The Big Ten title chase, while always fun to watch, typically boils down to the same handful of teams year after year. It's easy to see why programs like Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin get so much attention in the preseason, but what about the other nine teams that round out the Big Ten standings? It seems they never get their fair share of column inches until something profound and unexpected occurs.
Rather than going into even more reasons why Ohio State is favored in the Leaders Division and why an exciting battle at the top of the Legends is brewing on the 2013 horizon, here we'll take a look at the Big Ten teams that no one expects to do much more than fill in the bottom half of the standings come November.
Picking dark-horse teams in notoriously difficult but always fun. It's also worth noting that we're picking teams here not necessarily for championship contention, but teams that could have an impact on those that do.
It's almost hard to call Northwestern a dark-horse team these days, especially with the way the rest of the Big Ten has utterly failed at winning any important non-conference games over the past several seasons.
Northwestern carried the non-conference banner for the Big Ten last season, winning all four of its regular-season non-conference games, but also defeating Mississippi State from the much-hated SEC in the Gator Bowl. That's all very impressive, and that's before we've even mentioned 2012 was the fifth-straight season Northwestern has earned a bowl trip (a program record) as well as its first bowl victory since the 1940s.
The Wildcats' 10-3 record from last season is tempered a bit by the fact that the Big Ten record for Northwestern was just 5-3, good enough only for third place in the Legends Division. With Nebraska and Michigan—two of NU's three losses from last season—again favored to fight for the top spot in 2013, Northwestern is going to have to do something pretty special to change things up.
Lucky for the Wildcats, a win against either Michigan or Nebraska isn't completely out of the question this season, and either would cause a major shakeup at the top of the Legends Division.
Purdue's 6-7 finish to the 2012 season was not only a disappointment to a fanbase that is becoming used to letdowns, but it was also the last hurrah for Danny Hope's career at the head of the Boilermakers program. But while six wins isn't where the Boilers want to be, it wasn't the ugliest of 6-7 records in the nation.
Purdue took an Ohio State team that was ranked No. 7 at the time in the AP poll, and finished the season 12-0, to overtime before losing 29-22. There was also the narrow Week 2 defeat at Notre Dame, a program that also finished the regular season 12-0 and earned a spot in the BCS National Championship.
A few extra points in either of those games, and the national narrative would have changed last season. Purdue is certainly capable of changing the Big Ten's outlook with just a single unlikely win in 2013. With Darrell Hazell taking the reins at West Lafayette, those improbable wins don't see quite as implausible anymore.
With everything the Penn State program has been through, last season must have been a welcome respite for Nittany Lions fans. Amazingly enough, despite scandalized media coverage, numerous player transfers, the loss of legendary head coach Joe Paterno, scholarship reductions and a postseason ban, Penn State actually fared pretty well on the field.
After Week 2, Penn State looked to be in a perfect position to fulfill everyone's expectations: 0-2 with losses to Virginia and Ohio—not State, just Ohio. But rather than rolling over, Penn State rattled off five straight wins, including against a ranked Northwestern team, and finished the season with an impressive eight victories.
As time goes on, we're likely to see the true impact of those scholarship limits, but for the short term, the Nittany Lions are living on the adrenaline and talent left over from yesteryear. Like USC's stumble after years of scholarship reductions, Penn State, too, will have rough days ahead.
But we should all recognize that Penn State has already been through perdition's flames and still managed to raise eyebrows. With program pride recovered to a near all-time high, there's absolutely no doubt it could happen again.
Iowa has long confounded the pundits when comparing expectations with results. Head coach Kirk Ferentz always manages to convince those who follow Hawkeyes football that the team is just a step or two away from achieving something truly great in the Big Ten. But as soon as the linchpin recruit signs on, it seems as if the rest of Iowa's talent core graduated, and the cycle begins anew.
That may be starting to catch up with Ferentz, and his 2013 recruiting class, ranked 10th in the Big Ten by 247Sports.com, was utterly mediocre. Without a single 5-star or even 4-star recruit, even "mediocre" is probably a bit generous.
Here are some cold, hard facts about Iowa in the Big Ten under Kirk Ferentz: finished in a tie for last place in the Legends Division in 2012, no Big Ten titles since 2004 (and the only two titles were shared), two BCS bowls in 13 seasons, zero Rose Bowl appearances and a .531 conference win percentage (59-52).
But before you go thinking Iowa is the next Illinois or Indiana, consider the fact that the Hawkeyes have posted impressive wins against Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State and Missouri—all ranked at the time—over the past three seasons, despite being stuck in the Big Ten doldrums.
Do we think Iowa is going to burst forth and shock the conference with a Legends Division title this season? No. But can Iowa play a major role in deciding who gets the eventual invitation to Indianapolis? Bet on it.
Did Michigan State really fall so quickly from 2010 Big Ten co-champions and 2011 Legends Division champions all the way to a potential dark horse in 2013?
After a massively disappointing 7-6 finish in 2012, there are more than a small handful of people who think so. But if there's a true stealth team in the Big Ten for 2013, it might very well end up being the Spartans.
Among MSU's five conference losses last season, none were by more than four points, and all five were by a combined 13 points—less than two touchdowns. Even Ohio State, with its proclaimed greatness and querulous attitude after being shut out of a potential BCS championship, managed to squeak by the barely .500 Spartans by one measly point.
A two-overtime loss to Iowa, a two-point defeat late in the fourth quarter to archrival Michigan and a four-point loss to Nebraska followed up by a three-point loss to Northwestern rounded out Michigan State's 2012 Big Ten campaign.
Clearly, MSU was capable of beating any conference opponent in any game last season, and even with some big-name losses, the Spartans are returning more than enough talent in 2013 to continue to be a major threat each and every week.
And if the cards fall just right for Sparty, who knows? There might even be an outside shot at a Legends Division title in 2013.
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