The Big Ten conference yawned its way out of the college football subconscious last winter.
Only two Big Ten teams won bowl games, five others lost their final contests. Three weren’t good enough to get into bowl play. Two more — one the league’s only unbeaten team and another that went 6-2 in its division — were banned from postseason play.
Can the Big Ten — in the last year of its Leaders/Legends configuration — do better this season?
With Ohio State now eligible to compete in a bowl game and several other teams seemingly poised to reverse their fortunes, the answer is “possibly yes.”
The Buckeyes return a squad lined with talent from last season’s 12-0 run and begin the season ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll behind No. 1 Alabama.
No. 17 Michigan, No. 18 Nebraska, No. 22 Northwestern and No. 23 Wisconsin also have championships as their goals. Penn State returns skill and experience on both sides of the ball and will look to endure a season with depth concerns due to NCAA sanctions.
Michigan State and Iowa will look to turn things around after disappointing 2012 seasons and Purdue will try to do so with a new head coach. Minnesota made a bowl appearance last season and will try to win a bowl game now. Illinois and Indiana return tons of starters and need new faces to step up.
Ohio State is the team everyone’s chasing and the Buckeyes are targeting a return to the national title game a year after being banned from bowl competition.
“I spent all summer worrying about how to approach that if that happened, where there were questions, ‘Why no Bowl game?’” Meyer said. “If you have a good group of leaders, that never comes up.”
And it didn’t. But winning did.
The Buckeyes went 12-0 in Meyer’s first season as coach. They return 13 starters, nine of them on an explosive offense led by Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller. The athletic quarterback ran 25 times for 134 yards and scored two touchdowns against Penn State last year. Miller will be running behind one of the most talented offensive lines in the country, a unit that returns four starters. Meyer said he’d be disappointed if his offensive line didn’t finish as the best in the country.
On defense, the Buckeyes are lead by junior Ryan Shazier, a linebacker who broke open Ohio State’s 2012 game at Beaver Stadium with a 17-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Ohio State’s schedule includes tough road trips to No. 22 Northwestern and at No. 17 Michigan, but its other two road games are at Purdue and Illinois.
The rivalry game between Ohio State and Michigan could take on a new meaning this season as the two could end up playing in the Big Ten title game the following week.
Michigan’s Brady Hoke is hoping that happens. It’ll have to be this season as current cross-division foes will be in the realigned East Division when Rutgers and Maryland join the conference in 2014.
If the Wolverines want to get to the Big Ten title game, they’ll have to battle their way through a rugged Legends Division slate. Their November dates are brutal, with games at Michigan State, home against Nebraska and at Northwestern and Iowa before hosting the Buckeyes.
“We had 18 turnovers,” Hoke said of his team’s performances in five losses last season. “So it tells you a little something that we need to be a little more diligent in taking care of the football. We need to be a little more diligent in making better decisions.”
The Wolverines welcome back six starters on both sides of the ball.
Dual-threat quarterback Devin Gardner took over for Denard Robinson last season and gives Michigan some more firepower in the passing game. Michigan will use more pro-style offensive sets with Gardner at quarterback.
Wisconsin crushed Nebraska 70-31 in the Big Ten title game last year, but then hired a new coach after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas. The Badgers hired former Utah State coach Gary Andersen who takes over a team with eight returning offensive starters and six on defense.
The Badgers limped into the conference title game last season. They lost in overtime to Ohio State then suffered another overtime loss at Beaver Stadium to cap the season. But Wisconsin recovered in time to rout Nebraska then hang with Stanford in the Rose Bowl with Barry Alvarez coaching.
Now it’s Andersen’s turn.
“We walked into a program that absolutely was not broke,” Andersen said. “It’s been very successful and there’s great young men that have been recruited there, and the prior staff did a great job in that area.”
Wisconsin was in nearly every game it played last season and lost three games in overtime. Throttling Legends Division winner Nebraska was an eye-opener for both teams.
The Cornhuskers romped through the regular season but got leakier and leakier on defense with every game.
Nebraska gave up more than 230 rushing yards in four games and a combined 115 points in its last two games.
Luckily, the Cornhuskers had the offense to overcome turnovers and defensive lapses. While Nebraska had a minus-12 turnover differential, it fielded a playmaking quarterback in Taylor Martinez and one of the best offensive lines in the country. Martinez is back along with Ameer Abdullah to form a dangerous ground game.
“If we can get a couple young kids, incoming guys, that can come in and provide us with some extra depth at a couple of positions, it’s a pretty potent, potentially a very potent offense. And I feel really good about it,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.
Northwestern and Michigan State return after having middle-of-the-pack regular seasons. But the Wildcats and Spartans were the only two teams to win bowl games for the Big Ten last season.
No team had its heart broken more than Michigan State last year. The Spartans lost five games by an average of fewer than three points and finished 3-5 in conference play. Four of those losses were to Legends opponents.
Michigan State returns 15 starters and coach Mark Dantonio is hoping his team will be able to put away close games this fall.
“2012 was the year I think of the inches that we didn’t come up with,” Dantonio said.
It’s a similar case for Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats.
Northwestern led Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan in the fourth quarter but ended up letting all three games slip away. By the time the Wildcats suffered their third implosion to the Wolverines, they were already an afterthought in the Big Ten title game.
Northwestern returns a lot of talent including an offense that could be poised for a breakout season. That will depend on quarterback Kain Colter who has provided a running option for Northwestern for a few seasons. The Wildcats have a talented every down runner in Venric Mark and need Colter to provide more spark with his arm.
The Wildcats have a tricky early schedule to navigate with a late-night game at Cal to open the season followed by a home game against another BCS team, Syracuse.
“We’ve already kind of looked at the road map and you hear me say a lot the blueprint of what we’re going to do, and there will be definite tweaks and adjustments to our preparation,” Fitzgerald said.
Jerry Kill seems to have Minnesota on the right track and has improved past teams exponentially in his third seasons.
Meanwhile Purdue welcomes Darrell Hazel to the sideline to try and return the Boilermakers to a bowl game after they were dominated by Oklahoma State.
Illinois, Indiana and Iowa need drastic turn-arounds after combining to go 4-20 in conference play last season.