like to do my best not to come off as a complete, unabashed homer. Next.

Nebraska has a lot of talent, and Taylor Martinez could be a great college quarterback if he puts it all together. However, Taylor Martinez also completely fell apart last year — albeit as a redshirt freshman — and now he has a new offensive coordinator to deal with. The Huskers also must face the Big Ten’s toughest schedule (it’s like a frat-pledge hazing ritual), with road games against Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan, as well as tough matchups with Ohio State (the week they return their now-Tat-4 from suspension, barring further punishment), Michigan Sate, Northwestern, and Iowa. Their only Big Ten game against a team that doesn’t have a conceivable shot at making the inaugural title game is a road game at Minnesota, and that’s sandwiched between their contests against OSU and MSU. If all schedules were created equal, I’d lean towards Nebraska, but they aren’t, and I’m not.

Wisconsin adds the stud quarterback they were lacking thanks to the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule, which allowed ex-N.C. State standout Russell Wilson to step right in for 2011 without sitting out a season. The Badgers’s schedule is no picnic either, however, as they open their conference slate against Nebraska, face back-to-back road games against MSU and OSU in October, and end their season against a Penn State team that may be hitting their stride if their quarterback controversy is settled. The defense also provides cause for concern, as they lose five starters, including first-round pick J.J. Watt, from last year’s No. 25 scoring defense and No. 20 total defense — it might be tough to improve on those numbers, and there’s a good chance they fall off a little. The Badgers also benefited from a +14 turnover margin last year, the sixth-best in the country, and with a new quarterback — albeit an experienced one — and the regress-to-the-mean nature of turnovers, I’d expect that figure to fall back to earth as well.

So, call me crazy (and maybe several four-letter words to boot), but I’m picking the scandal-ridden Buckeyes to emerge as Big Ten champs, barring an NCAA ruling that cripples their season. Remember, we’re picking the conference champ here, so four of the five games that Posey, Herron, Adams, and Thomas will sit out don’t have any bearing on this category. The Buckeyes will have to face Michigan State without those four, but by that point I expect they’ll have found a quarterback who can at least hold down the fort, whether it’s the “safe” choice in senior/career backup Joe Bauserman or blue-chip freshman Braxton Miller. Ohio State faces MSU at home, and both Wisconsin and Penn State must visit the Horseshoe as well. Road games against Nebraska and, yes, Michigan will be tough, but I don’t expect any Big Ten team to emerge from the regular season unscathed (in fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a conference champion with two in-conference losses), and even with the suspensions and the loss of Terrelle Pryor the Buckeyes have the most talent of any team in the conference. Losing Jim Tressel hurts, no question, but with the rest of the coaching staff intact I expect that will have more of an impact on the recruiting trail than on the field, at least this season.

If I’m wrong, I will happily accept your insults as I rejoice in the collapse of the Buckeye Empire.

Alex: The Big Ten strikes me as a league with a lot of pretty decent teams, yet I really don’t think anybody in the conference will be able to contend for the national title this year. Ohio State looked like a bona-fide national championship contender before the Tat-5 were suspended, and obviously things have fortunately deteriorated down in Columbus and will hopefully continue to do so. Nebraksa is coming in with a lot of hype and a lot of people are predicting a great season for the Cornhuskers, but their offense — even with a healthy Taylor Martinez — will probably struggle in its first year under a new offensive coordinator in a league with better defenses than the Big 12. Those are (or were) the prohibitive favorites in the Leaders and Legends divisions respectively (and I’ll continue my plea for a simple East-West divisional nomenclature), but there are plenty of teams that can contend in each of those divisions.

In the Leaders (EAST) Division, it looks to be a two-horse race between Wisconsin and Ohio State. Penn State is not a legitimate contender in my opinion: there are too many questions on both sides of the ball that need to be addressed for PSU, including a less-than-desirable quarterback situation, plus it’s not like they were particularly good last year — they didn’t beat anyone with a .500 record or better in the Big Ten. Illinois could surprise some teams, but they’re a middle-of-the-pack team as well. No, I think it’s down to Ohio State and Wisconsin, and before the Tressel saga, I wouldn’t hesitate to peg Ohio State as the favorites easily, even if they were without Pryor, Herron, Posey, and Adams for the first five games. Since then, Tressel has resigned, Pryor is long gone, and now the situation in Columbus looks less clear. With Bauserman and Fickell at the helm, Ohio State — however talented they still are — looks way worse than they did a few months ago, and of course, it could get worse over the offseason as well. That leaves the door wide open for the Badgers, who have recently addressed their biggest need by signing free agent gaining the transfer of former N.C. State star quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson is the real deal, and paired with the best rushing attack in the country outside of Oregon and maybe Alabama, Wisconsin should roll over opponents all season long. Their defense isn’t great, and that’s probably why they aren’t a national title contender, but it’s good enough to win the Leaders (EAST).

Nebraska is the tentative favorite in the Legends (WEST), although I think that this division could see more surprises than the Leaders (EAST). Michigan State is coming off of a deceptive 11-2 season: the Spartans overachieved big time compared to how good they actually were, but I do think that they’ll actually be better this year than they were last year; however, their schedule points to more of a solid 8- or 9-win campaign than a division title. Iowa regressed a bit last season, but could still have a very good team this year. They miss out on Ohio State and get divisional opponents (Michigan State, Michigan and Northwestern) at home, so the schedule’s favorable, but Jake Vandenberg will have to be exceptional for Iowa to contend for a conference title. Michigan and Northwestern are darkhorses that could conceivably contend for the Legends (WEST) title, although I don’t think that either team really has a good chance at making it past Nebraska, MSU and Iowa. That leaves Nebraska as the favorite by default, and while they aren’t a perfect team by any means and their schedule is absolutely brutal, I’ll take their defense and call for a Legends (WEST) title in their first year in the conference.

That has Wisconsin vs. Nebraska as the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, and even though I think Nebraska will probably beat the Badgers in Madison on October 1, I think Wilson and the Badgers will ease into their stride and beat the Huskers to take the Big Ten title and a berth in the Rose Bowl. That’s it, I’m saying that Wisconsin is the Big Ten favorite right now. Thank goodness Michigan will not face them this year.

Jack: October 1, 2011. All early indications will tell you that that might be the just the first meeting between Nebraska and Wisconsin this year. Nebraska (Legends Division) and Wisconsin (Leaders Division) have to be the two most dominant and complete teams in the conference this year. But which one’s better? Riding off the news that former NC State stud Russell Wilson will be playing for Wisconsin this year, the common sentiment has been that Wisconsin is now over the top, that Wilson was the icing on the cake, and that it will take a heroic, once-in-a-lifetime performance to bring down this Goliath. With Ohio State crumbling, Michigan still rebuilding, Penn State still young, and Michigan State not quite there yet, it’s up to Nebraska to slay the dragon. But can they?

I believe so. They’ll have a returning starter at QB (and a monster at that) in redshirt sophomore Taylor Martinez, who averaged almost 75 rushing yards a game during the year, with over 1,600 yards of passing thrown in there too (pardon the pun). At running back, junior Rex Burkhead looks to take over the feature running back spot vacated by (current Washington Redskins tailback) Roy Helu. Burkhead is no slouch himself, coming back from a year with over 900 yards rushing, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. The defense will be led by a veteran group of future NFL prospects, including CB Alphonzo Dennard, LB Levonte Davis, and a terrifying interior D-Line headlined by DT Baker Steinkuhler and DT Jared Crick. Young talents the Huskers scored in last year’s recruiting class could find their way onto the field, including CB Charles Jackson, RB Aaron Green, DT Todd Peat, and even athlete Jamal Turner. At least one of their trio of talented linemen they signed (C Ryne Reeves, G Ryan Klachko, and T Tyler Moore) could find time on a very young line.

I have two concerns about the Huskers. First, Taylor Martinez likes to run a lot. And Michigan fans should know best, a true dual-threat is bound to get banged around in the Big Ten. But what’s behind Martinez, should he go down with an injury? The QB position has faced major attrition in Lincoln lately, most recently with Cody Green moving on to greener pastures. Zac Lee left last year. Stud ’11 signee Bubba Starling may choose to pursue a career on the baseball diamond instead of the gridiron. Should Martinez hit a cog, the only scholarship option behind him would be RS freshman Brion Carnes, who doesn’t have a single snap of college ball under his belt. New offensive coordinator Tim Beck had better minimize the running role of Martinez, or the Huskers could be in real trouble once they get into the Big Ten schedule.

The second thing that worries me about the Huskers is their youth on the line. Although they’re returning 7 starters to a dynamic offense, only 2 of those are on the offensive line. LG Andrew Rodriguez, RG Brent Qvale, and RT Marcel Jones all have big shoes to fill, trying to continue the dominance of a line which paved the road for almost 3500 yards on the ground last year. They’ll be anchored by senior C Mike Caputo, who went from being a walk-on to All-Big 12 Honorable Mention last year, so at least the leadership part is there.

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