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March 19, 2013

Around the Big Ten: Spring power rankings

A look at the Big Ten power rankings heading into spring practice ...

1. Ohio State - Last Season: 12-0 (8-0)

Dynamo junior quarterback Braxton Miller headlines an explosive offense that returns seven starters, but the Buckeyes have a multitude of holes in the defensive front seven. Ohio State lost its entire defensive line and two starting linebackers, and need junior middle linebacker Ryan Shazier, who led the team with 115 tackles and 17 tackles for loss, to continue to grow as a leader in the center of the unit. The secondary, however, should be a strength for OSU, led by junior cornerback Bradley Roby, a second-team All-American in 2012.

2. Michigan - Last Season: 8-5 (6-2)

Redshirt junior signal call Devin Gardner is poised for a big season, which will be much needed amidst uncertainty surrounding both the running back and wide receiver spots. In addition, the return of redshirt senior Taylor Lewan solidifies an offensive line that should be infused by youth. Defensively, U-M will be spearheaded by a deep linebacker core, but will still be in search of true playmakers in the trenches and defensive backfield.

3. Nebraska - Last Season: 10-4 (7-1)

A strong spring is essential if the Cornhuskers are to erase the nightmares of an abysmal end of the 2012 season in which they were outscored 115-62 in losses to Georgia and Wisconsin. Still, Nebraska employs experienced playmakers on offense with senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, junior I back Ameer Abdullah and junior wide receiver Kenny Bell, all of whom should jumpstart NU's spread attack.

4. Northwestern - Last Season: 10-3 (5-3)

Northwestern returns 15 starters from a historic 2012 season. The versatile one-two punch of senior quarterback Kain Colter and senior running back Venric Mark should provide apt explosiveness from the backfield, leading to one of the more optimistic springs for NU in recent memory.

5. Wisconsin - Last Season: 8-6 (4-4)

The Badgers not only lost former head coach Bret Bielema during the offseason, but also the services of All-American running back Montee Ball, who accounted for 5,738 yards from scrimmage and 83 touchdowns in his collegiate career. The combination of senior James White and redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon will help mitigate a debilitating drop off in the backfield, but first-year boss Gary Andersen's team must decipher an uncertain quarterback situation that will have multiple constituents vying for the starting spot.

6. Penn State - Last Season: 8-4 (6-2)

Following one of the most emotionally-taxing seasons in NCAA history, a sense of normalcy should return to Happy Valley this spring. The Nittany Lions, however, lost a number of strong upperclassmen leaders to graduation, including quarterback Matt McGloin, and linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Sophomore quarterback Steven Bench has the most collegiate in Bill O'Brien's quarterback-centered offense, but freshman Christian Hackenberg, a five-star recruit, will also vie for the vacant quarterback position.

7. Michigan State - Last Season: 7-6 (3-5)

A Spartan offense that averaged just 359.3 yards per game and 20.0 points in 2012 is in search of workhorses after losing leading rusher Le'Veon Bell and impact tight end Dion Sims to the NFL Draft. Former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman is now in charge of the offense following the departure of much-maligned former offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who also moved on to the NFL. MSU, which relied heavily on its stout defense last year, was also stung by the early departure of stellar defensive end William Gholston and the graduation of several key defensive backs.

8. Minnesota - Last Season: 6-7 (2-6)

Minnesota made strides in its second year under head coach Jerry Kill despite a 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. The Gophers finished 12th in the nation in pass defense (186.6 yards per game), but lose cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as linebacker Keanon Cooper. Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson displayed signs of being the answer under center last season, but must improve this spring while forging a bond with an inexperienced wide receiver unit.

9. Indiana - Last Season: 4-8 (2-6)

Indiana has been effective offensively in head coach Kevin Wilson's first two seasons despite a revolving door at the quarterback position, but the Hoosiers have consistently struggled on defense. They finished last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (35.2 points per game) and total defense (463.5 yards per game), and will be void of graduated defensive line stalwarts Larry Black Jr. and Adam Replogle. Offensively, junior Cameron Coffman, and sophomores Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld all earned experience at quarterback last season but will need strong spring performances to capture the starting spot.

10. Iowa - Last Season: 4-8 (2-6)

Iowa's dreadful offense, which ranked 113th in the nation in scoring (19.3 points per game), was a primary cause of the program's disappointing 4-8 record. The Hawkeyes maintain a plethora of experience in the backfield, including junior running backs Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock, but must find someone to distribute the ball after the graduation of former quarterback James Vandenberg, who took every snap last season. Sophomore Jake Rudock is the odds-on-favorite to take over an Iowa passing game that threw just seven touchdowns last season, but has not yet locked up the position.

11. Purdue - Last Season: 6-7 (3-5)

The first spring under head coach Darrell Hazell will certainly be trying for Purdue. Senior quarterback Rob Henry, who appeared in 11 games last season, looks to be an early option in the quarterback battle but will be pushed by a pair of redshirt freshmen in Bilal Marshall and Austin Appelby. The loss of defensive tackle Kawann Short, who led the team with 17.0 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in 2012, will be a huge obstacle for the Boilermakers heading forward.

12. Illinois - Last Season: 2-10 (0-8)

Illinois hired former Western Michigan head coach Tim Cubit as the offensive coordinator to help reinvigorate a dismal offense, but it is the Illini defense that must supplant the loss of key playmakers in defensive end Michael Buchanan and defensive tackle Akeem Spence.


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