Looking Ahead to the Big Ten Legends Division

Finishing what I started here is a brief look at the Legends division.

LEGENDS DIVISION


Hawkeye_mediumIowa Hawkeyes

2011 Recap: 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten paints a picture of being a middle of the road team, and they were. Considering six players from the 2011 Hawkeyes were drafted one might have expected more but consistency was an issue for Iowa particularly on the road. 6-1 at home is very nice but then you can't go 1-5 on the road if you want to play in a better bowl game.

Offense: Last year's worst rushing team in the Big Ten will struggle to dramatically improve that. Running backs have been dropping like flies in Iowa City and they lose 3/5 of their starting offensive line. But you may be surprised to learn that Iowa had the third best passing game in the Big Ten last year. Led by James Vandenberg's 3,000+ yards and 25 touchdowns, Iowa was quite successful through the air. Gone is leading receiver Marvin McNutt but Vandenberg is the most accomplished returning QB in the conference and he will be leading this offense along with a new offensive coordinator.

Defense: Defensively Iowa is replacing seven starters! Defensive line was the hardest hit with three departures to go along with two DBs and their starting MLB. The back seven should still have some talent and depth but

2012 vs. the Gophers: Well, the real question is can the Gophers retain Floyd for the third consecutive season? This year we have to travel to Iowa City where we haven't won since 1999! This will be the first game of the conference schedule and I think the Gophers should have some confidence that they can beat Iowa as they've done it two years in a row. This game might be a real springboard for the Gophers if they can pull out this one on the road.

Outlook: The Hawkeyes need to find a running back and they need to hope they have the horses along the defensive line. Outside of those major questions they need to learn to win on the road again where they are 3-7 over the last two years. They are in a division where pretty much everyone else looks to be better than they were in 2011 while Iowa finds itself in an unusual scenario of replacing both coordinators while at the same time replacing more than half of last year's starters. Kirk Ferentz has a history of producing good teams and I think he is a very good coach, but this will be an interesting year in Iowa City.

Mich_medium
Michigan Wolverines

2011 Recap: Brady Hoke was able to finally take the talent that was at Michigan and turn it into wins. 10-2 on the regular season that was highlighted by a win over Ohio State (finally) and capped off by a trip to the BCS Sugar Bowl where they beat Virginia Tech. 2011 had to have surpassed most Wolverine fan's expectations. For the first half of the year Denard Robinson was at or near the top of every Heisman prediction and to go along with his impressive production the Wolverines finally had a defense that stopped (or at least slowed down) opponents. The #2 scoring offense and the #2 scoring defense lead to the 11-2 record.

Offense: Seven starters return including Denard Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Fitz Toussaint and several receivers. This unit was dangerous last year and should be every bit as dangerous this year. Robinson will likely be an early candidate for Big Ten POY and on shorts lists for Heisman consideration.

Defense: This unit loses only four starters with three of those losses coming on the defensive line. This side of the ball was a bit fortuitous last year recovering 20 fumbles (20!!) and finishing second in the conference in turnovers gained. But they don't need to be amazingly stout, they just need to slow down opponents while their offense does the scoring. This unit was better than expected last year and returns most of the unit so I can't imagine they'll be any worse.

2012 vs. the Gophers: This was the most embarrassing loss of the year for Minnesota. Well after the New Mexico State loss. And I guess after the North Dakota State loss. So most embarrassing Big Ten loss of the year. We never got off the plane in Ann Arbor and we got rolled 58-0. I'm not expecting a 59 point turnaround this year, but hopefully we can make it competitive. What I'm really looking for is a game where MarQueis Gray gets to showcase his unique talents facing off against a QB like Denard Robinson.

Outlook: Michigan probably lays claim to the most dangerous offense in the league and they should be in the race for the Legends division crown. Much depends on the health of Robinson and the consistency of the defense.


Msu_mediumMichigan State Spartans

2011 Recap: The defending Legends division champs, Big Ten title runner-ups and winner over Georgia (take that SEC) in the Outback Bowl. Michigan State had an impressive year with the #1 defense in yards allowed to go with an efficient offense that scored 31 ppg.

Offense: Gone is Kirk Cousins (WB), BJ Cunningham (WR), Joel Foreman (OG), Brian Linthicum (TE) and Edwin Baker (RB). But they return 4/5 of their offensive line and Le'Veon Bell at running back. The running game should be strong. Andrew Maxwell is a junior who will be taking over for Kirk Cousins who started for Michigan State the past 9 seasons. Maxwell is a former four-star recruit who was brought in for exactly this moment. Unfortunately he hurt his knee and was unable to play in the spring game so his progress is still unknown. On the other end of his passes the Spartans need to find a few new receivers as well.

Defense: This is where the Spartans figure to dominate. Gone are only two starters from what was a top 10 defense nationally. Granted Jerel Worthy will not be easily replaced and Trent Robinson was drafted as well. But returning 9 starters is impressive. Five of those nine were either first or second team All-Big Ten at the end of last year. FIVE, with a few others receiving votes! This unit will be dominant.

2012 vs. the Gophers: Surprisingly the Gophers had opportunities to beat Michigan State last year and this is when our season started to turn around. In fact we have played well against MSU even in recent seasons. We get to host MSU but I think they are the class of the Big Ten and easily has the best defense in the league.

Outlook: I think MSU is the cream of the Big Ten this year. They have a couple of tough road games having to travel to Michigan and to Minnesota. The defacto Big Ten title game might be that October 20th battle at Michigan. Their biggest question mark is obviously at quarterback, if that gets answered this could be a special year for the Spartans.

M_mediumMinnesota Golden Gophers

2011 Recap: It was a rough start to the Jerry Kill era. It is never easy to start your career with a trip to USC. But that was followed by a loss to New Mexico State and soon after a loss to North Dakota State. But the team we saw in weeks 8-12 was very different than the one we saw in 1-7. Eventually the Gophers came away with a couple of conference wins over Iowa (again!) and Illinois to build momentum for 2012.

Offense: The offense begins and ends with MarQueis Gray. The senior had a nice year as his first as the starter. He too improved throughout the season and gives Gopher fans hope for 2012. I have blogged at least a couple times about Kill's rebuilding process at his other stops and we can reasonably expect. Typically, offensively Kill's offenses improve their rushing yards and points and 3rd down conversions in year two. The passing game is relatively the same, at least at his previous two rebuilding stops. We certainly need to be a better rushing team, but who carries the load is yet to be determined. Gray should be a more accurate passer and he will be responsible for a huge chunk of our yardage but he will need help and that is big question mark for our offense.

Defense: Funny how I "feel" like we are returning basically everyone on the defense when technically we are losing five starters, including our starting tackles and starting safeties. Fortunately I feel pretty confident in our bevy of ends, our outside linebackers and our corners. I think this defense will be better than it was a year ago. A couple of well-placed JUCO defensive backs, Ra'Shede Hageman at tackle and the return of Troy Stoudermire should at the very least keep the talent level at or better than what it was in 2011. I'm looking for some improvement from our young ends and there needs to be more turnovers generated.

2012 vs. the Gophers: N/A

Outlook: I think Gopher fans are looking forward to a better team on the field. Gray is an exciting player who seems to be mature and ready to really lead the team this year. The defense returns a number of key players and should be more reliable. The question really becomes how much better will this team be and how many wins will that translate to? Given that their non-conference schedule is easier, they stand a chance at getting to bowl eligibility. They really just need to win 2 of their "more winable" games. Five to seven wins is a fair guess which would be an improvement and possibly result in a bowl game.

Neb_mediumNebraska Cornhuskers

2011 Recap: Nebraska faced a crazy difficult Big Ten schedule for their inaugural season. They missed Indiana, Illinois and Purdue in favor of Ohio State, Penn State and WIsconsin. The end result was a nice win over Michigan State but lopsided losses at Michigan and Wisconsin left with a third place finish in the division. Statistically they ran the ball very well but did a poor job stopping the run.

Offense: Rex Burkhead is one hell of a tough running back and he is one of the best in the Big Ten, he is the focal point of this offense. With that said the guy who might be able take this offense from good to great is Taylor Martinez, if he improves. He spent the spring working on footwork and mechanics, if he can develop into a more reliable passer this offense could be fairly explosive. The receivers are returning but they need to find new offensive tackles and a center.

Defense: On this side of the ball the Cornhuskers lose only a few guys but they lose some really talented players. Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard were both drafted and were both 1st team All-Big Ten. Jared Crick is equally as talented as those two but the Skurs didn't have him for much of the year anyway. This unit should still be stout against the run but whether or not they'll be able to stop the pass this year is yet to be determined. A good defense, probably not a great one.

2012 vs. the Gophers: This game in 2011 was the most embarrassing home loss for Minnesota. After physically pummeling us in the first half Nebraska was using us as a live scrimmage in the second. They were trying different plays and sets trying to simulate a live game. This year they are still more talented and likely more physical but I'd really like to see the Gophers put up a fight this time around. We do catch them a week before they face their heated rival, Iowa as they fight for the Heroes Game Trophy, maybe they'll be looking past us.

Outlook: Like every team in the Big Ten Nebraska is good, could be very good but they have some questions to answer. Good defense, great running game and if their quarterback proves to be capable of beating defenses with his arm they should take a big step forward.

Nu_mediumNorthwestern Wildcats

2011 Recap:After a rough start to the Big Ten season (0-4), NU got on a winning streak with four straight win (one being non-conference) before dropping their season finale to Michigan State. This was a team that could move the ball down the field behind the spread attack lead by Dan Persa, but they struggled to slow down opponents giving up over 400 yards of offense per game. The #1 passing offense in the league and the #12 passing defense. All of this was good enough for a bowl game.

Offense: As mentioned this unit could move the ball against anyone to the tune of 420 yards and 29 points per game. Unfortunately six seniors from this offense graduate including Dan Persa and first team All-Big Ten H-Back, Drake Dunsmore. Kain Colter is the likely replacement for Persa. He was the starting QB for three games last season, led the team in rushing and had 43 receptions. He will be the offensive focal point as Northwestern replaces a number of skill position players.

Defense: This unit returns seven starters and at least in the spring was ahead of the offense. The secondary gave up a ton of yards last season and lost three starters in the backfield, so that has to be the area of greatest concern for the defense. Redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson stood out in the spring game against the first team offense.

2012 vs. the Gophers: These games are typically close and usually result in a Northwestern win. This year it is at home and this is one of those games we need to win if bowl eligibility is to become a reality.

Outlook: Northwestern replaces a lot on both sides of the ball. I expect their offense to remain potent, though not likely to replicate the 420 yards per game they saw in 2011. I expect their defense to be in the bottom half of the conference with pass defense being the primary issue once again. Getting to a bowl and winning their first one might be too much to ask this year.

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