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Big Ten football: 12 storylines to watch [with team capsules]

[ 0 ] August 18, 2012 |

Pick up this weekend’s Des Moines Sunday Register to find a special section devoted to the Iowa football team, which includes this article. (Mark Marturello / Register illustration)

1. What fan reaction will Penn State get when playing on the road? Eyes, too, will be on how the Nittany Lions respond to player defections and NCAA sanctions.

2. Speaking of sanctions … people are anxious to see how long it takes favorite-son Urban Meyer to return Ohio State’s football program to prominence.

3. Iowa’s biggest question mark is the black hole that some call the tailback position. Translated: A true freshman — either Greg Garmon or Barkley Hill — could start.

4. “I’m not blind and oblivious to the fact that we’re in a division that has six teams, and only four of them are eligible for the Big Ten championship game,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said.

5. Nebraska sometimes can’t get through a season without at least minor controversy, whether it’s coach Bo Pelini’s sideline behavior or a player issue, such as Taylor Martinez texting his father during a game. Maybe this year?

6. Fans naturally wonder how Iowa’s reconstructed coaching staff will affect the season. More blitzing? Defensive backs playing man-up on receivers at the line of scrimmage? No-huddle offense?

7. Speaking of new coaches, there are three in the conference — Bill O’Brien at Penn State, Meyer at Ohio State and Tim Beckman at Illinois. The Hawkeyes face only one of them.

8. Wisconsin is pushing tailback Montee Ball for the Heisman Trophy, however … Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has 7,621 total yards the past two seasons.

9. How’s this for a schedule grind? Michigan opens the regular season against defending national champion Alabama and finishes it against Ohio State. And don’t forget Notre Dame on Sept. 22.

10. Reporters picked Wisconsin to play Michigan in the conference’s second championship game. They picked Ball to be the offensive MVP and Michigan State lineman William Gholston to be the top defensive performer.

11. What will officials who govern Penn State decide to do with former coach Joe Paterno’s statue?

12. Minnesota could be on the cusp of its first bowl game since 2009, with UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse as the first four opponents for entertaining senior quarterback MarQueis Gray.

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ILLINOIS

Last year: 7-6, 2-6 in Big Ten

Coach: Tim Beckman, first season

Key loss: One of Beckman’s first priorities is to replace national sack leader Whitney Mercilus, who jumped to the NFL after nailing quarterbacks 16 times. He was the Illini’s MVP last season.

Outlook: The Ron Zook coaching era finished badly, with six losses to end the regular season. Out with the old, and in with Beckman, who inherits a team that includes a few solid defensive players on one side and a veteran quarterback on the other. Defensive end Michael Buchanan sometimes got lost in the Mercilus hype, but had 7½ sacks. Offensive leader Nathan Scheelhaase had 2,734 yards, including 624 rushing.

Player to watch: Beckman eventually hopes to have a 100 percent spread offense, like he did at Toledo, his previous employer. That might take a while, considering there aren’t a lot of proven receivers. However, the spotlight still shines on Scheelhaase, who some say is just as dangerous with his feet as he is with his arm.

2012 SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 Western Michigan*

Sept. 8 at Arizona State*

Sept. 15 Charleston Southern*

Sept. 22 Louisiana Tech*

Sept. 29 Penn State*

Oct. 6 at Wisconsin*

Oct. 13 at Michigan*

Oct. 27 Indiana

Nov. 3 at Ohio State*

Nov. 10 Minnesota*

Nov. 17 Purdue*

Nov. 24 at Northwestern*

Opponents’ winning <JU>percentage: .524

*2011 bowl participant<YR>

=====

INDIANA

Last year: 1-11, 0-8 in Big Ten

Coach: Kevin Wilson, 1-11 in first season

Key loss: Receiver Damarlo Belcher had to be coaxed into returning last season, then Wilson dismissed him from the team after six games. He still had had 25 catches for 286 yards and a touchdown.

Outlook: Playing true and redshirt freshmen last season will be a benefit in time, but not likely in 2012. A plethora of transfers will help, but perhaps not yet. The strength is starting quarterback Tre Roberson, who returns after completing 81 of 142 passes for 937 yards and three touchdowns. Seven starters return to a defense that allowed 37.3 points per game last season.

Player to watch: There’s still uncertainty whether Roberson will even start. Therefore, the offensive focus shifts to tailback Stephen Houston, who rushed for 802 yards last season, the school’s highest total since BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ 1,106 in 2003. Houston rushed well in big games — 151 yards against Northwestern, 135 against Wisconsin and 129 against Purdue.

2012 SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 Indiana State

Sept. 8 at Massachusetts

Sept. 15 Ball State

Sept. 29 at Northwestern*

Oct. 6 Michigan State*

Oct. 13 Ohio State*

Oct. 20 at Navy

Oct. 27 at Illinois*

Nov. 3 Iowa*

Nov. 10 Wisconsin*

Nov. 17 at Penn State*

Nov. 24 at Purdue*

Opponents’ winning — percentage: .573

*2011 bowl participant

=====

IOWA

Last year: 7-6, 4-4 in Big Ten

Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 96-66 in 13 seasons

Key loss: Tailback Marcus Coker transferred to Stony Brook after rushing for 1,384 yards, the second-best total in the conference. His supposed replacement, Jordan Canzeri, tore an ACL during spring workouts.

Outlook: New coordinators, two other new staffers. Transition. Some people are so uncertain how they will mesh that FCS school Northern Iowa is a trendy pick to upset the Hawkeyes in Iowa City. Iowa has no proven rusher, lost its record-breaking receiver and is shaky along the defensive line. However, the Hawkeyes play the “easy” schedule again, missing Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Player to watch: Whenever Ferentz decides it’s time for true freshman running back Greg Garmon to play, it probably won’t be soon enough for Hawkeye fans. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder rushed for 2,859 yards in three seasons at McDowell High School in Erie, Pa. He’s the gem of Iowa’s recruiting class in a spot short on experience.

2012 SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 No. Illinois (Chicago)*

Sept. 8 Iowa State*

Sept. 15 Northern Iowa

Sept. 22 Central Michigan

Sept. 29 Minnesota

Oct. 13 at Michigan State*

Oct. 20 Penn State*

Oct. 27 at Northwestern*

Nov. 3 at Indiana

Nov. 10 Purdue*

Nov. 17 at Michigan*

Nov. 23 Nebraska*

Opponents’ winning — percentage: .572

*2011 bowl participant

=====

MICHIGAN

Last year: 11-2, 6-2 in Big Ten

Coach: Brady Hoke, 11-2 in first season

Key loss: Nose tackle Mike Martin is among three linemen gone from last season’s solid defense. That unit gave up just 17.4 points a game, sixth nationally.

Outlook: A lot will be known after playing a nonconference schedule that includes defending national champion Alabama and a date at Notre Dame. After that, road tests against Nebraska and Ohio State await. If that’s not daunting enough, Michigan takes into those games its inexperienced defensive line. Thus, the offense could be called on to score more than the 33.3 points it averaged last season.

Player to watch: Quarterback Denard Robinson will be mentioned on many Heisman Trophy ballots after accumulating 3,349 yards last season — 1,176 rushing and 2,173 passing. They worked during the spring to improve on Robinson’s 55 percent passing rate, and that’s the focus this fall. Fitz Toussaint is good enough to be the team’s feature rusher.

2012 SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 Alabama (in Texas)*

Sept. 8 Air Force*

Sept. 15 Massachusetts

Sept. 22 at Notre Dame*

Oct. 6 at Purdue*

Oct. 13 Illinois*

Oct. 20 Michigan State*

Oct. 27 at Nebraska*

Nov. 3 at Minnesota

Nov. 10 Northwestern*

Nov. 17 Iowa*

Nov. 24 at Ohio State*

Opponents’ winning <JU>percentage: .512

*2011 bowl participant<YR>

=====

MICHIGAN STATE

Last year: 11-3, 7-1 in Big Ten

Coach: Mark Dantonio, 44-22 in six seasons

Key loss: Quarterback Kirk Cousins completed 267 of 419 passes for 3,316 yards and 25 touchdowns last season and just more than 9,000 yards during an outstanding career. Furthermore, there are inexperienced receivers.

Outlook: Negatives aside, Michigan State’s defense will remain a strength. The unit allowed just 18.4 points a game, just more than 100 rushing yards a game and less than 200 passing yards. Headliners include defensive end William Gholston and linebacker Denicos Allen, who combined for 16 sacks last season. The Spartans will be tested by Boise State and Notre Dame even before opening the league schedule against Ohio State.

Player to watch: Tailback LeVeon Bell rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns but didn’t start until midway through the fall. He did it despite a young offensive line, and they must do it again while the Spartans transition from Cousins. Bell is the most seasoned offensive threat.

2012 SCHEDULE

Aug. 31 Boise State*

Sept. 8 at Central Michigan

Sept. 15 Notre Dame*

Sept. 22 Eastern Michigan

Sept. 29 Ohio State*

Oct. 6 at Indiana

Oct. 13 Iowa*

Oct. 20 at Michigan*

Oct. 27 at Wisconsin*

Nov. 3 Nebraska*

Nov. 17 Northwestern*

Nov. 24 at Minnesota

Opponents’ winning <JU>percentage: .539

*2011 bowl participant<YR>

=====

MINNESOTA

Last year: 3-9, 2-6 in Big Ten

Coach: Jerry Kill, 3-9 in first season

Key loss: Receiver Da’Jon McKnight caught 51 passes for 760 yards and four touchdowns — not great statistics — but he had 36 more than anyone else on the team.

Outlook: Minnesota is expected to battle Northwestern for last in the Legends Division. It’s a young team, probably a year away from contending for a low-tier bowl game. The receivers are fast, maybe the quickest in the league, but only one has a touchdown. The Gophers missed far too many tackles last season. Considering the youth, that could again be a problem. Troy Stoudermire should remain of the league’s top kick returners.

Player to watch: The Gophers again will heavily rely on quarterback MarQueis Gray. After rushing for 966 yards and six touchdowns, Gray’s focus has been on improving his passing game. The senior completed 108 of 213 passes for a not-so-splashy 50.7 percent. He also pitched as many interceptions (eight) as touchdowns.

2012 SCHEDULE

Aug. 30 at UNLV

Sept. 8 New Hampshire

Sept. 15 Western Michigan*

Sept. 22 Syracuse

Sept. 29 at Iowa*

Oct. 13 Northwestern*

Oct. 20 at Wisconsin*

Oct. 27 Purdue*

Nov. 3 Michigan*

Nov. 10 at Illinois*

Nov. 17 at Nebraska*

Nov. 24 Michigan State*

Opponents’ winning <JU>percentage: .587

*2011 bowl participant<YR>

=====

NEBRASKA

Last year: 9-4, 5-3 in Big Ten

Coach: Bo Pelini, 39-16 in four seasons

Key loss: Lavonte David shook off enough blockers to lead the Huskers’ defense. The linebacker, now with Tampa Bay, had 133 tackles, 5½ sacks, eight tackles for loss and two interceptions.

Outlook: No one will question the offense, especially a rushing attack that returns mostly intact after averaging 217.2 yards a game, 15th nationally. How the defense holds up — minus David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard — is the question. At least that unit has four nonconference games before facing the tough Big Ten opening act of Wisconsin and at Ohio State.

Player to watch: Add Taylor Martinez to the Big Ten’s impressive list of experienced quarterbacks. The junior completed 162 of 288 passes for 2,089 yards last season and rushed for 874 yards. The offense revolves around him and 1,300-yard rushing tailback Rex Burkhead. Martinez must improve his performance in the pocket and his leadership quality, both questionable in 2011.

2012 SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 Southern Mississippi*

Sept. 8 at UCLA*

Sept. 15 Arkansas State*

Sept. 22 Idaho State

Sept. 29 Wisconsin*

Oct. 6 at Ohio State*

Oct. 20 at Northwestern*

Oct. 27 Michigan*

Nov. 3 at Michigan State*

Nov. 10 Penn State*

Nov. 17 Minnesota

Nov. 23 at Iowa*

Opponents’ winning — percentage: .599

*2011 bowl participant

=====

NORTHWESTERN

Last year: 6-7, 3-5 in Big Ten

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 40-36 in six seasons

Key loss: Receivers Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore are in the NFL after going 1-2 in Wildcat receiving last season. They combined for 120 catches and 17 touchdowns.

Outlook: A consistent rushing game will take pressure off the quarterback and translate to a fifth bowl game in a row. That can be accomplished if Mike Trumpy has recovered from ACL surgery and if Treyvon Green stays healthy. The offense must perform, because the defense is in transition. There are holes in the secondary — not good when in a conference of experienced quarterbacks.

Player to watch: Kain Colter spent the offseason learning the finer points of the spread offense, becoming a pass-first quarterback who takes advantage of talented receivers. Colter passed for 673 yards as a backup, rushed for 654 yards and even caught 43 passes for 466 yards. He had 18 touchdowns during his do-it-all season, a number he could easily reach again.

2012 SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 at Syracuse

Sept. 8 Vanderbilt*

Sept. 15 Boston College

Sept. 22 South Dakota

Sept. 29 Indiana

Oct. 6 at Penn State*

Oct. 13 at Minnesota

Oct. 20 Nebraska*

Oct. 27 Iowa*

Nov. 10 at Michigan*

Nov. 17 at Michigan State*

Nov. 24 Illinois*

Opponents’ winning — percentage: .477

*2011 bowl participant

=====

OHIO STATE

Last year: 6-7, 3-5 in Big Ten

Coach: Urban Meyer, first season

Key loss: Sixteen starters return, including a kicker and a punter. Therefore, replacing significant players won’t be a problem. The biggest adjustment, though, will be transitioning to a new coaching staff.

Outlook: Don’t give up on the Buckeyes just because they’re not eligible for the postseason. There’s plenty of talent using that ban as motivation to spoil opponents’ hope. Ohio State plays the toughest schedule in the Big Ten — a slate that includes Michigan State, Nebraska and Michigan from the Legends Division. A bevy of new coaches includes offensive coordinator Tom Herman, formerly at Iowa State.

Player to watch: If the Buckeyes are to build on last year’s six-win season, then quarterback Braxton Miller must improve. He completed 85 of 157 passes for 1,159 yards, and he wasn’t used nearly as much as he will be in 2012. Meyer needs to take advantage of Miller’s glossy ratio of 13 touchdown passes to just four interceptions.

2012 SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 Miami (Ohio)

Sept. 8 Central Florida

Sept. 15 California*

Sept. 22 Alabama-Birmingham

Sept. 29 at Michigan State*

Oct. 6 Nebraska*

Oct. 13 at Indiana

Oct. 20 Purdue*

Oct. 27 at Penn State*

Nov. 3 Illinois*

Nov. 17 at Wisconsin*

Nov. 24 Michigan*

Opponents’ winning — percentage: .552

*2011 bowl participant

=====

PENN STATE

Last year: 9-4, 6-2 in Big Ten

Coach: Bill O’Brien, first season

Key Loss: Silas Redd’s abandoning the Nittany Lions’ scandal-ridden ship left a big void at tailback. He rushed for 1,241 yards on 244 carries last year and was going to be the featured offensive performer again in the absence of a proven passer.

Outlook: Little was expected in O’Brien’s first year as the coach even before the NCAA sanctions. He’s an offensive guy, but the quarterback situation is so uncertain that USA Today called it Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden playing hot potato before Bolden also left. The secondary is basically untested. The offensive line? See secondary. It’s going to be a rough year in Happy Valley.

Player to watch: Linebacker Mike Mauti tried to rally his teammates into staying, and he became a spokesman for the players after word spread that some planned to transfer. With an uncertain offense, Mauti’s defense must exceed his continued Penn State <JU>loyalty.

2012 SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 Ohio*

Sept. 8 at Virginia*

Sept. 15 Navy

Sept. 22 Temple*

Sept. 29 at Illinois*

Oct. 6 Northwestern*

Oct. 20 at Iowa*

Oct. 27 Ohio State*

Nov. 3 at Purdue*

Nov. 10 at Nebraska*

Nov. 17 Indiana

Nov. 24 Wisconsin*

Opponents’ winning — percentage: .551

*2011 bowl participant

=====

PURDUE

Last year: 7-6, 4-4 in Big Ten

Coach: Danny Hope, 16-21 in three seasons

Key loss: Linebacker Joe Holland provided four-year consistency, accumulating career totals of 324 tackles, including 23 for loss. Last season, he added his third interception to a solid resume.

Outlook: Quarterback Caleb TerBush returns to lead a team expected to be improved from last season. They’re full of confidence after winning three of their last four games. The loss was against Iowa, and one of the wins was in overtime against Ohio State. Furthermore, there’s no Michigan State or Nebraska on the schedule. However, there still remains a significant lack of depth at most positions.

Player to watch: They’re hoping running back Akeem Shavers picks up where he left off, especially with the status of 600-yard rusher Ralph Bolden still uncertain after undergoing ACL surgery. Shavers was the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl MVP after rushing for 149 yards against Western Michigan. His opportunity could arise again in 2012.

2012 SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 Eastern Kentucky

Sept. 8 at Notre Dame*

Sept. 15 Eastern Michigan

Sept. 29 Marshall*

Oct. 6 Michigan*

Oct. 13 Wisconsin*

Oct. 20 at Ohio State*

Oct. 27 at Minnesota

Nov. 3 Penn State*

Nov. 10 at Iowa*

Nov. 17 at Illinois*

Nov. 24 Indiana

Opponents’ winning — percentage: .562

*2011 bowl participant

=====

WISCONSIN

Last year: 11-3, 6-2 in Big Ten

Coach: Bret Bielema, 60-19 in six seasons

Key loss: Senior quarterback Russell Wilson made a gigantic splash after transferring from North Carolina State, completing 225 of 309 passes for 3,175 yards and 33 touchdowns against just four interceptions.

Outlook: The Badgers can make a strong case for winning their third Big Ten title in a row if newcomer quarterback Danny O’Brien can come close to matching Wilson’s totals. O’Brien is a Maryland transfer who has a strong supporting cast, and that can be said for the defense, too. The strength there is at linebacker, where Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were the league’s top two tacklers.

Player to watch: Unless something bad happens, tailback Montee Ball will be among the finalists. He rushed for 1,923 yards and 39 touchdowns while averaging 6.3 yards a carry last season. That total could increase, considering he’s running behind a more experienced line, and because there’s less quarterback focus.

2012 SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 Northern Iowa

Sept. 8 at Oregon State

Sept. 15 Utah State*

Sept. 22 Texas-El Paso

Sept. 29 at Nebraska*

Oct. 6 Illinois*

Oct. 13 at Purdue*

Oct. 20 Minnesota

Oct. 27 Michigan State*

Nov. 10 at Indiana

Nov. 17 Ohio State*

Nov. 24 at Penn State*

Opponents’ winning percentage: .534

*2011 bowl participant

==========

MUST-SEE CONFERENCE & NONCONFERENCE GAMES

Michigan State at Michigan

When: Oct. 20

The Skinny: They’re picked to finish 1-2 (you determine the order) in the Big Ten Conference’s Legends Division, but that’s just part of the allure. Michigan State has won the past four games in this storied rivalry, and this game is at Michigan Stadium. Keep an eye on this statistic: The team with the most rushing yards usually wins this intrastate rivalry game.

Boise State at Michigan St.

When: Aug. 31

The Skinny: It’ll be the first time the teams have met, and just because Boise State trots out a new quarterback is no reason to believe the Bowl Championship Series-busting Broncos will be so-so.

It’s a momentum-building game for the winner. It’s also a chance for the Spartans to show on a Friday night stage just how good they can be this year.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Randy Peterson: Randy Peterson covers college football, college basketball and the Iowa Cubs for the Des Moines Register. Randy can be reached at randypeterson@dmreg.com or on Twitter via @RandyPete View author profile.

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