Very Early 2012 Big Ten Predictions

Athlon releases its very early predictions for the Big Ten Conference for 2012.

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)

Very Early 2012 Big Ten Predictions

Leaders Division

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

Key Returnees: QB Braxton Miller, RB Jordan Hall, RB Jamaal Berry, RB Carlos Hyde, WR Corey Brown, TE Jake Stoneburner, OL Jack Mewhort, OL Andrew Norwell, DT John Simon, DL Jonathan Hankins, LB Storm Klein, LB Ryan Shazier, DB Christian Bryant, DB Bradley Roby, DB C.J. Barnett, K Drew Basil

Key Losses: RB Boom Herron, WR DeVier Posey,  OL J.B. Shugarts, OL Michael Brewster, OL Mike Adams, LB Andrew Sweat, DB Tyler Moeller

The Ohio State Buckeyes should not only be the class of the Leaders Division but might finish with the best overall record in the conference in 2012. Unfortunately for Scarlet and Gray faithful — and new head coach and immediate cult hero Urban Meyer — tOSU cannot play for the Big Ten Championship or in a bowl game. But that does not mean that the Bucks won't ruin a few seasons along the way.

The non-conference slate is highlighted by a visit from Cal, and Ohio State will have to visit Michigan State and host Nebraska in a tough cross-over schedule. With Michigan visiting the Horseshoe in the finale, OSU has the chance to knock off what should be the other three top teams in the league.

With the entire defense returning largely intact and Braxton Miller looking to take another big step in his already stellar development, Meyer has the makings of a championship squad in 2013. And with the way he is burning down the recruiting trail in Columbus right now, things are only getting better on the Banks of the Olentangy's.

2. Wisconsin Badgers

Key Returnees: RB Montee Ball, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OL Ricky Wagner, OL Travis Frederick, DL Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, LB Mike Taylor, DB Shelton Johnson

Key Losses: QB Russell Wilson, WR Nick Toon, OT Josh Oglesby, OG Kevin Zeitler, OC Peter Konz, FB Bradie Ewing, CB Antonio Fenelus, S Aaron Henry, K Philip Welch, P Brad Nortman,

The Badgers were two passes away from a magical season in Madison. But it wasn't to be and they lost their second straight Rose Bowl. What's worse, is losing the star quarterback-receiver duo and three-fifths of a stellar offensive line heading into 2012. Rebuilding the offense will be no easy task, however, Montee Ball, James White, Jacob Pedersen and Jared Abbrederis offer whoever the new quarterback is plenty of offensive weaponery. Replacing offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who is the head coach at Pitt now, however, might be the biggest issue facing this team.

The non-conference schedule is easy as usual with the possible exception of a trip to Corvallis, Ore., to face the Beavers. Facing Nebraska in Lincoln and hosting Michigan State won't be easy tests in cross-divisional play either. They also will get Ohio State at home in the penultimate contest of the season.

This team has a chance, by default, to land in its second straight Big Ten title game, but will have to do so with its defense. A solid front seven, led by the Big Ten's top two returning tacklers Chris Borland (143 tackles, the Original Honey Badger) and Mike Taylor (150 tackles), will be the strength of this entire team. If Bret Bilema can fill major holes on his coaching staff — Matt Canada was hired as the new OC — then UW has a chance to reach the title game once again.

3. Penn State Nittany Lions

Key Returnees: RB Silas Redd, WR Justin Brown, WR Devon Smith, DL Jordan Hill, DL Sean Stanley, LB Glenn Carson, LB Gerald Hodges, K/P Anthony Fera

Key Losses: WR Derek Moye, WR Chaz Powell, OL Johnnie Troutman, OL Quinn Barham, DL Jack Crawford, DL Devon Still, DL Chima Okoli, LB Nathan Stupar, DB Drew Astorino, DB D'Anton Lynn

Where should we begin? First, Joe Paterno will not be roaming the sidelines at Beaver Stadium for the first time since 1950. And Bill O'Brien cannot devote his full attention to recruiting until the Patriots finish up their little romp through the NFL playoffs. But at least this football team can move forward and will do so in true Nittany Lion fashion: By running the football on offense and playing stout defense.

The biggest issue facing this team is still at quarterback, but all three may be in jeopardy of missing time in 2012. Robert Bolden could transfer out, Matt McGloin was involved in a locker room fight and Paul Jones has academic issues. If this position can be solidfied under new offensive guru O'Brien, and the holes along the defensive line can be filled, this team could push the Badgers for a bid in the title game.

While reaching the Big Ten title game certainly isn't out of the question, 2012 will more than likely be a year of transition and struggles. Recruiting has obviously taken a big hit amidst the worst scandal in college football history. The schedule includes a trip to a feisty Virginia squad and crossover opponents Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern. And the holes at QB and along the D-Line make it tough to pick Penn State over Wisconsin — even with the Badgers visiting Happy Valley in the season finale.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini

Key Returnees: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Donovonn Young, WR Spencer Harris, WR Ryan Lankford, OL Graham Pocic, DL Akeem Spence, DL Michael Buchanan, DL Glenn Foster, DL Justin Staples, LB Jonathan Brown, LB Houston Bates, DB Justin Green, DB Terry Hawthorne, DB Steve Hull, DB Supo Sanni, P Justin DuVernois

Key Losses: WR A.J. Jenkins, OT Jeff Allen, OL Jack Cornell, RB Jason Ford, DE Whitney Mercilus, LB Ian Thomas, S Trulon Henry, K Derek Dimke

There was a lot of positive momentum for Illinois in 2011. And six weeks into the season, the unbeaten Fighting Illini had apparently proven that the preseason hype was warranted. However, Ron Zook's squad lost six straight games to finish the season and former Toledo head coach Tim Beckman is now the head coach in Champaign-Urbana.

Beckman has some nice pieces to work with on offense despite the loss of Jason Ford and A.J. Jenkins. Nathan Scheelhaase needs to get back to 2010 form and the offensive line needs to fill holes left by Jeff Allen and Jack Cornell. But Beckman's Rockets posted big numbers in the MAC and Scheelhaase has all of the tools needed to be successful.

Losing the NCAA sack leader (Mercilus) will hurt, but the defense is young, talented and deep at nearly every position. Look for this unit to lead the team early against a brutal first half of the season. Illinois will play at Arizona State, Louisiana Tech, Penn State, at Wisconsin and at Michigan before the bye week in Week 8.

5. Purdue Boilermakers

Key Returnees: QB Caleb TerBush, RB Akeem Shavers, RB Ralph Bolden, WR Antavian Edison, WR O.J. Ross, WR, Gary Bush, WR Raheem Mostert, OL Jesse Schmitt, OL Rick Schmieg, DL Kawann Short, DL Bruce Gaston, DL Ryan Russell, LB Dwayne Beckford, LB Will Lucas, CB Ricardo Allen, DB Josh Johnson, DB Max Charlot, P Cody Webster

Key Losses: OL Ken Plue, OL Dennis Kelly, OL Nick Mondek, OL Kevin Ballinger, DL Adam Brockman, DL Gerald Gooden, LB Chris Carlino, DB Joe Holland, DB Albert Evans, DB Logan Link, K Caron Wiggs

There will be a weird vibe eminating from West Lafayette this off-season. Purdue won its first bowl game since 2007 but most fans are treading water on Danny Hope's future as the head coach. He returns Caleb TurBush at quarterback and a collection of talented offensive skill names. If the reworked offensive line can hold up, this offense as a chance to be better than it has been in years.

On defense, Ricardo Allen returns to lead a secondary that has experience but ranked 10th in the Big Ten in pass defense. The front four also needs to show improvement as they ranked 9th in the Big Ten in rushing defense and 77th nationally in getting to the opposing quarterbacks. However, the top three sack masters return to the roster and three of the top four tacklers return as well. This unit needs to show improvement across the board if it expects to sneak into the Leaders Division race that appears to be wide open at this stage.

6. Indiana Hoosiers

Key Returnees: QB Tre Roberson, RB Stephen Houston, WR Kofi Hughes, LB Mark Murphy, DB Lawrence Barnett, DB Greg Heban, KR Shane Wynn, K Mitch Ewald, P Adam Pines

Key Losses: WR Damarlo Belcher, LB Jeff Thomas, LB Leon Beckum

No one named Kiel will be under center as Kevin Wilson missed out on Gunner and has watched Dusty transfer. However, Tre Roberson added a spark to the Hoosiers offense in the second half of 2011. He rushed for 72.8 yards per game over the last five contests and took one of the worst rushing offenses in the league (118.8 ypg) to a team rolling up over 160 yards per game. With Stephen Houston back at tailback, expect Wilson to lean on his running game all season long.

On defense, two of the top four tacklers are gone as the linebacking corp will need to be reworked. The secondary returns plenty of talent but the bottom line, the worst rushing, total, scoring and pass efficiency defense needs to improve in all facets if the Hoosiers are going to return to the postseason since 2007 — its only bowl trip since 1993.

Legends Division

1. Michigan Wolverines

Key Returnees: QB Denard Robinson, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, WR Jeremy Gallon, OL Taylor Lewan, DL Craig Roh, LB Kenny Demens, LB Desmond Morgan, LB Jake Ryan, DB Thomas Gordon, S Jordan Kovacs, DB J.T. Floyd, K Brendan Gibbons

Key Losses: WR Junior Hemingway, OC David Molk, DT Mike Martin, DL Ryan Van Bergen, CB Troy Woolfolk,

All signs are go in Ann Arbor in 2012. This team will likely be the preseason favorite to win the conference as Brady Hoke returns the most electric and atheltic quarterback in the nation in Denard Robinson. And he will have plenty to work with as emerging star Fitzgerald Toussaint also returns to carry the load. The offensive line and receiving corps should be plenty capable of leading this team to a Big Ten title.

The only issues will come along the defensive line, where the Wolverines must replace three starters including all-everything Mike Martin. With the back-seven returning largely intact and still relatively young, Greg Mattison's defense should maintain status quo in 2012.

If all things fall into place, the Maize and Blue should be thinking not only Big Ten title but National Championship heading into next fall. However, those dreams could be shattered right out of the gate as Week 1 features a huge test against the defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. If they somehow get past Bama, a trip to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State still loom with home tests against rivals Michigan State and Iowa sprinkled in. Make no mistake, however, Shoelace has this team thinking South Beach.

2. Michigan State Spartans

Key Returnees: RB Le'Veon Bell, RB Larry Caper, OL Chris McDonald, DE Williams Gholston, DL Marcus Rush, LB Max Bullough, LB Chris Norman, LB Denicos Allen, DB Isaiah Lewis, DB Darqueze Dennard, DB Johnny Adams, K Dan Conroy, P Mike Sadler

Key Losses: QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, WR B.J. Cunningham, WR Keshawn Martin, OL Joel Foreman, DT Jerel Worthy, DL Kevin Pickelman, S Trenton Robinson

The biggest question heading into 2011 for Michigan State was its offensive line. There will be no such problem for the Spartans heading into 2012 as the front line on offense should be the strength of the team. This time, however, it has to find a replacement for the school's all-time touchdown king and unquestioned leader in quarterback Kirk Cousins as well as the school's all-time leading receiver B.J. Cunningham. With a talented backfield and strong front line, it should be easier for Mark Dantonio to break in a new quarterback.

On defense, losing Jerel Worthy hurts but William Gholston and a stacked group of front seven defenders give this team a chance to contend for the third year in a row. The defense, as is the case under most Dantonio teams, will be stellar, but will be tested early.  The season opener features Boise State and Week 3 provides a visit from Notre Dame. While neither are expected to be elite squads, the non-conference slate will clearly set the tone for Sparty in 2012.

Michigan State also gets no favors in its cross-over schedule. It has to face Ohio State at home and travels to Madison to take on Bucky.

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Key Returnees: QB Taylor Martinez, RB Rex Burkhead, WR Kenny Bell, TE Ben Cotton, OL Spencer Long, DL Cameron Meredith, DL Baker Steinkuhler, LB Will Compton,  DB Daimion Stafford, K/P Brett Maher,

Key Losses: OL Marcel Jones, OL Mike Caputo, OL Marcel Jones, DE Jared Crick, LB LaVonte David, CB Alfonzo Dennard, DB Austin Cassidy

Once again the Nebraska Cornhuskers' upside will hang on quarterback Taylor Martinez's shoulders. With superstar tailback Rex Burkhead back to take the pressure off Martinez, the third-year starter's ability to develop into an efficient passer will determine if Nebraska loses four games for the fourth straight year under Bo Pelini or if the Big Red can challenge the state of Michigan for Big Ten supremacy.

The defense loses its three biggest stars from each level of the unit but will return with plenty of depth and a new face calling the plays. Longtime Pelini understudy John Papuchis will be charged with improving a run defense that ranked eighth in the Big Ten a year ago. If the front seven can return to its 2009 form, Nebraska could contend for a conference title.

Magnifying all of the question marks for the Huskers is a brutal cross-over schedule that includes a visit from Wisconsin and a trip to Ohio State in the first two conference games of the year. Later, Penn State will visit Lincoln, meaning NU will face the top three teams in the Leaders once again in 2012.

4. Iowa Hawkeyes

Key Returnees: QB James Vanderberg, WR Keenan Davis, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley, TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, OL James Ferentz, LB James Morris, LB Christian Kirksey, DB Tanner Allen, DB Micah Hyde, K Mike Meyer

Key Losses: WR Marvin McNutt, RB Marcus Coker, OL Riley Reiff, OL Markus Zusevics, DL Mike Daniels, DL Broderick Binns LB, Tyler Nielsen, CB Shaun Prater

In a league loaded with elite level dual-threat quarterbacks, James Vandenberg is easily the top returning pure passer in the Big Ten. Keenan Davis, Kevonte Martin-Manley and C.J. Fiedorowicz will have to replace the loss of record-setting wideout Marvin McNutt and troubled tailback Marcus Coker. Even with those losses, this offense has a chance to be solid if the offensive line can develop. The Hawkeyes struggled mightily to run the football or protect the quarterback in 2011, so improvement in this area will be imperative for head coach Kirk and starting center James Ferentz.

On the defensive side of the ball, Ferentz has no trouble developing linebackers and this should be the strength of the unit again. Filling holes along the defensive line in the a league that features more power rushing attacks than any other league will be key. The Hawkeyes will also have a new defensive coordinator, as veteran Norm Parker decided to retire following the 2011 season.

The rivalry game against Iowa State is always tight and has the added motivation of revenge in 2012. The cross-over schedule gives reason for optimism, however, as Iowa misses both Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Hawks face Purdue, Indiana and Penn State from the Leaders.

5. Northwestern Wildcats

Key Returnees: QB Kain Colter, RB Treyvon Green, WR Demetrius Fields, OL Brian Mulroe, LB Damien Proby, LB David Nwabuisi, DB Ibraheim Campbell, K Jeff Budzien, P Brandon Williams

Key Losses: QB Dan Persa, WR Jeremy Ebert, TE Drake Dunsmore, OL Al Netter, DE Vince Browne, DB Jordan Mabin, DB Brian Peters

The Dan Persa era is officially over and the Kain Colter era has officially begun — at least, under center. Colter, who has excelled as a receiver will be given the reins to one of the more quarterback-friendly offenses in the nation. Not having Jeremy Ebert or Drake Dunsmore to throw to will be an issue Pat Fitzgerald will need to address in spring ball, but the offense should once again over achieve in 2012.

As a former linebacker, Coach Fitz always seems to find quality talent to play his former position and Damien Proby, David Nwabuisi and Ibraheim Campbell have as much potential as any group on the league. Filling a few holes in the secondary will be important.

The non-conference schedule offers some intriuging tests as the Wildcats will face three BCS conference teams in Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College. But missing Wisconsin and Ohio State in cross-over play helps as Northwestern gets Indiana, Illinois and Penn State from the Leaders.

6. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Key Returnees: QB MarQueis Gray, RB Donnell Kirkwood, DL D.L. Wilhite, DL Ra'Shede Hageman, LB Mike Rallis, LB Keanon Cooper, DB Brock Vereen, DB Kyle Henderson

Key Losses: RB Duane Bennett, WR Da'Jon McKnight, WR Brandon Green, TE Eric Lair, OL Chris Bunders, LB Gary Tinsley, S Kim Royston, DB Christyn Lewis

After years of longing for his superb physical talent to bubble to the surface — and changing positions — quarterback MarQueis Gray is poised for a huge season. He rushed for 966 yards and six scores and capped his junior season with back-to-back 160+ yards games — including a second Big Ten win over Illinois. Jerry Kill needs to fill some holes on the offense but has his leader at quarterback and appears to have put his stamp on the program by the way his team competed at the end of 2011.

Defensively, this team will return plenty of experience throughout the defense as three of the top four sack masters and four of the top six tacklers return to action. If this group can build on its stellar defensive finale against Illinois, in which it allowed a season-low 78 yards passing and seven total points, the Gophers might be able the pull the upset. It also posted its best defensive conference performance against the run as Illinois rushed 32 times for 82 yards.

2012 Big Ten Championship Game: Michigan vs. Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Badgers return to the Big Ten title game, but do so by default. Ohio State will finish with the best record in the Leaders but the nod will go to a slightly better than average UW team. Michigan, meanwhile, will ride its senior quarterback to the big game and handle the overmatched Badgers with relative ease.

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Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

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