Mark Dantonio and the Spartans are undergoing a makeover on offense, which if successful, could put them in the mix to contend for a Rose Bowl berth.
Any discussion for the favorite to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl this season begins with Ohio State, but a handful of sleepers are ready to give Urban Meyer’s club a stiff challenge for the league title.
The Buckeyes are the clear favorites in the Leaders Division, but three-time defending conference champs Wisconsin will still be a formidable foe despite going through the coaching transition from Bret Bielema to Gary Andersen.
The top two teams from the Legends Division—Michigan and Nebraska—are strong candidates to crack the preseason Top 25 rankings, but Michigan State and Northwestern have enough talent returning to make a run at representing the division for the title game in Indianapolis.
What makes the Spartans, Badgers and Wildcats clubs to watch for as potential dark horses in the race to claim the Big Ten title this fall?
Find out in this breakdown of the three biggest sleepers from the Big Ten that will be Rose Bowl contenders this fall.
Returning Starters – 15
2012 Record – 8-6 (Lost to Stanford in the Rose Bowl)
The changes in Madison are enough to warrant thoughts of this upcoming season being one that could fall below the standards the Badgers have set in recent years.
However, Andersen inherits a club with a significant amount of big-game experience. With the preseason buzz likely to be centered on the Buckeyes, the Badgers can play without pressure and with motivation to prove that they are still the class of the league.
All six of Wisconsin’s losses a year ago came by seven points or less—including three defeats that came in overtime.
If the Badgers can get consistent play from either Joel Stave or Danny O’Brien at quarterback and find three new starters in the secondary, Wisconsin will threaten to win the league for the fourth consecutive season.
Returning Starters – 16
2012 Record – 7-6 (beat TCU in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl)
The main thing holding the Spartans back a year ago was its anemic offense, and with star running back Le’Veon Bell off to the NFL, Mark Dantonio will have to find a replacement for that unit’s most productive player from a year ago.
The Spartans finished 97th nationally in total offense (ninth best in the Big Ten), but Dantonio brought in new blood on his staff by adding former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman—who will work with quarterbacks coach Dave Warner as co-offensive coordinators.
On the flip side, the defense—which returns seven starters, highlighted by linebacker Max Bullough and corner Darqueze Dennard—finished fourth nationally in total defense and was consistently the best unit in the league.
Additionally, a schedule that drops Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders Division in favor of Purdue and Illinois will give the Spartans a chance to get back to the Big Ten title game.
Returning Starters – 15
2012 Record – 10-3 (beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl)
Pat Fitzgerald led the Wildcats to their first bowl victory in 64 years and a surprise 10-win campaign in 2012.
The return of quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, plus dynamic running back Venric Mark assures that the Wildcats—who averaged 29 points per game in its three losses—will once again be among the most powerful attacks in the league.
However, if Fitzgerald’s club hopes to take the next step and challenge the likes of Michigan and Nebraska for the Legends Division crown, the defense—which brings back seven starters from 2012—has to improve.
If the Wildcats hope to make it to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1995, the Wildcats will face a daunting league slate with trips to Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska along with home dates against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
While the Big Ten may have suffered from the Buckeyes not being eligible for the postseason a year ago, a resurgent power in Columbus could help restore some of the luster the league has lost in recent years.
However, Northwestern leads a strong contingent of contenders ready to knock the preseason league favorite off its perch.