Providing some college football answers
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Northwestern running back Venric Mark could help the Wildcats win the Big Ten Legends division.
Practice is under way. The games start in three weeks. So to commemorate the final year of a 12-team Big Ten, here are 12 questions heading into the college football season:
Is this the year some team snaps the SEC's run of seven straight national titles?
Remember last year, when USC was going to do it? That one didn't work out so well. The SEC had five teams in the preseason top 10 of the coaches' poll, led by two-time defending champ Alabama.
The Crimson Tide is stacked again, especially at linebacker. Georgia and LSU have some reloading to do.
As far as non-SEC contenders, Ohio State, Oregon, Stanford and Clemson are ranked the highest. But Notre Dame came from nowhere last year to make the title game, so preseason rankings don't always mean much.
Can Northwestern win the Big Ten Legends division?
The Wildcats will be good and have potential for an explosive offense with QB Kain Colter and RB Venric Mark.
There is reason for caution, though, with holes to fill at offensive line and defensive tackle, along with questions at cornerback.
To be truthful, Northwestern is looking forward to the realigned Big Ten West next year. Among the competition, Wisconsin has a new coach, Nebraska has flattened out, and Iowa, Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota are in lulls.
If their recent success continues, the Cats could be playing for a division title with regularity.
Can Northern Illinois win a third straight MAC title?
The offense could be spectacular, with QB Jordan Lynch and the entire offensive line back, plus a few big-play receivers. Lynch set an NCAA record for most rushing yards by a quarterback last season.
The Huskies must rebuild the front seven on defense, and they lost some talented pass rushers. Also, the schedule is challenging. NIU visits Iowa and Purdue early, then opens the MAC schedule with a title-game rematch at Kent State.
Who will play quarterback at Illinois?
Nathan Scheelhaase, a fourth-year starter, was first string heading into fall camp, but how secure can he be coming off a 2-10 season?
Meanwhile, backup Reilly O'Toole (Wheaton Warrenville South) was remarkably efficient last year in a part-time role, completing 75 percent of his passes. He can't feel too secure, though, with freshman Aaron Bailey from Bolingbrook and Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt waiting in the wings.
Senior Miles Osei (Prospect) has moved to slot receiver.
When will the Illini snap a 14-game Big Ten losing streak?
Let's see, the Illini open at Nebraska, then get Wisconsin and Michigan State at home, then visit Penn State. Looks like the best chances are at Indiana on Nov. 9 and at Purdue on Nov. 23, so it's not unreasonable to think this skid could stretch into 2014.
Was last season a fluke for Notre Dame?
Probably not. Coach Brian Kelly built the team around strong defense and a power running game, which should bring consistency.
That's also a reason not to sweat the loss of sophomore QB Everett Golson, who left school. The Irish return three starters on the offensive line, including Christian Lombard (Fremd) and Chris Watt (Glenbard West).
Notre Dame might also prove this season that DL Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III were most valuable on defense, not Manti Te'o.
Which teams will meet in the Big Ten title game?
This is actually sort of interesting, because if the two division favorites win out, it would mean Michigan vs. Ohio State in the championship, one week after they meet in Ann Arbor. That would be a little strange, yes.
Next year Michigan and Ohio State will both be in the East Division, so, barring further realignment, this is the last chance for the two bitter rivals to meet in the Big Ten title game.
Which Big Ten team could surprise this season?
Indiana is the natural choice. The Hoosiers went 4-8 last season with 3 losses by 4 points or fewer and bring back 10 starters on offense. Kevin Wilson is the longest-tenured coach in the Leaders Division, heading into his third season.
Who will win the Heisman Trophy?
After all the negative publicity, it's tough to see Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel pulling a repeat.
There are plenty of other candidates with name recognition among voters, such as Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, Alabama QB A.J. McCarron (you might remember his girlfriend), Georgia QB Aaron Murray and perhaps South Carolina LB Jadeveon Clowney.
Will Rutgers and Maryland make the Big Ten better in football?
Rutgers should fit in. The Scarlet Knights have been to bowl games in six of the last seven years and have seen a boost in recruiting since the announcement was made.
Maryland had a nice run in the early 2000s but has gone 6-17 the last two seasons. Maybe another hideous helmet design will help the Terps turn things around.
What are the best early-season games?
The SEC quickly gets down to business with South Carolina at Georgia on Sept. 7 and Alabama at Texas A&M on Sept. 14. On the opening weekend, Aug. 31, there's Georgia at Clemson, Alabama vs. Virginia Tech at Atlanta, and LSU vs. TCU at Arlington, Texas.
In the Big Ten, the best opener is Northwestern at California on Aug. 31. Then there's the second-to-last game in the disappearing Notre Dame-Michigan series under the lights in Ann Arbor on Sept. 7.
Any FCS teams in Illinois to watch?
Eastern might be the best bet. The Panthers jumped from worst to first in the Ohio Valley Conference. QB Jimmy Garoppolo (Rolling Meadows) threw for 3,823 yards and 31 touchdowns last season, while WR Erik Lora set an FCS season record with 136 receptions.
Lora, a Miami native, averaged an eye-popping 11 catches for 140 yards per game.
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