The Big Ten has often been accused of playing a style of football that isn't always particularly exciting. While power running backs and mammoth defensive linemen slogging it out on a cold, muddy and often snowy November evening may not be the kind of thrill-a-minute game those with minuscule attention spans enjoy, the 2013 Big Ten race is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing in the nation.
The predictions of a Michigan-Ohio State conference title game are already pouring in, and everyone is assuming we'll see a back-to-back installment of "the game" come late November and early December. But is an old-fashioned Buckeyes vs. Wolverines matchup for the title in Indianapolis a foregone conclusion?
Let's take a peek at some Big Ten teams that could spoil the conference's dream Indy matchup before the Wolverines and Buckeyes both head to the new East Division in 2014.
Yes, believe it or not, we're starting things off with the Purdue Boilermakers.
Purdue has a couple of things working in its favor for 2013, at least when it comes to confounding expectations. First, new head coach Darrell Hazell is expected to bring some excitement to Ross-Ade Stadium this fall. Hazell guided Kent State to an impressive 11-3 record last season, and were it not for an overtime loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game, his Golden Flashes would have been guaranteed a trip to a BCS bowl in place of the Huskies.
Purdue also has up-and-coming freshman quarterback Danny Etling. The Indianapolis Star has reported that Etling is firmly in the running for the starting job this fall, and after an early enrollment this past spring, this 6'3", 212-pound true freshman is ready to make his impact felt on the field.
All of this sounds great to Boilers fans, but there are reasons for concern, too. First, one must keep in mind that Etling has never taken a college snap. For all of the great freshmen phenoms out there, there are 10 others who folded under the pressure despite lofty expectations.
Similarly, Hazell himself doesn't have much experience as a head coach. After just two seasons at Kent State, he's being thrust into the limelight. While 11-3 in 2012 was certainly impressive, his Golden Flashes were 5-7 in 2011. That 16-10 overall record makes us wonder if 2012 was a flash in the pan.
Purdue managed to take Ohio State to the wire last season with the Buckeyes needing overtime to finish off the Boilermakers. This time, Purdue will host Ohio State, and by the time November 2 rolls around, a loss could really spoil any Buckeye championship designs.
Brian Bobek, a former Rivals.com 4-star offensive lineman, originally committed to Ohio State. A recruit in the top five at his position committing to the Buckeyes isn't a surprise. His transfer from Columbus to Minneapolis is.
Now at Minnesota, Bobek figures to be another link in head coach Jerry Kill's chain that can pull the Golden Gophers out of Big Ten football obscurity. After sitting out the 2012 season per NCAA transfer rules, Bobek made it into the offensive line rotation this spring.
It's probably safe to say that any lineman recruited by Ohio State will be able to find a role to play at Minnesota. While we don't expect any title runs from the Gophers in the near future, a player like Bobek is a necessity if there's any hope for the Gophers to hold their own against Michigan in Ann Arbor on October 5.
The epic collapse everyone was expecting from Penn State never really happened last season. In fact, the Nittany Lions were rather impressive, winning eight games—a rate of success almost no one outside of Happy Valley predicted.
The naysayers might want to be just as cautious when predicting the downfall of the Lions in 2013. Penn State returns eight offensive starters (and 20 lettermen) to an offense that wasn't all that shabby last season, finishing right in the middle of the Big Ten in terms of total offense. While starting quarterback Matt McGloin moves on, he could be replaced by a Penn State's own version of Johnny Manziel.
Christian Hackenberg is a highly touted recruit out of Fork Union, Va. This 5-star recruit was listed as Rivals.com's No. 2 quarterback prospect in the class of 2013, and he's a real "get" for Bill O'Brien and the Nittany Lions.
Hackenberg certainly seems to have the chops to start, and if he's everything he's cracked up to be in 2013, any lapses in defense from either Michigan (October 12) or Ohio State (October 26) could have lasting repercussions on the Big Ten title race.
After Wisconsin crawled into the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game in a style similar to that of Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, you can bet your bottom dollar the Badgers will do whatever it takes to keep their unblemished streak of Big Ten title game appearances (and victories) alive.
While a drain of talent and a departing head coach have more than a few people pondering what's next for Wisconsin, new head coach Gary Andersen isn't one of them. After all, this is the guy who has been winning (and very nearly winning) games as a massive underdog throughout his career.
At Utah State, Andersen's Aggies nearly upset defending BCS national champion Auburn in the 2011 season opener. In 2012, the Aggies again almost did the unthinkable again, this time in Madison of all places. Then-No. 22 Wisconsin needed every second on the clock and a missed field goal inside 40 yards by Utah State as time expired to pull out a 16-14 victory over the Aggies.
When the dust from 2012 settled, it was Utah State—not Wisconsin—that was sporting a Top 25 ranking in the final AP Poll (No. 16) with a conference title and bowl victory in hand as well.
Wisconsin will travel to Ohio State on September 28 and will finish the season at home with a visit from Penn State. An October 12 cross-division meeting with Northwestern might be the only other real concern on the conference schedule, meaning the Badgers simply need to break serve against the Buckeyes to have a shot at making their fourth consecutive Rose Bowl.
With some of their offensive muscle (and more than a few playmakers on defense) making their way to the NFL over the past few years, you might think the cupboard in East Lansing is looking a little bare.
But head coach Mark Dantonio seems to have made the most of MSU's time in the sun, picking up some pretty impressive recruits along the way. Gerald Holmes could be the next big playmaker for the Spartans in the backfield, and he's been committed to Michigan State since the end of his junior year in high school.
Now ready to take the field for Dantonio as a true freshman, he could be just the spark needed for an offense desperately searching for a catalyst of some kind or another. Michigan State again fielded one of the nation's top defenses (fourth in the FBS in total defense), but the offense sputtered early and often.
Still, Michigan State lost all five of its conference games last season by a combined 13 points. If MSU can find a way to score those crucial late-game points, MSU suddenly starts looking more like the Big Ten title contender it was in 2010 (Big Ten co-champions) and 2011 (Legends Division champions).
And even if none of this was true, Michigan-MSU is just one of those games that always seems to defy all logic. Try as they might, the pundits and prognosticators can't come up with anything better than a guess as to the winner.
November 2 can't come soon enough for football fans in the state of Michigan. The state divides itself into parcels of green and white or maize and blue, and countless arguments in bars and livings rooms ensue.
MSU, winner of four of the past five games against the Wolverines, is looking to recapture the Paul Bunyan Trophy. Doing so will almost certainly spoil Michigan's Big Ten title dreams.
What could be better for Spartan fans or worse for those cheering on the Wolverines?