With two of its best teams ineligible for a bowl game, 2012 was mostly a year to forget for the Big Ten. Despite having nothing to play for, Ohio State ran the table and finished with a perfect 12-0 record. The Buckeyes were joined by Penn State in NCAA timeout, as the Nittany Lions finished with a solid 8-4 record in Bill O’Brien’s first season. With Ohio State and Penn State out of the picture, only six Big Ten teams qualified for the postseason and none finished inside of the top 15.
The Big Ten’s outlook in 2013 is a little brighter, as Ohio State is eligible to play for the national championship, and the Buckeyes are likely to be a top-five team in most preseason polls. The Nittany Lions are banned from postseason play once again, but the conference should be stronger, as Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Northwestern could all be ranked inside of preseason top-25 polls.
Only two Big Ten teams changed coaches from last season, with Gary Andersen replacing Bret Bielema at Wisconsin, and Darrell Hazell taking over for Danny Hope. Both coaches should be a good fit at their new school, with Hazell having the bigger rebuilding job in 2013.
While Andersen and Hazell have job security for now, Illinois’ Tim Beckman and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz are on the hot seat. Thanks to a big contract, Ferentz isn’t in any real danger of being fired, but the program seems to be trending in the wrong direction. Beckman had a disastrous first season in Champaign and won’t stick around for 2014 if he goes 2-10 once again.
Big Ten Team Spring Storylines and Quarterback Battles to Watch
Illinois Fighting Illini
Stabilizing the line of scrimmage
The defensive line has been a solid part of the Illini program in recent years, but it will need to replace some big names this spring, as Michael Buchanan, Glenn Foster and Akeem Spence have all moved on. The offensive line was largely ineffective a year ago, ranking 11th in the Big Ten in rushing (97th nationally) and dead last in sacks allowed (111th) on an offense that didn’t even average 17 points per game (119th). Needless to say, Tim Beckman needs young players and new faces to step up in the trenches this spring.
Quarterback Battle? Although Nathan Scheelhaase struggled last season, the Fighting Illini’s problems were more than the quarterback. An inconsistent rushing attack and poor offensive line play were largely to blame for Illinois’ lackluster performance. Assuming Scheelhaase stays healthy, he should be the Fighting Illini’s starting quarterback.
Figure out a way to stop the run
Kevin Wilson proved in two seasons that he can construct a competitive offense, even without his starting quarterback. But without top defensive linemen Larry Black Jr. and Adam Replogle, Wilson is entering a key season along the defensive line. This unit allowed a Big Ten worst 231.3 rushing yards per game a year ago, which ranked 116th nationally. The Hoosiers also finished dead last in the Big Ten in total defense and scoring defense. Reinforcements could arrive in the form of junior college talent this spring, but this unit needs to make big strides if Indiana wants to continue its upward trend.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Cameron Coffman (JR) vs. Tre Roberson (SO) vs. Nate Sudfeld (SO)
Regardless of which quarterback wins the starting job, the Hoosiers should be explosive on offense. Roberson was the starter before suffering a season-ending leg injury, while Coffman and Sudfeld threw for 22 touchdowns in his absence. If healthy, Roberson is likely to open the year as the No. 1 passer.
Restocking the defensive line
This is starting to become a trend in the Leaders Division, but Urban Meyer must replace all four starters along his defensive line. Johnathan Hankins, Nathan Williams and John Simon set the entire tone on and off the field and replacing them won’t be easy. The good news is Meyer landed two elite defensive line classes in a row, including the best D-Line haul in the nation in 2012. Look for those big-time recruits — Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence, Tommy Schutt, for example — to flourish this spring in Columbus. A truly elite defensive line might be the only thing that could keep Ohio State from the BCS title game next year.
Related Content: Ohio State Buckeyes 2013 Spring Preview
Penn State Nittany Lions
Leadership at linebacker
In 2012, this team went through a unique season in Happy Valley to say the least. But a big part of why it was so successful in the face of heavy-handed NCAA sanctions and an emotional scandal was the leadership of guys like Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Both are gone from a position Penn State has made famous for decades. Mike Hull will have to step into a leadership role and names like Ben Kline and Nyeem Wartman will battle for starting reps. If Bill O’Brien can stabilize this position, the rest of his defense should fall into place.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Steven Bench (SO) vs. Tyler Ferguson (SO) vs. Christian Hackenberg (FR)
After turning Matt McGloin into one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks last season, Bill O’Brien will have his hands full once again. Bench has the most experience of the quarterbacks on the roster, but Ferguson and Hackenberg will get a chance to push him in the preseason. Hackenberg is regarded as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2013 signing class but won’t arrive until this fall.
Establish an identity
This is a major year of turnover for Purdue, both on the sideline and on the field. A new coaching staff has taken over and will face a laundry list of position needs this spring, not the least of which is picking a quarterback. However, this spring should be about implementing the “process” and establishing a business culture. Darrell Hazell has four months to decide who should replace Kawaan Short, but setting the foundation and tone for the entire program has to happen this spring.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Austin Appleby (FR) vs. Danny Etling (FR) vs. Rob Henry (JR) vs. Bilal Marshall (FR)
Darrell Hazell’s first season at Purdue could be a rocky one if a quarterback doesn’t emerge this spring. Three freshmen are in the mix, while Rob Henry already has seven starts under his belt.
Transition to a new regime
The secondary has holes to fill, and the quarterback battle should be rather intriguing (although, Joel Stave should be the starter), but dealing with coaching turnover is an unusual issue in Madison. Wisconsin hadn’t held a legitimate coaching search since the 1980s, until searching for and finding Gary Andersen this winter. Now, in back-to-back seasons — Bret Bielema had to replace all but one assistant last year — UW players will be working with a totally different coaching staff. Much like Purdue, the new regime needs to put its process in place and establish an identity as soon as possible, and this spring will be Andersen’s first time on the field with his new roster.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Bart Houston (FR) vs. Tanner McEvoy (SO) vs. Danny O’Brien (SR) vs. Curt Phillips (SR) vs. Joel Stave (SO)
The Badgers have no shortage of options, as Phillips, Stave and O’Brien have all started in Madison. McEvoy is the most intriguing player to watch this preseason, as he is a good fit for coordinator Andy Ludwig’s offense. Although Phillips finished the season as the starter, Stave could unseat him as the No. 1 quarterback.
Can the Hawkeyes find some weapons for the new quarterback?
Whether it’s Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol or C.J. Beathard taking snaps as the starting quarterback, the Hawkeyes have to find receivers capable of stretching the field. Only three Iowa players had over 20 catches last season and none averaged more than 12.1 yards per catch. Transitioning to Greg Davis’ offense and playcalling was certainly a challenge for quarterback James Vandenberg and the receiving corps, but another spring practice should help work out some of the kinks for 2013. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the top returning receiver, but the Hawkeyes need to figure out who can be the No. 2, No. 3 and even No. 4 option. Tevaun Smith, Jordan Cotton and Don Shumpert are the top statistical returning leaders, while junior college recruit Damond Powell should get into the mix this preseason. If the Hawkeyes can find a few more playmakers, it will help to reduce the pressure on whichever quarterback wins the job.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Jake Rudock (SO) vs. C.J. Beathard (FR) vs. Cody Sokol (JR)
With injuries taking a toll at running back, and the Hawkeyes trying to adjust to a new coordinator and scheme, James Vandenberg had a senior year to forget. Iowa’s quarterback situation is a virtual unknown heading into 2013, as Sokol redshirted last season and Rudock has yet to throw a pass in his career.
How quickly can Michigan restock the defensive line?
Going into the 2012 season, the Wolverines had to find three new starters on the defensive line. And while this group wasn’t dominant last season, it’s also hard to call it a weakness. Michigan finished 51st nationally against the run and generated 1.7 sacks a game – both numbers coordinator Greg Mattison wants to improve upon in 2013. This unit suffered two key departures, as Craig Roh and Will Campbell expired their eligibility after the Outback Bowl. Juniors Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer lead the way at end, while Quinton Washington, Jibreel Black and potential breakout star Ondre Pipkins will be asked to man the middle. The cupboard isn’t bare for Mattison, but he needs to solidify replacements for Roh and Campbell, while developing a few more options for depth. Getting tougher against the run and generating more pressure on opposing quarterbacks are also spring priorities for this unit.
Who will replace Le’Veon Bell?
Considering the Spartans averaged only 359.3 yards and 20 points a game last season, spring practice is all about finding a spark on offense. Each unit on the offense has question marks, but Michigan State has to find a new No. 1 running back to help its quarterback. Le’Veon Bell carried the offense last season, averaging 137.9 yards per game and scoring 12 rushing scores. With Bell leaving early for the NFL, the battle for the No. 1 spot in the backfield is wide open. Nick Hill is the team’s top returning rusher and has 163 yards on 51 attempts. Junior Jeremy Langford, redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins and incoming freshmen Gerald Holmes, R.J. Shelton and Delton Williams will all figure in the battle for carries in the preseason. Hill has the early edge due to his experience, but Tompkins was one of Michigan State’s top recruits last season and ranked as a top-15 all-purpose back by Rivals.com. Losing Bell is a huge blow for an offense that struggled mightily last season. Don’t expect one player to assume the workhorse role, but the Spartans have a couple of options to share the load.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Connor Cook (SO), Andre Maxwell (SR), Tyler O’Connor (FR), Damion Terry (FR)
Maxwell had a forgettable debut as Michigan State’s quarterback, completing only 52.5 percent of his throws and averaging just 200.5 yards per game. Cook sparked the offense in the bowl win over TCU, and the coaching staff will give O’Connor and Terry an extended look this preseason. Maxwell has an edge in experience, which should give him the upper hand. However, Cook proved in the bowl game he is capable of being Michigan State’s No. 1 quarterback.
Finding replacements in the secondary
The Golden Gophers quietly had one of the Big Ten’s top defensive backfields last season, finishing 12th nationally against the pass and fourth in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Replicating those numbers in 2013 will be difficult, especially with the departure of cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire. There’s plenty of candidates waiting to emerge, including seniors Martez Shabazz (two pass breakups in the Meineke Car Care Bowl) and Jeremy Baltazar (16 tackles last year). The safety position should be in good shape with the return of Derrick Wells and Brock Vereen. And it’s a good thing Wells and Vereen are back, as both players will need to be active in coverage with two new cornerbacks stepping into the starting lineup.
Quarterback Battle? Although the Minnesota coaching staff has promised Philip Nelson won’t be handed the starting job, the sophomore should be the No. 1 quarterback at the end of spring ball. Nelson completed 7 of 16 throws against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl and should be able to build off that performance for 2013.
Bo Pelini’s rebuilding project on defense
The Cornhuskers aren’t starting from scratch on defense this spring, but this unit suffered some heavy losses. Gone are defensive linemen Eric Martin and Baker Steinkuhler, linebackers Will Compton and Sean Fisher, along with safeties P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford. Kicker/punter Brett Maher was also a valuable weapon and will be missed. Each level of the defense has key players to replace, but addressing the defensive line should be considered priority No. 1 for Bo Pelini. Jason Ankrah is expected to start at one end spot, while junior college recruit Randy Gregory could nab the other side in the fall. Thad Randle recorded 21 stops last season and needs to anchor the middle with very little experience returning around him. Redshirt freshmen Avery Moss, Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen should expect to see plenty of snaps this year.
Related Content: Nebraska Cornhuskers 2013 Spring Preview
Restocking the offensive line
The offensive line was an underrated part of the Wildcats’ success on offense last season, but three starters must be replaced. Tackle Patrick Ward and guards Brian Mulroe and Jack Deiters are huge losses for the Wildcats, with center Brandon Vitabile and right tackle Jack Konopka opening spring practice as the returning starters. Unfortunately for Northwestern, Konopka, guard Matt Frazier and tackle Paul Jorgensen are out for spring practice, which means this unit may be unsettled heading into the fall. With the loss of three starters and injuries preventing other players from participating this spring, keep an eye on redshirt freshmen Adam DePietro, Kenton Playko and Ian Park.
Related Content: Northwestern Wildcats 2013 Spring Preview
Writeups compiled by Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
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