Big Ten Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes
Will Wisconsin repeat as Big Ten champs?
By: Steven Lassan | 8/7/12, 5:17 AM EDT
It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak during the year. In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2012, Athlon asked coaches in the Big Ten to talk anonymously about their opponents.
Opposing coaches size up the Fighting Illini: “I hated to see the Zooker (Ron Zook) get let go last season, but you could see it coming. After getting to the Rose Bowl a few years ago and then regressing after that, it was only a matter of time if he didn’t do better than 6–6. … I think Tim Beckman steps into a great situation in his first season at Illinois because they have a lot of talent returning. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is the key. He should be the biggest beneficiary under Beckman’s offense that had no problems lighting up the scoreboards at Toledo. Scheelhaase should have a breakout season if Illinois can find an adequate replacement for wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. He was really productive last year. … The defense was underrated last season, and they could be as good or better. Of course, I may be in the minority thinking that way since defensive end Whitney Mercilus is gone, but they have seven or eight returning starters, including nearly the entire defensive backfield. … I ultimately think Beckman will be successful at Illinois, but how successful his first season is depends on how they fare on the Big Ten road against Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern. They’ve got to steal a game or two on the road.”
Opposing coaches size up the Hoosiers: “Wow. Poor Kevin Wilson. It didn’t take long for him to find out the difference between coaching as an assistant with Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and being a head coach at Indiana. One win and 11 losses, and losses to teams like Ball State and North Texas. At least we know it can’t get any worse in Year 2. They also catch a break in the Big Ten portion of their schedule as none of the road trips are too daunting: Northwestern, Illinois, Penn State and Purdue. … Quarterback Tre Roberson, running back Stephen Houston and wide receiver Kofi Hughes, their top three offensive players, all return for new coordinator Seth Littrell. A bunch of defensive linemen are back — Larry Black, Adam Replogle, Bobby Richardson and Ryan Phillis. … I know Wilson also is counting on a number of junior college transfers to contribute immediately. This will be key for them because last season Wilson was forced to play mostly freshman, and it showed. This go-around, the Hoosiers should be vastly improved. I don’t think they’ll be so much improved that they’ll be bowl bound, but they’ll certainly win more games and be a lot more competitive in 2012 compared to last season. They have to be.”
Opposing coaches size up the Hawkeyes: “Kirk Ferentz has had a great run in Iowa and makes it look much easier than most people realize, but the Hawkeyes have had a little bit of a dip, at least by their standards, the past two seasons. They had eight wins two years ago on a team that was loaded and then last year they only won seven games. … A number of off-the-field issues have grabbed headlines along with a run of bad luck on the injury front. Ferentz’s job security is fine, but I think a number of people are beginning to wonder if Iowa can return to prominence and be among the Big Ten’s elite teams. … For the first time since he came to Iowa, Ferentz will have a new offensive and defensive coordinator in Greg Davis and Phil Parker. … James Vandenberg is back at quarterback. He’ll be one of the better quarterbacks in the league, but his top target from last year, wide receiver Marvin McNutt, is gone as is leading rusher Marcus Coker. Those two guys are huge losses. They also must replace five or six starters from the defense. … The schedule sets up nicely for them in that a 5–0 start is not out of the question. Ferentz should have no trouble getting back to a bowl game, but challenging the upper echelon of the Big Ten seems more in the Hawkeyes’ past than their immediate future.””
Opposing coaches size up the Wolverines: “I wonder what Brady Hoke can do for an encore. It was not a bad Michigan debut for Hoke by winning 11 games, beating Ohio State and winning the Sugar Bowl. Although I’m sure Michigan fans would not list them in that order of importance. Now how can Hoke follow that up or improve on it? It won’t take long to find out as we’ll certainly get a good idea if Michigan can be a legitimate national title contender when they open the season against Alabama in Dallas. … Quarterback Denard Robinson is back, along with running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and wide receiver Roy Roundtree. Junior Hemingway, who was Robinson’s favorite and sometimes only target, is gone, as well as defensive stopper Mike Martin. There’s no way to overemphasize his importance to the Wolverines’ defense last season. Martin is one of three defensive line starters that are gone, but basically the rest of the defense returns. They made huge strides under first-year coordinator Greg Mattison, but it’s imperative that they are able to consistently stop the run, especially against Alabama in the first game of the season and in Big Ten play. … I think Michigan can be even better than last season, but now that they’re expected to be better, can they handle the added expectations? That is the key for them.”
Opposing coaches size up the Spartans: “Kirk Cousins might not have been the most talented quarterback and he certainly wasn’t the most elusive in the pocket, but Cousins was the quintessential team leader and pulse of the Spartans. You don’t simply throw a new starter in there and replace someone with his character and integrity and all the intangibles he meant to the team. But that’s what Mark Dantonio’s got to try to do. Andrew Maxwell has the unenviable task of trying to replace Cousins as the Spartans’ quarterback. … If replacing Cousins isn’t daunting enough, the Spartans also must replace their top two receivers, B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin, and running back Edwin Baker. … While the offense takes some time to develop a new identity, the defense will be expected to do most of the heavy lifting. And the Spartans will be loaded on defense. Eight starters are back, including defensive backs Isaiah Lewis and Johnny Adams, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, and defensive lineman William Gholston, all of which are All-Big Ten-caliber players. … I’ll be interested to see if the Spartans can return to the Big Ten Championship Game and also what kind of start they get off to with three tough home games early against Boise State, Notre Dame and Ohio State.”
Opposing coaches size up the Golden Gophers: “I say this with all due respect to Jerry Kill, but I hope this fall is a lot more boring for him. He is an amazing person, and I’m so grateful, as well as everyone else in our profession, that he is good to go this season after suffering those seizures. He obviously does not want any attention on him, but is more concerned about making the Golden Gophers better this year than last year and I think they will be. … Last season was so bizarre for Minnesota. They started the year almost upsetting USC in Los Angeles and then lose at home to New Mexico State and North Dakota State. Then in Big Ten play they upset Iowa and Illinois and nearly knock off Michigan State. … With quarterback MarQueis Gray back, Kill has a good one to continue to build the offense around. He’s a dual threat and should bring more consistency this year. … The defense was exposed at times last season and has a lot of work to do, but a number of regulars return so that’s promising. … For Minnesota to improve on last year’s three-win total, they need to stockpile some victories early, because their November schedule is brutal with games against Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska and Michigan State. … Kill is very good coach who will give that program a chance to get better in the next few years.”
Opposing coaches size up the Cornhuskers: “Most places, if they had a choice, would take nine wins a year. Nebraska is not one of those places. Bo Pelini’s nine-win season was viewed somewhat as a disappointment — okay, it was viewed as a major disappointment. … The Cornhuskers thought the Big Ten would have to adjust to them, but it was the other way around. Nebraska’s only signature victory was against a Michigan State team playing the week after an emotional Hail Mary upset against Wisconsin. The losses were brutal. They were blown out by Wisconsin and Michigan and upset at home by Northwestern. The Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina summed up the year. … Will the Huskers bounce back or will they regress? They have nearly everyone back, at least most of the key contributors, such as quarterback Taylor Martinez, I-back Rex Burkhead and wide receiver Kenny Bell. I like Burkhead. He is really good. Tough kid. … The defense also returns nearly intact, but last year they were simply porous at times. I can’t remember the last time a Nebraska defense allowed that many points. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini moved on to take the head coaching position at FAU, so we’ll get to see if John Papuchis, who was their defensive line coach, can fare any better as Nebraska’s new coordinator.”
Opposing coaches size up the Wildcats: “The Wildcats have proven they can put up plenty of points, but they just can’t get the hang of slowing down offenses. Dan Persa was a battler for Northwestern at quarterback, and Kain Colter takes over full-time for him. Pat Fitzgerald has a good offensive system in place, so I expect Colter will do just fine with the offense. They do, however, need more productivity from their running backs. They haven’t had a difference-maker at that position in a few years. … It’s the defense where the Wildcats need to make drastic improvements. They had a stretch last year where they allowed at least 30 points in five consecutive games. They still somehow managed a bowl game even with a leaky defense and a head-shaking loss at Army. … They lost a ton of seniors but do return starting linebackers Damien Proby, Collin Ellis and David Nwabuisi among five returning starters. … Northwestern’s first-half schedule is very manageable, and they conceivably could start 5–0, but the back end is loaded with games against Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State. Another bowl trip isn’t out of the question, but another six- or seven-win season is likely unless the defense makes huge strides.”
Opposing coaches size up the Buckeyes: “Last season, they had to deal with the suspensions of Terrelle Pryor, DeVier Posey, Boom Herron and others to start the year. This time they have to deal with the realization that they are banned from playing in the postseason. Even with no hopes for a bowl game, Urban Meyer will quickly learn firsthand the expectations of coaching at Ohio State. … Meyer’s got most of the key contributors back from last season’s disappointing six-win team. Quarterback Braxton Miller is obviously the key to running Meyer’s spread attack. And Meyer’s got a good one. I have no doubt Miller will thrive in that system. … As promising as the offense looks with Miller at the controls, the defense could be even better. All but two starters return, led by defensive lineman John Simon and safety C.J. Barnett. … They are recruiting at a very high level. The first season might not be great, but they are set up to win at a high level in the next few years. … The schedule sets up very favorably for Meyer. Ohio State shouldn’t even be tested in its first four games before consecutive games against Michigan State and Nebraska. After that, the Buckeyes’ biggest challenge is their final two games against Wisconsin and Michigan. Ohio State should easily post eight wins under Meyer in his first season, and reaching double digits isn’t that much of a stretch.”
Opposing coaches size up the Nittany Lions: “There is not a more difficult head coaching situation in the country than the one Bill O’Brien stepped into. Not only does he have the unenviable task of replacing the legend that was Joe Paterno, but what I think is worse is the unknown. Granted, no one still at the school had anything to do with that horrible tragedy, but you can bet rival recruiters will somehow bring that up when recruiting against Penn State. While dealing with any bombshell off-the-field distractions that could happen at any time, rebuilding the on-the-field product won’t be easy either. … Linebacker Gerald Hodges is one of their top returning players from what’s really a small group of returning starters (eight overall). … O’Brien obviously had a great deal of success with the Patriots as offensive coordinator, but how will that translate as a college head coach? I think he’ll be successful, but I know a lot of my colleagues who feel he won’t. It’s a lot easier to work with a Tom Brady than it is a Matt McGloin. Besides blocking out any off-the-field distractions, probably O’Brien’s biggest challenge is finally establishing a clear-cut starter. … The defense should be pretty good, as always, but I have serious issues with that team on offense.”
Opposing coaches size up the Boilermakers: “Finally, Danny Hope posted a winning record in his third season with the Boilermakers. That’s pretty significant for him because you’d think he’s been nothing but jinxed since getting to Purdue. He has had four starting quarterbacks lost to injuries, but maybe his luck is finally evening out. Robert Marve, the kid who transferred from Miami, was able to get a sixth year from the NCAA after suffering a knee injury last year, and I think Purdue can win with him. Of course, they can also win with Caleb TerBush, who started last year, or Rob Henry, who also is back. One thing is certain: Purdue will not be short of quarterback options this year. Whoever ends up at quarterback will have plenty of weapons. Purdue returns a bunch of starters on offense and defense, so they should be able to build on last year’s seven-win season. … The talent level there is decent. Clearly not as good as the big boys in the league, but they do have some players to work with. … Other than a consecutive three-game stretch in the middle of the season against Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State, the Boilermakers won’t be huge underdogs in any other games, so Purdue could be headed for another winning season.”
Opposing coaches size up the Badgers: “What has happened to Wisconsin is fascinating. The Badgers have lost six assistants since last year. They’re now scattered all over the country. It will be interesting to see how the staff comes together this year, with some new faces. … They also lost quarterback Russell Wilson, who was basically a one-year free agent, but Bret Bielema’s managed to bring in another quarterback in Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien. I don’t think O’Brien will put up the numbers that Wilson did, but he doesn’t have to — his main duty will be turning around and handing the ball to Montee Ball. … Ball’s decision to return for his senior season is a huge boost for the Badgers. I think most people, including myself, thought he would be gone to the NFL. I think the fact that Ball returns keeps the Badgers in the running for a third consecutive Rose Bowl trip. … Returning linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland lead what I thought was an underrated defense. For the most part, other than the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State and the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon, the defense shut down a lot of offenses. … If not for surrendering a couple of last-minute Hail Mary passes against Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers could have had an unbeaten regular season. The Badgers get both teams at home this year.”
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