College Football is Finally Here: B1G Preview for the Weekend Ahead

After many long months of waiting college football season has finally arrived! As much as I love baseball, college football holds a special place in my heart. I especially enjoy watching B1G football.

Every year the B1G is expected to step it up and produce some impressive results on the field, with this year being no different from the rest. Last year the conference was hurt by two of its most illustrious programs, Penn State and Ohio State, being punished with bowl bans. Now that the Buckeyes have served their penalty, high expectations return to Columbus. Ohio State is the consensus favorite to not only win the conference, but run the table and play for it all in Pasadena. As far as the next best team in the B1G? That’s anybody’s guess.

In the Leaders Division Wisconsin lost Montee Ball, but have 10 other Wisconsin-like running backs waiting in the wings (namely James White and Melvin Gordon). Penn State is in year two of their bowl ban and break in two new quarterbacks. Indiana has a lot of starters returning to the team and the pressure is on head coach Kevin Wilson to get the team to a bowl game. Illinois head coach Tim Beckham is already on the hot seat in Champaign, despite the fact that its only his second season with the program. Purdue breaks in new head coach Darrell Hazel (former Buckeye coach) and look to begin rebuilding their program.

In the Legends Division Nebraska has Taylor Martinez return for what feels like his 10th year in the program, but their defense is a huge question mark. Michigan State is the exact opposite of Nebraska. They have a great defense, but four different players competed for the QB position. Northwestern is receiving the most preseason hype in decades, but many are unsure if they can handle the high expectations. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has been getting bashed by the media and fans all offseason and looks to silence the doubters. Minnesota looks to continue to build off their 6-6 season last year and move up the ladder in the conference. And the team up north finally has an actual quarterback again, but do they have enough to be considered an elite team?

Enough chatter, let’s get to the opening week games:

Thursday, August 29

Indiana State @ Indiana – If this was a basketball game taking place in the 70’s, with Larry Bird lacing it up for the Sycamores, I would be pretty psyched about this game. But instead it’s a football game in 2013. Even though I’m not thrilled about this match-up, these two actually played a tight game last season in the opener. Indiana only won 24-17 and only led by a touchdown at halftime also. I expect Indiana to learn from last season and dispatch Indiana State with ease.

UNLV @ Minnesota – This is another non-conference rematch from last season. And it was even closer. Minnesota needed triple overtime to defeat the Rebels, 30-27. Close games like this are what make the B1G look bad. B1G teams aren’t supposed to have close games with teams like UNLV. I hope the Golden Gophers win this game, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is another close game.

Friday, August 30

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The Best of the B1G, #11 Ameer Abdullah

b1g_iconIn the first half of Nebraska’s opening game of 2012, starting running back Rex Burkhead went down with an MCL sprain, inspiring a collective groan from Husker faithful that could surely be heard all the way in… I don’t know, Omaha or something. Burkhead was primed for a huge senior season after racking up just over 2300 yards in 2010 and 2011. His backup was an inexperienced sophomore who was impressive returning kicks but had rarely notched more than a handful of carries in meaningful game situations.

Fortunately for Nebraska, their worries were erased immediately. Abduallah averaged 5.4 yards a carry in finishing out that first game and added nearly 300 more and two scores in the next two before Burkhead’s return. That wasn’t it for Ameer in 2012 though, as Burkhead would miss four more starts after re-aggravating the sprain. Abdullah topped 100 yards in each game that Burkhead missed. All told, he ran for 1137 yards on 226 carries (5.03 average) and for all intents and purposes was the primary back for the Huskers last year, landing on the Big Ten Coaches’ 2nd team and earning an honorable mention from the Big Ten media.

In watching Abdullah’s highlights, I noticed that he has a burst that he seems to like to turn on after first contact (something he likely developed through returning kicks) that makes him a very scary back. You’ll see it in the video below, particularly against Michigan and UCLA:

I would expect Adbullah to get close to 300 carries this year, taking some pressure off of Taylor Martinez. It would not surprise me if he turned in 1600 yards or better in 2013.

Previously on MotSaG’s Best of the B1G
#12 Jared Abbrederis
#13 Venric Mark
#14 Devin Gardner
#15 Kenny Bell
Best of the B1G, #20-16
Best of the B1G, #25-21

The Best of the B1G: #15 Kenny Bell

b1g_icon#80 Kenny Bell
School: Nebraska
Position: Wide Receiver
Class: Junior
Hometown: Boulder, Colorado
Height: 6-1
Weight: 185 lbs.

Why He’s Important to Nebraska’s Success: Kenny Bell is one of the most dynamic wide receivers in the Big 10 and can give a defense fits. Combined with quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Ameer Abdullah, this trio makes up one of the most potent offenses in the Big 10. Since he’s surrounded by two other offensive threats, Bell becomes an even more dangerous player.

Bell has been the leading receiver for the Cornhuskers the last two seasons, leading the team in receiving yards, receptions and touchdown catches. In 2011, Bell caught 32 passes for 461 yards and three touchdown passes. He also ran the ball three times for 100 yards and one touchdown. Last season, Bell had a breakout year and established himself as one of the best receivers in the Big 10. Bell had 50 receptions with 863 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Bell was fifth in the Big 10 in receiving yards per game.

Career Highlight

Also one more thing about Bell: He’s a damn good blocker! In fact, the NCAA recently announced they’re cracking down more on hitting defenseless players above the shoulders this season, largely because of hits like Bell made on a Wisconsin player in the Big 10 Championship last season. Nebraska fans refer to it as the “Kenny Bell Rule.”

Take a look at this spectacular hit below (the great Gus Johnson with the call). I care about the player’s safety, but how could you not love this block?

How Bell Stacks Up Against His Competition

As I mentioned, Bell is one of the best receivers in the Big 10. Phil Steele named him to his 2013 Preseason All-Big 10 1st team. In 2012, he was named 1st team All-Big Ten by the Big Ten Network, Phil Steele, ESPN and CBS. Big 10 coaches and media named him second-team All-Big Ten in 2012.

Bell’s two best games in 2012 were against Minnesota and the Buckeyes. Against the Golden Gophers, Bell had nine catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns (expected when going against the Minnesota defense). I obviously saw him play against the Buckeye defense last fall and I was impressed by his play. He caught the ball five times for 133 yards. Credit the Buckeye defense for harassing Martinez enough to prevent him from hooking up with his star receiver for a touchdown (3 interceptions).

Why Bell is Ranked No. 15?

I consider Bell to be the third best wide receiver in the Big 10, trailing only Penn State’s Allen Robinson and Wisconsin’s Jared Abbredaris. The reason I consider him only the third best is because he seemed inconsistent at times last season, especially in the latter half of the season. After his great performance against the Buckeyes, he had two solid games against Northwestern and the school up north. Then he combined for only 62 receiving yards against Michigan State and Penn State. After he destroyed Minnesota’s defense, Bell sat out with an injury against Iowa and only managed 14 receiving yards against Wisconsin. Bell needs to prove he can be consistent throughout the grind of the Big 10 season and against good defenses. Bell seems to have no problem doing well against inferior defenses, but needs to do well against worthy opponents to be considered the best in the Big 10. He also needs to show that last season wasn’t a fluke and that it really was his coming out party. Bell is only a junior this season, so there is definitely room for improvement. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Bell stepped his game up even more this season and established himself as the best receiver in the Big 10.

Previously on MotSaG’s Best of the B1G
Best of the B1G, #20-16
Best of the B1G, #25-21

Why Nebraska Will Be A Mediocre Big Ten Team (At Least At First)

A few things right up front:

1. No, this is not just a wild devil’s-advocate post to help pass the time until football returns for real next month.  (But, to be fair, we’ve got to do that somehow.)

2. Let’s face it, there simply hasn’t been nearly enough Husker Hate going on.  We don’t want them thinking they’re joining some soft, sissy league, do we?

3. And finally, these numbers are all based on the past three years in anticipation of someone using Pelini as a counterargument.  I am confident that the basic conclusions would hold up (and improve in some cases) had I gone back further.  But out of fairness, I limited it to Bo’s tenure only.

So, let’s get into it.  Nebraska is a storied program that has enjoyed a lot of success over the years.  It wasn’t that long ago that they were the dominant team in the nation.  But a conference expansion/division and later terrible coaching hire took a toll on the Huskers and they fell out of the spotlight.  Under Coach Pelini, the ship seems to have been righted and Nebraska has been knocking on the door of greatness again.

Or have they?  Great teams beat great teams.  Or they don’t play them at all.  In the BCS era, those are your two choices for winning a title.  Nebraska has become quite good at exploiting one of those things, and not so good at the other.  And that’s where they’ll face a bigger challenge than most assume entering into the expanded Big Ten.

In the Big 12, Nebraska sat in the cushiony soft North division where they amassed a 13-2 record over the past three years.  In that same span, only one other North team (Missouri) has managed to register a winning record overall.  Together, Nebraska’s North opponents are just one game above .500 since 2008 and I dare you to try to tell me that this is a case of “beating up on each other.”

No, it’s no great revelation that the power in the Big 12 sat in the South division in more ways than one.  On that side of the fence, four teams check in with winning records since ’08, and A&M sits at an even 19-19.  It’s also worth noting that all four of those teams’ records are better than Missouri’s, Nebraska’s only semi-legitimate competition in the division.  So it should now come as no surprise that Nebraska has a 3-year record of 4-7 against South teams.  Some of those losses (notably the past two Big 12 title games) have been close, but so have some of the wins.

So, how does this translate into the new Big Ten?  The conference brass went to great pains to create balanced divisions, and they seem to have succeeded in that.  In Nebraska’s new Legends division, they’ll find three other teams who posted a winning record over the past three years.  And that doesn’t include Michigan, who we have to figure will be good again eventually.

Can Nebraska beat every other team in their division?  Yes.  I’d even say they’re talented enough to beat every team in the conference.  But they won’t.  At least not right away, like many otherwise respectable folks expect.  Under Pelini, Nebraska has just one win against the Big 12’s Big 2 Oklahoma and Texas.  While the statistical counterparts to those two teams in the Big Ten (Ohio State and Penn State) are still separated, they are both on the Huskers’ schedule for their first two years in the conference, after which they drop OSU for a while (although the impending 9th conference game could change that.)

In fact, the teams Nebraska will face this fall and next just happen to be the 8 most successful teams in the Big Ten over the past three years.  It is undoubtedly the most difficult conference schedule that Bo Pelini has faced since taking over in Lincoln.  There is also a complete lack of familiarity with any of these teams or coaches.  (The last Big Ten team Nebraska played was Michigan in the ’05 Alamo Bowl, a game in which Bill Callahan beat Lloyd Carr.)

Even if Nebraska maintains its high level of success, they simply can’t count on the Legends division settling into the pool of cupcakes they floated in during their Big 12 years.  Each of the teams on the Legends side is either currently enjoying success or has in the past decade (yes, even Minnesota) and could return to that level at any time.  And their record against competitive teams in the Big 12 suggests that they will not be able to navigate the division unscathed.

All told, there are simply too many obstacles between Nebraska and a conference title.  Way more than they’re used to.

Welcome to the Big Ten.