Barring catastrophe, Braxton Miller will lead the charge for Ohio State and the Big Ten in 2013.
Well... the 2012 season is over. What a ride it was. Ohio State went undefeated, Illinois, um, did not, and the Big Ten became arguably the most hipster-friendly of all the athletic conferences, in that it took a heavy sense of irony to enjoy the entire body of work.
That's all in the past, and we're kicking off the march to the 2013 season opener by releasing our very first Big Ten Power Rankings of the season. These are subject to immense change between now and August 31, of course, and there's no telling at this point who's going to be rocketing up or down these rankings in the coming eight months.
Oh no, it's really going to be eight months. Oh no.
We can get through this, folks. Let's do it together.
Illinois had to announce that first-year head coach Tim Beckman was returning for his second season and would not be fired. That was something that program had to actually address after one season of the Beckman era. Things were that bad for the Illini in 2012.
At least basketball's going well, Illini fans.
We're willing to look past the shellacking Oklahoma State put on the Boilermakers, since Purdue was working with an interim head coach and should never have been in that bowl in the first place; Purdue would have likely been left out of the bowl picture altogether had it not been for Ohio State and Penn State's sanctions.
We can't overlook the numerous beatings the Big Ten handed to Purdue, though, and for as promising a head coach as former Jim Tressel disciple Darrell Hazell might be, he has a major rebuilding job in front of him and not a lot of tools to work with.
At the very least, QB Rob Henry and RB Akeem Hunt are familiar faces, and WRs Gary Bush and O.J. Ross are solid targets. So the cupboard's not bare on offense. It also helps that CB Ricardo Allen is back for his senior season, though expectations about his ceiling have been lowered over the past couple years. Still, there just aren't many difference-makers on this roster, and recruiting hasn't led anyone to believe that they're on the way.
Knowing Kirk Ferentz's generally positive history at Iowa, it's tempting to write off last season's collapse as an aberration, the confluence of key injuries and a difficult transition to a new offense.
But OC Greg Davis, the laughingstock of Big Ten assistants, is evidently back for Round 2, and this time he has no quarterbacks who have even thrown a pass in D-I football. It's hard to have even the remotest confidence in that offense, and even as the defense returns a strong front seven, if the Hawkeyes can't score 20 points on a weekly basis with any reliability, it probably won't matter what the defense accomplishes.
At the very least, workhorse RB Mark Weisman returns, and the two top offensive linemen (Brandon Scherff and freshman All-American Austin Blythe) Iowa lost to injury midway through the season are both back. So there's some potential. Still, this looks like a plainly below-average football program.
Shane Wynn is the Mighty Mouse of the Big Ten.
Kevin Wilson is doing remarkable things at Indiana, and the only thing that's going to keep him from leading the Hoosiers to a bowl game is if someone else hires him first.
With any luck, QB Tre Roberson is back; he had been making major progress as a passer and looked lethal in the open field before a badly broken leg shut his season down in late September. Fortunately, bones heal more reliably than ligaments, so his return should coincide well with the start of spring football.
That defense was brutal in 2012, though—the worst in the Big Ten by nearly 50 yards a game—and it loses its best player in DT Adam Replogle. Wilson needs his defense to make major strides in 2013, otherwise it's going to be another long year of watching leads vanish late and bowl opportunities slip away.
Well well, would you look at Minnesota? The Golden Gophers surprised many by giving Texas Tech all it could handle in the Meineke Car Care Bowl before inconsistency at the quarterback spot doomed Minnesota late in a 34-31 loss.
Still, that's an unexpected bowl bid for Jerry Kill in just his second year at the helm of Minnesota, just one year after he couldn't beat the likes of New Mexico State or North Dakota State. Kill is a fine, fine coach, especially as evidenced by his team's leap to the top half of the Big Ten in total defense (fifth in conference, 33rd nationally). The Gophers have some losses on defense to contend with, but they're not crippling.
Philip Nelson has loads of talent at QB, but he needs to make a major step up in terms of consistency and read-making. He was only a true freshman last year, so that improvement is to be expected, but it's still a condition that has yet to be met. The offensive line returns plenty of bodies, so that'll help.
We might see another bowl bid for Minnesota in 2013, but unless some major playmakers step up, 7-5 looks like a ceiling, and injuries could push the Gophers well shy.
Year 2 of the Bill O'Brien era should be interesting to see. Penn State is suffering from none of the upheaval that it saw before 2012's season in this go-around thus far, and the skill position trio of RB Bill Belton, WR Allen Robinson and TE Kyle Carter is just about all any incoming quarterback (whether it be Steven Bench or true freshman Christian Hackenberg) could ask for.
The Nittany Lion defense suffered heavy losses, unfortunately, and DC Ted Roof is going to have his hands full acclimating the young pups in his tutelage to Big Ten play. Adrian Amos must take a step forward in the secondary, and 2012 Big Ten defensive freshman of the year DE Deion Barnes will need help from his mates on the line.
Still, this is a legitimate Big Ten squad top to bottom, and 5-7 looks like a worst plausible scenario for Penn State. Another .500-plus season would be enormous for fan morale as Penn State soldiers through these sanctions and starts to look for the light at the end of the tunnel.
Michigan State: On the plus side, there's no way that passing game can be any worse. Whether it's Connor Cook or Andrew Maxwell that leads the charge for the Spartans in 2013, they'll have a wide receiving corps that has another full year of practice under its belts—critical for the development of potential weapons like Aaron Burbridge and DeAnthony Arnett.
The early entries to the NFL hurt, though, and while nobody can blame someone like LeVeon Bell wanting to go pro with a running style as bruising and low-shelf-life like his, the litany of defenders opting out is concerning.
Lastly, it's absolutely worth noting that Michigan State won 11 games back-to-back in 2010 and 2011. But looking at the 2013 version of the Spartans, personnel-wise, there's scant resemblance between those two great seasons and who's going to be on the field for MSU this season.
We'd like to have Wisconsin higher than this on personnel alone, but the losses from the coaching ranks are borderline catastrophic; Wisconsin bid farewell to Bret Bielema and the vast majority of its assistant coaches after the 2012 season, and incoming head man Gary Andersen will have his hands full acclimating the Badgers to his new staff—though two Badger assistants remain.
Andersen does have some talent back, however. Joel Stave was more than serviceable at QB, and the RB duo of James White and Melvin Gordon could still well be one of the Big Ten's best. Losing Travis Frederick to the NFL hurts, though, especially on a team that depends so heavily on elite line talent.
At the very least the Badger defense welcomes back LB Chris Borland, a potential candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. He'll miss departing teammate Mike Taylor, though; the fellow linebacker is off to the NFL.
Devin Gardner makes for good pictures, at least.
At this point, the 2013 season looks every bit as promising and frustrating for the Wolverines as the 2012 campaign. Devin Gardner is back at quarterback, but we don't know what level of consistency he's going to bring to the table after an up-and-down finish to last season. Denard Robinson is gone, and though there are no playmakers anywhere near his level coming back, the inexplicable turnovers should disappear as well.
That offensive line doesn't look very good, especially if Taylor Lewan leaves (WEDNESDAY NIGHT UPDATE: Lewan announced that he is actually staying, believe it or not). There's young talent, but experience and cohesion both matter on the line. Jake Ryan should take the next step into stardom on the defense, and as a whole there's enough talent coming back on that side of the ball that Michigan will be in basically every game it plays—and the schedule looks considerably easier than 2012's to boot.
Still, are Michigan fans going to be happy with another eight-win season? The ceiling's higher than that, but this is not an elite team, and expectations are still likely to be riding high after that 11-2 season that kicked off Brady Hoke's career in Ann Arbor.
Northwestern: Generally, it's not wise to read too much into things like bowl victories, since they're only one data point out of 13 on a season—and that's to say nothing of the non-accomplishment it is to beat Mississippi State. And yet Northwestern just went 10-3...and it's hard to find any offseason losses that might prevent the Wildcats from doing exactly that again. There's departing LT Patrick Ward, but past him, Northwestern's in mighty good shape.
The Kain Colter-Venric Mark connection in the backfield is utter hell for opposing defenses to contain, and the Wildcat defense is bringing back enough promising talent (especially LB Chi Chi Ariguzo and CB Nick VanHoose) that a major step up could be made here.
Also working in Northwestern's favor: Pat Fitzgerald has quietly become one of the Big Ten's best coaches leading one of the Big Ten's best staffs. If he weren't a Northwestern alum, he'd be long gone; the fact that he's a Cat at heart means he could very well be in Evanston for a long time.
In some weird way, the injury troubles that plagued Rex Burkhead in his senior season were something of a blessing. They certainly didn't help Nebraska in 2012, but now that Burkhead will be off to the NFL, at the very least the young and talented Husker backfield already has significant experience getting through a game without him.
Ameer Abdullah looks to be the new feature back, though his fumbling problems in 2012 haunted Nebraska. That is a surefire way to lose a starting role, so he's got some work to do on that front. Fortunately, Imani Cross and Braylon Heard are both in the backfield with Abdullah, and both are tremendously talented ball-carriers.
The Huskers also have Taylor Martinez returning for a senior season that could propel him into the highest company of former Husker QBs. The offensive line loses some experience but has tantalizing talent. Kenny Bell should be a first-team All-Big Ten WR in 2013.
Let's just not talk about that Husker defense, though. Ye gods.
The Buckeyes are obvious favorites to repeat as the team with the best Big Ten record in 2013, and as things look right now, a national championship run may be in the cards.
Ohio State brings back the lion's share of its offensive line, and departing RT Reid Fragel should be ably replaced by Taylor Decker. More importantly, Braxton Miller is back, and the vast majority of his weapons at the skill positions are as well.
On defense, the departure of NT Johnathan Hankins hurts, though it's no surprise. At least Bradley Roby is back for his junior season at corner; he's a legitimate All-American candidate. If Ryan Shazier keeps on his path of improvement, he could challenge for similar honors.
Most importantly, Urban Meyer will be entering the second year of his tenure at Ohio State, and it looks as if he'll have his entire cadre of assistant coaches (perhaps the best staff in the Big Ten) back for another go. There's no acclimation to take care of coming into 2013; now, it's about refining that talent and making it play at an even higher level. For a Big Ten over which OSU ran roughshod in 2012, that is frightening news.