You can feel it. Football season is coming. Urban Meyer and Co. are about to step into the spotlight for real.
The offensive MVP and the defensive MVP?
Don’t know if you’ve heard, but several Big Ten programs experienced a tumultuous offseason. Seriously, it’s true. But that won’t stop the Bucket All-Stars from forecasting exactly what the outcome will be in what is sure to be one of the more … uhh … interesting conference slates in recent memory.
So without further delay, let the paparazzi-stalked quartet of Dave Biddle, Bill Kurelic, Duane Long and Steve Helwagen take you on a time-travelling adventure that reveals how this whole Big Ten deal will work out in this FREE EDITION of the Sunday Bucket of Bullets (EDITOR’S NOTE: The Bucket All-Stars were sequestered for this exercise to keep everyone from looking at Duane’s paper…)
1. The BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME winner this season will be ______ and why …
Dave Biddle: : I'm picking Michigan by default. I fully expect Ohio State to prove on the field that it is the best team in the Big Ten. However, with the Buckeyes banned from postseason play for one season, I think the Wolverines will back in the Big Ten championship game (one week after losing to OSU) and will beat a Wisconsin team that finishes behind Ohio State in the Leaders Division standings. My sleeper team in the entire Big Ten is Purdue. If the Badgers falter, look for the Boilermakers to be the surprise team representing the Leaders in Indianapolis.
Bill Kurelic: : The winner this season will be Michigan State over Wisconsin. The easy part of the equation is the Badgers making the conference title game. Of course Ohio State and Penn State are not eligible to play in the game and does anyone really think Purdue, Indiana or Illinois are going to beat out Wisconsin and make it to the title game.
The other side of the equation is certainly harder to pick. In the end I think it is between Michigan State and Michigan. But I just have the feeling everything is not going to fall right for Brady Hoke’s crew like it did last year and the Spartans have 15 starters back from a very good team that played in the Big Ten championship game last season as well as plenty of depth on both sides of the line. I’m going with Michigan State to beat the Wolverines again this year and go to the championship game.
Then I see the Spartans turning the tables on the Badgers and pulling out a close victory in the title game this year. The Michigan State defense is going to be very stout against the run and this year Russell Wilson will not be slinging the ball for Bret Bielema. Montee Ball will be his usual great self, but I think the Spartans will be much more effective against Wisconsin’s offense this year with no Wilson to worry about.
Duane Long: : Because of recent success and the return of one of the best backs in the country in Montee Ball, I think everyone is going to pick Wisconsin. I don't want to but the schedule is very favorable to Wisconsin with the only team capable of beating them, Nebraska, playing them away from Camp Randall. Wisconsin gets Ohio State and Illinois at home and doesn't play Michigan. Wisconsin will lose the game to Michigan.
If new Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell thrives in Kirk Cousins' stead, could the Spartans do the same as a team?
Speaking of Michigan, I think the Wolverines win this game. The schedule is very favorable with Illinois, Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa all coming to the big House. They travel to Nebraska and play the Buckeyes in the 'Shoe. Nebraska is huge. They will not beat the Buckeyes this year so winning that game at Nebraska’s place will be crucial.
Michigan State is the darkhorse. They return eight starters from the league’s best defense from last year. That is going to make Mark Dantonio very hard to score against. Where he is going to get points remains to be seen. Kirk Cousins is gone and I would not hazard a guess as to who he would be throwing the ball to even if he was coming back. The schedule is tough as can be with Ohio State, a week off at Indiana, followed by always tough Iowa, then travel to Michigan and Wisconsin back to back. Nebraska comes to East Lansing to cap it off. That is not the kind of schedule which will allow for a new quarterback and a group of young receivers to find their game.
Steve Helwagen: : The winner this season will be Michigan. I think of a number of reasons. They will be extremely tested by Alabama in their opener. Nobody else they play the rest of the season will be anywhere near as tough. The schedule works their way with Iowa and Michigan State, their nearest competition in the Legends Division, visiting Michigan. The Michigan defense took a huge step forward last year and could be improved again this season. And they have Denard Robinson, who needs a Big Ten championship to complete his legacy. I think Michigan beats Wisconsin in a high scoring and entertaining Big Ten title game.
2. The BIG TEN OFFENSIVE MVP this season will be ______ and why …
Dave Biddle: : It will either be Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson or Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, and I'll pick the latter. He's fortunate he wasn't hurt worse after getting jumped in Madison last week and all indications are that he will be ready when the season opens. I'm still shocked Ball came back for his senior season after such a great junior year. Yes, I know his NFL paperwork came back with a "third-round grade" but those tend to be very conservative. Chances are good Ball would have been a second-round pick. The shelf life for an NFL RB is so short -- Ball should have taken his talents to the professional ranks after his stellar 2011 campaign.
Bill Kurelic: : The winner this season will be Montee Ball. Ball could have gone off to the NFL, but decided to stay and I see him leading the Badgers to another Big Ten title game. With Russell Wilson gone I can see Ball getting even more touches than the 307 he had last season when he finished with 1,923 yards. Defenses will be stacked against Ball, but Bret Bielema and the Wisconsin offensive line will see to it that Ball gets plenty of yardage and another 30-plus touchdowns.
Duane Long: : In any other year I would say Braxton Miller but I do not see an MVP award for a player on a team that is on probation. That leaves the previous two MVPs - Denard Robinson from Michigan and Montee Ball from Wisconsin - to battle it out. Robinson was Big Ten MVP two years ago but that was in an offense where he was the focal point and he had no other weapons. Last year Robinson’s total offense was off his 2010 total by almost 1,000 yards. I expect that to continue as the Brady Hoke offense is another year into a re-tooling where the quarterback hands off more and runs less. He is asked to throw the ball when it is in his hands. That is not Robinson’s strong suit. He is being projected as an NFL receiver.
Ball, on the other hand, is going to be in the same offense. I know there was a massive turnover in staff but Wisconsin does what Wisconsin does. The offense lost its quarterback in Russell Wilson so I think Ball gets that many more carries.
Will Ball rebound from an off-field altercation to win the award?
I am going to throw out a darkhorse name: James Vanderberg from Iowa. He threw for over 3,000 yards last year and completed over 58-percent of his passes.
Steve Helwagen: : The winner this season will be Michigan’s Denard Robinson. You could say Wisconsin’s Montee Ball as well, but you wonder about his health (after being assaulted near campus) and his supporting cast (no Russell Wilson, no Nick Toon, no Peter Konz and no Josh Oglesby). Robinson is poised to have a huge senior year for the Wolverines.
3. The BIG TEN DEFENSIVE MVP this season will be ______ and why …
Dave Biddle: : John Simon. He was playing out of position at LEO last year (and is actually still listed as OSU's starting LEO, even though I fully expect him to move to strong-side defensive end) and still had a great season. This year, as a senior, playing a spot where he's more comfortable, I look for Simon to explode. With so much talent around him on the defensive line, teams can't double team him, or they'll be freeing up someone else. Johnathan Hankins will be playing his natural position of defensive tackle this season (instead of SSDE) and that will free up Simon even more to be a playmaker. Hankins is also on the short list to be the league's defensive player of the year, but I think Simon will be even more disruptive and will put up the better numbers.
Bill Kurelic: : The winner this season will be Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough. He will be the Spartans team leader and I think he comes up huge as Michigan State wins out over Michigan and advances to the title game – and ultimately wins it. With Jerel Worthy gone I look for Bullough to take over in leading a very good Spartan defensive. Being a linebacker, Bullough is going to have the stats that warrant being named Big Ten Defensive MVP.
Who the best defensive player is and who is the MVP are two different things. The best defensive player would be an argument between Simon, the highly visible future NFL first rounder William Gohlston and a couple of players who do not get the pub they deserve in Michigan State’s Denicos Allen and Purdue’s outstanding defensive lineman Kawaan Short.
Without the probation I think Simon is the clear favorite as he is a great player on one of the nation’s most high-profile programs. With the probation in place no player is going to make more plays in front of a lot of viewers than Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland. He does not have the measurables of an elite player, which is how he got out of Ohio without so much as a sniff from Ohio State or any of the other Big Five schools. But the kid makes plays. Second in the conference in tackles, third in tackles for loss average in the conference, second in forced fumbles. He did all that as a sophomore. If voters ignore the probation Simon will win this award. If they consider the probation I see Borland taking home the hardware.
Steve Helwagen: : The winner this season will be Ohio State’s John Simon. Michigan State’s William Gholston may (or may not) be better statistically. But Simon could be the best player on a re-emerging Ohio State defense.
4. The BIG TEN COACH OF THE YEAR this season will be ______ and why …
Dave Biddle: : Also known as "The Award Jim Tressel Somehow Never Won" ... it would be interesting to say the least if Urban Meyer walks away with the hardware in his first season at OSU. And I think that's exactly what's going to happen. Urb in 2012. As I say that, part of me knows that if Penn State goes 8-4 or something, Bill O'Brien will get a bunch of sympathy votes and will take home the award. Also, if Purdue has a quality season like I'm predicting, Ted Turner, er, Danny Hope will be on the short list for COY candidates. But in the spirit of not picking any ties, I'm going with Meyer. Ohio State fans are expecting big things from the Buckeyes right away. The rest of the Big Ten doesn't necessarily feel that way, so if Meyer is able to lead the Buckeyes to double-digit wins like I think he will, I think he'll be the conference's coach of the year.
Bill Kurelic: : The winner this season will be Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes can’t play in the Big Ten championship game and can’t go to a bowl game. But they can still have an outstanding season and I think that will happen. I think the Buckeyes bounce back from a 6-7 season and under Meyer win at least 10 games. Will it be good enough for Meyer to win coach of the year honors even though the Bucks can’t play in the post-season? I think if the Buckeyes get to 11 wins it will, and maybe if they get to 10. But if the award doesn’t go to Meyer I look for Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio to be the man.
Duane Long: : It’s Urban Meyer. That might seem to be an odd choice with my comments on the players and MVP awards but Meyer is not going to be tainted by what happened last year. The players were here. I think they get painted with the broad brush.
There is also the matter of Meyer being a media darling. Jim Tressel did himself a great disservice by making the media the enemy. I always said that while things were going well it would not hurt him but if things started to go bad the media would pounce. That is what happened.
Meyer has already created a good relationship with the media. He is more accessible and he is not going to earn a moniker like "the Senator.” That and the fact I firmly believe Meyer will earn the award. I absolutely believe with the Big Ten where it is right now, this could be the worst season in memory, and so much of the problem last year was youth, that Ohio State goes undefeated.
Steve Helwagen: : The winner this season will be Illinois’ Tim Beckman. If the Fighting Illini can steal one on the road at Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State or Northwestern, they could push Wisconsin for the Leaders Division title. If Penn State can somehow win eight games, it would have to go to Bill O’Brien – given everything he is now dealing with.
5. The biggest surprise in the BIG TEN this season will be ______ and why …
Dave Biddle: : Purdue challenges for the Leaders Division championship. With one-third of the division banned from postseason play, everyone has already penned "Wisconsin" into the Big Ten championship game. However, I think the Boilermakers will give the Badgers a run for their money and then some. Purdue has a good defense led by one of the most underrated players in the conference: senior DT Kawann Short. The Boilers also return three experienced, veteran quarterbacks, and I believe one of them will step up and have a good year.
I think Ohio State will be the best team in the division, but since the Buckeyes are ineligible, the Boilers might find themselves playing down the road in Indy on Dec. 1.
Bill Kurelic: : The biggest surprise will be Michigan regressing. As I said earlier, I don’t think things break anywhere near as well for Hoke’s crew as they did last season. That is not to say Michigan will go back to the Rich Rod days, but I don’t see them winning as many games as last season. And if Denard Robinson goes down with an injury for any length of time – look out.
As a runner up to my biggest surprise being Michigan taking a step back, I’ll go with the same two teams playing in the Big Ten championship game for the first two years of the contest. Two years ago probably not a lot of people would have predicated Wisconsin vs. Michigan State in the first two Big Ten championship games, but that is what I see happening.
Duane Long: : Illinois. I watched Tim Beckman bring his Toledo team into Columbus last year and give the Buckeyes everything they could handle. His name got kicked around a little in the speculation about a replacement for Jim Tressel. He is a fine football coach and he has a little better talent at Illinois than he did at Toledo.
He has a nice quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase returning for his third year as a starter. He has 14 players coming back off a team that went bowling last year. The schedule is ugly. The Fightin' Illini visit Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State, with those visits to Camp Randall and the Big House coming in back-to-back weeks, and all three trips coming in a five-week period.
The good news is the early schedule is so favorable that Illinois could go into that midseason meat grinder 5-0. The schedule ends with home games against Minnesota and Purdue and a final away game with a Northwestern team looking to replace 11 starters. I can see Illinois winning eight games with the returning players and some Beckman magic.
Steve Helwagen: : The biggest surprise will be Iowa. The Hawkeyes have been under the radar the last few years. But with a favorable schedule (no Ohio State or Wisconsin), the Hawkeyes could sneak into the Legends Division race. James Vandenberg, coming off a 3,000-yard season at quarterback, will keep the Hawkeyes in every game.