With the start of the college football season just days away, TheWolverine.com kicks off its weekly Big Ten power rankings ...
The incumbent conference title holders may have lost All-Big Ten quarterback Russell Wilson to graduation, but return one of the nation's top one-two running back punches with senior Montee Ball and junior James White. Veteran junior transfer Danny O'Brien should provide maturity at the quarterback position and the always-fundamentally sound Badgers have shown the propensity to win the slugfests necessary to capture another Big Ten crown.
The exceedingly high expectations for Brady Hoke's second year in office may be slightly sullied due to off-season off-the-field issues, as well as uncertainty and inexperience at the defensive line and wide receiver slots. Still, U-M possesses, arguably, the most electric player in college football in senior quarterback Denard Robinson. The Wolverines' quest for a trip to Indianapolis will also be aided by an experienced offensive line and a defensive backfield that returns all four starters from 2011.
3. Michigan State
The Spartans will be without four-year mainstay quarterback Kirk Cousins, and playmaking wide receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin, but return bruising junior running back Le'Veon Bell and look to have an offensive line that is in much better shape heading into the season than a year ago. Most importantly, Michigan State brings back eight defensive starters from an aggressive and effective defense that yielded a Big Ten-best 277.4 yards per game in 2011.
While junior quarterback Taylor Martinez and 2011 All-Big Ten senior I-Back Rex Burkhead will be the most visible players in Lincoln this year, a defense that loses immense talents in linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and defensive end Jared Crick must evolve if Nebraska is to meet the lofty expectations in its sophomore Big Ten campaign.
5. Ohio State
Urban Meyer may be best known for his offensive scheme and quarterback development, but it will be the defense that will be depended upon to navigate the Buckeyes this season. Senior defensive end John Simon and the rest of the Scarlet and Gray's talented defensive line should set the tone for a talented defense that must perform in order to allow young, but exceedingly athletic, sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller develop into Meyer's next dual-threat collegiate star.
The Hawkeyes proved to be an uncharacteristically pass-happy team in 2011 and, while they return senior quarterback James Vandenberg, lose All-Big Ten first team wide receiver Marvin McNutt to graduation. Head coach Kirk Ferentz welcomes former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis to his staff, but will need to compensate for a severely inexperienced ground attack without former star Marcus Coker, who transferred during the offseason. Defensively, Iowa will be anchored by an always-talented linebacking unit led by junior James Morris, who notched 110 tackles in 2011.
The Boilermakers look to improve upon a 7-6 record that led to their first bowl appearance under fourth-year head coach Danny Hope. Senior quarterback Caleb TerBush, who completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 1,905 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, and senior defensive tackle Kawann Short, who notched a career-best 54 tackles, 17.0 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, are true impact players in the conference and will be vital to success in West Lafayette. Purdue will be without its 2011 leading rusher in senior Ralph Bolden to start the year following a late season ACL tear, but return one of the conference's elite defensive backs in junior cornerback Ricardo Allen - who looks to lead an improving defense under first-year coordinator Tim Tibesar.
8. Penn State
For the first time since 1966, the Nittany Lions will be under the direction of a new head man in Bill O'Brien. In addition to the off the field issues that have publicly plagued the program throughout the off season, Penn State must replace a bevy of key players that left the program over the summer, including leading rusher Silas Redd, who transferred to USC after rushing for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns last season, and 2011 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still, who moved on to the NFL. The defense should provide some stability, but the onus will be on an offense that averaged only 19.3 points a game a year ago.
The post-Dan Persa era starts for Northwestern in 2012, but junior quarterback Kain Colter displayed signs of being an efficient replacement last season when filling in for an injured Persa. Pat Fitzgerald's squad will find themselves inexperienced at a multitude of other positions, however, as they bring back only 10 total starters - five apiece on both offense and defense - and will have to rely upon youth to reinvigorate a defense that gave up 409.5 yards per game and 6.13 yards per play in 2011.
Illinois appeared to be a potential force in the conference in 2011 following a 6-0 start, but collapsed down the stretch, losing its final six Big Ten games. In his first year at the helm in Champaign, head coach Tim Beckman needs senior defensive end Michael Buchanan and junior linebacker Jonathan Brown to lead a defense that will be depended upon to carry a team hoping to reverse the downward spiral. Offensively, junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase needs to carry the load in his third year as a collegiate starter despite the departure of former All-Big Ten wide reciever A.J. Jenkins.
If Minnesota is to bounce back from a 2011 season that was unstable both inside and outside of the hashmarks, lively senior quarterback MarQueis Gray must have a breakout season. Unfortunately for the Gophers, they lack playmakers on both sides of the ball - especially in a rush attack which doesn't even return a 250-yard rusher from a year ago. Senior defensive back Troy Stoudermire should help the confidence of a defense that yielded over 30 points a game last year, but second-year head coach Jerry Kill needs a throng of unproven athletes to step up if his team is to defy the odds and stay in the conference race late into the year.
The Kevin Wilson era got off to a sluggish start with a 1-11 record in 2011, but the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator has his squad heading in the right direction. Still, Indiana is several years away from playing meaningful late-season games, and their 2012 success revolves heavily around talented but inexperienced sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson. The Hoosiers return more starters than any other Big Ten team (19) but still need to prove that their returning players have the ability to help them crawl out of the conference's cellar.