CHICAGO — Over the two-day event that is Big Ten Football Media Days, Nebraska fans have gotten more than their fill of Husker coverage.
From head coach Bo Pelini’s thoughts on the upcoming season, to Big Ten Network interns asking players what kind of a cell phone they have, almost every possible question has been posed and answered by the Huskers.
But what about the rest of the conference?
There are, in fact, 11 other schools in the Big Ten Conference, and for the most part, the average Nebraska fan doesn’t know a whole lot about them. Sure, Ohio State and Michigan are easy ones. But what about Northwestern, Illinois or Purdue? Can Husker Nation tell the difference between a Golden Gopher and a Badger?
This page is devoted to giving Nebraska fans an introduction — or at least a refresher course — on the Big Ten Conference. Check out what all 11 teams have been up to, and how their general outlook is entering the season.
By the time the opening kickoff comes for the season opener, you will be ready for everything the Big Ten Conference has to offer.
The Fighting Illini are coming off a successful season that saw them win seven games, and earn their first bowl game victory since 1999.
Head coach Ron Zook spoke at length about quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who started last season as a freshman.
“Though he is only a sophomore, he’s a young man that’s continued to improve not only on the field, but I can’t tell you the way he leads off the field,” Zook said. “(Scheelhaase) is unbelievable. It’s been fun to watch.”
After throwing seven interceptions over the first half of last year, Scheelhaase settled into the role and had just one pick during the second half.
Illinois will rely heavily on the signal-caller, but also hopes to make some noise on the ground. Zook believes his team will have a chance to run the football well, but the squad has some holes to fill on offense.
One of the biggest strengths for the Fighting Illini is their schedule, which features eight home games, and five straight to start the season.
“We’re excited about our schedule,” Zook said. “Anytime you play eight home games, this is an opportunity for us.”
Illinois will need to start off fast, before hitting a tough stretch over the latter part of the season. Over four of the last six weeks, IU faces Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
There weren’t too many coaches who took the podium with more intensity and energy than first-year Hoosier head coach Kevin Wilson. And after going 1-7 in the conference in 2010, Wilson will need that attitude when trying to rebuild Indiana’s program.
“Our administration has given me a great opportunity, a great challenge, but a positive opportunity,” Wilson said. “They’ve given me great resources to put together a strong staff. (It) started back in December when everybody seemed like they were in bowl games except our program.”
Indiana, however, is looking to make a quick 180-degree turn. That is what is necessary in today’s age of college football, and Wilson spoke adamantly about it in terms of recruiting.
“We’re not trying to be good in four, five, six years from now,” Wilson said. “We’ve done a great job of recruiting our current team. I think we’ve had very little attrition.”
A focal point of the Hoosier offense will be wide receiver Damarlo Belcher, who had 78 catches for 832 yards last season. Tight end Max Dedmond also will be in the mix, leaving Indiana with one major question mark in who to replace Ben Chappell at quarterback.
Right now, it appears senior Teddy Schell, junior Adam Follett ,and sophomores Ed Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel all are in the running.
The Hawkeyes are looking to improve in close games in a big way in 2011.
Last year, Iowa dropped three games in November by a total of 10 points. In fact, the Hawkeyes’ five losses in 2010 were by an average of four points.
Something needs to change.
“Really in a nutshell for us, last year came down to how we handled close games,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think it’s probably true for a lot of us in the conference. We play in a competitive league. This year will be no different.”
Quarterback James Vandenberg and running back Marcus Coker are expected to lead Iowa’s offense. Vandenberg played in spurts thanks to injuries to starter Ricky Stanzi, completing 5-of-8 passing attempts for 45 yards and one touchdown.
After suffering a fractured collarbone early during fall practice, Coker exploded onto the scene at the end of the season. He averaged 5 yards a carry and should team with Adam Robinson to create a potent two-back rushing attack.
Defensively, expect the same stout Hawkeye front that held opponents to 17 points per game last season, even though Iowa has to replace three of its defensive linemen.
“The good news is we have two players coming back,” Ferentz said. “Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns are both tremendous young guys.”
The Wolverines had one of the most potent offenses in the nation last year, and first-year head coach Brady Hoke doesn’t expect much to change despite implementing a new offensive system.
If that’s the case, then Michigan should put up big numbers once again behind quarterback Denard Robinson.
“He’s done a tremendous job,” Hoke said. “ I can tell you, he ran the same offense in high school, which is a plus. He was ahead of the curve a little bit. We are smart enough … to have elements he does well from what he did in the past in the spread in our offense.”
Michigan’s offense revolves around the speedy Robinson, who ran for 1,643 yards and 14 touchdowns last year while throwing for 2,316 yards and 16 more scores.
Last year’s weak link, however, was the Wolverines’ defense. The squad ranked 108th in points against. Hoke believes his changes will quickly remedy the inadequacy.
“There’s two sides of the ball in the game of football,” he said. “I can tell you, and I’m a defensive coach, that when your defense plays against a pro-style offense all fall camp, you build a toughness and an edge because the schemes themselves are different.”
Michigan returns 19 starters, giving added weight to Hoke’s response that Michigan is not rebuilding in 2011.
To say that 2011 was a good season for the Spartans would definitely be an understatement.
That’s not to say that Michigan State’s 7-1 conference record and share of the Big Ten Conference championship were flukes. But after seeing MSU get trounced in its bowl game by Alabama, the Spartans aren’t where they need to be.
“I think we took a big step as a program moving in the direction we want to go, culminating in a championship-type season,” MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said. “With that being said, 2011 brings many more challenges for us as we look to continue to gain respect here in the Big Ten Conference.”
Quarterback Kirk Cousins had another strong season at the helm, passing for 2,825 yards and 20 touchdowns. He has a brute of a running back to hand off to in Edwin Baker, who ran up, around and over the competition in 2010.
Defensively, the Spartans have some major cleats to fill in the graduation of Greg Jones, one of the best linebackers in the nation last year.
“I think we’ve got very good players coming back,” Dantonio said. “Very excited with Max Bullough, some of the other kids, Chris Norman … should be an outstanding player.”
MSU is experienced and, if it can avoid the injury bug, should make another strong run at the conference title.
There is a lot of uncertainty at Minnesota with former Northern Illinois head coach Jerry Kill taking over the reigns. But one thing is for sure: MarQueis Gray is going to have the ball on offense ... a lot.
“I think right now going through spring ball, the guy that is no question without a doubt the most gifted athlete on our squad is MarQueis Gray,” Kill said. “I think right now we feel good about our No. 1 quarterback.”
Last year, Gray only threw the ball eight total times, playing behind starter Adam Weber. Gray did make an impact as a receiver, grabbing 42 balls for 587 yards and five scores.
How he will be utilized in 2011 remains to be seen, but Kill mentioned his past use of moving quarterbacks around, getting them on the run.
The Golden Gophers are looking for things to turn toward the positive, after going 2-6 last year in conference play and 3-9 overall. A once powerful program, Minnesota has fallen into the depths of the Big Ten cellar, but Kill might be the man to return the school to its former winning ways.
Losing leading rusher DeLeon Eskridge is a big blow to the team, but the Golden Gophers are known for producing quality running backs. It will be up to Kill to keep that tradition going.
Two things will really shape how well of a season the Wildcats have. First off, having a healthy Dan Persa back under center will be a big boost. Secondly, a strong offensive line to help protect him could help Northwestern take the next step.
After going 7-6 last year (3-5 Big Ten) the Wildcats are looking to jump into the upper echelon of the conference.
“(Dan’s) going to be back. It’s going to be a little bit different because his body is going to operate a little bit different,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He’s 100 percent healed from the standpoint of the surgery. Now it’s about adding the strength … I know he’s chomping at the bit to play football again.”
Persa ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon late last season, and the Wildcats weren’t nearly as effective without him. He’d thrown for 2,581 yards and 15 touchdowns, while racking up 519 and nine scores on the ground.
Without Persa, Northwestern dropped its last three games of the season, including a 70-23 defeat at Wisconsin.
Still, the squad did enough last year to warrant three consecutive night games in October, giving the school some national recognition.
“For us, the Big Ten Network, the exposure that you give us from a media standpoint, we’ve benefited maybe from that most in the country,” Fitzgerald said. “Our brand is seen worldwide and nationwide to the recruits. That nighttime exposure is critically important.”
Oh, how the mighty have fallen?
The 2011 season is a whole new ballgame for the Buckeyes. Suddenly, within a few months, Ohio State has gone from a national championship contender to an unknown in the Big Ten Conference.
Out is longtime head coach Jim Tressel, and in is former assistant Luke Fickell.
“I think and believe the No. 1 most important thing for our program right now, as well as for me, is the stability that we’ve had in our coaching staff, “Fickell said. “The experiences that we have had as a staff over the last eight, nine, 10 years is invaluable. I think this alone will allow us and help us to move forward and allow us to focus on what we need to do to be successful on and off the field and do it now.”
What OSU needs to do is replace Terrelle Pryor. The quarterback who was at the center of the tattoo parlor scandal was the main cog in a great Buckeye machine on offense.
Pryor started as a freshman, something Fickell said true freshman Braxton Miller might do as well.
Luckily, whoever is behind center will have a strong offensive line to protect them. Center Mike Brewster and tackle Mike Adams anchor a bevy of beefeaters that can help Fickell’s signal-caller ease into a tough situation in an even tougher conference.
Whether you think he is still a true head coach or not, it is nearly impossible to not like Penn State head coach Joe Paterno. Once again, Joe Pa wooed everyone at Big Ten Media Days, all while refusing to talk about specific players, or basically anything of importance.
Last season, the Nittany Lions ended up 4-4 in conference play, a disappointing year for PSU fans.
Penn State needs to replace highly productive Evan Royster in the offensive backfield, and it will be interesting to see who wins the quarterback battle, presumably between Rob Bolden and Matthew McGloin.
“I think we’ll be better. Whether we’re going to be good enough, I don’t know,” Paterno said. “We had two, three kids that had good springs.”
As usual, the Nittany Lions will have a strong linebacking corps, led by Michael Mauti. Mauti is on several watch lists to start the season, and he had 67 tackles last season.
A fast start will really help PSU this season, but won’t come easy. The Nittany Lions face Alabama in a non-conference game, before ending the season with Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
If Paterno really hopes to turn things around and have Penn State back at the top, fighting for a chance to play in the conference title game, the last three weeks will be crucial for the team’s success.
Last season was a tough one for the Boilermakers, but the future is starting to look brighter and brighter.
After having 17 or 18 freshmen gain playing time, Purdue hopes to return to the gridiron this year with a young, but experienced group.
“We have an unbelievable group of young men,” Purdue head coach Danny Hope said. “We believe as a football team that coming into the season we are further along in almost every phase of our team, almost every position that we have been the last couple of years.”
Hope expects more firepower on offense this year, but will first need to settle the debate at quarterback.
For the first time in his tenure, Hope went into spring ball with a quarterback that had played in a college football game. Robert Marve and Rob Henry appear to be the frontrunners, with Henry currently at the top of the board.
Henry is a dual-threat quarterback and last year racked up 512 yards passing and 547 more on the ground.
“Rob Henry is a fantastic runner. Still developing some as a passer,” Hope said. “We have two really good quarterbacks. Both of those guys are great players, great people, exceptionally talented, outstanding team players and really want to win.”
After going 2-6 last year in conference play, the Boilermakers need to shore up their defense as well.
The Badgers stole away headlines this offseason, winning a public battle against Auburn to gain the services of former North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson.
The addition has catapulted Wisconsin into some national championship talks, and the squad was picked by Big Ten media to win the Leaders Division.
For most, Wilson seems to be a no-brainer as the starting quarterback, but head coach Bret Bielema wasn’t giving any information away for free.
“I was very open with Russell during the recruiting process, ‘You will have an opportunity to come in and show us what you can do.’ I think that’s one of the things that attracted him to our program. We were honest, truthful.”
The Badgers have to replace an All-American left side of its offensive line, but have to stellar rushers in James White and Montee Ball to hand off to. Wide receiver Nick Toon is a strong threat on the outside, and the Badgers’ secondary is experienced and considered one of the best in the conference.
After falling short in the Rose Bowl last year, Wisconsin is ready to gain back the momentum it lost to TCU.
“To me as a head coach, I’ve noticed a significant increase just in media attention to our program and recruiting,” Bielema said. “It’s been a fun ride to get to where we are right now.”