Don't sleep on Dan Persa and the Wildcats this season.
6) Minnesota Golden Gophers 4-8 (1-7)
Outside of wide receiver Da’ Jon McKnight, the Gophers don’t have many playmakers or a proven quarterback to give Da’ Jon the rock. The defense doesn’t look promising either, as they gave up an average of 33 points a game. It’s going to take a miracle worker to turn this team around right away. Good thing for Gopher fans, newly appointed head coach Jerry Kill has been a winner everywhere he has been. But for now, expect the Gophers to be battling for dead last in the entire conference.
5) Iowa Hawkeyes 7-5 (4-4)
It could potentially be a rebuilding year for the Hawkeyes as they lose a lot of players on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they lost their main signal caller Ricky Stanzi along with majority of their other skill players. The Hawkeyes usually pride themselves on defense, but the defense only returns five starters as well. The fact that Stanzi is gone will hurt them the most, as I always believed he was one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten during his tenure.
4) Michigan Wolverines 8-4 (4-4)
I find this Wolverine team very unpredictable. Michigan returns 10 starters back on offense and 8 back on defense, making them all experienced players. The downside will be that they are going to be under a new system with Brady Hoke taking over the program. I am interested to see how the offense will react to this change. Rich Rodriguez’s spread was more run-oriented as to Hoke’s spread is more pass-first oriented. All eyes will be on quarterback Denard Robinson who is the only player in NCAA history to pass and rush for over 1,500 yards in a season. Defensively, the 8 returning stars can be deceiving. This is a defense that gave up nearly 35 points a game last season. Ouch. It’s going to be another few years of being average for the Wolverines.
3) Northwestern Wildcats 9-3 (5-3)
The Wildcats will be my surprise team in the conference this season. I have always been a fan of their head coach Pat Fitzgerald and he has Northwestern headed in the right direction. This Wildcat team is led by their stud senior quarterback Dan Persa and they will go as far as he takes them. If you don’t recall, Northwestern started last season 7-3 until Persa suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. The offense is in good hands with 9 starters returning, but the defense will need to improve. Even though they return 7 starters, the defense will be the big question mark of the season. Then again, avoiding Ohio State and Wisconsin this season definitely helps their chances.
2) Michigan State Spartans 9-3 (5-3)
The Spartans shocked us all last season going 11-1 before losing to the Crimson Tide in the Capital One Bowl. With quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Edwin Baker returning, Michigan State is poised for another Big 10 title run. In order for them to achieve this, the defense must be able to replace the production of LB Greg Jones and improve its d-line.
1) Nebraska Cornhuskers 10-2 (6-2)
First season jitters? Not today. Despite it being Nebraska’s first year in the Big 10, I fully expect them to win their division. Ever since Bo Pelini’s arrival, the Huskers have had a top ranked defense each season and it doesn’t look to change here with potential All-Americans Jared Crick, Alfonzo Dennard, and Lavonte David returning. The biggest question will be their offense. Their offense has held this team back from being championship contenders the last couple of seasons and it could be the same story here. Taylor Martinez showed flashes of brilliance, but still needs to establish himself as an efficient passer. Until the Huskers can put the ball in the air consistently, they will always fall short.
Adding quarterback Russell Wilson following a Rose Bowl run has the Badgers thinking national championship.
6) Indiana Hoosiers 4-8 (1-7)
Indiana has a football team? The high point of the season will be the commitment of the number one rated pro-style quarterback in the country via rivals, Gunner Kiel, last month.
5) Purdue Boilermakers 5-7 (2-6)
Injuries decimated the Boiler offense last season, resulting in Purdue having the worst offense in the Big 10. All eyes will be on Marve, as this former 4-star Miami commit will have to show improvement from last season. The Boilermakers had 27 giveaways last season, which is atrocious. They will definitely need to work on that as a unit. The defense isn’t a whole lot better either. They will have to find a way to replace Big 10 defensive player of the year Ryan Kerrigan. Even though Purdue returns its secondary, if the front line doesn’t improve and create a pass rush, it will endure another long season.
4) Illinois Fighting Illini 6-6 (3-5)
Since Ron Zook took the Illini to the Rose Bowl in 2007, it’s been a constant seasons of mediocrity and I don’t expect that to change this season. Some bright spots will be the return of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, as he showed promise last season setting a school-record for single-season rushing yards by a quarterback. The Illini also bring back a strong O-line which is always a quarterback best friend. Their biggest loss will be running back Mikel Leshoure, who absolutely torched Baylor in the final game last season. Offensively, Illinois should be fine, but the biggest question will be their defense. The defense faltered down the stretch last season, costing the team some games. Ultimately, this team does have talent across the board, but I don’t think Zook is the guy.
3) Penn State Nittany Lions 7-5 (4-4)
Last season, the Nittany Lions struggled against top 25 teams going winless against all of them. With quarterback Rob Bolden only entering his sophomore season, I still think the Penn State offense will struggle just a tad. But on the other side of the ball, the defense returns all of their starting defensive front and secondary. I expect the defense to be a force to reckon with this season and defense wins game. You can never count out a team coached by legendary Joe Pa.
2) Ohio State Buckeyes 7-5 (4-4)
If it wasn’t for offseason tattoo parlor scandal I would have the Buckeyes number one, but with the departure of head coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor, and with running back Dan Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, and tackle Mike Adams suspended the first five games, the Ohio State season begins in chaotic fashion. The biggest question will be who replaces Pryor at quarterback. They have senior Joe Bauserman, who back up Pryor the past three seasons, a top of the depth chart for now, but that isn’t saying much. I fully expect freshman Braxton Miller to take over the quarterback spot sooner than expected, but with big games against Miami, Nebraska, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Michigan, I have a hard time seeing an inexperienced freshman quarterback lead the Buckeyes to a conference title with that kind of schedule.
1) Wisconsin Badgers 11-1 (7-1)
The biggest weakness for this Badger team was at the quarterback position, but with the transfer of former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson, the Badgers have the most complete team in the Big 10. Although they lost running back John Clay, they still have James White returning. Wisconsin usually always carries a good defense with a great running game, and now with a good quarterback, the sky is the limit for the Badgers. With a favorable schedule, the 2011 Wisconsin Badgers are my dark horse to make a run at a national title.
Big Ten Champions: Wisconsin Badgers
Offensive MVP: Dan Persa, QB, Northwestern
Defensive MVP: Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska
Newcomer: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State