I am going to begin the football postmortem with a very bold statement: If we do not win the Leaders Division and reach the 2012 Big Ten Championship game we will have whiffed on our best chance to reach said game in the next 10 years.
I know you think I am crazy, but it is true. Let's look at the other five teams in our division:
- Wisconsin - The Badgers still own us, but with Montee Ball and Russell Wilson being gone, they might take a slight step back. If we get very lucky at home you never know what might happen.
- Ohio State - The Buckeyes should be good, but motivation is a question with nothing to play for. We own them at home, but it is time to end our longest road losing streak in Big Ten play.
- Penn State - They are a tire fire that no one wants to coach. The Nittany Lions are a gigantic toss-up right now.
- Illinois - Sure, Tim Beckman beat us in his last game, but this is a transition year for the Fighting Illini.
- Indiana - It's Indiana. No offense, but I think NASA will send the first man to the sun before the Hoosiers win the 2012 Leaders Division. The phrase, "It's Indiana" is a positive in basketball, but explains everything in football.
Now, do I expect to win the Leaders Division? Of course not. That is a wild expectation. Still, it may be our best chance to do something for awhile. We're never going to be presented with as unique of a set of circumstances as we will in 2012. The three cross-division games against Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan are about as easy as we can ask for. Michigan is a tough team to beat, but Iowa seems to be settling into a comfortable Tiller-pattern with Kirk Ferentz and Minnesota is still Minnesota.
So what can we expect in 2012? The news of a major defensive end recruit, Ryan Watson, committing today could be a game changer. I like Ryan Russell as a player, but if Watson can come in and play immediately (as a four-star at Purdue should be able to do) he will fill one of only three defensive starter positions we have open. On offense, we need to find a quarterback, but that is the only major question mark given the talent we have at the skill positions.
Danny Hope needs a big 2012, and he at least has the players to do so. Here is how each unit breaks down:
We return a starter at quarterback, have to replace one receiver, and have a bevy of talented running backs. We're slowly shifting to a running game, but as long as we recognize it as a strength and exploit it I am happy. Robert Marve, Caleb TerBush, or Rob Henry will start the opener. Of that I am confident. Whoever starts will have weapons at his disposal.
Dennis Kelly and Nick Mondek need to be replaced on the line, but Ken Plue returning from ultra-double-secret probation will help. Jack DeBoef or Trevor Foy will likely move into Kelly's position, while Plue should start if he plays. As long as we get consistent quarterback play I am excited about the offense.
Three starters are gone: Gerald Gooden (who had a feast or famine bowl game), Joe Holland, and Albert Evans. The time has come for E.J. Johnson or Ishmael Aristide to step forward, though Max Charlot could be a solid replacement. I like Joe Gilliam to replace Holland, and the defensive end replacement needs to be someone who can get to the quarterback or at least be serviceable as a decoy for Russell.
I like the nickname for Raheem Mostert that was revealed in the bowl game Open Thread: Contrail. that comes from the cloud of vapor a jt leaves behind. The dude is a jet that needs the ball in open space. Cody Webster is back, but the kicking job needs to be filled. I ask only for perfect extra points and range from 50. Any college kicker should be able to do that.
Let's break it down into three sections: Should win, toss-ups, and likely losses:
Should win: Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, Marshall, Indiana, Minnesota
As I have said before, there is no excuse for a Big Ten team to ever lose to a 1-AA team. Eastern Michigan and Marshall had at least .500 seasons this year, but we have got to be able to win those games at home. We whipped Minnesota this season, and I know most Purdue fans agree there is never a valid excuse for losing the Bucket in West Lafayette.
Toss-ups: Illinois, Penn State, Michigan, Iowa
Michigan is the biggest toss-up, and I only put it here because we get the Wolverines at home. Illinois is in transition, Penn State's situation is something I would not wish on anyone, and Iowa shouldn't be good, but we struggle at Iowa greatly. I think we can definitely take two of these games, with Michigan being the toughest of the four.
Likely Losses: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Notre Dame
We need to come to the realization that we suck in South bend. We have on win in the last almost 40 years there, and it took a Heisman candidate and a pretty bad ND team to get it. I'd love to win there, but I am skeptical at best. The same is true for Ohio State, We own them in Ross-Ade, but at the Horseshoe we can't get over the hump. Wisconsin is the definition of a bad matchup for us.
Best Case Scenario: 9-3 and a berth in the Big Ten title game
Worst Case Scenario: 6-6 and back in Detroit.
Sorry Danny, but we made a bowl as the worst possible bowl team in the conference. We expect them now.