Ranking the Big Ten: Offense
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.
Today, we rank the individual offensive units in the Big Ten.
Old reputations die hard and, while the Big Ten probably doesn’t totally deserve its plodder’s reputation at this point, the conference still isn’t exactly the cutting edge of offense either. Last year’s leader, Nebraska at 460.8 yards per game, finished just 26th nationally in total offense. The Big Ten’s highest-scoring outfit, Ohio State, couldn’t crack the top-20 nationally. In 2012, the average Big Ten team put up 384.54 yards per game which ranked last among the six BCS conferences. (Yes, even behind the forgettable Big East which edged out the Big Ten by a half-yard per game.)
But it’s not just an overall lack of offensive output, the Big Ten also has a perception problem. Offense is an innovator’s game and that’s one area where the Big Ten falls short. Urban Meyer was one of the early spread adopters but he’s won enough for long enough that anything he does at Ohio State feels like more of the same. Kevin Wilson, architect of the league’s best air-attack last year, did that at Oklahoma before ever arriving in Bloomington. Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges is a great offensive mind but he’s not exactly flashy or exciting.
No, the Big Ten’s best bet for some offensive renown might be Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck. The third-year coordinator is new enough that Nebraska is where he’s making his name. His offense, a mix of power run and spread concepts with a no-huddle pace, is a melange of existing pieces but there’s enough of an artists signature in that mixture to make some people take notice.
On paper, the Big Ten looks poised to take another step away from the “cloud of dust” reputation that still seems to follow it everywhere. While the conference may lack some big time skill position talent, it does have plenty of experience back. Nine of the 12 teams return at least eight starters on offense this year which should make the 2013 season a little more electric than 2012.
Which offense is the best? On to the preseason rankings:
1. NEBRASKA — It’s a close race between Nebraska and Ohio State but the Huskers out-gained the Buckeyes in total last year and, more importantly, were slightly more balanced than Ohio State was last year. But here’s the real kicker — when you remove garbage drives from the equation, Nebraska’s offense wasn’t all that efficient in 2012, gaining just 46.4 percent of the yards available according to FBSDriveStats.com. That could be considered a knock against Nebraska but with this level of experience back — not to mention an easier schedule — I think the Huskers can be better at finishing drives when they count in 2013.
2. OHIO STATE — If there’s a chink in the Buckeyes’ armor in 2013, it might be the passing game. The key words there are “might be.” We don’t really know because Ohio State threw the ball less than any other team in the Big Ten last year. Braxton Miller’s passing numbers all looked pretty good in 2012, but few teams were able to stop the run well enough to really force the issue. I expect that to be the game plan for most teams gearing up to defend the Buckeyes in 2013 and, ultimately, that sliver of uncertainty is the difference between the top two.
3. INDIANA — Abandoning any hope of a competent run game in favor of an explosive passing attack isn’t exactly a new concept in college football but that doesn’t make a team like that any easier to assess. But there are unique advantages to that approach for Indiana in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers averaged 312.0 passing yards per game, the most since Purdue averaged 321.2 in 2004. It had been five years since any Big Ten team threw for more than 300 yards per game. Will Indiana have better than the 10th-ranked rushing offense in 2013? Probably not. Will it matter when it comes to putting up a ton of yards? Again, probably not. This Big 12-type attack is a curve ball in the Big Ten.
4. NORTHWESTERN — The Wildcats have a first-team all-conference candidate at running back, three of their top four receivers, and not one but two quarterbacks back in 2013. It’s that last part that might matter most of all. If Northwestern decides to let Kain Colter run its entire offense, the Wildcats could push past a couple of teams that out-gained it last year. Namely, Penn State and Purdue who both have to replace starters behind center.
5. WISCONSIN — With eight offensive starters back, the Badgers have all the pieces to be one of the Big Ten’s best but I’ll exercise caution until I can see what new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has planned. San Diego State, Ludwig’s previous stop, was fairly pedestrian last year on offense but if Wisconsin can make it through the year with a firm starter in place at quarterback — I’d make it Joel Stave — this offense could be better even with Montee Ball gone.
6. MICHIGAN — This could be too low for the Wolverines. It’s hard to tell. At first glance, Michigan didn’t seem that special on offense last year and that was with Denard Robinson for most of the season. But behind the scenes, the Wolverines were doing some good things. According to FBSDriveStats.com, which focuses only on “statistically significant drives,” Michigan led the Big Ten in both yards per play and was the only team in the conference to gain more than 50 percent of the total yards available. With just five starters back this is the least experienced offense in the conference along with Purdue, but I have a feeling Borges is going to retool this offense and end up making QB Devin Gardner a lot of money down the road.
7. PENN STATE — Bill O’Brien might be a good enough offensive mind to keep the Nittany Lions in the top half of the conference, but it’s hard to predict such a result with the Nittany Lions’ quarterback situation up in the air. Steven Bench, the only quarterback returning that played in 2012, transferred this spring leaving Penn State with two untested options but there’s too much receiving talent here for the Nittany Lions to fall too far.
8. MICHIGAN STATE — Beyond simple experience and the improvement that’s supposed to bring, there’s little reason to think the Spartans are going to be better on offense in 2013. Le’Veon Bell is gone and he accounted for 39 percent of the Spartans’ total yards and 48 percent of the touchdowns in 2012. But Michigan State has to be better than it was in 2012. Last year’s offense wasted a national title caliber defense. That can’t happen again and I don’t think it will. I just can’t tell you why I think that’s the case. Call it a hunch.
9. PURDUE — What to make of the Boilermakers? New coach, new quarterback and six starters to replace doesn’t bode very well for the league’s fifth-best offense last season. I like wide receiver Gary Bush and running back Akeem Hunt, but it appears as if Purdue will take a step back offensively in 2013. I do think, however, head coach Darrell Hazel will get thing up to speed quickly after that.
10. ILLINOIS — Make no mistake, I don’t expect Illinois to be good overall in 2013, but I do expect the Illini to put up some yards. After a disastrous first year, head coach Tim Beckman brought in Bill Cubit from Western Michigan to help resurrect a nearly dead offense. Cubit likes to throw it and his Western Michigan teams finished in the top-30 in passing in each of the past four years. He’ll have some pieces to work with as the Illini return their top seven receivers from 2012 as well as a four-year starter at quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase, presuming he can keep that job by becoming more of a passer.
11. MINNESOTA — Know what Minnesota did well on offense last year? Not much. Regular stats, advanced stats, it doesn’t matter — the Gophers ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in just about every category minus rushing offense. But, Minnesota is experienced with 10 starters returning and quarterback Philip Nelson, who took over the job midway through his freshman season last year, might be sneaky-good with another year under his belt.
12. IOWA — You and I attempted as many passes for Iowa last year as any of the three guys fighting for the Hawkeyes’ starting job in 2013. That’s not good when the offense with the guy that took all the snaps finished 117th nationally last year. Iowa does have its top two receivers back as well as its leading rusher but it’s hard to predict much improvement in year two under offensive coordinator Greg Davis. He was once the second-highest paid assistant in the country while with Mack Brown at Texas but Longhorn fans were elated when Davis resigned in 2010. Iowa fans might be there too after this season if they’re not already.