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Five Questions Facing the Big Ten in 2011

We covered the SEC questions last weekend.

How will PryorVest affect Ohio State? Ohio State players have been strutting around like scarlet and grey cocks since Tressel arrived. They have worn the Big Ten’s undisputed champions belt and been a BCS fixture. The staff remains, as do the players recruited to continue that success. They may be banned from the postseason and the BIG Championship Game, but, unlike USC, they have Michigan to keep them invested.

OSU should be stacked defensively. They have had a top five unit three of the last four years. They replace multiple starters, though most should be like for like. Jonathan Hankins should anchor an impactful defensive line. Highly-touted Etienne Sabino has earned a starting place at middle linebacker. A drop off, if it all, will be slight.

Offense is the place for concern. The Buckeyes may lose Pryor for the season. They play the first five games without their best tailback, wideout and left tackle. Expect a return to “Tresselball,” caution and field position. Joe Bauserman is no TPeezy, but the senior could be a competent Krenzel. They will need to be fortunate with offensive line injuries and hope Berry or Hall can carry them until Boom Herron returns.

There’s never a good time for a testicle-stomping scandal. But Jim Delany can’t be pleased the first BIG title game likely will not feature the league’s best and most marquee team.

How will Nebraska adjust to the Big Ten? On paper, Nebraska should be the leader of the Legends division. The Blackshirts defense, anchored by potential All-Americans Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard, with Bo Pelini’s tutelage, is Big Ten-ready. More prosaic offenses such as Iowa and Wisconsin may be a welcome respite. The Huskers will be competitive immediately. Whether they can win the conference, depends on the offense.

Nebraska depended on Taylor Martinez last season. They were as consistent as his injuries and confidence issues allowed them to be. This year should be more of the same. They have a new offensive coordinator in Tim Beck. Experienced backup Cody Green left the program. They will face a far ruder welcome to the Big Ten, playing blue-collar defenses geared to stopping the run.

Another factor to consider for the Cornhuskers is the schedule. Intentionally or not, the Big Ten boned them. Nebraska misses three Big Ten schools: Indiana, Illinois and Purdue. They start off at Wisconsin and home to Ohio State. Then a two-week respite with a bye and at Minnesota. Then MSU, Northwestern, at Penn State, at Michigan and home to Iowa. It’s doable, but could become troublesome if they hit a rough patch.

Can Michigan State Continue Their Success? Even the most delusional Spartan fans harbor no faith in the Michigan State football team year to year. Putting together consecutive eight win seasons just once since 1966 will do that. The 11-win 2010 was Sparty’s best season since Saban’s 1999 10-2 year, but the brutal losses 37-6 to Iowa and 49-7 to Alabama embedded seeds of doubt.

Michigan State has the Big Ten’s best returning quarterback, Kirk Cousins, who has been getting early-round NFL buzz. They have a ton of running back depth, but they are replacing three offensive line starters and will have a new offensive coordinator. The defense should be decent. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy is a pre-season All-American [Ed. And potential Top 10 NFL draft pick.] The main issue will be replenishing the linebacker crops. State lost two starters, including Greg Jones.

The trick will be peaking early, because their Big Ten schedule is front-loaded. Their first four games are at Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and at Nebraska. They could lose to Notre Dame, have a 3-5 record and be completely derailed before the tractable portion.

What Will Happen in Hoke-a-Mania I? Hoke is a charmer. His recruiting has been stellar. His rhetoric has been comforting. His assistant coaches seem intelligent and communicative. The long-term prognosis appears excellent. The short-term is frightening.

Hoke has prattled on about power. Michigan doesn’t have the personnel to run it. Borges is rooted in the West Coast Offense. Denard Robinson’s skill-set doesn’t suit that team. Things could get muddled pounding misshapen pieces into a “Michigan” identity. It’s hard to see them moving the ball down the field against a good defense. The question is how creatively they can get Denard into positions where he can make plays, hopefully without killing them.

Defensively, Michigan ahs had three coordinators and four systems in the last four years, paired with devastating attrition. It’s why they had one of FBS’ worst defenses. It’s why Rich Rodriguez is no longer the head coach. Upgrading from a perpetually undermined Greg Robinson to Mattison is incredible, like dumping a pocky, snaggle-toothed shrew and coming home with Blake Lively.

The defensive line will be key. Michigan is switching back to a 4-3. Mike Martin may be a top-ten draft pick. If Mattison can get something out of former five-star recruit Will Campbell at the other tackle position, that should, theoretically, free up a pass rush and take pressure off places they are weaker. They could improve massively, into an average defense.

Who is the Alpha Dog? Ohio State is gutted and most likely will be rendered irrelevant. Wisconsin lost an efficient quarterback and impact starters on both lines. Nebraska is joining a new conference. Iowa is recovering from drug and workout scandals. Michigan State is well…Michigan State. Penn State, Northwestern and maybe Michigan could be competitive but none of the three looks imperious. The Big Ten does not have a dominant, national-contending dynamo.

That might not be the best thing nationally. But, alternatively, who cares? There’s no consensus champions. With the divisions, there are six or seven teams with a conceivable chance to win the conference. That’s excitement that doesn’t need to be prefaced with “fill in the blank” Saturday.

[Photo via Getty]

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