At First Glance: Big Ten Legends Division Preview

September 4, 2012

College Football, Features

1. Michigan State Spartans:

Sparty is returning eight players on last year’s sixth ranked defense in the country. The hype surrounding their rivals in Ann Arbor has allowed MSU to become sleepers to win the Legends Division, but that’s not to say they won’t be challenged by teams like Michigan or Nebraska. While MSU’s defense should be rock solid this year and they looked great against Boise State in Friday night’s season opener, the offense is certainly suspect.

Standout players such as Johnny Adams, left, and William Gholston, middle, should give the Spartans an edge in the Legends Division.

Running back Leveon Bell catapulted himself into early Heisman talks with his 210 yards rushing, two touchdown performance Friday, but he was the lone bright spot in the Spartan offense. The key to MSU winning the Legends Division is the development of first year starter junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell and his receiving core. Tony Lippett was listed as the number one receiver on the depth chart, but saw fewer and fewer snaps as the game went on after bobbling a pass that led to an interception and fumbling. The only pass catcher that looked consistent against the Broncos was tight end Dion Sims, who caught seven balls for 65 yards. Leaning on a big target like Sims will be key for Maxwell this year. I think the Spartans’ dominating defense will be enough to win most games, but winning the Legends Division, as I think they will, hinges on the steady development of the passing game. Having Bell to carry the rock should help open defenses up for Maxwell. There will be a stumbling block somewhere, but it won’t be enough to keep them from going to the Big Ten Championship.

2. Michigan Wolverines:

Denard Robinson is a talented playmaker, no doubt, but its his arm that could make or break this season for the Wolverines.

Despite the Alabama debacle, Denard Robinson and the Michigan Wolverines are still clearly among the Big Ten’s best. Michigan has the most athletic offense in the conference and that will certainly show when they’re not facing powerhouses like the Crimson Tide, which would make most NCAA offenses look pathetic. The Michigan defense is a force to be reckoned with as well, returning seven starters from last year’s ninth best defense in the country.

They don’t have the dominant individual players like MSU has in Johnny Adams or William Gholston, but I still expect this defense to look good. Where the Wolverines should really excel is on offense though, with Robinson coming back with a go-to guy in Roy Roundtree. The receiving core should be a strength, with talent like Roundtree, Jeremy Gallon, and Devin Gardner, who moved into the core from the backup QB spot. They should also have a dangerous running game with Fitzgerald Toussaint returning. Toussaint was suspended for the Alabama game due to pending legal issues, but has already been reinstated. And, of course, Robinson is always a threat on the ground. But Michigan’s best weapon — Denard Robinson — is also its biggest question mark. Will the talented receiving core go to waste because of Robinson’s inconsistency? Michigan is a major threat in the Legends Division. I think they finish second with Robinson almost single-handedly both winning and losing them games.

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers:

Just like Michigan, Nebraska is returning seven starters on each side of the ball. Taylor Martinez looked incredible in the season opener against Southern Miss (26-34, 354 yards, 5 touchdowns, 0 interceptions), and, while the competition wasn’t the greatest, if Martinez can play like that consistently, the Cornhuskers could be playing for the Big Ten Championship. However, it’s hard to imagine he can play so flawlessly against teams like the two I have ranked ahead of Nebraska. Another major concern for the Huskers is Rex Burkhead’s sprained knee ligament suffered after only three carries. Burkhead’s 68 yards on those three carries should give you an idea of how important he is to the offense, but he is now “day-to-day, week-to-week,” according to Coach Bo Pelini.

Returning starting running back Rex Burkhead, left, and quarterback Taylor Martinez, right, are sure to keep the Cornhuskers in contention for the Legends Division title, but Burkhead’s health will play a major factor.

Nebraska did not have an elite defense last year, but it was still in the top 40 nationally. With Burkhead at 100% and Martinez continually improving, the Cornhuskers could challenge Michigan and Michigan State for the top of the Legends Division, but with Burkhead battling back from a knee injury and Martinez not yet being tested against a tough defense, I have to put Nebraska definitively at #3. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, to see them upset a superior Big Ten team one of these weeks.

4. Iowa Hawkeyes:

The Hawkeyes looked scary bad in their narrow, field-goal-only offense 18-17 win over Northern Illinois Saturday, but I still can’t put them below Northwestern or Minnesota. Iowa is returning six starters on offense and five on defense, but the problem is, both the offense and defense, as units, were mediocre last year. The return of senior quarterback James Vandenberg is the best thing Iowa has going for it and he’s coming off of a solid season as far as QB rating is concerned (138.4).

Senior quarterback James Vandenberg should be a bright spot for the Hawkeyes this year, but he won’t be enough to make them contenders in the Legends Division.

Damon Bullock is a good running back, but he’s far from elite, especially when compared to the likes of Bell, Toussaint, Burkhead and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, all within his own conference. I don’t expect too much from the defense. It’s hard to believe that the Hawkeyes were a Big Ten powerhouse just two years ago.

5. Northwestern Wildcats:

The Wildcats unveiled some interesting new uniforms in the offseason, but I don’t see them playing much differently in them.

Northwestern seems to be a picture of consistency…but not quite the consistency that most teams hope for. They’re going to have an offense in the middle of the pack nationally and a pretty terrible defense.

The Wildcats’ 42-41 victory of Syracuse in the season opener should be proof enough of that. The offense will be good enough to win them six, maybe seven games, but no more than that. I gave Iowa the edge because of James Vandenberg and a superior defense, but if Northwestern can beat Iowa in their week nine matchup, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Wildcats jump to #4 in the Legends Division.

6. Minnesota Golden Gophers:

The good news is, the Gophers are returning six starters on offense and five on defense…the bad news is, the Gophers are returning six starters on offense and five on defense. Minnesota finished the season at 3-9 last year and I honestly don’t expect them to fare much better this year. Their triple-overtime win over UNLV was an exciting and positive way to start the season, but it doesn’t mean the whole season will be that way. I have the Golden Gophers definitively at the bottom of the Legends Division.

MarQueis Gray makes a lot of plays, both with his feet and arm, for the Golden Gophers, but his inconsistent passing and weak supporting cast should land Minnesota at the bottom of the Legends Division.

Final Analysis:

The Legends Division should be highly competitive and exciting to watch this year, even near the bottom with Iowa and Northwestern likely jockeying for position in the fourth and fifth place spots. As far as the division’s top dogs, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a situation similar to 2010 with Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Michigan State beat Wisconsin, Wisconsin beat Ohio State, and Michigan State and Ohio State didn’t get to face one another. Thankfully, MSU, Michigan and Nebraska all face-off this year, but I can certainly envision a scenario in which the Spartans beat the Wolverines, the Wolverines beat the Cornhuskers, and the Cornhuskers beat the Spartans. The Spartan defense is elite, and its enough for me to believe they will prevail in the Legends Division, but who do YOU like?

I hope you’re as excited for this year’s Big Ten action as I am. Come back next Tuesday when I preview the Leaders Division after a second glance.

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