The Big Ten Conference was a big disappointment this season.
Early on, six teams were in the Top 25, with the Wisconsin Badgers, Nebraska Cornhuskers and Penn State Nittany Lions contending for a national championship. The Badgers looked unbeatable for the first six weeks of the season before dropping two games in a row. To make matters worse, both losses came against conference foes in the Buckeyes and Spartans.
Even as a Big Ten apologist myself, I have to say that the Big Ten was overrated this season. There are a lot of good teams, but no great teams like LSU. Consistency is a problem when you blow a good team out one week and then lose to a bad team the next. Nebraska beat a good Penn State team and then got pounded 45-17 by the Michigan Wolverines the following week.
That being said, I think next season will be a big one for the Big Ten. A lot of teams are young and can only get better with experience. There also seems to be a lot more speed in the Big Ten than in the past, especially on offense. Look no further than Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who is one of the most explosive players in the country.
Here are my projected top five teams in the Big Ten looking to next season.
The Michigan State Spartans are a team that always seems too close to greatness. Unfortunately for head coach Mark Dantonio and his players, they can't seem to reach it.
The Spartans have only lost two games this season, and it will probably stay this way as they close with a scrappy Northwestern Wildcats team. 10-2 isn't anything to be disappointed with, but you aren't going to a BCS bowl game with two losses. The way they lost was bad, too; they were blown out by Notre Dame and Nebraska.
They will lose starting quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin after this season.
Even still, the defense is returning a lot of talent, and both contributing running backs, Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker, are coming back.
Sophomore quarterback Andrew Maxwell looked good in spot duty, completing 18 of 26 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown. He will turn out to be a better quarterback than Kirk Cousins was when all is said and done.
The defense will still be strong, and points will come at a premium against the Spartans.
They won't be championship contenders in 2012, but don't expect many losses from this team either. If you have an adequate quarterback with a good running game and a great defense, you can beat anybody.
The Illinois Fighting Illini looked strong early, but got knocked to the canvas and lost by TKO going down the stretch.
They started the season 6-0 before losing five games straight going into their last game of the season, which is Nov. 26 against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. This was predictable to most, though, as they played a much tougher schedule the second half of the season. Add to that a young team who isn't used to winning, and you have a lot of losses.
The great thing for Illinois is that they have a lot of young and talented players.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a good sophomore season and will only get better. He ran the ball a lot his freshman year and cut down some of that this season as he got more confident throwing the football. He was still as successful running, too, scoring six touchdowns, as opposed to five, on more carries in 2010. If he can cut down on the turnovers, look for him to be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten next year.
Running back will be a question mark, as senior Jason Ford is graduating. Scheelhaase generates enough of a running game himself to keep defenses guessing, but he will need some help. Donovonn Young had a great freshman year and should be poised to succeed next season. After him is where the questions come, but a lot can change between now and opening day 2012.
The defense is the only reason I don't have this team as more of a threat. If the Fighting Illini had a defense like Michigan State or Penn State, they could very well be my favorite to win the Big Ten Conference.
Penn State wins ugly, but they do win!
Penn State has one of the best defenses in the country, and that won't change in 2012. There are plenty of starters returning and young guys with talent who will add a lot next season.
They only allow 13 points a game; even Alabama didn't blow them out when many expected it. If not for three turnovers, Alabama wouldn't have scored 27 points.
Quarterback Matthew McGloin isn't great, but he has improved. He will be even better going into his senior season and has plenty of talent around him.
Running back Silas Redd has rushed for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns and has one game left to add to that total. He is a special player who still has two seasons of college eligibility left. Look for him to absolutely explode next season.
Wide receiver Justin Brown will be returning, also as a senior. He has plenty of size and speed to have a nice senior season as well, and Matthew McGloin will be looking his way a lot.
If teams sell out to stop the run, McGloin is good enough to exploit them. If Craig Krenzel could win a championship with Ohio State, McGloin can at least help his team to a Big Ten title.
Penn State will be a legitimate threat for a BCS bowl bid next season.
The Ohio State Buckeyes have the potential to do special things in 2012.
The smoke is finally starting to clear from an offseason that destroyed the 2011 season for the Buckeyes. Once a new coach is hired and his staff is in place, everything will be clear in my eyes.
That is the point where I will no longer care about 2011, especially if Urban Meyer is hired! I also would love it if John Gruden would return to coaching, but he is having too much fun in the booth with ESPN!
Braxton Miller is a great athlete who will mature as a passer over the next couple of seasons. He already has unbelievable running ability and vision, but add an arm to that, and he will be scary good. He has the clutch gene already, too, as evidenced by his late-game heroics against the Wisconsin Badgers and the Purdue Boilermakers.
The Buckeyes also have at least three running backs who would start at a number of schools. Jordan Hall, Carlos Hyde, Jamaal Berry and Jordan Hall will all share the load in the crowded backfield!
Hall didn't get many opportunities this season as a freshman, but he will get more in 2012. He has too much size and potential to just stand on the sidelines.
There are numerous young wide receivers who will contribute, but none will have huge numbers due to Miller's style of play. This doesn't mean they aren't good; the offense simply doesn't cater to them.
The defense is young and skilled as well. Linebacker Storm Klein will need to step up as a senior next season. He hasn't turned out to be the player many expected yet.
Outside of him, keep an eye on sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive back Bradley Roby. Both had a huge impact as freshmen and will be leaders as sophomores.
Nothing needs to be said about defensive lineman Jonathan Hankins, who will be going into his junior season. He has turned into an absolute monster!
If this team loses more than one game next season, it is a failure. There's too much talent not to be in the Big Ten Championship game at the very least.
How could a team led by the most dynamic player in college football not be one of the teams favored to win the Big Ten in 2012?
This is a risky projection, but you can't be a victim of what is happening this season when you think about the 2012 Michigan Wolverines. It's easy to write this team off with the erratic play of quarterback Denard Robinson.
Robinson came back to earth this season after a stellar sophomore campaign in 2010. Much like what has happened with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick this season, it's a lot harder to succeed after teams have film on you.
Even though he has fallen off a bit, Robinson is still an explosive player. He is as good of a dual threat quarterback you will ever see.
Robinson has run the ball 174 times for 947 yards, an average of 5.4 yards a carry. Keep in mind, he does this even when defenses expect him to run the ball! Oh and by the way, he has scored 14 touchdowns on the ground.
Robinson's weakness lies in his decision making, and he turns the ball over a lot as a result. He has completed only 53.1 percent of his passes this season, with 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
If he could get his accuracy back up around 60 percent, like it was last season, and cut the interceptions in half, this team wouldn't lose a game. These are big ifs, but he has the talent to do it.
People forget that Michigan's defense is only giving up 15.6 points a game because they have a tendency to get into shootouts on occasion. They are also put into a lot of bad situations due to all of the turnovers. This is a defense that can win games on its own accord.
A national championship isn't out of the question for the Wolverines in 2012.
Nope, I didn't forget Nebraska, Wisconsin or Iowa. All three of these teams have the potential to be good, but they are flawed in important places.
Nebraska losing three games shouldn't have surprised anybody. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is one of the most overrated college quarterbacks in the nation. People are infatuated with this kid because he can run, but they overlook his awful throwing mechanics.
I can't even explain them they are so bad; it's like watching former Florida Gators basketball star Joakim Noah shoot free throws! This kid isn't going to lead the Cornhuskers anywhere until he learns to throw the football more accurately. A 56 percent completion percentage with only 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions isn't going to cut it.
Defensively, Nebraska gets absolutely steamrolled by good offenses. Nobody they beat has an offense worth much. This can always improve, but I haven't been impressed all season. They seem fast, but they're soft as well.
There's something about this team I just don't like—too many holes to be taken seriously at this point.
Wisconsin is a team that I could be completely wrong about.
Losing quarterback Russell Wilson is going to be too much to overcome. If not, I will admit being wrong. I wasn't impressed with the little I saw of freshman Joe Brennan, but he could improve a lot by next season. Losing a senior usually takes a year or two to overcome if you don't have an extremely talented young quarterback waiting to come in.
Wisconsin will have running back Montee Ball, one of the best in the country, for one more year. I just don't know if he will be enough when teams are going to be stacking the box to stop the run.
They will be in a lot of games thanks to their defense, but it got gashed a few times this season, too. It's not looking to be a great year for the Badgers.
The Iowa Hawkeyes could be a team that sneaks up and surprises everybody.
Led by quarterback James Vandenberg and running back Marcus Coker, this team has the potential to score a lot of points. My questions lie on the defensive side of the ball, where the Hawkeyes have given up nearly 24 points per game. If they can cut a touchdown off of that average and return to the Iowa defense of old, look out!
The Big Ten should see a great improvement from several teams in 2012.
Braxton Miller could be Ohio State's version of Tim Tebow if the rumors are true and Urban Meyer becomes the Buckeyes head coach. That signing would vault Ohio State over the Michigan Wolverines in my eyes because it is a system that Miller would thrive in. This is still a long shot, so I'm writing as if somebody else takes the job.
Michigan is going to be boom or bust next year. If Denard Robinson plays up to his potential, this is a team that could very well go undefeated. Considering how much of Michigan's success is based upon Robinson, his play will determine the outcome of the Wolverines' season. I don't think he will match his crazy numbers from a couple of years ago, but he will be closer to them than he is this season.
A lot of what happens at Penn State depends upon how the program recovers from the recent scandal. As I mentioned, they are a good football team that needs more consistent play from the quarterback position. This team is a hard one to predict and could lose anywhere from zero to four games in 2012. I expect them to recover just fine, but will they face bowl bans?
Illinois and Michigan State are both decent teams who have issues finishing games at times. What I like is that neither team panics or gets beaten badly very often. This means those losses could easily have been wins if a couple of mistakes would have been avoided. Both are well-coached teams with good defenses and talented young quarterbacks on the roster.
This is going to be a very competitive conference yet again, with more threats nationally. Each of the teams I discussed will compete for BCS bowl games.