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Whenever trying to separate the men from the boys in predicting division and Conference winners, you have to increasingly look at a team’s schedule. With the Big Ten having 12 teams but playing only an eight game conference schedule, who you play and don’t play is becoming a key element. Other fundamental criteria include: experience at quarterback, a strong defense, and a powerful rushing attack. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the projections for the Legends and Leaders of the Big 10.
Michigan State: The Spartans are the defending Legends Division champ. MSU had the best defense in the Big Ten last season. On paper, with eight returning starters, they have the best defense in the Big Ten this year. DE William Gholston, LB’s Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, and Chris Norman, CB Johnny Adams, and safety Isaiah Lewis are all expected to contend All-Big Ten First team honors.
Offensively, MSU will focus more on the rushing attack behind a strong offensive line that got weakened by several injuries last year. They will be rewarded this season with those returning players and those that played for them in their absence. Tailback Le’Veon Bell had a breakout season in 2010, and the Spartans will put the ball in his hands often in 2011.
Andrew Maxwell is the team’s first new quarterback since 2009. The heir apparent has been groomed for this moment and the team says he has done all the right things in preparing for it. He still doesn’t have experience to trump the impact former quarterback Kirk Cousins made on this team. The Spartans also lost a ton of production from their receivers that further indicate that offensive coordinator Dan Roushar will rely on the run.
The schedule is also challenging but perhaps easier than last season. The Spartans get to host Ohio State and Nebraska instead of playing them on the road. MSU won’t have any confidence problems playing in Ann Arbor but face Wisconsin at Camp Randall before coming home to play the Cornhuskers in three consecutive weeks that may be the most brutal stretch in the Big 10. If the Spartans win just two of those three, they’ll be in good shape to head back to Indianapolis.
Nebraska: The largest bravado during the off-season has come from Lincoln, where some of the players have talked openly about winning a national championship, let alone the Big Ten. Penn State won the Big Ten in 1994, in just their 2nd season, after going 6-2 in conference play in their inaugural season. Nebraska still hasn’t played in Columbus or East Lansing, but the feeling out process in the opening year is past.
The Cornhuskers return Taylor Martinez at quarterback and one of the Big Ten’s best in Rex Burkhead at running back. The tandem combined for 2,231 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns on the ground. Martinez also has an underrated batch of receivers to work with that should give them balance. The big question mark for the offense is whether Martinez can show growth as a passer in his 3rd year. Martinez, on the opening day of camp, said his goal is to pass at least 70% this season. That seems lofty considering only three others in the history of the Big Ten have accomplished that. Martinez threw an underwhelming 56.3% last season. There are no questions about Burkhead, a member of last year’s All-Big Ten first team. The Huskers lost a few starters on the line but return seven with starting experience.
The defense has holes to fill. They lost two studs on defense in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Both were first team All-Big Ten. Two names that will emerge will be defensive end Cameron Meredith and middle linebacker Will Compton. The defense didn’t perform to expectations in 2011. The Husker’s defense really struggled against teams with dual threat QB’s. They got embarrassed by Michigan and Wisconsin, lost at home to Northwestern, and likely would have gotten beat by Ohio State if Braxton Miller didn’t get hurt in the 2nd half. On paper, The Blackshirts should take another step back in 2012.
Unlike when Penn State entered the conference, Nebraska was given the toughest schedule possible by making them play Ohio State, Wisconsin, and the Nittany Lions in the opening two seasons. Fortunately for the Cornhuskers, now is an opportune time to play Penn State. Nebraska opens conference play with Wisconsin, then OSU in Columbus, and later on plays Michigan and Michigan State in back-to-back weeks.
To view this feature in its entirety, our in depth breakdown of each Big Ten team our feature on Denard Robinson's Michigan journey, our hockey preview, and much much more, check out the next issue of GoBlueWolverine