Best, Worst-Case Scenarios for Every Big Ten Team

David LutherFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2013

Best, Worst-Case Scenarios for Every Big Ten Team

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    The Big Ten has been widely viewed as a "down and out" conference for the past several seasons. With the College Football Playoff taking the place of the BCS after this season, 2013 will be the Big Ten's last opportunity to win some much-needed street cred before an as yet undisclosed selection committee process takes the place of the current "win and you're in" BCS system.

    We all know what the conference has to do: win early-season nonconference matchups and postseason bowl games. But what about each individual program?

    Where does each team stand, and what's the best fans can hope for in 2013? What about the other side of the coin—what's the worst we can expect?

    We'll help you out with an early guide to the best- and worst-case scenarios for every team in the Big Ten heading into 2013.

Illinois

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    2012: 2-10 (0-8, 6th in Leaders Division)

    After 2011, when Illinois had stumbled through yet another disappointing season, Ron Zook was fired because, well, how much worse could things get? Illinois fans found out the answer to that question last season when Tim Beckman took over.

    Sure, there's bound to be an adjustment period with any head-coaching change, but falling all the way from 6-6 to an abysmal 2-10 (0-8) wasn't really on anyone's radar screen. Beckman has his work cut out for him, not only in 2013, but down the road. Recruiting to what is quickly becomming a perennial Big Ten underachiever can't be easy, and Rivals.com put the Illini at No. 47 for 2013.

    In the meantime, Illinois will have to try and stave off the rest of a conference that is busily making its way back into the national conversation. We're just not sure the Illini will be able to keep up in 2013.

    Worst Case: 0-12

    Best Case: 4-8

Iowa

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    2012: 4-8 (2-6, T-5th in Legends Division)

    Iowa always seems to be rebuilding in one manner or another. Head coach Kirk Ferentz is perpetually replacing some big name on the roster, but never seems to have all of the pieces in place at the same time to make a real run at the conference title.

    Iowa has never won an outright conference title under Ferentz, and the last share for the Hawkeyes was way back in 2004. Things looked to be turning around in 2009 when Iowa posted a 10-2 (6-2) mark before winning the 2010 Orange Bowl, but it's been a steady slide down the standings ever since—leading us to believe 2009 may have been a flash in the pan more than anything else.

    Last season, there was no team in the Legends Division worse than Iowa. Minnesota finished in a tie for fifth with the Hawkeyes, but the Gophers had two more nonconference wins than Iowa and narrowly lost to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

    You can't get any worse than last place, and that's exactly where Iowa finished in the Legends Division in 2012. With such a lowly performance, it's pretty easy to outline the worst-case scenario for Iowa: no improvement.

    Now, the tricky part: What is the best Iowa fans can hope for in 2013?

    Iowa, not surprisingly, will be faced with a rebuilding task for the upcoming season. The Hawkeyes won't be returning any real stars. The only first team All-Big Ten selection from Iowa, corner Micah Hyde, is off to the Green Bay Packers, and Iowa didn't have a single (media) second-team all-conference honoree (center James Ferentz was a coaches' second-team selection and media honorable mention, but has also graduated).

    Realistically, the best Iowa can hope for in 2013 will be turning the few narrow defeats it had from 2012 into victories—which would at least earn a bowl berth.

    Worst Case: 3-9

    Best Case: 7-5

Indiana

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    2012: 4-8 (2-6, 5th in Leaders Division)

    Head coach Kevin Wilson wasn't shy about his thoughts on Indiana football back in 2011 when he first arrived in Bloomington. Wilson made an instant name for himself—and not necessarily a good name—by instantly alienating local talk radio.

    It's great to believe in your program and have a lot of pride in what you do, but Wilson proceeded to guide his Hoosiers to a 1-11 season after his on-air tirade.

    Last season was a fair sight better for Wilson and the Hoosiers. After settling into the job a bit, Wilson, who had spent his entire career as an assistant at the Division II, FCS and FBS levels prior to being named Indiana's head coach, managed to find a few more wins on the schedule in 2012.

    But while a cursory glance 4-8 being leaps and bounds better than 1-11, Indiana's level of competition in 2012 didn't quite measure up to the strength of schedule the Hoosiers had in 2011.

    Indiana lacked a single non-con game against a team from a BCS conference in 2012 and managed to find a way to lose to Navy and Ball State to boot. Indiana knocked off FCS Indiana State—barely—and eased past a hapless Massachusetts team in its first FBS season. Indiana's only two conference wins came against teams that finished fifth or worse in their respective divisions.

    Beyond that, Indiana was absolutely humiliated by nearly every other Big Ten team on the 2012 docket.

    Indiana fans have long known something that the rest of the nation seems quick to forget come September: Indiana is a basketball school. Indiana fans know this, and sadly, Big Ten football recruits know this, too. If Wilson ever wants to turn things around, he'll need to change the culture at IU, convincing everyone that football can be just as important as basketball.

    But maybe yelling at talk radio personalities during an interview isn't the way to go.

    Worst Case: 1-11

    Best Case: 5-7

Minnesota

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    2012: 6-7 (2-6, T-5th in Legends Division)

    If making it back to the ranks of bowl-eligible teams was the goal, it's "Mission Accomplished" for the Golden Gophers. Minnesota played in its first bowl game since 2009 and came up just short against a better-than-decent Texas Tech program, losing 34-31.

    Minnesota's narrow loss to the Red Raiders told us a couple of things. First, the Big Ten's flank isn't that far behind the mid-level of the other power conferences. Secondly, Minnesota appears to be at a crucial point in its road back to Big Ten competitiveness.

    Head coach Jerry Kill, while battling some pretty serious health issues, has somehow managed to find a way to improve his program's performance over his first season on the sideline at Minnesota in 2011. While Minnesota didn't really improve its final position in the Big Ten standings at season's end (last in the Legends Division in 2011, tied for last in 2012), there's a monumental difference between 3-9 and a bowling 6-7.

    We're still concerned about Minneosta's inability to attract any recruiting buzz (the Gophers had the No. 61 class in 2013 according to Rivals.com), but Coach Kill seems to be making do without any blue-chip prospects.

    Worst Case: 5-7

    Best Case: 7-5

Purdue

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    2012: 6-7 (3-5, 4th in Leaders Division)

    Purdue was probably one of the worst bowl-eligible teams from any BCS conference in 2012. Any doubters need only watch the Boilermakers' performance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Purdue was outclassed in every single aspect of the game by Oklahoma State, and the Cowboys utterly embarrassed Purdue, 58-14.

    Purdue failed to beat a single FBS team last season with a winning record and relied on an abysmally weak nonconference slate and a November than included games against Iowa, Illinois and Indiana to earn six wins.

    Only Indiana was worse last season on defense, and the Boilers couldn't seem to get out of their own way, committing more than two turnovers per game in 2012. Is it any wonder head coach Danny Hope was fired at season's end?

    With Darrell Hazell taking over the program for 2013, there's plenty of room for hope. After all, Hazell led Kent State to an impressive 11-3 finish last season, and narrowly lost the MAC championship in overtime to Northern Illinois—a game that was essentially a BCS play-in. Hazell was also named the 2012 MAC Coach of the Year.

    There's no real chance Hazell will have another shot at the BCS in 2013, but any long-term change will be a change for the better.

    Worst Case: 4-8

    Best Case: 7-5

Michigan State

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    2012: 7-6 (3-5, 4th in Legends Division)

    Michigan State was easily the biggest enigma of the 2012 Big Ten season. The Spartans lost five conference games by a combined 13 points, putting MSU the equivalent of just two touchdowns away from an 11-1 finish and all but guaranteed a trip to a BCS bowl.

    Instead, the Spartans took a definite step backwards to the days of the "Same Old Spartans." Losing the tight contests is something most MSU fans had hoped Mark Dantonio had put in the program's past. Last season proved differently.

    There's plenty of blame to go around, but the biggest problem Michigan State had last season was a lack of confidence brought on by the lack of experience and leadership on the field. With 15 returning starters for 2013, including four coaches' first-team All-Big Ten selections, experience shouldn't be a problem. But the loss of the biggest weapon on both offense (Le'Veon Bell) and defense (William Gholston), could seriously impact MSU's ability to compete with the best teams in the conference.

    Worst Case: 5-7

    Best Case: 9-3

Wisconsin

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    2012: 8-6 (4-4, 3rd in Leaders Division, Conference Champions)

    After finding every back door available to sneak into the Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin put on a display in the title bout we're not likely to see again for quite some time. The Badgers blasted the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 70-31, earning its third straight Big Ten title (and second outright).

    Wisconsin also became the first-ever five-loss team to play in the Rose Bowl game and the Badgers' crashing of the BCS party had to have played at least a small part in the ultimate death of the current system.

    But what's next for the Badgers? Head coach Bret Bielema beat a hasty exit from Madison, taking the open position at Arkansas. The Badgers also lose consensus first-team All-Big Ten running back Montee Ball, whose impact on a game cannot be understated.

    Wisconsin has always been a "run first" team, but with Gary Andersen taking over the program, most observers are taking a wait and see stance.

    At Utah State, Andersen put together a program that balanced the running game with a passing attack that was certainly better than average. Last season, the Aggies had the third-best passing attack in the WAC, behind nationally-ranked programs Louisiana Tech (No. 3 passing offense in the FBS) and San Jose State (No. 6 passing offense in the FBS). Utah State finished in the top 40 statistically, while Wisconsin had one of the worst passing games anywhere, finishing 115th out of 124 FBS programs.

    Of course changing the culture from a big, bruising run-the-ball kind of offense to a more balanced attack that can rely on the pass when needed will be a herculean task for Andersen. It's also doubtful he'll have the personnel to make the transition work, at least immediately. That spells trouble for Wisconsin's chances at a four-peat in the Big Ten.

    Worst Case: 6-6

    Best Case: 9-3

Northwestern

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    2012: 10-3 (5-3, 3rd in Legends Division)

    It's hard not to be a Northwestern fan these days.

    Any time a perennial doormat can turn things around, make five straight bowl games and win its first postseason game since the 1940s, it's going to draw some attention. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has his program clicking and the sky's the limit.

    Northwestern is proof that the old model of solid academics can still draw some quality football players, and the Wildcats' win over the SEC's Mississippi State in the 2013 Gator Bowl proves that an academically sound program from the Big Ten can still win the big games.

    Northwestern finished No. 17 in the final AP Poll, and will likely be a preseason Top 25 team in 2013. With 15 returning starters, including eight on offense (covering every skill position), there's really no limit to what the Wildcats can accomplish in 2013...

    ...as long as that Northwestern magic continues. Either way, that bowl streak won't be ending in the near future.

    Worst Case: 6-6

    Best Case: 11-1

Michigan

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    2012: 8-5 (6-2, 2nd in Legends Division)

    Rich Rodriguez screwed up this program about as much as any coach given three years possibly could. That being said, Brady Hoke has done a terrific job getting Michigan back to some semblance of its former self a lot quicker than many believed was possible.

    In his first season, Hoke guided Michigan to a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech, and last season wasn't all that terrible considering the schedule.

    For 2013, Michigan will have a much easier nonconference slate, replacing Alabama with Central Michigan to start things off. The Wolverines also avoid Wisconsin ni cross-division play. Michigan also faces the prospect of beginning a season with a true quarterback taking the snaps for the first time in three seasons. Denard Robinson is off to the NFL and Devin Gardner, a player who can actually throw a spiral, will be the full-time starter.

    That might be a bit harsh, but seriously, Michigan is going to look more like a Big Ten team in 2013 and less like the Big East travesty Rodriguez desperately tried to invent. With some big-name returners, including consensus All-American Taylor Lewan anchoring the offensive line, the Wolverines should have their best chance of capturing a Legends Division title before the conference realigns again in 2014.

    Michigan still doesn't have all the pieces in place, which could hurt down the stretch, but if they get a few lucky breaks, the Wolverines could be in the conference hunt come late November.

    Worst Case: 7-5

    Best Case: 10-2

Penn State

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    2012: 8-4 (6-2, 2nd in Leaders Division)

    Bill O'Brien did real yeoman's work at Penn State last season. Not only did Penn State win an impressive and unlikely eight games, the program also did a fine job of moving past the lingering pain of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the death of Joe Paterno.

    Penn State still has three more seasons of a postseason ban to get through, but the most important part of the sanctions come in the form of scholarship reductions. Still living off the late Joe Paterno's ability to recruit some of the top players in the nation, the Nittany Lions made it through 2012 less bloodied than many expected. Unfortunately, as time goes on, fewer and fewer players from the old guard will be suiting up in Happy Valley.

    Penn State will still be competitive in 2013, and likely beyond, but the road will get progressively more difficult from here on out.

    Worst Case: 5-7

    Best Case: 8-4

Nebraska

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    2012: 10-4 (7-1, Legends Division Champions)

    Fans in Nebraska are still waiting: waiting for Taylor Martinez to grow into the all-conference star we all expected, and waiting for the Cornhuskers to finally break through and win their first-ever Big Ten conference championship.

    Last year was a season of "almosts" for the Huskers. Martinez almost broke through to the top tier of quarterbacks in the nation by almost solving his interception problems which have plagued him over the years. Head coach Bo Pelini almost cracked the Big Ten's secret code to put together a championship-caliber program. The Cornhuskers almost figured out how to beat Wisconsin away from Lincoln. The Cornhuskers almost did the conference proud by beating a top-ranked SEC team in a bowl game.

    Unfortunately, all of those "almosts" combined to make 2012 a perfectly forgettable season.

    There is, however, a pretty good silver lining to all that happened last season. The Huskers will have a plethora of experience heading into 2013, and maturity can go a long way towards winning a championship and almost winning a championship.

    The Huskers return seven offensive starters next season, including the coaches' first-team and media's second-team All-Big Ten quarterback Taylor Martinez, along with three other 2012 all-conference selections. Nebraska will again be a force on offense.

    But when it comes to defense, only five starters return. Based on Nebraska's defensive performance against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game and Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, it's not completely crazy to still harbor some serious reservations about Nebraska's title hopes.

    Worst Case: 8-5

    Best Case: 10-2

Ohio State

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    2012: 12-0 (8-0, Leaders Division Champions)

    Trying to figure out Ohio State's 2013 destiny is a little like picking lottery numbers. There wasn't anyone picking the Buckeyes to go undefeated last season, but 12-0 is exactly where they ended up.

    But in order for the Buckeyes to repeat the accomplishment, and this time add a possible conference and national title run to the mix, they'll have to ignore the history of previous undefeated programs. Since 2000, 14 teams have put together undefeated seasons. Four of those programs have done it more than once (Ohio State being one, Boise State, Utah and Auburn being the others), and none of those did it in back-to-back seasons.

    The last program to go undefeated in two consecutive seasons was Nebraska (1994 and 1995), and you have to go back to 1970 and 1971 to find the next back-to-back perfect seasons (Toledo was undefeated from 1969 to 1971). Ohio State only has six perfect seasons to its credit over the years, so yet another undefeated season in 2013 would be pretty amazing from a statistical point of view.

    We also have to consider that Ohio State, while returning nine offensive starters from a year ago, is returning those starters from a team that was pretty bad offensively. Ohio State ranked 46th in total offense in 2012, thanks in large part to a terrible passing game (105th nationally). Braxton Miller, the standout quarterback for the Buckeyes, will give it one more shot in 2012, but Big Ten defenses are beginning to catch on to the fact that stopping Miller means stopping the Buckeyes. Not that many have been successful at stopping Miller thus far.

    Ohio State will also need to step up defensively in 2013. The Buckeyes were sixth in the conference last season in total defense, which almost cost them their perfect record several times. Never a group to let facts get in the way of a good story, Ohio State fans will point to a 12-0 record in 2012 as "proof" that their team was dominant in the conference. But with extremely narrow victories over less-than-stellar opposition (California, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue), you don't need to search high and low to understand why the AP never gave Ohio State serious consideration for their national championship over once-beaten Alabama.

    Will Ohio State be a favorite for the Big Ten title in 2013? With the perfect season of 2012 needing validation and a massive chip on the shoulder of all those in Columbus needing to prove something, most defiantly. Will the Buckeyes actually win the conference championship in 2013? Stay tuned.

    Worst Case: 9-3

    Best Case: 11-1

     

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