'11 Predictions: Big Ten

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Is Michigan State the Big Ten team to beat in 2011?

Is Michigan State the Big Ten team to beat in 2011?

Athlon Sports is in the predictions business. We are America’s oldest preseason College Football publication (1967) and have been the most accurate NCAA football predictor over the last five years. With this in mind, and the finale of the 2010 football season quickly approaching, Athlon felt the urge to look ahead to the 2011 season.

Here are "The Way Too Early Predictions for 2011" in the Big Ten.

There certainly is no shortage of storylines for the Big Ten conference heading into 2011. Three one-loss teams claimed championship honors in 2010. Rich Rodriguez has a tenuous grip on his ever-warming coaching seat at Michigan. Terrelle Pryor and some of his teammates will miss roughly half of the ’11 season due to suspension. Rose Bowl participant Wisconsin has to replace a majority of its starting lineup. And Jerry Kill takes over as the head coach at Minnesota.

Have I mentioned that the third-winningest program in NCAA history is joining the league, forcing a divisional split and Big Ten title game for the first time in the league’s 115-year history?

TP2’s eligibility might be the most impactful, on-the-field issue of the off-season, but there is no doubt that Nebraska’s first season in the league — and all that that entails — will steal most of the preseason headlines.

For starters, Nebraska will get its first shot at the Legends’ (for now) division title at the same time as everyone else. Michigan State and Michigan appear to be the biggest competition to the Big Red. Sparty is coming off a one-loss Big Ten campaign that earned it a conference championship but has to replace its heart and soul on defense as Greg Jones and Chris Rucker depart. A deep stable of talented running backs, a seasoned veteran at quarterback and some talented receivers could make Michigan State the team to beat.

Michigan’s quarterback Denard Robinson will enter his second season as the starter for the Maize and Blue. He is arguably the most exciting player in the game but has to stay healthy. There is talent around him on offense, but until something (anything!) is done to the dramatically improve the Wolverine defense, RichRod won’t be hoisting any Big Ten championship trophies anytime soon.

Minnesota is in total rebuilding mode and Northwestern is always a bit better than the roster indicates. Iowa is the wildcard. They are always a well-coached squad with solid talent. However, Kirk Ferentz has to replace his veteran starting quarterback, the Hawkeye’s all-time leading receiver, three-fourths of a stellar defensive line and plenty of talent in the back seven of his defense. The Hawks will be in major rebuilding mode next fall, but always seem to play good football every Saturday.

Nebraska will have to address major losses on the defensive side of the ball. That leaves Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead and company to improve the offense enough to cover for the defense early in 2011. With added toughness and maturity, Martinez could push Robinson and Pryor for “most exciting quarterback in the Big Ten” next fall. He could also lead his team to the first annual Big Ten title game in the Huskers’ first Big Ten season.

Jim Delany didn’t do Bo Pelini any favors as his first Big Ten schedule is murderous: at Wisconsin, at Penn State and Ohio State at home are the cross over games. Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern at home divisional games while trips to Michigan and Minnesota are the two road trips within the division.

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Athlon takes a way too early look at the Big Ten in 2011.

In the Leaders Division, it is unfortunate that suspensions could play the biggest role in determining the champion. Pryor will miss the first five games next fall, so he should get to play most of the Big Ten schedule. How a slow start in non-conference play affect the Buckeye’s Big Ten title hopes remains to be seen, but OSU will once again be loaded along the line of scrimmage.

Wisconsin, much like Iowa, is looking at major losses. Arguably the four most important offensive players need to be replaced. Quarterback Scott Tolzien has led the Big Ten in passer efficiency two years in a row and claimed the Johnny Unitas Award this fall. Tight end Lance Kendricks and left tackle Gabe Carimi could be the best player at their position in the nation. The backfield will be absolutely stacked — whether John Clay is in Madison or not — but the holes will be a bit smaller as the offensive line will need to replace Carimi and fellow All-Big Ten-er John Moffitt.

Penn State and Illinois are a bit of a mystery and are in similar situations. Both have young quarterbacks and offenses built around running the ball. Both need to rebuild inconsistent offensive lines. And both should be strong in the front seven on defense. The difference could be Mikel LeShoure and the Illini rushing attack. If quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can get the ball down the field and open running lanes for LeShoure (assuming he does not go pro), then Illinois has a chance to be THE surprise team in this division. Very few quarterbacks improved from the first to second half of the 2010 season more than Scheelhaase — few quarterbacks are as fun to watch as him either.

The schedule could favor Illinois too, as Penn State travels to Champagne in the first week of conference action (a home test against Alabama doesn’t help momentum either). Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Arizona State and Western Michigan could give the Illini an unbeaten mark heading into that first conference game with Penn State. The cross overs also favor the Illini. Ron Zook will face Minnesota, Northwestern and Michigan from the Legends Division while JoePa will take on Michigan State, Iowa and Minnesota.

With Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson and LeShoure still holding plenty of NFL cards, its tough to peg the Illini for 2011. If all return, the Illini could be the top contender to Ohio State. If not, Penn State is the biggest hurdle for Ohio State in the division.

Legends Division Predictions (key losses)

1. Michigan State: WR Mark Dell, TE Charlie Gantt, OL D.J. Young, OL John Stipek, DE Colin Neely, LB Greg Jones, LB Eric Gordon, DB Chris L. Rucker, S Marcus Hyde

2. Nebraska: RB Roy Helu, TE Mike McNeill, DE Pierre Allen, DT Jared Crick*, CB Prince Amukamara, DB Eric Hagg, K Alex Henery

3. Michigan: OL Steve Schilling, LB Jonas Mouton, LB Obi Ezeh, CB Troy Woolfolk

4. Northwestern: QB Dan Persa, DT Corbin Bryant, LB Quentin Davie

5. Iowa: QB Ricky Stanzi, WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, OL Julian Vandervelde, OL Josh Koeppel, TE Allen Reisner, DE Adrian Clayborn, DT Christian Ballard, DT Karl Klug, LB Jeremiha Hunter, LB Jeff Tarpinian, S Brent Greenwood, P Ryan Donahue, S Tyler Sash*

6. Minnesota: QB Adam Weber

Leaders Division Predictions

1. Ohio State: WR Dane Sanzenbacher, OL Justin Boren, OL Michael Brewster*, OL Mike Adams*, OL J.B. Shugarts*, OL Bryant Browning, Cameron Heyward, DT Dexter Larimore, LB Brian Rolle, LB Ross Homan, CB Chimdi Chekwa, CB Devon Torrence, S Jermale Hines, QB Terrelle Pryor*

2. Penn State: RB Evan Royster, OL Stefen Wisniewski, DT Ollie Ogbu

3. Illinois: WR Jarred Fayson, RB Mikel LeShoure*, OL Randall Hunt, OL Ryan Palmer, S Travon Bellamy, LB Nate Bussey, LB Martez Wilson*, DT Corey Liuget*

4. Wisconsin: QB Scott Tolzien, TE Lance Kendricks, OL Gabe Carimi, OL John Moffitt, RB John Clay*, S Jai Valai, LB Culmer St. Jean, DE J.J. Watt*, CB Niles Brinkley, WR/KR David Gilreath

5. Purdue: TE Kyle Adams, DE Ryan Kerrigan

6. Indiana: QB Ben Chappell, OL James Brewer, WR Tandon Doss*

* - Underclassmen who could still decide to enter the NFL Draft.

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