CHICAGO—With Big Ten Media Days kicking off Thursday in Chicago, let's take a look at 10 major questions surrounding the league as we near preseason camps.
1. Will there be a mass exodus at Penn State?
Nittany Lion players Silas Redd, Jordan Hill and John Urschel had been scheduled to attend Media Days, but the school announced Wednesday that no player would attend after all. Redd, of course, has been linked to USC. And it appears that he remains unsure of his future. He is likely relieved that he won't have to answer questions from reporters in Chicago. And there are a plethora of other stars who are likely in high demand on campuses across the country after the NCAA ruled that any Penn State player can transfer and be eligible to play immediately. While some players have taken a pledge to stick things out in Happy Valley, can first-year head coach Bill O'Brien realistically hold onto his best younger players when they face a future without a chance at Big Ten titles and bowl games?
2. Is Michigan State the best team in the Big Ten?
ICONLe’Veon Bell and the Spartans could be looking at a rosy postseason in 2012.
The Spartans showed in their bowl win over Georgia last year that they are the most athletic team in the Big Ten, especially on defense. William Gholston, who is one of the best defensive ends in the nation, will lead a stout defense once again under coordinator Pat Narduzzi. And Le’Veon Bell will pace a sound rushing attack. The major question is whether Andrew Maxwell can suitably fill in for veteran signal-caller Kirk Cousins. Despite losing top receivers B.J. Cunningham, Keith Nichol and Keshawn Martin, the Spartans will look to Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett to give them a big-play deep threat. The former Volunteer had 24 receptions for 242 yards and two touchdowns last season, and he'll be one of Maxwell's top targets.
3. Can Wisconsin become the fourth program to win three consecutive Big Ten crowns?
Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota have won three consecutive league crowns. The Badgers are aiming to pull off the feat as well after earning back-to-back Rose Bowl berths. But defections on the coaching staff as well as the loss of star quarterback Russell Wilson will make things difficult. However, Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball returns to the backfield after rushing for nearly 2,000 yards last season. And Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien should return to his comfort zone in Matt Canada's pro-style scheme after struggling in Gary Crowton's spread attack last season in College Park.
4. How will Ohio State fare in Urban Meyer’s first season?
While the Buckeyes will have to sit out the postseason in Meyer's debut campaign in Columbus, 2012 represents a huge building-block year for a program that is looking to rebound from its off-the-field drama dating back to the Jim Tressel/Terrelle Pryor era. Meyer will be able to rely on a defense that should be more stout than last year's unit, and he was able to bring in SEC-type defensive linemen this past recruiting cycle for co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Everett Withers. And while he has a lot of work to do to become a top-notch FBS quarterback, Braxton Miller is the prototypical signal-caller for this spread offense. And he may have found a go-to receiver in freshman Michael Thomas, who caught 12 passes for 131 yards in the team's spring game.
5. Who will emerge as the starting quarterback in East Lafayette?
Boilermakers head coach Danny Hope has three solid options to start under center: Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry. How will he balance the reps in preseason camp, and what exactly is he looking for in this offense? All three players have significant starting experience, and Hope can conceivably mix and match. The problem with juggling the three is perhaps not having any of them finding a rhythm. Whoever is at quarterback will be working behind an offensive line that has potential when healthy, and he'll be able to utilize playmaking receiver Antavian Edison as well as a good group of tight ends.
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6. Can Michigan return to a BCS game?
Brady Hoke did a marvelous job in his first season in Ann Arbor, guiding the Wolverines to a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech. And a lot of the team's success was because of Greg Mattison's transformation of the defensive corps. But that unit loses Mike Martin and two other starters up front, and it was the play in the trenches that really helped out an unproven secondary. Hoke was concerned about the line's toughness this past spring. How much can it grow up this fall? Offensively, the likely suspension of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint will hurt the team's rushing attack against Alabama in the season opener, and quarterback Denard Robinson will need all of the help he can get despite being such a dynamic performer. He tossed 15 interceptions last season, and that number could have been even higher. Ball security is a priority.
7. Who will run the football at Iowa?
ICONDamon Bullock will compete for carries in the Iowa backfield.
New offensive coordinator Greg Davis may put the football in quarterback James Vandenberg's hands a bit more with Marcus Coker no longer in the Hawkeyes' backfield. How will Kirk Ferentz's squad replace the Big Ten's second-leading rusher in 2011? Jordan Canzeri, who likely would have had the first shot at emerging as the lead back, suffered a torn ACL and will likely miss the 2012 season. And true freshman Greg Garmon ran into some off-the-field trouble recently. Damon Bullock, De'Andre Johnson, Barkley Hill and Garmon will likely battle for reps until someone emerges from the pack and runs with the starting job. It's more likely, though, that a running back rotation becomes prevalent, at least until the team enters conference play.
8. Is there more magic left in Martinez?
Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez must continue to develop as a passer after staying healthy last season if the Cornhuskers are to compete for a Big Ten crown this fall. "T-Magic" completed just over 56 percent of his throws in 2011, but he seemed more comfortable this spring entering his second year in Tim Beck’s offense. He worked on his mechanics and footwork throughout the offseason, and there is a strong sense of optimism around the Huskers' program about Martinez heading into preseason camp.
9. Can Northwestern's defense match its offense?
Kain Colter will seamlessly take over for star Dan Persa at quarterback, and one of the deepest receiving corps in the league could include USC transfer Kyle Prater if the NCAA rules him eligible to play immediately. But Pat Fitzgerald needs to be able to coax serious improvement out of his defense, and that’s something he hasn’t been able to do in Evanston as head coach. Young players such as end Tyler Scott and linebacker Collin Ellis saw action last year, and the hope is that they will mature as starters. But the woeful secondary lost their best players — including All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters and four-year starting cornerback Jordan Mabin.
10. How much better is Illinois compared to Minnesota and Indiana?
If Minnesota is to improve in Jerry Kill's second season, dual-threat quarterback Marqueis Gray needs some playmakers to emerge around him. And defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys may have to be creative in lieu of a lack of talent on all three levels. In Bloomington, new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell will try to help quarterback Tre Roberson in the passing game, but this team cannot compete if the defense is as woeful as it’s been in recent years. Meanwhile, Tim Beckman inherited some solid talent in Champaign, especially on the defensive side of the ball despite the departure of star end Whitney Mercilus. New DC Tim Banks will inherit a good line, led by end Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence. Co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty may alternate between quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but who will make plays at receiver? This Illini squad is much better than the Gophers and Hoosiers, but can it slip into a minor bowl game in Beckman's first season?
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