Big Ten heads into unusual season with PSU, Ohio State
Montee Ball has changed the pronunciation of his first name — it's Mon-tay instead of Mon-tee, if you don't mind.
That's OK with the Badgers as long as their hard-charging tailback and Heisman finalist of a year ago keeps rolling up points and finding the end zone as Wisconsin aims for a third straight Big Ten title.
Denard Robinson should have Brady Hoke's offensive scheme figured out and after amassing more than 8,000 yards of total offense in his career, the talented Michigan quarterback will set sail on a senior season that got an enormous boost from a Sugar Bowl victory last January.
In a normal year in the Big Ten, Ball and Robinson would be the headline grabbers. But this is not a normal year in the Big Ten, not by any stretch.
There are new faces with big names in the coaching ranks. Former Florida coach Urban Meyer is back, trying to make Ohio State a force again after a 6-7 season that followed a memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal.
But Meyer's assignment pales when compared to what's ahead for Bill O'Brien, who left the NFL for Penn State. He is facing a future that no coach would ever want, fighting to keep the Nittany Lions afloat in the face of crippling NCAA sanctions following the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal. He lost standout running back Silas Redd to USC on Tuesday.
"I'll be myself. I'm a guy who's always felt confident in my ability to coach football. I'm confident in my relationships," O'Brien says of reaching out to his players during a trying time. "I'm not into being a genie. ... What I can tell you again is that we have a good, tough, smart football team."
Leaders Division foes Ohio State and Penn State are both sidelined for the postseason by the NCAA, leaving only four teams to compete for a spot in the Big Ten title game and making the Ball-led Badgers heavy favorites. Wisconsin won the first league championship game a year ago against Michigan State before losing to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
"I'm not blind and oblivious to the fact that we're in a division that has six teams. Only four of them are eligible for the Big Ten championship game," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "But it really won't change our approach."
Michigan State won 11 games in each of the last two seasons. But the Spartans must move on without prolific quarterback Kirk Cousins. And Nebraska has one of the top backs in the country in Rex Burkhead as the Cornhuskers look to build on their first season in the Big Ten.
Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern, Indiana and Purdue all hope to find their footing following disappointing finishes a year ago. A look at the Big Ten:
IOWA — Key players: DB Micah Hyde, QB James Vandenberg, C James Ferentz, LB James Morris, LB Christian Kirksey, WR Keenan Davis. Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, in his 14th season running the Hawkeyes, is the dean of conference coaches. He needs six more seasons to tie Hayden Fry for the longest tenure at Iowa. ... The Hawkeyes are 55-12 at home since the start of the 2002 season and were 6-1 a year ago at Kinnick Stadium. But they are just 8-5 and 7-6 overall the last two seasons ... Vandenberg completed 58.7 percent of his passes and threw for 3,022 yards last season.
MICHIGAN — Key players: QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, OT Taylor Lewan, S Jordan Kovacs, LB Kenny Demens. Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense
Robinson has already set the NCAA single-season record for rushing by a quarterback when he picked up 1,702 yards as a sophomore. His numbers dropped off a bit — as did his carries — a year ago but he still had 1,176 in Brady Hoke's highly successful first season that ended in a Sugar Bowl victory. Robinson has a jaw-dropping 8,160 yards total offense for his career, most of it over the last two seasons. ... Kovacs has 266 tackles, five sacks, five forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and four interceptions in his career for the Wolverines.
MICHIGAN STATE — Key players: QB Andrew Maxwell, LB Max Bullough, DE William Gholston, DB Johnny Adams, S Isaiah Lewis, RB Le'Veon Bell. Returning starters: 5 offense, 8 defense
Notes: Michigan State has had back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in school history. ... The Spartans have won more conference games (24) over the last four years than any other team in the league. ... Replacing three-year starter Kirk Cousins will be a challenge. He set nearly every school passing record and the Spartans were 22-5 during his last two seasons.
MINNESOTA — Key players: QB MarQueis Gray, LB Mike Rallis, WR Brandon Green, OL Ed Olson, LB Keanon Cooper. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Coach Jerry Kill thanked a reporter for asking him how his health was and then said he was feeling fantastic. Kill had a seizure on the sideline of a game against New Mexico State last season. ... Gray's dual threat abilities and athleticism give the Golden Gophers hopes of improving on last year's three-win season. He set school records for single-game (174) and single-season rushing yards by a quarterback (966). As a passer last season, Gray — who had also been a wide receiver during his career — threw eight TD passes and eight interceptions, while competing 51 percent
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