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Weaknesses for Big Ten title contenders

7/27/2012
When it comes to weapons for OSU, it's Jake Stoneburner in a runaway. That's a problem. AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

CHICAGO -- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has said he has no immediate plans to restructure the divisions, now that only four of six teams in the Leaders Division are eligible for the conference championship. The defending league champ, Wisconsin, is probably OK with that. But a theoretical bye doesn't mean the Badgers are without flaws, something worth noting since they would see a member of the more contentious Legends Division in the B1G title game. And what weaknesses could hold back Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska?

Whoever best addresses their issues could very well wind up the conference's representative in the Rose Bowl. Will it again be Wisconsin? Or could one of the Michigan teams or Nebraska get there?

(For the sake of conversation, and because it could potentially win more games than Wisconsin, we'll include Ohio State in this list.)

Leaders Division

Wisconsin Badgers

Concern: Finding a way to stop the run

Lord knows the Badgers are adept at running the ball; they've been in the top 15 in the country -- and either first or second in the Big Ten -- in rushing the past four seasons. But they were not all that good against the run in 2011, and that's not just because of 345 rushing yards allowed to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. (The Ducks gashed everyone.) Wisconsin held only Oregon State and Northern Illinois to fewer than 100 yards rushing, and two Big Ten teams -- including Indiana -- went for more than 200 yards on the ground. The Badgers were one of only three AQ teams to win 11 or more games (Arkansas, Oklahoma State) while sitting below 60th in rushing defense.

These numbers aren't terrible, but if Wisconsin again runs into a ground attack like Oregon's, it would prefer to have things tightened up front. The Badgers will need more from ends Brendan Kelly, David Gilbert and Pat Muldoon, as well as Ethan Hemer and Beau Allen at tackle.

For run support, it's difficult to get any better -- or meaner -- than the linebacker tandem of Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. They combined last season for 293 tackles. Maybe this year the linemen won't let the ball carrier get to the second wave as many times.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Concern: Finding skill-position players

We've told you all summer about 14 catches leading the team a year ago for the Buckeyes. Going along with that, then-freshman Devin Smith's 294 yards led all receivers.

In fairness, that was prior to new coach Urban Meyer's arrival. His hiring, the players said Thursday, provided an instant spark for an offense that was often disorganized during the turmoil-filled 2011 season. Senior fullback Zach Boren said he's seen a distinct difference in the skill players and quarterback Braxton Miller -- who Boren predicted would win "one or two Heisman trophies."

"You know what he's done with his track record," Boren said of Meyer. "He's sent so many quarterbacks and receivers to the NFL, so it's not hard for those guys to buy into him and what he does. There's a new energy for everyone." (Boren himself is Mel Kiper's No. 2-rated NFL prospect among fullbacks.)

In the spring, Meyer identified tight end Jake Stoneburner and running back Jordan Hall as potentially emerging playmakers, but Stoneburner was arrested for a minor offense in the summer months and Hall suffered a foot injury and might not be ready for the opener.

Stoneburner should be reinstated soon. In Hall's absence, Rod Smith and Bri'onte Dunn are highly touted recruits who might benefit from Meyer's system, although neither has Hall's speed. Hall has vowed he'll return quickly, and the Buckeyes might need him to do that. Keep an eye on OSU's Sept. 8 home game against Central Florida. The Knights are a likely bowl team, and far better than those in Big Ten country might realize.

Legends Division

Michigan Wolverines

Concern: Finding a home run threat beyond Mr. Robinson

Denard Robinson's dynamic ability isn't exactly a secret at this point in his career, but what about those around the veteran quarterback? Anyone at back or receiver got the speed and chops to complement the senior's knack for the big play?

Fitz Toussaint, who averaged 5.6 yards a carry last season and totaled 1,041 yards on the ground, fits the description. But a DUI arrest could be prohibitive for the opener against Alabama, at the very least. All coach Brady Hoke would say at the Thursday edition of media days is that he will "pay the price."

With Toussaint's status up in the air, perhaps that's an opportunity for sophomore Thomas Rawls to assert himself. Rawls has turned heads, even though he rushed for just 79 yards on 13 carries as a frosh.

Junior Hemingway was the best thing Michigan had going at receiver in 2011, and he finished with just 699 yards. Junior left tackle Taylor Lewan said there's more of a comfort this year in Hoke's pro-style offense, and it has caused some shifting -- and improving -- offseason attitudes.

"Oh, I've seen those guys grow by leaps and bounds," Lewan said, referencing the receivers. "They've been in the weight room all summer, it seems like. I think they'll be much-improved."

He mentioned fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree (19 catches, 355 yards in 2011) in particular, and junior Drew Dileo (9, 121 in '11) as candidates for breakout seasons. Look, too, for redshirt sophomore Jerald Robinson, who has potential even if he has not yet caught a pass.

Michigan State Spartans

Concern: Replacing Kirk Cousins

Poise and preparedness were the foundational blocks for Kirk Cousins' success at Michigan State, a run that concluded with consecutive 11-win seasons for the Spartans.

If Andrew Maxwell's demeanor Thursday at media days was any illustration, expect more Cousins-like coolness out of the position at MSU. He said he learned, more than anything, how to get ready for games from his predecessor. "When everyone else was going home, like if it was after dinner on a Wednesday night, Kirk was going back into the film room," Maxwell said. "He wanted to get better."

Are you born with that gene, though? Or does it have to be developed?

"I think it's both," he said. "Since I've been here, I've only come to realize and appreciate what it takes to really improve and get better at this game. If you're a quarterback, you've got to embrace the importance of the meetings, the chalk talk and everything that goes along with playing the position."

But that's being prepared. Performance is another thing. Maxwell was progressing nicely this spring until a sprained knee knocked him out of action. He said he's eager to play catch-up once preseason camp begins next week.

Cousins was 4-0 vs. Michigan. That sets the bar impossibly high for Maxwell, a junior, but he'd probably settle for 2-0.

Without question, Maxwell will be helped by his supporting cast. He said there are eight returning offensive linemen who have made at least one start. And then there's star back Le'Veon Bell (also on Kiper's Big Board), who might turn out to be this year's TD machine a la Montee Ball.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Concern: Declining sack totals

For a program that has built its reputation in part by creating defensive mayhem, the Huskers have seen a steady slide in sacks the past three seasons. They had 21 in 2011, 84th in FBS. That was a drop from 31 sacks in 2010 and 44 -- third in FBS -- in 2009.

What gives? They're just getting blocked, said senior linebacker Will Compton, who has been around for the entire regression. "I'd say we've looked at it and made it a point of emphasis," said Compton, who had 6.5 of the team's 56 tackles for a loss in '11 (112th in FBS). "We want to tweak some of our pressure angles and our timing."

It should help that Nebraska has three returning seniors on the D-line, Eric Martin and Cameron Meredith at the ends and Baker Steinkuhler at tackle. Meredith is the leading returning sack man, with five.

There's youth on the way to help some lacking linebacker depth, hurting even more with the loss of second-round pick Lavonte David. Compton said he likes sophomore Trevor Roach and freshmen Michael Rose and David Santos as LBs who could be on the way up.