Big Ten Conference officials went to great pains a year ago to make the Legends and Leaders divisions as competitively balanced as possible.
But heading into the second season of the two football divisions, the power appears to have shifted toward the Legends.
A case could be made the three top teams reside in that division. Michigan won the Sugar Bowl last season and has enjoyed a revival under second-year coach Brady Hoke. Michigan State has back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in school history. And now that Nebraska has gone through its first Big Ten season, the Cornhuskers are talking about being national title contenders.
“I think our division is one of the hardest in the country,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said in a Big Ten teleconference last week focusing on spring practices.
Whether it stays that way remains to be seen. The only constant in the Big Ten these days is change. For the second straight year, the Big Ten has three new coaches, and they are all in the Leaders — Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Penn State’s Bill O’Brien and Illinois’ Tim Beckman.
It’s not just the coaches that are changing. Only four Big Ten schools — Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern and Minnesota — have the same coach and coordinators as they did in 2011.
One thing that never changes during spring football practices is the optimism about the upcoming season.
“This year may be the year a team from the Big Ten makes it all the way, overtakes the SEC as national champion,” Ohio State fullback Zach Boren said.
The Southeastern Conference has won six straight national titles and put two teams in the Bowl Championship Series title game last season. That streak won’t be easy to break.
But the most notable change in the Big Ten this offseason was the hiring of Meyer, who won two national titles in six years at Florida. Meyer already has ruffled feathers in the Big Ten and his recruiting tactics have been criticized by other coaches, most notably the University of Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema.
That has added another intriguing layer to the growing rivalry between UW and Ohio State. The Badgers knocked off the top-ranked Buckeyes during a festive night in Madison two years ago. Ohio State reciprocated last season, winning on a long touchdown pass with 20 seconds left, as its fans storming the field.
“I think (the rivalry) is a good thing,” Bielema said. “Ohio State has done a lot of great things and will continue to do so. I have a lot of respect for their program, always will.”
Ohio State had its string of six straight titles snapped last season when it finished 6-7. The Buckeyes don’t figure to be down long under Meyer. But they are ineligible for the Big Ten championship and a bowl game this season due to NCAA sanctions.
As successful as Meyer has been, there also will likely be at least a brief transition period.
“Some of those guys are in great, great programs where they ought to do well,” second-year Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said of the conference’s new coaches. “But any time there’s transition ... last year we struggled in my first year, didn’t play up to our capabilities.”
It will be a similar issue at Penn State, where feelings are still raw over the ouster last season of legendary coach Joe Paterno followed by his death in January. The trial of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for child sex-abuse charges is set to begin June 5.
The turmoil at Ohio State and Penn State appears to leave UW as a heavy favorite in the Leaders.
“I believe right now we are the targeted team in the Big Ten, because of what we’ve done these last two years,” senior running back Montee Ball said.
The Badgers have won two straight Big Ten titles and adding a third would be noteworthy on two fronts: It has never happened in school history and the program has undergone transition of its own, with six new assistant coaches.
Bielema noted he had three new assistants a year ago and his team successfully defended its title and made it to a second straight Rose Bowl.
“Our kids have been in the race and know what it takes,” Bielema said. “Everybody thinks it’s complacency that’s going to affect us, but I think here at Wisconsin we’ve become greedy, and our kids are anxious to be able to get back to Indianapolis and hopefully prove themselves again.”
The Badgers had a thrilling 42-39 victory over Michigan State in the first Big Ten title game in Indianapolis last season and have plenty of motivation to return.
“What the Big Ten staff did with that (game) and the buildup for that, I think (Spartans) coach (Mark) Dantonio would probably echo the same thing, (it) was about the most exciting, rewarding game I’ve ever been involved with in my entire coaching career,” Bielema said.
“That truly is an unbelievable event and something we definitely want to get back to.”
LAST SEASON: 11-3 (6-2 in Big Ten, first place, won inaugural Big Ten title game).
SPRING SKINNY: Not only must the Badgers replace standouts such as quarterback Russell Wilson, receiver Nick Toon and center Peter Konz, but there are six new assistant coaches, most notably Matt Canada taking over for Paul Chryst at offensive coordinator. UW coach Bret Bielema he has been rejuvenated by the fresh blood and that his program has become greedy rather than complacent, wanting a third straight title. Running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist who surprised many by returning for his senior year, said the Badgers “remain the targeted team in the Big Ten” but pointed to Ohio State as the team to beat.
LAST SEASON: 9-4 (6-2 in Big Ten, tied for first in Leaders).
SPRING SKINNY: Bill O’Brien, who was quarterback Tom Brady’s coach with the New England Patriots, becomes the first new permanent head coach at Penn State since 1966. He didn’t arrive until early February, after the Super Bowl. His biggest task is turning Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden into a competent quarterback. Close behind is healing a team still dealing with former coach Joe Paterno’s death and the departure of interim coach Tom Bradley. The quarterbacks have yet to separate, with O’Brien saying he wanted to see “improved decision making, accuracy and grasping the offense.” All-American defensive tackle Devon Still is gone, but Jordan Hill hopes to fill the gap for an inexperienced defensive line.
LAST SEASON: 7-6, (4-4 in Big Ten, third in Leaders).
SPRING SKINNY: It’s a surplus of quarterbacks after injuries ravaged the position the past two years. Robert Marve, who coach Danny Hope calls “a great talent,” was granted a sixth year and is competing with incumbent Caleb TerBush. Rob Henry, returning from a torn ACL, joins the fray in the fall. For the first time in five years, Hope said he has “proven quarterbacks, guys who have won, that are healthy, experienced and ready to go.” He also has 19 returning starters, including defensive tackle Kawann Short, who elected to return after being projected as a third round NFL draft pick. Short could be “a dominant player at his position on a national level,” Hope said.
LAST SEASON: 6-7 (3-5 in Big Ten, fourth in Leaders).
SPRING SKINNY: New coach Urban Meyer is searching for playmakers on offense, to go with talented dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller. Meyer called tight end Jake Stoneburner and running back Jordan Hall the top weapons right now but added “that’s not near enough.” The defense should be in good hands with lineman John Simon, who Meyer said “is (Tim) Tebow-ish, as far as his commitment.” The Buckeyes are ineligible for the Big Ten title game due to NCAA sanctions, but nobody expects them to be down long. “We’re Ohio State, we always have a target on our back,” fullback Zach Boren said. “But that’s what we like.”
LAST SEASON: 7-6 (2-6 in Big Ten, fifth in Leaders).
SPRING SKINNY: At least three current head coaches turned down Illinois before it hired Tim Beckman from Toledo. Beckman started winning over the players by getting to know them off the field, too. “I think the most important thing is building trust,” Beckman said. Incumbent quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is in a battle with sophomore Reilly O’Toole and the Illini must find a replacement for 1,000-yard receiver A.J. Jenkins. The defense ranked in the top 10 nationally a year ago but the departure of All-America defensive end Whitney Mercilus leaves a void.
LAST SEASON: 1-11 (0-8 in Big Ten, sixth in Leaders).
SPRING SKINNY: Sophomore Tre Roberson returns as the starting quarterback, but second-year coach Kevin Wilson wants to upgrade the passing game and brought in junior-college transfer Cameron Coffman to compete for the job. “I don’t think we’re going to make a significant jump offensively designing quarterback run plays,” Wilson said. The Hoosiers brought in five junior college players to upgrade the conference’s last-ranked defense, including linebackers Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper. “We’re more of an attacking defense, trying to get plays in the backfield, not sitting and reading,” defensive tackle Larry Black Jr. said.
LAST SEASON: 11-3 (7-1 in Big Ten, first in Legends).
SPRING SKINNY: Kirk Cousins is gone after three years as the starting quarterback and fourth-year junior Andrew Maxwell inherits the job. He was an Elite 11 quarterback out of high school and a 6-7 high jumper. Maybe the best thing Maxwell learned as Cousin’s understudy was how he “treated everybody with respect.” Maxwell will need some targets after losing receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Former running back and cornerback Jeremy Langford is one option. Per usual, there’s a stable of backs, led by Le’Veon Bell, even though Edwin Baker left for the NFL. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy also left early, but senior cornerback Johnny Adams decided to stay, bolstering the secondary.
LAST SEASON: 11-2 (6-2 in Big Ten, second in Legends).
SPRING SKINNY: It was an adjustment last season for both quarterback Denard Robinson and offensive coordinator Al Borges, who had to step out of his comfort zone a bit while incorporating Robinson’s spread skills in the move toward a pro-style offense. A bigger issue this year is rebuilding the defensive line. “We’re not near where we need to be,” coach Brady Hoke said of that unit. Opening the season against defending national champion Alabama in Dallas has added urgency to spring practices and will be “a true test for where we’re at,” strong safety Jordan Kovacs said. Despite a Sugar Bowl win, Kovacs said it wasn’t a successful season because the Wolverines didn’t win the Big Ten title.
LAST SEASON: 9-4 (5-3, third in Legends).
SPRING SKINNY: The first year in the Big Ten didn’t end with a trip to the conference title game. Coach Bo Pelini must rebuild a once formidable defense that ranked 64th against the run last season and lost linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and defensive tackle Jared Crick. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini left to become a head coach and defensive line coach John Papuchis, 33, was promoted. Running back Rex Burkhead rushed for 1,357 yards last season, but the key is quarterback Taylor Martinez, “a big playmaker any time he takes off,” Burkhead said. Martinez completed just 56.2 percent of his passes and must improve in that area.
LAST SEASON: 7-6 (4-4 in the Big Ten, fourth in Legends).
SPRING SKINNY: Few programs have been as stable as Iowa’s, which had Norm Parker running the defense and Ken O’Keefe in charge of the offense during coach Kirk Ferentz’s 13 seasons. But Parker retired and was replaced by secondary coach Phil Parker (no relation). O’Keefe went to the NFL and Ferentz landed former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis. The biggest change will be on offense. Davis has experience with up-tempo, no-huddle attacks. “That’s something we’re experimenting with and something we want to do if need be,” quarterback James Vandenberg said. There has been talk of the defense blitzing more and playing press coverage to help a defensive line in rebuilding mode.
LAST SEASON: 6-7, (3-5 in Big Ten, fifth in Legends).
SPRING SKINNY: Northwestern has had prolific quarterbacks recently, with Mike Kafka and Dan Persa. Now comes junior Kain Colter, who has also played wide receiver and running back. He came up 34 receiving yards short last season of finishing with 500 or more yards passing, rushing and receiving. Focusing on quarterback has helped him improve his passing. He pointed out his predecessors “really didn’t get the starting job until late in their careers. It’s kind of what I’m going through.” The Wildcats ranked last in the conference in pass defense and lose three starters in the secondary. They have dropped in wins the last three years, from nine in 2008 to six last year, but coach Pat Fitzgerald said the team is “hungry.”
LAST SEASON: 3-9 (2-6 in Big Ten, sixth in Leaders).
SPRING SKINNY: MarQueis Gray is a great athlete, but can he become a great quarterback? Coach Jerry Kill said there’s no comparison to where Gray is at this spring to a year ago. “I think we all know what kind of athlete he is, but I think he’s become a quarterback,” Kill said. Gray was the team’s leading rusher last season, but Kill would like to see a tailback emerge, such as James Gillum, a former Louisiana prep standout and one of five junior college transfers who enrolled in January. It was a tragic spring following the death of former linebacker Gary Tinsley. Kill said there is “no protocol” to follow. “You spend a lot of time with your players, that’s what we’ve tried to do,” he said.