1. Wisconsin Badgers
A constant throughout recent Badger football history is smash mouth play in the trenches setting the tone, on both sides of the ball. Anchoring the newly installed 3-4 base is tackle Beau Allen, who made 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last season. On the end is veteran Brendan Kelly, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Kelly could also play at linebacker in the new scheme. Ethan Hemer was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection last season.
New UW defensive coordinator Dave Aranda must replace David Gilbert, who was forced into retirement by injuries.
2. Michigan State Spartans
Even with William Gholston gone, Michigan State features one of the most fearsome fronts in the Big Ten. Sparty returns end Marcus Rush, an appropriately named blitzing presence who accrued a pair of sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, five broken-up passes and five quarterback hurries.
Rush could break out as the conference’s premier defensive end. James Kittredge moves into a starting role, and sixth-year senior Tyler Hoover brings a veteran presence on the interior to help anchor a unit contributing to last year’s paltry 98.6 yard per game rushing yield.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
The departures of Johnathan Hankins and John Simon leave sizable gaps in the Buckeye defensive front, but Luke Fickell’s side is not lacking for talent. One-third of Adolphus Washington’s tackles last season were sacks. Five-star 2012 prospect Noah Spence is primed for a sophomore star turn.
4. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan’s move back to a 4-3 base under Greg Mattison has been a resounding success after two seasons. End Frank Clark rolled off nine tackles for loss a season ago. Fleet-footed for 6-foot-5, 305 pounds, tackle Quinton Washington forced a fumble and blocked a kick.
Ondre Pipkins, a five-star prospect in the Wolverines’ 2012 signing class, appeared in 13 games as a true freshman. The space-eating sophomore could be an integral cog in improving on UM’s run-stopping.
5. Penn State Nittany Lions
Defensive end Deion Barnes was adamant in spring practice about elevating his level of play. A motivated Barnes anchors a Nittany Lion line that last season was partly responsible for PSU’s No. 23 ranked, 128.4-yard per game rush defense.
Tackle Jordan Hill’s departure will test the line’s interior, however. DaQuan Jones, who made two tackles for loss last season, is now the man in the middle.
6. Purdue Boilermakers
Run-stop defense has been a strength for Purdue, but last season the Boilermakers slipped somewhat. Opponents gained 4.7 yards per carry on PU last season. Tackle Bruce Gaston will be key in Purdue improving this facet of its defense. Last season, he forced two fumbles and made 5.5 tackles for loss.
The ceiling for this unit is pretty high. The Boiler pass rush contributed to an opponent 58 percent pass completion rating. Kawann Short is gone, but Ryan Russell could follow in his and Ryan Kerrigan’s footsteps as the next NFL-caliber Boilermaker defensive end.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes return Louis Trinca-Pasat, who made four tackles for loss last season, as well asmountainous tackle Carl Davis, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound junior. Darian Cooper emerged in his freshman campaign to register 3.5 tackles for loss and deflect a pair of passes.
All told, and for all the issues Iowa had in a disappointing 4-8 season, the defensive talent is there for a rebound in 2013. Opponents averaged just 22.9 points per game vs. the Hawkeyes, and they can get even stingier. Teams rushed for 4.1 yards per carry against Iowa. Should the line help cut down on that output, this could be one of the better defenses in the conference.
8. Northwestern Wildcats
Returning defensive end Tyler Scott was one of the Big Ten’s most productive pass rushers in 2012, racking up nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. With Scott bringing pressure off the edge, he set the tone for one of the conference’s top rush defenses. NU allowed just 127.6 yards per game.
Replacing Quentin Williams and Brian Arnfelt should prove challenging though, as the duo combined for 14.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in 2012.
9. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Tackle Ra’Shede Hageman returns from a 2012 campaign in which he made six sacks, seven tackles for loss and forced a fumble. End Michael Amaefula contributed 2.5 of the Gophers’ 26 sacks, and freshman Scott Ekpe made four tackles for loss in his debut campaign.
Improvement against the rush is key for this unit. Minnesota allowed 4.7 yards per carry last season. The loss of D.L. Wilhite poses a challenge to that effort.
10. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Nebraska’s well-documented struggles against the rush last season manifested in a 70-point deluge in the Big Ten Conference championship. Wisconsin exploited a recurring problem, which was the 4.8 yard per carry average for opposing rushers. Winning the league title is, in part, dependent on the improvement of line’s play.
The Cornhuskers did a decent job sacking opposing quarterbacks, but lose Eric Martin and Cameron Meredith. A big year from Jason Ankrah is crucial for setting the tone.
11. Illinois Fighting Illini
Long a strength for Illinois, defensive line play is a question mark for the Illini in 2013. UI ranked No. 95 against the rush last season and, to make matters worse, lose all but one starter. Gone are Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Michael Buchanan and end Darrius Caldwell was booted from the team last month.
12. Indiana Hoosiers
Indiana ranked dead last among Big Ten defenses in run stoppage last season with over 231 yards per game surrendered. IU had a decent pass rush attack that produced 25 sacks, but lose leaders Adam Replogle and Larry Black.