Big Ten ?Leaders? Preview



We begin our 2011 college football conference previews today with a look at the new Big Ten "Leaders" Division that features Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State. We'll continue tomorrow with the "Legends" division that is notable for the presence of Nebraska, Iowa, and the two Michigan schools. We're currently scheduled to work our way through the majors and mid-majors every weekend this summer. We'll do the Pac 10 next weekend since they've also expanded into two divisions. It's boring to start with the SEC every year just because they're the best! We'll pick up with the SEC in two weeks. Be sure you make plans to spend a bit of each weekend this summer with us right here in the NOTEBOOK.

Baseball coverage will dominate the Monday through Friday reports each week. And, of course, we'll be posting BIG JUICY WINNERS in baseball every day right here at the website. We hope you made a big score with us Thursday on JIM HURLEY'S great 4-0 day-night BOARD SWEEP.

To give our football reports some structure, we'll once again post the teams in the order they rank in Athlon's preseason annual. That's as good a source as any for reasonable expectations in a coming season. Market prices in Vegas are based on the perceptions that many gamblers get from these articles. We'll also look at stat rankings from last year to remind you of what was happening on the field with each team...and returning starters for this year so you can start making your plans on which "surprises" may develop.

Some interesting teams on the slate let's jump right in...


Athlon Ranking: 9th
2010 Total Offense: 14th
2010 Total Defense: 54th
Strength: Run Defense (3rd)
Weakness: Pass Offense (54th)
Returning Starters: ? on offense, 4 on defense
Head Coach: Luke Fickell (new)
Notebook: Athlon ranked Ohio State this high BEFORE Jim Tressell resigned, and BEFORE Terrelle Pryor decided to turn pro and start marketing his skills on one of those Jon Gruden TV clinics. It's amazing how many things Gruden found to compliment about a guy who led the 54th ranked pass offense the prior season...and whose accuracy comes and goes even when it isn't windy. Bad form, bad choices, a lack of experience with the style of offense pro teams use...yeah, let's spend an hour telling him how great he is! Anyway. Ohio State will definitely be dealing with a crisis in confidence with new head coach Luke Fickell and whoever ultimately wins the quarterback job. A manageable early season schedule will help get everyone settled in (though the September 17th trip to Miami of Florida will be a big test). And, there is a lot of talent here even if things won't be as fun as they used to be thanks to the NCAA spotlight. You saw how mortal USC looked once the kids weren't allowed to misbehave on any whim. We'll be watching September closely with team, and looking for spots to fade a struggling offense, or play Unders vs. quality opposition. Bad earthquakes lead ruins, no matter how strong the foundations were.  

Athlon Ranking: 23rd
2010 Total Offense: 21st
2010 Total Defense: 20th
Strength: Rush offense (12th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (75th)
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Bret Bielema
Notebook: This was originally going to be a bit of a rebuilding year for the Badgers. They only return 4 starters on offense, and they lost their quarterback. But, former NC State signal caller Russell Wilson's move to Madison (where he can start playing immediately) makes Wisconsin a serious threat to go far. And, this is the team that represented the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl last year. You can see that pass offense was a weakness in 2010. This will always be a beef and brawl type team because of their size and strength. If Wilson can improve the offense without making turnovers, these guys move past Ohio State as favorites in the division.

Athlon Ranking: 30th
2010 Total Offense: 68th
2010 Total Defense: 35th
Strength: Pass Defense (6th)
Weakness: Run Defense (74th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Joe Paterno
Notebook: There wasn't much to like about Penn State last year. They only moved the ball offensively against the worst defenses. The run defense was stunningly bad considering the history of the program. You still get to go to a good bowl game when you schedule Youngstown State, Kent State, and Temple in your tune-ups before a weak conference slate. This just wasn't a very good team in 2010. If you average the offensive and defense rankings, you get about 50th or so. This year there's some rebuilding to do...and a QB war between guys who couldn't move the ball vs. good defenses. A relatively easy early schedule (toughie vs. Alabama, but easy after that), could create some illusions for the Nittany Lions until a brutal November brings them back to reality (Nebraska, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin). We'll be looking to fade this team  unless they show us something vs. Alabama and early in league play.

Athlon Ranking: 32nd
2010 Total Offense: 45th
2010 Total Defense: 38th
Strength: Run Offense (11th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (111th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Ron Zook
Notebook: These guys were better than Penn State last year (beating them 33-13 on the road, and having better stat rankings). But, nobody wants to rank Zook over Paterno in a preseason annual. The "weakness" in pass offense is more a reflection of style than anything else. Freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhause scampered through opposing defenses and put points on the board. There's always an injury danger when you rely that much on your QB, so we'll be watching his health very closely this year. A very easy early schedule could have the Illini undefeated at midseason (if they can win a home game vs. Arizona State and stay reasonably focused in games that may not get their juices flowing). We'll have to see how the market handles that. This type of team can be underrated vs. tough schedules, but overrated vs. easy schedules. We were sure impressed by their 38-14 bowl win over Baylor last year in Houston. We see this team as 10-15 spots better nationally than Penn State, and will treat them as such in our early season handicapping.

Athlon Ranking: 64th
2010 Total Offense: 104th
2010 Total Defense: 62nd
Strength: Run Defense (43rd)
Weakness: Pass Offense (112th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 9 on defense
Head Coach: Danny Hope
Notebook: Last year was a disaster because of injuries. But, it's far from a sure thing that the team would have been any good if they had stayed healthy! September tune-us against Middle Tennessee, Rice, and Missouri State should help the team stay healthy and build confidence. Of course, since most of the Big Ten has scheduled soft, that won't really be a leg up on the field once league play begins. We like that Purdue returns nine starters on a defense that held it's own at the point of attack in a rushing conference. That could create good live dog potential late in the season. We'll let early results guide us with a team that probably has a long way to go before we'd trust them with a big Vegas bet.

Athlon Ranking: 84th
2010 Total Offense: 54th
2010 Total Defense: 90th
Strength: Pass Offense (14th)
Weakness: Run Offense (112th)
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Kevin Wilson (new)
Notebook: Look for things to open up significantly for the Hoosiers. Wilson was part of the Oklahoma offensive braintrust the past several years. That means creativity and an emphasis on speed will be noticed in short order in Bloomington. This year could be tough though with only four returning starters on offense and a new quarterback to break in. We rarely draw firm conclusions the summer before a program has big turnover like this. Sometimes the changes are dramatically for the better. Sometimes you have to take your lumps before figuring out who should be playing where. We'll watch the first two games against Ball State and Virginia closely. Indiana rarely gets respect in the line. If Wilson can inspire immediate improvement...the Hoosiers may show up on our card in league play come October.

In sum...we're looking at Wisconsin to make a serious run at the top given Ohio State's offseason woes, and possibly even Illinois surging up to make things interesting. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions will have to prove to us they deserve the respect they always get from oddsmakers. Purdue and Indiana are question a division that frankly has A LOT of question marks heading into 2011. Which teams are excited about a quarterback who returns? Only Illinois. Wisconsin is excited about a guy who hasn't played for them yet. Penn State has two guys who disappear the minute anyone gets excited about them. That's a volatile division from the July perspective.

Back tomorrow to look at Nebraska, Iowa, and the "Legends" division. Monday's baseball report will wrap up Interleague play. We have some great Interleague games for you up right now on the Saturday ticket. Matchups of interest today and tomorrow include: Yankees/Mets, White Sox/Cubs, Dodgers/Angels, Phillies/Blue Jays, Giants/Tigers, and Cardinals/Rays. Game day releases can always be purchased online with your credit card. Great rates are available for the rest of the season where you get the most bang for your buck.

If you're ready to make an early commitment for football, summer rates are available at 1-800-323-4453. As is always the case, the earlier you sign up, the more you save!



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