The Big Ten conference season kicks off this weekend, with teams vying for bragging rights, trophies, and the right to play in the Rose Bowl. That means it is time for me to weigh in with my conference predictions.
Preseason predictions? Too hard, and too much chance for error. I’d much rather wait until we’ve seen 3-4 non-conference games from everybody before offering my assessments. That gives me a greater chance of being right – and when it comes to prognosticating, I can use all the help I can get.
Let’s start by addressing the B1G elephant in the room – the conference is off to a terrible start. Between the Penn State sanctions, the lack of success in marquee games (Notre Dame could likely enter November with the best record in the conference (3-0) in the conference), and embarrassing losses to no-name schools, this has been an ugly year to wave the Big Ten banner. It is all but guaranteed that no Big Ten team will participate in the BCS Championship game, but two teams will earn (default into?) a trip to the Championship in Indianapolis, and the chance to appear in the Rose Bowl – a standard that means more than a championship for many Big Ten schools.
The one piece of good news for whomever wins the conference – in 10 years few will remember that it was a down year with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the Championship, they’ll just know that you won the league. So you’ll have that going for you.
- Wisconsin. In my opinion, Ohio State has the best team in the Leaders, but since they can’t go to Indy, Wisconsin defaults into the top spot. Why Wisconsin? They are the reigning champs and given the sorry state of this division, they deserve to be considered best until somebody proves otherwise. That said, panic buttons have been pushed in Madison with transfer QB Danny O’Brien being benched, Heisman finalist Montee Ball injured, and their offensive line coach getting fired after week 2. My guess is this team has too much talent and experience to fall apart, and they’ll put enough of the pieces together to hold off the rest of the division.
- Purdue. The window of opportunity for the Boilers to get back to the Rose Bowl has never been bigger. Two of the big names in the division are ineligible and Wisconsin looks surprisingly mortal. The big question is if Purdue can step up and take advantage. They’ll be aided by their schedule, which allows them to coast in with Minnesota, Penn State, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana and wait for Wisconsin to lose.
- Illinois. I’ll admit to knowing very little about what Illinois brings to the table, but what I do know is not all that impressive. Getting creamed in their two best non-conference games (Arizona State and Louisiana Tech) doesn’t help that perception.
- Indiana. Like Purdue, the window of opportunity is open. Unlike Purdue, Indiana has very little chance to do anything with it. I fully expect them to be last in the division, and likely the worst team in the conference. Again.
- Ohio State. Again, I’m only putting the Buckeyes this low because they cannot win the division. If they were elgible, I’d have them at the top of the list as they have speed, good skill players (Braxton Miller could be a Heisman finalist in a year or two), and a some of the best talent in the conference. It remains to be seen how well Urban Meyer’s boys embrace the spoiler role, or if they mail it in.
- Penn State. If not for the Sandusky sanctions, I could see Penn State battling Purdue to be the third best team in the Leaders. But the sanctions are in place, several key players have transferred out, and the Nitany Lions are playing for pride. PSU still has enough talent to win a chunk of their games, but I would not be surprised if the mental fatigue of the past year – the sanctions, media scrutiny, JoePa’s death, player defections, and much, much more – doesn’t start to take its toll by November causing a late slide. The final standings will probably have PSU ending up between Illinois and Indiana.
- Michigan. The Wolverines arguably have the league’s best player in Dennard Robinson, and loads of talent on both sides of the ball. Yes, they have two big non-conference losses, but considering they were against the nation’s best team (Alabama) and the nation’s most improved team (Notre Dame) we don’t really have a good indication of how good Michigan is – especially compared to the rest of the conference. But we will know by November 1, as Michigan’s October schedule includes Michigan State and road trips to Purdue and Nebraska. Win two of those three and Big Blue is in the driver’s seat.
- Michigan State. Sparty won the Legends Division in 2011, and should be a strong contender to repeat in 2012. Michigan State will look to pound it early and often with RB Le’Veon Bell and rely on the Big Ten’s best defense to preserve close victories. The keys for Michigan State are to survive a brutal four game stretch (Iowa, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, Nebraska) and to avoid running Bell into the ground with 30+ carry games.
- Nebraska. Why Nebraska will win the Legends: a potentially high-powered offense featuring 3rd year starting QB Taylor Martinez, a deep stable of running backs, strong receivers, and good defensive speed. Why Nebraska won’t win the Legends: The defense has been inconsistent, kicker Brett Maher is not his All-Conference self, Nebraska’s lone non-conference test was an ugly loss at UCLA, the tendency for Bo Pelini teams to drop a game they have no business losing. What does it mean? Nebraska needs to prove to me that they can take care of business week in and week out.
- Northwestern. They have three of the best non-conference wins in the league, which is a good thing. Of course, those W’s are against Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College, which isn’t exactly the same as knocking off a Top 10 team on the road. Coach Fitzgerald is building a strong program, and if his Wildcats were in the Leaders, they would likely win the division going away. But they are in the stronger of the divisions, and won’t be able to get it done. But I expect them to play a role in deciding who does win the Legends.
- Iowa. Honestly, I’d really like to put the Hawkeyes in the cellar, as their only wins have come against teams with “Northern” in their name (but hey, that should bode well against Northwestern, right?) I’d like to think that a team who won a BCS bowl game after the 2009 season would still have enough talent to finish middle of the pack in a weak conference. But I’m not nearly as confident in that as I once was.
- Minnesota. The Gophers are 4-0, and it is not outside of the realm of possibility that they could start conference play with wins against Iowa and Northwestern. Minnesota’s schedule gets very tough starting in mid-October, with a run of Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, and Michigan State. That is going to be too much for a young team to handle.
The smart money says the Big Ten Championship will feature Wisconsin and Michigan. I like Michigan to win behind four Dennard Robinson touchdowns (2 running, 2 passing) as he stamps his ticket to New York as a Heisman finalist.
But if I’m betting your money, I’ll go with Nebraska and Purdue as both teams take advantage of a weak conference to win their divisions. I think it could happen, but a lot of things need to bounce their way for it to become reality. In this scenario, I’ll take Nebraska to run away with the title, sending NU back to L.A. to avenge their early season loss to a Pac 12 team.
(But I reserve the right to edit this post in December to make it look like I had it right all along….)