August 10, 2010

Big Ten getting bigger ... and better

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

Ohio State's impending run at a league-record-tying sixth Big Ten championship in a row took a backseat to scuttlebutt about league expansion during the offseason.

Big Ten leaders officially announced that the league was exploring the possibility of expanding, saying they would explore options over the next 12 to 18 months. The Big Ten added Nebraska, which officially will enter the conference in 2011. But the league might not stop there.

And why not think big? The conference is coming off one of its best seasons in years. The Big Ten acquitted itself well in the postseason, forging a 4-3 record that included wins in the Rose (Ohio State over Oregon), Orange (Iowa over Georgia Tech), Capital One (Penn State over LSU) and Champs Sports Bowls (Wisconsin over Miami). That's a far cry from the year before, when the league went 1-6, with Iowa's win over South Carolina in the Outback Bowl the only positive.

The Big Ten has three teams that merit a preseason top-10 ranking: Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin. And the Buckeyes look like the best, which is why Ohio State may play for the national championship for the third time in the past five seasons.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Wisconsin OT Gabe Carimi. The league has some high-caliber skill-position players, such as Badgers TB John Clay, Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor and WR DeVier Posey and Penn State TB Evan Royster, to name a few. But Carimi might be the best offensive lineman in the nation and seems like a sure-first first-rounder in next April's NFL draft. He is big, strong, physical and pushes people around -- and what else do you want from a tackle?

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Iowa E Adrian Clayborn. He was the MVP of the Orange Bowl victory over Georgia Tech after making nine solo tackles and two sacks in helping limit the Yellow Jackets to 143 rushing yards. Clayborn is a dynamic force off the edge who had 11.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Michigan QB Tate Forcier. Forcier started all 12 games in 2009 and showed flashes last season as a true freshman of being an ideal triggerman for the Wolverines' spread-option attack. But some teammates have questioned his commitment during the offseason, and it's not a given that he will beat out Denard Robinson for the starting job. It's vital for whoever wins the job to evolve to the point that this becomes an explosive offense that's capable of winning games while the defense rounds into form.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Wisconsin E J.J. Watt. Who will be the Badgers' pass-rushing force with E O'Brien Schofield gone? Watt has to play like a star. He also has to anchor a rehabbed line that has seen three of the team's top four tackles depart, making the middle of this defense potentially vulnerable.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Penn State QB Kevin Newsome. He enrolled in January 2009 and redshirted last season. Now, he is ready to assume Daryll Clark's throne. Newsome will have good running backs behind him, a good line in front of him and solid receivers to his left and right. That means for the Nittany Lions to reach their potential, Newsome must play well and avoid mistakes.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Michigan LB Craig Roh. He earned Freshman All-American accolades from several outlets and is primed to become a playmaker for a defense that needs to replace the skills of departed star Brandon Graham. Roh, an Arizona native, can be a force off the edge because of his power and quickness.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Purdue QB Robert Marve. He sat out last season after transferring from Miami. Marve, a former Florida "Mr. Football" who led Tampa Plant to a state title in 2006, is a dual-threat quarterback who started 11 games for the Hurricanes in 2008. He has shown the maturity that was lacking in Coral Gables and looks poised for big things for a program that needs a big season.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Michigan State E William Gholston. The touted true freshman could make an impact at a hybrid linebacker/end position. He was a five-star recruit from Detroit Southeastern whom some are comparing to former Spartans icon Bubba Smith. Gholston (6-7/237) could be a terror off the edge who helps give Michigan State the dominating defense it has been yearning for since the days of George Perles.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi. He's good, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from the media in 2009. But he isn't the reason the Hawkeyes are soaring. Iowa won 11 games despite Stanzi being only the fourth-rated Big Ten passer, hitting just 56.3 percent of his passes with a league-high 15 interceptions. Even without him, Iowa still almost won at Ohio State last season (a 27-24 overtime loss).

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Illinois' Ron Zook. There could be as many as four, with Minnesota's Tim Brewster, Indiana's Bill Lynch and Michigan's Rich Rodriguez also feeling the heat. But we'll go with Zook for being most on the spot. Each coach is allowed one staff shakeup. Zook used his after last season's 3-9 clunker, bringing in six new assistants, including both coordinators. Now, the next head to roll would be his. It appears to be bowl or bust for Zook, who has had just one winning season and is 21-39 overall and 12-28 in the Big Ten in five seasons with the Illini.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Iowa. Kirk Ferentz's staff has benefited from continuity. Defensive coordinator Norm Parker and offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe have been with Ferentz since he was hired before the 1999 season. So have recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach Eric Johnson and secondary coach Phil Parker. Two other assistants (running backs coach Lester Erb and offensive line coach Reese Morgan) have been with Ferentz since 2000. This is a well-oiled machine.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Wisconsin's Paul Chryst. He has stayed true to the program's black-and-blue roots while also sprucing up the attack with myriad formations and an advanced passing game. Last season was one of Chryst's best yet, as Wisconsin had the No. 1 offense (416.9 ypg) and No. 1 scoring attack (31.8 ppg) in the Big Ten.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Penn State's Tom Bradley. An alum who joined Joe Paterno's staff in 1979 as a graduate assistant and hasn't left, Bradley is considered by some to be the top defensive coordinator in the nation. He runs a varied 4-3 scheme that is built around an active linebacking corps. Bradley's defense has been a constant in State College. His unit last season ranked No. 2 in the Big Ten and ninth in the nation (274.5 ypg).

THE OTHER STUFF

Miami at Ohio State, Sept. 11

Penn State at Alabama, Sept. 11

Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 11

Iowa at Arizona, Sept. 18

Penn State at Iowa, Oct. 2

Ohio State at Wisconsin, Oct. 16

Wisconsin at Iowa, Oct. 23

Penn State at Ohio State, Nov. 13

Ohio State at Iowa, Nov. 20

Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 27

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Purdue. The Boilermakers should have a high-powered offense fueled by QB Robert Marve, a transfer from Miami. Headed by E Ryan Kerrigan, the front seven on defense looks strong, making the Boilermakers primed to return to the postseason for the first time since 2007. That would make for a nice second season for coach Danny Hope.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Minnesota. Even with back-to-back bowl appearances (both losses), it's difficult to detect much momentum for a program that has gone 14-24 in three seasons under Tim Brewster with no signature victories. The defense must replace nine starters, and the offense is a mess as it welcomes its third coordinator in three seasons. What's it mean? A third consecutive bowl trip is unlikely.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Ohio State at Iowa, Nov. 20. This looks as if it could be a de facto Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes hung on in Columbus to beat the Hawkeyes 27-24 in overtime last season, even though Iowa was playing with backup QB James Vandenberg. This season's contest figures to be another classic pitting the conference's preeminent coaches in Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Ohio State's Jim Tressel. Both teams figure to have offenses that rate among the best in the Big Ten, meaning this key contest likely will come down to which defense makes the most plays.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Minnesota. The schedule is full of obstacles, including underrated non-league games at Middle Tennessee (the Sun Belt favorite) and at home against Northern Illinois (the MAC West favorite). USC also visits Minneapolis. Want more? The Gophers play what figures to be the Big Ten's top four teams in Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Penn State.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Purdue. The schedule is user-friendly, as Iowa and Penn State aren't on the to-do list. But there are trips to Notre Dame and Ohio State as well as a visit from Wisconsin. Still, there are plenty of winnable games (FCS member Western Illinois, Ball State, Toledo, Minnesota and Indiana all at home plus a game at Illinois), meaning Purdue should reach the postseason.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBTerrelle Pryor, Ohio State (6-6/233, Jr.)
RBJohn Clay, Wisconsin (6-1/248, Jr.)
RBEvan Royster, Penn State (6-1/213, Sr.)
WRDeVier Posey, Ohio State (6-2/200, Jr.)
WRKeith Smith, Purdue (6-2/226, Sr.)
TELance Kendricks, Wisconsin (6-4/239, Sr.)
TGabe Carimi, Wisconsin (6-7/315, Sr.)
TAl Netter, Northwestern (6-6/300, Jr.)
GJustin Boren, Ohio State (6-3/320, Sr.)
GStefen Wisniewski, Penn State (6-3/297, Sr.)
CDavid Molk, Michigan (6-2/270, Jr.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
EAdrian Clayborn, Iowa (6-4/285, Sr.)
TChristian Ballard, Iowa (6-5/297, Sr.)
TJerel Worthy, Michigan State (6-3/298, Soph.)
ERyan Kerrigan, Purdue (6-4/263, Sr.)
LBChris Borland, Wisconsin (5-11/232, Soph.)
LBRoss Homan, Ohio State (6-0/227, Sr.)
LBGreg Jones, Michigan State (6-1/235, Sr.)
CBChimdi Chekwa, Ohio State (6-0/190, Sr.)
CBD'Anton Lynn, Penn State (6-1/207, Jr.)
FSBrett Greenwood, Iowa (6-0/200, Sr.)
SSTyler Sash, Iowa (6-1/210, Jr.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KDaniel Murray, Iowa (5-10/185, Sr.)
PBrad Nortman, Wisconsin (6-3/208, Jr.)
KRKeshawn Martin, Michigan State (5-11/185, Jr.)
PRDavid Gilreath, Wisconsin (5-11/169, Sr.)

OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD

1. Ohio State: Junior QB Terrelle Pryor remains a work in progress. He needs to display a better pocket presence, more accuracy and better decision-making ability but remains a deadly runner. At running back, there are veteran options in Dan Herron and Brandon Saine.

2. Wisconsin: Scott Tolzien seemingly came out of nowhere to be one of the conference's most productive quarterbacks. RB John Clay, the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year who will be a Heisman contender, ran for a league-best 1,517 yards. Backup TB Montee Ball is a future star who's capable of carrying a bigger load.

3. Iowa: QB Ricky Stanzi needs to move beyond game manager to playmaker in his senior season. There are lots of solid options at running back in Adam Robinson, Brandon Wegher and Jewel Hampton, who is back from injury.

4. Michigan State: QB Kirk Cousins threw for 2,680 yards with 19 touchdowns and just nine picks to give the Spartans the No. 2 aerial game (269.4 ypg) in the conference. RBs Larry Caper and Edwin Baker must take the next step in their development.

5. Michigan: Tate Forcier flashed potential as a true freshman starter last fall, and Denard Robinson is an ultra-athletic option. The search is on for some dependable running backs with Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown gone. Michael Shaw leads a batch of candidates. Sophomore Mike Cox may be ready to emerge.

6. Indiana: The headliner is QB Ben Chappell, who threw for 2,941 yards and 17 touchdowns last fall. But he needs to cut back on his interceptions (15). Keep an eye on RB Darius Willis, who is on the precipice of becoming a star after running for 607 yards in his debut last season. But he needs to avoid the injuries that dogged him last season.

7. Penn State: RB Evan Royster is 480 yards from passing Curt Warner's school career record of 3,398 rushing yards. Sophomore QB Kevin Newsome has a lot to prove.

8. Minnesota: QB Adam Weber didn't look comfortable last season and regressed. He hit only 52 percent of his passes, with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Athletic MarQueis Gray figures to be used in some fashion. There are numerous options at running back with veterans Deleon Eskridge and Duane Bennett and three promising true freshmen.

9. Illinois: Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase has been tabbed as the new quarterback with Juice Williams gone. Everyone's fingers are crossed. RB Daniel Dufrene is gone, but the backfield will feature Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford, one of the top tandems in the Big Ten.

10. Purdue: QB Robert Marve should be fine, but Purdue received a big blow in the spring when RB Ralph Bolden suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury. He may miss the season. Who will step up?

11. Northwestern: Dan Persa is being counted on to take over for departed QB Mike Kafka. Persa is nifty with his feet and a good athlete, but he's a work in progress as a passer. NU needs to establish a go-to running back. No Northwestern player had a 100-yard game in 2009.

RECEIVERS

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have an exciting corps of wide receivers led by DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher. Posey led the team with 60 catches for 828 yards and eight scores, while Sanzenbacher grabbed 36 passes for 570 yards and six touchdowns.

2. Penn State: There is a promising corps of experienced receivers led by Derek Moye, who led the team with 48 catches for 785 yards last season. Former walk-on Graham Zug is his sidekick. Everyone is buzzing about youngsters Curtis Drake and Justin Brown. Questions persist at tight end with Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler gone.

3. Wisconsin: Yes, star TE Garrett Graham is gone, but Scott Tolzien will have some good targets in WRs Nick Toon and David Gilreath, along with standout TE Lance Kendricks.

4. Iowa: The team's top wide receivers (Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt) return. Colin Sandeman also could play a big role. TE Tony Moeaki has departed, but the staff is psyched about senior Allen Reisner.

5. Indiana: Terrance Turner, Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher combined for 184 receptions for 2,175 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Redshirt freshman WR Duwyce Wilson also could emerge as a playmaker.

6. Michigan State: There are lots of quality options, headed by a trio of wide receivers: B.J. Cunningham, Mark Dell and Keshawn Martin. The tight end duo of Charlie Gantt and junior Brian Linthicum is formidable.

7. Michigan: The quarterbacks will have some veteran targets in sophomore Roy Roundtree and juniors Junior Hemingway and Martavious Odoms, who must help improve a passing attack that ranked ninth in the Big Ten (198.3 ypg). Coordinator Calvin Magee is excited about sophomores Terrence Robinson and Jeremy Gallon.

8. Illinois: There is potential even with Arrellious Benn off a year early to the NFL. Jarred Fayson, who was hampered by a knee injury in 2009, and A.J. Jenkins lead the way. The tight end may be used more in the new attack.

9. Purdue: QB Robert Marve will have a solid set of targets led by Keith Smith, a physical wide receiver who led the Big Ten with 91 receptions for 1,100 yards in 2009. Some youngsters need to inject speed and big-play ability. Kyle Adams and Jeff Lindsay make tight end a strength.

10. Northwestern: This corps is being overhauled with Andrew Brewer and Zeke Markshausen gone. Sidney Stewart will be the keystone of the group. Look for TE Drake Dunsmore to be a key weapon.

11. Minnesota: It hurts that star WR Eric Decker has graduated after a record-setting career. Still, the staff likes the trio of Da'Jon McKnight, Brandon Green and Troy Stoudermire.

OFFENSIVE LINE

1. Wisconsin: This should be one of the best Badgers lines in the past 20 years. T Gabe Carimi is the anchor and leader. G John Moffitt is another stud on this big, physical, brawling front.

2. Ohio State: This group looks strong with four starters back. The group is led by the three "Bs": G Justin Boren, C Michael Brewster and G Bryant Browning. Boren is a beast on the interior. And staffers love T Marcus Hall.

3. Iowa: This unit has some questions, but coach Kirk Ferentz excels at developing lines. There is talent, with as many as eight or nine candidates to fill three vacancies. T Riley Reiff is a future star who could leave Iowa City as one of the program's best linemen in school history.

4. Penn State: Stefen Wisniewski will be one of the best linemen in the nation and leads a strong interior. But the group needs to find two tackles. DeOn'tae Pannell (left side) and Mike Farrell (right) appear to be front-runners.

5. Northwestern: This group will be a strength, as five starters are back. But the unit needs to knuckle down and become better run blockers. T Al Netter is the star.

6. Michigan: The line, which lost two starters, is a nice blend of experience and promising young talent. Senior G Stephen Schilling is the star, but the key will be for junior C David Molk to show he's over a knee injury that ruined last season.

7. Purdue: The group must break in three new starters. Staffers love G Ken Plue and T Dennis Kelly.

8. Illinois: The line must be revamped after losing its best player in G Jon Asamoah. Still, staffers think this unit could be good. Ts Jeff Allen and Corey Lewis lead the way.

9. Michigan State: The unit is looking for three new starters and needs G Joel Foreman to be a leader. The left side looks more stable than the right.

10. Indiana: All of the Hoosiers' skill-position talent will work behind a line that welcomes back three starters. LT Andrew McDonald is on the spot, as he will replace standout Rodger Saffold and be entrusted with protecting QB Ben Chappell's blind side.

11. Minnesota: Every starter returns, but the unit must get better and create holes. T Dominic Alford is the standout.

DEFENSIVE LINE

1. Iowa: All four starters are back for a group that produced 202 tackles and 27 sacks. The leader is E Adrian Clayborn, a dynamic force off the edge who had 11.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season.

2. Ohio State: Ohio State has a keystone in E Cameron Heyward. The Buckeyes need a better pass rush, as they ranked just sixth in the league in sacks (2.3 pg).

3. Penn State: It will be difficult to replace T Jared Odrick, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. And who will be the pass rusher? Es Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore, along with Ts Ollie Ogbu and Devon Still, need to step up.

4. Purdue: It all begins with Ryan Kerrigan, who may be the best end in college football. He notched a Big Ten-best 13 sacks and also had 18.5 tackles for loss last season. Purdue has a big, athletic tackle in Kawann Short.

5. Michigan State: The line needs to find a pass rusher. The staff is counting on T Jerel Worthy setting the tone. E Tyler Hoover and NT Blake Treadwell also could emerge as key players for a line that needs to play better. Touted true freshman William Gholston could make an impact from a hybrid linebacker/end position.

6. Michigan: Who will replace departed E Brandon Graham's production off the edge? Greg Banks, Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen need to be standouts.

7. Wisconsin: There is lots of work to do on a line that lost three starters. Who will be the pass-rushing force with E O'Brien Schofield gone? E J.J. Watt has to play like a star. Three of the team's top four tackles are gone.

8. Northwestern: The line needs to find a playmaker to fill the shoes of departed E Corey Wootton. Kevin Watt will get first chance to take over for Wootton. The staff feels T Corbin Bryant will be a leader and a key cog in the middle.

9. Illinois: The group has potential with E Clay Nurse and T Corey Liuget. T Josh Brent, who flunked out, will be missed.

10. Minnesota: The tackle slots look solid with Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey. There is a group of four to five players who figure to rotate at end.

11. Indiana: The staff needs E Fred Jones to emerge with the departure of Es Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, who combined for 9.5 sacks and 24 tackles for loss in 2009.

LINEBACKERS

1. Ohio State: Ross Homan is the centerpiece. He paced the team with 108 tackles last fall while tying for the team lead in interceptions with five. Etienne Sabino always has possessed the physical tools but has needed to master the schemes. Brian Rolle is on the small side (5-11/218), but he runs well and is a punishing hitter.

2. Michigan State: Is there a better linebacker in America than Greg Jones? Eric Gordon is good, too, while Chris Norman teems with potential. They head a deep group.

3. Wisconsin: The Badgers must replace Javery McFadden, the team's top tackler in 2009. The Badgers have a rising star in Chris Borland, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season.

4. Penn State: All three starters are gone. The staff is counting on Michael Mauti, Chris Colasanti, Nate Stupar and Bani Gbadyu playing big roles. And keep an eye on Gerald Hodges and Mike Yancich.

5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes must replace the standout tandem of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds. The good news: There are lots of quality options. The one sure thing is Jeremiha Hunter, a strong run defender who is difficult to knock off his feet.

6. Michigan: It will be vital for Obi Ezeh to rebound from a mediocre 2009. Craig Roh looks primed for a breakout season, while Jonas Mouton has the talent and must develop consistency

7. Northwestern: Every player from last season's two-deep is back. Quentin Davie will be one of the conference's top linebackers. Nate Williams will be another cornerstone of the defense.

8. Purdue: The Boilers will get a big boost from the return of Jason Werner, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility. Look for Dwayne Beckford to emerge as a stalwart in the middle, pushing Chris Carlino to the strongside, where he may be a better fit.

9. Illinois: Ian Thomas paced the squad with 95 tackles last season. But Job No. 1 is to maximize the considerable talents of LB Martez Wilson, who is coming off a neck injury that cost him almost all of last season.

10. Minnesota: Keep an eye on the totally rebuilt linebacking corps. The Gophers will look to Gary Tinsley and Keanon Cooper to be anchors.

11. Indiana: A rebuilt group needs to help stiffen a run defense that ranked ninth in the conference (159.1 ypg). Redshirt freshman LB Damon Sims is being counted on to step up.

SECONDARY

1. Iowa: This unit is led by Tyler Sash, who will be paired with Brett Greenwood to give Iowa one of the top safety duos in the nation. Keep an eye on the cornerback slot opposite Shaun Prater.

2. Penn State: The Nittany Lions look strong with three starters back. The safety tandem of SS Drew Astorino and FS Nick Sukay is stellar. Coaches like young CBs D'Anton Lynn, Derrick Thomas and Stephon Morris.

3. Ohio State: There is concern with the losses of safeties Kurt Coleman (strong) and Anderson Russell (free). All eyes are on Jermale Hines and Orhian Johnson. The corners look strong with Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence.

4. Wisconsin: SS Jay Valai is a star, but the cornerback spots are worrisome. Devin Smith appears set, but who will be the other corner? Perhaps Niles Brinkley or Antonio Fenelus. Time and again, foes were able to nickel and dime their way downfield last season.

5. Minnesota: Both starting safeties return in Kim Royston and Kyle Theret. Michael Carter could be the shutdown corner this defense needs. Ryan Collado and JC transfer Christyn Lewis will battle to be the other corner.

6. Northwestern: Three starters are gone. Jordan Mabin has one corner spot sewn up, and Justan Vaughn looks as if he will start at the other. SS Brian Peters, a part-time starter last season, is a savvy veteran who rarely is out of position.

7. Illinois: CB Terry Hawthorne came on late last season after starting his career at receiver. The coaching staff needs to get more out if its safeties. The pass defense was hideous last season, as the Illini ranked 10th in the league (248.8 ypg).

8. Michigan: Keep an eye on a secondary that lacks depth and experience. CB Troy Woolfolk, who bounced between cornerback and safety earlier in his career, needs to be a leader with Donovan Warren off early to the NFL.

9. Michigan State: The Spartans simply had trouble covering people last season; Ss Marcus Hyde and Trenton Robinson especially struggled. The staff thinks CB Johnny Adams could be in store for a big season.

10. Purdue: Lots to prove with all four starters gone. SS Albert Evans has limited experience, but he will be counted on to be a leader. Keep an eye on the cornerback spots, where JC transfer Mike Eargle and veterans Charlton Williams and Josh Johnson will have to step up.

11. Indiana: The secondary will be especially inexperienced with three new starters. The Hoosiers signed two junior college cornerbacks in Lenyatta Kiles and Andre Kates. Mitchell Evans started at safety as a freshman, moved to wide receiver the past two years, and now is back at safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS

1. Iowa: There might not be a better kicker-punter combination in the Big Ten than the senior duo of Daniel Murray and Ryan Donahue. The Hawkeyes have weapons in the return game, and Colin Sandeman led the conference in punt returns.

2. Wisconsin: David Gilreath is one of the Big Ten's most dangerous return men. Wisconsin looks set in the kicking game with the return of P Brad Nortman and K Philip Welch. Nortman ranked fourth in the Big Ten with a 41.9-yard average, while Welch hit 17-of-24 field goals.

3. Ohio State: The search is on for a new punter with Jon Thoma gone; Ben Buchanan looks like the heir apparent. K Aaron Pettrey is gone, but Ohio State got a look at its future last season when he got hurt. Devin Barclay took over and hit 7-of-10 field-goal attempts. There are myriad options in the return game.

4. Michigan State: Brett Swenson leaves as one of the school's best kickers ever. Kevin Muma is battling walk-on Dan Conroy to replace Swenson. The punting is in good hands with the return of Aaron Bates. Keshawn Martin is one of the most electric return men in the Big Ten.

5. Penn State: Standout P Jeremy Boone is gone. The kicking game is more settled with Collin Wagner back after hitting 15-of-22 field-goal attempts. The return game should be solid with Drew Astorino and Graham Zug again handling punt returns and Chaz Powell a threat on kickoff returns.

6. Michigan: The Wolverines lost perhaps the top punter in the nation in Zoltan Mesko. Michigan also must find a kicker with Jason Olesnavage gone. Jeremy Gallon is a speedster with potential as a punt return man, while Darryl Stonum excels on kickoff returns.

7. Northwestern: Stefan Demos is back after an inconsistent season but should be one of the Big Ten's top kickers. Demos also punted, averaging 35.0 yards per boot. The return game is a mixed bag.

8. Indiana: K Nick Freeland hit only 14-of-25 field-goal attempts, with a long of just 38 yards. He will have to battle redshirt freshman Mitch Ewald. P Chris Hagerup is back after averaging 40.5 yards per punt. Tandon Doss is a threat on returns.

9. Minnesota: This area looks OK. K Eric Ellestad returns after nailing 13-of-17 field-goal attempts. The punting will be handled by redshirt freshman Dan Orseske. Troy Stoudermire and Bryant Allen are proven return men.

10. Purdue: Carson Wiggs could become one of the Big Ten's top kickers after showing a big leg in 2009. A newcomer may end up punting. Return men are needed, and the coverage units have been spotty at best.

11. Illinois: There's plenty of work to do. The kicking was an abomination. P Anthony Santella is solid after averaging 41.3 yards per boot in 2009. There is no shortage of candidates to return kicks. Troy Pollard had his moments in 2009 running back kickoffs, while Jarred Fayson is a weapon on punt returns.

COACHING STAFFS

1. Iowa: Offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe operates a conventional two-back, two-wide attack that is a throwback in some ways. The Hawkeyes always want to establish the run first, setting up defenses for play-action passes. Defensive coordinator Norm Parker keeps things simple -- and it works. The Hawkeyes operate out of a 4-3 scheme and Parker rarely blitzes. Instead, Iowa employs a bend-but-don't-break philosophy

2. Penn State: Galen Hall is a sage play-caller who has done wonders with this offense since returning to his alma mater in 2004. But also credit Jay Paterno for updating this offense in recent years with his "Spread HD" scheme and for his standout work in developing quarterbacks. Tom Bradley is a primo defensive coordinator.

3. Ohio State: Jim Tressel has great staff stability, which has helped. Jim Heacock is one of the nation's top defensive coordinators. Co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is a rising star. Tressel calls plays, but coordinator Jim Bollman is a valuable asset. Wide receiver coach Darrell Hazell is on the fast track.

4. Wisconsin: The Badgers were No. 1 in total offense (416.9 ypg) and scoring offense (31.8 ppg) in the Big Ten in 2009. That shouldn't change this season, as every key contributor is back. Credit standout coordinator Paul Chryst, who will have 10 starters back in his varied and multiple attack. Ultra-intense defensive coordinator Dave Doeren's unit excelled at stuffing the run last season, ranking No. 1 in the Big Ten and fifth in the nation (88.2 ypg). But the line lost three starters and the defensive staff underwent a shakeup.

5. Northwestern: Mike Hankwitz is a sage coordinator who has made this a solid defense. Jerry Brown is a valuable defensive assistant. Mick McCall may be the Big Ten's most underrated offensive coordinator.

6. Michigan State: Mark Dantonio typically likes to pound opponents with a strong ground game. But the Spartans' rushing attack has struggled the past two seasons. In the past, Michigan State played a 3-4 when it was in a nickel package. Look for coordinator Pat Narduzzi to play more 3-4 this season even on "rushing downs."

7. Michigan: The big change is the installation of the 3-3-5 defense that Rich Rodriguez employed at West Virginia. A word of caution: Coordinator Greg Robinson never has run a 3-3-5. Offensive coordinator Calvin Magee runs a classic spread-option offense; the Wolverines like to get to the edge quickly, usually with an option series.

8. Illinois: After a 3-9 flop in 2009, Ron Zook radically altered his staff, as five assistants are gone. Four were fired, and another left for another job. In addition, another assistant was demoted. Paul Petrino arrives from Arkansas to coordinate the offense. Former Kansas State co-coordinator Vic Koenning was hired to run the Illini defense.

9. Minnesota: The coaching staff has been a turnstile, which has hurt continuity. Minnesota is on its third offensive coordinator in three years. Jeff Horton arrives from the Detroit Lions after Jedd Fisch left to be quarterbacks coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Kevin Cosgrove is the first defensive coordinator to return for a second season under coach Tim Brewster. Cosgrove deserves kudos for his work.

10. Purdue: Gary Nord is a proven offensive coordinator, but the defensive staff underwent some changes. Gary Emanuel was hired from Rutgers to serve as co-coordinator with Donn Landholm. Mark Hagen is a standout linebackers coach. Special teams coordinator J.B. Gibboney has lots of work to do.

11. Indiana: Matt Canada is an underrated offensive coordinator. Joe Palcic is a good secondary coach. It hurt to lose offensive line coach Bobby Johnson to the NFL, but Lynch tabbed former IU assistant Mo Moriarity.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.




 

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