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2011 Minnesota

Minnesota: Sandwiched between their opening game victory against Middle Tennessee State and wins in their final two games (Illinois and Iowa) the Gophers suffered through a nine game losing streak. The Minnesota administration had seen enough after only seven games and a combined 15-30 record of the Brewster regime, replacing him with interim head coach Jeff Horton for the final 5 games of 2011. This was a team that simply seemed out of sync for most of the year, except for the final two games when they pulled surprising upsets over two bowl eligible teams. Those two wins displayed that this team had pride and talent enough to compete, but just never put it together. After several high profile names had been bantered about, Minnesota opted for someone less heralded in hiring Jerry Kill from Northern Illinois where he had spent the last three seasons compiling a 23-16 record and three bowl appearances. Kill has a career record of 127-73 over a 17 year career, and the reputation of being a fundamentally sound and disciplined football coach. Kill will have some decent offensive skill position talent to work with but needs to develop a better forward wall to make his multiple formation offense more formidable than last years 23 points/game average.

Offense: The offense returns six starters in 2011, but only two are offensive linemen, senior guard Chris Bunders and sophomore tackle Ed Olson, so there is plenty of rebuilding to be performed. Luckily the Gophers have a versatile and potentially electrifying player in MarQueis Gray. Gray has alternated between QB and WR his first two seasons with the emphasis being placed on receiving. It now appears that Gray will spend his time working at quarterback to permit him as much time with the ball in his hands to make things happen. He is set in the Vince Young, Cam Newton type mode as a runner, and if he can get the passing game figured out he’ll make the Gopher offense all that more dangerous. Joining Gray in the Gopher backfield is senior Duane Bennett who led the team in all purpose yards in 2010 and who was the leading rusher in 2009. UM returns their top three receiving targets in 2011 when you include Gray who was the teams second leading receiver with 42 receptions. The Gophers top target in 2010 was Da’Jon McKnight who returns for his senior season in 2011. McKnight is a tall receiver with good hands who is very effective in using his height to shield the ball from defenders. He had a team high 10 TD’s and an impressive 15.6 yards/receptions average. Also returning is senior TE Eric Lair who was third on the team with 39 receptions. At 6’3”, 239 pounds Lair is not a physically imposing, run-blocking type TE, but he is an excellent target, finding the seams in the defense. If Kill wants a more physical style of play senior TE Tiree Uure, who at 6’7” 263 pounds, or John Rabe, 6’4”, 248 can accommodate . As pointed out previously, the Minnesota offensive line will receive the majority of the rebuilding emphasis due to having to replace three departed starters from center on over on the right side of the line. Sophomore tackle, Ed Olson and senior guard Chris Bunders are the one returning veterans. One possible replacement could be senior Ryan Orton, who had two starts at right guard late in the season.

Defense: The Gophers return eight, three of which were in the top five in tackles in 2010, but also gave up 33 points/game. The star of the unit is senior Safety Kim Royston who returns after missing the entire 2010 season due to injury. His return, along with the addition of Florida Gator transfer, linebacker Brendan Beal could potentially provide a serious boost in the performance of the Golden Gopher defense. The defensive line only registered nine sacks in 2010 as well as giving up 191 yards rushing per game. The middle of the Gopher line is manned by seniors Brandon Kirksey (6’2’, 299) and Anthony Jacobs (6’2, 295). Both have the ability to be disruptive influences however without complementary support by the defensive ends offenses were able to effectively control these two. The starting defensive ends last season consisted of a sophomore D.L. Wilhite (6‘4“, 237), and freshman Kendall Gregory-McGee (6’5”, 253). Wilhite has tremendous quickness, but can be overpowered and out manned by physically stronger offensive linemen. Gregory-McGee is another speed rusher with slightly better measurable than Wilhite. What he lacks is experience, but as he grows and develops he will become a formidable pass rusher. The entire line backing unit returns intact, however there could be a bit of a shake up if UF transfer Brendan Beal (soph., 6’3”, 245) unseats senior Gary Tinsley (6’1”, 237) for the MIKE position. Coach Kill will put his best players on the field and that could possibly usher Tinsley being moved to one of the other two spots, replacing either junior Mike Rallis (6’2”, 236, SAM) or junior Keanon Cooper (6’, 207, WILL) in order to get his best three athletes on the field. The secondary suffered from the lack of a pass rush which requiring them having to cover receivers for extended periods, resulting in their finishing 113th in pass defense efficiency. This group however has two solid returning corners in senior Troy Stoudermire (5’10, 195), and sophomore Brock Vereen (6’, 181). Junior Michael Carter (5’11”, 182) is a talented backup who if not starting is a tremendous nickel back. The safety position lost both starters but that will be tempered by the return of senior Kim Royston. Royston was third on the team in tackles, recorded one interception and forced fumble and six pass breakups in 2009. His experience, ability and leadership should provide a steadying influence.

Special Teams: The Minnesota kicking game was nothing to write home about as returning sophomore punter Dan Orseske averaged a paltry 36.1 yards on 49 punts and as a unit 30.94 yard net average. He did register 16 fair catches, but when a punt coverage team only has to run 35 yards it is easy to get down field before the punt arrives. Field goals were handled by Eric Ellestad who was 11 of 16, going 5 for 11 beyond 30 yards. Ellestad has graduated and the hope is that North Carolina State transfer, sophomore Chris Hawthorne will improve the kicking game. Hawthorne has hit all five of his college PAT attempts, and his lone field goal, a 25 yard attempt. Minnesota’s return game is in the capable hands of Troy Stoudermire, who averaged 27.21 yards/kickoff return. Good enough for 22nd in the nation.

Outlook: Everyone is anxious to see if Tim Brewster’s recruiting prowess was as good as advertised now that Jerry Kill will be responsible for developing them. This is a team that was a conundrum last year, losing to FCS opponent South Dakota, and managing to beat an Iowa team that was ranked #24 at the time. I believe the problems associated with this team could be a result of dissention between the players and the former staff and not a lack of talent. Kill has earned the reputation for being a program builder and getting the most out of the talent he inherits and eventually recruits. Unfortunately he begins his Golden Gopher career against USC on the road. The rest of the out of conference schedule becomes more manageable with New Mexico State, Miami (OH), and North Dakota State. Heading into the conference schedule they should be no worse than 2-2, with a strong likelihood of being 3-1 when they face Michigan on the road. This will be an interesting contest due to the Wolverine defenses past struggles with athletic, mobile quarterbacks. Gray could give the Wolverine’s plenty of fits. I’m expecting a high scoring affair that could go either way. Victories become more difficult after they face the Boilermakers in week two because the next five contests in order are Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Northwestern. They finish the regular season against Illinois, one of the two conference teams they beat last season. It’s understood that a coach is hired to win and get the program to bowl games ASAP. It is not out of the realm of possibilities that Kill could achieve a 6-6 record, especially if the offensive line can gel and the young defensive linemen step up their performances. If not, it is difficult finding three conference wins. I expect Kill to achieve at a minimum a 5-7 record in year one showing continued improvement throughout the season.

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2011 Michigan State

Michigan State: The Spartans are coming off a program record eleven victories. Besides the historic win total the season was filled with excitement and uncertainty. No one will forget where they were when MSU won in overtime against Notre Dame, using the now infamous “Little Giants” play. The recorded 78,411 in attendance will undoubtedly swell over the years, much as it did when these two squared off in the “Game of the Century” back in 1966. More people will claim to have attended these games than what Spartan Stadium could possibly hold. That victory was tempered by the heart attack suffered by Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio later that evening, and filled the program with uncertainty as to what would be the final outcome. Thankfully Dantonio was able to pull through and eventually return to the sidelines, but it was during those weeks in between that the character and fortitude of this team became evident. The players and staff rallied around each other and maintained their focus, winning football games. As successful as the season was, MSU still showed it was in need of major improvements in certain areas. The offensive line was put together using duct tape, bailing twine and chewing gum, and against better opponents their lesser talent was exposed. The defensive line did a better job of controlling the line of scrimmage, but struggled mightily in sustaining a consistent pass rush. 2011 has MSU in an unfamiliar position, that of being a defending conference champion. With the bulls-eye painted squarely on their backs MSU will now be challenged to prove they are not a one-hit wonder but a legitimate yearly conference contender.

Offense: Much of their key components offensively return with Kirk Cousins back for his senior year and third as starter. Joining Cousins in the backfield are undoubtedly the best trio of backs in the conference if not the nation, Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper. All three possess speed, power and enough shiftiness, but in differing degrees. Baker can slip a tackle and out run defenders to the end zone. Bell has a linebacker mentality and when he lowers his shoulder into a defender it is typically with bad intensions. He will simply run right through people. Caper displays a bit of those attributes that characterize Baker and Bell. He has sprinter speed, but not quite as fast as Baker. He’ll run through tackles like Bell, but not as forcefully. Regardless of who is in the backfield the results are the same, positive yards for MSU and manageable down and distance for the proceeding play. When Cousins and the MSU offense decide to air it out they have a strong contingent of players capable of making plays. Five of the Spartans seven top receivers in 2010 return, including seniors B.J. Cunningham, who led the Spartan with 9 TD receptions, multi-dimensional Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol and tightends Brian Linthicum and Garret Celek. This group of talented upper classmen are complemented with a host of young talent that has shown they will be more than capable to take over. Benny Fowler is a taller version of the electrifying Martin, and Dion Sims, back from a year long suspension could possibly be the best tightend in the group. With the departure of OC Don Treadwell who accepted the head coaching position at Miami of Ohio, MSU promoted Dan Roushar, and he has publicly stated that he desires a more vertical offensive attack. If true, MSU could potentially have both a 1000 yard rusher and multiple 1000 yard receivers in 2011. The old adage it all starts up front could never be truer. MSU has to replace three senior starters from 2010. As difficult as that may sound, the three graduated players were probably the weakest links, but due to injury and inexperience those three were the best option at the time. With a complete year under their belts, MSU’s highly rated but extremely young offensive line talent will begin to have their presence felt. MSU could very likely start two RS freshmen, OT Skyler Schofner and center Travis Jackson. Both came out of spring ball holding slight leads over the competition. The final spot available, left tackle, could be manned by senior Jared McGaha or 2011 JUCO recruit Fou Fonoti. The remaining two spots are held by All-Big Ten Joel Foreman, a four year starter at left guard, and second year starter,RS junior Chris McDonald. The hope is that the combination of skilled veterans and talented youth will gain a measure of cohesiveness during preseason camp and continue to develop to form a dominant unit.

Defense: The 2011 Spartan defense will try and establish itself as being just as effective while having to replace 4 of their top five tacklers from a year ago, including first team All-American linebacker Greg Jones. MSU returns six starters from a defense but only one from the front four, DE Colin Neely. Neely was one of the last John L Smith recruits, and though he was not a threat as a pass rusher he performed adequately against the run. Returning is All-Big Ten first team selection junior DT Jerel Worthy who is the linchpin of this group. Accompanying Worthy on the inside are senior Kevin Pickelman and junior Anthony White. Pickelman was out all spring due to a neck injury, providing White the opportunity to show his athleticism. MSU has lacked an edge rush for several seasons, and Dantonio has focused much of his recruiting effort to correct this problem. 2011 might finally start to show some dividends as junior Tyler Hoover and sophomore William Gholston had strong spring camps. Hoover started to come on late last season providing a plus performance rating. Gholston started the year slowly and showed some flashes of his potential talents, however a late season injury to his shoulder required surgery, and he was just starting to get back into the swing of things at the start of camp. If one or both of them take the next step in their development they will terrorize opposing quarterbacks for the next two seasons. Replacing one outstanding linebacker will result in diminished production from this unit. Replacing two is definitely a cause for alarm. MSU will be trying to replace the production points of Greg Jones and Eric Gordon from the list of Max Bullough, TyQuan Hammock, and Steve Gardiner. Bullough appears to be the front runner as he saw time as a true freshman, filling in for Jones on occasions. Last years starting STAR linebacker, Chris Norman is being moved to Gordon’s former SAM position. Denicos Allen has a slight edge in earning the vacant STAR spot. The MSU secondary matured last year and finally produced acceptable numbers coming away with 12 of the teams 17 interceptions and only allowing 19 TD passes, down from 32 the previous year. Returning are senior safety Trent Robinson who led the team with 4 interceptions and was fourth on the team in tackles, and junior cornerback Johnny Adams. Joining these two are sophomores Darqueze Dennard at cornerback and Isaiah Lewis at safety. Both saw action as true freshman and did nothing to embarrass themselves with their performances. Over all the defense has sufficient, quality depth at all positions that should help overcome any injuries they may incur.

Special Teams: The most famous punter in college football last year was Aaron Bates, but probably not for his kicking prowess as one would suspect even though that was excellent with a 45 yard average. Bates was instrumental in the successful outcome of both Little Giants and Mouse Trap. His impact to the team both in punting and executing trick plays will be hard to replace, as will his leadership. RS freshman Mike Sadler has the unenviable task of replacing an MSU legend. Reflecting on his spring performance there shouldn’t be too much of a concern with his kicking ability, but his ability to pull off the trickery of his predecessor may be difficult to duplicate. What a difference a year makes. Heading into 2010 Dan Conroy was facing the same situation as Mike Sadler, having to replace a Spartan legend in Brett Swenson. Conroy stepped in and didn’t miss a beat on his way to a first team All-Big Ten selection. Conroy, a junior, connected on 14 of his 15 field goal attempts and was 45 for 46 on PAT’s.

Outlook: MSU does have some concerns that need to be addressed if they have any notions of repeating or bettering last year’s 11-2 record. The offensive line, especially its young replacements have to jell, quickly. The Spartans have a great many quality skill position players on the offensive side of the ball that can only be productive if the line can open holes and keep Kirk Cousins upright. Defensively the young players in the linebacking and secondary units need to step up their performances. Some showed that ability during their limited playing time but will now need to perform at a constant high level all game long and not just a series or two. The out of conference schedule of Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic, Notre Dame and Central Michigan doesn’t appear too daunting. The big early season contest in South Bend against the Irish will tell a great deal about the potential of this team. The conference schedule unfolds favorably as the get Ohio State in Columbus before the return of their suspended players and coach. After that it becomes a murders row as the will face Michigan and Wisconsin at home, followed by a trip to Lincoln to face Nebraska. MSU could go anywhere from 3-0 to 0-3 during this stretch, and depending on the outcome of their clash with the Buckeyes the Spartans could find themselves in the thick of a conference race or playing to salvage a season. The final four games provides a small breather as they have Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Northwestern, with Iowa and Northwestern being on the road. This is a team that could potentially win every game or struggle to achieve .500 if the young players don’t mature. I believe MSU will go 6-2 in the conference and depending on the ND outcome they will either be 3-1 or 4-0 for a 9-3 or 10-2 record.

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2011 Michigan

Michigan: After three of the historically worst seasons ever recorded in the annals of Michigan football, the Rich Rodriguez experiment ended, with a thud. The 52-14 thrashing by the sixth best SEC conference finisher Mississippi State showed just how far this once proud program had fallen. After an exhaustive search UM got their man, or should we say their third option, Brady Hoke. Hoke is a former UM assistant who has spent the last decade or more rebuilding the Ball State and San Diego State programs, and is believed to the right “Michigan Man” to return the Wolverines to glory. Considering all the talk made by many of the Michigan fans about how Rich Rodriguez was going to revolutionize the Big Ten with his style of football and have the Wolverines contending for multiple national championships, Hoke is coming in with a lot less bravado. His style of play does not quite fit the players recruited by the previous regime so it will take some time before he gets enough of his type of players to contend with the conference heavy weights Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State.

Offense: For the past two seasons everything has revolved around UM’s two September Heisman award winning quarterbacks, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson. Regrettably Tate Forcier was forced to leave the team prior to their bowl game for academic reasons, meaning that he will now have to transfer to another school to resume his Heisman career. Thankfully Mr. Robinson is still in the neighborhood which assures the media will have another September in which to bestow upon him college’s most prestigious award. All sarcasm aside, Robinson is a truly electrifying college football player. He has breakaway speed, and deceptive moves that make him a threat every time he takes off and starts to run. Unfortunately that is neither the Brady Hoke, nor Al Borges, Michigan’s OC, style of offense. They spent all spring trying to transform him into a traditional pocket passer to fit their west coast style offense. The early results were not promising as Robinson struggled throwing the ball in the spring game. If Robinson does not make significant improvement in this capacity over the summer, expect a quarterback battle between him and sophomore Devin Gardner during preseason camp. Michigan returns three from last years offensive line, sophomore tackle Taylor Lewan, junior guard Patrick Omameh, and All-Big Team first team selection, sernior center David Molk. What has yet to be determined is how they will adjust to the new blocking scheme after having been coached to block for a spread offense. Michigan running backs have not been heavily utilized, especially last year where the bulk of the rushing yardage accumulated and attempts were handled by Denard Robinson. Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw shared duties in 2010 and both had respectable yard per attempt averages from a limited amount of carries. The receiving corps returns all three starting receivers used in Rodriguez’s spread offense, seniors Darryl Stonum and Junior Hemingway, and junior Roy Roundtree. Recent developments surrounding Stonum’s third DUI infraction makes it likely that he will receive a harsh, team imposed punishment consisting of having to kiss a UM coed prior to the start of every game, other than that there is no reason to believe he will lose any significant playing time. Expect fewer three and four receiver sets in Borges’ offense, and more involvement using the TE, which should make senior Kevin Kroger happy.

Defense: The past two years the most popular three letter tweet used by Michigan fans watching their defense was OMG. This wasn’t just a bad defense this was an OMG WTFCWSA (Why the F*ck can’t we stop anyone) bad defense. There are plenty of adjectives to describe the performance of the Wolverine defense these past few years but shredded, and nonexistent are probably the most fitting. Up front UM is switching from the 3-4 to the 4-3 and will be returning All-Big Ten second team selection, senior Mike Martin at NT. Joining Martin will be returning senior Ryan Van Bergen who played as a DT last season but might find himself as an edge rusher in the new scheme. Junior Craig Roh has played a hybrid LB/DE his first two seasons, and it is unsettled if he will continue in the role or if he will focus on one specific area. Martin and Van Bergen form a respectable tandem that will likely flourish in the new alignment. Talk coming out of Ann Arbor is that highly rated DT William Campbell has gone from bust to beast. If that is the case then UM might field a decent defense against the run. Three of the four starting linebackers return in 2011, senior J.B. Fitzgerald, junior Kenny Demens, and sophomore Cam Gordon. For most teams that would be a good thing, but UM’s best linebacker last year was the guy who graduated, and these three did nothing to distinguish themselves except for getting run over by opposing teams running backs. The old adage that error increases with distance could best describe the UM secondary. The further away from the line of scrimmage you go the worse the caliber of play.

Special Teams: What do Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, and a Michigan placekicker have in common? Proof of their actual existence is mere speculation. To say that Michigan struggled in kicking field goals last year would be an understatement. Combined UM was 4 of 16 on field goals. If they left their Robinson and the offense out there on fourth down they probably would have had the same percentage of converting a first down. Punting was handled by Will Hagerup who had a solid freshman campaign with a 43.6 yard average on 33 punts.

Outlook: The three year failed experiment that was Rich Rodriguez is finally over. UM fans boasted that he would usher in a new era of UM football that would continue their success but offering a more entertaining and exciting offense than what characterized them in the past. Three years later that same crowd are crowing loudly and embracing their past because of getting their man, “A MICHIGAN MAN”, Brady Hoke, who was in fact at a minimum their third option. If the argument for Rodriguez’s first two losing seasons in Ann Arbor was based on the assumption that Lloyd Carr had left the program bare, what will be the excuse applied to Hoke while he and his staff rebuild. The contrasting styles of offense between Rodriguez and Hoke means that the majority of the talent available was suited specifically for running the spread, and not playing power football. Al Borges returns his west coast offense to the Big Ten for a second time, the first with Indiana. The issue the past three seasons has not been the offense, but UM’s absolute inability to stop any team with a pulse. Thankfully Hoke was able to pry the anointed one, DC Greg Mattison away from the Baltimore Ravens. UM fans have been reassured that he will immediately resurrect this group into a combination of the Pittsburgh Steelers Steel Curtain, and Dallas Cowboy Dooms Day defenses. For all those other fans living in the real world and dealing with reality know that outside of Mike Martin, UM talent pool is about as deep as a puddle and as unappealing. Michigan’s out of conference slate has them facing Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan and San Diego State, all at home for the first four weeks of the season. Normally that would guarantee a minimum of a 3-1 record, but these are not normal times. Western will be a tougher out than what the Wolverine fandom anticipate. Hoke will also have to make sure that his troops aren’t looking ahead to their game with the Irish the following week. EMU in all likelihood will be the easiest and surest win. Hoke will be facing his former Aztec program and if the rumors are to be believed about his coaching prowess, should put up significant resistance. The conference schedule has the Wolverines playing six teams that were bowl eligible in 2010, Northwestern, MSU, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and OSU. The two teams that might be considered breathers in this schedule are Minnesota and Purdue, but with a program instituting new schemes and returning much of the failed defensive talent nothing is a given. This is a team that at best I see going 6-6, but that is saying there can be no slip ups among WMU, EMU, SDSU, Minnesota and Purdue, and stealing a game from either Northwestern or Illinois.

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2011 Iowa

Iowa: The Hawkeyes are coming off a somewhat disappointing 2010 season finishing .500 in the conference and 8-5 overall with a bowl win. Iowa was my choice last year to win the conference title, and after starting off the year 7-2 and 4-1 in the conference the wheels. Their lone conference loss was a one-point decision at home against Wisconsin. They were starring at a 4-1 record when the wheels began to fall off for their season. They headed to Evanston to face the Wildcats and maintain a share of the conference lead. With less than seven minutes to play and up by ten points the Hawkeyes let another one slip away as Northwestern scored twice in a five minute span to send them away with another conference loss. Facing Ohio State the following week the Hawkeyes were in dire need of a win to keep their fading title hopes alive. Again they fought hard but came out on the short end of the stick once again, losing by a score of 20-17. Their final conference game was against rival Minnesota who was sporting a 1-6 conference record and had fired their coach midseason. For some unexplainable reason the vastly superior Iowa team lost to the Gophers 27-24 and had to surrender Floyd. 2011 will be part reloading, part rebuilding as the Hawkeyes have to replace several key pieces on both sides of the ball.

Offense: There are two things I have come to know about a Kirk Ferentz coached team. One, he typically gets the most out of his players. Second, his offensive line can almost assuredly be counted on as being a strength. With three returning offensive line starters, and one part-time starter the Hawkeyes will once again be fundamentally strong along the line of scrimmage. This will help ease the transition from quarterback Ricky Stanzi to James Vandenberg and should provide for a respectable running game. Vandenberg has some game experience, having filled in for Stanzi in 2009 when he was unable to perform due to injury. What he won’t have are all the receiving targets from the previous season as two of the top three have graduated. The good news is that leading receiver Marvin McNutt returns for his senior season. Iowa will need to find another WR to complement McNutt as well as a TE to replace Allen Reisner and his 42 receptions. The Hawkeyes have been snake bit that couple of seasons with regards to injuries of their running backs. Prior to the 2009 season Iowa lost Jewel Hampton for the entire season due to a knee injury, and last year leading rusher Adam Robinson was out for their bowl game. Marcus Coker filled in for Robinson in the bowl win over Missouri, rushing for 219 yards. With Hampton having transferred and Robinson being dismissed from the team, it appears that Coker, and incoming recruits will be looked up to provide a ground attack.

Defense: The Hawkeyes appear to have taken the biggest hit player wise on this side of the ball. Iowa will be looking to replace All-American DE Adrian Clayborn, All Big-Ten first teamer Tyler Sash, and second teamers Karl Klug, Jeremiha Hunter, and Brett Greenwood, as well as graduate Christian Ballard. Clayborn, Klug and Ballard were all part of a very strong and talented defensive front. The lone returning starter is senior DT Mike Daniels, but he will not be without some support as senior DE Broderick Binns should ease some of rebuilding pain. Binns has extensive playing time and is in his own right a very tough individual to block. He likely would have started for many other conference teams, but having a player like Clayborn in front of you the opportunities are limited. Binns and Daniel probably won’t make anyone forget Clayborn and Klug, but they are a formidable pair and are proven. The departure of Hunter from the linebacking unit will be tempered by the return of sophomore James Morris and senior Tyler Nielsen. Morris garnered Sporting News freshman first team All-America honors for his play. Morris finished fourth on the team with 70 tackles. Nielsen started for most of the season before sustaining an injury against Michigan State. He finished the year with 42 tackles in eight games. There are a host of talented players vying for Hunter’s old weakside spot, as linebacker appears to be deep. The secondary returns corners Micah Hyde and Shaun Prater from a starting unit that registered 15 interceptions, returning 3 for TD’s. Hyde and Prater accounted for eight, each recording four apiece. The challenge will be for secondary coach Phil Parker to find two quality safeties from a list of candidates, most of whom have seen some playing time. Expect a drop off in the number of interceptions in 2011 from this group, as they benefitted from having the strong pass rush supplied by Clayborn, Klug and Ballard, last season.

Special Team: Iowa has to replace Ray Guy award finalist Ryan Donahue. Donahue had been handling the punting duties for his entire four years in Iowa City, and finding a replacement capable of dictating field position will be a priority. Place kicking duties will be handled by sophomore Mike Meyer who connected on 14 of his 17 field goal attempts and 31 of his 33 PAT’s.

Outlook: Iowa’s out of conference schedule is negotiable but should allow just enough of a challenge to test the replacements and get them ready for the rigors of conference play. Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Monroe are two softballs that sandwich the more difficult challenges of in-state rival Iowa State and Pittsburgh. A 4-0 start is expected. Iowa jumps into conference play against Penn State (away) and Northwestern (home) the first two weeks of the season. These two games offer the two most difficult challenges until they face MSU at home in the tenth game, and Nebraska in the finale. The remaining conference schedule includes games against Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan and Purdue. If the Hawkeyes go .500 against PSU, Northwestern, MSU, and Nebraska, and win the others they are looking at no worse than a 10-2 season.

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2011 Indiana

Indiana: 2010 was a carbon copy of the last three years for the Hoosiers, winning only a single conference game. That repeated poor showing finally led to Bill Lynch and his staff finally being shown the door. For the fifth time in ten years IU will have a new coach trying to correct their misfortune in the person of Kevin Wilson. Wilson comes to Bloomington after having spent eight seasons in Norman learning under the tutelage of Bob Stoops. For the last six seasons Wilson was either the fulltime or co-offensive coordinator for the Sooners. Wilson is not foreign to the Big Ten, as he spent three seasons at Northwestern under the late Randy Walker. Since his arrival on campus he has been working hard trying to change the culture of losing that has seemingly taken up residence at IU since they decided to field a football team. Personally I like the hire as I believe he will instill a toughness and discipline that has been lacking since the days of Bill Mallory. Hoosier fans may be anticipating immediate results, but unfortunately there is little in the way of talent on the roster, so even though I expect to see an improved product on the field the results in the won/loss columns probably won’t be vastly different from 2010.

Offense: The good news is the Hoosiers return eight starters from last year’s squad. The bad news is they return eight starters from last year’s squad plus they have to replace a three year starter at quarterback. There are three legitimate candidates vying for the QB job, none with any significant amount of playing time, RS junior Adam Follett, and two RS sophomores Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker. Follett is more of a pocket passer and less mobile than the other two, and considering the change in the offensive philosophy a more mobile quarterback will be required. The offensive line returns four, junior Center Will Matte, senior tackles Andrew McDonald and Justin Pagan, and junior guard Marc Damish, but after spring camp concluded Wilson commented that he was looking forward to some of his 2011 line recruits arriving on campus to challenge for starting assignments.  That alone should send up warning signals that the current member are a very under performing unit, and that coaching alone won’t be sufficient to elevate their play to the level he requires.  One 2011 recruit, Ralston Evans, who made it to campus early appears to have impressed enough in spring ball that he earned a starting assignment.   Because of the issues with the talent of the offensive line the running game will likely suffer even though there is some decent talent. RS junior Darrius Willis, when healthy has the making of being a featured back and has shown flashes of his talent. The operative word is healthy, something he has struggled to achieve since arriving on campus. RS freshman Matt Perez was considered a prized recruit when he signed with IU, unfortunately his season ended before it began when he tore his ACL in preseason camp. He could be the featured back to start the season as Willis has been suspended for violations of team rules. The one unit that IU can compete with most any team is their receivers. They return Demarlo Belcher, the conferences reception leader from 2010 and a second year TE who was a pleasant surprise in 2010 as a freshman in Ted Bolser. Besides these two IU has sufficient depth that is talented.

Defense: The Hoosiers can’t get any worse defensively than what they displayed in Madison when the Badgers rang up 83 points. Wilson has seven returning starters from an absolutely abysmal unit that gave up on average 34 points and 410 yards per game. If Wilson holds out any hope of having a winning season he will have to shore this side of the ball up quickly. IU returns three starters along the front, an undersized and former linebacker in Darius Johnson (6’, 241), and two serviceable tackles in Larry Black and Adam Replogle. Behind these three is an undistinguishable group, hence Wilson’s eager anticipation for the arrival of his 2011 class this preseason. The linebacking unit is led by senior Jeff Thomas who mans the middle. Along with Thomas is another returning senior starter, Leon Beckum. What has hindered the performance of this unit is the inability of the DL to keep opposing blockers from getting to the second level and tying them up. Not overly athletic and often times undermanned physically the IU linebackers get swept away in the wash of offensive blockers, further limiting their effectiveness. The secondary returns only one starter in FS Donnel Jones, but even him maintaining that position is tenuous at this point with the new staff. The staff may have lucked out by having walk-on Greg Heban, emerge late last year at safety. Overall no starting position on defense is truly settled as there are simply too many to be contested when practice resumes in August.

Special Teams: Both specialists from 2010 return. As with all positions after a coaching change there is no certainty that they will retain their place on the depth chart. Kicker Mitch Ewald connected on 16 of 19 field goal attempts, with a long of 49 yards, and was perfect on PAT’s. Senior Chris Hagerup averaged a pedestrian 39.4 yards per punt in 2010, continuing his downward trend from 42.4 yards and 40.5 yards his freshman and sophomore years respectively.

2011 Outlook: New coach, new attitude, same results, at least temporarily. 2011 might be a situation of taking one step forward and two steps back record wise. At best I see IU going 4-8, but that is having them win the two games that I see as being toss ups, North Texas State and Purdue. The only two games where I have IU holding an advantage is Ball State and South Carolina State, after that the rest of their schedule will be difficult to negotiate with having to break in an inexperienced quarterback as well as the entire team learning a new system. There is little quality talent among the projected starters, and less amongst the depth. When the head coach is looking for untested true freshman to make an impact you know there is little in the tank to work with. Wilson needs to preach patience to the IU faithful because this is a program in need of total reconstruction talent wise and that will take a minimum of three solid recruiting classes starting with the 2012 class.

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2011 Illinois

Illinois: 2010 saw the Illini go 7-6 with an impressive bowl win over Baylor. Though the season ended on a high note there were plenty of disappointments from blown opportunities for a much better record. Illinois blew games against a very mediocre Michigan, and Fresno State on the road, and a horrible Minnesota squad at home. Though they only graduated five seniors from the 2010 team, their biggest losses come in the early departures of three junior standouts, running back Mikel Leshour, defensive tackle Corey Liuget, and linebacker Martez Wilson. Liuget and Wilson are the biggest shows to fill as they were the heart of the Illini defense. Wilson garnered first team all-conference honors, while Liuget received second team. Together they helped Illinois to the 22nd ranking in creating turnovers with 27.

Offensively the Illini appear to have found their quarterback in the person of dual threat Nathan Scheelhasse. Scheelhaase, seeing his first action as a redshirt-freshman finished with a respectable 58.7 completion percentage that included 17 TD’s and 8 INT’s. He also was effective as a runner, rushing for 868 yards and 5 touchdowns on 185 attempts. It may come as a surprise to some, but Illinois has led the conference in rushing three times since 2006, and finished second once. Their five year per game rushing total is the best in the conference, besting Wisconsin by almost 7 yards. The loss of Leshour to the NFL will be difficult to replace but not impossible as junior Jason Ford and RE freshman Bud Golden are capable of shouldering much of the workload. With four starters returning to an offensive front that paved the way for 246.1 yards per game average, the Illini running backs should not experience a significant drop off in production. Of the four Illini offensive linemen returning, two received honors for their performances. Tackle Jeff Allen received second team and honorable mention by the media and coaches, respectively. Center Graham Pocic receiving honorable mention from both. The top two in receptions return, A.J. Jenkins and Jarred Fayson at wide receiver, while lightly used Evan Wilson holds down the starting TE position. The Illinois offense is under the guidance of Paul Petrino, brother of Arkansas head coach Bobby, and considered to be just as innovative offensively

Defensively much of the credit has to go to defensive coordinator Vic Koenning for the improved play of this unit. Having Wilson and Liuget didn’t hurt, but overall the Illini defense made huge improvement in all defensive categories. They were averaging a very respectable 16.8 points per game prior to the Michigan debacle where they surrendered 67 in a triple overtime loss. The Illini return 6 starters from last years defense, with the defensive line and linebacking units requiring the replacement of two players each. The secondary returns three from a unit that recorded 11 interceptions. Akeem Spence appears ready to take over for the departed Liuget. Spence was named to the freshman All-America team by the FWAA last year having been credited with 45 tackles, 4 TFL’s and 1 quarterback sack. The other returning starter is junior Michael Buchanan who plays a hybrid DE position. Buchanan registered 40 tackles, 5.5 TFLS, and 2 sacks, 2 pass breakups, and one fumble recovery. These two form a good nucleus to what will be a very young but talented front line. Ian Thomas is the lone returning member of the linebacking trio, and was fourth on the team in tackles in 2010 with 67. Sophomore Jonathan Brown has the inside edge to earn a spot after having saw action in 12 games as a true freshman last season. Similar to the defensive front the linebackers will be another young unit. The majority of the returning experience resides in the secondary with returning starters sophomore Justin Green at CB, and junior safety’s Trulon Henry and Tavon Wilson. Henry and Wilson received All-Big Ten honorable mention by both the media and coaches, so their leadership and experience should provide benefits.

Special teams took a bit of a hit with the graduation of punter Anthony Santella, taking with him his 44.8 yard average. He placed 19 of his 64 punts inside the 20 yard line and forced 9 to be fair caught. Expect Illinois to lose a little in the field position game in 2011. Place kicking is in the capable hands of junior Derek Dimke who garnered second-team All-Big honors by the coaches after making 24 of 29 field goals and all 43 of his extra point attempts for a total of 115 points. Dimke also connected on a career long of 52 yards against Missouri.

Outlook: I’ll give credit to Ron Zook for realizing it was best that he delegate his authority and allow his coordinators to handle the majority of the game day decisions in 2010. Zook is a terrific recruiter, but just seems to lack that ingredient that distinguishes great coaches from mediocre. With a solid coaching staff assembled 2011 should usher in another bowl season. Based on their schedule they should at the minimum finish with 7 wins during the regular season. The potential to win ten will depend on three swing games, Arizona State, Northwestern and Penn State. Win those and their most likely losses will be to Ohio State and Wisconsin. I have the Illini going 5-3 in the conference with wins over Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan and Minnesota, and losses to Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.

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2002 revisited

Who would have thought? You have a team with a somewhat unheralded quarterback coming out of high school, who has his sights set on medical school upon graduation. A freshman tailback having an immediate impact on an offense playing above his experience level, and a defense that includes an All-American linebacker. Combined they sneak out wins against opponents to remain undefeated. Sound familiar? It should, because I just described the 2002 National Championship Ohio State Buckeyes. Oh, and before I forget, there was a coach by the name of Mark Dantonio, who had a subtle influence on that team as well.

There were a lot of doubters, and nay-sayers during that magical 2002 season. Here was a team winning games, barely, while the national media kept wondering, waiting for them to stumble. How could a potential BCS team struggle to win games by such small margins as 23-19, 27-16, 19-14, 13-7, 10-6, 23-16 and 14-9? BCS caliber teams are supposed to win by a minimum of double-digits, with the games decided by halftime, and not late in the fourth quarter on a final drive, or heaven forbid, overtime. But that is in fact what the 2002 Buckeyes did with their wins over Cincinnati, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois (OT), and Michigan.

Quarterback Craig Krenzel, a native of Utica, Michigan who headed south to play football as well as pursue a degree in molecular genetics, was probably one of the least athletically gifted of any of the Buckeye quarterbacks in the last fifteen or twenty years. Still he had a quality about him. He wasn’t going to be flashy or put up huge numbers, but what he was going to do was allow his team an opportunity to win every game by playing smart football and not making mistakes. Again, does this sound like someone Spartan fans may have a quaint familiarity with?

The OSU headliner or should I say head case, was of course freshman Maurice Clarett. Clarett was self assured, cocky and bragadocious, but he repeatedly backed it up on the playing field every Saturday. Now please understand I am not comparing personalities between Clarett and Bell, just their on field performance. Though Bell isn’t the starter for this year’s Spartan football team, his impact and contribution in the running game was a complete surprise to most. He has several memorable runs that if not made would have probably resulted in MSU defeats. Bell didn’t come to MSU with the fanfare that Clarett garnered when he stepped onto the OSU campus, but he has certainly made a name for himself and plays a significant role in this offense.

A.J. Hawk, unlike Greg Jones, was a true freshman on the 2002 Buckeye team who would eventually win the 2005 Lombardi Award and Jack Lambert Trophy for his outstanding linebacker play his senior year. Hawk wasn’t a starter on that 2002 Buckeye team. He backed up Cie Grant who was the starting WILL linebacker that season. Hawk saw most of his time that first season on special team duty and those limited occasions when he gave Grant a breather.

The only difference between then and now with regards to Mark Dantonio is that he holds the title of head coach and not defensive coordinator, but his influence on this 2010 Spartan team is as evident as it was for the Buckeye’s in 2002. In both cases the no nonsense, quiet confidence, and determination he projects remains, and is often times exhibited by his players. In 2002 OSU won seven games decided by eleven points or less. They didn’t always win pretty, but the fact remained they won. That is what I believe Mark Dantonio sees in this his 2010 Michigan State squad, 2002 revisited.

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