The biggest stories surrounding the Big Ten the last couple of years have been off-field issues. First there was Ohio State and the fall of Jim Tressel. Then there was Penn State and the fall of Joe Paterno. Both scandals have left the conference battered and bruised.
Both scandals have also left the Leaders Division woefully short on competition that can reach the Conference Title Game.
Oh sure, Ohio State is still loaded with talent and could be very good this year. With Urban Meyer now leading the scarlet and silver, there’s even reason to hope that they could be National Title worthy within just a few years.
Penn State might have been a dark horse contender before the sanctions were handed down. Now, we don’t even know who will be on the roster come September. RB Silas Redd has already defected to USC. Predicting their season is all but impossible at this point.
None of that matters though. Neither of these programs can play for anything other than pride this year. Ohio State is still serving their post-season ban for “Tattoo Gate”. Penn State has been handed a four-year bowl ban from the NCAA for the Jerry Sandusky pedophile case. They’re obviously out of the running, regardless of how good they may or may not be.
With their absence, the race for the Leaders Division title is glaringly void of serious contenders.
Who will step up?
Purdue? Don’t count on it. The Boilermakers did finish with a 7-6 record last season, which is far better than the 4-8 record they posted in 2010. However, that’s the best finish Purdue has had since 2008.
Can Indiana challenge? Can you hear my laughter from where you are?
Kevin Wilson took on a team that was so low he’d have to first raise that vessel from the murky depths before he could right the ship. This group has such a long way to go before they can be considered truly competitive, they’re absolutely not going to be a division or conference title contender this year.
That just leaves Illinois and Wisconsin.
The Illini have talent. They started 2011 on a 6-0 run. But then they fell flat, losing the next six including losses to Purdue and Minnesota.
QB Nathan Scheelhaase is back and the experience he gathered last year should pay dividends this fall. However, his top wide receiver (who grabbed more catches than the next four receivers combined), A.J. Jenkins is gone. Running back Jason Ford is gone.
The defense should continue to improve and will be a strong suit for the Illini, but without a decent offense, that’s not enough.
Welcome to the Big Ten Championship game Wisconsin! This will probably be your easiest trip to the title match for decades to come.
The real chase is in the Legends Division.
Michigan made great strides in 2011. Their offense has been good (even through the Rich Rodriguez years), but last season their defense finally came around to match. In fact, they had the second best scoring defense in the conference.
And it could be even better in 2012.
QB Denard Robinson is back for another shot at the Heisman and he’ll have a strong supporting cast with receivers Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway, and running backs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith.
The Woverines could well be one of the strongest teams in the entire country this year and should certainly be one of the very few favorites to win the conference title.
Michigan State is coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons. Mark Dantonio has put together a formidable Spartan team, falling just three points shy of Wisconsin in the conference title game last year.
They’ll return a trio of talented running backs in LeVeon Bell, Edwin Baker and Larry Caper. Unfortunately, they still lose big on offense. QB Kirk Cousins is gone as are their top four receivers. That’s right; practically anyone that threw or caught a football last season is gone.
However, there’s even reason to hope there. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett had a good 2011 campaign and could help fill out a paper-thin corps. Tony Lippett played mostly at the CB position last season, but is moving back to the offensive side of the ball.
There won’t be any room for injury or error, but if everyone stays healthy, new QB Andrew Maxwell should have at least a couple of capable targets.
The offensive line is veteran as is the majority of the conference’s third-best scoring defense. It’s a recipe for a strong conference title run.
Nebraska put together a solid 9-4 inaugural season in the Big Ten last year. Now that they’ve worked through their new-kids-on-the-block shock, can they take it the next step and legitimately challenge for a conference title?
Well, the majority of the offense returns from last year. Tops on the list are QB Taylor Martinez, who got a wealth of experience last year, and All-Big Ten I-Back Rex Burkhead. The receiver corps returns virtually everyone except Brandon Kinnie.
The defense wasn’t awe-inspiring last season, but it wasn’t bad. The Huskers lose a few key players like LB Lavonte David and DL Jared Crick. However, they return a lot of players as well and shouldn’t take any steps backward. If anything, they could be better than last season.
It’ll take a lot to compete with the Michigan schools, but Nebraska did well in their first season in the league and has that experience to draw from this time around.
Don’t completely count Iowa out of the mix either.
On paper, the Hawkeyes have exactly zero chance of truly competing for a division title and shot at playing Wisconsin for the conference crown. Good thing games aren’t played on paper and don’t tell that to Kirk Ferentz’s crew.
Iowa’s offensive line should be good, anchored by veteran center James Ferentz (Kirk’s son). QB James Vandenburg was efficient last year and now has a full year of starting experience under his belt. He should be a real leader for this crew.
The running back situation is always sketchy at Iowa (there’s a reason for that, apparently), and the Hawks lose Marvin McNutt. However, they always seem to find someone capable of filling the rushing role and the receiving combination of Keenan Davis, Kevonte Martin-Manley and TE C.J. Fiedorowicz should be exciting.
New offensive coordinator Greg Davis is working some wrinkles into the attack that should help offset past issues (such as a pathetically boring and ultra-conservative approach) as well as personnel changes.
The defense is going to be the big question mark. The secondary is solid, led by CB Micah Hyde and LB James Morris. The problem is at the line, where the Hawkeyes replace virtually everybody.
If they can get even modest production from the front four however, the defense could well be more than enough to provide ample opportunity for the offense to lead Iowa to victory.
The biggest point going in Iowa’s favor is their uncanny ability to turn a “rebuilding year” into a conference title run. Just when everyone writes Iowa off, they seem to excel. Certainly, they’re being written off by just about everyone.
Northwestern is just the kind of spunky team that can cause problems for a lot of people without actually being good enough to earn their own way to Indy. They could put together a bowl-bound season, but don’t look for them to keep pace with the rest of this division.
Minnesota has suffered through three consecutive losing seasons – the last two of which ended in 3-9 records. They should be somewhat better than that this year, but then again, I said the same thing a year ago.
The Golden Gophers won’t be in the hunt; that’s safe to say.
With all of the negative publicity surrounding the Big Ten the last few years, and the handicapping of two highly visible programs, it might look like the B1G is destined for collapse this year. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
You just have to know which side of the conference to look at.