Monday, August 5, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The Big Ten/Notre Dame

Few quarterbacks will have more on their plate in 2013 than Nebraska's Taylor Martinez.

By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

The Big Ten is done expanding for now, but everyone knows the conference has always coveted Notre Dame.

And why not. The Irish are a bona-fide national brand situated squarely in the conference's geographic footprint, and they already have rivalries with Big Ten schools Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, along with several historic encounters with Penn State and Ohio State under their belt.

The Irish almost make too much sense in the Big Ten.

So what does Notre Dame do? They join the ACC in every sport other than football (The only sport the Big Ten would actually want them for). Well you know what Irish? I'm lumping you in with the Big Ten for the sake of my previews. You're an aging football brand from the midwest that has spent the last 15 years catching up to the rest of the country strategically, and were annihilated by an SEC team in the BCS Championship Game: Sounds like a Big Ten team to me.

Will Urban's Legend Grow in Columbus

Coach Urban Meyer led his renegade Buckeyes to a perfect season in 2012 (The only undefeated campaign in the country), and it's national title or bust for OSU fans in 2013. But, there will be plenty of distractions. Meyer suspended Carlos Hyde, the team's top running back, for at least three games after he was accused of assault, and the coach has been the subject of national scrutiny since Aaron Hernandez, one of Meyer's stars at the University of Florida, was charged with murder in Massachusetts.

Despite all this, the Buckeyes will enter 2013 as the prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten, and a popular pick to play in this season's BCS National Championship Game. OSU returns dual-threat Heisman candidate quarterback Braxton Miller, along with receivers Philly Brown and Devin Smith. Miller's ability to run (He led the Bucks with 1,271 rushing yards in 2012) should mitigate the loss of Hyde, and the Buckeyes return four of five offensive linemen.

The Big Ten's top scoring offense from a year ago is largely intact.

Where things get tricky is on defense. The Buckeyes were virtually immovable against the run last season, allowing less than 120 yards per game, but will now have to replace their entire defensive line, and six members of the front seven. The lone returnee in the front seven is a great one, All American outside linebacker Ryan Shazier, but it's hard to see OSU dominating at the point of attack with so many new faces. Sophomore defensive end Noah Spence is said to be an athletic freak, and he'll have to realize that potential in a hurry.

The secondary, however, should be one of the nation's best, returning All American Bradley Roby, along with a pair of fantastic safeties. But, as talented as the defensive backs are, OSU still ranked 11th in the Big Ten (Out of 12 teams) in pass defense. That, and the fact that the Buckeyes won half of last season's 12 games by a touchdown or less, are factors that make me wary of picking Ohio State to play for a national championship this year.

My God, These Division Names...

The Big Ten will mercifully change its division names from the comical "Leaders" and "Legends," to the much less interesting "East" and "West" in 2014 when Maryland and Rutgers join the conference. Ohio State is a consensus pick to win the Leaders division in its final season with Wisconsin in transition and Penn State ineligible, but picking the last Legends champion is a little trickier.

Michigan is a trendy pick after junior quarterback Devin Gardner filled in admirably for the now graduated Denard Robinson. Gardner threw for 11 touchdowns and ran for another five in five games of relief for the injured Robinson, and coach Brady Hoke believes his new quarterback can add a new dimension to the offense with his ability to push the ball downfield.

But, the defense loses a plethora of play makers, so perhaps things have again opened up nicely for fourth-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez and Nebraska. The Huskers return seven starters from the Big Ten's top total offense, including Martinez, star running back Ameer Abdullah and All American guard Spencer Long. All that firepower is great, but it won't matter much if head coach and defensive guru Bo Pelini can't rebuild a defense that gave up nearly 200 yards per game on the ground in 2012.

Northwestern, led by dynamic senior quarterback Kain Coulter should figure into this race as well. The Wildcats ran the football well and didn't turn it over a season ago, but they'll have to dramatically improve the Big Ten's worst pass defense if they want to make the trip to Indy for the title game.

All Questions on Offense for Notre Dame

The Irish allowed under 13 points per game in 2012, good for second in the nation, and return eight starters from that stingy bunch. The defensive line will once again lead the way, as All American juniors Stephen Tuitt and Louis Nix III return at end and nose respectively. Don't expect to be able to run the ball on the Irish with these two guys up front (Well, unless you're Alabama).

The Irish return three of four linebackers, but replacing Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o will be a challenge. Still, Notre Dame coaches think senior Carlo Calabrese and sophomore Jarrett Grace will be able to fill that void by committee. Three starters return in the secondary, and a few highly regarded newcomers should actually improve Notre Dame's defensive backfield.

But then there's the offense.

Part of the reason Notre Dame had to win so many close ones (5 games by a combined 23 points) was that the offense was average and, at times, turnover prone. The hope was that quarterback Everett Golson would take the next step after an up-and-down redshirt freshman season, but Golson is out (At least for this season) after an academic issue. That leaves senior Tommy Rees, who actually came in to lead the Irish on a game-winning drive against Purdue, and start two other games.

Rees has experience and has delivered under pressure, but his arm-strength and athleticism are nowhere near Golson's. The Irish may actually be a more consistent team with Rees under center, but their ceiling is decidedly lower.

Possible Sleeper: Michigan St.

Coach Mark Dantonio has built a winner in East Lansing, and the Spartan program now revolves around running the football and playing tough defense. State was able to do both last year, but quarterback Andrew Maxwell's ineffectiveness and inconsistency limited the Spartans at times.

But, MSU returns eight starters from an offense that improved down the stretch, and the defense should once again be stout, with five starters returning from last season's back seven. Defensive line is a concern, but under Dantonio the Spartans have always found a way to defend the run well.

The real question will be if Maxwell, now a senior, can improve throwing the ball. If he's even just a serviceable Big Ten passer, the Spartans could win the wide-open Legends division. If not, they could fall in behind in-state rival Michigan, Nebraska and upstart Northwestern, the latter two of which State must play on the road.

Players to Watch

Tre Roberson (So.), QB, Indiana. Taylor Lewan (Sr.), OT, Michigan. Ricardo Allen (Sr.), CB, Purdue

Robseron returns to lead coach Kevin Wilson's wide open attack after missing 2012 with a broken leg. Roberson turned some heads as a true freshman in 2011, throwing for nearly 1,000 yards and rushing for another 425 in five starts. Turnovers and rust are a concern, but the schedule couldn't be any easier for Roberson and the Hoosiers, who start the year with five consecutive home games, and play an absurd eight games at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington.

If Indiana doesn't make a bowl game with Roberson healthy and that schedule, Wilson could start to feel some heat.

Lewan returns for his senior season in Ann Arbor with the chance to finally show his skills as a pro-style pass protector. At 6-foot-8, 310 lbs. with long arms, Lewan certainly has the measurables, but we'll see how he does protecting Gardner this year. If he develops as expected, Michigan could be back in a BCS Bowl by season's end.

It should also be mentioned that Lewan did an incredible job on South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney in last season's Outback Bowl. While most people will remember Clowney's incredible hit from that game, Lewan held the All American without a sack, and without a tackle for loss while the two were matched up against each other (Clowney's ridiculous hit came when Lewan blocked down on the DT and the TE was responsible for blocking down on Clowney).

Purdue isn't known for great defensive backs, but it is the alma mater of Hall of Famer Rod Woodson. Well, Ricardo Allen broke Woodson's record for pick-6s last season, and fought through injuries to enjoy a solid year in man-to-man coverage (He allowed 0 catches in three different games). With partner in crime Josh Johnson now graduated, look for the undersized but electrifying corner to take on every opposing team's best receiver in 2013.

Projections for 2013

Here is how I see the Big Ten and Notre Dame finishing in 2013.

Insider Opinion: Jon Nyatawa  @JonNyatawa

Jon was my editor at the Purdue Exponent, Purdue's student newspaper, and taught me to never use cliches. I still do, but hey, he tried. He now covers Nebraska sports for the Omaha World-Herald, leading him back to the Big Ten after the Huskers joined the conference in 2011. Just when he thought he was out… -JP

 Ohio State's clearly establishing itself as the league's premier powerhouse.

Few coaches have more credibility in the sport than Urban Meyer, who seems to have revived a winning culture overnight. Braxton Miller is one of the game's most exciting players to watch, leading the power-spread offense that Meyer used effectively against those talent-filled SEC defenses. The Buckeyes are reloading on defense, but they've got a soft schedule to make up for some growing pains. This team could be national-title worthy.

So, the question for the rest of the Big Ten: Can anybody keep up? And not just this year. Going forward. What's the future for this conference?

Michigan's recruiting talented prospects, but two years into the Brady Hoke era is hardly a legitimate sample size to gauge the program's upcoming trajectory. Wisconsin's an afterthought now that Russell Wilson's in the NFL and Bret Bielema's trash-talking from his new home in Arkansas.

Michigan State and Nebraska seem to have plateaued lately. Iowa's in the dumps. Minnesota, Northwestern and Indiana might be trending in a positive direction, but their lack of tradition/support/resources presumably caps their ability to maintain relevancy. Don't forget, Maryland and Rutgers are joining in 2014 (If you forgot, it's OK. The conference's latest expansion strategy has shoulder-shrug impact outside the Midwest).

Back to 2013. It's an important year for the Big Ten, which is still seeking to rebuild a national reputation that's been tanking ever since Meyer's Gators torched Ohio State in the 2007 BCS title game. Notre Dame-Michigan. UCLA-Nebraska. Ohio State-California. Those are the statement games in September. But comical losses to low-level, directional-named tend to have as much influence on public option as a marquee win.

The Big Ten, collectively, needs a strong non-conference and a thrilling league race that ends with a memorable title game in December. It'll be up to Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska (maybe Michigan State and Northwestern) to avoid letdowns, maintain momentum and keep pace with the Buckeyes. It's Ohio State's league right now.


The veteran-filled offense will likely have to carry this team. And that's OK. Dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez is back for his fourth year as a starter. Turnovers plagued him at times last year, but improved fundamentals should help him alleviate some of those mistakes. Nebraska has more talent at receiver and more depth on the offensive line than its had in years. There are question marks behind junior running back Ameer Abdullah, but he proved during a short stretch last season (Four straight 100-yard games against Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State) that he can handle an expanded workload.

Little else is guaranteed for the Huskers. They have a tackle, an end and two cornerbacks returning from last year's starting lineup on defense.

That's it.

They're grooming young prospects in their front seven and the coaches are optimistic that more speed and increased athleticism will help them compensate for mistakes. But the unit gave up 70 points in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin. Personnel wasn't the only issue. And just in case Nebraska's staff wasn't busy enough, there were some schematic weaknesses on special teams last year, too. Plus, the Huskers need a new kicker, punter and long snapper.

Fortunately for Nebraska, its schedule might be even easier than Ohio State's cakewalk. So there will be plenty of margin for error.

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