By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) Finally. College football is back.
This is an exciting year for the Big Ten as it welcomes Nebraska and finally has a conference title game. The Cornhuskers obviously make the Big Ten better, but I think you’ll find a number of teams have improved this year, making the entire conference tougher. The top teams appear to be pretty clear cut, but I think at least eight teams will be bowl eligible this year and it’s possible — if a couple games go the right way — that nine or even 10 Big Ten teams could go to bowl games this season.
The following is my 2011 Big Ten Football Preview with predictions and a look at each team’s general outlook, strengths, question marks, key games and trap games:
1. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Predicted Regular Season Record: 11- 1 (7-1 Big Ten)
2010 Record: 10-4 (6-2 Big 12)
Outlook: Most are quick to point out that Nebraska was given the toughest schedule in the Big Ten this season because their three cross-divisional games are against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State. But, what’s ignored is that the Cornhuskers also get their three biggest divisional competitors at home. Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern all have to come through Lincoln, Neb. to get to the Big Ten Championship Game and that gives Nebraska a big advantage.
Biggest Strength: Front Seven. Defensive tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David are probably the best at their positions in the entire conference. Defensive end Cameron Meredith is a stud too. Teams with problems on the offensive line, beware.
Biggest Question Mark: Taylor Martinez. Nebraska’s offense was great when Martinez was healthy last season. When he got dinged up, it completely disappeared and the Cornhuskers lost three of their last four games. Martinez’s play will be the difference between a Big Ten title and an another average bowl game.
Key Game: Oct. 29 vs Michigan State. I really think this game will decide the Legends Division and it won’t be an easy one for the Cornhuskers. More on this one later.
Trap Game: Nov. 26 vs. Iowa. Just so we are on the same page for my definition of “trap game”, I consider it to be a game a team should win — and one I have them winning — but also one that could easily go the other way if that team overlooks their opponent. The Iowa-Nebraska game is a new rivalry game and I’m already getting the feeling the Hawkeyes care about it more than the Cornhuskers. It will be the last regular season game of the season for both teams and will be played on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Iowa might be playing for a bowl berth and depending on how Michigan State fares, Nebraska might already have clinched a berth to the Big Ten Championship Game. Watch out for this one.
Postseason: Big Ten Championship Game, Rose Bowl
2. Michigan State Spartans
Predicted Regular Season Record: 11-1 (7-1 Big Ten)
2010 Record: 11-2 (7-1 Big Ten)
Outlook: I actually think the Spartans are slightly better than Nebraska, but they have to go to Lincoln, Neb. and the Cornhuskers are a bad matchup because the one thing that can cause Michigan State problems is a deep front-seven. The Spartans probably have the best offense in the conference with senior quarterback Kirk Cousins throwing to a deep pool of wide receivers and junior Edwin Baker leading a group of three good running backs. The defense loses talented linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, but the defensive line is very good and there is enough in the secondary to keep the defense playing well in 2011. MSU’s special teams unit is the best in the conference.
Biggest Strength: Skill positions. The Spartans are loaded at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. B.J. Cunningham and Keyshawn Martin are dangerous receiving weapons, while Baker, Larry Caper and Le’Veon Bell anchor the backfield. Cousins could end up being the best quarterback in the Big Ten this season.
Biggest Question Mark: Offensive line. As good as the skill positions are, the Spartans replace three starters on the line, including both tackles. Cousins has expressed confidence in his line, but we’ll have to wait and see how they perform once the season starts.
Key Game: Oct. 29 at Nebraska. Like I mentioned above, this is the Legends Division title game for me. I think the Spartans are the better team overall, but Nebraska’s deep front seven will cause Michigan State’s offensive line some problems. When the Spartans lost to Iowa and Alabama last season, they lost those games at the line of scrimmage and I’m afraid the Cornhuskers are just a bad matchup, especially on the road.
Trap Game: Nov. 26 at Northwestern. The Spartans probably should have lost in Evanston last season, but the Wildcats gave it away at the end. Northwestern should be an even better team this season and they are always tough at home.
Postseason: Capital One Bowl. The stupid BCS rule limiting only two teams per conference hurts MSU for the second straight season.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes
Predicted Regular Season Record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
2010 Record: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
Outlook: Iowa’s upset over Missouri in the Insight Bowl was encouraging, but then a tumultuous offseason followed that included a number of players leaving the program and a weird weight room incident that hospitalized several players. All of those hospitalized players have been cleared, but the tough offseason can’t help a team that already returns the fewest amount of starters in the Big Ten (11). I think the Hawkeyes have the pieces to fill in on offense, but the defense is very young and while there is some talent there, it it is a year away from being dominant again. Iowa is going to be the kind of team that feels the brunt of the rest of the conference getting better.
Biggest Strength: Offensive line. Four starters return, including stud left tackle Riley Reiff who is still only a junior. Iowa will be able to run the ball very effectively with sophomore Marcus Coker, and new quarterback James Vandenberg will have plenty of time to throw the ball.
Biggest Question Mark: Defensive line. For at team that is used to having a good defensive line, this is going to hurt. Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug and Christian Ballard are all gone and the replacements aren’t exactly All-Big Ten performers except maybe tackle Mike Daniels.
Key Game: Oct. 8 at Penn State. I don’t want to completely eliminate the Hawkeyes from Big Ten contention. Kirk Ferentz always has good talent in Iowa City and it’s possible that talent could bloom a year early. Whether or not that happens could depend on how they play in their first Big Ten game at Penn State. If they can pull off a win in Happy Valley, Iowa could easily get off to a 5-0 start in the Big Ten.
Trap Game: Oct. 15 vs. Northwestern. This is easy. The Wildcats have won three in a row in this series and won their last three games in Iowa City. I still think the Hawkeyes have a little more talent than the Wildcats and should win this game, but we know how this one usually goes.
Postseason: Gator Bowl.
4. Northwestern Wildcats
Predicted Regular Season Record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
2010 Record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)
Outlook: I feel like somewhat of a hypocrite for putting Northwestern here because I’ve been giving them a ton of praise and currently have them ranked No. 22 in the country. But, like Iowa, I think this is a non-elite team that suffers the effects of the middle of the Big Ten being pretty good. Plus, I’ve had this weird feeling all month that Dan Persa won’t play in the season opener at Boston College and now that seems like a possibility. I’ve talked to him twice in person in the last month and while he’s confident, his recovery just doesn’t add up. He’s still limping noticeably and a torn Achilles usually takes 12-14 months to heal. He tore his less than 10 months ago. Still, Northwestern has 17 starters returning. This is a good team that could put it together and go 7-1 in the Big Ten — seriously. Unfortunately, I can’t ignore how the defense played to end the season last year and if any questions remain about Persa, I’m afraid I can’t go all-in on Wildcats just yet.
Biggest Strength: Secondary. Northwestern has three seniors returning, including two at safety. Cornerback Jordan Mabin is a ball-hawk. David Arnold and Brian Peters are tremendous safeties. This is a unit that is going to cause a lot of turnovers and has the capability of being the difference in a couple of upsets.
Biggest Question Mark: Running back. The Wildcats have to put together a running game to take pressure off of Persa — healthy or not. It’s not a good sign that Mike Trumpy and Jacob Schmidt didn’t pull away in the running back battle during camp. They are listed as co-starters.
Key Game: Oct. 1 at Illinois. If Northwestern is serious about challenging for the Big Ten title, this is a must-win. The Illini embarrassed the ‘Cats at Wrigley Field last season, but Persa is back and Northwestern has the talent to win this game on the road.
Trap Game: Nov. 19 vs Minnesota. I can promise you the Gophers will get better as the season goes on and with Michigan State looming the following week, the ‘Cats can’t overlook an improved Minnesota team at home.
Postseason: TicketCity Bowl
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Predicted Regular Season Record: 5-7 (2-6 Big Ten)
2010 Record: 3-9 (2-6 Big Ten)
Outlook: The Gophers got a steal in Jerry Kill. He’s a great coach and an even better person. Most importantly, he doesn’t allow the kind of shenanigans Tim Brewster allowed at Minnesota. If you don’t like Kill’s way, the door is always open. He’s going to preach accountability and make you learn the little things before you concentrate on the big things. He had success with running backs at Northern Illinois and he has a few good ones to work with at Minnesota. He also has a mobile quarterback in MarQueis Gray, who is similar to NIU’s Chandler Harnish in a lot of ways, although he needs to prove he can throw as well as Harnish can. If Kill had any resemblance of a good defense, I would go as far as to guarantee a bowl berth, but I’m afraid that will be the downfall this year. Kill’s defense at NIU ranked 14th nationally in scoring defense so he will bring change to that side of the ball eventually, but it won’t happen in year one.
Biggest Strength: Running back. Redshirt freshman Lamonte Edwards joins two experienced backs in DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett. They are going to have to fight their way through a young offensive line, but Kill always seems to get a lot of out of his running backs.
Biggest Question Mark: Secondary. Troy Stoudermire returns at cornerback, but he’s always been known more for his return ability. Kim Royston also returns but he’s actually in his sixth season after receiving a medical redshirt and there are always questions about his health. Besides that, there is very little experience in this unit.
Key Game: Oct. 8 at Purdue. This is the game that will determine whether or not Minnesota makes a bowl game in Kill’s first season. I struggled with it for a long time, but ultimately I think the Boilermakers will pull it out at home because of their defense.
Trap Game: Sept. 17 vs Miami (Ohio). The Gophers lost three non-conference games at home last season including one to Kill’s Northern Illinois team. I’m not sure he will let that happen again now that he is on the other sideline, but the Redhawks actually beat Kill’s Huskies in the MAC Championship Game last season and they return 17 starters. This won’t be an easy game for Minnesota.
6. Michigan Wolverines
Predicted Regular Season Record: 4-8 (2-6 Big Ten)
2010 Record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)
Outlook: I like new Michigan head coach Jeff Garlin… err, Brady Hoke, so part of me has a hard time thinking they’ll do worse than last season, but the schedule doesn’t help them out. The Wolverines have two very tough non-conference games, all four road games are very loseable and they finish the season against Nebraska and Ohio State at home. It just doesn’t add up to wins. With that said, I think you’ll see progress on defense under former Baltimore Ravens coordinator Greg Mattison and Denard Robinson will once again provide highlights on offense. Still, I can’t help but wonder how the offense is going to work under Hoke this year. He wanted to go to a pro-style offense, but Robinson doesn’t fit it well so they are still going to spread it out some too. I think you have to commit to one or the other to get everyone to buy in and I’m not sure that’s going to happen this season. Don’t get me wrong, Michigan is going to score a lot of points, but I’m not sure the talent will be maximized.
Biggest Strength: Wide receiver. If Robinson was still in a spread offense, I would have said quarterback, but he’s not so I have my doubts. But no matter what kind of offense is being run, the wide receivers are still going to be talented. Junior Hemingway, Roy Roundtree and Darryl Stonum make up what is arguably the best receiving unit in the Big Ten.
Biggest Question Mark: Linebacker. Both the defensive line and secondary have some playmakers, but I don’t see that at linebacker. Cameron Gordon and Kenny Demens return, but it’s not a particularly deep or talented group. The coaching staff likes freshman Desmond Morgan a lot. Maybe he can help right away.
Key Game: Oct. 8 at Northwestern. Michigan most likely won’t be favored in this game, but it could mean the difference between making a bowl game and not making one. There aren’t a whole lot of wins on the back-half of the schedule, so the Wolverines will have to stockpile them early. After opening the conference season at home against Minnesota, Michigan could really use a win in Evanston to start 2-0 because it only gets tougher after that.
Trap Game: Sept. 3 vs Western Michigan. This one kind of reminds me of Rich Rod’s first game at Michigan against Utah. Wolverines fans expect victory, but there’s a chance Western Michigan is simply the better team. Michigan has the much-anticipated night game against Notre Dame looming in Week 2 and they can’t afford to look past the Broncos.
1. Wisconsin Badgers
Predicted Regular Season Record: 11-1 (7-1 Big Ten)
2010 Record: 11-2 (7-1 Big Ten)
Outlook: The Badgers appear to have enough to reload in places where they lost production. Quarterback was major issue, but the transfer of Russell Wilson changed that and more. Wilson’s stats at North Carolina State already make him the most prolific passer in Wisconsin history, although it doesn’t really work like that. The Badgers still boast the best running back tandem in the conference, if not the country, and the same can be said about their offensive line, despite only returning three starters. The defense as a whole will be better if linebacker Chris Borland stays healthy, although it will be hard to replace J.J. Watt.
Biggest Strength: Running back. James White led the team in rushing as a true freshman, which is no small feat considering the amount of publicity the Wisconsin running game received last season. Meanwhile, Montee Ball gained 996 yards on the ground despite only really playing in six games and he’s probably your Week 1 starter, although the carries are going to change from game-to-game. Talented freshmen Jeff Lewis and Melvin Gordon provide great depth.
Biggest Question Mark: Wide receiver. The Badgers will be starting Nick Toon, who battled turf toe all last season and had an issue in training camp, and Jared Abbrederis, who is still a walk-on. Behind them is a plethora of unproven options. Depth is a big issue.
Key Game: Oct. 22 at Michigan State. The Badgers return to the site of their only Big Ten loss a year ago, a game they all believe they should have won. Unfortunately for them, the test will only be tougher this season as the Spartans have gotten better. This one could mean the difference between the Rose Bowl and the BCS National Championship Game.
Trap Game: Nov. 19 at Illinois. This one is sandwiched between their annual rivalry game with Minnesota and their home date against Penn State, which could decide the Leaders Division title. The Illini are good enough to win this game and Ron Zook beat Bret Bielema in their last meeting in Champaign, Ill. in 2007. On a side note, look for NIU to play the Badgers very close at Soldier Field Sept. 17 in a mini-trap game.
Postseason: Big Ten Championship Game, Fiesta Bowl
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
Predicted Regular Season Record: 9-3 (5-3 Big Ten)
2010 Record: 12-1 (7-1 Big Ten) – Wins vacated due to NCAA violations
Outlook: Despite the offseason turmoil, the Buckeyes return a lot of talent and for the most part, the coaching staff is exactly the same, just with a new guy in charge. Luke Fickell might be a little in over his head, but he has the support staff and stability of the coaching staff he is used to and the players are buying in. Unfortunately, there’s nothing he can do about Dan Herron, DeVier Posey and Mike Adams missing the first five games because of suspension. The Buckeyes got lucky because Miami (Fla.) will probably be missing even more players and that now seems like a winnable game, but I’m not sure they can hold off Michigan State at home in the last game those guys miss. Unfortunately, an 0-2 Big ten start is very possible as the Bucks then head to Nebraska. In the long run, I think the suspensions will make this a stronger team at the end of the year, but it might be too late.
Biggest Strength: Offensive line. Even with left tackle Mike Adams missing the first five games, this is a talented and deep group. When Adams gets back, it will just be that much better.
Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback. Joe Bauserman is the likely starter even though Fickell has yet to name one. He hasn’t exactly seized the job and putting it in the hands of freshman Braxton Miller might be tough.
Key Game: Oct. 29 vs. Wisconsin. Even with an 0-2 start in Big Ten play, it’s very conceivable the Buckeyes could finish the season with six straight wins. In that case, handing the Badgers their second Big Ten loss would also give Ohio State the tiebreaker and they would head to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Trap Game: Oct. 15 at Illinois. This trip comes right after their visit to Nebraska and if Ohio State does indeed start 0-2 in Big Ten play, there is going to be widespread panic in Columbus. Everyone will be talking about who the next Ohio State head coach will be and it’s very possible Fickell could lose the respect of his team. The Buckeyes are the more talented group in this game, but Illinois could easily pull off the win.
Postseason: Outback Bowl
3. Illinois Fighting Illini
Predicted Regular Season Record: 8-4 (4-4 Big Ten)
2010 Record:7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Outlook: Did you know Illinois hasn’t had back-to-back winning seasons in over 20 years? It makes you wonder why Illini fans expect so much from their football team every year. With that said, I think they can expect their team to end that streak this year and even improve. Illinois probably has the most favorable schedule in the Big Ten as all four road games are winnable and it gets Ohio State and Wisconsin at home while skipping Nebraska altogether. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning did a great job last season and has a deep secondary returning. The front-seven has some questions, but overall the defense should be respectable. Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase ended last season with 13 touchdowns and just one interception in his last seven games and should have a good year. The question is, will he have enough weapons to work with? Jason Ford takes over at running back and while he should be good, you always wonder about running backs that don’t seize the starting job until their senior year. In his defense, he’s been behind some good ones.
Biggest Strength: Secondary. The Illini return three of four starters including talented cornerbacks Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne.
Biggest Question Mark: Front Seven. Illinois has to replace Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson. Craig Wilson moves from the offensive line to the defensive line to help out and linebacker Jonathan Brown is one to watch.
Key Game: Oct. 15 vs Ohio State. You kind of get the feeling this is going to be the game that can swing the season one way or another. Illinois could be 6-0 heading into this game and has the talent to beat the Buckeyes at home. It would be a huge confidence booster for games down the road against Penn State and Wisconsin.
Trap Game: Oct. 22 at Purdue. Whether or not Illinois beats Ohio State, this is a game the Illini should win. You worry about complacency though if they do beat OSU or a lack of confidence if they lose to the Bucks. This is a tricky one. Also, watch out for the season-finale at Minnesota.
Postseason: Insight Bowl.
4. Penn State Nittany Lions
Predicted Regular Season Record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
2010 Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Outlook: Penn State returns 15 starters and should boast an improved defense capable of keeping them in every game. The question is, can the offense keep up? Neither Rob Bolden or Matt McGloin have seized the starting quarterback role, although the coaches insist they are both much improved. The biggest hurdle this season will the brutal finish against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Lions get the Cornhuskers at home, but then have to go on back-to-back road trips to finish the season. The good news is that a strong start to the season appears likely. Even if Penn State loses to Alabama at home in Week 2, it’s very possible the Lions could get off to an 8-1 start overall, including a 5-0 head start in Big Ten play. Unfortunately, I don’t see them winning any of those final three games and I actually think they will fall at Northwestern Oct. 22 as well.
Biggest Strength: Secondary. Penn State returns all four starters including cornerback D’Anton Lynn and safety Nick Sukay. If the Lions can get a consistent pass rush, it will be very hard to throw the ball against them.
Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback. Penn State would like you to think there isn’t a clear-cut starter because both Bolden and McGloin are playing well. Last year’s results say otherwise and until I see them perform on the field, I don’t have much faith in either quarterback to start the season.
Key Game: Nov. 12 vs Nebraska. If Penn State can survive at Northwestern, they should be 5-0 in Big Ten play heading into this game. If they can pull off the win over the Cornhuskers, there’s a good chance they will be playing for a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game two weeks later at Wisconsin.
Trap Game: Sept. 17 at Temple. Despite losing head coach Al Golden to Miami (Fla.) and only returning 12 starts, the Owls are one of the best teams in the MAC. They are 0-35-1 against Penn State since 1943 and the Lions go to Philadelphia for the game for the first time since 2007. This one could be tricky.
Postseason: Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
5. Purdue Boilermakers
Predicted Regular Season Record: 5-7 (2-6 Big Ten)
2010 Record: 4-8 (2-6)
Outlook: Like Minnesota, I think Purdue could make a bowl game this season if they pull off one key upset. I have them winning their first conference game against the Gophers and their last game against Indiana. A win over Illinois, Ohio State or Iowa at home is possible and would make them bowl-eligible. Unfortunately, I don’t see it happening right now because quarterback is still a major problem. Running back Ralph Bolden returns from a torn ACL and looks very good. The defense was quietly a very good group last year, but Purdue just couldn’t generate enough offense and I see that being a problem again this year.
Biggest Strength: Defensive playmakers. To me, the defensive line, linebackers and secondary are all pretty even. I’m not sure one unit stands out above the others. But each unit has at least one stud playmaker: DT Kawann Short, LB Joe Holland and CB Ricardo Allen. Purdue’s biggest strength will be its ability to change the game on defense. The question is, can the offense take advantage?
Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback. Sophomore Rob Henry led the Boilermakers in rushing and passing last season, but he went out with a torn ACL in camp. Even if he was playing, I’m not sure Purdue fans had great confidence in him. Now it’s up to Robert Marve, Caleb TerBush or Sean Robinson to seize the job. The Boilermakers started four different quarterbacks last season — a program record — and they might end up starting at least three this season.
Key Game: Oct. 22 vs. Illinois. If the Boilermakers can come up with turnovers against the Illini, this is a very winnable game and could ultimately be the key game that puts them in position for their first bowl berth since 2007.
Trap Game: Sept. 10 at Rice. I’m sure some Purdue fans don’t consider this to be a trap game. They might already be legitimately scared about losing this one. Many believe Rice is bowl team this season. Still, Purdue has more overall talent, especially on defense and should win. Just watch out.
6. Indiana Hoosiers
Predicted Regular Season Record: 3-8 (0-8 Big Ten)
2010 Record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)
Outlook: Let me start by saying I like what Kevin Wilson is doing at IU so far and getting a verbal commitment from prized quarterback Gunner Kiel for next year is a great sign. With that said, the Hoosiers only return 12 starters and the cupboard is pretty bare this season. Wide receiver Damarlo Belcher is the best player left on the team, but does he have someone to get him the ball? Believe it or not, Indiana opened the starting quarterback job to five different players. The starter will be either Dusty Kiel — Gunner’s brother — or Edward Wright-Baker, although redshirt freshman Tre Roberson could contribute if necessary. The defense has holes and the offense isn’t very good. This is going to be a tough first year for Wilson.
Biggest Strength: Damarlo Belcher. He alone make this IU’s strongest position. Kofi Hughes is a decent prospect.
Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback. There are a ton of position battles, but quarterback is obviously the most important position. Replacing Ben Chappell won’t be easy.
Key Game: Nov. 26 vs Purdue. It’s very possible the Hoosiers will be 0-7 in Big Ten play as they enter this game. A win over their rival at home to end the season would be a good step towards getting better next season.
Trap Game: Oct. 3 vs Ball State. The Cardinals aren’t really projected to be a factor in the MAC, but they do return 17 starters and have a new head coach in Pete Lembo. This one will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, which might get Ball State playing a little harder.
So who will win the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game? Well, if you were paying attention, I already gave it away by saying Nebraska will head to the Rose Bowl. It will be too tough for Wisconsin to beat the Cornhuskers twice in the same season and Nebraska will get a boost by playing on a neutral field, instead of Camp Randall Stadium. I think the fact that a lot of their players played in the Big 12 Championship Game the last two seasons gives them a huge advantage, and the fact that they lost those two championship games gives them added motivation. The Badgers looked a little starstruck in the Rose Bowl last year and its possible that happens again in Indy.
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox, Blackhawks and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.