Big Ten Weekly Football Release - August 27

Running back Le'Veon Bell and Michigan State open the 2012 season by hosting Boise State on Friday night.

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Aug. 27, 2012

That Time of Year:  Big Ten football will open its 117th season of play when all 12 conference teams begin the 2012 campaign on Labor Day weekend. For the fourth consecutive year, at least one Big Ten team will open the season in primetime, as Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota begin the new campaign under the lights. Minnesota helps kick off the season on Thursday, Aug. 30, when the Gophers travel to UNLV for an 11 p.m. ET contest on CBS Sports Network. Michigan State welcomes Boise State for an 8 p.m. matchup on Friday, Aug. 31, a game to be televised by ESPN. The remaining 10 conference teams will begin the new season on Saturday, Sept. 1. The full Week 1 schedule appears in the PDF.

Where We Rank: The Big Ten is tied for the national lead with five teams appearing in the top 20 of the preseason Associated Press poll, while four teams rank in the top 16 of the preseason USA Today coaches poll. Michigan appears at No. 8 in both rankings, leading all Big Ten squads, after winning 11 games last year that was capped off with a win in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Wisconsin and Michigan State, who faced off in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game in 2011, are ranked Nos. 12 and 13, respectively, in both polls. Nebraska was voted 16th in the USA Today poll and No. 17 in the writers' poll, while Ohio State rounds out the list of ranked Big Ten teams at No. 18 in the AP rankings.

Preseason Accolades: At the annual Big Ten Media Days, the conference announced the 10-member Players to Watch list, as voted by members of the media, featuring five returning standouts from the Legends and Leaders Divisions.  Two players each from Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin were voted to the list, while Nebraska and Purdue had one player named among the Players to Watch, which include two former Big Ten Offensive Players of the Year, two former Big Ten Freshman of the Year, five All-Americans and nine All-Conference selections. Michigan's Taylor Lewan and Denard Robinson, Michigan State' Johnny Adams and William Gholston and Nebraska's Rex Burkhead earned the nod as the five Players to Watch from the Legends Division. Ohio State's Braxton Miller and John Simon, Purdue's Kawann Short, and Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Chris Borland were voted the Leaders Division Players to Watch.

Keep An Eye On...: More than 70 Big Ten student-athletes appear on at least 19 preseason watch lists that have been announced during the course of the summer. Five or more players appear on 14 of the national watch lists, including the Bednarik, Butkus, Davey O'Brien, Doak Walker, Groza, Hendricks, Hornung, Mackey, Maxwell, Nagurski, and Rodgers Return Specialist awards, and the Lombardi, Outland and Rimington trophies. The complete list of Big Ten standouts appearing on preseason watch lists can be found on Page 5 of the PDF release.

That One Will Be Hard to Top: Following the conference's debut of divisional play for the 2011 season, the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game was staged between Legends Division representative Michigan State and Leaders Division representative Wisconsin. In a rematch of one of college football's most thrilling games during the 2011 season, the two teams turned in another memorable showdown in the conference championship game, with the Badgers earning a 42-39 victory. The second annual Big Ten Championship Game is scheduled for Dec. 1 and will be televised by FOX.

Welcome Back: The 2012 Big Ten campaign will feature 24 All-Conference players from last season, with nine first-team honorees and 15 second-team selections returning to the field this fall. The first-team returnees are comprised of two offensive standouts, six defensive players and one special teams performer honored as both a kicker and punter. The second-team picks include five players on offense, nine on defense and one on special teams. In addition, 29 honorable mention honorees also return to campus. Along with the all-conference honorees returning in 2012, three individual award winners from 2011 will hit the fields again this fall. Wisconsin's Montee Ball was named the Graham-George Offensive Player and the Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year, Ohio State's Braxton Miller earned the Thompson-Randle El Freshman of the Year award and Nebraska's Brett Maher was named the Bakken-Andersen Kicker and Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year.

Fresh Crop of Coaches: After welcoming four new head coaches to Big Ten play for the 2011 campaign, three more coaches will make their conference debut this season. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz is the Big Ten's longest-tenured mentor, with 13 seasons leading the Hawkeyes. No other Big Ten head coach has spent more than six years on their respective school's sidelines.

New Faces In New Places: The Big Ten will feature three new head coaches roaming the sidelines in 2012. Illinois' Tim Beckman, Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Penn State's Bill O'Brien will enter their first seasons as Big Ten head coaches in 2012. Beckman enters his first season at Illinois after spending three years as the head coach at Toledo. Beckman boasts 24 years of coaching experience heading into this season, including two years as the cornerbacks coach at Ohio State from 2005-06. Meyer begins his tenure at Ohio State after spending 10 seasons as head coach at Bowling Green, Utah, and most recently Florida, where he won two national championships. Meyer began his coaching career with the Buckeyes, serving as a graduate assistant in 1986 and 1987. O'Brien enters his first season at Penn State after spending the last five years as an assistant coach for the New England Patriots. Prior to his four years with New England, O'Brien spent 14 years as an assistant for Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke.

Ball Return: Wisconsin's Montee Ball returns to the field in 2012 after receiving the Big Ten's Graham-George Offensive Player and Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year awards. The senior running back was a consensus All-American, Heisman Trophy Finalist and winner of the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as the conference's Most Valuable Player. Ball led the country in rushing yards and set Big Ten single-season records with 33 rushing touchdowns, 39 total touchdowns (matching an NCAA record) and 236 points (a new NCAA record). He was the fourth Badger to be named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and the first since John Clay took home the honor in 2009.

Double Dip: Wisconsin's Montee Ball enters the 2012 season with the chance to become just the second player to earn Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors in back-to-back seasons, joining former Indiana tailback Anthony Thompson (1988-89). Including Thompson, just four players have successfully defended their Player of the Year award. Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis won consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2007 and 2008, while Northwestern linebacker Pat Fitzgerald earned the same honor in 1996 and 1997. Illinois linebacker Dana Howard was tabbed the conference's top defensive player in 1993 and 1994. Other two-time Big Ten Players of the Year include Michigan State running back Lorenzo White (1985, 1987) and Purdue quarterback Drew Brees (1998, 2000).

Tandem Trying For Two: Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson each enter the 2012 season seeking their second Offensive Player of the Year award after Ball picked up the honor in 2011 and Robinson received recognition in 2010. This season marks just the fifth time that two conference players enter the year already boasting a Player of the Year award. Ball and Robinson are the first pair since Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones and Wisconsin running back John Clay returned in 2010, and the first tandem on the same side of the ball since running backs Tyrone Wheatley of Michigan and Brent Moss of Wisconsin both returned for the 1994 season. Other Big Ten Player of the Year duos to return to the field were Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington and Purdue quarterback Drew Brees in 1999 and Iowa signal caller Matt Rodgers and Michigan State running back Tico Duckett in 1991.

Nine Signal Callers Return For 2012: The majority of the 12 conference teams will have a familiar face running their offense in 2012, as nine teams welcome back their primary starting quarterbacks from 2011. Four Legends Division teams welcome their signal callers back for the 2012 season in Iowa's James Vandenberg, Michigan's Denard Robinson, Minnesota's MarQueis Gray and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, while Northwestern's Kain Colter started the first three games last season before helping to throw, catch and run the ball the rest of the year after the return of Dan Persa. Five Leaders Division teams welcome back returning starters under center in Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase, Indiana's Tre Roberson, Ohio State's Braxton Miller Penn State's Matt McGloin and  Purdue's Caleb TerBush.

Doubly Dangerous: A bevy of dual-threat quarterbacks will take the field for Big Ten teams during the 2012 season, as six field generals return after racking up at least 600 rushing yards a season ago. In the Legends Division, Michigan's Denard Robinson returns after leading the Big Ten in total offense for the second consecutive season. Robinson finished fifth in the conference in rushing with 1,176 yards, while Minnesota's MarQueis Gray followed in sixth with 966. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez finished ninth in the Big Ten with 874 yards on the ground, while Northwestern's Kain Colter picked up 654 rushing yards for the season. In the Leaders Division, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase and Ohio State's Braxton Miller return under center for their teams after Scheelhaase recorded 624 rushing yards and Miller picked up 715 yards on the ground. Robinson, Gray, Colter, Scheelhaase and Miller each led their teams in rushing last season.

Running Back For Another Year: The Big Ten returns eight of its top 10 rushers from a season ago, including the conference's leading rusher and reigning Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year in Wisconsin's Montee Ball. Ball racked up 1,923 yards and 33 rushing touchdowns en route to the top spot. Joining Ball in the Leaders Division is Indiana's Stephen Houston, who finished 10th with 802 yards on the ground. The Legends Division features six returning players who earned top 10 spots, led by Nebraska's Rex Burkhead, who finished third in the conference with 1,357 yards. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson (fifth, 1,176 yards), Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray (sixth, 966 yards), Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (seventh, 1,041 yards), Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell (eighth, 948 yards) and Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez (ninth, 874 yards) each finished in the conference's top 10 in rushing last season.

Moving Backwards, In A Good Way: Seven players who finished in the top 10 in the conference in either sacks or tackles for loss return this season, including five of the top eight in sacks and seven of the top 10 in tackles for loss. Michigan State's Denicos Allen finished second in the conference with 11.0 sacks, followed by Illinois' Michael Buchanan in fourth with 7.5. Ohio State's John Simon had the fifth-most sacks at 7.0, while Purdue's Kawann Short finished with 6.5 sacks and Illinois' Jonathan Brown had 6.0. Brown finished with the second-most tackles for loss, racking up 19.5 for the season, while Wisconsin's Chris Borland followed in third with 19.0 and Allen finished fourth with 18.5. Short finished tied for fifth after recording 17.0, while Simon and Michigan State's William Gholston tied for seventh with 16.0. Buchanan rounded out the returning top-10 performers in ninth place with 13.5.

Tackling Machines: Seven of the Big Ten's top-10 tacklers from 2011 return to the field this fall. Wisconsin's Mike Taylor and Chris Borland finished with the top two tackle totals in the conference, as Taylor posted 150 total tackles and Borland racked up 143. Iowa's Christian Kirksey and James Morris each recorded 110 tackles, followed by Illinois' Jonathan Brown with 108, Penn State's Gerald Hodges with 106 and Northwestern's Ibraheim Campbell with 100.