Just as we did with the Big Ten Legends Division, here is the Leaders’ early spring preview.
1. Illinois Fighting Illini (2-10, 0-8 Big Ten last season)
A lot needs to happen for Tim Beckman to keep his job after next season, and I’m not so sure that any of those requirements will be met.
Illinois couldn’t do anything right last year. It was in the bottom tier of every major statistical category. The only thing the Illini have going for them is the fact that they only bring 12 starters back (three on defense) and will be forced to play new faces.
One positive for new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is that he will have an experienced quarterback to work with in Nathan Scheelhaase, but desperately needs to find a playmaker to help him out, as the Illini finished 122nd in points for (16.7) last season.
In addition, Illinois will somehow have to fill both defensive tackle spots after junior Akeem Spence declared for the draft. Reserve Austin Teitsma is projected to move into a starting role after recording 15 tackles as a reserve last fall, and JUCO transfer Abens Cajuste could vie for the other spot.
2. Indiana Hoosiers (4-8, 2-6)
Could it be that we’re looking at the second bowl-bound Indiana team since 1993? Kevin Wilson has made it a great possibility.
Like last year, the Hoosiers are tied for first in the nation for returning starters (19), which just goes to show how young this team has been. QB Tre Roberson is back from a broken leg and should be ready to lead an offensive unit that put up 49 points on Ohio State.
Indiana will once again have to dip into the recruiting pool to take care of some massive holes on its front seven. If Wilson does it right, Hoosiers will undoubtedly be participating in postseason festivities.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes (12-0, 8-0)
Urban Meyer did an unbelievable job with a team that had won six games prior to his arrival and in a year that technically meant absolutely nothing. But how will he fare now that Ohio State is eligible?
The Buckeyes should be explosive on offense again: they return nine starters on this side of the ball, including Heisman candidate Braxton Miller. Jordan Hall will be back to accompany Carlos Hyde in the backfield, the entire receiver corps is back (with the exception of Jake Stoneburner) and they have to replace just one offensive lineman – Reid Fragel at right tackle.
I can only imagine what this Ohio State offense will look now that it has had over a year to learn Meyer’s spread-option system.
Ohio State will have to replace all four starting defensive linemen from 2012, but the backups could be just as good as last year’s front, if not better. Sophomore Tommy Schutt and junior Michael Bennett can fill the gaps with some help from Joel Hale, and Adolphus Washington could possibly convert back to defensive end.
Not only should they run the table in the Big Ten again, but it’s very possible that the Buckeyes will contest the SEC for the national championship next January.
4. Penn State Nittany Lions (8-4, 6-2)
It’s almost hard to believe Bill O’Brien was able to work up eight wins all while leading Penn State through one of the biggest scandals in this country’s history.
Unfortunately, he’ll be feeling the after-effects of it for the next several years.
Penn State has a lot of questions at multiple positions heading into the spring. Quarterback is a mystery, although it did receive a verbal commitment from Christian Hackenberg (the No. 2 QB for the class of ’13).
The Nittany Lions could have a hard time stopping the Big Ten’s ferocious run game this season unless some young guys really step up. Sophomore linebacker Ben Kline and incoming freshman defensive end Garrett Sickels could be their go-to guys.
5. Purdue Boilermakers (6-7, 3-5)
Purdue did it right by letting go of Danny Hope and grabbing Darrell Hazell from Kent state. However, it’s going to take some time for his system to sink in and for his recruits to fill positions.
The Boilermakers return just five starters on offense and have to find a replacement at quarterback, running back and leading receiver.
They bring back eight familiar faces on defense, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot to a team that allowed at least 34 points in seven games last season.
Purdue has a few things going for it, but will have to take a step back before moving forward.
6. Wisconsin Badgers (8-6, 4-4)
The good news for Wisconsin is that it got one heck of a hire with Gary Andersen to replace Bret Bielema, who fled for Arkansas. The bad news is that Ohio State is eligible again, and the Badgers will have to do much better than seven wins to reach the conference title game.
Despite losing junior center Travis Frederick to the NFL draft, the offensive line will be one of the best in the country (as usual). Wisconsin will not have too much of a drop-off in the backfield with Montee Ball’s departure, as James White is more than able to take over and carry the load.
However, the Badgers lose nearly the entire secondary, including key starters Marcus Cromartie, Devin Smith and Shelton Johnson. They do return star linebacker Chris Borland, who is expected to be a standout leader for the front seven and Nagurski Trophy candidate.
The Leaders Division may come down to September 28 when Wisconsin visits Columbus to take on the Buckeyes.