The Big Ten Legends Division is clearly the stronger within the conference, even if you grant that the Leaders likely has the best team in Ohio State. All six teams in the Legends have reasonable expectations of a bowl game and four can make a legitimate case for themselves to be the representative at the league title game in Indianapolis on December 7. TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage breaks down the Big Four and the two challengers.
THE BIG FOUR
Nebraska won the division a year ago, and Michigan State did it in 2011. Both are contenders to get back to Indy this season. Michigan has been on the rise under Brady Hoke, and Pat Fitzgerald has one of his better teams at Northwestern. The division champ will come out of this group, and here’s a basic rundown on each team…
Michigan: If it weren’t for the fact that this is “Michigan”, I don’t know that we’d consider the Wolverines a serious contender for the division crown. They’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do on defense, and one of the returnees, linebacker Jake Ryan tore an ACL in spring practice and will miss at least half the year. Denard Robinson is gone at quarterback, and there are two freshman starters on the offensive line.
But…they are “Michigan”, and that means more than just marketing. Hoke has recruited extremely well since his arrival in Ann Arbor and the players stepping into these jobs on defense have talent. Furthermore, new quarterback Devin Gardner looked good in the games he played while Robinson was injured in 2012. Running back Fitz Touissant is healthy again.
Most important, there’s this—Michigan plays the other three contenders in November. If you were the coach of a team with a lot of young talent, when would you want your biggest games? Yep, after you’ve had a half-season to round them into form.
That’s a tough November stretch—Sparty, the Huskers and the Wildcats all come in straight succession and two are on the road, and then you have a road trip to Iowa and home game with Ohio State following. But if nothing else, Hoke should have his team where he wants it when the storm hits.
Nebraska: The points will fly in Lincoln this season. I could swear Taylor Martinez is entering his 10th year as the Cornhusker quarterback, but the versatile signal-caller is just in his fourth season. He’s surrounded by running back Ameer Abdullah, wide receiver Kenny Bell and what should be a pretty good offensive line, keyed by guard Spencer Long. The Huskers have players who can make plays, and the lineman who can spring them.
It’s going to up to head coach Bo Pellini to use his background on defense to get this unit to come together and allow the offense to win big games for them. NU is solid on the corners, but green everywhere else.
Michigan State: It was a hard-luck year for Mark Dantonio and the Spartans, with a run of low-scoring, gut-wrenching losses that finally came to an end when they rallied to beat TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. While the defensive front needs to be rebuilt, the linebackers are very good, led by linebacker Max Bullough. And the secondary has an All-Conference corner in Darqueze Dennard and is solid at safety. Scoring on Michigan State is again going to be a daunting challenge.
Dantonio may have to look at a quarterback change, as fifth-year senior Andrew Maxwell didn’t get it done in 2012. The offense’s problems were certainly not all, or even mostly Maxwell’s doing, but at the very least he’s not the solution. And sophomore Connor Cook might be. At the very least, you have to think the head coach will have a quick hook with Maxwell this season. Going with a sophomore and letting him grow with a young unit probably makes the most long-term sense as well.
Northwestern: Fitzgerald was the captain and starting linebacker on Northwestern’s miracle Rose Bowl team of 1995, and the head coach has to like what he sees on that side of the ball this year. There’s experience up and down the lineup, and playmakers like pass-rushing end Tyler Scott and safety Ibraheim Campbell.
The Wildcats are going to have to get their young offensive rebuilt, but if they do, the skill position players are there. A quarterback duo of Kaine Colter and Trevor Siemian provides both running and passing and Venric Mark is one of the conference’s top running backs. A veteran group of receivers is also on hand. After a year marked by some tough losses, Northwestern looks poised for a big run in 2013.
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers have been restored to respectability under Jerry Kill. They won six games and made a bowl last season, and in a conference where getting blown out in bowls has become the norm, Minnesota was refreshingly competitive in a 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.
They bring back running back Donnell Kirkwood and all five offensive line starters, so you know this is an offense that will be built around the running game. The defense is experienced in both the trenches and the secondary, and sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson saw game action a year ago as a freshman. There’s every reason to think Kill can keep the Gophs moving steadily upward, and while a division title is beyond their grasp, this team is good enough to be a spoiler in that race and knock off a favorite.
Iowa: As Minny ascends, Iowa goes down. At least that was the case last year, as the Hawkeyes went 4-8, in the worst season under Kirk Ferentz. Now in his 15th year, the Iowa master is coming under increased scrutiny.
Ferentz needs to find new quarterback, but should have a competent offensive line for whomever he settles on, and there’s a lot of returning personnel on defense. They didn’t play well a year ago, but thinking they might improve just enough to get back to six wins is very reasonable.
The quality of Minnesota and Iowa make it likely that the lower rung of the Legends Division will dominate its counterparts in the Leaders (everyone below Ohio State and Wisconsin) and get all six of these teams into postseason play.
If you break down the Big Four, Nebraska is the safe pick. They have experience and they’re going to be in the race all year. Michigan is the interesting team, as we watch Hoke try and built cohesion in time for November. Michigan State is more of a darkhorse—we know Dantonio produces well-coached teams that compete, but I have a hard time seeing this year’s version in Indy.
Northwestern though, is the team I’ve got my eye on. Fitzgerald’s been consistently knocking on the door throughout his tenure in Evanston, consistently going to bowl games, challenging the best teams in the league and with his veteran defense, looks finally ready to take the next step. I’m going to step out on a limb and pick the Wildcats to reach the conference championship game.