July 31, 2011
Thirteen hyper-specific predictions for the Big Ten in 2011. Wrapping up Big Ten Week.
• Anchored by a trio of All-Americans, Nebraska will lead the conference in almost every major defensive category, including total and scoring defense, and will lead the nation against the pass. Still, the Corhuskers will drop at least one game in which the offense fails to top 14 points, knocking them out of the running for the BCS Championship Game. Seven of the 'Huskers' eight losses over the last two years have come with fewer than two touchdowns on the board, five of them by seven points or less.
• After producing three different 1,000-yard rushers in 2010, Wisconsin will fail to produce a single 1,000-yard back due to the distribution of carries between tailbacks James White and Montee Ball, quarterback Russell Wilson and true freshman Melvin Gordon. The Badgers will still lead the conference in scoring, but at nearly a touchdown below last year's mark of 41 points per game.
• Ohio State will shuffle between at least two quarterbacks and drop a pair of conference games over the first half of the season before deciding to stick with true freshman Braxton Miller during an Oct. 22 bye week. With a more manageable schedule down the stretch, Miller will restore some much-needed optimism by leading a 4-0 November, capped by the Buckeyes' eighth straight win over Michigan.
• Interim head coach Luke Fickell, however, will be cast aside in December in OSU's pursuit of a bigger name to take the reins. Fickell's fate will be sealed when the NCAA declines to add scholarship losses or a bowl ban to the lighter penalties already self-imposed by the university as penance for the major violations that led to Jim Tressel's exit as head coach earlier this year, making the job more attractive to certain headliners.
• Michigan State will drop four of its five games away from Spartan Stadium. Last year, the Spartans were trounced on the road at Iowa and had to mount furious fourth quarter rallies to avoid upsets at Northwestern and Purdue. This time, they draw a murderer's row with trips to Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern in the regular season finale.
• With a division title in sight at the start of the month, Iowa will drop three out of four conference games in November for the second year in a row. Even if the Hawkeyes manage to split games with Michigan (Nov. 5) and Michigan State (No. 12) in Iowa City, a reprise of last year's letdowns at Northwestern and Minnesota awaits at Purdue (Nov. 19), followed by a killer trip to Nebraska.
• Amid fevered speculation in the final year of his contract, at least one mainstream outlet will report in November that Joe Paterno plans to step down at the end of the regular season after 47 years as Penn State's head coach. Within days of the report, Penn State will announce Paterno has signed another three-year extension through his 88th birthday in 2014.
• After leading the conference in rushing in 2010, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will fall short of 1,000 yards on the ground in the Wolverines' new, less-sread-friendly offense, and production as a whole will plummet from last year's Big Ten-best 489 yards per game. The Wolverines will match their 2010 scoring average, however, thanks to dramatic improvements in turnover margin, field goal kicking and field position yielded by the defense.
• Illinois will pull a major home upset over either Ohio State on Oct. 15 or Wisconsin on Nov. 19, immediately followed by a flop at Purdue (Oct. 22) or Minnesota (Nov. 26) seven days later. With All-Big Ten tailback Mikel Leshoure on his way out, the focus of the Illini offense should shift to quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's arm, with wildly schizophrenic results.
• Northwestern will break even in Big Ten play without a conference victory by more than seven points. Of the Wildcats' 13 Big Ten wins over the last three years, eleven have come by a touchdown or less. In the meantime, eight of their eleven conference losses in the same span have come by double digits.
• Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray will draw fawning comparisons to Denard Robinson with six straight 100-yard rushing games to start the season, leading the Golden Gophers to a 4-2 start heading into an Oct. 15 bye week. After the break, however, Gray will top 100 yards only once in Minnesota's last six games, and finish as one of the least efficient passers in the conference as the Gophers nose-dive toward another losing record.
• After relying heavily on the legs of quarterback Rob Henry in 2010, Purdue's leading rusher in 2011 will be a newcomer named "Akeem." That could be junior college transfer Akeem Shavers, the top running back in the spring as 2009 starter Ralph Bolden continued to rehab his second major knee surgery in as many years, or incoming freshman Akeem Hunt. But with Bolden's questionable ligaments and Henry likely ceding snaps to the Boilermakers' best passer, Robert Marve, one of the new kids will be forced to pick up the slack.
• Like Ben Chappell before him, Indiana quarterback Dusty Kiel will lead the conference in passing yards and touchdowns on the strength of sheer quantity, putting the ball in the air more than 40 times per game. Chappell was one of just five quarterbacks nationally who passed that often in 2010, including Oklahoma's Landry Jones, whose offensive coordinator was new Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.