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Looking Ahead to the Big Ten Leaders Division

I'll be honest with you all, I've had nothing for a few weeks now. The blog has obviously been sparsely updated but I'm struggling to come up with anything to write about. I was unable to get over to any of the spring practices this year so it was hard to get excited about that. There is NOTHING going on in the recruiting world for Gopher fans. Football feels like it is months away (because it is) and basketball & hockey have promising seasons ahead but they are even further away. So this is me forcing myself to do something (anything). Often times it takes a post like this to get me back into the swing of things. Forcing myself to do some research, get prepared for next season and learn a bit sometimes gets the creative juices flowing (don't expect anything anymore creative than you've seen before, a zebra can't change its stripes!).

So...with that said I'd like to take a brief look at the other 11 teams in the Big Ten as we inch closer to the 2012 college football season.


Ill_mediumIllinois Fighting Illini

2011 Recap: This was one of the teams the Gophers actually beat last year! The Illini started the season 6-0 and it appeared as though Ron Zook's job was safe. Then came the six-game losing streak, the 2-6 Big Ten record and the Zooker was shown the door before Illinois' bowl game. This team racked up the "impressive" 6-0 record to start the season but then the wheels fell off.

Offense: Returns 6 starters, most notably Nathan Scheelhaase who is entering this third year as the program's starting QB. Steelchase may get some push from sophomore Reily O'Toole as the two of them starting splitting some time near the end of last season. But last season the junior to be completed 63% of his passes last year for over 2,000 yards and over 600 yards rushing. Neither was very good in the spring game but part of that was due to the offensive line being overwhelmed by the strong front seven of defense. The big loss on the offense will be wide receiver A.J. Jenkins who racked up 90 catches for over 1,200 yards as senior last year, which led to being a 1st round draft pick. The new coaching staff has been moving players around to get some WR depth.

Defense: On this side of the ball, Illinois looks to have a strong front seven headlined by defensive end Micheal Buchanon and linebacker Jonathan Brown.

2012 vs. the Gophers: We travel to Champaign in November. With the new coaching staff I think I'd much rather play Illinois earlier in the year. This is one team that we have had some success against over the last several years. We have won two in a row, three of the last four and even have a three-game win streak in Champaign. Their defense is solid, their offense might struggle to move the ball (especially early in the season). We are not in any position to be looking past any teams. We are not in any position to be overconfident against any Big Ten team. But this is a winable road game and if we are to get to six or seven wins this year, this might have to be one of them.

Outlook: Illinois is in transition with a new coaching staff but the good new for them is that they have a pretty solid defense returning seven starters. They are not going to contend for the Leaders title and they will be closer to their two conference wins last year than they will be to being above .500 in the league. Typically a new staff, implementing a new system takes some time to adjust but there is some talent to work with. They will be an interesting team and an intriguing match-up for the Gophers.

Ind_medium Indiana Hoosiers

2011 Recap: Hard to imagine but there is a worse football program in the Big Ten and it is the Indiana Hoosiers. 1-11 last year and 0-8 in the Big Ten was not what the new coaching staff was hoping for. But Kevin Wilson has hope for thinking 2012 will be better as the Hoosiers return 17 starters, the most in the Big Ten. Last year the offense struggled early but eventually a couple of true freshman emerged to offer a glimmer of hope. Overall the Hoosiers played 32 (16 true and 16 redshirt) throughout the season so there is reason for optimism that if these kids mature the Hoosiers could once again be relevant.

Offense: Tre Roberson and Stephen Houston are those two freshman. Roberson took over as quarterback mid-way through the season and showcased some game breaking speed while showing he may also be capable of passing the ball too. Running back, Houston really began getting more carries at the start of the Big Ten season and finished with three 100-yard games including 135 against Wisconsin. Houston will certainly be the team's feature back but the team needs to take strides in the passing game. Roberson is a threat with his legs but as a freshman in five starts he did throw just three touchdowns to six interceptions. Tight end Ted Bolser reportedly had a good spring and capped it off with six catches in the spring game. He looks like the security blanket in passing game for Roberson.

Defense: This unit was quite dreadful last year, imagine the Gopher defense then add 50 yards and six more points per game. They return nine starters but also have brought in five JUCOs to infuse some talent and competition. Incoming linebackers David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander are going to be counted on to pay immediate dividends.

2012 vs. the Gophers: Unfortunately we do not play the Hoosiers (I'm sure they are saying the same thing about us)

Outlook: This team may be much improved but they have a long ways to go. They were last in rushing yards allowed by over 50 yards per game. They were last in points allowed by nearly six points per game. In five of their Big Ten games they allowed 45 points or more. Their offense wasn't nearly as bad but they will need to see more consistency in 2012. I expect that they will be better but that will take from losing by an average of 24 points per game to a much smaller margin of losing. I would also expect that they will win a couple more non-conference games and possibly steal a Big Ten win.

Osu_medium Ohio State Buckeyes

2011 Recap: A 6-7 season is unheard of in Columbus. In the wake of the Jim Tressel scandal, with suspensions and a freshman quarterback the Buckeyes struggled and ended with a four-game losing streak and an overall losing season. Did anyone feel sorry for Buckeys fans? I don't think so. Defensively this team was OK finishing in the middle of the Big Ten in points and yards allowed. Rushing the ball was OK as the Buckeyes finished fourth in the league with just over 190 yards per game on the ground. But the passing game was awful. 13 touchdown passes to only 4 interceptions for the true freshman Braxton Miller isn't all that bad. But as a team Ohio State threw for 127 yards per game which was good enough for dead last in the Big Ten, just ahead of 11th place Minnesota. Enter Urban Meyer to help OSU forget about what was a forgettable 2011 season.

Offense: Looking for an area where you can expect Ohio State to improve? It will clearly be in the passing game. And if the spring game was any indication they will be much improved through the air. Miller threw for 258 yards on 24-31 passing and Michael Thomas may have emerged as a dangerous receiver after catching 12 balls for 131 yards. Nobody on last year's roster caught more than 14 balls on the season! Thomas is a four-star prep school recruit who is enrolled early and may become a boost to the passing game. Along with improving their passing game, Ohio State will need to replace both starting tackles and their starting center.

Defense: This unit was solid by say Gopher standards, sub-par by Buckeye standards. Luke Fickel will move from the interim head man to the co-defensive coordinator along with former Gopher defensive coordinator Everett Withers. Expect this unit to be much improved this year

2012 vs. the Gophers: We do not play the buckeyes, this is a good thing. I want to be in a place to be competitive with OSU but we are not there. And our schedule is tough enough with @Iowa, @Wis, Mich, @Neb and MSU.

Outlook: They'll be much better but they are still unable to participate in the Big Ten Title game.

Psu_logo_mediumPenn State Nittany Lions

2011 Recap: It was a pretty uneventful 2011 for Penn State wasn't it? OK so this was the season from hell for PSU fans. Possibly the one coach who was thought to truly be untouchable was brought down amidst the scandal and not too long after that Joe Paterno passed away. This was a season and an offseason that will never be forgotten. On the field Penn State was one of the lowest scoring offenses and also one of the lowest scoring defenses in the Big Ten. Now with a new coaching staff they will also have a number of new starters as they only return 5 on each side of the ball. This should be an interesting year for Penn State.

Offense: Returning their skill position players but losing 4/5 of their offensive line and starting tight end. This was the only offense to score fewer points per game than the Gophers. For the season the Nittany Lion quarterbacks threw 12 interceptions to 10 touchdowns. This position along with replacing the offensive line are two significant question marks heading into 2012. Silas Redd is certainly not a question mark for the Nittany Lion offense. The soon to be junior rushed for 1,200+ yards in 2011 and established himself as one of the better running backs in the Big Ten.

Defense: Another former Gopher defensive coordinator is leading an opposing defense. Ted Roof will nee to replace his entire secondary which graduated and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still. There are some very talented linebackers returning but there is some work to do around them.

2012 vs. the Gophers: We do not play the Nittany Lions. I think this would be the year to play them. We certainly would not be favored but assuming some modest improvement from the Gophers I think this game could be competitive. Especially if Penn State continues to struggle at quarterback.

Outlook: Replacing your secondary, replacing your offensive line, replacing your coaching staff and not having anyone emerge from a three-way battle at quarterback are all troubling for Penn State. Those are a lot of question marks to answer before September. They seem to have a favorable schedule and of course there is plenty of talent to reload at Penn State, but this will be an average year in Happy Valley.

Purdue Boilermakers

2011 Recap: It was really an up and down season for the Boilermakers. After losing to Rice the destroyed SE Missouri St. After losing to Notre Dame by 28 they dominated the Gophers. After getting dismantled by Wisconsin they rebounded with a win over Ohio State. But this was a younger team that is returning 15 starters. Overall this team was around the middle of the pack or slightly lower in all offensive and defensive categories. Eventually they finished .500 in the Big Ten and won their bowl game as they move toward bigger things in 2012. It was a solid year for a team who lost their starting QB to an ACL tear before the season began.

Offense: We have another quarterback competition! Rob Henry tore his ACL in August he is returning. Caleb TerBush stepped into the starting role and did a fine job last season. Robert Marve and Sean Robinson are also in the running. All four of these kids are fighting to be the starting QB. Most of the rest of the offense is also returning with the exception of two starters along the line who were both drafted and wide receiver Justin Siller. This was an offense that was well balanced and had some talent. They need to figure things out along the offensive line and be sure that continues to be a strength. And finally an answer at RB is needed after the late season ACL tear that sidelined Ralph Bolden.

Defense: Defensive tackle Kawann Short and corner back Ricardo Allen were both very good players who return to lead this defense. Both safeties have to be replaced and one linebacker also graduated, but the rest of the defense is returning. There needs to be some improvement but this defense could be very solid.

2012 vs. the Gophers: Sandwiched between a trip to Ohio State and a home game against Penn STate is a trip to Minnesota. Purdue beat up the Gophers last year. I don't feel that was truly "that" much better than Minnesota and this being a home game I think gives us a chance. We haven't shown anything where we should be favored or really very confident in a Big Ten game but Purdue is not yet in that upper echelon of the Big Ten that is significantly out of reach for Minnesota.

Outlook: With that said, Purdue has a chance to sneak into the Big Ten Title game out of the Leaders division. Ohio State isn't allowed to play. Wisconsin loses a ton of key starters from last year's team. Penn State has a number is issues. They get Wisconsin and Penn State at home and they avoid Michigan State and Nebraska. Things are lining up for the Boilermakers to have a unique season. Unfortunately they have ACL tears like the Twins have Tommy John surgeries, so the mission between now and September should be to stay healthy (duh right?).

Wis_mediumWisconsin Badgers

2011 Recap: Your Big Ten champs that were very close to playing in the BCS Title game were it not for two last second losses. The transfer in of Russell Wilson gave the Badgers a legitimate passing attack to go along with one of the best ground games in the country. It was a great regular season that was capped by a very entertaining Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. Most programs would be thrilled with their 2011 season but it really was so close to being more.

Offense: Gone is Russel Wilson, gone is Nick Toon and gone are three starters along your offensive line. So questions will abound at quarterback and offensive line. Assuming Montee Ball doesn't trespass at parties where he isn't wanted, he will be the Badger feature back and one of the best backs in the conference. As per usual there will be a host of dangerous backs who will carry the load when Ball needs a rest. James White and Melvin Gordon would likely be starting for many other Big Ten teams. But until a quarterback emerges teams will be focusing on stopping the run. This does not appear like it will be a balanced offense but its ground game should be very strong.

Defense: They return two outstanding linebackers but lose a lot of talent throughout the rest of the defense. Six starters return overall for a defense that was 3rd in yards allowed and 4th in points allowed. I would be surprised if this defense is as good as it was last year but I'm not expecting a major drop off.

2012 vs. the Gophers: The battle for the Axe has not been very entertaining the last couple years as the Badgers have dominated the line of scrimmage and muscled their way to big wins over the Gophers. This year should be closer as I don't believe Wisconsin will be as good and I believe we will be better. The gap hasn't closed enough where I'm expecting a win, but I am expecting a better game.

Outlook: The one thing we have yet to discuss with Wisconsin is their drastic coaching staff turnover. For the first time in years they are going to have new coordinators and the vast majority of Brett Bielema's staff moved on to other jobs. We are used to swapping coordinators every year but this is a new thing in Madison and it might be an adjustment. Wisconsin will be an interesting team to watch this year.