Teams: Illinois (Leaders), Indiana (Leaders), Iowa (Legends), Michigan (Legends), Michigan State (Legends), Minnesota (Legends), Nebraska (Legends), Northwestern (Legends), Ohio State (Leaders), Penn State (Leaders), Purdue (Leaders), and Wisconsin (Leaders)
Best Team: Ohio State
Best Coach: Urban Meyer (Ohio State)
Top Players: QB Braxton Miller (Ohio State), QB Devin Gardner (Michigan), QB Taylor Martinez (Nebraska), RB Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska), OT Taylor Lewan (Michigan), DE Tyler Scott (Northwestern), LB Max Bullough (Michigan State), LB Ryan Shazier (Ohio State), CB Bradley Roby (Ohio State)
Top Storyline: Ohio State, Braxton Miller, and Urban Meyer emerge from the bowl ban ready to make a run at the last title of the BCS era.
College football fans who are sick of SEC dominance are looking to the Ohio State Buckeyes, who went from 6-6 to 12-0 in just one season under Urban Meyer, with a hopeful gaze, believing the Big Ten powerhouse could put an end to the SEC’s seven-year reign.
However, rival Michigan has put together a strong program under Brady Hoke, and Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Penn State could all be factors in the conference title chase. All still lag significantly behind the talented Buckeyes.
If these teams are going to beat Ohio State, they will have to find a way to stop junior quarterback Braxton Miller, who may be the early favorite for the Heisman. Miller threw for 2039 passing yards and ran for another 1271 while leading the 12-0 Buckeyes.
Outside of Miller, leading returning rusher, senior running back Carlos Hyde ran for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns for the Buckeyes but will miss the first three games due to suspension. However, coaches seem pleased with temporary replacement senior Jordan Hall.
Also returning for Miller are four of five offensive linemen and his top two receivers from a year ago, senior Corey Brown and junior playmaker Devin Smith. Veterans Evan Spencer and Chris Fields will play a bigger role in 2013, and true freshman Dontre Wilson is likely to develop into a weapon early.
Defensively, the Buckeyes return a mixture of proven playmakers and promising talent. Juniors Ryan Shazier (115 tackles, 5 sacks, 12 TFLs, and 1 interception) and cornerback Bradley Roby (who may miss time do to off the field issues— 63 tackles, 1 sack, 17 PBUs, and 2 interceptions) are some of the best in the country. Senior safety Christian Bryant (71 tackles, 1 interception) falls into that category as well.
In addition, youngsters like sophomore ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington as well as junior linebacker Curtis Grant have all the talent needed to make a big splash in the Big Ten this season.
Prediction: In recent years, Ohio State has owned Michigan, and they will need to channel that momentum in the rivalry once again as they may find themselves facing the Wolverines in the final game of the regular season with only the Big Ten title game standing between them and a berth in the BCS Championship. Meyer has done an incredible job with the program and all signs could point to a showdown between Meyer and Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. I see this team going undefeated.
Michigan’s goal this season will be simple: stop Ohio State from reaching the national title game. In just a short time, Brady Hoke has restored confidence in Ann Arbor and is stockpiling even more talent on the recruiting trail. As of now, however, he remains a bit behind the Buckeyes in terms of talent. If the Wolverines are to close the gap this year, junior quarterback Devin Gardner will need to be even better than expected in his first full year as the starter after throwing for 1219 yards last season. Senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (514 rushing yards) won the starting job this fall, but I expect true freshman Derrick Green to get significant carries by the end of the season. Another offensive playmaker is senior receiver Jeremy Gallon who hauled in 829 receiving yards in 2012, and senior tackle Taylor Lewan might be the best offensive lineman in the country. Defensively, the Wolverines will be solid, if unspectacular. Senior safety Thomas Gordon (81 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFLs, and 2 interceptions) leads a group of six returners.
Prediction: Michigan is clearly the second most talented team in the conference, but there is a gulf between them and their rival. The last game will be huge, and a rematch in the Big Ten title game is conceivable. All three of their biggest games are played at home, however, as they see Notre Dame (9/7), Nebraska (11/9), and the Buckeyes (11/30) in Ann Arbor. They will lose to Ohio State and stumble once more, but 10-2 is a strong season for Michigan.
While it is hard to forget their embarrassing 70-31 defeat at the hands of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, Bo Pelini returns a solid squad at Nebraska. However, uncharacteristic of Nebraska football, this may be more an offensive minded team led by junior running back Ameer Abdullah. Though small, Abdullah can do it all for the Cornhuskers (1137 rushing yards, 178 yards receiving, 209 yards on punt returns, and 360 yards on kickoff returns). Also returning is senior quarterback Taylor Martinez (2871 passing yards and 1019 rushing yards) and his top three targets including junior wide receiver Kenny Bell (863 yards receiving). Defensively, the Cornhuskers could put together another solid unit, but not to the level of a typical Nebraska unit. Senior corners Ciante Evans and Andrew Green are the best part of the defense.
Prediction: Bo Pelini will have the Corhuskers firmly in the mix for a spot in the Big Ten title game. However, I do not see them beating Pac 12 foe UCLA, and, while they avoid Ohio State, I do think they will lose to Michigan and one of Northwestern, Michigan State, and at Penn State. Those four games form a tough stretch from November 2 to November 23 that could knock Nebraska from atop the Legends division.
In my opinion, Pat Fitzgerald is one of the top ten coaches in all of college football, and he should have one of his best Northwestern team’s in 2013. Dual threat quarterback, senior Kain Coulter ran for 894 yards and threw for another 872. Although backup Taylor Siemian (1312 passing yards) will see action, the offense will not be quarterback dependent. Instead, star senior running back Venric Mack (1366 rushing yards) will be the feature point of the offense. To give hope that Mack will have a little more support from the passing game, the Wildcats do return their top three receivers. Defensively, senior defensive end Tyler Scott is the star for the Wildcats with 42 tackles, 9 sacks, and 3.5 TFLs. They also have some strength at linebacker with junior Chi Chi Aruguzo (91 tackles, 3 sacks, 7.5 TFLs, and 2 interceptions) and senior Damien Proby (112 tackles and 4 TFLs) leading the way. Sophomore cornerback Nick VanHoose also was a standout with 3 interceptions.
Prediction: Northwestern faces a tough conference schedule, but they have more talent than Fitzgerald has had to work with before. However, with games against Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Nebraska, against Michigan, and against Michigan State, it will be a tougher road to 9-3. Still, with Fitzgerald at the helm, I could see this team pulling it off.
The Wisconsin Badgers surprisingly lost head coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas, but the team still returns 14 starters. Sophomore quarterback Joel Stave will have the reigns of the offense (1104 passing yards) this year and should have some nice targets in senior receiver Jared Abberderis (837 receiving yards) and one of the nation’s top tight ends in senior tight end Jacob Pedersen (355 receiving yards). On defense senior linebacker Chris Borland (104 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 5.5 TFLs) leads that charge for the Badgers, which always have a strong defense.
Prediction: This will be an interesting year for the Badgers as the replace Bielema and superstar running back Montee Ball. However, the team that drubbed the Cornhuskers for the Big Ten title are not as a typical conference champion, after going 7-5 in the regular season. They do not return a loaded team, and they could be in for another mediocre season. However, a relatively light schedule could help the Badgers get to 8-4.
Penn State shocked the world last year by going 8-4 when most thought they would be in for a very rough year following the sanctions. However, Bill O’Brien and company return hoping to build on that performance. Currently, freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg is listed as the co-starter with Tyler Ferguson, but Hackenberg could win the job outright after not too long. The talented freshman will forever have the hearts of the Nittany Lions faithful after sticking with Penn State despite the crushing sanctions. The former high profile recruit will have junior running back Zach Zwinak (1000 rushing yards) returning and all of Penn State’s top receivers from a year ago, including junior wide receiver Allen Robinson (1013 receiving yards). On defense, sophomore Deion Barnes, who recorded 6 sacks last year, returns looking to build on his big freshman season.
Prediction: The Nittany Lions will not sneak up on anyone in 2013, and they face a tougher schedule as well. A lot will depend on the development of Hackenberg, who could be the best quarterback to play for Penn State in a long time, but games against UCF and at Wisconsin should be the games to watch. Losses are likely to come against Michigan, at Ohio State, and against Nebraska. This team could be headed for another 8-4 season.
Under Mike Dantonio the Michigan State Spartans have consistently been a consistent winner, and many have high hopes for the team this year. Their defense is certainly one of the best in the conference. Senior linebacker Max Bullough is one of the top players at his position in the country. His 111 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 10 TFLs were huge for the Spartans in 2012, and he figures to be an even bigger force in 2013. Junior defensive end Marcus Rush (38 tackles, 2 sacks, and 5.5 TFLs) and senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard (52 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and 3 interceptions) are two other standouts on a defense that will keep Michigan State in just about every game. To put points up on the board, senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell (2606 passing yards) will be looked to heavily. However, he will seriously miss the significant production from Le’Veon Bell.
Prediction: A schedule without Ohio State is a nice gift for the Spartans. Although they face Notre Dame in Week 4, the Spartans could thrive outside of a three game stretch against Michigan, at Nebraska, and at Northwestern. Despite missing Bell, this defense could get this team to 8-4.
No team in the conference has more returners than Indiana, who bring back a total of 19 starters. The Hoosiers should feature a strong passing attack with junior quarterback Cameron Coffman returning along with an outstanding group of receivers including junior Cody Latimer (805 yards), junior Shane Wynn (660 yards), senior Kofi Hughes (639 yards), and senior tight end Ted Bolser (445 yards). Senior safety Greg Heban (91 tackles, 1 sack, 6 TFLs, and 3 interceptions) leads a defense that struggled last season but returns a number of players hungry to do better.
Prediction: It is rare that the Hoosiers are not the doormat of the Big Ten, but they should be competitive in 2013. Non-conference games against Navy, Bowling Green, and Missouri should be close. However, if they win those games and are able to beat Minnesota, Illinois, and Purdue or sneak out another Big Ten conference win, this team could be bowl eligible.
The Golden Gophers were a surprise team last season, making their first bowl appearance since 2009 and narrowly losing to Texas Tech. Minnesota returns ten offensive starters including sophomore Philip Nelson (873 yards) who will have the reigns of the offense without looking over his shoulder after splitting time last season. However, he will have some help with junior running back Donnell Kirkwood (926 yards) and three of his top four receivers returning. Defensively, senior linebacker Aaron Hill (74 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFLs and 2 interceptions) leads the way for the Golden Gophers.
Prediction: Last year, Minnesota won two conference games, but it is hard to see them pulling that feat off once again. The 11/2 game at Indiana oculd be close, but there best chance to pull a win is Week 5 against Iowa. Their first three non-conference games should be wins for Minnesota, but San Jose State will likely be too much to overcome. I believe this is a four win team.
Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes program had a rough year in 2012 and there is little evidence of that changing in 2013. Senior tight end CJ Fiedorowitz is the best player on the roster, but junior running back Mark Weisman (815 rushing yards) could be the main source of offensive production. The offense for Iowa, however, is not expected to put up a lot of points. To offset, the defense, which returns its three leading tacklers, will need to keep the team in games. Senior linebackers Anthony Hitchens (124 tackles, 1 sack, and 4.5 TFLs), James Morris (113 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 7.5 TFLs, and 1 interception), and Christian Kirksey (95 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 TFL, and 2 interceptions) form a solid linebacking corps that should fuel a defense that is at least among the middle of the pack in the conference.
Prediction: There is little talent in the Iowa program and not much reason to think the Hawkeyes can put a winning product on the field. I doubt they can win again against Northern Illinois in Week 1, but they should be competitive at Iowa State, against Western Michigan, and at Purdue. If they win two of those three, I see this team going 3-9.
The Purdue Boilermakers made a bowl game in 2012, and they lose their leading passer, rusher, and receiver from that team. Defense will be the stronger side of the ball for the team and junior safety Landon Fletcher (80 tackles, 2 TFL, and 4 interceptions) along with senior tackle Bruce Gaston (28 tackles, 5.5 TFLs) are the top returners on a unit that was able to keep games within reach for the most part last year.
Prediction: Although Purdue is second from the bottom in the Big Ten, the entire bottom half of the conference is pretty bunched together. Iowa, Illinois, and at Indiana are winnable games. However, non-conference games include at Cincinnati, Notre Dame, and Northern Illinois. I expect all of those to be losses. This team could struggle to win three games.
Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase returns for Illinois after throwing for twice as many interceptions as touchdowns in 2012. The Fighting Illini should be better offensively as they return eight starters on offense including leading rusher junior Donovonn Young (571 yards) and leading receiver senior Ryan Langford (469 yards). Defensively, the team only returns four starters but that includes leading tackler sophomore linebacker Mason Monheim (86 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4.5 TFLs, and 1 interception) and senior linebacker Jonathan Brown (59 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 7 TFLs) which should be enough to keep the unit on par with 2012.
Prediction: The Fighting Illini won two games last year. As of now, I only see them favored in one: their opener against Southern Illinois. However, as said previously, they could sneak in a win against any of the bottom dwellers in the Big Ten and they could defeat Miami (OH) in Week 5 (after a Week 4 bye). Another 2-10 season could be where things fall for Illinois.