By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
At the midpoint of the 2011 season, it's time to take a look at the first half and predict how the second half will turn out in the Big Ten.
Coach of the Year – Brady Hoke, Michigan
It’s a close call between Hoke and Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema. Hoke suffered his first defeat of the season last week against Michigan State, but has made all of the right moves so far during his short time in Ann Arbor. The offense has remained potent behind quarterback Denard Robinson, while the defense has shown big improvement under Hoke and coordinator Greg Mattison. The Wolverines are still in the hunt for the Big Ten Legends Division title, and are setup to return back into the top 10-15 teams in college football with Hoke’s success on the recruiting trail.
Freshman of the Year
There’s really no standout true freshman this year, but let’s give a little credit to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller and Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah. Miller hasn’t been asked to do a whole lot in the passing game, but his rushing ability was valuable in the win over Illinois and the 34-27 loss to Nebraska. Abdullah has been one of the conference’s top return men, averaging 10.2 yards per punt return and 31.9 on kickoffs with one score.
Newcomer of the Year – Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin
It was uncertain how Wilson would fit into the offense with no spring practice, but the senior has been nearly flawless. Wilson has thrown for 1,557 yards and 14 touchdowns, while tossing only one interception. In his first Big Ten game, he threw for 255 yards and two scores to beat Nebraska 48-17.
Offensive Player of the Year – Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin
Even though we pegged Wilson as the top newcomer and like to spread the wealth with the awards, it’s hard not to pick the senior for this category. Wilson has been a big reason why Wisconsin leads the nation in scoring offense and ranks eighth with 523.2 yards per game. The senior has been a perfect fit in Madison and has the Badgers poised for a run at the national title.
Defensive Player of the Year – Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois
There are some good candidates for this award, including Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still, but Mercilus gets the nod at the halfway point of the season. Mercilus has lived in the opponent’s backfield in seven games, collecting 13 tackles for a loss and five forced fumbles. He also leads all defenders in college football with 10 sacks. Mercilus’ pressure is a big reason why opponents are managing only 17.7 points a game against Illinois' defense.
Midseason Disappointment – Ohio State
Considering the loss of quarterback Terrelle Pryor and head coach Jim Tressel, along with the suspensions of a couple of key players, it’s no surprise the Buckeyes have struggled. However, Ohio State is a school that expects to compete for a Big Ten title every year and 4-3 is not acceptable. Interim coach Luke Fickell has a tough job, but this team has looked flat at times this year. The Buckeyes are young in spots, but still have plenty of talent. With Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan remaining, Ohio State could be looking at a 7-5 or 6-6 record before the bowl.
Midseason Disappointment – Nebraska’s defense
This space is usually reserved for a player, but the Cornhuskers have been surprisingly suspect on defense this season. Injuries to tackle Jared Crick and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard have hurt, however, Nebraska is giving up an uncharacteristic 27.2 points a game and rank eighth in the Big Ten in total defense. Coach Bo Pelini should get improvement from this group over the second half of the season, but this unit was expected to be one of the best in the Big Ten this year.
Midseason Surprise – Illinois
The Fighting Illini is coming off a disappointing loss to Ohio State, but are still 6-1 heading into Saturday’s game against Purdue. The offense has struggled to replace Mikel Leshoure’s production at running back, but quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has picked up the slack and ranks fifth in the Big Ten in total offense per game. A.J. Jenkins has been one of the best receivers in the nation this year, averaging 127.9 yards per game. The defense was a concern coming into 2011, as the Illini had to replace tackle Corey Liuget. However, end Whitney Mercilus has emerged as one of the top defensive ends in the nation, while tackle Akeem Spence has been solid. A favorable schedule certainly helped Illinois jump out to a 6-1 record, but don’t count out this team from pulling off a surprise win or two before the season is over.
Midseason Surprise – James Vandenberg, QB, Iowa
Even though Vandenberg performed well when filling in for Ricky Stanzi during the 2009 season, it’s a surprise he ranks fourth in the Big Ten in total offense after six games. The junior has thrown for 1,488 yards and 12 touchdowns, while completing 60.5 percent of his passes. Vandenberg has six regular season games to build upon a great start to 2011 and should enter 2012 as one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
What Athlon Sports got right – Let’s start at the bottom. Our preseason picks of Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue to be the three worst teams in the Big Ten are looking safe. Another pick that appear to be safe: Wisconsin representing the Leaders Division in the Big Ten title game.
What Athlon Sports got wrong – With a new coach and schemes on both sides of the ball, it was hard to project where Michigan fit into the Big Ten race in the preseason. We had the Wolverines finishing 8-4 and fourth in the Legends Division, and it appears they will easily outperform that record. We also predicted Nebraska to win the Big Ten title over Wisconsin, which does not look good after the Badgers’ 48-17 victory over the Cornhuskers earlier this year.
Athlon projects the wins and losses for each team for the rest of the season. Here’s how we think the final standings will look before the Big Ten Championship.
1. Wisconsin 12-0, 8-0
2. Penn State 8-4, 5-3
3. Ohio State 7-5, 4-4
4. Illinois 8-4, 4-4
5. Purdue 4-8, 2-6
6. Indiana 1-11, 0-8
1. Michigan State 10-2, 7-1
2. Michigan 10-2, 6-2
3. Nebraska 9-3, 5-3
4. Iowa 8-4, 5-3
5. Northwestern 5-7, 2-6
6. Minnesota 1-11, 0-8
Big Ten Championship: Michigan State vs. Wisconsin
Three Things to Watch
Ohio State’s next coach – There’s a chance Luke Fickell could return if the Buckeyes run the table in their final five games. However, it’s unlikely Ohio State will finish 9-3 with Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan remaining on the schedule. Expect athletic director Gene Smith to go shopping for a new coach in the offseason and there will be a lot of big names interested. Is Urban Meyer ready to exit the booth and return to the sideline? Can Ohio State lure Bo Pelini to Columbus? How about Toledo coach Tim Beckman – is he a wildcard to watch?
Legends Division battle – Wisconsin clearly looks like the top team in the Leaders Division, but the Legends Division has a lot more uncertainty at the midpoint of 2011. Nebraska, Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa all still have division title hopes, and this battle could go down the final weekend of the season. The Spartans enter Week 8 as the only undefeated team from the Legends Division in conference play, but matchups remain with Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern. Can Nebraska get its defense turned around without tackle Jared Crick? Will Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson stay healthy?
Can Russell Wilson win the Heisman – The last Big Ten player to win the Heisman Trophy was Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006. As long as Wisconsin continues to win, expect Wilson to be in the mix. The senior may not have the eye-popping numbers of Oklahoma’s Landry Jones or Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, but he leads the nation in passing efficiency and is averaging 289.8 total yards per game. None of Wisconsin’s six games have been close this year, which has factored into Wilson’s playing time. It’s going to be difficult for anyone to knock Stanford’s Andrew Luck from the top spot, but Wilson has an excellent chance to win the Heisman if the Badgers finish the year unbeaten.
Other Conference Content:
Picks and Predictions for Every Game, Week 8
Betting Against The Spread: Week 8 Picks
Big 12 First Half Awards and Second Half Predictions
SEC Midseason Review and Second Half Predictions
Big East Midseason Preview and Second Half Predictions