With actual football games only a little more than a week away, it's time to make some predictions on what teams will compete for the Big Ten football championship. Although many are focused on Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan, there are other teams just off the national radar that will be dark-horse candidates for a championship game appearance in Indianapolis.
Who are these teams that will sneak up and possibly surprise the top teams in the Big Ten? There are a number of factors which indicate future success in 2013.
First, and most importantly, the schedule changes for 2013 provide some favorable opportunities for a few teams, such as those which avoid games against the likes of the Ohio State Buckeyes or Nebraska Cornhuskers. A brutal schedule can make a team look bad, no matter if the team improves, like Michigan did in 2012.
Moreover, turnover margin has a tendency to even out over time, so teams that suffered from a bad turnover margin in 2012 will likely have a better chance of receiving more turnovers in 2013. That can make a huge difference with a couple of games or more swinging the opposite direction, thereby pushing teams into the upper echelon of the Big Ten standings.
Additionally, teams with a high number of returning starters and lettermen generally take a step up, thanks to all that experience. As a result, these teams are also some of the best candidates to become dark-horse contenders for conference championships.
Finally, the most important role on a college football team is the quarterback, even in a running and defense-oriented league like the Big Ten. Although none of these teams will have a quarterback of the caliber of Braxton Miller and Taylor Martinez, high-quality QB play needs to be there throughout the season to compete over a long 12-game season.
Of course, there's also a gut feeling about these teams that every fan needs to have, and that can sometimes make the difference between being a dark horse and being just another team in the conference. So which Big Ten teams meet these criteria?
Michigan State Spartans (7-6, 3-5 in Big Ten in 2012)
Following up on double-digit win seasons in 2010 and 2011, the Spartans were expected to compete again for a conference championship last year. Despite a strong defense and great running from Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State stumbled through Big Ten play and barely made a bowl game.
However, the poor record does not reveal how close Michigan State actually was to having another great season. The five conference losses came by a net total of 13 points, with the biggest loss being a narrow 28-24 defeat against division winner Nebraska. A few more breaks and the Spartans may have easily had 8-10 wins.
As a result, Michigan State looks to be a good choice for a bounce-back season, even though Bell is gone and the quarterback play remains questionable. Mark Dantonio teaches his teams to win with defense, and the Spartans have most of the two-deep backs on the defensive side of the ball (52 returning lettermen compared to just 13 lost lettermen).
The turnover margin ended up at plus-two last season, although that had more to do with the great playmaking abilities of the defense than ball security from the offense. As long as Andrew Maxwell or Connor Cook (or whomever wins the four-man race for quarterback) improve as expected, then the turnover margin will likely stay in Michigan State's favor in 2013.
Most important is the schedule for the Spartans, which becomes much more favorable, thanks to Wisconsin and Ohio State rotating off the docket. In their place comes Purdue and Illinois, two teams that are in the middle of rebuilding rather than competing for division and conference championships.
With the exception of a tricky road game at South Bend, none of the initial eight games on the schedule for Michigan State poses a huge challenge. The only other road games are at Iowa and Illinois, both of which finished last season in the division cellar.
Those soft beginning two months could set up the Spartans nicely to come together as a complete team before facing the important games against Michigan, Nebraska, and Northwestern.
Given that the only real problem in the criteria for dark-horse championship contenders is a question mark at quarterback (but this is offset by how good the MSU defense is), Michigan State is likely the best selection that is currently off the radar, but will compete for the Big Ten championship. It would be shocking to see Michigan State fall back to the mediocre records of a few seasons ago once again.
Northwestern Wildcats (10-3, 5-3 in Big Ten in 2012)
Northwestern poses an interesting counterpoint for Michigan State, as the Wildcats were not supposed to be as good as they ended up in 2012 while the Spartans fell well below the expectations. Northwestern swarmed to a double-digit win season for the first time under Pat Fitzgerald and the school's first bowl win since 1949.
Had it not been for two late collapses against Nebraska and Michigan, the Wildcats would have been invading Indianapolis to play Wisconsin for the right to go to Pasadena. It's shocking to think how close Northwestern came to the glory days of when Pat Fitzgerald led the same team to the Rose Bowl in the 1990's.
Many will assume this 2012 season was a flash in the pan. But those people may quickly change their minds if Northwestern continues to take care of business, especially at Evanston.
The schedule actually steps up in difficulty, as trading Penn State for Wisconsin is probably a wash but Ohio State comes back on the schedule to replace Indiana. That being said, the Buckeyes must come to Evanston a week after playing an emotional game against Wisconsin, while Northwestern gets a bye to prepare for OSU. This is a huge trap game, and one NU can win.
On the road, the only real tough tests will be at Wisconsin and at Nebraska, where the Wildcats won back in 2011. If Northwestern avoids the 0-2 start to conference play against OSU and UW, then this team will be in the race until the end of the season.
With 54 returning lettermen and 15 returning starters, Northwestern has enough talent left in the tank to compete with all of these teams.
Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian provide Coach Fitzgerald with a two-headed monster of a quarterback system that will be resilient even if one of these players gets injured. Expect the offensive and defensive numbers to improve, even if the turnovers do not (plus-14 turnover margin in 2012).
Look for another big season out of Northwestern, and, perhaps, even a trip to Indianapolis to play for the final Legends-Leaders conference championship.
Wisconsin Badgers (8-6, 4-4 in Big Ten in 2012)
The final team making the cut as a dark-horse title contender in the Big Ten is Wisconsin, which is ironic, considering that this team has won the last three conference championships. Nonetheless, a new coaching staff, a mediocre record last year, and the continued disappointments at the Rose Bowl have kept Wisconsin under the radar compared to OSU, Michigan and Nebraska.
It would be very unwise to sleep on the Badgers, though. It may be debatable whether Wisconsin legitimately deserved to go to Indianapolis last December, but the beating put on Nebraska was a dose of the impressive Wisconsin the fans had come to know over the last few seasons.
The schedule-makers gave Wisconsin a break after subjecting the team to Nebraska and Michigan State the past two years. Those two teams are replaced by Iowa and Northwestern, both of which should be winnable games. The only real bump in the road schedule is at Ohio State to open Big Ten play, but the Badgers have played well in the Horseshoe over the past decade.
By missing both Michigan schools and Nebraska, Wisconsin has the easiest path to get back to Indianapolis in the Leaders Division. Win the game against Ohio State and the ticket will just about be punched, even at the end of September.
After enjoying plus-16 and plus-14 turnover margins in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the turnovers dropped to a plus-3 margin last year.
Expect that number to bounce back in Wisconsin's favor, thereby turning around some of the close losses from a season ago (five regular-season losses by total of 19 points). In addition, Wisconsin will not go 0-for-3 in overtime games again, if teams can even push the Badgers to overtime.
It's a strange coincidence that none of the three teams on this list have a proven, single leader at quarterback, but all have multiple good options forcing each other to be better than before.
In Wisconsin's case, the quarterback derby appears to be between Curt Phillips and Joel Stave, each of whom played in 2012. Although Stave probably gets the first chance to start, both should have a chance to win the job before the Ohio State conference opener.
Add to that an astounding 52 returning lettermen compared to 10 lost, which is unusual for a team with a new coaching staff, and Gary Andersen has the recipe for a great 2013 season. It feels crazy to say this, but Wisconsin is a dark-horse candidate to win a fourth straight Big Ten conference championship.
The Big Ten continues to get deeper and deeper, thanks to conference expansion and the recruiting pushes of Michigan and Ohio State. These two teams will not run away with the league anytime soon though, as all these dark-horse candidates for conference titles will compete in 2013 and beyond.
Was there some team that deserves to be listed here and wasn't? Please discuss in the comments. Indiana appears to have too brutal a road schedule to be seriously considered, and the other teams left off are ineligible or rebuilding. However, I'd love to hear any arguments for the teams like Iowa, Indiana, and Minnesota.
Thanks for reading!
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