Wisconsin smelled roses in 2011 with back-to-back Big Ten Championships. Can a third be in order?
In an off-season marred by the Penn State scandal, sanctions to Ohio State and team movement across the NCAA, it's about time we got back to football. The Big Ten is still one of the most competitive conferences in college football with Wisconsin seeking a three-peat as conference champions, Michigan looking stronger than ever, Nebraska set to challenge and Michigan State looking to get back to the championship game.
Who will win the Big Ten in 2012?
Heisman candidate Montee Ball is back for the Badgers this season, looking to chase the rushing title, and a Rose Bowl Championship
1. Wisconsin Badgers - 10-2 (6-2)
The Badgers lost key parts to their offense from last season, particularly QB Russell Wilson. But running back Montee Ball is back for another year, and will likely challenge for another Heisman-like year. Couple that with running back James White and that ferocious offensive line, and the Badgers are going to have the Big Ten's best rushing tandem. At quarterback, Wilson's replacement Danny O'Brien, last year's ACC Rookie of the Year at Maryland, is a change of pace on offense. Unlike Wilson, O'Brien is a pocket passer who will take his time to hit his targets, and not flush out of the pocket easily. On defense, linebacker Mike Taylor returns for his senior year making the Badgers a consistent threat on defense.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes - 10-2 (6-2)
Urban Meyer's first season at the helm of OSU is most certainly going to be interesting. First of all, NCAA sanctions prevent the Buckeyes from participating in the Big Ten Championship game, or any bowl game. Therefore, this season is simply for Meyer to lay the foundation for the future. It's a shame, too, because they're loaded with talent to execute Meyer's spread offense, starting with quarterback Braxton Miller. The defense is predicated on shutting down the run, then going on the attack, which will be highly entertaining to watch. The Buckeyes have an eight-game home schedule finishing with Michigan coming into the Horseshoe. Though they won't have much to play for, Ohio State will most certainly be exciting to watch.
3. Illinois Fighting Illini - 6-6 (3-5)
If there were ever a time for Illinois to get to the Big Ten Championship game, this is the year to win the Leaders division. Ohio State is on sanctions, Penn State is reeling, leaving only the Badgers, who lost key components from last season, in their way. New head coach Tim Beckman instilled this in his players by distributing orange wrist bands with "One" etched on one side and "12-01-12" on the other— the date of the Big Ten Championship game. It's clear what U of I's goal is, but do they have enough firepower to reach it? The offense falls on the shoulders of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who had an excellent year last season, despite finishing 7-6 after a 6-0 start. Illinois will also have to find out who replaces wide receiver AJ Jenkins— Scheelhaase's best target. It's a new era in Champaign, but can the Illini respond?
4. Penn State Nittany Lions - 5-7 (3-5)
Penn State as a whole has more to worry about this year than what happens on the football field. Nonetheless, the program will try to move past the horrific scandal of last season, and made the first steps by hiring former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. O'Brien will have some weapons to play with in quarterback Matt McGloin and Silas Redd, but I just can't see PSU winning more than five games in the wake of last season. Especially with a Big Ten schedule that includes trips to Iowa and Nebraska, and home clashes with Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern.
5. Purdue Boilermakers - 4-8 (2-6)
Purdue has a lot of work to do if they want to move past mediocrity in the Big Ten. First of all, head coach Danny Hope must find a way to have his defense meet his offense in the middle, because one is always better than they other, and you never know which one. The Boilermakers return quarterbacks Caleb TerBush, sophomore Rob Henry and sixth-year senior Robert Marve. Too bad the quarterback-by-committee formula never worked because it's unclear who will start under center. Purdue also has issues on the defense.
6. Indiana Hoosiers - 2-10 (0-8)
Head coach Kevin Wilson's squad went 1-11 overall last season and 0-8 against the conference in his first season at the helm. Not much has changed in Bloomington in 2012 as the Hoosiers still aren't sure what to do at quarterback. Tre Roberson provided thrills last year, but he doesn't seem to fit in Wilson's pro style offense. Indiana, however, is setting up nicely for the future with several juco players transferring. I just don't see anything different this season from last.
Michigan QB Denard Robinson looks to bring the Wolverines back to glory
1. Michigan Wolverines - 10-2 (7-1)
Now is the best chance Michigan has of returning to the Rose Bowl, a place where they haven't been since 2007, or won since 1998. Quarterback Denard Robinson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint will lead the way on offense, and will undoubtedly provide many fireworks all season long. Robinsin passed for 20 touchdowns last season while also rushing for 16 touchdowns. Couple Robinson with Toussaint, and wide receiver Roy Roundtree and a very good defense that returns seven starters—the Wolverines are stacked. So what's the catch? A near-impossible schedule that includes Alabama and Notre Dame in addition to trips to Nebraska and Ohio State. However, with their won over Nebraska on October 27, Michigan will win the Big Ten Legends Division.
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers - 9-3 (5-3)
Nebraska, despite being just one of eight teams in the FBS to have four straight nine-plus win seasons, was rudely awakened last year, their first in the Big Ten. Their 5-3 Big Ten record was far more disappointing than what the numbers said. The losses came against Wisconsin, Michigan and Northwestern by a combined 62 points. It was clear Nebraska wasn't ready for the physicality of the Big Ten and not much may have changed this year. Sure, the Cornhuskers are loaded on defense, and have good offensive weapons in running back Rex Burkhead and wide receivers Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa. But can Nebraska hold up against Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State? I think they go 1-3 against those teams, costing them a spot in the Big Ten championship game.
3. Michigan State - 9-3 (5-3)
The success of the Spartans lie on how well quarterback Andrew Maxwell can carry an offense previously carried very well by Kirk Cousins. All signs from the MSU coaches say Maxwell will indeed carry the offense, and then some. Either way, replicating an 11-3 season and falling just a few plays short of a Rose Bowl appearance is hard to do. Especially with a reloaded Michigan and Nebraska team in front of you. It all depends on how the Spartans play against the Big Ten, specifically Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin. I think they go 1-3.
4. Northwestern Wildcats - 7-5 (4-4)
Northwestern is always that team who can shock the conference, but never really do. This season feels different for the 'Cats, really different. It starts with quarterback Kain Colter, who holds an electrifying track record in high school, and was a fine replacement for Dan Persa during his injury last year (Colter passed for 673 yards and 6 touchdowns, and rushed for 654 yards and 9 touchdowns). Colter also has a bona-fide wide receiver target in USC transfer Kyle Prater. The offense can be dangerous, but the defense, who returned five starters from last year, will have to catch up quickly. Led by Quentin Williams and Ibraheim Cambpell, Northwestern had the conference-worst defense last year. Now, coach Pat Fitzgerald will depend on his defense to grow up fast, or else this year can turn ugly in no time.
5. Iowa Hawkeyes - 7-5 (3-5)
Iowa is going through a rough patch, which includes losing their offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe, who has been with the team since 1998, as well as back-to-back disappointing bowl losses. I have no doubts that Iowa will challenge for another bowl game, but I have my reserves when it comes to challenging for a Big Ten Championship (that is years away, my friends). For now, Iowa's offense relies on senior quarterback James Vandenberg and wide receiver Keenan Davis. Last season, Iowa was the 11th-ranked defense in the Big Ten, and I don't anticipate any big jumps this year. With all of that taken into consideration, plus a schedule that includes trips to Michigan State, Northwestern and Michigan—on top of home games against Nebraska and Penn State— and Iowa is looking at a dismal 2012 Big Ten campaign.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers - 4-8 (1-7)
Minnesota is a long way away from becoming competitive, let alone returning to the Rose Bowl, a place they haven't been since 1962. It's clear the Gophers are looking into the future because they're fielding one of the youngest teams in the Big Ten. Of the 22 starting positions, there are eight sophomores, six juniors and one freshman. The Gophers' only fireworks should come from duel-threat quarterback MarQueis Gray, who had 2,461 all-purpose yards and 14 all-purpose touchdowns last season. On defense, Minnesota has to find a way to create more turnovers—they were last in the Big Ten, and 100th in the NCAA in turnover margin last season. In all, Minnesota is a few years away from getting back to .500 in conference play, but seem content with playing the "shocker role," which always seems to happen.
Wisconsin will return to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game, seeking a three-peat in Big Ten titles.
Big Ten Championship Game - Indianapolis, Indiana
Wisconsin will return to Indianapolis for the second consecutive year, this time facing off with Michigan. The Badgers will go for their third straight Rose Bowl appearance, while Michigan looks for their first trip to Pasadena in six years.
Wisconsin Head Coach Bret Bielema will raise the Big Ten Championship trophy for the third straight year
The Wisconsin Badgers will win the Big Ten Championship game 27-24, and stamp their ticket to their third straight Rose Bowl game.