Michigan Wolverines: Marcus Coker

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.
The 2011 Heisman Trophy ceremony just took place on Saturday night, and very few people were talking about players like Robert Griffin III or Montee Ball as serious candidates before this season. So it's ridiculously early to be speculating on 2012 candidates. But it is a lot of fun.

Wisconsin's Ball is only a junior, and if he decides to come back for his senior season he'll be one of the preseason Heisman favorites in 2012. Most expect him to make the leap to the NFL, however, and his stock might never be higher.

So we'll assume Ball does not return as we examine some other potential Big Ten Heisman candidates next season:
  • Michigan QB Denard Robinson: Well, of course. Robinson has been in the Heisman conversation in the early part of the past two years, and voters are very familiar with his abilities. A couple of things could be in his favor in 2012: He'll be a senior, and he'll enter his third year as a starter. He'll also be in the second year of Al Borges' offensive system. Robinson will have to cut down on his interceptions, develop into a better passer and compete against the insane numbers he's put up the past two seasons. But he'll definitely be on the radar if Michigan keeps winning under Brady Hoke.
  • Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead: Burkhead blossomed into a star this season, rushing for 1,268 yards and 15 touchdowns, and is expected to come back for his senior season. He might not always be flashy, but few backs run harder. If Nebraska can have a big season, he can get into the mix, along with possibly his backfield mate, quarterback Taylor Martinez.
  • Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: It's probably wildly unfair to put Miller on this list. He'll only be a sophomore and will be learning a new system. But he did show signs of stardom as a rookie, and now he'll be showcased in Urban Meyer's spread system. The '12 season is likely too soon for Miller to make many Heisman waves, but don't be surprised if he's competing for the statue before his career in Columbus is over.
Others to watch: Iowa's James Vandenberg and Marcus Coker; Penn State's Silas Redd; Wisconsin's James White.
Turning point: Michigan was driving, trying to cut into Iowa’s lead when quarterback Denard Robinson threw into coverage on a slant route to Roy Roundtree. The pass bounced off Roundtree and was intercepted by Christian Kirksey -- the Wolverines’ second turnover in as many possessions. It turned a Michigan red zone opportunity into a turnover and kept Iowa's lead at 17-6 heading into the half. Critical error by Robinson.

Best player in the half: Iowa running back Marcus Coker. The 230-pound running back is the latest in a string of strong, powerful Hawkeyes backs. And he crushed Michigan in the first half, gaining 74 yards and scoring Iowa’s first touchdown. Perhaps more important, the threat of him running has opened up the Hawkeyes’ passing game on playaction.

What Michigan needs to do, What Iowa needs to do: Michigan -- A lot. The offense needs to keep running the ball. After running back Fitzgerald Toussaint ran through the Hawkeyes on Michigan’s one touchdown drive, the Wolverines went away from it -- trying to throw the ball more. It didn’t work, with two turnovers in two possessions (a Robinson fumble and Robinson interception). On defense, Michigan needs to figure out a way to get better play out of its linebackers. They are struggling to tackle Coker as a unit and are biting in playaction hard. Iowa -- Keep to its offensive gameplan. So far, it is working. Using Coker as a bruising back to set up the playaction fakes for quarterback James Vandenberg has really hurt the Wolverines. Vandenberg is 9 of 12 passing for 114 yards and a touchdown.
A few notes from a conference call with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who is in his 12th year as head coach at Iowa.

  • Ferentz doesn't believe in what he called the road game conspiracy, which would indicate that any team playing on the road will have a much harder time winning. "It's about playing well and not playing well," Ferentz said, adding that his team didn't play well enough to win in its two Big Ten road games (13-3 at Penn State, 22-21 at Minnesota).
  • Ferentz said that seeing Michigan junior quarterback Denard Robinson and sophomore quarterback Devin Gardner on the field does make his team look at Michigan differently, because "it's one more thing to prepare for. ... Now there's two guys back there who can throw."

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