Big Ten Legends Preview

BIG 10 LEGENDS PREVIEW: MICHIGAN FAVORED TO WIN WIDE OPEN DIVISION

We decided during the summer to save the Big 10 previews for the very last sessions or our preview series. Clearly, there were big stories developing at Penn State that would take weeks to play themselves out (you can't preview a team before you know who's transferred!). Plus, the conference would be front and center in two VERY big TV games in the first week of the regular season.

Friday: Michigan State hosts Boise State
Saturday: Michigan plays Alabama in Cowboys Stadium

What a great way to bridge from previews to actual football! We wrap up our summer previews with a look at the teams you'll be watching in a matter of days in some of the most important games of the whole season.

Both Michigan State and Michigan are in the Legends Division...so we'll start with that group today, then finish with the Leaders Division tomorrow (Ohio State, Wisconsin, etc...). This Legends Division could get very interesting. In fact, it's possible that early season guesses about many of the teams may be off by as many as 10 spots.

  • Michigan, a top 10 team in the polls (and a #1 team according to one pollster) has to rebuild both their offense and defensive lines...and they weren't as good as their record last year once you dig down deep into the stats.
  • Michigan State has a brand new quarterback, and only four starters back on offense. They're projected in the teens...but could be better or worse than that.
  • Nebraska has been getting a lot of respect from pundits. We can't figure out why given how badly the team flunked multiple tests last season. Yes, they do return experience...experience from players who flopped when it most mattered in '11
  • Iowa has drifted down to longshot status. But, Kirk Frerentz is rarely as good or as bad as people are saying. Are they really barely a top 50 team this year?

That leaves Northwestern and Minnesota...who usually aren't in the Big 10 title discussion but who could each jump up and bite some people this season.

Let's jump right in with our key indicator stats, with one eye on this week's big games and the other on the full season outlook.

BIG 10 LEGENDS

MICHIGAN
Athlon Ranking: 7th
2011 Total Offense: 42nd
2011 Total Defense: 17th
Strength: Rush Offense (13th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (93rd)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Brady Hoke
Notebook: Things are definitely moving in the right direction under Hoke. Just be careful assuming that he's brought Michigan ALL the way back. They were out-statted very badly in a lucky Sugar Bowl win over uninspiring Virginia Tech...and their regular season finale win over Ohio State was more of a sweat-er than it was supposed to be. Michigan's stat rankings averaged around 30...and it's odd for a team to jump all the way to top 10 the next year when having to rebuild their lines! We like Denard Robinson, though he fell back to earth some last year. We love Brady Hoke. And, we're okay with anybody who says the Wolverines have a slightly better chance than the Legends field to reach the Big 10 title tilt. Just don't go overboard. It will be very tough to hang physically with Alabama over four quarters with so many newcomers at the point of attack. Remember, this was a team that was bullied at the point of attack last year by Virginia Tech when they were experienced.

NEBRASKA
Athlon Ranking: 14th
2011 Total Offense: 66th
2011 Total Defense: 37th
Strength: Rush Offense (15th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (104th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Bo Pelini
Notebook: So, a team that lost to Wisconsin 48-17, Michigan 45-17, and South Carolina 30-13 is now one of the best 15 teams in the country? Their stat rankings averaged around 50 last year and it wasn't a brutal schedule by any stretch. Taylor Martinez can't play from behind, and has real trouble performing vs. quality opposition. The non-conference schedule is manageable...and Big 10 teams have learned how to pad their records in a way that still tricks the media. YOU can't fall for those tricks. We can see backing these guys at home, particularly against road teams with shaky quarterbacks. We will fade them on the road against teams who won't be bullied.

MICHIGAN STATE
Athlon Ranking: 18th
2011 Total Offense: 56th
2011 Total Defense: 6th
Strength: Pass Defense (11th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (78th)
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 8 on defense
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio
Notebook: There are eight starters back on a defense that ranked 6th nationally last year. That gives the team a puncher's chance to have another big season even if the new quarterback is in over his head. You can't really make any confident predictions about this team until you see what the new-look offense is capable of. We're thinking about the Under in Boise State/Michigan State this week because both teams have physical defenses and new starting quarterbacks. We'll learn what we can from that game and the September 15th meeting with Notre Dame before charting out a likely path through the Big Ten slate. Games with Ohio State and Nebraska are at home this season...but the Spartans must travel to Michigan and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks in late October.

NORTHWESTERN
Athlon Ranking: 49th
2011 Total Offense: 34th
2011 Total Defense: 80th
Strength: Pass Offense (38th)
Weakness: Rush Defense (84th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald
Notebook: Last year, Northwestern lost to Army but won at Nebraska. Typical up-and-down stuff from a team that just doesn't have the athletes to compete at peak performance 12 times in a season. That means you continue to pick your spots as live dogs...but be careful asking them to do too much as favorites. They'll be breaking in a new quarterback this season. But...this team is so similar year in and year out that you can probably assume a typical Wildcat campaign. They could step up if teams in front of them falter. And, they got a gift from the schedule maker because they miss both Ohio State and Wisconsin from the other division this year. Heck, the first seven games are all not only winnable...but the team should be embarrassed with 4-3! Teams like this often trick ESPN into hyping them in the first half of the season before they lay eggs in November. That's the most reasonable expectation right now.

IOWA
Athlon Ranking: 50th
2011 Total Offense: 76th
2011 Total Defense: 60th
Strength: Pass Defense (58th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (79th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Kirk Frerentz
Notebook: We've spent so many years blasting Frerentz here in the NOTEBOOK that it's kind of odd to be defending him. Has the program really sunk so low that #50 is where you should put them in the summer? It wasn't that long ago that Athlon was sticking them in the top 10 and we'd be going nuts about it. Last year's stat rankings were poor. There weren't any quality wins. And, the 31-14 bowl loss to barely interested Oklahoma was ugly. An easy September schedule should help the Hawkeyes work their way into reasonable form in league play. And, they also dodge both Ohio State and Wisconsin from the other half. We'll look at some live dog spots on the road against Michigan State and Michigan. The best we can do now is to warn you against falling in love with either Northwestern or Minnesota at the midway point if they have strong records vs. weak schedules. Pollsters are dying to get as many Big Ten teams as they can into the top 25 for some reason!

MINNESOTA
Athlon Ranking: 62nd
2011 Total Offense: 110th
2011 Total Defense: 77th
Strength: Pass Offense (109th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (49th)
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Jerry Kill
Notebook: The Gophers do return their starting quarterback. But, since the offense ranked 110th last year, that's not necessarily a good thing. The stat rankings from '11 are abysmal considering teams like New Mexico State and North Dakota State were on the schedule (both losses). This is a team that's capable of catching opponents napping...and they did play better in the last half of the schedule. We can't buy where Athlon has them given the average stat ranking in the 90's. We've said in the past that it's a good rule of thumb to knock at least 10 spots off the Athlon rankings for this conference. Now that we've finished a division, it seems like an appropriate time to post a reminder! It's tough to move from losing to New Mexico State and North Dakota State one year all the way up to top 65 the next. We'll stay skeptical until results change our minds.

That wraps up our look at the Legends. The Leaders with Ohio State, Wisconsin, and a Penn State discussion that can't be pushed back any further will run tomorrow. We hope you've been printing out all of these previews this summer so you can refer to them once the games begin this week. If you didn't do that, there's still time! Go through the archives to get weekend reports on the mid-majors in July, and weekend reports on the majors in August.

Those of you who have been waiting for the regular season to arrive before signing up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK need to sign up NOW! The games begin for real this Thursday with South Carolina/Vandy highlighting the opening night card...leading into Boise State/Michigan State and Michigan/Alabama the next few nights. Call the office at 1-800-323-4453 for more information on our packages. You can always try things out on a day-to-day basis right here at the website. Game day selections go up a few hours before kickoff.

See you tomorrow to finish off the Big Ten!

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