1. Ohio State Buckeyes (7-1, 12-1)
2. Wisconsin Badgers (6-2, 9-3)
3. Penn State Nittany Lions (4-4, 8-4)
4. Indiana Hoosiers (3-5, 6-6)
5. Purdue Boilermakers (1-7, 2-10)
6. Illinois Fighting Illini (0-8, 2-10)
1. Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-1, 11-2)
2. Michigan Wolverines (6-2, 10-2)
3. Northwestern Wildcats (6-2, 10-2)
4. Michigan State Spartans (5-3, 8-4)
5. Iowa Hawkeyes (2-6, 4-8)
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers (1-7, 4-8)
Big 10 Championship Game: Ohio State Buckeyes over Nebraska Cornhuskers
Ohio State is back, officially - It almost feels like last season did not count for the Buckeyes, at least to everyone outside Columbus. The task now is for Urban Meyer to come back and have his guys do it all over again. There are lofty expectations for this team to repeat its undefeated season and rightly so, as many of the pieces are in place for a special 2013. Braxton Miller will lead the way and could be your next Heisman Trophy winner. There are top recruits littering the field on both sides of the ball, although only 4 starters return on defense.
Will the Buckeyes repeat their undefeated season? One thing is for certain, they appear to be the class of the Big 10 conference. They also have a favorable schedule that offers only 4 or 5 real challenges on the surface. It is just so difficult to repeat undefeated seasons. Keep in mind that Alabama has won back-to-back championships with one-loss in each season. Also of note is the fact that last season the Buckeyes escaped with a 1-point victory at Michigan State, a 3-point victory at Indiana, a 5-point victory vs Michigan and had to beat both Purdue and Wisconsin in overtime. I have watched enough football to know that eventually, those close games are going to even out a little bit.
The other worry for the Buckeyes is the defense, especially a pass defense that struggled a year ago. While they do return 3 players in the secondary, the defensive front will be all new and must apply pressure. If not, the Buckeyes defense will continue to be vulnerable through the air, which could ultimately lead to their demise.
If they do lose one game, the lack of beef in the schedule will make it almost impossible to play in the National Championship Game.
Wild Times Ahead in the Legends - Michigan is the trendy pick to win the Legends Division, but they will be locked in a 4-way battle that will represent one of the most intriguing conference races of the 2013 season. The Wolverines, along with Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern all have the talent to play in Indianapolis. They also all have question marks, which brings that element of mystery to the race this year.
Michigan returns 11 starters from an 8-5 team and hands the full-time quarterback duties over to Devin Gardner. Gardner provided a spark last year, but teams will be more prepared for him this season than last, when Denard Robinson was questionable to play in all the games Gardner started. I am cautious that the Wolverines are actually one more year away from that big season and that 2013 will just be another step on the road.
Northwestern had their most successful season in 2012 since the 1995 Rose Bowl team, culminating the season with a victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. 15 starters return, including all skilled position players on offense, giving Wildcat fans reason for great optimism. Also note that in last year's 10-3 season, two of the losses were a 1-point heart breaker to Nebraska and an equally painful overtime loss at Michigan. That is how close this team was to 12-1. Working against Northwestern are two major factors. The first is depth and recruiting that does not quite match-up with the other 3 programs mentioned here. The second is a schedule that includes the 3 other Legends contenders, plus cross-over games against Ohio State and Wisconsin. Would it be a complete shock to see Northwestern in Indianapolis? No. I think they settle for another tremendously successful season and one in which they beat Michigan or Ohio State.
Michigan State has the best defense in the Big 10. I won't get many arguments to the contrary. The problem in East Lansing is an anemic offense that lost its only star (Leveon Bell) and has a quarterback quandary that could plague it all season long. The Spartans were seemingly in every game a year ago, but lost almost every close game. While I think this year will be better, the quarterback and offensive issues are going to hold this team back. In Sparty's favor is the fact that its cross-over games are against Purdue, Illinois and Indiana, but the offense is going to cost them against one of those teams, or against Iowa or Minnesota, all games they need to win to get back to Indianapolis.
Nebraska's offense could be explosive this year, with Taylor Martinez in his final season and experience at almost every position. Ameer Abdullah could be the break-out star in the Big 10 this season, taking over full-time at running back. The questions for Nebraska are on defense, where they were atrocious in losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin last season. Bo Pelini is a defensive coach, so I would not expect this defense to be as bad as it was a year ago. There will be a lot of new faces on defense, but that could be a blessing based on some of last season's results. The Cornhuskers also replace cross-over games of Ohio State and Wisconsin last year with Purdue and Illinois. They also get Northwestern and Michigan State at home. I am banking on an improved defense and potent offense to lead Nebraska back to Indianapolis to face the Buckeyes.
- Wisconsin replaces almost an entire coaching staff for the 2nd year in a row, this time adding the Head Coach as they transition to Gary Andersen. Andersen does not inherit a bare cupboard, but how these players respond to these coaching changes once again will be telling. There were some struggles in 2012 that could be directly linked to coaching changes as the offense did not live up to expectations, especially along the line. The Badgers are also not set at quarterback, making a 3rd straight trip to Indianapolis seem unlikely at best.
- Indiana is making strides as a football program and the next step will be bowl-eligibility. While there is little room for error, I expect the Hoosiers to make this step. The offense, especially through the air should be very good. It will be the defense that will make or break the season in Bloomington.
Worst Non-Conference Schedule: Minnesota. UNLV and New Mexico State are two of the worst FBS programs and FCS opponent Western Illinois was 3-8 last season. Only a home game against San Jose State offers a quality opponent.
Thank You Big 10 Schedule: Wisconsin. The Badgers play in the weaker Leaders Division and draw Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota for cross-over games, with the toughest one (Northwestern) at Camp Randall Stadium.
Curse You Big 10 Schedule: Iowa. The Hawkeyes have a tough top 4 in the Legends Division with Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern, plus they draw cross-over games with Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Best Player: Braxton Miller. Many think he is the favorite for the Heisman Trophy. I won't go that far, but his dynamic play gives Ohio State a definite edge.
Best Newcomer: Christian Hackenberg. With a great pedigree and Bill O'Brien as your coach, Hackenberg has all the makings of a successful debut as quarterback for the Nittany Lions. If he stays all 4 years, he can play in a bowl as a senior.
Weekly Games to Watch
Aug 31 - Northwestern at California...The Big 10 starts off slow, with the Wildcats one of the few teams facing a BCS opponent, and on the road to boot.
Sept 7- Notre Dame at Michigan...The rivalry will soon be over, but I would expect another good one this year.
Sept 14 - Wisconsin at Arizona State...Big 10 teams have struggled going west, Wisconsin included. This will be a great measuring stick for both teams.
Sept 21 - Michigan State at Notre Dame...Two of the nation's best defenses will take the field in this one.
Sept 28 - Wisconsin at Ohio State...With Penn State ineligible, this realistically could be the Leaders Division Championship Game.
Oct 5 - Ohio State at Northwestern...If the Buckeyes think they have won the Leaders Division the week before, this trip to Evanston becomes even more tricky.
Oct 12 - Michigan at Penn State...The Nittany Lions have nothing to lose and their games against the Big 10 elite represent their "Bowls" for the season.
Oct 19 - Indiana at Michigan...A chance to look in on the progress of the Hoosiers.
Oct 26 - Penn State at Ohio State...Their are not expected to be a lot of tough games on the Buckeyes schedule, but this should be one of them.
Nov 2 - Michigan at Michigan State...Both teams expect to be in Indianapolis and this one will go a long way in determining that.
Nov 9 - Nebraska at Michigan...The Cornhuskers schedule is back loaded, starting with Northwestern the week before. They hope two months is enough to re-tool a defense that struggled at times last year.
Nov 16 - Michigan State at Nebraska...Nebraska concludes a 3-week stretch against the top contenders in the Legends Division.
Nov 23 - Michigan State at Northwestern...If Nebraska or Michigan doesn't grab the headlines, one of these two will.
Nov 30 - Ohio State at Michigan...Will they play two weeks in a row? Will the Buckeyes be unbeaten going to Ann Arbor?
Dec 7 - Big 10 Championship Game...Last chance for an Ohio State-Michigan clash before they become East Division rivals.
BCS Rose Bowl: Ohio State Buckeyes
Capital One Bowl: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Outback Bowl: Michigan Wolverines
Gator Bowl: Northwestern Wildcats
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl: Wisconsin Badgers
Meineke Car Care Bowl: Michigan State Spartans
Heart of Dallas Bowl: Indiana Hoosiers