Forecasting the 2011 Big Ten race is no easy task, given the uncertainty present from the top down. Ohio State enters the fall with much to prove, despite claiming back-to-back BCS bowl wins and winning or sharing the past six Big Ten championships. The Buckeyes face their most serious challenge in recent memory, one that could end their reign atop the league. Coach Jim Tressel resigned and five players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, create plenty of distractions for at least the first five games of the season. Pryor decided to end his collegiate career in Columbus, which only adds to the uncertainty surrounding this team in 2011. Ohio State has the talent to survive, particularly on defense and along the offensive line, but whether the seniors can provide the necessary leadership with several of their classmates sidelined remains to be seen.
With Ohio State's troubles, Wisconsin is the frontrunner in the Leaders Division, thanks to the arrival of quarterback Russell Wilson from NC State. The Badgers aren't without question marks, but return one of the nation's top running back duos in James White and Montee Ball. Wilson's experience should be valuable when Wisconsin hits the road for key games against Michigan State and Ohio State in late October.
Nebraska enters its new league as an immediate contender, thanks to a dynamic defense led by All-America candidates Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard. The Pelini brothers — head coach Bo and defensive coordinator Carl — know the Big Ten and will have the defense prepared. There are more questions on offense, which begins a new chapter under coordinator Tim Beck, and the Big Ten did Nebraska no favors with the schedule.
Michigan State tries to build on its first league title in 20 years and returns a solid offense headlined by quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Edwin Baker. The Spartans must replace standout linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon and reload in the secondary, although their most critical task is raising both lines to elite levels.
Penn State and Iowa both could challenge in their respective divisions. The Nittany Lions are loaded at the skill spots and could make a run if a quarterback emerges and they upgrade both lines. Iowa seems to thrive under the radar and returns exciting young players like running back Marcus Coker, cornerback Micah Hyde and linebacker James Morris.
Athlon's 2011 Big Ten Previews
Change in the air
After two years with no unplanned coaching changes, the Big Ten has a decidedly different flavor among its leading men this fall. Mindful of a league that will only get tougher with Nebraska’s arrival, three teams pink-slipped coaches who simply didn’t win enough in conference play.
Rich Rodriguez, Tim Brewster and Bill Lynch had a combined record of 18–65 in Big Ten games, and though all three men had some success in the non-conference, they simply weren’t getting it done when it mattered most. While both Minnesota and Indiana want to escape the Big Ten basement, Michigan has turned to one of its own to restore the program to elite status.
Brady Hoke, universally regarded as a Michigan man, returns to Ann Arbor after cutting his teeth as a Wolverines assistant from 1995-2002. Hoke wasn’t the flashiest option for Michigan (Jim Harbaugh) or the most proven as a college coach (Les Miles), but his passion for the program makes him a good fit at Schembechler Hall. He accepted the job before talking salary and “would have walked to Michigan” from San Diego if need be.
Michigan didn’t dump Rodriguez primarily because of the NCAA violations or the constant melodrama around the program.
Rodriguez got the axe because he went 0–6 against Ohio State and Michigan State, Michigan’s top two rivals, and didn’t fare much better against squads like Iowa and Penn State.
Brewster’s struggles against Minnesota’s rivals contributed to his midseason firing in 2010, and after a prolonged search, the Gophers settled on Jerry Kill as coach. Kill wasn’t Minnesota’s first choice, but he has won at multiple levels and could bring greater consistency to the Gophers. The new coach has been candid about needing to change the culture in Minneapolis and noted his concern about players’ conditioning level and academic standing. The Gophers “may take a step back before we take a step forward,” Kill said this spring. He inherits some talent, including quarterback MarQueis Gray and receiver Da’Jon McKnight, and brings a potentially dynamic offense to Minneapolis.
Indiana couldn’t get over the hump with Lynch and turns to one of the nation’s top assistants in Kevin Wilson, the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator. Wilson, familiar with the region from his time at both Northwestern and Miami (Ohio), brings a proven offensive system to Bloomington but must upgrade Indiana’s perennially poor defense. He ramped up Indiana’s offseason conditioning program and will emphasize a quick tempo, especially on offense.
The Big Ten had an unprecedented number of assistants make moves within the conference during the offseason. Eleven assistants job-hopped within the league and several made multiple stops in the winter.
Indiana was at the center of the shuffling. Six of Wilson’s nine assistants come to IU from Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Michigan. He also lost two assistants — Jerry Montgomery and Corey Raymond — to Michigan and Nebraska, respectively. In all, Wilson ended up having four assistants leave soon after he hired them and only finalized his staff in early March. Northwestern replaced the assistant it lost to Indiana, Kevin Johns, with Dennis Springer, who served on Indiana’s staff in 2010. Wisconsin also was active in hiring coaches from within the league. After losing running backs coach John Settle to the NFL, Bret Bielema hired Thomas Hammock from Minnesota, the only assistant Kill had retained from Brewster’s staff. Bielema also lured defensive assistant DeMontie Cross, who spent less than a month on Purdue’s staff after departing the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.
A record 56 non-seniors entered the 2011 NFL Draft, but the Big Ten wasn’t hit too hard by the departures. Only seven Big Ten players (none from Nebraska) left early for the NFL.
Ohio State had no juniors depart for the first time since 2003, although Jim Tressel’s agreement with the players involved in the memorabilia sale scandal likely played a role.
Illinois was hit harder than any Big Ten squad by early entries, as the Illini said goodbye to three standouts: defensive tackle Corey Liuget, running back Mikel Leshoure and linebacker Martez Wilson.