Philadelphia, PA – The Big Ten season will culminate with its inaugural championship game in December and a host of teams have a shot at claiming the crown. The favorites heading into the new campaign are Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Michigan State, but a couple of other squads also might be in the mix.
Another key question that needs to be answered is: which clubs will be the ones to wager on the first month of the season? If one looks back over the last two years, the answer is easy. Ohio State, Michigan, and Iowa since those three have forged ahead of the rest of the league in non-conference play over the last two years with a combined 21-4 against-the-spread record.
The Buckeyes are an impressive 9-1, while the Wolverines are on their heels at 6-1, and the Hawkeyes check in at 6-2. Unfortunately, those trends might not stick this season since Ohio State will be without many key weapons early on and Iowa lost a ton of talent from the past couple of years.
Time now to take a team-by-team look at the league with predicted straight-up overall and conference records for those wagering on over/unders for total victories.
6) MINNESOTA - The Golden Gophers went 7-4 ATS last season. They are 7-4 as road underdogs the last three years.
Offense - MarQueis Gray finally gets his chance at quarterback with the loss of Adam Weber - the school's all-time leading passer. Gray has completed just eight of his 23 passes but his running ability will help out an offense that has ranked near the bottom of the league in recent years.
Defense - With only one returning starter last year, the Golden Gophers allowed only nine yards more per game (in Big Ten play) than the year before. Unfortunately, the defense recorded just nine total sacks and gave up an average of 33 points per game. Seven of the top nine tacklers return, which should bring the scoring average back down into the 20s.
Prediction - If Gray can improve his accuracy, the Golden Gophers could surprise a few teams both SU and ATS. (5-7, 2-6).
5) IOWA - The Hawkeyes were 6-5-1 ATS last season and are 15-7 to the under in their last 22 games. They are 4-10 as road favorites the last seven years.
Offense - Ricky Stanzi had a solid bounce-back season throwing for over 3,000 yards with 25 touchdowns. His departure, along with four of the top five pass- catchers will cause problems for an offense that brings back just 50% of its lettermen. The last time the offense was this inexperienced was the only season since '00 the team averaged fewer than 20 ppg.
Defense - Even though this unit allowed just 19 ppg inside the Big Ten, it was a shell of its former self. The defense gave up over 80 more yards per game and a full yard more per play than in '09. Now imagine what will happen with the loss of eight of last year's top 11 tacklers. The only saving grace is a schedule without Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Prediction - Iowa will be around the .500 mark SU and below it ATS. (6-6, 3-5).
4) MICHIGAN - The Wolverines finished 3-9 ATS last season. They are 0-5 as road favorites the last three years.
Offense - For the second time in four years, the Wolverines have a new coach and new system. Expect more passing and less running from Denard Robinson, while the line will have to alter its blocking schemes after three years in the spread formation. Expect a slow start early on along with a fiery finish over the second half of the season.
Defense - Michigan's defense was embarrassing to watch last year (110th nationally in yards allowed). Improvement is expected but the unit will still allow around 28 ppg while finishing in the bottom half of the league in both scoring and total defense.
Prediction - New head coach Brady Hoke has been a winner wherever he's been so look for Michigan to improve its ATS record by at least three games. (6-6, 4-4).
3) MICHIGAN STATE - The Spartans went 6-6 ATS last season. They are 6-1-1 as road favorites over the last three years.
Offense - This group looks very similar to last year's expect on the offensive line which loses three starters. The Spartans have averaged 30 ppg each of the last two seasons and with Kirk Cousins and a solid ground attack, look for more of the same in '11.
Defense - Michigan State moved from eighth to second in total defense inside the Big Ten last year. However, that was mainly due to less time on the field since the yards allowed per play barely improved from 5.5 to 5.3. The Spartans had a tremendous red zone defense last season, which will be difficult to duplicate with the loss of their top three tacklers.
Prediction - Michigan State is just 4-10-1 ATS in the last five games over the last three seasons. Look for another dismal ATS finish once again. (8-4, 5-3).
2) NORTHWESTERN - The Wildcats went 3-9 ATS last season. They are 2-9 ATS as favorites the last two years.
Offense - The Wildcats have averaged between 24 and 26 ppg each of the last four years. However, this will be their most experienced offense since '01. Northwestern should be able to topple the 30 ppg mark if quarterback Dan Persa can stay healthy the entire season.
Defense - The defense had an off year in '10 finishing last in league play against the run. Furthermore, opposing Big Ten teams scored 25 touchdowns on just 32 red zone opportunities. This will be a much improved unit with 10 of the top 13 tacklers back in Evanston.
Prediction - Northwestern is primed for a big season. Don't forget the Wildcats were 7-3 SU last year before Persa was injured. They have an outside shot at making the Big Ten Championship Game. (8-4, 5-3).
1) NEBRASKA - The Cornhuskers went 6-7 ATS last season. They are 10-15 as home favorites the last four years.
Offense - Nebraska has averaged 30 ppg or more in four of the last five seasons. The Cornhuskers were dominant on the ground last year ranking ninth nationally with 248 rushing ypg. However, look for those numbers to drop with the loss of leading rusher Roy Helu and both starting guards.
Defense - Even though the defense allowed seven more ppg than the year before, the unit still ranked 11th nationally in yards allowed and fourth in defensive third-down conversion percentage. Nevertheless, opponents shredded them for 153 rushing ypg on 3.9 ypc and those numbers might not improve heading into the Big Ten.
Prediction - The Cornhuskers get both Northwestern and Michigan State at home so it is their division to lose. Still, a below .500 ATS record is a distinct possibility. (10-2, 6-2).
6) INDIANA - The Hoosiers went 5-6 ATS last season. They are 8-14 ATS off a SU loss over the last three years.
Offense - The Hoosiers will have to wait one more year for Gunner Kiel to suit up at quarterback. In the meantime, his brother Dusty could get the call after completing just 4-of-17 passes a year ago. With two of the top three receivers gone (along with QB Ben Chappell), expect a big drop-off in production.
Defense - Indiana returned just one of its top eight tacklers last season and the defense struggled giving up 34 ppg. Five of the top seven tacklers come back this year so look for slight improvements. However, this could very well be the worst defenses in the league.
Prediction - Stick with the under in most of the early season games. (4-8, 1-7).
5) ILLINOIS - The Fighting Illini were 8-4 ATS last season. They are 7-2 as road underdogs but 0-4 as road favorites the last three years.
Offense - The Illini almost doubled their scoring output inside the Big Ten last year averaging 36 ppg after going for 18.5 the year before. Despite the loss of Mikel Leshoure and his 20 total touchdowns, the offense will not miss a beat with Jason Ford taking over.
Defense - This year's defense will not be as strong as last year's due to the loss of four of the top six tacklers. The group will also be without the only three members of the '10 defense that recorded more than two sacks.
Prediction - Illinois will not come anywhere close to reproducing its 8-4 ATS record. (7-5, 3-5).
4) PURDUE - The Boilermakers went 4-7 ATS last season. They are 2-7 as home favorites the last two years.
Offense - Injuries took their toll on the offense last season as the Boilermakers ranked dead last in scoring and total offense. This year will be better but the passing game will continue to keep them from reaching the high 20s in scoring.
Defense - The defense started out strong in '10 allowing an average of 20 ppg in the first six. Unfortunately, the bottom fell out as the unit allowed 37 ppg the rest of the way. Nine starters return in '11 but one of the losses is huge as Ryan Kerrigan (and his 26 tackles for loss) has moved on to the NFL. Expect a third straight season allowing 29 ppg.
Prediction - If running back Ralph Bolden stays injury-free this season, the Boilermakers have a shot at their first bowl game since '07. (6-6, 3-5).
3) PENN STATE - The Nittany Lions went 5-7 ATS last season. They are 9-1 as road favorites over the last three years but 3-9 as home favorites the last two.
Offense - The Nittany Lions averaged 25 ppg inside the Big Ten compared to 27 the year before. However, due to increases from many other league teams, they ranked seventh in scoring after finishing third in '09. This year's group should be better, but don't forget Nebraska and Wisconsin replace Minnesota and Michigan on the schedule.
Defense - After allowing between 12 and 18 ppg between '04 and '09, the defense gave up 24 ppg last year, doubling the number allowed the year before. The big difference came inside the red zone as the Nittany Lions went from first to last in the league giving up touchdowns on a whopping 70% of their opponents' opportunities. Look for much improved numbers all around, especially with 11 of the top 15 tacklers back in Happy Valley.
Prediction - A much more demanding conference schedule will leave Penn State just one game above .500. (7-5, 4-4).
2) OHIO STATE - The Buckeyes finished 10-2-1 ATS last season. They are 12-2 ATS as home favorites but 2-4-1 as road favorites the last two years.
Offense - The offense could stumble early this September with key players suspended. Nevertheless, the opposition (outside of Miami-Florida) does not appear to be too threatening. Look for the points to kick in over the second half of the year when the team will be at full strength.
Defense - Ohio State has allowed between 13 and 14 ppg over the last five seasons so even with the loss of eight of the top 12 tacklers, don't expect a huge slide. Remember, the Buckeyes survived in '06 allowing just 13 ppg with only two returning starters.
Prediction - It will be hard to get a good read on this team until October rolls around. Until then, stick with the under. (10-2, 6-2).
1) WISCONSIN - The Badgers went 7-4-1 ATS last season. They are 7-0 ATS in their last seven games.
Offense - The Badgers broke the school record with a 38.8 ppg average last year. Helping the cause was an unbelievable 85% red zone touchdown conversion rate in Big Ten play. Wisconsin will still have a very good offense with former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson taking over for Scott Tolzien, but the production will not come anywhere close to last season's totals.
Defense - Wisconsin held opposing league teams to just 2.5 yards per carry in '09. Unfortunately, the defense was scorched for over 4.0 ypc last year. This season's front seven should chop at least a half-yard off that total. The secondary should remain strong if the Badgers can find a pass rusher to replace J.J. Watt.
Prediction - Even though the Badgers should remain a double-digit winning squad, this year's team is not in the same class as last year's so bet against Wisconsin on a weekly basis. (10-2, 6-2).