Here’s how the Big Ten teams stand after spring practice:
1. Ohio State: The off-field distractions and the early-season absences could derail the season, but the Buckeyes still have the personnel to continue their Big Ten dominance. Despite the loss of seven starters, the defense still figures to be among the nation's best, as Etienne Sabino and others stepped up this spring. Quarterback is certainly a concern for the first five games, but Ohio State likely will be able to survive, thanks to the run game, defense and special teams -- classic TresselBall.
2. Nebraska: This is a supremely confident defense, and for good reason. Nebraska coaches and players firmly believe they'll have a championship-level defense in 2011, and the return of stars such as Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard back up their claim. The revamped offense doesn't need to be overpowering, just not lifeless, as it was late last season. The coaches seemed pleased with quarterback Taylor Martinez's play this spring. Nebraska's running attack should thrive behind Rex Burkhead and others.
3. Michigan State: It's a close call between the Spartans and Wisconsin for this spot, but Michigan State gets a slight edge because of a more stable quarterback situation. Despite some hiccups in the spring scrimmages, Kirk Cousins should have a strong senior season. The defensive line built depth in spring ball, as players such as Anthony Rashad White and William Gholston took steps forward. The big question is how quickly a new-look offensive line can come together.
4. Wisconsin: There's no reason to worry about the run game or the offensive line, and coach Bret Bielema doesn't expect a drop-off on defense. The uncertainty here rests at quarterback. Scott Tolzien proved that despite Wisconsin's running identity the team needs an efficient and effective triggerman. Jon Budmayr will be the starter but needs to show greater consistency than he did this spring. The season-ending loss of Curt Phillips thins the depth at quarterback.
5. Penn State: I'm buying into the Nittany Lions in 2011, at least for now. Joe Paterno challenged his team to get tougher this spring, and the players responded with a more spirited session. Linebacker should be a major strength, and I like the potential at spots such as wide receiver, cornerback, running back and safety. The quarterback competition is a big question going forward, but Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin drew favorable reviews this spring. If the two lines get better during the summer, Penn State should have a solid team.
6. Northwestern: It was tough to get a full read on the Wildcats because All-Big Ten quarterback
7. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz and his staff have some holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but Iowa could be a sleeper team this fall in the Big Ten. Junior James Vandenberg solidified himself as the No. 1 quarterback; running back Marcus Coker built on his strong bowl performance; and Keenan Davis emerged as a potential No. 2 receiver. There are question marks at all three areas on defense, and I'm interested to see how things shake out in the secondary.
8. Michigan: Most players are responding well to the new staff, and Michigan is avoiding the turmoil that took place the last time it went through a coaching transition. The defense should improve under Greg Mattison, especially up front, where there's experience with Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh. There will be some growing pains on offense, as we saw in the spring game, and it's unrealistic to expect Denard Robinson to replicate his 2010 production. The summer will be huge for the Wolverines.
9. Illinois: I'm tempted to put Illinois higher, as I think when the Illini get healthy they'll be a solid offensive team. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's spring progress was encouraging, but the Illini still need a No. 1 running back and more reliable options at receiver. The defense will feel the losses of Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson, but I like the depth in the secondary. If the front seven can solidify this summer, Illinois can make some noise in 2011.
10. Purdue: The Boilermakers have playmakers on both sides of the ball. It remains to be seen whether they can come together and form a more consistent, less mistake-ridden team this fall. Rob Henry emerged this spring as Purdue's top quarterback and offensive leader, but he might have to win the starting job again this summer, when Robert Marve re-enters the mix. Cornerback Ricardo Allen leads a potentially dynamic secondary, but Purdue has questions at defensive end, linebacker and receiver.
11. Minnesota: New coach Jerry Kill made his demands crystal clear this spring, and we'll now see how many players are up to the task. Kill said Minnesota must get a lot tougher, a process that typically takes a season or two to fully sink in. Quarterback MarQueis Gray drew favorable reviews and established himself as the leader of the offense, and the linebackers should be a strength this fall. Many question remain, however, especially along both lines and at receiver.
12. Indiana: This spring, Kevin Wilson and his assistants provided the type of spark Indiana needs, but it will take some time for things to click on the field. The wide receivers look solid, as Kofi Hughes, who had a strong spring, adds to a deep group. There are some playmakers in the defensive front seven, but Indiana has a lot to figure out before Sept. 3, starting with the quarterback position. The Hoosiers also need more running backs and secondary help.