Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 7:00 AM
Most college football conferences and divisions have races that are fairly well established heading into the 2013 season. You know who the favorites are. You know who has almost no chance to compete. There are a few darkhorses here and there. But…it’s mostly going to be the usual suspects making headlines across the nation this season.
The “Legends” division of the Big 10 isn’t like that. Preseason experts are having real trouble picking a favorite amongst the talented but imperfect foursome of Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan, and Michigan State. They all return experience at quarterback. They all return head coaches who have tasted success. They all are capable of playing with anybody over 60 minutes of football, or laying monster eggs where you wonder about what’s going on in the head of either the offensive or defensive coordinator.
Let’s go over some key information from that quartet plus projected also-rans Minnesota and Iowa as we continue our summer series of conference previews. Remember that the returning starter information comes from the respected Athlon publication (check out JIM HURLEY’S display ad on page 173!)
BIG 10 LEGENDS
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 5 on defense
Quarterback: Devin Gardner
Head Coach: Brady Hoke
Last year, Gardner helped salvage what was becoming a disappointing campaign with Denard Robinson at quarterback. Robinson got hurt…and Gardner moved the ball and put points on the board! Competitive losses to Ohio State and South Carolina in the last two games of the season should have been confidence boosters considering where those teams finished in the rankings. Athlon appears to be giving Michigan the nod in this conference based on “potential” rather than sure things that are returning. We’ll watch the Notre Dame game very closely on September 7, because that’s the only really tough game until November. The Wolverines must play their other three main competitors in this division to begin the final month of the season.
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 4 on defense
Quarterback: Taylor Martinez
Head Coach: Bo Pelini
Nebraska’s defense was starting to recover from a recent fade (rising back up to #35 nationally last year), but now only returns four starters on that side of the ball. We expect QB Martinez to continue making plays. We expect great revenge motivation in a September 14 home game against UCLA. Like Michigan, Nebraska has a relatively easy first half of the season before a November gauntlet. That could make the Huskers a sleeper to win the division because the new defenders will have plenty of time to get up to speed.
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 7 on defense
Quarterback: Kain Colter
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald
There’s a lot to like about the Wildcats. They return more starters than the first two teams we discussed. And, they really impressed down the stretch last year. They beat Michigan State on the road, then knocked off Mississippi State of the SEC in their bowl. They just missed taking out Nebraska (1-point loss) and Michigan (7-point loss) too. The season gets serious quicker here because NW drew both Ohio State and Wisconsin from the other half of the league…and must play them in succession to start October. Northwestern’s home game vs. the Buckeyes may be Ohio State’s toughest test of the season given how the schedule has laid out. We’ll definitely be looking for value spots on the Wildcats, while monitoring how their undersized roster reacts to the full-season grind.
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 6 on defense
Quarterback: Andrew Maxwell
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio
The offense was a disaster last year, which is why they went 3-5 in Big 10 play and only took a .500 record into their tight bowl win over Northwestern. The 2013 team is experienced…but they’d better kick things up a notch. Last year’s defense ranked #4 nationally, and is the only reason the team qualified for a bowl against a tough schedule that included Boise State and Notre Dame. This year only the Irish present a tough pre-conference challenge. JIM HURLEY will look at the Spartans as defensive dogs…but won’t lay points with them until he sees the offense score consistently.
Returning Starters: 9 on offense, 6 on defense
Quarterback: Philip Nelson
Head Coach: Jerry Kill
It’s a rare conference division this year that has this many returning starters at quarterback. Nelson is jumping from his freshman to sophomore seasons…which often signals big improvement. Should that happen, the Gophers will definitely have upset potential against anyone who takes them lightly. There’s HUGE potential for that in the Big 10 this year. The offense could put up some big numbers against an easy early schedule.
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Kirk Frerentz
How does Kirk Frerentz still have a job? This team has been overrated for years because of their ability to exploit soft early schedules. Last year they couldn’t even do that with home losses to Iowa State and Central Michigan, which led to later home losses vs. Penn State and Purdue. It will be tough to bounce back as the only division team that isn’t returning its quarterback. We’ll be looking to fade this team vs. quality, unless it’s clear that opponents aren’t bringing peak intensity against this gradually dying program.
That wraps up the Big 10. We’ll devote Friday to baseball since MLB is resuming after its All-Star Break. It’s back to college football over the weekend, with a two-day look at the Atlantic Coast Conference. That leaves the Big 12, the new American Athletic Conference (formerly the Big East), and the Pac 12 for next week.
JIM HURLEY has great early-bird rates for football. Take advantage of those now online, or by calling us in the office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to ask about football/baseball combination packages when you call.
As you gear up for the Big 10…the Big 12…and the rest of BIG-TIME COLLEGE FOOTBALL…remember that THE BIGGEST NAME IN HANDICAPPING IS JIM HURLEY!