Brent Yarina, BTN.com Senior Editor, May 16, 2011
Spring football is long over and kickoff is still three-plus months away, so there's not much to do but talk our way through the lull before the college football season. Below, I looked at all 12 Big Ten teams, listed the most popular topic(s) I've heard/read and offered another possible discussion item that each team must address before fall arrives.
What everyone's talking about: The departed talent – How will the Illini replace NFL draft picks Corey Liuget, Mikel Leshoure and Martez Wilson?
Another thing to talk about: Nathan Scheelhaase's development – Scheelhaase dazzled in his first season, and while Leshoure's presence played a significant role in that, there's no doubting the quarterback's dual-threat ability. If Scheelhaase can improve his down-the-field throwing, he'll keep this offense churning without its record-setting back.
What everyone's talking about: The transition to first-year coach Kevin Wilson and the process of replacing quarterback Ben Chappell.
Another thing to talk about: Will Darius Willis finally break out? Willis entered Indiana as a highly touted running back, but injuries have kept him from reaching his potential. He'll serve a one-game suspension this season, however he's the key to an Indiana offense that no longer has Chappell slinging passes all over the field.
What everyone's talking about: The new-look defense – The Hawkeyes lost a ton of defensive talent, from Adrian Clayborn to Karl Klug to Christian Ballard to Tyler Sash to Brett Greenwood, and those guys won't be easy to replace.
Another thing to talk about: Kirk Ferentz – Some think Ferentz is slightly overrated, but he's the Big Ten football version of Bo Ryan, to me. While critics question how Ferentz will replace the stars he lost to graduation and the NFL, he keeps the Hawkeyes relevant and always seems to pull out a good season when no one expects it.
What everyone's talking about: The Brady Hoke-Denard Robinson dynamic – How will Hoke, a pro-style coach use the star quarterback who is so electric in the open field?
Another thing to talk about: The defense and special teams – If you've watched the Wolverines lately, you now know why it's so hard for teams to succeed when they're no-shows, at best, in two of three facets of the game. Basically, Hoke and his staff's work with the defense and kicking game is worthy of much attention.
What everyone's talking about: The offense – How the offense returns veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins, running backs Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell and a host of dangerous pass-catchers.
Another thing to talk about:The defense, in particular the linebackers – Greg Jones and Eric Gordon meant a lot more to the Spartans defense and overall success than the outstanding numbers they compiled throughout their fabulous careers. They were leaders, they were guys Mark Dantonio could depend on, and they made everyone else's job on the defense a bit easier.
What everyone's talking about: The new quarterback – For the first time since 2006, someone other than Adam Weber will quarterback Minnesota. That guy, of course: MarQueis Gray.
Another thing to talk about: How will the MarQueis Gray-Da'Jon McKnight connection work? If there was one bright spot for Minnesota during the disappointing 2010 season, it was the emergence of McKnight, who finished with a conference-high 10 receiving touchdowns, to go along with 750 yards. This could turn into one of the Big Ten's better and most exciting pass-catch duos.
What everyone's talking about: The transition to the Big Ten and the brutal conference schedule (competition went 37-27 in Big Ten play last season), which features all three of last year's Big Ten champs.
Another thing to talk about: The defense – Yes, the unit has lost a first-round NFL pick each of the past two seasons, but Lincoln is still home to plenty of top-tier defensive talent. Jared Crick and Lavonte David anchor the talented unit, and the former very well could win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and make it three straight years a Husker defender has gone in the NFL's first round.
What everyone's talking about: Dan Persa – Whether it's his recovery from last year's season-ending Achilles' injury or his great talents, he's the subject of Northwestern football.
Another thing to talk about: The running game – Even if Dan Persa returns to his old self, Northwestern won't be able to compete for the Big Ten title without an improved backfield. Under Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats have rarely been known for their running prowess. They won't need to be in 2011, either, but they do need their top runner to run for more than 530 yards — as Mike Trumpy did last season — 11 yards more than Persa after all the sack yardage is accounted for.
What everyone's talking about: The five-game suspensions – How will the Buckeyes play without their star quarterback, top receiver and top running back, among others?
Another thing to talk about: The schedule – During a five-game span, including three without the aforemention suspended players, not to mention Jim Tressel, this is what the Buckeyes face: at Miami (FL, not OH), vs. Colorado, vs. Michigan State, at Nebraska and at Illinois. That's three road games in five weeks, five straight games against FBS teams all before the Big Ten slate really heats up. In other words, the schedule doesn't help Ohio State in its trek to a record seventh straight Big Ten crown.
What everyone's talking about: The quarterback battle – Which returnee, Rob Bolden or Matt McGloin, will distance himself from the other and become the starter this fall?
Another thing to talk about: The defense – Penn State isn't a team that will have the success it expects if it has to outscore the opposition; in fact, the Nittany Lions were outscored 220-202 in Big Ten play last season. The 220 points (27.5 ppg) were nine fewer than Penn State had allowed in the previous two seasons combined.
What everyone's talking about: Health – After last season's injury bug reached epidemic levels, the injury report is the first thing people think of right now when it comes to the Boilermakers.
Another thing to talk about: Rob Henry – Will he stave off Robert Marve and others to win the quarterback battle, and if so, could he be this year's Dan Persa? Henry led Purdue in rushing (547 yards) last year and completed 53 percent of his passes despite inexperience and an injured finger.
What everyone's talking about: The quarterback position – Who's going to replace Scott Tolzien, and how much different will the offense look as a result?
Another thing to talk about: The running backs – No matter the quarterback, standout running backs Montee Ball and James White are going to shine and be the focal point of Wisconsin's offense. It always helps to have a quarterback that defenses must respect, but the offense will continue to thrive, as long as the running backs stay healthy.