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Big Ten Forecast: U Won’t Be Last

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September 26, 2012

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Two years ago when the Big Ten announced Nebraska was joining the league and the football teams would be organized into two divisions the pessimists in Dinkytown pronounced the Gophers’ future was bleaker than the dark past.

The argument was Nebraska added another super program to the league, making the Gophers’ ambitions of Big Ten relevancy even more difficult.  Worse, the Cornhuskers would play in the same division as the Gophers.  That division—now known as the Legends Division—was also to include Big Ten power Michigan, and formidable other programs.

Woe to the Gophers.

But guess what?  The Legends Division teams don’t look so imposing these days.  In fact, the whole Big Ten isn’t such hot stuff.

Michigan, 2-2 in 2012, is still trying to recover from the nosedive the program took under coach Rich Rodriguez.  Ohio State, struggling but 4-0, is trying for a comeback while under sanctions from “tattoo-gate.”  Penn State is doing the football version of Great Britain and is no longer a super power after the Jerry Sandusky scandal.  And Nebraska isn’t the same program that for decades struck terror into the hearts of Big 12 and Big Eight fans.

So there you have it.  The Big Ten—actually not such a big deal even going back to the 1980s—is reeling, mostly because four programs that looked so powerful in the history books are now underachieving.  The conference’s journey through mediocrity includes a 1-6 record in the last seven Rose Bowls.  And this fall the league’s image is really taking a pounding with not a single school ranked in the Associated Press top 10.  The conference has just three ranked programs, No. 14 Ohio State, No. 20 Michigan State and No. 22 Nebraska.  The SEC has four teams in the top six while even the reorganized Big 12 has two top 10 teams, No. 7 Kansas State and No. 9 West Virginia.

After four weeks of nonconference games the Big Ten season begins on Saturday.  There’s not a super squad among the 12 league teams and that’s nothing but good news for the Gophers who along with Northwestern are two of the conference’s (America’s?) biggest success stories and surprises in September.

There’s a lot of football to be played between now and the end of the league season on November 24.  Some teams will improve and others will slide.  Injuries and scheduling will impact results but Sports Headliners is ready to make its predictions on the final standings in the Legends Division and Leaders Division.

Coach Jerry Kill and his assistants make up one of the best coaching staffs in the Big Ten.  Rank this group near the top for teaching and managing a program.  Minnesota is 4-0 mostly because of a much improved defense that has impressed rushing the passer and swarming to ball carriers and receivers.

The Gophers, though, are only in their second season under Kill.  The program must attract better talent particularly on offense where the line needs more push and a breakaway running back is lacking.  And more speed and elusiveness among the receivers will be missed when the Gophers face the league’s better secondaries.

Minnesota defeated UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse in four nonconference games.  Those foes are a combined 6-10 so far in 2012.  That’s part of the reason the odds-makers have Iowa(2-2) as about a touchdown favorite on Saturday when Minnesota and the Hawkeyes meet in Iowa City.

The prediction here is the Gophers will finish fifth among six teams in the Legends Division.  Don’t be discouraged, though.  The Gophers could do better than fifth and even if they don’t this is a team that—unless crushed by injuries—will be competitive in most or all of its games.  Kill’s program has a future that’s getting ready to distance itself from an embarrassing past.  Think bowl game in 2012.

Michigan State (3-1) is the pick for first in the Legends Division.  The Spartans have a great defensive guru in head coach Mark Dantonio and the league’s premier runner in Le’Veon Bell.  He is averaging 152.59 yards per game, third best in the country. Now if the Spartans could only find a passer.

The league’s best offense might be in Lincoln.  The Cornhuskers (3-1), who have scored 194 points in four games, are the choice for second in the division.  The problem in Nebraska: defense.  The Huskers gave up 653 yards of total offense in a loss to UCLA, the most difficult test Nebraska has faced this season.

Can’t blame Michigan (2-2) quarterback Denard Shoelace Robinson if he is looking down at his shoes a lot these days.  His passing doesn’t exactly remind Wolverines’ fans of Tom Brady.  The runner extraordinaire threw four interceptions in a Michigan loss to Notre Dame last Saturday.  The Wolverines, with some talented players and coaches, will finish third in the division.

Venric Mark.  He might be the league’s most exciting player and certainly a significant reason why Northwestern is 4-0 and headed for at least a fourth place finish in the division.  Mark is No. 2 in the country in punt return average at 30.60 yards.  He leads the Big Ten in all-purpose yards at 178.50, ranking eighth in the nation.  Northwestern’s season could get derailed by injuries and lack of depth—always a Wildcat nemesis.

The folks in Iowa City love their Hawks except when they start the season 2-2, including losses to Iowa State and no-name Central Michigan on a last minute field goal.  The boos filled the air at the end of last Saturday’s game against Central and things will get uglier if Minnesota wins for a third straight year this Saturday.  The Hawks passing game has sometimes been awful and Iowa is down to an impressive walk-on running back.  The Hawkeyes will be competitive on most Saturdays—and may beat the Gophers on Saturday—but put them down for last in the division.

Buckle up for our Leaders Division choice.  Purdue will finish first, followed by Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Illinois and Indiana.  Too bad the Gophers can’t petition the Big Ten office for membership in the Leaders Division where because of sanctions Ohio State and Penn State aren’t allowed to play in the Big Ten championship game but are eligible to win the division title.

The Leaders Division looks inferior to the Legends Division and that’s one reason to pick Purdue to emerge as champion.  The Boilermakers (2-1) played undefeated Notre Dame tougher than Big Ten brethren Michigan and Michigan State.  And they did it in South Bend during a 20-17 loss.  Coach Danny Hope has built a roster featuring speed.  Purdue fans like that and also a schedule that includes only one formidable road game, at Ohio State on October 20.

The 4-0 Buckeyes haven’t been that impressive under first year coach Urban Meyer.  The defense is an issue and Ohio State has given up 59 points in the last three games against Central Florida, California and UAB.  But the Buckeyes might have the league’s most effective quarterback in Braxton Miller and they’ve got a super coach in Meyer.  Any setbacks in 2012 will be softened by national championship expectations within five years in Columbus.

Where have you gone Russell Wilson and Paul Chryst?  Wilson, the dynamic quarterback, is in the pros after leading Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl.  Chryst, one of college football’s best offensive minds, left for the head coaching job at Pittsburgh—part of an exodus of Badgers assistants.  The result: trouble in Madtown where the Badgers have turned out of desperation to a redshirt quarterback and 27-year-old offensive line coach.  There’s still talent and coaching but being competitive in Big Ten games is different than being almost a lock to win.  Wisconsin (3-1) will have some struggles.

Penn State fans have a love-hate relationship with senior quarterback Matt McGloin but he’s produced lately and helped the Nittany Lions (2-2) to consecutive wins over Navy and Temple the last two weeks.  New coach Bill O’Brien needs to prove himself after leaving the NFL and replacing Joe Paterno.  He will need to keep his wits when Penn State plays consecutive games against Ohio State at home and on the road versus Purdue and Nebraska.

You know your school is off to a difficult start under a new coach (Tim Beckman) when Louisiana Tech beats you up at home, 52-24.  Illinois (2-2) was also embarrassed by Arizona State, 45-14.  Wins came against Western Michigan, 24-7, and 44-0 over “cupcake” Charleston Southern.  On the Illini’s long to-do list is settling on a starting quarterback, presumably Nathan Scheelhaase.

When does basketball season start?  The basketball Hoosiers are a preseason choice for No. 1 in the nation while the football Hoosiers are a consensus pick for last in the Leaders Division.  Indiana students have season football tickets, mostly because the athletic department told them it was a package deal if they wanted to watch the basketball team.  In home games the 2-1 Hoosiers beat Indiana State 24-17 and lost to Ball State 41-29.  That doesn’t scare fans at other Big Ten schools but it may frighten IU students.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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