Big Ten Football Preview

Big Ten football is suffering from a public relations problem right now. The on-field performance hasn’t been up to snuff for several years now, between close Rose Bowl losses and utter debacles in the majority of the minor bowl matchups against the SEC. Then there have been the off-field scandals at Ohio State and Penn State that effectively gutted the division race on one side of the conference. But if nothing else, the conference has a chance to fix its on-field perception this year, with most teams returning key players on the defensive front and most quarterback situations looking stable. TheSportsNotebook breaks down how the conference race is likely to shake out.

The Legends Division is where the action is, as Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska will stage a lively race for a spot in Indianapolis on December 1 when the conference championship is settled.  Michigan is seen as the top-heavy favorite, but while I respect the Wolverines as a contender, I don’t see them as head-and-shoulders above their two rivals.

Michigan’s case in the national media runs thusly—they won 10 games under Brady Hoke a year ago, and then won the Sugar Bowl. Now they have an explosive do-everything quarterback in Denard Robinson back and set to contend for the Heisman Trophy. They have a good offensive line, led by tackle Traylor Lewan to lead the way for Fitz Toussiant, the back who came on down the stretch a year ago. They’re experienced in the back seven and since they’ve already won a major bowl game, the next step up is national championship contender.

It sounds good enough and when it comes to the returning talent it’s all true. But Michigan was not deserving of a BCS bid a year ago, nor was their Sugar Bowl opponent in Virginia Tech. (Kansas State and Michigan State, who actually won the Legends Division last year were both better choices). Michigan needed an atrocious call in overtime to bail them out in the Sugar Bowl itself. In short, they were an above-average team that made good strides under Hoke in his first year as head coach. As such, we expect them to be one of a few contenders for league honors this year. But their season was not on a par with other major bowl winners like Oklahoma State or Oregon, so the baseline they are building off of is lower than the national media is presenting it.

Michigan State, on the other hand, is still the no-respect team in this division. Mark Dantonio is the best coach in the Legends Division. He won a share of the Big Ten title in 2010, the last year prior to the superconference format. He lost a gut-wrencher to Wisconsin in last year’s championship game and had his team not foolishly roughed the punter in the last two minutes would likely have at least forced overtime. Both years the Spartans deserved a BCS bid and both years they were passed over for more noteworthy Big Ten teams (Ohio State in 2010, Michigan last year). Now Sparty is being overlooked again because they need a new quarterback and receivers. But look at what Dantonio does have—four starters back on the offensive line, a talented back in Le’Veon Bell, eight starters back on defense, including top pass rusher William Gholston and two of the three new starters are seniors. That spells contender.

Nebraska is stacked defensively, with eight seniors in the starting lineup, including the entire front four. Now it’s up to Bo Pellini to prove he can generate some offense consistently. He’s got the skill position weapons in quarterback Taylor Martinez, and running back Rex Burkhead. If the line can be re-tooled, Nebraska can compete for the division.

Whomever wins the Legends, all three of these teams are better than anyone on the Leaders side. Wisconsin has gone to the Rose Bowl the last two years and with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the league championship game, the Badgers have the path cleared for another trip to Indianapolis. But while this is a good team, it doesn’t look championship-caliber. The defensive line has six starters back, but other than Chris Borland at linebacker, none are all that noteworthy. And maybe I’m only noting Borland because as a Wisconsin resident and big fan of the team I’m overrating him. He’s not listed in the annuals as one of the league’s top players.

I like the addition of Danny O’Brien, the Maryland transfer, to play quarterback, but he’s a big step down from the departed Russell Wilson and the receivers’ corps needs some work. In the end, Wisconsin will still win at least 8-9 games thanks to running back Montee Ball and an offensive line led by tackle Ricky Wagner and center Travis Frederick. Even the need to replace three starters isn’t a big deal in Madison, where lineman come off the assembly line. In the watered-down Leaders Division, this will be enough to put Wisconsin in the league championship game and they have to hope the rest of the team has jelled sufficiently by December 1 to give them a chance in that game.

Illinois & Purdue are the two teams most likely to steal the Leaders Division crown from Wisconsin in light of the probations in Columbus and State College. Both are coming off 6-6 seasons and bowl wins, so there’s at least basic competitiveness in both programs. I’d give Purdue the best chance, because this is the fourth year for head coach Danny Hope while Illinois is under new leadership with Tim Beckman. Purdue also gets Wisconsin at home, while Illinois comes to Madison. Both teams are experienced in both lines and the secondary, but I’d give Boilermaker quarterback Caleb TerBush a slight edge over Illinois counterpart Nathan Scheelhaase.

Shifting back to the Legends Division, Iowa has a major rebuilding project on their hands, as Kirk Ferentz has to rebuild both lines, and has two freshmen and a sophomore slotted in starting roles. Minnesota has a chance to be improved, in their second year under head coach Jerry Kill and a veteran offensive line to protect versatile quarterback MarQueis Gray. The back seven on defense should also make a step up. If Kill can get a defensive line together he’s got a shot at six wins and a bowl bid. And Northwestern should again make a bowl and continue their quest for the first postseason victory in school history. Pat Fitzgerald will start four seniors on the offensive line, have a solid front seven on defense and he’ll reap the rewards of enduring last year’s frustrating injuries to quarterback Dan Persa, because it means new starter Kain Colter isn’t really all that new—he’s a two-threat quarterback who’s got some experience under his belt. Mark NU down for seven wins.

Ohio State is going to be the big wild-card in the conference race this year. Ineligible to play beyond the regular season and in their first year under Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes have a talented defensive front lined by end John Simon and run-plugger Jonathan Hankins. The secondary is similarly experienced and good. Braxton Miller is a versatile quarterback who got valuable experience last season. The offensive front is a little young, but with four juniors starting, they should be coming together by mid-October and help Meyer build a lot of momentum for next season. Which is bad news for opponents like Wisconsin and Michigan, who draw the Buckeyes in November.

Finally we come to Penn State and Indiana. The Hoosiers have their defensive line back, but on the other side of the trenches they have to start three sophomores and no one is sure if returning sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson can hold off juco transfer Cameron Coffman for the job. IU might do better than the 1-11 season they had last year, but they aren’t winning more than three games overall and no more than one in league play. Regarding Penn State keep this mind—this was going to be a major rebuilding year anyway with only six returning starters. Then came the sanctions in light of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the departure of running back Silas Redd, among others. It’s going to be a long year(s) in State College.

PREDICTIONS: I’m picking a rematch of last year’s epic conference championship game, when Wisconsin nipped Michigan State 42-39. This time around, the Spartans take their revenge and Dantonio gets a deserve showcase on the BCS stage. Michigan gets another major bowl bid as an at-large and this time they’ll actually deserve it. The league’s spots in the Capital One/Outback Bowls, where they are usually made to look silly by SEC teams on January 1, go to Nebraska and Wisconsin. The Gator Bowl is another New Year’s Day game between the Big Ten-SEC and gets the fourth choice after the BCS is done. Mark Northwestern for that spot, and give the spots in Insight and Meineke Car Care Bowls against the Big 12 to Purdue and Illinois. The last two spots on the ladder are for games against C-USA and the MAC and with the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions on probation, the conference might not be able to fulfill them. Iowa and Minnesota have the best shots, but it’s going to be tough for either one.