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Ranking the Big Ten: Defense

There’s nothing better to kick off the summer than the promise of fall. With the first ever Hail Varsity Yearbook hitting newsstands and mailboxes soon, all this week we’re celebrating that glorious time of year (i.e. now) when the college football preview magazines start to arrive. Call it “Preview Week.” Our Big Ten outlook, all-conference teams, position-by-position breakdowns and power rankings are all in the Yearbook but to help get things rolling we’ll be posting additional rankings, ideas, and opinions on the 2013 season on HailVarsity.com all week long.

To wrap up Preview Week, we rank the individual defensive units in the Big Ten.

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Yesterday we ranked the offenses in the Big Ten. Today we get to the side of the ball where the conference has a bit of a better reputation. While the SEC might have a near monopoly on big-time d-line talent, the Big Ten in 2013 is particularly loaded at linebacker. Look at the list of top tacklers in 2012 and then try to start sorting out a preseason all-Big Ten team at linebacker.

It’s not easy.

Overall, this conference is pretty good up the middle (DT, LB, S), which, even considering the amount of offensive experience back, probably means tough sledding on the ground again in 2013. Five Big Ten teams ranked in the top-25 nationally in rushing defense last year.

On to the rankings:

1. MICHIGAN STATE — In 2012, Michigan State gave up an average of 16.3 points per game. The Spartans also lost six games, which isn’t easy to do. Between 2007 and 2012, no team lost so many games while giving up so few points. That’s a pretty clear indication of where Michigan State’s issues lie in 2013; the other side of the ball because this defense is, once again, loaded. The Spartans have seven starters back including studs at linebacker (Max Bullough, Denicos Allen) and cornerback (Darqueze Dennard). This one’s easy: Michigan State is a clear leader headed into 2013.

2. WISCONSIN — The Badgers lost defensive end David Gilbert over the offseason to a career-ending injury, but Wisconsin still has enough talent back to make things difficult on opposing offenses. This ranking comes with a caveat, however: There might be some minor growing pains as Wisconsin switches to a 3-4 under new head coach Gary Andersen, but I’m guessing those get worked out before conference play starts. If you eliminate the garbage time stats, the Badgers actually led the Big Ten last year in yards per play allowed (4.4), yards per drive (23.0), and percentage of yards gained (31.3%) according to FBSDriveStats.com. And Wisconsin now adds a coach who led a top-10 scoring defense at Utah State last year? Should be pretty salty.

3. MICHIGAN — The question with Michigan this year is stopping the run. The Wolverines ranked 13th nationally in total defense last year but just 52nd against the run. That’s typically not a good blueprint for a division championship, but Michigan has three spots open in its front seven. If there are some difference makers in that group — based on how Brady Hoke has recruited, there’s every reason to believe that there are — Michigan should be better defensively in 2013.

4. OHIO STATE — Along with Illinois, Ohio State returns just four starters defensively in 2013. Cause for concern? Maybe. The four players Ohio State does have back are all all-conference type players, but none of them play on the defensive line. I’m guessing Urban Meyer has some talented guys to fill those spots and, perhaps most importantly, a relatively soft non-conference schedule to allow them what should be relatively stress-free live reps. At least that better be the trajectory. The Buckeyes open conference play with Wisconsin.

5. NEBRASKA — By now, the scare stats regarding the Huskers’ defensive performance are well known to any Nebraska fan: 92nd nationally in rushing defense, 354 rushing yards allowed per game in four losses (scroll down, you’ll find the Huskers at the very bottom), 53.5 points per game allowed in four losses (ibid), etc. So why will Nebraska be better in 2013? I think it comes down to simplification more than athleticism, though the latter helps too. Nebraska kept things simple in the spring and I think we’ll see that carry over into the early part of the fall at least. In short: more play, less think. That’s not Bo Pelini’s typical approach but if it works early on, why switch? Despite the shocking numbers mentioned above, Nebraska still finished 35th nationally in total defense which shows that when the Huskers weren’t completely melting down last season in four big losses, the defense was actually pretty good.

6. MINNESOTA — You sort of have to take the Gophers defense with a grain of salt. Yes, Minnesota finished fifth in the Big Ten in total defense last year, but when the games were still in doubt the Gophers ranked in the bottom third in yards per play and drive allowed. Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman is a load up front and Minnesota is pretty good at safety which means the Gophers could be better in 2013, I just wouldn’t count on it.

7. IOWA — While the offense looks poised to struggle again in 2013, there are some things to be excited about on defense for the Hawkeyes. First off, Iowa has eight starters back. Secondly, there’s Anthony Hitchens and James Morris returning at linebacker, two players who probably get overlooked a bit just because the Big Ten is so deep at that position. Iowa was straight middle of the pack last year defensively. There’s a chance to improve on those numbers this year but it won’t be easy with an offense that could consistently putting the defense in tough situations.

8. PENN STATE — Go inside the numbers and Penn State’s defense was sort of remarkable in 2012. The Nittany Lions, on average, gave their opponents the third-best starting field position among Big Ten teams last year. Despite that, Penn State gave up points on just 26.1 percent of those drives, good enough for second in the conference behind Wisconsin. Still, you have to factor in the simple lack of depth due to the NCAA sanctions. That’s going to hit the Lions harder in 2013 than it did in 2012.

9. NORTHWESTERN — Yes, the Wildcats have a decent amount of talent back, but most of that talent gave up nearly 400 yards per game last season. The schedule in 2013 is significantly more difficult as well, making a statistical improvement on defense seem unlikely.

10. PURDUE — Similar to Northwestern, Purdue has a bunch of players returning on a defense that wasn’t very good at stopping anybody in 2012. The secondary, led by cornerback Ricardo Allen, could be among the Big Ten’s best but the Boilermakers have to find a way to stop the run in 2013.

11. INDIANA — If Indiana could play winners’ outs the Hoosiers might win the Big Ten. The offense is that good, the defense that bad. At least statistically, but former Indiana linebackers’ coach Mike Ekler made an interesting point on Hail Varsity radio earlier this year: “If you’re going to throw the ball and can’t run the ball and you’re going to throw it every down and leave your defense out there for three-fourths of the game, you’re never going to put up good numbers.” That’s probably true, but I don’t see Indiana a) throwing any less in 2013 because b) running the ball any more effectively seems like a long-shot too. That makes it hard to predict much improvement for the Hoosiers defensively despite the fact that Indiana has nine starters back.

12. ILLINOIS — The Illini finished 11th in the Big Ten in total defense last season AND THEN had three players from that defense go in the NFL Draft, the most of any Big Ten team along with Penn State. Illinois has just four starters back in 2013 and, numbers alert, is going to be throwing the ball all over the place this season. That should make that Indiana-Illinois game pretty fun to watch at least.