Big Ten Football: 10 Biggest Storylines for 2013

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistAugust 28, 2013

Big Ten Football: 10 Biggest Storylines for 2013

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    The offseason has certainly been full of compelling college football storylines, but the season is now upon us, and it's back to the business of actually playing football games (thank goodness). That leads us to wonder more about the future than the past. What are going to be the biggest storylines of the upcoming 2013 season?

    The Big Ten is eager to get down to business, especially now that there are some legitimate national powers emerging in the conference—something the Big Ten has truly lacked for what seems like an eternity. Ohio State begins the season as a national championship contender, and there are rumblings about programs like Michigan and Northwestern taking the next step toward BCS contention.

    What about Purdue and Wisconsin? New head coaches are always cause for concern or celebration, depending on how the first few weeks turn out. Then, of course, we're all still curious about Penn State and its future.

    No doubt, the media will spend an inordinate amount of time talking about all these storylines—and more—over the course of the season. But what else will we be talking about during 2013?

    Here are the 10 biggest college football storylines of 2013 in the Big Ten.

Can the Big Ten Actually Win Non-Conference Games?

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    If you needed one statistic to understand the reason the rest of the nation has begun to look down upon the Big Ten over the past few seasons, this is likely it: 126-64. That's the record Big Ten teams have against non-conference opponents from 2008 to 2011 (a .663 win percentage).

    That's pretty bad, especially considering what other conferences have done over that same span.

    Last season, only one Big Ten team—Michigan—had a losing record against non-conference opponents (of course, Michigan had, by far, the most difficult non-conference schedule, which included a bowl meeting with South Carolina plus games against both programs that ended up in the BCS title game). But the Big Ten was 36-19 last season (.654), making us wonder if any progress is being made at all.

    And we haven't even mentioned games in which Big Ten teams won, but struggled against what should have been inferior competition.

    The 2013 non-conference slate doesn't include any SEC teams, besides Missouri, only one ACC team (Syracuse, twice), one Big 12 team (Iowa State), and Notre Dame a few times, plus the usual helping of MAC opponents. That should be the kind of schedule that the Big Ten chews up and spits out.

    But based on recent history, it's unclear whether or not that will actually happen. What is clear is if it doesn't happen, the conference's street cred will suffer even more than it has to this point.

Legends Division Race Is Tight

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    If you take a peek at the Leaders Division, there's really only one team that jumps off the page: Ohio State.

    Now that the Buckeyes are actually eligible to participate in the postseason, most of the college football world seriously doubts any of the other five programs—Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin and ineligible Penn State—in the division are going to truly threaten Ohio State's chances at earning a trip to Indianapolis on December 7.

    Look over at the Legends Division, things aren't so clear-cut.

    Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern all begin the season with AP Top 25 rankings—and Michigan State is a theoretical No. 26—it's probably fair to say that more than half of the division has a fair-or-better shot at winning the Legends this fall.

How Will the New Coaches Fare?

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    The Big Ten has two programs with new head coaches this season, Wisconsin and Purdue.

    Both teams are in the Leaders Division, and somewhat surprisingly (considering how they were treated in the media, and the fate of their respective previous coaches) had pretty similar 2012 campaigns.

    First, Purdue welcomes Darrell Hazell to West Lafayette. Hazell spent the last two seasons in the cradle of coaches, the MAC, guiding the Kent State Golden Flashes to an 11-3 record last season.

    Kent State was just a few plays from earning a BCS berth, taking Northern Illinois to overtime in the MAC Championship Game. Instead, it was the Huskies who emerged as victors and received an invitation to play in the Orange Bowl.

    As impressive as 2012 was for Hazell, his combined record at Kent State stands at 16-10. He also has just two seasons as a head coach to his credit thus far.

    He'll take over a Purdue program that has been stuck in mediocrity for years. Former head coach Danny Hope was never able to reverse the fortunes for the Boilermakers, and his Purdue teams never finished better than 4-4 in conference play. Hope was fired after a 6-6 regular season in 2012.

    Wisconsin won just one more game than Purdue during the regular season last year, finishing 7-5. That was somehow good enough to earn a berth in the Big Ten title game, which the Badgers won. That earned Wisconsin a third-straight trip to Pasadena (to suffer a third-straight loss).

    But head coach Bret Bielema opted, instead, to take a job offer from Arkansas before the Rose Bowl Game, and Gary Andersen takes over this year in Madison.

    Wisconsin's new head man, Andersen, is the more experienced of him and Hazell, having spent four seasons as head coach at Utah State (and a season before that at FCS Southern Utah).

    Utah State was impressive last season, finishing 11-2 and ranked in the final AP poll (something Wisconsin could not say). Utah State was only a missed field goal away from 12-1 last season with that unfortunate loss coming, ironically, at Wisconsin.

    Will Andersen be able to keep the conference championships pouring in at Wisconsin? Will he be able to succeed where Bielema could not, namely in bowl games (Bielema's teams were 2-5 in bowl games, including 0-3 in BCS games)?

    Can Hazell make Purdue relevant in the Big Ten once again?

Will Michigan State Rebound?

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    If you didn't bother to tune into a Michigan State football game last season, you might look at Sparty's 7-6 record and think you didn't miss a whole lot.

    In reality, MSU was about as close to an 12-1 record as any 7-6 team can possible get. Of the Spartans' six losses, five—all in conference play—came by a total of 13 points, with none being by more than four. Even the mighty Ohio State barely escaped East Lansing with a one-point victory last season.

    Among the legitimate contenders for the Big Ten title in 2013, none return more starters than Michigan State's 15 (Indiana returns 19, Minnesota 16). Perhaps, the added experience can translate into close losses becoming victories.

    It even seems poll voters are giving MSU a chance this season. The Spartans were the top vote-getters not to appear in the AP's Preseason Top 25, finishing a theoretical No. 26.

What's Next for Northwestern?

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    Long considered a doormat in the Big Ten, head coach Pat Fitzgerald has transformed his alma mater Northwestern into a true contender in the conference. Last season, Northwestern earned its first straight bowl appearance (a school record) and won its first bowl game since the late 1940s. On top of that, the Gator Bowl victory came against the hated SEC.

    So now what?

    Despite being just one of three Big Ten teams to win 10 or more games last season, Northwestern still isn't being considered by many as a legitimate contender for the Legends Division title in 2013. But with 15 returning starters this season, why not?

    The fact is, in spite of some rather impressive recent success, Northwestern is still an afterthought for most Big Ten fans. Heck, based on the Wildcats' inability to get their own fans into their own Ryan Field, it looks as if Northwestern football is an afterthought at Northwestern!

    The only thing that can possibly change the perceptions now is consistent, legitimate success against ranked conference opponents on an annual basis. A step back now could ruin all of the success Fitzgerald has worked so hard to achieve.

Penn State

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    For at least the next few years, Penn State is going to occupy a portion of the preseason discussion that far outweighs its actual relevance in the conference standings. The Nittany Lions are entering their second season of heavy NCAA sanctions, and the work of navigating through scholarship limits has begun with the first post-sanction graduations.

    The storyline now for PSU will, undoubtedly, revolve around how well head coach Bill O'Brien can guide his program through what many expect to be dark days before emerging from the tunnel in 2016.

    Can the program keep itself from becoming a modern-day SMU?

    Penn State certainly has the tradition to get through these lean years, but PSU's clout savings account will undoubtedly be depleted by 2016—unless Penn State can hold serve, as it did last season, long enough to remain on the radar screens of future recruits.

Knocking off the SEC Is a Must, but Will It Happen?

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    On September 21, the Indiana Hoosiers will host the Missouri Tigers in the only scheduled regular-season meeting between the Big Ten and the SEC.

    OK, so Indiana isn't exactly the team most Big Ten fans would want carrying the banner against the mighty SEC. The Hoosiers were, after all, an ugly 4-8 last season with losses to Ball State and Navy, among others.

    Indiana's four wins came against FCS Indiana State (by only seven points), Iowa (by three points), Illinois (which failed to win a single conference game) and first-year FBS program Massachusetts.

    Missouri, while not the greatest SEC team you'll ever see, still has to be ranked higher than Ball State, right? Even with Indiana returning a nation-high 19 starters this season, knocking off Mizzou will be a tall task for the Hoosiers.

    But the real test for the Big Ten comes in bowl season. After all, those are the games that seem to matter most when it comes to conference bragging rights.

    We get treated to at least three Big Ten-SEC matchups each bowl season, and these games are some of the most hotly contested bowls of the entire season. The problem for the Big Ten is that the SEC has had much better outcomes over the past several years in these games.

    Other than Northwestern in the 2013 Gator Bowl and Michigan State in the 2012 Outback Bowl, the SEC has won each of these games over the past three seasons.

    Sure, there are arguments to be made as to why the Big Ten is better than the SEC. Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has been an outspoken critic of those who try to hold the SEC, as a whole, up against the Big Ten.

    I guarantee there are a lot of teams in the SEC that aren't Alabama that wish they were Nebraska, that wish they were Michigan, wish they were Ohio state. So don't talk to me about the SEC. Talk to me about, let's compare specific programs. The whole SEC isn't Alabama, isn't LSU and isn't Georgia. Every year is different.

    Coach Pelini has a point.

    There's also that all-time head-to-head mark, which the Big Ten leads, 258-199-15. An SEC fan would likely interject here that the 1947 season doesn't have a whole lot of bearing on the here and now, and they'd be correct. Unfortunately for the Big Ten, their here and now has been consistently tilted in the SEC's favor.

    If the Big Ten can reverse that trend this season, it will become a very compelling story not only in the Big Ten's media footprint, but also nationally.

Big Two, Little Ten

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    For decades, Michigan and Ohio State dominated the conference championship conversation. The tradition has always been for the Wolverines and Buckeyes to meet on the last Saturday of the Big Ten's regular season.

    From 1967 to 1993, only one season (1987) went by where that game did not have a direct impact on either one—often both—of those two teams winning at least a share of the Big Ten title. The streak existed again from 1995 through 2011.

    With that kind of dominance by two programs, is it any wonder the conference is still being viewed as the "Big Two, Little Ten?"

    That's not a perception that can change overnight, but with Wisconsin taking at least a share of the last three Big Ten titles, college football fans were beginning to look to places other than Ann Arbor and Columbus for signs of life in the Big Ten. The 2013 season may change that, and we could very well see the conference revert to its old ways.

    That's not all bad, however. The Big Ten is desperate for some big wins in marquee non-conference and bowl matchups. Right now, the best hope for those wins come in the form of players dressed in scarlet and gray or maize and blue.

Ohio State's Chances of Another Undefeated Season

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    Alicia Jessop, a contributor to Forbes wrote last November about Ohio State's failure to self-impose a bowl ban in 2011 that pretty much everyone not working for the Ohio State athletic department saw coming. Sure enough, that bowl ban came down the mountain in 2012, and Jessop wrote that not self-imposing the bowl ban a year earlier "may" have cost Ohio State.

    We won't be so middling in our assessment. It did cost Ohio State—dearly.

    Rather than imposing a bowl ban at the end of 2011, a season which saw Ohio State finish the regular season a perfectly awful 6-6, the Buckeyes—from now-former president E. Gordon Gee on down—refused to admit to themselves that anything was amiss with the mighty football program.

    In the grand scheme of things, a "failure to monitor" violation (the NCAA's penultimate censure for a program) and it's one-year ban isn't the worst thing we've seen lately when it comes to sanctions.

    But at the very least, the bowl ban cost Ohio State a trip to either the Rose Bowl Game or Capital One Bowl, if not the BCS National Championship Game. That translates to millions and millions of dollars.

    Now, to live up to expectations, the Buckeyes will need to do the near-impossible: go undefeated for the second straight season.

    Surviving a college football season without a loss is difficult enough. Ohio State has only done it twice in the last four-plus decades, not counting the 1973 10-0-1 record. To do it in two consecutive seasons, well, let's put it this way: Even the mighty Nick Saban has only had one undefeated team during his tenure as a head coach.

    The last time Ohio State made it through two consecutive seasons without a loss, President Woodrow Wilson had just won his second term in office, campaigning on his ability to keep the United States out of World War I.

    Sure, Ohio State returns a talented roster this season, and head coach Urban Meyer seems perfectly suited to the culture of "football before all else" in Columbus. The Buckeyes are also the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten this season.

    But extending the winning streak to 24, 25 or even a national championship-winning 26 games this season would be a once-in-a-century shocker.

Regaining National Respect

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    So many of the biggest storylines for the Big Ten this season can all be tied into one massive, overreaching storyline for the conference: regaining its lost national respect.

    The Big Ten will always be respected for its history, its tradition and its central role in developing intercollegiate athletics back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Respect for the past, however, doesn't entitle the conference to respect for its current crop of football teams. That respect, as many have observed, must be earned.

    As the 2013 season wears on, you can rest assured that every college football media outlet—from ESPN to Fox Sports to Bleacher Report—will keep a constant watch on the development of this storyline, complete with its annual crescendo to bowl season.

    As far as the Big Ten is concerned, that's the biggest storyline possible this season.


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