2012 Big Ten Football Preview: Legends Division
That's the one word that summarizes the Big Ten this upcoming football season, as power and wealth have been spread among a group of teams: Not just one team will dominate the conference in 2012, like we've seen in years past.
Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa all have a great shot to make a conference title appearance in the Legends division, while Wisconsin looks to walk into Indianapolis from the Leaders division, thanks to the ineligibility of Ohio State and Penn State.
The Big Ten is being reinvented. Known for its run-it-down-your-throat power-run offense, many teams are beginning to transition to high-flying, high-tempo spread formations. This has a lot to do with the coaching carousel currently taking place—but mostly to catch up with the SEC.
Here is a preview and prediction of how the Big Ten Legends division will pan out this upcoming season, with the Leaders coming soon.
Michigan Wolverines: 9-3 (7-1)
Denard Robinson's senior season and quest for a national championship could be decided by the first game of the year. If Michigan beats Alabama Week 1, I like its chances to finish the regular season undefeated. But let's face it—the offense line is lacking key parts, receiver Roy Roundtree isn't the playmaker the Wolverines thought he'd be, and the defensive line will struggle to work a pass rush. And sure, they'll have a deadly rushing attack (that is, if Toussaint stays out of trouble), but plain and simple, Robinson does not fit that pass-friendly offense. Still, Michigan will do enough to win what looks to be a down year for the Big Ten.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: 10-2 (6-2)
Let's hope the 'Huskers used their sophomore slump as a freshman fallout in their first year with the Big Ten, because 2011 did not go as planned. Nebraska was supposed to come in and immediately show up as a conference contender coming from the Big 12. Instead, it was blown out by Wisconsin, upset by Northwestern at home, destroyed on the road to Michigan, all while compiling the 104th passing game in the nation. Coach Bo Pelini returns much of the same roster to the field this fall, but unless he can get better performance from quarterback Taylor Martinez and the entire defensive front seven, another disappointing season is in store.
Michigan State Spartans: 9-3 (5-3)
A cupcake non-conference schedule will allow junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell to gain experience and prepare for playing four brutal conference games. He learned under three-year starter Kirk Cousins over the last two seasons and knows the offense very well, but will have a very young receivers corps to work with. The defense will be outstanding as usual (especially at the linebacker position), although it will have to replace Jerel Worthy on the line. It will be a year of growth for the Spartans, but nine wins is not out of the question.
Iowa Hawkeyes: 9-3 (5-3)
Coach Kirk Ferentz seems to never have a bad year. Seriously, the last time his Hawkeyes finished without a winning record was in 2007, when they went 6-6 and still won four conference games. Still, Iowa hasn't gotten over the hump and need to make some noise this year to stay relevant. Look for quarterback James Vandenberg to have an outstanding season (as he should, being arguably the best pure passes in the Big Ten) and the defense to be stellar. If the Hawkeyes can find someone to contribute to the running game, a solid replacement for receiver Marvin McNutt, consistency from the offensive line, and a stronger pass rush, they'll surprise many. If.
Northwestern Wildcats: 7-5 (3-5)
The Wildcats haven't won a bowl game since 1949, but all that could change in what is likely to be coach Pat Fitzgerald's last season at the helm. The defense is very young, but extremely athletic and will force a lot of turnovers. The offense is undergoing a lot of changes, including a turnover at quarterback with the departure of Dan Persa. However, junior Kain Colter is a dual threat that received some experience last season and should have a breakout 2012. The running game will be a vital part of Northwestern's success this fall: it was 4-0 when running for 200 yards or more and 5-2 with 150-plus, while finishing 1-5 with less than 150.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: 2-10 (0-8)
It may not show on the Sunday morning paper, but Minnesota football is improving. Coach Jerry Kill actually has a decent group of players to work with this season: The offensive line is mature and consistent, the running backs are above average, the defensive line puts pressure on the opposing quarterback, and the linebackers can stop the run. Unfortunately for the Gophers, they'll still struggle to move the ball through the air and will not be able to stop premier pass offenses. Still, there's hope for their first bowl bid since 2009. Four wins would be nice, too, but that might be wishful thinking at this point. Slow and steady wins the race—okay maybe that doesn't apply to this situation.
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