Big Ten Leaders Preview

BIG 10 LEADERS PREVIEW: BACK TO THE GRIDIRON FOR PENN STATE

To say it's been a horrible offseason for Penn State understates the reality and trivializes the tragedy. For better or worse, the Nittany Lions return to the field this week in hopes of rebuilding a program that just missed getting the death penalty. Some critics say the cumulative toll of the sanctions will prove to be even worse than the death penalty.

But, there are games to be played, talent assessments to be made, and Vegas pointspreads to consider for Penn State and the rest of a rebuilding Leaders Division of the Big 10. And, Penn State is just one of many stories that will be playing out with this group in the coming days and weeks:

  • Ohio State hired Urban Meyer in the offseason in hopes that the very successful head coach could get the Buckeyes back to the big time in short order. Preseason pollsters are giving him the benefit of the doubt even though he's taking over a team that was lucky to finish 6-7 amidst last year's soap opera.

  • Wisconsin is starting a transfer who graduated from another school at quarterback for the second straight year. Russell Wilson was solid last year. Danny O'Brien will try to follow in his footsteps. Will this be a new fad in college football? Recruiting other teams' graduates?!

  • Penn State hosts Ohio this Saturday in a game people will be watching just to get a sense of the mood and spirit of Happy Valley. The team did have some defections when the sanctions were announced. Nobody knows for sure whether that will devastate the program, or just slow it down this year. Vegas turned a couple of projected wins into losses on the regular season win totals. Will it be more?

Let's jump into our key indicator data for the final time this summer...

BIG 10 LEADERS

OHIO STATE
Athlon Ranking: 6th
2011 Total Offense: 107th
2011 Total Defense: 19th
Strength: Pass Defense (14th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (115th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 9 on defense
Head Coach: Urban Meyer
Notebook: We have a lot of respect for Urban Meyer. He did build programs instantly at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida. But, it has to be noted that Florida's fall from grace started under his leadership. He lost top assistants to other programs (particularly Dan Mullen to Mississippi State), and his offense had trouble moving the ball after Tim Tebow left. There's a chance that Ohio State fans are in for a disappointment...particularly on the side of the ball where they ranked 107th last year. We can't possibly justify a top 10 ranking yet for a team that averaged in the 60's last year. This was barely a bowl caliber team in 2011. A September slate of home games will help Meyer build his team before league play. If they don't impress vs. Miami of Ohio, Central Florida, and Cal, we're not going be laying points with them when the schedule picks up. Maybe Meyer gets the job done quickly. Or, maybe, this is the most overrated team in the country entering the season!

WISCONSIN
Athlon Ranking: 17th
2011 Total Offense: 14th
2011 Total Defense: 15th
Strength: Pass Defense (4th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (61st)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Brian Bielemma
Notebook: Bielemma made it official recently that Danny O'Brien would be the starting quarterback. That surprised nobody. Even if it's a gamble...it's a gamble that paid off for you last year so you might as well try it again. There's a lot of rebuilding on offense to worry about, which is why Wisconsin ranks as low as they do with Athlon. The track record of the team and coach suggest that they'll be in the thick of the race regardless of who's at quarterback. And, what's shaping up as a weak division got even easier when Penn State lost some players (Wiscy's season finale is on the road at Penn State). If Ohio State continues to struggle, Wisconsin may coast to the Division crown. What has to scare the Big 12 faithful though is the possibility that BOTH Ohio State and Wisconsin struggle in transition...making this an even weaker conference than it's been in recent seasons. We mentioned yesterday that you should typically add 10 spots to the Athlon rankings with this league. Volatility with Wiscy and Ohio State might make it even more in their cases.

PENN STATE
Athlon Ranking: 44th
2011 Total Offense: 95th
2011 Total Defense: 20th
Strength: Pass Defense (17th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (96th)
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 4 on defense
Head Coach: Bill O'Brien
Notebook: Penn State ranked 44th before talent defections, and some important players left (most notably their start running back. Coach O'Brien will do what he can in terms of pride and effort from those who are still wearing the colors. You should probably think of this team as ranking in the 50's or 60's until they show otherwise. The season opener against Ohio comes against a team ranked #59 by Athlon before the season started. Week Two at Virginia comes against #36 (which we think is a little high because the ACC is overrated too!). Those are legitimate tests that handicappers will learn a lot from. There's enough talent here to avoid a total meltdown. Is there enough to have a winning season? We're leaning "no" but we'll stay open-minded.

ILLINOIS
Athlon Ranking: 52nd
2011 Total Offense: 85th
2011 Total Defense: 7th
Strength: Pass Defense (3rd)
Weakness: Pass Offense (91st)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Tim Beckman
Notebook: Last year was an odd one for the Illini. They started 6-0 thanks to easy games against the likes of Arkansas State and South Dakota State. They finished 0-6 when the schedule got tougher. That 6-6 record earned them a bowl bid, where they snuck by UCLA in the Fight Hunger Bowl. That was the UCLA team that lost 50-0 to USC and got crushed by Oregon in a one-sided Pac 12 championship game. The stat rankings last year averaged in the mid 40's. Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhause returns for a team that's going to be pretty experienced by Big Ten standards. There's a chance Illinois will find itself in the Leaders mix if Ohio State and Wisconsin falter. Here's a rare team that may be better than its Athlon ranking! Not by much...but enough to matter against what's shaping up as an easy schedule in a fading division of an overrated conference.

PURDUE
Athlon Ranking: 53rd
2011 Total Offense: 71st
2011 Total Defense: 73rd
Strength: Rush Offense (33rd)
Weakness: Pass Offense (83rd)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Danny Hope
Notebook: Like Illinois, Purdue earned bowl eligibility by playing an easy schedule. Their average stat ranking in the low 70's does tell the story accurately. They were that bad in the big picture. Quarterback Caleb TerBush returns for a team that matches Illinois in experience. Athlon had those teams side by side for good reason! Whatever's true for Illinois is also true for Purdue. We'll learn a lot about the respective head coaches based on how these teams perform in what look to be very similar scenarios. A Week Two test at Notre Dame will be important. The Boilermakers lost at home to the Irish last year 38-10.

INDIANA
Athlon Ranking: 89th
2011 Total Offense: 83rd
2011 Total Defense: 109th
Strength: Pass Defense (47th)
Weakness: Rush Defense (118th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Kevin Wilson
Notebook: Indiana went 1-11 last year, with the only win coming against South Carolina State. That was the debut for Coach Wilson, and he was certainly trying to figure out who could play and who couldn't as he tried to build a program. We're likely to see three to four very feisty efforts from this group in 2012. You can try to pick those spots, or just leave the team alone altogether. An opening slate of Indiana State, UMASS, and Ball State could help the kids build confidence. It's tough to make things work at Indiana in the best of times. Wilson has a shot to make it happen. Look for progress this year, but probably not real success.

Kind of fitting that we have a bleak outlook for a division that had a cloud hanging over it through the offseason. Ohio State and Wisconsin could certainly bring in clear skies if they play up to the expectations of pundits. We're going to be more skeptical until we see what happens on the field. Network clients made good money fading Meyer at Florida when his time had passed. We're not automatically jumping on the Buckeyes bandwagon like so many others have.

One bandwagon YOU need to jump on is the one being driven by JIM HURLEY! The season is now just hours away. We have great rates that take you through the college bowls and NFL playoffs. Call 1-800-323-4453 for details. Be sure to ask about combination packages with baseball when you call. The pennant races are already burning up...and the busy schedule lets you try to win seven days a week instead of just weekends.

Thanks to all of you who have been with us since this summer series began. The research is done. The strategies have been mapped out. LET'S GO GET THE MONEY!

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