Ohio State Buckeyes: James Vandenberg
We're going back now and issuing a final, postseason ranking for each position group, and these will be far less subjective now because we have an actual full season's worth of data on hand.
Quarterbacks, naturally, are up first. (Those guys hog all the glory). You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth is an important factor in these position rankings, but having a standout main guy under center (or in the shotgun) is the most overriding concern with this group.
2. Penn State (Preseason: 12): The Nittany Lions were dead last in our preseason rankings, and with good reason considering their past performances at the position. But I did write at the time: "Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter." Uh, yeah. McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24) while throwing only five interceptions. And he stayed healthy, keeping Penn State's youthful backups from getting exposed.
3. Nebraska (Preseason: 3): Taylor Martinez led the Big Ten in total offense and completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes. When he was good, he was as good as there was in the league. But he still struggled with turnovers in key games, including 12 interceptions and numerous fumbles. If he can eliminate the mistakes, the sky's the limit.
4. Michigan (Preseason: 2): The Wolverines are a hard to team to peg in these rankings. Do we rank them based on Denard Robinson's poor showings in big games against Alabama and Notre Dame? Do we rank them based on Devin Gardner's strong finish to the season, when he was as productive as any Big Ten QB? How much do we factor in the team's lack of a solid backup plan in the Nebraska loss when Robinson got hurt early? You have to weigh the good with the bad, which makes this spot feel about right.
5. Northwestern (Preseason: 9): Starting quarterback Kain Colter threw for 872 yards, which was nearly 450 yards less than nominal backup Trevor Siemian. But Colter also rushed for 894 yards and kept defenses off balance with his versatility. Meanwhile, the Wildcats could use Siemian when they needed to stretch the field. The next step for Northwestern is developing a more consistent downfield passing attack.
6. Indiana (Preseason: 11): Who would have guessed in the preseason that the Hoosiers would actually exhibit the best depth at quarterback? After starter Tre Roberson went down in Week 2, Indiana was able to plug in juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld to sustain the league's top passing offense. The three combined to throw for more than 3,700 yards. Coffman got the bulk of the work but needed a better touchdown-to-interception ration than his 15-to-11 mark.
7. Purdue (Preseason: 1): We overrated the Boilermakers' depth in the preseason. It turned out that only one of the trio of former starters performed at a high level, and Robert Marve didn't play enough because of a torn ACL and Danny Hope's misguided insistence on sticking with Caleb TerBush. Purdue actually led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (30) and finished third in passing yards, but much of that was because the team often had to throw the ball a lot after falling way behind. This ranking could have been higher with a full season of Marve.
8. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): Danny O'Brien quickly showed that he was not the next Russell Wilson, but luckily the Badgers had some depth. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave showed major promise before his season was derailed by a broken collarbone, and Curt Phillips turned in a nice comeback story by managing the team well down the stretch. Still, Wisconsin ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards.
9. Michigan State (Preseason: 10): It was not exactly a season to remember for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell, who was benched late in the Spartans' bowl game. But for all his struggles, Maxwell still finished No. 4 in the league in passing and had some nice games in the middle of the year.
10. Minnesota (Preseason: 6): What could MarQueis Gray have done if he hadn't hurt his ankle, prompting an eventual move to receiver? True freshman Philip Nelson took over the reins midseason and broke out with a huge first half against Purdue. However, he failed to throw for more than 80 yards in the team's final three regular season games. Nelson led the team with just 873 passing yards on the season, and the Gophers threw 15 interceptions.
11. Iowa (Preseason: 4): Nobody took a bigger tumble than the Hawkeyes, as James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard passer as a junior to often looking lost as a senior. He completed only 57.3 percent of his passes and tossed only seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and Iowa showed almost no ability to go vertical. And no other Hawkeye attempted a pass all season.
12. Illinois (Preseason: 7): The Illini had experience at the position with Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but they were both part of a wildly dysfunctional offense. Illinois was next-to-last in passing yards in the Big Ten and also had just 11 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions. In fairness, both QBs were often running for their lives and had very little help.
These might be our most challenging picks of the season, which could be a good thing for Brian Bennett, who trails Adam Rittenberg by a whopping five games in the season standings.
Without further ado, let's get to the picks ...
IOWA at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: Both teams are searching for some answers on defense, but the Wildcats are much healthier than the Hawkeyes, who are banged up at offensive line and running back. I think we'll see Northwestern get back to running the ball more with Kain Colter and Venric Mark this week, which works well enough to hold back an Iowa team whose quarterback is under fire. ... Northwestern 23, Iowa 17
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern does have some injury issues of its own at cornerback, but James Vandenberg hasn't been able to take advantage of much this season. I like this matchup for Northwestern, even though the Wildcats have an identity crisis on offense right now. Iowa takes the early lead, but Northwestern finally puts the ball in Colter's hands, and he rushes for two second-half touchdowns. Mark Weisman bullies his way to 100 rush yards, but Northwestern gets it done on Homecoming. ... Northwestern 24, Iowa 20
INDIANA at ILLINOIS
Adam Rittenberg: I really think Illinois will be better following the open week -- the Illini can't get much worse -- and should capitalize on Indiana's defensive woes. But Indiana's spread offense matches up very well against an Illinois defense that, while talented, struggles mightily against spread teams. Hoosiers receivers Shane Wynn, Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes each catch touchdowns and Indiana finally finds a way to hold on for its first Big Ten win under Kevin Wilson. ... Indiana 31, Illinois 27
Brian Bennett: I guess I can't pick both to lose this week, huh? The Hoosiers have been much more competitive for the past several weeks than Illinois has, and their offense is better than any unit the Illini can put out there right now. Expect some new wrinkles from Tim Beckman after the bye week, but Indiana's passing game is too much as Nate Sudfeld comes off the bench for a pair of second-half touchdown passes. ... Indiana 28, Illinois 27
PURDUE at MINNESOTA
Brian Bennett: One of these teams has to get itself off the mat, and I think it's going to be Minnesota. Purdue has to be feeling a bit of a hangover from last week's heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, and another week of experience will do wonders for Gophers freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. He throws a key touchdown pass to MarQueis Gray, and a late field goal wins it. ... Minnesota 20, Purdue 19
Adam Rittenberg: This game is all about Purdue's demeanor after last week's heartbreaker. If we see the team that showed up in Columbus, the Boilers will win. If not, Nelson and the Gophers will get it done. I've been burned before, but I don't think Purdue is finished just yet. The Boilers' defense pressures Nelson, forces some takeaways and limits a low-scoring Gophers offense to 17 points. Purdue hits on some big plays to Gary Bush and Antavian Edison and gets a win it absolutely has to have. ... Purdue 23, Minnesota 17
MICHIGAN STATE at No. 25 WISCONSIN
Adam Rittenberg: I nearly went with the Spartans here, as I just can't believe Mark Dantonio's squad is on the verge of falling below .500. Then again, Wisconsin doesn't lose at Camp Randall Stadium, especially to teams that have no offense. This game follows a familiar script for Michigan State, which hangs around for a while behind its defense but allows a late score. Le'Veon Bell has 120 rush yards, but both Montee Ball and James White score in the second half as Wisconsin prevails. ... Wisconsin 20, Michigan State 13
Brian Bennett: Pretty simple here: Michigan State can't score, and I don't see how that changes this week against an underrated Wisconsin defense that's playing well. Ball & Co. won't find as much running room as normal against this Spartans defense, so quarterback Joel Stave will have to play well. He does well enough to get the win, hitting big passes to Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen to set up scores in a close one. ... Wisconsin 17, Michigan State 14
OHIO STATE at PENN STATE
Brian Bennett: I learned my lesson in picking against Penn State last week. Ohio State is getting thinned by injuries, and quarterback Braxton Miller might not be at full strength after last week's brief hospitalization.
Adam Rittenberg: The Buckeyes' slow starts, Miller's injury issues and Ohio State's lack of depth at linebacker are real concerns here. Penn State tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James find enough gaps in Ohio State's defense, and Bill Belton racks up 115 rush yards and two scores. Miller plays and keeps his team in the game, but Penn State has too much offense and a huge edge with the Beaver Stadium crowd. Buckeyes go down for the first time. ... Penn State 27, Ohio State 24
No. 22 MICHIGAN at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: I know Nebraska plays much better at home, and quarterback Taylor Martinez has made obvious improvement this season. But Michigan is the steadier team right now, and the better defensive squad. The Wolverines got over the hump last week against rival Michigan State, and they'll find a way to record a signature road win. Linebacker Jake Ryan recovers two Nebraska fumbles and Denard Robinson breaks off a long touchdown run in the fourth quarter as the Wolverines silence the Sea of Red. ... Michigan 26, Nebraska 24
Brian Bennett: The Legends Division race could get pretty boring if Michigan wins in Lincoln. One thing this league has not been this year is predictable. The Wolverines' recent conservative ways on offense will play into the hands of a Huskers defense that plays better when it knows what to expect. Martinez will pick on Michigan cornerbacks and turn in one of the finest moments of his career as Nebraska roars back from an early double-digit deficit to win. ... Nebraska 28, Michigan 23
Adam Rittenberg: 54-14 (.794)
Brian Bennett: 49-19 (.721)
After a pair of identical 4-1 marks in Week 6, Adam Rittenberg maintains a four-game lead against Brian Bennett in the season standings. Those shrimp cocktails at St. Elmo's in Indianapolis -- on Brian's dime -- are sounding pretty good right now, but there's still a long way to go and time for Brian to catch up.
It's prediction time ...
IOWA at MICHIGAN STATE
Brian Bennett: Get ready for a classically rugged Big Ten game between two teams who love to pound the rock and play defense. Neither team will be able to sustain many long drives against strong defenses. But home-field advantage and a key turnover forced by the Spartans' defense will make the difference. Le'Veon Bell contributes two scores as he outduels Mark Weisman. ... Michigan State 17, Iowa 14
Adam Rittenberg: While I'm tempted to pick Iowa in the upset, Michigan State matches up well against the Hawkeyes on both sides of the ball. The Spartans' defense holds Weisman to 90 rushing yards and records a key second-half interception against James Vandenberg. Bell records 100 yards and two scores as Michigan State grabs the early lead and holds on for its second straight win. ... Michigan State 21, Iowa 17
NORTHWESTERN at MINNESOTA
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern can't afford another poor start on offense, and I think the Wildcats come out of the gates a little stronger and take an early lead. Minnesota's Max Shortell makes some plays in the pass game, firing two touchdown passes, but Northwestern gets the ball in the hands of playmakers Venric Mark and Kain Colter a lot more often this week than last. Mark and Colter combine for three touchdowns and Northwestern survives a late scare to improve to 6-1. ... Northwestern 28, Minnesota 24
Brian Bennett: If the Gophers had a fully healthy MarQueis Gray, I'd be more likely to pick them here. As it stands, I don't think a gimpy Gray gives them enough firepower to get past Northwestern. Minnesota struggled against the run last time out against Iowa, and will do the same against Colter and Mark. A Jeff Budzien field goal provides the difference. ... Northwestern 31, Minnesota 28
WISCONSIN at PURDUE
Brian Bennett: It's practically do-or-die time for the Boilermakers, and I expect them to play as if their Leaders Division lives depend on this effort. In fact, they will lead most of the way after a couple of quick-strike scores early. But an improving Wisconsin offense chips away until Joel Stave hits Jared Abbrederis for a long touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the Badgers' defense hangs on late. ... Wisconsin 23, Purdue 20
Adam Rittenberg: You touched on the sense of urgency for Purdue and coach Danny Hope, and I think that'll be the difference in this game. A Boilers defense hungry to avenge last week's poor showing records an early takeaway against Stave. Both Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve play and fire touchdown passes. Although Wisconsin's Montee Ball records two rushing scores, the kicking game is the difference as Raheem Mostert breaks off a long return to set up the game-winning touchdown. ... Purdue 27, Wisconsin 24
ILLINOIS at No. 25 MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: Little is going right for the Illini right now, and they catch Michigan at the wrong time. After a quiet first quarter, Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson turns in another big performance (150 rushing yards, 175 pass yards, 2 rushing TDs, 2 passing TDs), and linebacker Jake Ryan records his first interception of the season. Versatile running back Josh Ferguson has a nice game for the Illini, but Michigan has far too much firepower and pulls away in the second quarter. ... Michigan 37, Illinois 14
Brian Bennett: The Illini's problems defending the spread and finding any kind of offensive rhythm don't bode well for this week's game in Ann Arbor. Robinson will throw for three touchdowns this week, and Michigan's defense holds Illinois to under 250 yards. ... Michigan 34, Illinois 10
No. 8 OHIO STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers are getting closer and closer to finally winning a Big Ten game. But it won't happen this week, as their shaky run defense is going to have a lot of trouble containing Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. Those two combine for four touchdowns, and Bradley Roby picks off another pass to stymie Indiana's mild second-half charge as the Buckeyes move to 7-0. ... Ohio State 42, Indiana 24
Adam Rittenberg: I've also been impressed with Indiana's ability to compete, but this is just a tough matchup against Big Bad Brax. Miller runs for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and Hyde records his second straight 100-yard rushing performance. Quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld both play and have some success in the first half, and receiver Cody Latimer tests the Buckeyes' defense, but Ohio State shifts into fifth gear late in the second quarter and cruises to 7-0. ... Ohio State 45, Indiana 21
Nebraska and Penn State are off this week.
Adam Rittenberg: 45-12 (.789)
Brian Bennett: 41-16 (.719)
League play opens up at five Big Ten venues Saturday, while Purdue returns from an open week to wrap up its nonleague slate against Marshall. Week 4 was a rough one for Brian Bennett, who went 6-4 in predictions and fell three games behind Adam Rittenberg in the season standings. The good news: The entire Big Ten slate remains, so Bennett, like most Big Ten teams, has time to improve his record.
Let's get started ...
INDIANA (2-1) at NORTHWESTERN (4-0)
Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers are apt to hang around in this one, and their passing game could give the Wildcats' still somewhat shaky secondary a big test. But Northwestern has shown too much toughness so far this season to slip up now. Venric Mark rushes for two scores and Kain Colter throws for two more as Pat Fitzgerald's team moves to 5-0. ... Northwestern 35, Indiana 21
Adam Rittenberg: These teams typically play close games, and Indiana's passing game, led by quarterback Cameron Coffman, will challenge Northwestern's secondary more than the Wildcats' past few opponents did. Northwestern's offensive line is in a good rhythm, though, and Mark will record another 100-yard rushing performance and two touchdowns. The Wildcats open up their passing game a bit in the second half and improve to 5-0. ... Northwestern 34, Indiana 26
PENN STATE (2-2) at ILLINOIS (2-2)
Adam Rittenberg: Penn State is hitting its stride under Bill O'Brien, and the Lions will be fired up to face poacher coach Tim Beckman and the Illini. Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson connect for two more touchdowns, and running back Bill Belton adds another score in his return. The Lions bottle up Illinois' run game in the second half and win their third straight. ... Penn State 21, Illinois 17
Brian Bennett: The Nittany Lions' offense isn't going to give the Illini defense as many fits as the spread teams have this season. But McGloin is slinging it pretty well, and I don't know what the offensive identity is for Beckman's club. This one won't be pretty, but Penn State gets out to an early lead and hangs on with a defensive stand in the fourth quarter. ... Penn State 17, Illinois 10
MINNESOTA (4-0) at IOWA (2-2)
Brian Bennett: Somehow, Iowa is favored in this game. But even though it's at Kinnick Stadium, all the good vibes belong to Minnesota going into Saturday. The Gophers' pass defense has been strong, while James Vandenberg and the Hawkeyes' passing attack has sputtered. Mark Weisman will batter his way to 160 yards, but the Gophers come up with two picks and a special teams score to hogtie the Hawks. ... Minnesota 21, Iowa 14
Adam Rittenberg: I went against the Gophers last week and paid the price. Not happening again. The Gophers' defense contains Weisman and forces some mistakes from Vandenberg, while the run game surges behind Donnell Kirkwood. It'll be an up-and-down day for Max Shortell, but he finds senior tight end and Iowa native John Rabe for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. ... Minnesota 24, Iowa 20
MARSHALL (2-2) at PURDUE (2-1)
Adam Rittenberg: After dealing with a migraine in the Eastern Michigan game, Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush bounces back nicely with a three-touchdown, zero-interception performance against the Thundering Herd. The Akeems run all over a woeful Marshall defense and Purdue pulls away in the second quarter and cruises to another easy win. ... Purdue 38, Marshall 21
Brian Bennett: The Thundering Herd lead the nation in passing, so they'll have a puncher's chance in West Lafayette. But they also have one of the worst defenses in the country, which should help TerBush and company enjoy a big day. Kawann Short and the Purdue defensive line are too much here, sacking Rakeem Cato five times. ... Purdue 48, Marshall 24
No. 14 OHIO STATE (4-0) at No. 20 MICHIGAN STATE (3-1)
Brian Bennett: At some point, the Spartans have to start catching balls thrown right at them. How about this week? This is a better matchup for the scuffling Ohio State defense, but I think Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will devise a plan to contain Braxton Miller. An actual touchdown pass from Andrew Maxwell and a 100-yard day from Le'Veon Bell will be just enough for Michigan State to escape at home. Next prediction. ... Michigan State 19, Ohio State 17
Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State looks like a team waiting to be beaten one of these weeks, but Miller Time refuses to lose. Miller starts slowly but turns in a big fourth quarter and breaks free for two touchdown runs to rally Ohio State for the victory. Michigan State's passing woes continue, and the Buckeyes' defense forces a key third-quarter turnover and starts looking a bit more like the silver bullets again. ... Ohio State 20, Michigan State 17
WISCONSIN (3-1) at No. 22 NEBRASKA (3-1)
Adam Rittenberg: Although Wisconsin started to look like its old self a bit at the end of the UTEP game, I don't see how the Badgers win this one. Nebraska has more weapons on offense, the home-field advantage and no shortage of motivation after being embarrassed last year in Madison. Chris Borland and the Wisconsin defense keeps this close for a while, but Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez goes off in the second half, and Rex Burkhead adds another long touchdown run. ... Nebraska 34, Wisconsin 21
Brian Bennett: I don't like where this is headed for the Badgers. They've got a quarterback making his first start on the road, a banged-up Montee Ball and injuries on their defensive line. These are all bad signs against a Huskers team that is averaging 54 points per game at home this season. Martinez (three touchdowns) and the Nebraska defense get redemption by pulling away in the third quarter. Call it an early retirement gift for Tom Osborne. ... Nebraska 35, Wisconsin 17
Michigan is off this week.
Rittenberg: 36-10 (.783)
Bennett: 33-13 (.717)
So long, Idaho State, South Dakota and Charleson Southern. See you next year, directional Michigans.
No offense to those schools, some of whom gave Big Ten teams all they could handle. But we've seen enough of that nonconference stuff. This week brings what we've all been waiting for: conference play. It's going to be a wild ride, and here's how it starts:
No. 14 Ohio State (4-0) at No. 20 Michigan State (3-1), 3:30 p.m., ABC: The "College GameDay" gang is coming to East Lansing, which says as much about the national slate of games as it does this one. Not that we're not excited about this matchup. Braxton Miller running the Urban Meyer offense against Michigan State's No. 6 defense? Yes, please. But it's also true that these teams have been scuffling the past couple of weeks and have some major issues -- the passing game for the Spartans, tackling and finding other options besides Miller for the Buckeyes. Still, it'll be a big game in the Big Ten race and an emotional one for Michigan State, which has a ton of Ohio kids on its roster.
Wisconsin (3-1) at No. 22 Nebraska (3-1), 8 p.m., ABC: Last year, the Huskers made their Big Ten debut in Madison and left with their tails between their legs after getting thumped. This time, it's Wisconsin who comes limping into Lincoln after a very shaky nonconference schedule. The Badgers put together their best overall offensive performance against UTEP but also lost running back Montee Ball in the process. Meanwhile, Nebraska has been a scoring machine, ranking eighth nationally at 48.5 points per game. Wisconsin might have a hard time keeping up with Taylor Martinez and his pals, who are eager for redemption.
Minnesota (4-0) at Iowa (2-2), Noon, ESPN2: Oink, oink. It's Floyd of Rosedale time, and Minnesota is looking to bring home the bacon for a third straight year. But whereas the last two Gophers wins would be upsets, this time it wouldn't shock anybody to see Iowa lose. The Hawkeyes are struggling right now and need to win this game to avoid what would be a long two weeks heading into next week's bye. Jerry Kill has his defense playing at a high level, especially against the pass, and James Vandenberg will have to pick his spots carefully.
Penn State (2-2) at Illinois (2-2), Noon, ESPN: Penn State will see some familiar faces on the sideline, as eight of the Illini assistants lurked around State College seeking some transfers this summer. The Nittany Lions were not happy about that and now get a chance to do something about it. Probation and all, Penn State is actually feeling better about its season right now than Illinois, which has lost its last two games against FBS opponents by a combined score of 97-38.
Indiana (2-1) at Northwestern (4-0), Noon, Big Ten Network: Northwestern looks to move to 5-0 and will be heavily favored against the Hoosiers, who had last week off. The Wildcats have held their past three opponents to 11 points per game, but an improved Indiana offense should offer some challenges. Cameron Coffman is expected back at quarterback for IU, and former Northwestern assistant Kevin Wilson returns to Evanston.
Marshall (2-2) at Purdue (2-1), 3:15 p.m., BTN: Sorry, Boilers. We know you're playing well and all, but we just can't muster any excitement for this nonconference game when there are five league contests the same day. But Marshall should test Purdue's defense, as the Thundering Herd lead the nation in passing yards (383.5 per game) and are averaging 41 points. Of course, they're also allowing 42.8 points, so there's that.
Game week is here, and not a moment too soon.
Preseason camps have wrapped up around the Big Ten, and teams are now locking in for their openers this coming weekend. The power rankings will appear each Monday throughout the season, and we're getting things kicked off today.
There aren't many changes from our last version, although some offseason news has affected the rundown. The top five teams certainly have separated themselves in our eyes, while there's not much separating the next five on the list.
Here we go ...
1. Michigan State: We understand why Michigan is the highest-rated Big Ten team in the polls, but Michigan State gets the top spot in our power rankings because of its defense. A top-10 unit in 2011 could easily become a top-five unit this season, as the Spartans are strong at just about every position. While the concerns at quarterback and receiver are warranted, the offense will be effective enough with the run as Le'Veon Bell and a more seasoned line return.
2. Michigan: The Wolverines endured some injuries and off-field issues this summer and in camp, but they still enter the season with justifiably high hopes. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson has matured during his career and could make a serious push for national awards this fall. Michigan must shore up its lines and hope some young players grow up in a hurry. A relentless schedule is the biggest challenge for Brady Hoke's squad.
3. Wisconsin: The offense might not be as electric as it was the past two seasons and the defense has some question marks (secondary, pass rush), but Wisconsin knows how to win and boasts enough to claim another Big Ten title. Montee Ball is extremely motivated after a rough summer, and while Danny O'Brien isn't Russell Wilson, he gives the offense some stability. A favorable schedule with both Michigan State and Ohio State at home helps the Badgers.
4. Ohio State: It's a close call for the No. 4 spot, but the Buckeyes get the edge based on a defense with the potential to be one of the nation's best. John Simon anchors arguably the league's top defensive line, and almost everyone returns in the secondary. While there will be growing pains on offense, the unit can't possibly be worse than last year's, and Braxton Miller has a chance to make significant strides this season.
5. Nebraska: Fifteen starters return to a Huskers team that should be much more comfortable with the Big Ten in Year 2. But questions remain surrounding quarterback Taylor Martinez, replacing star power on defense and getting over the hump on the road. A signature road victory would go a long way for Bo Pelini's program, which returns 15 starters and has a great chance to climb this list and challenge for the Legends division.
6. Purdue: Danny Hope repeatedly called this his best Boilers team during the offseason, and we can see why. Purdue boasts a formidable defensive front and two bona-fide stars on defense in tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen. The Boilers also return most of their key weapons on offense. What we still need to see is a team that can avoid the major mistakes and mental lapses that have plagued Purdue throughout Hope's tenure. A challenging start to Big Ten play will tell a lot about the Boilers.
7. Penn State: The Lions will ride emotion and a stout defensive front seven this fall, and they could go further than most think after a brutal offseason. Still, it's hard to figure out how Penn State will score points, and the turmoil is bound to catch up with Bill O'Brien's crew at some point. If O'Brien bolsters an offense featuring mostly unproven personnel, Penn State could make a strong push. The schedule is favorable as the Lions get both Ohio State and Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium.
8. Iowa: Youth will be served this fall in Iowa City as the Hawkeyes turn to unproven players at several spots, namely defensive line and running back. The good news is that Iowa boasts a veteran in senior quarterback James Vandenberg, who could thrive under new coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa must ride Vandenberg's right arm and a talented back seven on defense headlined by cornerback Micah Hyde and linebacker James Morris. Iowa also should benefit from its schedule.
9. Illinois: The Illini and Penn State are nearly mirror images, as both teams have first-year coaches, talented defensive front sevens and question marks on offense. Defense could carry Illinois a long way this fall, as end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown anchor the unit. A new offensive scheme could spark third-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, although he'll need unproven weapons to emerge. Illinois could be a sleeper team this fall, although its Big Ten road schedule is flat-out brutal (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern).
10. Northwestern: After a drop in wins the past three seasons, can Northwestern get things turned around? The Wildcats once again should be strong on offense as Kain Colter takes over at quarterback, although there are some questions up front. The defense can't be much worse than it was in 2011, and while there will be more youth throughout the unit, there also should be more talent. Northwestern must capitalize on the first chunk of the schedule, which features several toss-up games but isn't overly taxing.
11. Minnesota: The Gophers will be an improved team in Year 2 under Jerry Kill. The problem is they play in a loaded division and face a tricky schedule with no gimme games. Quarterback MarQueis Gray has a chance to do big things as a senior, although his supporting cast remains a mystery. Troy Stoudermire's return should spark the defense, which played better down the stretch in 2011. Like Northwestern, Minnesota needs to get off to a good start and build confidence.
12. Indiana: The Hoosiers won't go 1-11 again, and they could be dangerous on the offensive side as sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson matures and the passing game becomes a bigger part of the plan. Question marks remain throughout the defense, and Indiana hopes an influx of junior-college players helps the situation immediately. Indiana will be older and better than it was in 2011, and the Hoosiers should be more competitive in Big Ten games. But until they prove otherwise, they're at the bottom.
Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg hasn't forgotten the third-down sack he took against Ohio State in 2009. The Hawkeyes and Buckeyes were playing for the Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl, Iowa's first since 1991. Vandenberg, then a redshirt freshman, was making his first career start in place of the injured Ricky Stanzi. He had handled himself well in the glare of Ohio Stadium, leading Iowa on an 8-play, 70-yard drive to tie the score at 24-24 with 2:42 to play.
"That sack on third down, I remember that thing vividly," Vandenberg told ESPN.com. "The ball needed to come out. It would have been a long field goal, but we could have tried. Instead, we had to take a shot for the end zone, and you can't expect that to [work]."
Vandenberg views the Ohio State game as a "great stepping stone" in his career. He returned to a reserve role in 2010 before taking over for Stanzi last season, passing for 3,022 yards with 25 touchdown strikes and seven interceptions.
He enters his senior season as the Big Ten's most prolific passing quarterback.
"It was an experience you can't really replace," he said of that Ohio State game. "I know that experience helped me last season and before that. Being thrown in the moment, you can't really prepare for it. And it's an opportunity that I lost to [win] a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl."
Vandenberg finished the game 20-for-33 passing for 222 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Asked if he's still motivated by the Ohio State loss, Vandenberg replied, "Absolutely."
That night in Columbus, Vandenberg showed he doesn't back away from challenges. He proved it again in May by killing a 300-pound black bear in Saskatchewan with a bow and arrow.
Asked Thursday if the bear kill is his claim to fame among Big Ten quarterbacks, Vandenberg replied, "I'd rather win some more games."
He can start this fall in leading an Iowa offense featuring some question marks, namely at running back.
Although few forecast Iowa to win a treacherous Legends division, Vandenberg still has one last shot to finish what he couldn't in Columbus.
"That was a tough circumstance he was playing in," Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz said, "to all of a sudden be our starter, and to go into one of the toughest, if not the toughest, environments in our conference. Basically, it ended up being the championship game for that year. He may have taken a sack, but we had some drops, too, that may have changed the game. I thought he really played admirably."
Ferentz recalled the way Vandenberg prepared for his first start, spending late nights at the football complex with Stanzi and offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe.
"The manner in which he played and conducted himself, to me, that was really a signature moment for him," Ferentz said. "It's one of the reasons I'm so optimistic he'll play well this year. He's got the right stuff."
Today, we're going to take a look at the position that puts every player under the spotlight: quarterback. We're ranking the top 10 individual players at each spot and then offering team rankings a little later on. These rankings are based on past performance and potential for the 2012 season, placing a bit more emphasis on their track record to this point.
Quarterback is an intriguing group heading into '12. Here's our Top 10:
1. Denard Robinson, Michigan, senior: Say what you will about Robinson's faults -- and we've said plenty about his sometimes erratic throws and Big Ten worst 15 interceptions in 2011. Robinson remains one of the best playmakers in the country and a three-year starter who's got plenty of heroic moments under his belt. He showed improved passing mechanics this spring and should benefit from his second year under Al Borges. And we all know what he can do with his feet. With the league's top precision passers from 2011 all having moved on, Robinson inherits the top spot.
2. James Vandenberg, Iowa, senior: Only 17 returning players in the FBS threw for more yards in 2011 than Vandenberg, who had 3,022, plus 25 touchdowns. His completion percentage needs to improve, as does his road performance, and he won't have Marvin McNutt around anymore. But he's easily the most polished pocket passer in the league heading into the season.
3. Braxton Miller, Ohio State, sophomore: Miller still has a lot to learn and he'll be doing so in an entirely new offensive system. Yet he showed flashes of brilliance last year, such as his performance against Michigan or his game-winning play versus Wisconsin. He's got the athleticism to be a tremendous dual threat quarterback. Matched with Urban Meyer's creativity, Miller has enormous potential.
4. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska, junior: Martinez put in a lot of time this offseason working on his throwing motion. His dedication to self-correction is very encouraging, and a better understanding of Tim Beck's offense plus more experienced receivers could lead to a higher completion percentage than last year's 56.3. If Martinez can become a reliable passer to go along with his explosive running skills, look out.
5. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota, senior: Gray had a rocky beginning to the season as he adjusted back to the quarterback position and a new coaching staff. But in his last five games, he averaged 255 yards of total offense. Of returning Big Ten players, only Robinson, Vandenberg and Martinez were responsible for more total yardage than Gray last season. Like many on this list, Gray has worked on improving his mechanics and accuracy. There isn't a more impressive physical specimen at quarterback than this 6-foot-4, 240-pounder.
7. Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois, junior: After a promising freshman campaign and solid start to 2011, Scheelhaase struggled along with the entire Illini offense. He bounced back with a good bowl game performance against UCLA and now must master the new spread attack under Tim Beckman. There are always going to be questions about Scheelhaase's size and arm strength but not about his intelligence and toughness. Does he have enough skill position complements this year?
8. Kain Colter, Northwestern, junior: Is Colter simply an athlete playing quarterback? Or can he become much more than that? Those are big questions heading into the year for a guy who filled in quite nicely for Dan Persa last year. Colter has elite athleticism but only attempted 22 passes in Northwestern's final 10 games. He could be helped by perhaps the league's deepest receiving corps.
9. Caleb TerBush, Purdue: Though he's being pushed by veterans Robert Marve and Rob Henry, TerBush got the vote of confidence as the starter from Danny Hope after spring ball. Thrust into a starter's role because of injuries to start last season, he improved as the year went on. He'll need to continue working on his decision-making, because the Boilermakers won't hesitate to go to one of their other options.
10. Andrew Maxwell, QB, Michigan State: Maxwell has attempted only 51 career passes in mostly mop-up duty. But he has spent four years in the Spartans' system, being groomed under Kirk Cousins. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, he's got the physical and mental makeup needed to be a standout Big Ten quarterback. He just needs more experience.