2011 Big Ten Conference Summary

Janzen Jackson's dismissal from Tennessee saved me; I was seriously, and irrationally, talking myself into the Vols as a major sleeper in the SEC, but I cannot do that if they don't have an All-American safety in tow. So that just means I have to double-down on my other irrational sleeper pick: Michigan. You've been warned.

Five Predictions for the Big Ten in 2011:
1. Michigan wins the damn Legends Division. That's right.
2. Penn State enters mid-November as the highest-ranked team in the Leaders Division (but doesn't win the division).
3. Somehow, some way, Illinois makes another bowl game, and Ron Zook survives to coach another year.
4. By late-October, Nebraska fans will have convinced themselves that, like Big 12 refs, Big Ten refs are also conspiring against them.
5. Oh why the hell not ... Michigan beats Wisconsin in the conference title game. Might as well go all-in, right?

And yes, this means I've now picked Utah to win the Pac-12 and Michigan to win the Big Ten. This despite the fact that I'm terrified of the prospects of "Denard Robinson, Pro-Style Quarterback." This is why I let numbers make my predictions for me; I cannot be trusted to remain rational. Then again, I'll be making up for it by picking Alabama and Oklahoma to win their respective conferences...

LEGENDS DIVISION

Iowa

Proven Programs And The Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa is likely to take a step backwards in 2011, and even if they don't live up to F.O. projections, they still couldn't be timing an iffy season any better. The schedule at hand probably precludes too far a fall. But with so few returning starters, less-than-spectacular recruits replacing proven stars, and a pretty steep YPP margin, there are decent odds that Iowa will look back on 2011 as a transition year of sorts.

The 2011 season will shine a light on the future of the Iowa program. With sophomores like Marcus Coker and James Morris already having made names for themselves, and with so many other sophomores who played at least minor roles in 2010, the future will be on display. A division title run would make the Hawkeyes potentially heavy division favorites in coming years, but really, simple progress is the key. Avoid a crippling backslide, make a decent bowl (not hard to do with the Big Ten's bowl affiliations) and build for 2012.

Michigan

The Michigan Wolverines And The Power Of Perception

Strong recruiting averages ... tons of returning starters ... an encouraging-for-2011 YPP margin ... the fact that our numbers don't like Nebraska nearly as much as everybody else ... you should just go ahead and get used to the idea now: when our Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections are officially finalized and released, there is a decent chance that Michigan will be projected at or near the top of the Legends Division. I'm not saying it's what I personally think will happen, but it's easy to see what the numbers might be seeing here. The Big Ten has a bit of a power void with Ohio State's issues and Wisconsin's losses, and with Michigan finishing the year with home games against Nebraska and Ohio State, there's a decent chance they could hold their title destiny in their hands.

Or, you know, not. Denard Robinson could take to a more "pro style" offense as well as Brad Smith did (he's already a better passer than Smith, though, so he's got that going for him), the offense could freeze up when Robinson attempts to go against his instincts, and Mattison might throw up his hands (and his lunch) in realizing that there's nothing he can do with this defense. But again, one can see what the numbers might like here. Great offense plus can't-be-any-worse defense plus power void? Count Michigan as a Big Ten sleeper, though you can feel free to ignore I said this if they go 5-7. The whole "Michigan as sleeper" thing is a bit off-putting, though; this is not a program that is supposed to be anything but a favorite. Good luck, Coach Hoke.

Michigan State

Last Impressions And The Michigan State Spartans

One would think that a major conference team that managed to win 11 games despite an overall ranking of 30th (and despite getting obliterated by the best team on its schedule) got some lucky bounces along the way. And to be sure, a 4-0 record in close games suggests the same (after all, the genius fake field goal against Notre Dame was only genius because an Irish defender fell down). But in all, they weren't quite as lucky as you might think. Their YPP margin is balanced out slightly by what was rather poor fumbles luck, and as their Adj. Score suggests above, they really were quite consistent. State succeeded in ways they can duplicate in the future -- punishing run game, play-action, and an aggressive, fundamentally sound defense. But while there is a lot to like about the offense (basically the same things one would have liked last year, minus some line depth), the defense looks as if it is probably a year away from regaining its 2010 form. You can succeed counting on sophomores, but it's difficult to plan on it.

We have just about finalized our Football Outsiders 2011 projections, and it appears as if the Legends division is going to be a complete free-for-all, with Nebraska, State, Michigan and Iowa all having a chance at the crown. State gets Michigan at home but has to head to both Lincoln and Iowa City, and that will probably preclude them from taking the title. But with underclassmen in the backfield and a super-young defense, State should be able to build for making serious noise in 2012.

Minnesota

The Minnesota Golden Gophers And Glen Mason Territory

During Brewster's tenure, Minnesota's offense and defense seemed to improve and regress in a zero-sum way.  The offense got worse in 2008, and the defense got better.  The offense got better in 2010, and the defense got worse.  The Gophers were without either direction or identity.  Looking at Jerry Kill's track record, then, this appears to be a great hire.  "Directionless program" is right in his wheelhouse.  Whether he can recruit well enough to advance Minnesota beyond the 7-8 win ceiling they typically hit with Glen Mason is obviously still unknown, but he knows how to build identities and win totals for floundering football programs.

Kill inherits a team that has recruited relatively well through the years (at least compared to their win totals), that returns a lot of starters (particularly on defense), and that should benefit from a regression to the mean in the YPP category.  If MarQueis Gray takes to the new offensive system, then the Gophers could make some interesting things happen.  If Gray thrives and Minnesota discovers a pass rush ... well ... actually, let's stick to realistic if's.  There probably isn't much hope for the defensive ends.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: the key for Minnesota's 2011 season will be ... a fast start!  (This has been the key for just about every team previewed in the last two weeks.)  After a trip to USC, Minnesota has the opportunity to plow through New Mexico State, Miami (Ohio) and North Dakota State before beginning conference play.  "Opportunity" doesn't always result in wins, of course, but these are the easiest games on the schedule, and any chance of six wins goes out the window if Minny starts less than 3-1.

Nebraska

Rivalry And The Nebraska Cornhuskers

The conventional wisdom surrounding this year's Big Ten race is that Wisconsin is the favorite in the East Leaders, Nebraska in the West Legends. And to be sure, that is a possible outcome. But the projections in the upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 paint a different picture. As with last year, we're not giving Nebraska benefit of the doubt (and last year, it turned out our Nebraska projections -- ten wins and a ranking in the 20s -- were much closer to reality than the preseason polls). Thanks in part to a brutal conference slate, our projections say they could very well be in a dogfight with Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State (though I won't spoil the order, all four are predicted to finish either 5-3 or 4-4 in conference this fall).

This may seem counter-intuitive (But ... Nebraska! Defense! Taylor Martinez!), but it's not hard to see what the numbers see here. Their long-term performance rankings are only solid and far from great. Their YPP margin suggests they got a bit lucky last year in terms of both points-to-yards efficiency and fumbles luck. They finished horribly (though obviously this had a bit to do with injuries). They return Martinez but lose three line starters and their two biggest non-Martinez big-play threats. They have to replace a ton of talent in the secondary and must rely on a defensive line that got pushed around more than expected (and they're now in a conference where you can get pushed around quite a bit).

Bo Pelini has obviously restored quite a bit of Nebraska's shine, but they still have yet to finish higher than 16th in the year-end F/+ rankings, and there's no guarantee this will be the year either. Maybe Tim Beck and a completely healthy Martinez cure the at-times ailing offense, maybe Jamal Turner turns out to be an incredible big-play threat, maybe the rest of the defensive line helps Jared Crick out a bit more, and maybe Alfonzo Dennard is Prince Amukamara 2.0. But give me four "maybes," and I can turn Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State into great teams too. As we wait to see the new rivalries into which Nebraska gets fully immersed, we should also probably wait and see if all the pieces finally come together at an elite level for the Pelinis instead of simply assuming they will.

Northwestern

Adversarial Statistics And The Northwestern Wildcats

Thanks to defensive regression, the Wildcats have slid backwards a bit since their nine-win season in 2008.  The offense should be as efficient as ever in 2011, but without any added big-play threats, the ceiling is only so high.  The defense did not benefit from Persa's absence and Watkins' turnovers, but they weren't very good before Persa's injury either, and they will be severely limited if they cannot figure out how to get pressure on the quarterback.

The 2011 Wildcats are experienced and, in theory at least, healthy. Those hater statistics probably don't see too high a ceiling here, but we just have to assume that they'll once again put together enough close wins to still be playing in late-December or (because they're in the Big Ten) January 1.

Northwestern's schedule is odd.  They will need all the benefits of experience, as they begin with six of nine games on the road.  While quite a few teams (like Kansas State) barely have to leave home over the first 4-6 weeks of the season, Northwestern will have played at Boston College, Army and Illinois by October 2. After a home game against Michigan, they face another three road trips in four weeks.  Yuck.  This team should be mature enough to handle this and still probably reach six wins (even our initial projections think so), but this certainly isn't the easiest slate in the world. Here's to hoping Persa is completely healthy, as despite its limitations, the Northwestern offense is unique and entertaining when it's clicking.

LEADERS DIVISION

Illinois

Service Breaks And The Illinois Fighting Illini

Is there any killing Zombie Ron Zook at this point? It really does feel like he's been on a hot seat of some sort for decades (then again, he knows how to cool off), but he keeps winning just enough to survive. And with a rather ridiculous eight home games this year (the non-conference slate: Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Western Michigan, Arizona State) the odds of their reaching bowl eligibility again in 2011 are solid. We can debate what Zook's long-term prognosis is in Champaign-Urbana, but this is Ron Zook. There is no long-term.

Though the schedule gets much more difficult in conference play, it should still at least slightly offset what is likely to be regression on the field. The Illini had solid fumble and YPP luck last season, and combined with the loss of a few stars, it will be difficult to avoid a drop-off. But a strong staff and quite a few young players who got their feet wet next year, the regression shouldn't be severe. This should be a decent-not-great squad, but for a program that was expecting the worst this time last year, the improvement in prognosis has been noticeable and somewhat significant.

Indiana

The Indiana Hoosiers And The Ever-Lasting Game of Catch-Up

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?  An optimist sees a decent passing offense, a reasonably healthy number of returning starters, an encouraging YPP margin, and the fact that Indiana almost made a bowl despite a cripplingly bad defense.  (Hmm, spell check is telling me "cripplingly" is actually a real word.  I was not expecting that.)  An optimist also would see that the Hoosiers' 2011 schedule really isn't that much more difficult than last year's.  Virginia is better than anybody they played in non-con last year, but Virginia still isn't very good, and the game's at home.  So if the Hoosiers can go 4-0 out of conference and knock off Purdue again, they're right back within one game of bowl eligibility!

A pessimist sees a defense that was truly, truly awful, an offense that was one-dimensional (with a running game that isn't just guaranteed to be better this year), a coaching staff that will be handcuffed by the talent (or lack thereof) on hand, a turnover margin that isn't guaranteed to improve, and a schedule that, while not devastating, is still indeed a little tougher.

I've always been a big Kevin Wilson fan, and I admire him for taking on this building (salvaging?) project.  But I cannot say I am tremendously optimistic for Wilson's chances of success any time soon.  I assume I'm probably not the only one who feels that way.  The Hoosiers are playing catch-up in terms of their level of talent, playing catch-up in terms of facilities, and ... just playing catch-up, period.

Ohio State

The Ohio State Buckeyes And The Unprojectables

I mentioned the word "injury" or "health" seven times above. Depending on the good injury karma the Buckeyes have managed to preserve, Ohio State could quite possibly still field a conference championship-caliber team this fall despite all the off-the-field drama. Our projections, admittedly based so little on precedent, say they will be duking it out with Wisconsin for the inaugural Leaders Division.

It isn't hard to see why. The Buckeyes' four-year performance averages rank 11 spots higher than the No. 2 Big Ten team (Penn State). Their five-year recruiting averages rank three spots higher than Michigan (which has its own set of issues) and nine spots higher than Nebraska. They return seven offensive starters, and their three suspended starters will only miss one conference game, a home battle with Michigan State. Despite a potentially negative YPP margin, they have a lot going for them despite all that is going against them. And, needless to say, the fact that they host Wisconsin (for Homecoming, no less) is not a bad thing.

This has been an incredibly negative offseason for college football, and Ohio State has had a role to play in that. As the Buckeyes attempt to collect themselves and move on from Jim Tressel's resignation, Terrelle Pryor's departure, etc. (they should have never left Herbstreit leave town...), they should be able to put a high-quality product on the field.

Penn State

The Penn State Nittany Lions And Your Day In The Sun

Penn State has a proven recent track record, and they have recruited strong depth in areas of recent need (quarterback, defensive end, linebacker). That alone suggests a bounceback from last year's iffy season is likely. PSU was young in all the wrong ways last year, and it caused some rather predictable setbacks.

The 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac projections for the Nittany Lions are a bit conservative -- 30th overall, 8-4 projected record, 5-3 in the Big Ten -- but the way the schedule shapes up, PSU should find itself in the race for the Big Ten East Leaders crown for quite a while. Why? Because their two most likely conference losses are the final two games on the schedule: they visit Ohio State on November 19 and Wisconsin on November 26. If those are two of their three projected conference losses, they they are very likely looking at a situation where they take an 8-2 (or so) record into mid-November and get a good amount of "Look who bounced back!" press. Joe Paterno's 46th season on the sidelines should result in him reaching, or getting awfully close to, 410 career wins.

Purdue

Sold Souls And The Purdue Boilermakers

At Football Outsiders, we don't yet have a way to capture the number of games lost to injuries, but until proven otherwise, I'm just going to assume Purdue was the national leader in the category.  A program that had reliably fluctuated on either side of the F/+ Mendoza line (+0.0) suddenly collapsed under the weight of their M*A*S*H unit.  In and of itself, that suggests Purdue could rebound quite a bit since no one gets obliterated by injuries (of both the silly and less than silly variety) every year, right?

Right?

Leaving injuries aside, the Boilers return a healthy number of starters, and their YPP margin and Adj. TO Margin both suggest that they were unlucky in this regard (okay, in every regard) last year. If the COTG is done messing with Boiler fans, Purdue could be well positioned (in other words, they're semi-experienced and in possession of a rather easy schedule) to at least return to bowl eligibility in 2011.  The quarterback race and its implications will be interesting to watch, but if a better line and a healthy Ralph Bolden can actually establish a decent running game, that will make life easier for whoever wins the job.  I expect a more aggressive secondary to somewhat counteract a line that loses mighty Ryan Kerrigan, and Purdue's success should, in the end, be decided by both the health and effectiveness of the offense and the coaches' ability to actually get to know their personnel and gameplan accordingly.

Wisconsin

Raw Power And The Wisconsin Badgers

I really don't see any way Wisconsin doesn't regress at least a bit in 2011. In replacing two All-Americans on the line, a stud defensive end, and 40% of a thin-but-steady secondary, and in potentially seeing worse fumbles luck and a lesser YPP margin, Wisconsin is going to struggle to finish in the F/+ Top 12 again this fall. That's the bad news. The good news? Nobody else in the Big Ten is likely to finish in the Top 12 either. A weaker Wisconsin squad is still going to fight it out to the last minute with a weaker Ohio State squad for the Leaders? Legends? Leaders (I think) Division title.

It's amazing to remember that Bret Bielema was on a bit of a hot seat as recently as a couple of years ago. Wisconsin went just 7-6 in 2008, giving up far too many points and not scoring nearly enough. Instead of making any significant stylistic changes, he just doubled down on Wisconsin's "size and strength" identity. Two years and 21 wins later, he has, with Ohio State's recent off-the-field problems, built perhaps the most stable program in the new Big Ten. Even if the Badgers take a likely step backwards this fall, and even if Russell Wilson brings about a bit of a shift in the plays that are called, this team is going to have the strongest identity, and be one of the toughest outs, in the conference, and they're going to have solid odds at returning to the Rose Bowl in January.

Predicted Order Of Finish

NOTE: These predictions have nothing to do with the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections released recently (now on Amazon!) -- these are just based on my own impressions of each team as I was writing up the previews. It is intended to be more of a power poll than a set of predictions based on a lengthy look at the schedules. And it will change 17 more times between now and when the season starts.

Legends
1. Michigan
2. Nebraska
3. Michigan State
4. Iowa
5. Northwestern
6. Minnesota

Leaders
1. Wisconsin
2. Ohio State
3. Penn State
4. Illinois
5. Purdue
6. Indiana

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