It's never too early to look to the future, especially if you're cheering for a team in the Big Ten.
The conference has been stuck in a rut as of late, much to the glee of SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 fans. But does that mean there's nothing Big Ten fans have to look forward to next season? Will the lackluster out-of-conference performance continue for the conference that was once the envy of the nation?
Most Big Ten teams still have their bowl games ahead of them, but that won't stop us from coming up with some predictions for 2013—even if they are way too early.
2012: 2-10 (0-8), Sixth in the Leaders Division
It's really difficult to see where Illinois goes from here.
After firing Ron Zook for constantly mediocre yet bowl-eligible performances, Illinois tapped Toledo's Tim Beckman as head coach. The result? A continuing slide down the Big Ten standings.
Illinois finished 0-8 in conference play this season and was just 2-2 out of conference. Those two lone wins came against an FCS opponent and a MAC team that was so bad, it's now searching for a new head coach.
Unfortunately for Illini fans, there isn't much hope for a dramatic turnaround within sight. The best we can hope for in the near future is incidental improvements season after season. A good start would be winning a game in conference play.
2013 Prediction: 4-8 (2-6)
2012: 4-8 (2-6), Tied for fifth in the Legends Division
Sooner or later, Kirk Ferentz is going to need to turn things around at Iowa, or otherwise he might be looking for a job somewhere else. Ferentz bought himself a lot of goodwill over the years in Iowa City, but with the losses mounting, he may find even his most dedicated supporters beginning to turn.
It's really been all downhill for the Hawkeyes since their Orange Bowl win following the 2009 season. Since that 11-win campaign, Iowa has won fewer games each succeeding season before finishing just 4-8 in 2012.
The Rose Bowl Game should be the goal for every Big Ten program each and every season, but Iowa fans have trouble remembering what Pasadena even looks like these days. The last time the Hawkeyes were invited to the Rose Bowl, Hayden Fry was the head coach, and George Bush was President. George Bush, the elder. The last outright Big Ten title for the Hawkeyes? 1985.
The interesting thing about Kirk Ferentz is that his program always seems to be in the midst of rebuilding. The Hawkeyes are always just one or two playmakers away from really competing in the Big Ten.
That wasn't so much the case this season, but given his track record, we're fairly confident Ferentz will be able to right the ship to some extent in 2013. After all, he hasn't missed a bowl game in two consecutive seasons since 1999 and 2000—his first two years at Iowa.
2013 Prediction: 6-6 (4-4)
2012: 4-8 (2-6) Fifth in the Leaders Division
One can never accuse Kevin Wilson of not being completely and unabashedly dedicated to Indiana University. He's even willing to take on sports talk radio in his own program's footprint to make his point.
Whether or not Wilson's media relations skills—or complete lack thereof—really matters is a subject we're sure is debatable among Indiana fans. One thing that's not debatable is the fact that Indiana has been and remains primarily a basketball school.
But Wilson appears to have the football Hoosiers on track to replicate the impressive feat of another basketball school from 2012. Duke surprised many this season by winning six games and earning a berth in the 2012 Belk Bowl. Duke, like Indiana, is known almost exclusively for it's prowess on the hardwood not the turf. But if Duke can do it, why can't Indiana?
Add in the recruiting momentum of a coach that lives and breathes dedication and loyalty to dear old IU, and bowling for the Hoosiers may not be that far off.
2013 Prediction: 5-7 (3-5)
2012: 6-6 (2-6), Tied for fifth in the Legends Division
After guiding FCS Southern Illinois to five straight playoff appearances and Northern Illinois to three consecutive bowl games, Jerry Kill was brought on board at Minnesota to try and repair the damaged image of the Golden Gophers.
Despite a 9-15 record, Kill has Minnesota on a patch back to relevance in the conference, and the Gophers earned a bowl trip to finish off their 2012 campaign.
Interestingly, Minnesota was one of the few Big Ten programs that found success outside of the conference this season. The Gophers were 4-0 in non-conference play, which included a win over 2012 Big East co-champion Syracuse.
Coach Kill will need to capitalize on his team's success early in the season if the Gophers are to have any success in future years, but with a plethora of returning talent, it's entirely possible.
Now if Kill could only do something about Minnesota's abysmal recruiting.
2013 Prediction: 6-6 (3-5)
2012: 6-6 (3-5) Fourth in the Leaders Division
Back when the season first began, we thought Purdue might be a perfect dark-horse candidate for the Big Ten title, what with Ohio State and Penn State both facing postseason bans.
But after a narrow loss to Notre Dame in September, the wheels sort of came off for the Boilermakers. Despite a 3-1 non-conference mark. The Boilers dropped their first five Big Ten contests and were only able to manage wins against 2012 bottom-feeders Iowa, Indiana and Illinois.
To make matters worse, head coach Danny Hope was fired, and Purdue fans now have a solid couple of transition seasons ahead. Darrell Hazell is fresh off of a remarkable season at Kent State, and there are high hopes that he'll be able to restore the pride and competitiveness at “the cradle of quarterbacks.”
But unless he has another Drew Brees hidden up his sleeve, don't expect any miracles.
2013 Prediction: 6-6 (3-5)
2012: 6-6 (3-5) Fourth in the Legends Division
To say that 2012 was a bit of a disappointment for the Spartans would be putting it mildly.
Michigan State was coming off a Legends Division championship in 2011, not to mention an impressive Outback Bowl win over 2011 SEC-East champion Georgia. Mark Dantonio was building a program in East Lansing that fans could point to as proof that MSU is more than just a basketball school. The Spartans had won 22 games in two seasons; no Big Ten program had won more.
Michigan State seemed to be closing in on its first Rose Bowl Game trip since 1988.
Then 2012 came around.
With an offense decimated by graduation, the Spartans struggled to score points all season long. Despite a defense that consistently ranked among top five in the nation, you can't win games without points. Michigan State's five conference losses were by a combined 13 points.
But will 2012 be just a blip on the radar? Can the Spartans return to their winning ways in 2013? With 18 combined returning starters, including 10 on offense, we think so.
2013 Prediction: 9-3 (6-2)
2012: 8-5 (4-4), Third in Leaders Division, Big Ten Champions
Wisconsin was a hard team to nail down this season. At times, the Badgers played like the Big Ten Championship Game winners they are. At others, Wisconsin was downright terrible.
The Badgers opened the season with a narrow win over FCS Northern Iowa, 26-21. After a loss to Oregon State, the Badgers nearly laid an egg at home against Utah State.
Wisconsin barely managed a .500 record in Big Ten play this year, but that was just enough. Backing your way into the conference championship game is bad enough, but the Badgers backed their way through a back door with both Penn State and Ohio State—both Leaders Division teams and both with better conference records than Wisconsin— who were both ineligible to participate.
Wisconsin wasn't having any of that “the Badgers don't belong” nonsense though and shellacked the Cornhuskers, 70-31 to earn yet another trip to Pasadena.
While the Badgers will have 16 combined starters returning in 2013, there are two big names that won't be returning: Montee Ball and Bret Bielema.
Losing a star running back is one thing. Losing a NCAA record-setter like Ball is something entirely different. Ball may have been a once-in-a-generation ball carrier, and his loss will be plain come the fall.
On top of that, losing a head coach always involves a transition period of a season or two. Wisconsin isn't the only Big Ten team that will need to break in a new head coach in 2013, but it is the biggest coaching departure in the conference, maybe even the nation.
Even if the Badgers' hold serve—which is possible—there's little to no chance they can keep ahead of Ohio State in the Leaders Division to win a fourth-consecutive title.
2013 Prediction: 8-5 (4-4)
2012: 9-3 (5-3), Third in the Legends Division
Northwestern has historically been one of those programs that can never quite seem to keep its head above water. Pat Fitzgerald is changing that mentality.
For the fifth season in a row, the Wildcats are headed to a bowl game, something previously unheard of when talking about Northwestern.
The Wildcats are still looking for that elusive bowl victory (the last coming in the 1949 Rose Bowl Game), but the program is improving each season, and don't be surprised if there are more than a few commentators who mention the Wildcats as a surprise candidate for the Legends title in 2013.
2013 Prediction: 10-2 (6-2)
2012: 8-4 (6-2), Second in the Leaders Division
The 2012 football season had to be one of the most trying years in Penn State football history. Even if we ignored all that happened at Penn State in 2011, the program was under new leadership for the first time in a few generations.
Now when you take into account all of the turmoil arising out of the Sandusky scandal, Joe Paterno's passing, the subsequent upheaval of players leaving the program, NCAA sanctions and an athletic department that needed to be rebuilt almost from the ground up...
That's just a lot to handle.
So we have to heap a ton of credit onto Bill O'Brien and his staff. Faced with a fracturing team, program and university, O'Brien stepped up and held everything together when it seemed impossible. The Nittany Lions defied expectations to win eight games, including six in the Big Ten, and were a stone's throw from the division championship.
The real test, however, is still ahead. With scholarship limits sure to take a toll on recruiting and a continuing bowl ban that will depress interest from prospects, the Lions are riding the leftover talent from the Paterno years. As those players continue to graduate, there's sure to be a massive talent drain at Penn State.
2013 Prediction: 7-5 (5-3)
2012: 8-4 (6-2), Second in Legends Division
The Wolverines appear to be awakening from their Rich Rodriguez-induced slumber thanks to Brady Hoke's reintroduction of Big Ten football in Ann Arbor.
While 2012 didn't quite have the success of 2011, the Wolverines still finished in second place in the division and have a decent shot against South Carolina in the 2013 Outback Bowl.
The biggest loss for Michigan after 2012 may not turn out to be that big of a deal after all.
Denard Robinson is certainly one of the top all-around athletes in the nation, but he clearly doesn't fit into a prototypical Big Ten offense. Hoke never really seemed comfortable with him at quarterback, and the the entire Michigan offense just seemed hamstrung by the necessity to play Robinson. In fact, Michigan seemed to have more chemistry on offense once Robinson went down to injury.
Moving forward, none of that will be a problem. Hoke and his staff can go about the business of rebuilding Michigan back into a national power—a process that won't take as long as many believe. With top recruiting classes and some highly-touted red shirts ready to take their place on the field, don't sleep on the Wolverines for a triumphal return to Pasadena in 2013.
2013 Prediction: 10-2 (7-1)
2012: 10-3 (7-1), Legends Division Champions
If there's one thing Nebraska proved in 2012 it's that it can compete in the Big Ten, and the adjustment period to the new conference is at an end.
The Cornhuskers won their division in just their second season in the Big Ten. Looking ahead to 2013, Bo Pelini will have his work cut out for him if he hopes to lead his program back to Indianapolis. Not only is the Legends Division going to be a much bumpier road in 2013, but the Huskers will have some serious holes to fill—particularly on defense.
Nebraska gave up a program-worst 539 rushing yards to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. A weak run defense was the common thread to every Nebraska loss in 2012, and things look grim for 2013 in this area. The Huskers will have just two part-time starters returning in the front seven next season.
And don't think we're the only ones to take note. Every opponent will try to run it down Nebraska's throat next season, and we have some serious reservations when it comes to the Huskers' ability to do anything about it.
2013 Prediction: 8-4 (5-3)
2012: 12-0 (8-0), Leaders Division Champions
This season has to go down in history as one of the best head coaching debuts ever. Sure, Urban Meyer is a proven winner, but his Ohio State Buckeyes were anything but heading into 2012.
After a lackluster 6-7 finish to the 2011 season, the Buckeyes defied expectations in Meyer's first season in Columbus, knocking off any and all comers. Unfortunately, those 12 wins and the Leaders Division crown will be all the Buckeyes can manage, thanks to NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Jim Tressel-led cover-up of “Tattoogate.”
And don't think for a minute that 2012 was a flash in the pan for Ohio State, either. With nine offensive starters heading back to Columbus, the Buckeyes should be more than capable of hanging with any team in the conference next season.
The only questions we have for Coach Meyer revolve around OSU's passing game and defensive line.
All four starting defensive linemen are off to the NFL (with two likely first-rounders). In a conference like the Big Ten which features big, fast and powerful run attacks, that could be a major issue. We also still have concerns about Braxton Miller's ability—or inability—to throw the football. The strike against Ohio State this season was that it relied too heavily on the run, and the conference slate was notably absent of any real blowout wins.
Adding in a quality passing attack could really open things up on offense for the Buckeyes, but we're not entirely sure that's possible with Miller as quarterback.
Still, the lure of a conference title and BCS bowl will be a strong one, and there's absolutely no reason Ohio State won't be right in the mix come late November.
2013 Prediction: 11-1 (7-1)