"The Leap." You know The Leap. It's the jump in viability from doormat to bowl team, from pretender to contender, from a step too slow to Rose Bowl material.
Northwestern made that leap last year, finishing at 10-3, a solid four games ahead of its 2011 pace and well beyond what most experts predicted for the Wildcats. Ohio State went from 6-7 under interim head coach Luke Fickell to 12-0 under Urban Meyer; obviously that would qualify.
Now let's look at three more Big Ten schools who look to be in good shape to improve their lots in life in 2013.
Indiana is as far away from a perennial powerhouse as this generation of the Big Ten will see, and last year's 4-8 record included six losses in which the Hoosiers gave up at least 40 points. That's a defense that loses its best player in DT Adam Replogle, and while recruiting treated the Hoosiers well, it by no means amounts to an immediate overhaul of that defensive unit.
But this is also a Hoosiers team that lost four games by a single possession, three of which it led in the fourth quarter. Not only does it welcome every starter back on offense, but that doesn't even include its most important player: QB Tre Roberson, who was lost after two-and-a-half games with a badly broken leg. He was a dynamic playmaker and if he had stayed healthy, the Hoosiers might have easily been bowl-eligible in 2012.
Moreover, Kevin Wilson has already shown dramatic improvement in the way this team plays, and it looked much, much closer to respectability in its second year than its first. In 2011, the Hoosiers were outscored by 191 points. In 2012, 54 points. The total margin in 2013 probably won't follow a linear path of improvement compared to the first two years, but Indiana could easily find itself on the right side of that ledger.
Looking ahead, there are five probable wins on Indiana's 2013 slate: Indiana State, Navy, Bowling Green, Illinois and Purdue. All are at home. That means the Hoosiers have seven opportunities to get at least one win for bowl eligibility and if they want to shoot for a winning record then they'll have to beat a legitimate team or two. That's their goal now. It's well within reach.
Don't look now, but Jerry Kill just might know what he's doing. The 2012 season was a little rough and the Gophers still looked overmatched frequently during the Big Ten slate—and the 2-6 record reflects that. But Minnesota did go 6-6 overall by winning the games it was supposed to, and there might be more of those "supposed-to-win" games in 2013.
Kill flexed his mental muscle by springing a power run offense on an unsuspecting (and heavily favored) Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and it nearly got the Gophers one of the most unlikely bowl wins of the season. Alas, the Red Raiders were favored for a reason, and Tech took advantage of QB struggles to make a decisive charge in the fourth quarter for a 34-31 win.
However, it was that uncertainty at QB that prompted Kill's wisest move. Halfway through the 2012 season, Kill burnt the redshirt of true freshman QB Philip Nelson and let him take the reins of the Gopher offense. Minnesota would lose five of its final seven games and Nelson certainly looked the part of a freshman QB at times, but now it's going to be his offense in 2013—and he's got the first-year growing pains out of the way.
Nearly all of Minnesota's starters are back on offense and Nelson's rapport with his receivers should be drastically improved with a full offseason of drills under everyone's belt. While the defense might take a step back, it's also worth noting that Kill coaches that unit to dramatic improvement from the first year to the second, and if he can minimize any backslide from losing starters, Minnesota should make a serious run at a 4-4 Big Ten mark. Oh, and that non-conference schedule is cake once again.
Keep an eye on Minnesota in November. The schedule is by no means easy and a 1-3 finish passes the smell test. But none of those games look impossible to win for a team that should be getting better as the season goes on—especially if the game keeps slowing down for Nelson—and a 3-1 finish is also completely plausible.
Now, hang on, you might be saying. Is there even a leap for Michigan to be taking? And indeed there is—despite being contenders for the Legends Division title up until the final week of the regular season, Michigan was still a five-loss team in 2012 when it was all said and done. Four of those losses came against teams that landed in the Top 10 of the final AP poll, but we can look at that another way: Michigan had four opportunities to take down a Top 10 opponent and misfired on all of them.
Michigan probably won't have four shots at Top 10 teams in 2013. You can go ahead and check the schedule if you'd like, and while we'll grant you Ohio State until further notice, Alabama's off the slate and Notre Dame suffered heavy losses through graduation. The Irish may not be back among the elite for a few years.
Michigan's losses are considerably less pronounced, and while there's no easy answer for replacing Jordan Kovacs or the middle three starters on the offensive line, Devin Gardner looks to be more in line with what Al Borges would like from a quarterback and the front seven on defense should be every bit as tenacious as before. Blake Countess' return at cornerback will be a significant boost as well, especially with Raymon Taylor beginning to emerge at the other CB spot during the 2012 season.
This is still a flawed team and another eight-win campaign wouldn't be out of the realm of plausibility. But the way everything's shaping up, Michigan should make a serious charge for a Big Ten Championship Game bid come December 2013.
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