Michigan Wolverines: Gerald Hodges

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
5:00
PM ET
Questions, answers and Twitter. What could possibly be better on a Tuesday in June?

Let's begin ...

Virgel from Valdosta, Ga., writes: Adam, do you think that if this season ends the Tim Beckman era at Illinois, they would go after a high-profile coach on the bench right now, like a Mack Brown? Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting thought, Virgel, as it's hard to know where athletic director Mike Thomas would turn. He has a track record of hiring MAC coaches -- Butch Jones, Brian Kelly, Beckman -- but I'd be shocked if he went that route again. Brown will be 62 in August, has a ton of money and likely a lengthy TV career ahead, so I'm not sure how much he would want to coach again. And if he did, for how long?

Illinois doesn't want to keep changing coaches. But thinking outside the box could be a good approach. Or Thomas could hire a guy like Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who is ready to lead a major-conference program.




Kyle from Hamilton, Ontario, writes: We all have heard how "weak" Iowa's schedule is. It has even been rumoured that they could be favoured in every game. Given the fact they don't play Ohio State, a scenario exists that they both could go undefeated. That could have happened in 2002 if Iowa didn't blow the lead against Iowa State that year. My question is this: If both Ohio State and Iowa go undefeated do both teams make the playoffs?

Adam Rittenberg: Man, I love that Canadian spelling. This would be a fascinating scenario, Kyle. A lot depends on what happens in other conferences and how the Big Ten performs in marquee nonleague games. But I don't think Iowa makes the playoff with a loss in the league championship game, primarily because of the seemingly soft regular-season schedule.

In this scenario, Ohio State would have a road win against a preseason top-10 team in Michigan State. The Buckeyes also play Virginia Tech in nonleague play. Will the Michigan home win help or hurt Ohio State? How much credit will Iowa get for beating Wisconsin and Nebraska at home? All these questions factor into the playoff decision. Ultimately, I doubt the Big Ten gets two teams into the initial playoff. Fairly or unfairly, the league will pay for its recent shortcomings. But Ohio State has a better chance as a one-loss team than Iowa.




Dave from Marietta, Ohio, writes: The Big Ten should've gone to North-South divisions instead of East-West. I'm not sure about the exact locations of the schools, but a North-South alignment could look something like this ... North -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa. South -- Maryland, Rutgers, Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska.

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting idea, Dave, as this proposal appears to create more historical balance than the current East-West alignment. But if you look at the Big Ten's recent expansion, the idea is to live in a second region along the East Coast. It's not a northern expansion but an eastern one. Another factor to consider is geography. Nebraska would be a major outlier in the South division -- nearly an eight-hour drive from its closest division competitor (Illinois) and a loooong way from Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. Would Husker fans care? Maybe, maybe not. They would get annual games with both Penn State and Ohio State.

I like how your proposal satisfies the Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry triangle/dilemma, but it also would require at least one extra protected crossover, Ohio State-Michigan, which would reduce the overall schedule rotation for two of the league's marquee programs. I definitely see value in the North-South model, but East-West is here, at least for now.




[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Paul VernonOhio State's Braxton Miller is one of just two early enrollees to be Big Ten Freshman of the Year in the last seven years.
Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I wondered if you've seen any data comparing early enrollees and players who enroll in the fall. Do early enrollees start sooner, play in more games, have better drafts or have better graduation rates than players who enroll in the summer/fall? My thought is if the player works hard enough to graduate high school early, maybe there's a bit of a better work ethic.

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, David, and there's not a great answer yet as this trend remains somewhat new. The number of early enrollees really spiked in the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes. Not surprisingly, there is some evidence that early enrollees are contributing faster in their careers than those who arrive in the summer. We've seen examples in the Big Ten such as Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who earned a starting job as a true freshman. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller enrolled early and has started since the middle of his freshman season.

Then again, a 2009 ranking of top early enrollee groups Insider showed more misses (Tate Forcier, Kevin Newsome, Will Campbell) than hits (Gerald Hodges) in the Big Ten. Penn State had seven early enrollees in 2010 but only one, running back Silas Redd, became a star for the Lions.

Of the Big Ten's last seven Freshman of the Year recipients, just two -- Ohio State's Miller and Illinois' Arrelious Benn -- were early enrollees. So it's hard to draw clear conclusions.




Peter from Boston writes: Would be interested to hear your thoughts on a recent article by John U. Bacon about attendance issues at Michigan (Ivan Maisel referenced it in his latest 3-Point Stance). Personally, I think you could insert any major program in the country (including my alma mater Penn State) and write roughly the same article. ADs constantly point the finger at high-definition TV and other tech as the reason for slipping attendance, and it's definitely a factor, but Bacon makes some very good points about the in-game experience and costs of attending a game at a major university. What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: There are some very valid points in Bacon's story, especially about rising ticket prices. As Ohio State AD Gene Smith recently told me, "The reality is a lot of our ticket pricing, some of us are at the top of the pyramid." And it seems like the branding push, especially in the Big Ten, is turning off some fans. Has the sport sold its soul in some ways? No doubt. Is branding too much of a priority in the Big Ten, which makes a lot of money but doesn't really win anything? There's a case to be made. ADs are devoting a lot of energy to improving the gameday experience, but two solutions are pretty simple: scheduling better opponents and charging less for tickets.
Alabama and Notre Dame put a bow on the 2012 college football season Monday night. Most of the Big Ten would just as soon douse it with gasoline and light a match.

But before a largely forgettable 2012 Big Ten season goes up in flames, let's take one final look at the power rankings following the bowls. Ohio State not surprisingly remains on top, and the bottom three teams stay the same as well. There's a bit of shuffling among the seven bowl teams after varying performances. As has been the case most of the season, very little separates Nos. 2-6.

Here's a look at the pre-bowl power rankings.

Let's get to it ...

1. Ohio State (12-0; previously: 1): The Buckeyes will occupy this spot until they lose a game, which might be a while under coach Urban Meyer. After recording just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history, Ohio State sets its sights on even bigger goals as it emerges from NCAA sanctions. The Buckeyes showed major strides on offense behind sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller and improved on both lines as the season went on. Meyer exceeded most expectations in Year 1, but they'll be much higher in 2013.

2. Northwestern (10-3; previously: 5): Pat Fitzgerald's team moves up three spots after claiming its first bowl victory in 64 years. There was surprisingly little drama as Northwestern capitalized on Mississippi State's errors and won the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl by two touchdowns. The Wildcats recorded just the third 10-win season in team history and easily could have won another game or two despite a young roster. Things are headed in the right direction in Evanston.

3. Michigan (8-5; previously: 2): The Wolverines were one defensive stop away from recording the most impressive win in the Big Ten's bowl season and in the Brady Hoke era. They paced a very talented South Carolina team in the Outback Bowl and received big performances from wideout Jeremy Gallon, running back Denard Robinson and quarterback Devin Gardner. Unfortunately for Michigan, an elite pass defense couldn't get it done in the end. Four of Michigan's five losses came against top-10 teams, but an 8-5 record isn't what Hoke or his players had in mind this fall.

4. Penn State (8-4; previously: 3): Penn State and Michigan are similar in that both teams have "good" losses on their résumés (Michigan a few more than Penn State). Both teams rallied to beat Northwestern at home, while Penn State has another quality win against Wisconsin. The Lions and Wolverines didn't play one another, and we'll never know how Penn State would have fared against a team like South Carolina. Michigan gets the slight edge here, but Penn State had a terrific season behind a dramatically improved offense and a defense led by senior stars Michael Mauti, Jordan Hill and Gerald Hodges.

5. Nebraska (10-4; previously: 4): The Huskers beat the three teams ahead of them in the rankings, but the power rankings place more weight on recent results, and Nebraska finished the season with a thud. Bo Pelini's team surrendered 105 points in its last two games -- losses to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska showed it could move the ball and score against anyone, despite being turnover-prone. But the defense was abysmal in the four losses and raises serious concerns for Pelini's program going forward.

6. Wisconsin (8-6; previously: 6): The Barry Alvarez-led Badgers showed they could hang with Stanford, but they couldn't take advantage of the unique opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl Presented by Vizio despite finishing third in the Leaders Division. The inconsistent offensive execution that plagued Wisconsin throughout the season surfaced once again against a tough and talented Stanford defense. Wisconsin just didn't have enough firepower to get over the hump, which was really the story of its season.

7. Michigan State (7-6; previously: 7): A come-from-behind win against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl takes the sting off of a season that didn't go according to plan for Michigan State. The Spartans leaned on their defense and received just enough offense from backup quarterback Connor Cook and Co. to get past a young Horned Frogs team in Tempe, Ariz. Michigan State posted its second straight bowl win under coach Mark Dantonio and said goodbye to three juniors -- running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston -- in the days following the game.

8. Minnesota (6-7; previously: 9): Minnesota appeared poised to give the Big Ten a surprising 1-0 start to the bowl season. The Gophers made strides on offense between the end of the regular season and the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, as young quarterback Philip Nelson and the offensive line looked a lot better against Texas Tech. But Minnesota still doesn't know how to finish and suffered breakdowns down the stretch in a tough loss to the Red Raiders. The team still doubled its win total in Jerry Kill's second season and could make some noise in a tough Legends Division next fall.

9. Purdue (6-7; previously: 8): The Boilermakers and Minnesota swap places after Minnesota performed much better in its bowl game than Purdue did. A mismatch on paper turned into a total whitewash on the field as Oklahoma State, which had no business being in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, outclassed Purdue from the get-go. Purdue's once-promising season ended with a thud as a veteran-laden Boilers team that kept pace with both Notre Dame and Ohio State struggled mightily against most of the good-to-great teams it faced this season.

10. Indiana (4-8; previously: 10): After going 1-11 in Kevin Wilson's first year, Indiana could only get better, and took some important steps this season. The Hoosiers showed they can score points on just about every defense in the Big Ten, and their group of skill players is among the league's best. IU's defense still isn't at a Big Ten level, and improving the talent and depth on that side of the ball is the chief challenge for Wilson and his staff entering the 2013 season.

11. Iowa (4-8; previously: 11): A bowl appearance looked like a guarantee before the season as the schedule set up favorably for eight or more wins. But the offense took a giant step backward, and injuries hurt the unit throughout the season. Iowa's defense kept it in quite a few games but also let down against better offenses like Northwestern and Michigan. The Hawkeyes will look for more cohesion on offense and more playmakers to emerge. The Legends Division seems to be getting only tougher.

12. Illinois (2-10; previously: 12): No team and no coach wants to turn the page on 2012 more than Illinois and Tim Beckman. Almost nothing went right in Beckman's first season, as the offense stalled and the defense struggled against spread offenses. The Illini dropped all eight of their Big Ten contests and lost by fewer than 14 points just once. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit can get the offense on track. The defense, meanwhile, must fill holes up front and in the secondary. At least Illinois gets a fresh start in 2013.
The 2012 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET tonight on the Big Ten Network. We'll post the full lists shortly thereafter as well as reaction.

The four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be revealed Tuesday night. We will have our official blog endorsements for each of these throughout Tuesday, so be sure to check in.

To clarify, we don't have official votes for All-Big Ten (not like we cover the league closer than anyone year-round or anything, but we're not bitter), but we will reveal our own all-conference team at a later date.

For now, we're going to give our opinions on some of the key debates surrounding this year's all-conference team.

(Read full post)

video
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett break down the Defensive Player of the Year race in 2012.
The Big Ten doesn't announce an official preseason all-conference team. But that doesn't mean we can't.

Here are our picks for the 2012 preseason All-Big Ten team:

Offense

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OT: Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OG: Chris McDonald, Michigan State
C: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: John Simon, Ohio State
DE: William Gholston, Michigan State
DT: Kawann Short, Purdue
DT: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
LB: Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan

Specialists

K/P: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Abbrederis

Thoughts: The first thing that likely jumps out at you is that we have three running backs and just one receiver on our first-team offense. No, we haven't forgotten the rules of football. It's just that we continue to feel the wide receiver crop is weak this season, and no great candidates for the second spot leap out at us. Perhaps Keenan Davis of Iowa or one of Northwestern's many receivers will have a great season, but no one has proved anything on a consistent basis. We'd rather have Bell -- who we believe is primed for a huge year -- on the team than any of the receiver candidates. Plus, isn't running the ball what Big Ten football is all about? ... Some of the toughest omissions came at linebacker, where Michigan State's duo of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor were among those left out. At least we know we'd have an outstanding second-team unit at that position. ... Fiedorowicz is a bit of a projection pick, but we love the way he finished last season and how he fits into Greg Davis' new scheme. You certainly could make a strong case for Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen or Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner there as well. ... Some of these players won't live up to expectations, and others will explode on the scene this fall. But for now, we'd feel pretty good about throwing this team on the field.
Our position-by-position preseason rankings roll on as we get to the linebackers. This is one of the strongest overall position groups in the league, full of returning stars and pro prospects.

Here are the top 10 individual linebackers leading into 2012, based heavily on last year's performance with some consideration given to potential.

1. Gerald Hodges, Penn State, senior: A first-team All-Big Ten performer a year ago, Hodges is a leading contender for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors this season. A big hitter with speed, he had 106 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in a breakthrough junior campaign. New coordinator Ted Roof could set Hodges loose on more blitzes this season.

2. Chris Borland, Wisconsin, junior: Borland switched to middle linebacker last year, and Bret Bielema said he could be the best middle linebacker he's ever coached. Borland isn't very tall (at a listed 5-foot-11) but makes up for it with all-around athleticism and instincts. He finished with 143 tackles last season.

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Kevin Jairaj/US PresswireA new coordinator could help Penn State's Gerald Hodges put up even bigger numbers as a senior.
3. Jonathan Brown, Illinois, junior: Brown made a name for himself last year as sophomore, erupting for 19.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. He gets to quarterbacks in a major hurry, and they are not happy to see him.

4. Max Bullough, Michigan State, junior: The captain of the Spartans' outstanding defense from his middle linebacker spot, Bullough has a keen understanding of the game that comes from growing up in a football family. He's also an impressive athlete at 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds. His tackle numbers last year (89) weren't huge, but he's got a ton of talent around him.

5. Denicos Allen, Michigan State, junior: Allen is one of those talented guys around Bullough. The Spartans love to use his speed on linebacker blitzes, and for good reason. He had 11 tackles and 18.5 tackles for loss last season while flying in from the edge.

6. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin, senior: It shows you how good and deep the Big Ten linebacker corps is that Taylor ranks only sixth after racking up a whopping 150 tackles last year. He's always around the ball and has strong tackling skills. It's hard to find a more reliable combo than him and Borland.

7. James Morris, Iowa, junior: He led Iowa with 110 tackles a year ago, though there's a strong feeling that he and the Hawkeyes should have made more plays on defense last season. Morris has started since midway through his freshman season and should continue to improve. Iowa will need its linebackers to make plays behind a young defensive line.

8. Michael Mauti, Penn State, senior: We love Mauti's playmaking ability and sense for the game, and we love the leadership he's shown through the Nittany Lions' crisis. We just hate the fact that he hasn't been able to stay healthy during his career. Here's hoping for some luck in that department in his final go-round, and if so, he has a chance to be among the very best linebackers in the conference.

9. Kenny Demens, Michigan, senior: Demens was named the Wolverines' top linebacker last season after recording 94 tackles and three sacks. He should be a leader of a veteran group that might provide the strength of Michigan's defense in 2012.

10. Will Compton, Nebraska, senior: Last week at Big Ten media days, Bo Pelini called Compton the unquestioned leader of the Cornhuskers' defense. He'll also look to become the team's top playmaking linebacker in the absence of Lavonte David. He had 82 tackles a year ago, including excellent performances in key victories over Michigan State and Penn State.

Big Ten media days preview

July, 16, 2012
7/16/12
11:00
AM ET
You know the season is right around the corner when media days approach. The Big Ten will hold its annual media days and preseason kickoff luncheon next week. Here's a quick preview of the event:

Dates: July 26 and 27

Location: Hyatt Regency McCormick Place and McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago

Big names in attendance: Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin; Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan; Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska; James Vandenberg, QB, Iowa; John Simon, DE, Ohio State; Silas Redd, RB, Penn State; Kawann Short, DT, Purdue.

Big names not in attendance: Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State; Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State; Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska; William Gholston, DE, Michigan State; Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin.

What to expect: Here are some of what we think will be the most popular subjects of conversation in Chicago:
  • Playoff talk. The four-team playoff is still a couple of years away, but it figures to be a huge topic of conversation for every conference on the media days circuit this summer. Players and coaches will be asked for their opinion on the subject, and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany likely will field plenty of questions about how the league has fared thus far in the postseason negotiations. The idea of a selection committee and who should serve on it will be a major discussion point.
  • Penn State fallout. You almost feel bad for the three Penn State players (Redd, Jordan Hill and John Urschel) who are attending, along with head coach Bill O'Brien. Though none of them had anything to do with the Sandusky scandal, they will have to answer repeated questions about Joe Paterno and the controversy that has enveloped their campus. So far throughout this trying time, current players and coaches have handled the situation with grace and tact. Also, expect Delany to be grilled about potential Big Ten punishment for the Nittany Lions.
  • Urban Meyer. Few first-year coaches have ever gotten as much attention as Meyer has since he was hired by Ohio State, and understandably so. This is Meyer's first Big Ten showcase event, and there will likely be a buzz in the room when he takes the podium. Also, look for lots of talk about the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry heating up (if it's possible for that to get hotter). And if you don't think Wisconsin's Bret Bielema will be asked at least one question about Meyer, you haven't been paying attention.
  • Heisman hopefuls. The player contingent does not lack for star power this year. Ball was a Heisman finalist last year and will draw a crowd. Same goes for Michigan's Robinson, who will speak on behalf of the players at the kickoff luncheon on Friday. Burkhead is also an outside Heisman candidate, along with Redd.
  • Big Ten/Pac-12 series cancellation. The two leagues announced on Friday their scheduling partnership had dissolved before it ever began. Delany will have to answer questions about what happened to the promising series as well as address how the league plans to address future scheduling. Is a nine-game conference schedule officially back on the table?
  • New coaches. Meyer will be the main attraction, but Penn State's O'Brien and Illinois' Tim Beckman are also making their Big Ten media days debut. There will be much interest in how they will build their programs, particularly for O'Brien.
  • National title potential. The Big Ten is working on a long national championship drought, and none of the league's teams will be among the preseason favorites to win it all. Michigan likely will enter the year as the highest ranked team, and Brady Hoke will be asked about the season opener against Alabama. Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska could all be preseason Top 20 teams. Are any of them BCS title caliber, and what's it going to take for the Big Ten to get back there?
The college football season is officially over. So it's time to break out the crystal ball and offer our projections for the preposterously-too-early 2012 Big Ten power rankings.

1. Michigan State: The Spartans must replace a lot of leadership, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. But nine starters return off the Big Ten's top overall defense, featuring Will Gholston, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis as potential breakout stars. Le'Veon Bell could have a big year as the No. 1 tailback, and if Andrew Maxwell can adequately fill in for Cousins, the offense should be fine, especially if Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett gets his waiver to become immediately eligible at receiver. Plus, the road schedule (at Central Michigan, at Indiana, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota) is far more manageable than what the team navigated in 2011.

2. Michigan: A lot of things went right for the Wolverines in 2011, including a favorable schedule. That slate gets harder in 2012, beginning with Alabama at Cowboys Stadium and including road trips to Nebraska and Ohio State. Still, Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint form one of the most dangerous offensive duos in the league, and the second year under Brady Hoke and his staff should mean more familiarity and comfort. Coming off a BCS win, Michigan could start the season in the Top 10.

3. Wisconsin: The Badgers will have to overcome many challenges to reach their third straight Rose Bowl. The biggest concern is at quarterback, where there's no experience to replace Russell Wilson and his record-breaking efficiency level. Bret Bielema will have to remake almost his entire offensive coaching staff after Paul Chryst took several assistants with him to Pittsburgh. Still, Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball returns to keep the Wisconsin running game among the best in the country. And the two Big Ten teams who beat the Badgers in 2011 -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- must come to Madison in '12.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes aren't eligible to make the Big Ten title game, but don't be surprised if they put up the best record in the Leaders Division. A transition period can be expected as Urban Meyer takes over as head coach and installs an entirely new offensive system. But Ohio State had a small senior class in 2011 and brings back many talented players, such as defensive lineman John Simon, quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde. A schedule that features eight home games should equal much improvement over this year's 6-7 record.

5. Nebraska: Few teams will be as experienced on offense as Nebraska, which returns seven starters and just about every key skill player on that side of the ball. Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead should be even better with another year in offensive coordinator Tim Beck's system. The questions are on defense, where the Huskers struggled at times in 2011 before losing their top two players in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Nebraska must get tougher up front defensively to handle the Big Ten grind and has difficult road assignments looming at Ohio State and Michigan State.

6. Penn State: For the first time since 1965, we'll see what a Penn State team looks like that is not coached by Joe Paterno to start the season. New coach Bill O'Brien made a wise decision to retain defensive assistants Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, and even without All-American lineman Devon Still, that side of the ball should stay stout with standouts like Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and hopefully a healthy Michael Mauti. O'Brien's biggest impact should come on offense. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator will try to bring the Nittany Lions attack into the 21st century with a competent passing game. Tailback Silas Redd provides a nice crutch while that transition occurs.

7. Iowa: After two straight 7-5 regular-season finishes, the Hawkeyes will look to get back into Big Ten contention. But they'll have to overcome the losses of star receiver Marvin McNutt, offensive tackle Riley Reiff, defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns and cornerback Shaun Prater. When he's on, James Vandenberg is as good a dropback passer as there is in the Big Ten, but making up for McNutt's production won't be easy. Assuming Marcus Coker returns from suspension, the running game should be very good. The defense simply has to improve after giving up too many big plays in 2011, and Kirk Ferentz hasn't yet named a successor to veteran defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who retired.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers have a chance to make a move in a Leaders Division that is marked by coaching changes. They return most of the major pieces of their Little Caesars Bowl-winning team, and the return of Rob Henry from his season-ending knee surgery opens up some interesting possibilities at quarterback. Kawann Short should be one of the top defensive linemen in the league if he decides to return for his senior year. We'd still like to see more consistency from Danny Hope's program before we rank Purdue too high, however.

9. Northwestern: Dan Persa and his record-breaking accuracy are gone, along with top receiver Jeremy Ebert. Yet we're not too concerned about the offense and like the multi-dimensional options that Kain Colter provides with his all-around athleticism. Northwestern's issue is whether it can fix a defense that had trouble stopping anybody. The fact that the Wildcats lose their top three defensive backs from a secondary that was routinely torched does not inspire confidence.

10. Illinois: New coach Tim Beckman has his work cut out for him in Year One. He has to completely revamp an offense that couldn't shoot straight in the back half of 2011 while implementing a new spread style. He has to try to maintain the defense without coordinator Vic Koenning or All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus. And he faces a schedule that sees the Illini going to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, all three of which won in Champaign this past season. There's still talent on defense, led by promising linebacker Jonathan Brown. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase needs to build on his second-half showing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

11. Minnesota: After a horrible start, the Gophers showed a lot more fight down the stretch in 2011, beating Iowa and Illinois at home. Jerry Kill knows how to build a program, and the team can't help but be better in 2012, especially if MarQueis Gray continues to develop at quarterback. But Minnesota still has some holes on its roster that can only be fixed through recruiting, and while the Gophers could make a run at bowl eligibility this year, they'll be hard-pressed to make too much noise in a stacked Legends Division.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers is that they played a ton of freshmen in 2011, and the growing pains should start to pay off for guys such as Tre Roberson and Mark Murphy in 2012. The second year under Kevin Wilson should also bring progress. Still, this is a team that went 1-11 in 2011 with no wins over FBS teams, so it remains an uphill climb.

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