Spring football primer: Burning questions for each Big Ten team
|Big Ten spring practice dates|
Some of the nation's power conferences will be defined by parity this fall. The Big Ten likely won't be one of them. Ohio State, coming off a sanction-shortened undefeated campaign in coach Urban Meyer's debut season, is the overwhelming favorite to reach Pasadena -- either on Jan. 1 or Jan. 6. Only a couple of teams have enough overall talent to challenge the Buckeyes, archrival Michigan chief among them.
But after a generally dreadful 2012 season for the conference, every program has room for improvement. Michigan will try to return to BCS form, while Illinois will aim to win a Big Ten game. Three-time conference champ Wisconsin will seek to maintain its recent consistency without totally reinventing itself under new coach Gary Andersen, while Northwestern will look to build off its best season in 17 years under firmly entrenched coach Pat Fitzgerald. As everyone tries to keep pace with the Buckeyes, here are the questions facing each Big Ten squad this spring.
• Illinois: Is Tim Beckman the right man for the Illini? Yes, this is the exact same question that led last year's spring questions. Beckman did nothing to provide an encouraging answer during a nightmarish 2-10 debut season in which seven of the Illini's eight Big Ten losses came by at least two touchdowns. This year's spring goals will include improving an offense that averaged just 11.8 points in conference play, replacing veteran defensive linemen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence and building better overall depth. The Illini welcomed 10 early enrollees this winter, including five juco transfers. Beckman has said he's counting on the transfers, including offensive lineman Dallas Hinkhouse and defensive tackle Abe Cajuste, to fill voids at key positions. Meanwhile, former Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit takes over as offensive coordinator and will look to resurrect a unit that grossly underperformed relative to the playmakers on hand.
• Indiana: Will this be IU's breakout season? After a disastrous 1-11 campaign in Kevin Wilson's debut season, the Hoosiers were more competitive in 2012, winning two conference games and taking Ohio State to the wire in an unexpected 52-49 shootout. Indiana returns 19 starters from that team, tied for the most in the country according to Phil Steele. That doesn't include former starting quarterback Tre Roberson, who played just two games last season before breaking his leg but has been cleared to return for spring drills. Roberson, Cameron Coffman (2,734 passing yards last season) and Nate Sudfeld will begin competing for the starting job this spring. The Hoosiers may finally be developing the type of explosive offense many envisioned when Wilson arrived from Oklahoma, but to truly turn things around, Wilson needs to start seeing improvement from a defense that ranked 103rd nationally last year.
• Iowa: Can Kirk Ferentz restore confidence? Coming off his first losing season (4-8) in 12 years and now four years removed from producing a great team (the 2009 squad that won 11 games and reached the Orange Bowl), Iowa's 15th-year coach might be fretting his job security if not for the mammoth contract he signed in 2006, which makes it financially implausible to fire him. However, Ferentz did fire his running backs and receivers coaches after Iowa fielded the nation's 114th-ranked offense under first-year coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa will welcome back several key players beset by injuries last season, including running back Damon Bullock and offensive linemen Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal, but will need to find a replacement for quarterback James Vandenberg. Sophomores Jake Rudock and Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard will compete for the job.
• Michigan: Will Michigan finally run the Michigan offense? Head coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges are pro-style proponents who spent the better part of two seasons straying from their preferred offense to accommodate talented but erratic passer Denard Robinson. But Wolverines fans got a glimpse of the future last season when a more accurate Devin Gardner stepped in for an injured Robinson and started the final five games. Though Michigan lost, Gardner left a strong final impression by throwing three touchdowns against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. "We're not completely changing our offense," Borges told the Detroit Free Press. "You saw a closer version of it toward the end of the season. But to say we're going to be an 80-percent spread team like we were early last year, a lot of that's going to go by the wayside." Much of Michigan's identity, however, will depend on its ability to replace three starting linemen. Touted redshirt freshman tackle Kyle Kalis and sophomore Jack Miller will begin competing for spots in the spring.
• Michigan State: Is Tresselball the answer? Michigan State's descent from 11-3 in 2011 to 7-6 last season was puzzling, but a tad deceiving. Behind another dominant defense, the Spartans actually finished as the 16th best team in Football Outsiders' S&P+ efficiency ratings. Michigan State suffered five losses by four points or fewer last year, meaning coach Mark Dantonio needs to revive an offense that averaged just 4.88 yards per play. Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook, who led the game-winning drive in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win over TCU, will get a chance to unseat senior Andrew Maxwell, who struggled much of last season. But it's going to take more than a quarterback change to fix that side of the ball. To that end, Dantonio has reportedly decided that Jim Bollman, who was Ohio State's offensive coordinator and line coach for 10 years under Jim Tressel, is the answer. That means the Spartans' buttoned-up attack could actually become even more conservative this year.
• Minnesota: Can the Gophers build on their bowl effort? While Minnesota lost last December's Meineke Car Care Bowl to Texas Tech in heartbreaking fashion -- blowing a fourth-quarter lead to lose 34-31 on a last-second field goal -- the Gophers' overall performance provided reasons for optimism. An offense that struggled mightily during a 6-6 regular season ground out 222 rushing yards, and freshman quarterback Philip Nelson threw for two touchdowns. Now, with 10 returning starters, third-year coach Jerry Kill should expect continued offensive improvement. Nelson, who took over midway through the season, will fight to retain his job during spring competition. But the Gophers have a chance to truly surprise on defense; eight starters return from a unit that finished in the upper half of the conference.
• Nebraska: Can Bo Pelini break the four-loss barrier? No coach in the country has been more consistent than Pelini, who has lost exactly four games in each of his five seasons at Nebraska. Last year marked his third 10-win season and third division title, but if some Nebraska fans were starting to get restless, last December's embarrassing 70-31 Big Ten title game loss to 7-5 Wisconsin presumably got them fuming. There's still plenty to like about the Huskers, starting with the return of quarterback Taylor Martinez and speedy tailback Ameer Abdullah. But in order to take the next step and notch the school's first BCS bowl berth in 12 years, Pelini needs to restore confidence in a defense that got run over at times in 2012.
• Northwestern: Is Indianapolis a realistic goal for the 'Cats? After finally ending its 63-year bowl victory drought and notching a 10-win season for the first time since 1995, coach Fitzgerald's program needs to set its sights on a new milestone. A Legends Division title seems like the logical candidate. The goal isn't implausible, given that Northwestern returns 15 starters from a team that held double-digit leads in the three games it lost last season (against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan). And Fitzgerald will make sure complacency doesn't rear its head. But the continued success of quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark -- who combined to average 173.9 rushing yards per game -- will depend on how well the Wildcats replace three starting offensive linemen. Similarly, the defensive line -- a surprisingly disruptive unit in 2012 -- must fill the void left by end Quentin Wiliams and tackle Brian Arnfelt.
• Ohio State: Will a few 2012 recruits make the difference in '13? Ohio State's defense struggled at times last season, but it jelled by the end of its 12-0 campaign. Only four starters return, led by standout linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby, but that doesn't mean the Buckeyes will start from scratch. Meyer made it a priority upon arriving in Columbus to beef up the Buckeyes' defensive line, landing lauded 2012 prospects Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt. All three played as freshmen last season and will be counted on to help replace departed All-Americas John Simon and Johnathan Hankins and veteran Nathan Williams. With Braxton Miller set to lead an experienced offense, the development of a few elite defenders will likely determine whether Meyer's program can live up to its gargantuan expectations and contend for a BCS title berth this fall.
• Penn State: Can Bill O'Brien keep the chemistry cooking? The 2012 Nittany Lions weathered an avalanche of preseason adversity to finish with a surprising 8-4 record thanks to the leadership of some fiercely loyal seniors (quarterback Matt McGloin, center Matt Stankiewitch, linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges chief among them). While the initial fervor has passed, the NCAA's sanctions will be felt more fully this season as O'Brien's program prepares for life with a 65-scholarship maximum (beginning in 2014). It's up to O'Brien to manage the personnel; it's up to the players to maintain the chemistry that was so evident among the 2012 roster. And both will be challenging, especially since numerous first- or second-year players will be counted on for significant playing time. That starts at quarterback, where sophomore Steven Bench and juco transfer Tyler Ferguson will compete this spring for McGloin's old job (five-star recruit Christian Hackenberg arrives this summer). Younger players will also be counted on heavily to fill holes throughout the defense.
• Purdue: Will Darrell Hazell re-energize West Lafayette? While the Boilers reached bowl games in each of the past two seasons, the four-year Danny Hope era was lacking for highlights, and fan interest declined throughout. Purdue's average attendance dropped to just 43,000 in 2012, which ended with a 58-14 thumping at the hands of Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Hazell, who improved Kent State from 5-7 to 11-3 in two years at the helm, doesn't have a massive rebuilding job on his hands. The coach placed an emphasis on speed at Kent, has an experienced dual-threat quarterback returning in Rob Henry and inherits several proven skill players who should contribute immediately. Even if an undermanned defense places a ceiling on Purdue's 2013 prospects, the faithful that long for the glory days of Joe Tiller will be appeased if the Boilers can at least start to put up some offensive fireworks.
• Wisconsin: What will the Badgers' offense look like? This is a question no one has had to ask about Wisconsin since at least 1990, when Barry Alvarez arrived and installed the Badgers' brand of power football. New coach Andersen hired Andy Ludwig as his offensive coordinator, and, at various stops, Ludwig has employed both spread (most notably for Utah's undefeated 2008 team) and pro-style (most recently at San Diego State) attacks. Ludwig has repeatedly reiterated that Wisconsin will continue to play "Wisconsin football" -- running frequently behind a big offensive line and setting up the play-action. But one clue that he might add a potential wrinkle came when the Badgers signed juco quarterback Tanner McEvoy, a former receiver turned running quarterback. For now, incumbent Curt Phillips, recently granted a sixth year of eligibility, likely retains the starting job, while veteran James White may finally become a feature back in Madison.