As we look ahead to the 2011 college football season, we take with us the lessons we learned from seasons past. We calculate, scrutinize, dissect and digest schedules, returning starters, coaching changes, injuries, and yes, even hunches, and spew it back in the form of how we think each of the 11 Division 1 FBS conferences — and the independents — will pan out by year’s end.
Of course, these are merely our opinions. Feel free, as we know you will, to disagree. We know that’s why you really come here anyway.
Here are our predictions for the Big Ten:
Ben’s Kercheval’s Big Ten champion: Wisconsin
John Taylor’s Big Ten champion: Wisconsin
Nebraska’s success in its first year as Big Ten members will hinge on the play of quarterback Taylor Martinez. I’m not a huge fan of small, run-first quarterbacks in a conference that plays great assignment defense, but Martinez could have an edge as a newcomer to the league. He’ll have to stay healthy, though, as Nebraska has zero depth at quarterback behind him. All that said, I tentatively put the Cornhuskers atop the Legends Division.
Michigan State is making strides under Mark Dantonio, but get this: Sparty has road games at Nebraska, Iowa and Ohio State. Yikes! Northwestern, on the other hand, has the luxury of getting Michigan State and Penn State at home, and doesn’t have to play Ohio State or Wisconsin. If quarterback Dan Persa is fully healed from his ruptured Achilles’, the Wildcats will be be the second-best team in the Legends.
On the other side of the lake — Great Lakes that is — Ohio State’s six straight Big Ten titles (shared or outright) comes to an end this season with the losses of coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Losses such as those are like blood drops in the water for the Buckeyes, whose target on their back just got a little bit bigger.
Ohio State’s pain means Wisconsin could repeat as either shared Big Ten champions, or win its first outright conference title since 1999. Former North Carolina State quarterback and transfer Russell Wilson starts for the Badgers. He’ll give Wisconsin a veteran game manager under center, and really, that’s all coach Bret Bielema has ever asked his quarterbacks to be.
That is, of course, if the Badgers can get through road games at Ohio State and Michigan State.
It’s widely assumed, but not an in-concrete certainty, that Ohio State’s six-year stranglehold on at least a tie for the Big Ten title will come to an end given the, ahem, upheaval that’s gone on in Columbus over the past eight months or so. With those issues combined with Nebraska’s addition to the conference, it was also widely assumed that the road to the first conference title decided by a championship game might very well run through the boys from Lincoln.
That assumption swung heavily on June 27. On that day, Wisconsin added Wilson, the All-ACC quarterback who eschewed both Auburn and baseball for one final season of college football in Madison. Suddenly, the Badgers were the team du jour, and with good reason: pre-Wilson transfer, they had one of the best rushing attacks in the nation, an above-average defense and myriad question marks at the quarterback position; post-Wilson transfer, they still have the two former components, but now possess a player who will not only be a massive upgrade over what was previously on the roster, but will be able to make plays on his own as well as be the game manager Bielema would’ve sought from the position this year.
Wilson’s addition doesn’t guarantee a Big Ten title for the Badgers. It does, though, make the Badgers the cream of the Leaders crop and likely the lone obstacle for Nebraska in their virginal voyage in the conference. And, for those asking, yes, it’s a two-team conference this year as Michigan State could/should be in for a slight drop from a year ago; Michigan is a year away defensively; and Iowa and Penn State are simply not in the same class as the Badgers and ‘Huskers.
The rest? Well, you know how it is, although Northwestern may surprise and climb into that second tier of teams, especially if Persa is fully recovered.