CFN Big Ten Teams' Biggest Fall Questions

CollegeFootballNews' columnists' three biggest questions for each B1G team - starting with the Legends Division.

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The weather hasn’t turned yet, but teams are back at practice getting ready for the appearance of rust colored leaves. You can join ‘em to by taking some time with us to discuss THE question that needs answered the most by each team in the conference heading into fall camp. First up in the tackle box is the Legends Division, followed by the Leaders Division next week. As always, we’ll do it B1G Uglies style:

Part 1-The Legends Division

Iowa's Biggest Question

Phil Harrison:

Isn’t it the same that it seems to always be under Kirk Ferentz? Will there be enough depth in this year’s already charred backfield to allow Iowa to contend for a Big Ten title?

The issues in the Hawkeye backfield are well-chronicled and certainly haven’t stopped this year with the thief in the night departure of Marcus Coker at the end of last year, in combination with party-man De’Andre Johnson also being kicked off the team.

What’s left on the tree isn’t exactly fruit that is of the mature variety. Ferentz has almost guaranteed that the two most impressive freshman running-backs in this year’s incoming class (Greg Garmon and Barkley Hill) will get significant playing time along with sophomore Damon Bullock. Behind those three-- and also in the running for time are Nate Meier, JUCO transfer Andre Dawson, and junior Brad Rogers.

If the coaching staff wants to continue the ball control, pro-style offense that Ferentz has been known for, they’ll need the kind of depth and capabilities that Iowa has had in its benchmark years. Let the running begin.

Bart Doan:

Can the Hawks avoid the early season stink-bomb that has plagued them lo so many recent years?

It seems that once a year early on, save 2009, Iowa seems to lay an egg in an unspeakable manner against an opponent that at face value at least, seems to not have as much overall talent. Last year, it was a triple overtime kick to the groin by rival Iowa State. Before that, Arizona clipped them by a TD. In 2007, ISU was again a heavy underdog and got the Hawks napping, and in 2008, they were taken down by perpetually mediocre Pitt. That sort of thing can be deflating. Last year it was a 13 play drive with just over a minute left that got them in OT. This year, the schedule again looks manageable. NIU could be tricky, being in Chicago with what will be a heavy contingent of their fans for it being a “neutral site” game.

Menacing ISU is after that, then Northern Iowa...whom, by the way, the Hawks needed special teams heroics in 2009 to befell. Sprinkled into those losses was a head scratching win over that NIU team as well as a near loss to Arkansas State. This is a 10 win style schedule for the Hawks if they take care of business at home. If they suffer another blow early on, the wheels could come off. Blow by the side of the road. And take out a semi going 60, closing the highway for a good 8 hours.

Terry Johnson:

Is this year’s defense strong enough to lead the Hawkeyes to a ten-win season? Longtime Ferentz assistant Phil Parker takes over for the legendary Norm Parker (no relation) this year, and inherits only five starters return from a unit that finished 60th nationally in total defense last season. To make matters worse, the defensive line lacks experience, with no returning player recording more than 1.5 sacks last season. That cannot come as welcome news to secondary that must break in two new starters.

Michigan’s Biggest Question

Phil Harrison:

Honestly? Can Michigan get the the same amount of breaks that it got last year? That’s not to slight the Wolverine team because they were a very talented team last year--and will be again this year.

People forget though that Michigan needed a miracle finish against Notre Dame, barely escaped a scare against a very mediocre Ohio State team, and found a way to win against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl where the Maize and Blue got outgained by an almost three-to-one margin. On top of that, Michigan by and large dodged the dreaded injury bug.

It seemed time after time, some of those breaks came in the way of a big turnover, or a desperation pass by Denard Robinson that found its mark. Again, take nothing away from the resurgent Wolverines because talent will often be the benefactor of many breaks, but it’ll be tough to duplicate this year with games versus Alabama, at Notre Dame, at Nebraska, and at Ohio State.

Good Luck Michigan!

Bart Doan:

Paging Mike Martin...can anyone answer?

Assuming the Fitz Toussaint thing gets figured out here soon-ish, there’s a gaping hole, literally, where Michigan made its biggest strides last season. They went from not being able to stop a light post to one of the B1G’s best overnight under Greg Mattison and a new staff. But a lot of that was Mike Martin, who lined up everywhere and filled a lot of roles. He was the special sauce on the Big Mac of that D.

Now, a unit that Brady Hoke called “soft up the middle” after the spring game will rely on once promising, now senior Will Campbell, still looking to fill his immense potential and Jibreel Black. Craig Roh will be key as well. Can he move all over the field like Martin did as a senior? You’ve got to stop the run in the B1G, and Michigan lost their human dam this year. They find a replacement, it could be title-town in Ann Arbor.

Terry Johnson:

In order to win a conference (or national) championship, a team must excel in all three facets of the game. While the Wolverines ranked towards the top of conference in offense and defense, special teams play was a completely different story. Michigan constantly put itself in poor field position, ranking 109th in net punting and 117th on kickoff returns. Brady Hoke’s team was good enough on both sides of the ball to overcome this last season, but will need to play better on kick coverage if they expect (as Bart does) to beat a heavyweight like Alabama.

Michigan State’s Biggest Question

Phil Harrison:

The avalanche of questions in the media this year regarding Michigan State will undoubtedly surround the passing game. Kirk Cousins is gone--and that’s not all. Sparty must also replace pass-catchers BJ Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, and Keith Nichol--three of the top five playmakers through the air last year.

Speaking of slinging the ball around, It’s not like junior Andrew Maxwell is wet behind the ears, but he’s still a first-year quarterback. He’ll have to learn to be in the moment, manage the offense, and most importantly, make plays downfield. Without a legitimate threat of cashing in air-miles, the solid tandem of Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper won’t be able to find as much space on the ground as everyone assumes.

The offense won’t have the opportunity to open the seal slowly as MSU gets started quickly with three of the first five games at home vs. Boise State, Notre Dame, and Ohio State. That means we’ll all know pretty quickly what type of offense the Green and White will be able to put together to compliment what looks to be a lights out defense in 2012. Andrew Maxwell, you‘re on the clock....

Bart Doan:

Not to play second fiddle, but lets stay in the air shall we? Wither wide receiver: Who emerges as the go-to guy?

Contrary to popular belief, the main question isn’t “how many of their fans will send me hate mail” this week. The Spartans have talent, but they’re a bit wet behind the ears at the receiver position...which could be a good thing, or a catastrophic problem breaking in a new QB in Andrew Maxwell.

Their leading receiver is a TE who had 99 yards last year. It’s not to say they can’t be good, but it’s at least a reasonable question considering they also lost team leader Kirk Cousins. And the jury will still be out on Maxwell as Phil points out, who will need some help from his friends as he learns the ropes of being a starter in the B1G. Bennie Fowler, a quick junior figures to factor in and once highly touted recruit and Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett should get a shot. Someone will emerge, but how quickly they do so will define how good this team in offensively.

Terry Johnson:

I’m in too. Phil and Bart have made a solid hit smack dab between the ear-hole on this one. How well will the offense move the ball without Kirk Cousins under center? Michigan State has a great offensive line, but it’s questionable whether or not Le’Veon Bell can carry the full load for the entire season, and there’s little depth behind him. Even with the addition of DeAnthony Arnett from Tennessee, the Spartans still need to find some proven receivers. Both of these factors will put more pressure on the shoulders of Andrew Maxwell, who already has the monumental task of replacing a campus legend.

Minnesota’s Biggest Question

Phil Harrison:

Is MarQueis Gray going to be the dynamic playmaker that we’ve all been hearing about?

Gray has had a bit of an unusual career so far at Minnesota--flipping between quarterback and wide receiver. Now that Adam Weber is gone, the experiment at wide receiver is over, and Gray gets a shot to finally concentrate on running the team from under center.

Gray has certainly flashed the wow factor at times under center in Minneapolis and was a standout recruit when the Gophers nabbed him. The coaches have been extremely high on his burgeoning talents during the offseason--with Jerry Kill even making statements at the Big Ten Media Days about the senior from Indianapolis being a playmaker on the national scale. If Gray can make good on the promise of what he could become, perhaps just maybe with the schedule aligning--Minnesota can get into a bowl game this year.

Bart Doan:

With so much youth, can Jerry Kill and staff get that defining win this stanza?

Thirty six. No, that’s not my score on the front 9. I’m far too “guy at the end of the bar after 17 pitchers of beer” off the tee for that. That’s the number of new players the Gophers have on the roster this year. The schedule is dicey as well, with trips to Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Illinois as well as the fact that they miss both Indiana and Penn State from the Leaders. The program is moving forward, and all that good stuff, but year 2 typically brings more expectations. But Kill says they’re young and hungry. Buffet starts Aug. 30. Eat up.

Terry Johnson:

I’ll go a step further than just a defining win. The only question on the mind of a Minnesota fan is “Will Jerry Kill lead the team to its first winning season since 2008?” If that’s going to happen in 2012, the Gophers must find an answer (or answers) on offense. The team simply failed to get it done on that side of the ball last year, ranking 109th in passing offense, 110th in total offense, and 111th in scoring offense. Both Gopher QBs (Gray and backup Max Shortell) must improve on last season’s 48.9% completion percentage until they find someone to replace Duane Bennett at running back.

Nebraska’s Biggest Question

Phil Harrison:

Will the Blackshirts be pitch-black, or just a dark shade of gray?

Last year, much was expected of the Nebraska defense. The ‘Huskers ended 2010 as a very, very good defense, with the set up to 2011 looking nothing but promising. But instead of a veteran defense imposing their will against teams in its new Big Ten neighborhood, Nebraska struggled to adjust to the downhill attacks found in the Big Ten. The loss of Jared Crick during the conference slate didn’t help, but even with him, the consistency just wasn’t there to contend.

Perhaps then it’s better that the expectations aren’t as high this year. Maybe the pressure of living up to the billing was just too much last year. And maybe now that the program has a little more familiarity with its opponents, and can play more loosely with renewed hunger, it’ll be able to grab the attitude on defense that you’d come to expect from Nebraska.

Bart Doan:

Though not a direct hit, Phil fired a shot across the bow on this already. Just how much has Nebraska learned from their first year in the B1G?

This is a fairly open-ended question. A lot of people thought the Huskers would run roughshod over the B1G, but when they arrived they found fewer Kansas’ and Iowa States than assumed. Those same people probably think Lady Gaga is actually female too. But I digress. They were eviscerated by Wisconsin and Michigan, and were clipped by Northwestern at home before being gutted by South Carolina in a bowl game.

Like on a golf course, you learn the most between the first time you do something and the second. There are major questions on D where they lose NFL level talent at all levels of the defense. Taylor Martinez will need to be a leader and make a few more throws. Mohammed Seisay, CB, will need to be a revelation, and the team will end up just fine if so.

Terry Johnson:

As Phil and Bart point out, Nebraska learned a lot last year. Here’s the most important lesson - the Big Ten is much more physical than the Big 12. In order to win the conference championship, the ‘Huskers will need their triggerman to step up.

This begs the question - is this the year that Taylor Martinez becomes a complete QB? Since the Big Red Machine can no longer pound its opponents into submission as they did when Tom Osborne was roaming the sidelines, they must get more out of the passing game. Martinez has showed flashes of brilliance at times (he torched Oklahoma State for 323 yards in 2010), but the question remains - can he do it over the course of an entire season?

Northwestern’s Biggest Question

Phil Harrison:

We could talk about the absence of Dan Persa and all, but something tells me that Northwestern will be just fine with Kain Colter or Trevor Siemian calling the shots. Doesn’t it always figure things out at QB? Instead, let’s focus on the purple elephant in the room shall we?

Is this the year that Northwestern lays the groundwork to win a bowl game? To be more specific, will this be the year that the Wildcats win their first bowl game since 1949, and second overall in the history of the program? To do so, it’ll HAVE to find someway to field a defense to compliment the offensive attack.

When Pat Fitzgerald took over the reigns in Evanston he promised to play for Big Ten championships and win bowl games. And while Northwestern has been competitive and gone to four straight bowl games under Fitzgerald, they haven’t sniffed a conference title, and have yet to break through with a postseason win despite a few close calls.

At least the program sits in the shadow of the city that coined the phrase, “There’s always next year.” Next year, begins now.

Bart Doan:

Yes it has been a long time since the ‘Cats have won anything after November. To hex that curse this year, they’ll need to enlist the services of everyone--most notably Kyle Prater. Just how good is the wide receiver transfer from USC, and how big of an addition can he be?

I like Northwestern as much as the next guy (that by no means could ever get in there) but let’s be honest: they haven’t had a talent the likes of the former 5 star recruit who landed at NU. I think Terry and Phil got the QB thing under control. Then again, if Prater is what everyone thought he was coming out of high school, you may as well let my rag arm toss him balls. Not really, but the point is made. NU has overachieved now for the better part of 17 years getting the most out of their athletes. Now, they have one of the most gifted they’ve had in recent memory.

Terry Johnson:

How will the Northwestern offense replace the total production of Kain Colter?

Yes, I mean Kain Colter – who should take over as the starting QB this year, and not Dan Persa.

Colter was the team’s most versatile weapon last year, leading the team in rushing and finishing third on the team in receptions. Assuming he fends off the challenge from Trevor Siemian as expected, the Wildcats will have to replace their top three receivers from last season. On the other hand, if (or when) Colter lines up at receiver, Northwestern loses its top running threat.

In other words, Northwestern needs someone to step up at the position that Colter does not play if it wants to win its first bowl game since 1948.

Follow Phil on Twitter @PhilHarrisonCFN, Bart @Bart_CFN, and Terry @TPJCollFootball

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