There is no shortage of story lines headed into the 2012 Big Ten football season; all over the midwest, football-crazy fan bases are giddy about their team's chances this year.
Football powerhouses Ohio State and Michigan figure to be much improved teams in 2012, Penn State looks to have a successful start to the Bill O'Brien era following the loss of the legendary Joe Paterno and the always competitive Iowa and Nebraska hope to fare better in 2012 than they did in 2011.
While several teams will look for improvement based on disappointing performances last season, the Big Ten's elite will look to maintain their level of play this year.
The first ever Big Ten Championship Game was played last season, matching up the Michigan State Spartans and the Wisconsin Badgers at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. After the two teams' regular season match-up was decided by a controversial "Hail Mary" as time expired and resulted in a Michigan State victory, the Badgers got the last laugh by winning the Big Ten Championship.
All was right for Wisconsin—Bucky was headed to the Rose Bowl.
As the 2012 season is just several months away, Wisconsin looks to defend it's Big Ten Championship and be a mainstay in the conversation of the country's elite programs.
NC State transfer Russell Wilson was the Badgers' savior at quarterback in 2011, and they'll look to fill his void in the starting lineup with Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien. While he may not be the game-breaker that Russell Wilson was, if O'Brien can adequately provide enough balance to Montee Ball's production on the ground, then Wisconsin should be at the top of the Big Ten once again.
However, the Big Ten season is never a smooth road for anyone to travel.
Wisconsin's biggest competition in the Leaders' division will likely be the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Buckeye Nation is buzzing up in Columbus, as they're finally able to put closure to the Jim Tressel scandal by hiring two-time BCS Champion head coach Urban Meyer. Through his time at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, Meyer has historically needed two years to dramatically turn a program around, but the Buckeyes figure to finish better than their 6-6 record last season.
Ohio State will benefit from the return of quarterback Braxton Miller, who had an up-and-down freshman campaign. If coach Meyer can show slight improvement in 2012 following a disappointing 2011 season and "set the table" for 2013, then people in Columbus should be very happy with their hire.
The team on the losing end of last year's Big Ten Championship Game, the Michigan State Spartans, figure to be in a similar position as the Badgers.
One year after being embarrassed by SEC powerhouse Alabama in the Capital One Bowl, the Spartans were poised to face another SEC school, the Georgia Bulldogs, in the 2012 Outback Bowl. MSU was able to rally from a 16-0 deficit and beat the Bulldogs 33-30 in Overtime.
The Spartans will need to replace their quarterback, Kirk Cousins, and fill the void left by wide receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. On the other side of the ball, defensive tackle Jerel Worthy left MSU after his junior year and was selected in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers.
If Andrew Maxwell can adequately fill the Spartans' glaring hole at quarterback, and if the team can fill the voids at other key positions, then Michigan State could find itself back in the Big Ten Championship Game.
However, with the likes of rival Michigan and a resurgent Nebraska team in the Legends division, Michigan State won't have an easy path back to Indianapolis.
Thanks to the stoic Brady Hoke, things in Ann Arbor, Michigan, haven't looked this promising since Lloyd Carr was on the sidelines. The Wolverines feature one of the most electric players in the country in the form of quarterback Denard Robinson.
Michigan figures to have an improved defensive unit, and they likely won't need to be stellar since Robinson and the offense usually put plenty of points on the scoreboard.
There figures to be plenty of competition at the top of both divisions within the Big Ten. Ohio State will likely push Wisconsin, Michigan figures to push Michigan State, but there are always surprise contenders within the Big Ten conference.
Obviously, the SEC is always a stellar football conference, but don't sleep on the Big Ten this season.