The Big Ten’s Legends Division goes away after this season, but not without a fight for its last-ever division title. Will it be a tight and suspenseful race? I don’t know, but it promises to be a lot more exciting than what you’ll find over in the Leaders Division. (Read my Leaders Division preview here.)
Here’s how I think the teams will sort themselves out this season, listed in order of predicted finish.
“Wait, so you think 8-4 will win the division?” No, smart guy, but 10-2 will. I am well aware that Bo Pelini has lost four games every season he’s been the Huskers’ coach, and I am well aware his teams traditionally have not been able to defend a brick wall from light breezes. I see two reasons why this is the season it all turns around. One is what figures to be the Big Ten’s best, most experienced, and most diverse offense. The Huskers just have too many weapons; they’ll hang half a hundred on a lot of teams — even ones we all think have good defenses.
The second reason is the schedule, which could hardly be easier. Apart from a Week 3 home game with UCLA, Nebraska won’t face anybody that figures to be at their level until November, and the Huskers don’t face a tough road game until traveling to Michigan on November 9. So yeah, this is the season “Bo Pellllini” goes away. Caveat: if he can’t get through this season without dropping four games, then we know what his ceiling is as a coach.
I see the Wolverines are a trendy pick for the division crown this year, and it’s certainly possible they end up on top. I’m not forgetting last year’s squad was 8-5. Sure, Brady Hoke has them looking like Michigan again, but I still want and need to see more before I feel comfortable putting them ahead of a point-scoring machine like Nebraska. That November 9 game with the Huskers looks to be huge, and there’s no question the Wolverines will be better tested than the Huskers going into that one.
So why put the Wolverines second? Because I think one of those teams will be undefeated on November 9, and one won’t be.
Make your own nerd rage joke.
I get why Cats fans are so excited about this season and see it as their chance to make a run for the (division) title. They’re not wrong to feel that way. It’s rare for other Big Ten schools to be envious of Northwestern’s offensive skill personnel but I count at least eight schools in the conference that only wish they had players like Kain Coulter and Venric Mark.
Here are the reasons why I’m not convinced Northwestern is ready to start slaying giants. One is defense, where the Cats were stout up front but vulnerable to mid-range and deep passes. The other is the offensive line, where NU will be breaking in at least three new starters. Then there’s history. Last year’s 10-3 team was dazzling against a schedule that was a lot easier than this year’s. There’s no doubt Pat Fitzgerald has done a great job as Northwestern’s coach, but apart from the 2011 upset of Nebraska in Lincoln, where are his signature conference victories? He’s been money against Iowa — that’s personal for him — but his only win against Michigan came in 2009 (Rich Rodriguez’s first season), he has never beaten Penn State and he has never come within 35 points of beating Ohio State.
That’s not to say Fitz can’t suddenly start beating multiple elite Big Ten teams in a single season. But those are the reasons why I think he won’t.
4. Michigan State
“Defense wins championships.” Not without offense. Losing Le’Veon Bell and hiring Jim Bollman as your offensive coordinator — to Mark Dantonio’s credit, Greg Davis was not available — wins you a three-sentence preview.
The Gophers are frustrating. Like, deeply frustrating. How are they frustrating? Jerry Kill is one of the Big Ten’s more likable coaches. In a league of beige on beige football CEOs, he’s at least a little different. It’s clear he has a talented staff that can develop players. There are individual Gophers who are as good as their counterparts on more elite conference squads. But where’s the consistency?
For instance, last year’s Gopher secondary sometimes played lights-out defense. At other times they played like four guys pulled off the intramural fields at Discount Technical College. Sometimes they showed both looks on the same series. That’s how you go 7-5 — if you’re lucky.
Nonetheless, maybe I’m just drinking the Kill-Aid (haw!) but I do believe things will improve for the Gophers this year. In Phillip Nelson, it looks like they finally have a consistently performing quarterback, though I do wonder who he’ll be throwing the ball to. If the defense comes together Minnesota has a puncher’s chance against anybody. If not, 6-6 is about as good as it gets.
Historically under Kirk Ferentz, the best predictor of the kind of season Iowa will have has been the passing offense. If the Hawkeyes finish in the top half of the nation in passing yardage, good things (i.e., good bowl games) follow.
That makes sense if you think about it. Iowa’s teams have always had stout defenses (last season excepted, of course), killer offensive lines, stud tight ends, a swirling cloud of chaos at running back, and hardly ever any notable quarterbacks or wide receivers. For a school lousy with NFL talent, it’s important to remember that only one of Ferentz’s wideouts (Kevin Kasper) has ever caught a pass in a regular season NFL game, and the last time any Iowa quarterback completed a pass in the NFL (again, excluding the preseason) was 1991.
All the other usual pieces are in place. So, for the Hawkeyes to turn it around this season, we’ll need to see a Kirk Ferentz-coached offense coordinated by Greg Davis suddenly find success with a relatively inexperienced receiving corps and a quarterback who has never taken a snap in a college game, not even to kneel down.
That could happen, but I’m not buying it.
I can see Iowa actually getting back to a bowl game this season, but a fast start will be essential. If the Hawkeyes aren’t at least 4-2 on October 6, it’s not happening. But 4-2 is possible. Hey, 6-0 is possible, given that Iowa will face four teams it played last season in those first six games, and it beat three of them. That second half of the season, well there might be two wins there for Iowa, and there might not be. Unless I’m wrong about the passing game.
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