The Big Ten has no shortage of storylines entering 2012. Montee Ball and Denard Robinson are in the Heisman hunt; Urban Meyer returns to coaching to lead Ohio State, Michigan State is coming off consecutive 11-win seasons, Northwestern is still seeking its first bowl win since 1949 and, of course, there's Penn State. However the conference shakes out, fantasy owners should have plenty of options among the league's still players.
TOP-5 FANTASY STARS
1. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Ball certainly had an interesting offseason, filled with the hype deserved from a returning Heisman finalist and an unnecessary hospital visit as a result of an unprovoked assault. No matter, coach Bret Bielema said Ball, who is dealing with concussion symptoms, will be in uniform when the Badgers kick off the season Sept. 1. The team lost dynamic quarterback Russell Wilson as well as three starters on the offensive line, meaning more defensive attention will be focused on containing the 5-foot-11, 210, bowling ball. As a result, Ball might be hard pressed to replicate his 1,923 rushing yards (6.3 YPC) and 33 touchdowns, along with 24 catches for 306 yards and six additional scores, from 2011. Don't be surprised, though, if he surpasses the 30-touchdown threshold again - he's averaged 2.8 touchdowns the last 19 games since taking over the lead-back role for Wisconsin.
2. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
Outside of Ball, the other Big Ten player garnering preseason Heisman whispers resides in Ann Arbor. Robinson experienced an expected statistical decline in his last year under the direction of first-year coach Brady Hoke. Still, it's difficult to complain about his numbers from 2011, when he racked up 2,173 yards passing with 20 touchdowns while rushing for an additional 1,176 yards (5.3 YPC) and 16 touchdowns. Robinson will have to contend with a much tougher schedule in 2012, though, as Michigan plays host to likely defensive stalwarts in defending BCS champion Alabama and Michigan State, along with road jaunts to Nebraska and Ohio State. If his decision making ever reached the effectiveness of his breakaway speed, there is nary a fantasy owner who could resist his output. However, Robinson appears to be a hit-or-miss prospect due to the Wolverines' opponents more than anything.
3. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
With Kirk Cousin's passing acumen graduating to the NFL, Bell remains in East Lansing as the one proven playmaker on offense. As the focal point of the Spartans' scheme, he should easily surpass last year's outputs, 948 yards (5.2 YPC) and 13 touchdowns on the ground, while matching the 35 receptions for 267 yards he picked up in a very balanced attack. Additionally, Michigan State's defense, ranked sixth in yards allowed per game a year ago, should be nearly as dependable, which will result in a few more possessions for the offense over the course of the season. Opponents may stack the box to stop his forays as Michigan State eases in a new quarterback, junior Andrew Maxwell, but expect Bell's floor to be 15 rushing touchdowns in 2012.
4. Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska
With quarterback Taylor Martinez, Burkhead forms a vaunted rushing duo for the Cornhuskers, posting 1,357 yards (4.8 YPC) and 15 touchdowns in the running game last season. He's also a decent receiver, as evidenced by his 21 receptions for 177 yards and a pair of scores in 2011. One thing Nebraska relies upon with Burkhead is consistency, as he scored at least one touchdown in every game but one, with seven 100-yard efforts in 13 contests. Overall, he's a rock-solid fantasy running back.
5. Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
A triple threat in the Wildcats offense in 2011, Colter will give defenses headaches this season with both his arm and his legs. Last year, he passed for 669 yards and six touchdowns, rushed for 654 yards (4.8 YPC) and nine touchdowns and hauled in 43 catches for 458 yards and three additional trips to the end zone. While Colter picked up eligibility as a wideout last year, he will serve as Northwestern's starting quarterback, which might limit his value slightly. Still, Colter will put on his best Denard Robinson impression weekly and continually please fantasy owners.
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
A five-star recruit out of high school, Miller most definitely lived up to the hype last season, with passing and rushing touchdowns in each of his final four regular season games. On the season, he passed for 1,159 yards and 13 touchdowns while running for 715 yards (4.5 YPC) and seven more scores. Miller matured markedly as a field general, producing his two best passing outputs in his final two tilts - 235 yards and two scores at Michigan, as well as 162 yards and two touchdowns versus Florida in the Gator Bowl. An offseason under the tutelage of Urban Meyer should produce an even more tuned in Miller, which should frighten every Ohio State opponent and delight his fantasy owners.
Stephen Houston, RB, Indiana
The 6-0, 228, Houston emerged from the wasteland of Indiana's roster, running for 711 yards (5.5 YPC) and seven scores while catching 14 passes for 145 yards over the final eight games last season, which included staunch defenses from Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State. A junior college transfer before the 2011 season, he is one of the few standout athletes on the Hoosiers squad and is slated to be the featured tailback the entire season this time around. As a result, no one should be surprised if Houston finishes the year as a top-5 rusher in the Big Ten.
Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois
In an offense devoid of talent outside of quarterback and running back, Ferguson, a redshirt freshman, likely will share the load with fellow back Donovonn Young to begin the year. Despite his small stature (5-10, 180), Ferguson's speed and elusiveness make him a home-run threat each time he totes the rock. Really, his style reminds one of Wisconsin's junior tailback James White, who reached 1,000 yards as a true freshman in 2010. Similar production from Ferguson could result in a fulltime gig by midseason.
Tre Roberson, QB, Indiana
Roberson is yet another in a line of running quarterbacks who proliferate in the Big Ten, taking the reins as a freshman in the fifth game last season and holding onto the job thereafter. His numbers left much to be desired, though, as he passed for 937 yards and three touchdowns, versus six interceptions, while dashing for 426 yards (3.9 YPC) and a pair of scores. Considering he entered the decidedly unfriendly confines of Camp Randall, Kinnick Stadium, the Horseshoe and Spartan Stadium during that stretch, his mediocre play is somewhat explainable. A solid all-around receiving corps led by Kofi Hughes and a workhorse rusher in Stephen Houston should keep defenses honest, allowing Roberson enough time to read his progressions and make sound decisions via the pass and run.
DeAnthony Arnett, WR, Michigan State
The Spartans' top three targets from a season ago - B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol - graduated, meaning opportunity abounds in a passing game that must surround new quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who replaces three-year starter Kirk Cousins. Thus enters Arnett, who spent his freshman year at Tennessee but opted to transfer home to be near his ailing father. Consequently, he was granted immediate eligibility. If he develops instant chemistry with Maxwell, he should easily surpass last year's totals - 24 catches for 242 yards and two scores, as defenses focus much of their attention on stopping teammate Le'Veon Bell. Consider him a very deep sleeper.
Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, Illinois
What could possibly inhibit the output of the Fighting Illini's top playmaker, who has passed for nearly 4,000 yards and 30 scores to go with roughly 1,500 yards rushing (4.0 YPC) and 11 more trips to the end zone in his first two seasons in Champaign? To begin, Scheelhaase lost star wide receiver A.J. Jenkins' superb production to the NFL, leaving the team without a wideout who caught 30-plus balls last season. Additionally, Illinois is implementing a spread attack under new head coach Tim Beckman, but despite spending numerous hours in the offseason scouring the roster to improve its prospects at receiver, the coaching staff has little to show for its efforts. Hence, Scheelhaase will be a near one-man show in a potentially clumsy passing game, somewhat limiting the upside of Illinois' multi-threat quarterback.
Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB, Michigan
Legal woes will derail Toussaint's value more than anything, as a late-July DUI has induced an indefinite suspension from the Michigan football program. This includes his dismissal from August's training camp, which could allow Thomas Rawls or Vincent Smith the opportunity to take over the starting running back gig outright. Meanwhile, Toussaint, a 1,000-yard rusher from 2011, gained 678 yards (6.1 YPC) with five touchdowns over the last five regular season contests, though he never showed an ability to produce against a top-tier defense. Until his many questions provide answers, he should experience a modest drop in ADP, though his track-athlete background still entices.
Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
Will lightning strike twice for the Badgers? Wisconsin added the top transfer quarterback, junior Danny O'Brien, to the roster this offseason in hopes that Russell Wilson 2.0 saunters into the locker room. Certainly, it's possible, but with word that oft-injured Curt Phillips has entered the competition for the Badgers' top signal caller, Abbrederis will have to develop a hook-up with his third quarterback in as many seasons, finding it difficult to replicate last year's output - 55 catches for 933 yards and eight touchdowns. Nick Toon's departure to the NFL leaves Abbrederis as the sole experienced wideout in Madison, and it remains to be seen if he can produce in the passing game without first viewing his connection with a new quarterback in Wisconsin's season opener.
MarQueis Gray, QB, Minnesota
Gray enters camp as the big man on campus, looking to improve his 1,495 yards and eight touchdowns through the air in 2011. However, the senior quarterback is an unpolished passer who will again be without a decent threat at wide receiver. Gray luckily fills a portion of the void with superior rushing ability as he racked up 966 yards (4.9 YPC) and six touchdowns last year. Coach Jerry Kill has stated a desire to field a running attack that features an actual running back, which appears to be led by freshman James Gillum. Kill's first 1,000-yard rusher, tailback Chad Spann, materialized in his second season at Northern Illinois, a development that could potentially hamper Gray's rushing prowess, if it happens, of course.
Jacob Pedersen, TE, Wisconsin
Pedersen quickly built a rapport with quarterback Russell Wilson in 2011, hauling in three touchdowns over his first two games en route to eight total on the year. He also caught 30 balls for 356 yards, bailing out Wilson on the rare occasion that the offense broke down. Similarly, Pedersen will line up with a new quarterback under center, though whether it's transfer Danny O'Brien or injury-prone Curt Phillips is still up in the air. The unknown quarterback situation is definitely a hindrance to Pedersen's fantasy prospects, but he should remain a check down option and red-zone threat this season.
TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS
QB Nathan Scheelhaase (28), RB Donovonn Young (52)
QB Tre Roberson (49), RB Stephen Houston (29)
QB James Vandenberg (37), WR Keenan Davis (22), TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (8)
QB Denard Robinson (8), RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (28)
RB Le'Veon Bell (12), TE Dion Sims (11)
QB MarQueis Gray (35)
QB Taylor Martinez (34), RB Rex Burkhead (11), K Brett Maher (22)
QB Kain Colter (14)
QB Braxton Miller (13)
RB Bill Belton (54)
RB Montee Ball (1), WR Jared Abbrederis (66), TE Jacob Pedersen (10)