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The Big Ten: Five Questions Heading Into 2012

How Will Wisconsin Handle Radical Turnover From 2011? Continuity is key in college football, which sucks for Wisconsin. The Badgers replace 12 starters and six assistants in 2012, most notably offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. Touchdown-machine tailback Montee Ball stayed for his senior year, though the Badgers lose three All-Conference offensive linemen (Konz, Zeitler, Oglesby) and quarterback Russell Wilson, who will be replaced by another ACC transfer, Danny O’Brien. Defensively, the Badgers are strong at linebacker but have holes to fill in both the defensive line and secondary. They have questions, but fortunately they have a substantial margin for error. Wisconsin has won at least five games in the Big Ten six of the last seven years. In a weak Leaders division without Ohio State, that should be enough to return them to the title game and get a crack at a third-straight Rose Bowl.

Will Michigan State Have an Offense? The Spartans defense should be ridiculous, returning nine starters from a unit that finished top five in yards per play last season, but their offense remains a serious question. Michigan State loses starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, the school’s most accomplished quarterback in the modern era. They also face a cataclysm in the receiving corps, losing their top three wide receivers and their most prolific tight end. The passing game could sputter, which would place enormous pressure on the running game. Despite ample talent in the backfield, Michigan State finished 9th in the Big Ten last year, averaging 3.95 yards per carry. You need at least a functional offense to win the Big Ten. Last season’s best performing defense within the conference was Illinois. If new quarterback Andrew Maxwell can’t get it done immediately with inexperienced underclassmen, the Spartans could have problems.

What is Going on at Penn State? The Sandusky scandal overshadows everything, though Penn State still plays football with a head coach from outside the program, for the first time since 1950. Bill O’Brien will get leeway. He receives just 12 returning starters, the second fewest in the Big Ten. Complicating matters for his passing offense is one of those returning, starting quarterback Matt McGloin. He has a temper. He also led Penn State (with help from Rob Bolden) to a 112th finish in passer rating in 2011. O’Brien’s hiring of defensive coordinator Ted Roof was an interesting choice. Roof had left Auburn for Central Florida, after a disastrous 2011. The last time this duo was on the same staff at Duke, they went winless in FBS for two-straight seasons and got shutout 13-0 by FCS Richmond at home. O’Brien has done, by all accounts, an exemplary job handling matters off the field. On the field, he’s still unproven at the collegiate level. The last offensive wizard from the Patriots who received a high-profile college job did not fare so well.

What Will Ohio State’s Offense Look Like? Urban Meyer knows offensive coordinators. His choice for the Buckeyes was 37-year-old Tom Herman from Iowa State. Herman built the No. 18 yards per play offense at Rice in 2008, before moving to Iowa State where he had sporadic success. Most notably, he put up 576 total yards on Oklahoma State last year with a freshman quarterback, who isn’t as capable as Braxton Miller. Ohio State does not have the full Urban Meyer arsenal of playmakers. An injury to senior running back Jordan Hall was especially unhelpful. It will be interesting to see what a creative coach can do with pedestrian resources. Ohio State cannot win the Big Ten this season due to NCAA sanctions, but if they have an offense to pair with what should be a very good defense, they can spoil seasons for a few other teams.

Will Michigan Have a Defensive Line? Vegas lists Michigan as the Big Ten favorite. Whether they fulfill that billing, will depend on their defensive line. It is a position, with Brady Hoke as the de facto position coach, that will receive a lot of attention. It will need it, with the departures of essential seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. Michigan will need great performances from two unproven five-star defensive tackle recruits. Dukes of Hazzard enthusiast Will Campbell has yet to capitalize on his physical tools in three frustrating seasons. Ondre Pipkins, Rivals’ No. 14 overall recruit in 2012, arrives on campus this fall. Michigan can frustrate most opposing offenses with scheming and aggression. To win the Big Ten, they must be able to stop teams content to run repeatedly between the tackles (see Michigan State and Iowa in 2011).

[Photos via Getty]

Previously: Five Questions For the SEC Heading Into 2012

 

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