Let's count down which should be the best defenses in the Big Ten this year.
The Hoosiers once again bring up the bottom. The Hoosiers were dead last in the conference last year in both total and scoring defense. Indiana brings back eight starters on defense, but when those guys were involved in a unit that only gave up less than 20 points once all season (to the Matt McGloin show) it might be better to work in new blood. With the number of Juco transfers coming in, Indiana could start to see some upward momentum. That'll still keep the Hoosiers at the bottom of the list barring any miracle turnaround. One area Indiana should be solid at is on the defensive line as both Larry Black Jr. and Adam Replogle return on the inside and sophomore Bobby Richardon is back after getting time in nine games and recording three sacks as a freshman.
This is the first of what will probably be many controversial choices on this list. The battle between NU and Minn for 10th place is heated but largely even. Both teams return roughly the same number of starters (5 for Minn, 6 for NU) and both teams were ahead of Indiana in last year's defensive rankings. The difference is that Northwestern struggled all year, gave up yards like a sieve, and was terrible at getting negative plays. Two of NU's three players tied for the sack lead (3 each) are gone this year. The Wildcats do return two of the top three tacklers in LB David Nwabuisi and S Ibraheim Campbell.
The Gophers, however, were atrocious to start 2011. After a solid effort against USC that included a shut down second half, Minnesota gave up a combined 88 points to the rest of its cupcake non-conference schedule, then got destroyed by Michigan to the tune of 58 points allowed before back-to-back 40-point losses to Purdue and Nebraska. Then, things started improving and Minnesota actually played well enough to keep in games while stealing wins against Iowa and Illinois. Minnesota gets the edge for steady improvement that should carry over to year two under Jerry Kill and staff.
The Boiilermaker defense does have some impressive parts in DT Kawann Short and CB Ricardo Allen, but even with those two playing at a high level a year ago the Purdue defense still struggled for long stretches against most offenses that weren't Minnesota or a FCS team. Unless Short gets some help up front and Purdue can replace two starting safeties, things won't get considerably better. My slotting the Boilermakers at number nine should show you the amount of confidence I have in those two things happening.
8. Penn State
Penn State was phenomenal on defense last year. If the 2011 Nittany Lions team doesn't have a top-ten level defense there is no way it makes it to within a win of the conference championship game. However, consider the circumstances this year:
- Just five returning starters.
- Unprecedented NCAA sanctions hanging over the program in the wake of a huge sexual molestation case.
- Ted Roof is running the show. This is absolutely not a good thing.
- A wave of transfers that have hurt special teams (Anthony Fera), defensive depth (Khairi Fortt), and the offense.
- The offense wasn't going to be much help before those transfers. Now things look even more bleak.
There are some solid pieces on this Penn State defense -- LBs Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti plus DT Jordan Hill -- but there is simply too much going on, too much change, and not enough help to count on this defense to do anything but try and keep its head above water.
Iowa was merely an average defensive program a year ago, ranking 60th in total defense and 46th in scoring defense. Given the youth that litters the roster, the Hawkeyes are probably a couple years away from fielding another dominant defense like the 2009 version. The defense in 2012 will be very green, most of all on the defensive line where the Hawkeyes depend on junior Dominic Alvis to recover from injury and lead the charge -- Alvis is one of two returning players to register a sack, having been third on the team despite missing the final four games with an injury. It will take a very strong season from the back seven to nurse the defensive line along, but with linebackers James Morris and Christian Kirksey returning and CB Micah Hyde back, there is talent to help clean up mistakes up front.
Illinois wasn't the best defense in the conference in 2011 -- being narrowly edged out by Michigan State and Penn State -- but the Illini were easily the most destructive with three players in the conference's top-ten in TFLs and sacks. With ringleader Whitney Mercilus gone it'll be up to DE Michael Buchanan and LB Jonathan Brown to continue getting pressure.
The bigger problem for Illinois comes from the scheme change. Of all the problems that Illinois had during the Ron Zook years, Vic Koenning's defense was rarely one of them. In 2010 he helped spur a massive defensive revival in Champaign, and in 2011 the defense continued producing at an incredibly high level while the offense drove off a cliff halfway into the season. With a new staff in town, growing pains are to be expected. This defense will still be good, but it is hard to see it reprising its dominant role from a year ago.
In Wisconsin's case last year, the best defense was a good offense. The Badger offense was one of the most devistating attacks in the country and controlled the ball as well as anyone (4th nationally in turnover margin). Because of this, the defense often got to A) sit down and rest a lot and B) protect a lead a lot.
This year Wisconsin loses a lot on offense, including quarterback Russell Wilson and a significant portion of the offensive line. While the Badgers bring back six defensive starters -- and most importantly the impressive linebacker combo of Mike Taylor and Chris Borland -- the defense will be more heavily counted on this year. There is some talent there along the line where three of the top four sack leaders (Beau Allen, Brenden Kelly, and David Gilbert) return, but the group will have to up its production to bail out a young secondary.
Nebraska is always going to have playmakers on its defense, but part of the problem is that replacing those playmakers becomes a hurdle. This year Nebraska has to find a way to replace DT Jared Crick (who missed a significant portion of last year), LB Lavonte David, and CB Alfonzo Dennard.
However, Nebraska has some ready and willing players to step into the limelight. Along the line it will be DE Cameron Meredith on the outside and DT Baker Steinkuhler holding things down at the point of attack with LB Will Compton stepping into the tackling-machine role that David leaves. The secondary also has a great deal of young talent ready to step up. PJ Smith will have a bigger role after playing in a reserve role the last two seasons, and Andrew Green returns to one CB spot after starting ten games last fall.
3. Ohio State
With all of the changes going on in Columbus, there is one area of the team that will be very much the same come 2012: the defense. That's just how Ohio State fans like it.
Defense hasn't been a problem for the Buckeyes in recent years (unless it is matched up against an SEC team) and with Luke Fickell and Mike Vrabel back, joined by Everett Withers, there shouldn't be much adjustment on that side of the ball. This will serve the Buckeyes well as the defense a year ago was ridiculously young and looks to improve on an already good effort after returning eight starters.
The defensive line is going to be stout as ever with John Simon at DE and Johnathan Hankins at DT. Both are all-conference level players (or better) and head one of the most fearsome defensive lines in the conference. Behind them will be a promising pair of sophomore linebackers, Ryan Shazier and Curtis Grant, paired with senior Etienne Sabino. This is a good group that could really explode if Grant and Shazier make a leap. The secondary too returns a lot of talent with NB Christian Bryant, CB Bradley Roby, and S CJ Barnett the headliners.
You already know about this defense. The back seven returns almost completely intact -- losing only oft-injured contributor Troy Woolfolk -- and the young-ish linebacker corp is deeper and more experienced this fall. The defensive line remains the one true question mark as only one starter returns in Craig Roh, but a number of reserve contributors from a year ago -- Will Campbell DT, Jibreel Black DT, DE Brennen Beyer, DE Frank Clark (?), and DE Nathan Brink -- are all back and will need to step up and pick up the production of the departed seniors along the interior of the line.
The biggest question facing the Wolverines is whether the defense can get enough production from the experienced back seven to give the defensive line a chance to gel and begin producing at a solid level. With the defensive coaching staff in place it is hard to believe this unit won't at least be serviceable, and that should be enough to keep Michigan's defense playing at a high level.
1. Michigan State
It may kill me to admit it, but Mark Dantonio has put together the gold standard of Big Ten defenses. Last season the Spartans were absolutely killers, leading the league in rush defense and total defense, and not ranking worse than third in any defensive category. Nine of those starters return.
The defensive line should once again be one of the best in the conference with longtime contributor Tyler Hooverand reserve Anthony Rashad White on the inside. Outside them will be Michigan State's strong defensive end pairing of Marcus Rush and William Gholston.
If that wasn't enough, the Spartans boast the best trio of linebackers in the conference. Max Bullough is a monster in the middle and is flanked by Chris Norman and Denicos Allen, who was 12th in the nation is sacks and fourth in the conference in TFLs. The secondary returns all-Big Ten performers in Isaiah Lewis at safety and Johnny Adamsat CB, and honorable mention All-B1G CB Darqueze Dennard.
The question marks? How do you replace a second round draft pick at DT -- one who projected much higher -- and an all conference performer at FS. Given the level of depth and talent that the Spartans boast, these are the football equivalent of #firstworldproblems.