Power rankings: Meyer’s Buckeyes favored to win Big Ten

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

Coach: Urban Meyer, second season, 12-0 (116-13 career)

Last season: 12-0 (8-0 Leaders, bowl ineligible)

Returning starters: Offense (9) — Braxton Miller (Jr., QB); Carlos Hyde (Sr., RB); Devin Smith (Jr., WR) Corey “Philly” Brown (Sr., WR); Jeff Heuerman (Jr., TE); Jack Mewhort (Sr., OT), Andrew Norwell (Sr., OG), Corey Linsley (Sr., C), Marcus Hall (Sr., OG); Defense (4) — Ryan Shazier (Jr., OLB), Bradley Roby (Jr., CB); Christian Bryant (Sr., S); C.J. Barrett (Sr., S)

The skinny: The Buckeyes were the best team in the Big Ten last season and finished as the only unbeaten squad in the final AP Top 25 poll. However, due to NCAA sanctions, the Buckeyes were ineligible to play in a bowl game. They return for 2013 not only eligible but a likely BCS championship contender. Running the ball won’t be a problem. Not only do the Buckeyes return Miller and Hyde, a duo that combined for 2,241 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns last season, they also welcome back four of five offensive linemen that paved the way. Miller, a Heisman Trophy candidate, has four familiar targets back at his disposal. On defense the Buckeyes have some question marks up front as the entire front four has moved on. Sophomore defensive end Noah Spence saw some time last season and could be poised for a breakout year. Shazier and Roby are the playmakers on a defense that should get plenty of scoring support from the offense.

Pennsylvania connections: Corey “Philly” Brown (Cardinal O’Hara); Corey Brown (Sr., DB, Gateway); Jordan Hall (Sr., RB, Jeannette); Spence (Bishop McDevitt)

Don’t miss this one: Nov. 30 at Michigan — It’s always a big deal when the bitterest of rivals get together and with the Wolverines on the uptick, this could be a preview of the conference championship game.

Coach Meyer says: “On offense, we return a bunch of experience, including one of the best quarterbacks in America, Braxton Miller. He has really grown as a quarterback, has grown as a leader. Very humble young man that I have a lot of respect for.”

2. Michigan Wolverines

Coach: Brady Hoke, third season, 19-7 (66-57 career)

Last year: 8-5 (6-2 Legends, lost to South Carolina 33-28 in Outback Bowl)

Returning starters: Offense (6) — Devin Gardner (Sr., QB); Fitzgerald Toussaint (Sr., RB); Jeremy Gallon (Sr., WR); Devin Funchess (So., TE); Taylor Lewan (Sr., OT); Michael Schofield (Sr., OT). Defense (6) — Quinton Washington (Sr., DT); Brennen Beyer (Jr., DE); Jake Ryan (Jr., OLB); Desmond Morgan (Jr., OLB); Raymon Taylor (Jr., CB); Thomas Gordon (Sr., S).

The skinny: Gardner eased his way into the quarterback spot midway through last season and enters as Michigan’s biggest offensive playmaker this year. The senior can get it done with his feet and the Wolverines will need him and Toussaint to pick up the slack in the running game where Denard Robinson churned out 1,266 yards himself after Toussaint turned in a 1,091-yard 2011 season. They’ll be doing so behind three new offensive linemen — all of them interior pieces. The Wolverines are led on defense by a stingy secondary and an experienced set of linebackers that took a hit in the spring when Ryan went down with a knee injury. Ryan could return in October, however.

Pennsylvania connections: Patrick Kugler (Fr., OL, North Allegheny); Jordan Paskorz (Jr., TE, Hampton)

Don’t miss this one: Sept. 7 vs. Notre Dame — Michigan got hammered in its premier non-conference game last season, dropping a 41-14 decision to Alabama to open the 2012 slate. Now the Wolverines get the Fighting Irish in Week 2 and it’ll be a chance for Michigan to prove it’s for real early by avenging a 13-6 loss to Notre Dame last season.

Coach Hoke says: “The expectations never change. And that’s to win Big Ten championships. A year ago we were 8-5, and that’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable at Michigan. It’s unacceptable for us.”

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Coach: Bo Pelini, sixth season, 49-20 (49-20 career)

Last season: 10-4 (7-1 Legends, lost to Georgia 45-31 in Capital One Bowl)

Returning starters: Offense (8) — Taylor Martinez (Sr., QB); Ameer Abdullah (Jr., RB); Kenny Bell (Jr., WR); Jamal Turner (Jr., WR); Quincy Enunwa (Sr., WR); Brent Qvale (Sr., OT); Spencer Long (Sr., OG); Jeremiah Sirles (Sr., OT); Defense (4) — Jason Ankrah (Sr., DE); Ciante Evans (Sr., CB); Andrew Green (Sr., CB); Corey Cooper (Jr., S).

The skinny: The Cornhuskers can move the ball with the best in the conference but can they stop the run? More importantly, can they keep from turning the ball over? These issues plagued Nebraska all last season when it gave up 193 rushing yards per game and finished at -12 in turnover margin. Luckily, the Nebraska offense was effective enough to overcome a lot of its own mistakes. A lot of that had to do with playmaking quarterback Taylor Martinez. Now in his fourth year as the team’s starter, Martinez has already passed for 6,591 yards and rushed for another 2,858. He has most of his targets back in Bell, Turner and Enunwa. Abdullah is a tough, straight-ahead runner. Can the Cornhuskers be more disciplined? They took a league-high 88 penalties last season.

Pennsylvania connections: Zaire Anderson (Jr., LB, Riverside)

Don’t miss this one: Nov. 23 at Penn State — The Cornhuskers and Nittany Lions have combined to play two close, physical games over the past two seasons with Nebraska edging Penn State in each one. Last year’s game was a wild affair. It featured a controversial call that negated a possible Penn State touchdown in the fourth quarter and Nebraska won 32-23. As this is a late-season game and both teams aren’t deep on defense, it could be a shootout inside Beaver Stadium.

Coach Pelini says: “(It’s an) interesting schedule for us, the way it sets up, with the extra home game and we’re looking forward to that, because we always feel it’s an advantage playing at home. And so we’re looking forward to all the challenges that are going to come up.”

4. Penn State Nittany Lions

Coach: Bill O’Brien, second season, 8-4 (8-4 career)

Last season: 8-4 (6-2 Leaders, bowl ineligible)

Returning starters: Offense (8) — John Urschel (Sr., OG); Miles Dieffenbach (Jr., OG); Donovan Smith (So., OG); Zach Zwinak (Jr., RB); Allen Robinson (Jr., WR); Brandon Felder (Sr., WR); Jesse James (So. TE); Kyle Carter (So., TE); Defense (6) — Deion Barnes (So., DE); DaQuan Jones (Sr., DT); Glenn Carson (Sr., MLB); Adrian Amos (Jr., DB); Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (Sr., S); Malcolm Willis (Sr., S).

The skinny: Questions arise at quarterback, really the only position group that doesn’t have an experienced player returning. Elsewhere, the Nittany Lions are set. A host of targets in three reliable tight ends in James, Carter and Matt Lehman and two athletic wide receivers in Robinson and Felder await. Zwinak is a bruiser and behind an experienced offensive line should help wear down opposing defenses. Bill Belton could prove to be an x-factor for the offense as he can be utilized as a receiver, too. Defensively, Penn State must stay healthy. They’ve already lost Brad Bars for the season as a defensive end option and cannot afford to lose a linebacker as experience is thin behind Carson and Mike Hull. The secondary will be better than last year’s solid bunch with added personnel including Trevor Williams, who converted from wideout, and Jordan Lucas. The versatility of Amos and Obeng-Agyapong could come in handy at linebacker and make the secondary even more dangerous.

Pennsylvania connections: Too many to name

Don’t miss this one: Oct. 12 vs. Michigan — Penn State will have a chance to win its fourth straight game against the Wolverines on homecoming. It’ll also provide the Nittany Lions an opportunity to build momentum heading into a bye week with a road contest in Columbus looming on Oct. 26.

Coach O’Brien says: “We’re in a situation at Penn State right now that is unprecedented, sure. But at the same time, I’ve said this over and over again, our staff, myself, we’re thankful for our players. Our players are tough. They’re resilient. They’re good kids. They’re hard-working. They go to class, and we’re looking forward to working with those guys.”

5. Wisconsin Badgers

Coach: Gary Andersen, first season (26-24 career)

Last season: 8-6 (4-4 Leaders, lost 20-14 to Stanford in Rose Bowl)

Returning starters: Offense (8) — Joel Stave (So., QB); Jacob Pedersen (Sr., TE); Brian Wozniak (Sr., TE); Jordan Frederick (So., WR); Jared Abbrederis (Sr., WR); Kyle Costigan (Jr., OG); Rob Havenstein (Jr., RT); Ryan Groy (Sr., OT); Defense (6) — Ethan Hemer (Sr., DE); Pat Muldoon (Sr., DE); Beau Allen (Sr., NT); Ethan Armstrong (Sr., ILB); Chris Borland (Sr., ILB); Dezmen Southward (Sr., S).

The skinny: It’s not every year the Big Ten championship team returns with a new head coach as the Badgers do after Bret Bielema left town for Arkansas. Andersen takes over and his challenge is to improve a team that went .500 in conference play and limped into the title game with back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Penn State to close the regular season. The Badgers responded by handling Nebraska in the Big Ten title game 70-31. Wisconsin returns most of its players that were capable of slowing opposing running games. The Badgers return five of their front seven from last season. Although Montee Ball is gone, senior James White and sophomore Melvin Gordon are primed for carries behind what is consistently among the Big Ten’s best offensive lines. Anderson, who spent last season at Utah State, will work with Stave who distanced himself as the Badgers’ top quarterback down the stretch. Abbrederis is one of the league’s most dangerous offensive weapons.

Pennsylvania connections: Michael Caputo (So., S, West Allegheny); Brock DeCicco (Sr., TE, Thomas Jefferson); Arthur Goldberg (RS-Fr., NG, Mount Lebanon)

Don’t miss this one: Nov. 9 vs. BYU — Sandwhiched between a game at Iowa and at home against Indiana is a home date at Camp Randall against the Cougars. Anderson is 1-5 against BYU in his career.

Coach Andersen says: “There’s going to be differences when you take over a program. It’s important to put your own stamp on it.”

6. Northwestern Wildcats

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, eighth season, 50-39 (50-39 career)

Last season: 10-3 (5-3 Legends, beat Mississippi State 34-20 in the Gator Bowl)

Returning starters: Offense (8) — Kain Colter (Sr., QB); Venric Mark (Sr., RB); Tony Jones (Jr., WR); Rashad Lawrence (Sr., WR); Christian Jones (Jr., WR); Dan Vitale (So., SB); Brandon Vitabile (Jr., C); Jack Konopka (Jr., OT); Defense (7) — Tyler Scott (Sr., DE); Sean McEvilly (Jr., DT); Chi Chi Ariguzo (Jr., OLB); Damie Proby (Sr., MLB); Daniel Jones (Jr., CB); Nick Van Hoose (So., CB); Ibraheim Campbell (Jr., S).

The skinny: On offense the Wildcats are loaded with returning skill position players highlighted by running back Mark and shifty quarterback Colter. Mark is a threat every time he touches the ball and the Wildcats will use him on punt returns where they were best in the Big Ten last season. Colter makes more noise with his feet than he does his arm. If Colter can start to stretch the field more with his throws the Wildcats’ offense can evolve its M.O. — moving down the field in small chunks. On the other side, Northwestern must close out games in which it leads late. Northwestern let Syracuse close the gap in Week 2, and second-half collapses against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan ended in losses to sink the Wildcats’ title game hopes.

Pennsylvania connections: Campbell (Chestnut Hill Academy); Adam DePietro (RS-Fr., OL, Lancaster Catholic); Eric Joraskie (Fr., DT, Mount Carmel); Connor Mahoney (RS-Fr., DL, Malvern); Ian Park (RS-Fr., OL, Upper St. Clair); Andrew Scanlan (RS-Fr., WR, Spring Ford); Jack Schwaba (RS-Fr., SB, Upper St. Clair); Timmy Vernon (Sr., LB, Germantown Academy).

Don’t miss this one: Nov. 16 vs. Michigan — The Wildcats let this game slip away last season, giving up a punt return and a field goal all in the final minute before the Wolverines triumphed in overtime. This one could have division title implications late in the season.

Coach Fitzgerald says: “(I’m) very proud of the success we’ve had, five straight bowl seasons. But as I said as I put the Gator Bowl trophy up above my head, we’re just getting started at Northwestern. We have a lot of work. Talk is talk, and now it’s about time for action.”

7. Michigan State Spartans

Coach: Mark Dantonio, seventh season, 51-28 (69-45 career)

Last season: 7-6 (3-5 Legends, beat TCU 17-16 in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl)

Returning starters: Offense (8) — Andrew Maxwell (Sr., QB); Aaron Burbridge (So., WR); Bennie Fowler (Sr., WR); Keith Mumphery (Jr., WR); Travis Jackson (Jr., C); Jack Allen (Sr., G); Blake Treadwell (Sr., G); Skyler Burkland (Jr., OT); Defense (7) — Marcus Rush (Jr., DE); Lawrence Thomas (So., NT); Denicos Allen (Sr., OLB); Max Bullough (Sr., MLB); Darqueze Dennard (Sr., CB); Isaiah Lewis (Sf., S); Demetrious Cox (RS-Fr., S).

The skinny: Save for an early season blowout loss to Notre Dame, the Spartans were in every game they played last season thanks to their defense. A total of 15 starters on offense and defense return and it will be up to the offense to improve upon last season’s shaky result where Michigan State scored just 20 points per game. That could be a tall order considering the workhorse from last season, Le’Veon Bell, who was 10th in the conference in total offense, is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Spartans return four of their top-six tacklers in Bullough, Allen, Dennard and Lewis. Michigan State lost William Gholston to the NFL, leaving a big hole on defensive line that already struggled to rush the passer with just 20 sacks last season. But the Spartans have experience and a fairly easy schedule, with a trip to Iowa followed by home games against Indiana and Purdue. If things go well, Michigan State could be unbeaten in conference play heading into rivalry weekend.

Pennsylvania connections: Brandon Clemons (So., DL, Delaware Valley); Cox (Jeannette); Paul Lang (So., TE, Mount Lebanon); Damion Terry (Fr., QB, Cathedral Prep); Delton Williams (Fr., LB/RB, Cathedral Prep)

Don’t miss this one: Nov. 16 at Nebraska — Michigan State’s offensive struggles were higlighted in this game a year ago. A week after a win on a Hail Mary pass against Wisconsin, the Spartans punted seven times including on three straight possessions then fumbled to end the game.

Coach Dantonio says: “Six straight bowl games for us. The last two we were able to win. There is a feeling, I think, among our football team that a foundation has been laid, but we’re still chasing a dream right now.”

8. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Coach: Jerry Kill, third season, 9-16 (32-32 overall)

Last season: 6-7 (2-6 Legends, lost 34-31 to Texas Tech in Meineke Car Care Bowl)

Returning starters: Offense (10) — Philip Nelson (So., QB); Donnell Kirkwood (Jr., RB); Isaac Fruechte (Jr., WR); Derrick Engel (Sr., WR); Drew Goodger (Jr., TE): Brian Bobek (Jr., C); Caleb Bak (Jr., G); Zac Epping (Jr., G.); Josh Campion (So., OT); Ed Olson (Sr., OT); Defense (6) — Ra’Shede Hageman (Sr., DT); Cameron Botticelli (Jr., NT); Michael Amaefula (Jr., DE); Aaron Hill (Sr., LB); Derrick Wells (Jr., CB); Brock Vereen (Sr., S).

The skinny: Based on his past peformances, Kill-coached teams are much improved from Year 2 to Year 3. Kill took a 4-8 Southern Illinois team to 10-2 in his third season and a 7-6 Northern Illinois team to 10-3 in Year 3. With a solid cast of returning starters the Gophers should be able to lean on one of the conference’s strongest secondaries. Kickwood averaged almost five yards per carry last season and Engel could be a dangerous element after a breakout bowl game following a quiet regular season. Minnesota will have to win two tough road games at Michigan and Northwestern right away if it wants to have a shot at the Legends Division crown.

Pennsylvania connections: None.

Don’t miss this one: Sept. 14 vs. Western Illinois — Games against FCS teams haven’t been gimmes for Minnesota lately, as the Gophers have gone 3-3 in the past six. Minnesota can’t afford to falter in this one in what is being seen as a chance to emerge as a viable team.

Coach Kill says: “I think the kids took the momentum out of the bowl game, took it on to the off-season, did an outstanding job in the off-season getting bigger, stronger, and faster. ... We had the largest crowd at our spring scrimmage since Coach (Lou) Holtz was there. So enthusiasm is great.”

9. Indiana Hoosiers

Coach: Kevin Wilson, third season (5-19 career)

Last season: 4-8 (2-6 Leaders)

Returning starters: Offense (10) — Nate Sudfeld (So., QB); Stephen Houston (Sr., RB); Shane Wynn (Jr., WR); Cody Latimer (Jr., WR); Kofi Hughes (Sr., WR); Ted Bolser (Sr., TE); Dan Feeney (So., G); Bernard Taylor (Jr., G); Peyton Eckert (Jr., OT); Jason Spriggs (So., OT); Defense (9) — Zack Shaw (So., DE); Ryan Phillis (Jr., DE); Jacarri Alexander (Sr., LB); David Cooper (Jr., LB); Griffen Dahlstrom (Sr., LB); Brian Williams (Jr., CB); Antonio Marshall (Sr., CB); Greg Heban (Sr., S); Mark Murphy (Jr., S).

The skinny: The Hoosiers have more returning starters than any team in the country. They’ll need the experience to try to get Indiana back to a bowl game for the first time since 2007. It could be a team that corrects its mistakes from last season or suffers another losing campaign. Houston is the focal point for the offense after averaging nearly five yards per carry in 2012. The offense must stay on the field longer. Last season the Hoosiers averaged just 26:30 time of possession, easily the worst in the Big Ten. Indiana returns most of its offensive line that allowed only 17 sacks last season. That should ease the transition of one of the Hoosier’s young quarterbacks. Any improvement on defense is welcome as the Hoosiers gave up a league high 463.5 yards per game last season.

Pennsylvania connections: None.

Don’t miss this one: Oct. 12 at Michigan State — Indiana has fared well in road openers and this one will be a test following five straight home dates plus a bye week to open the season.

Coach Wilson says: “There wasn’t one day in spring practice that I wanted it over. ... We’re getting more physical. We have a lot of kids now that are going into their third year of playing because we played 16 freshmen two years ago, 11 freshmen last year.”

10. Purdue Boilermakers

Coach: Darrell Hazell, first season (16-10 career)

Last season: 6-7 (3-5 Leaders, lost 58-14 to Oklahoma State in Heart of Dallas Bowl)

Returning starters: Offense (5) — Gary Bush (Sr., WR); Robert Kugler (So., C); Justin Kitchens (Sr., G); Trevor Foy (Sr., OT); Paul Griggs (So., K); Defense (8) — Bruce Gaston (Sr., DT); Brandon Taylor (Sr., DT); Ryan Russell (Jr., DE); Will Lucas (Sr., OLB); Joe Gilliam (Jr., MLB); Ricardo Allen (Sr., CB); Landon Feichter (Jr., S); Taylor Richards (Jr., S).

The skinny: Purdue started well but finished poorly last season. It cost Danny Hope his job and now Hazell takes over a team that nearly beat Notre Dame before losing five of its next seven games and five straight. Akeem Hunt, who has made big plays in the past, could have a breakout season with Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers gone. Rob Henry takes over at quarterback and has three returning linemen to work behind. Kawaan Short was a disruptive force from the defensive tackle spot with Gaston hoping to fill that spot. The secondary returns a player in Feichter who had four interceptions and three others that combined to intercept three passes and breakup 19 more. Either way, Hazell’s first season in West Lafayette is tough with a brutal early schedule.

Pennsylvania connections: Brandon Cotton (Jr., RB, Council Rock North); Jack De Boef (Jr., OT, State College); Kugler (North Allegheny); Cody Webster (Sr., P, Central Dauphin East)

Don’t miss this one: Nov. 30 at Indiana — They’ll play for the right to hoist the Old Oaken Bucket, where the visiting team has done so in three of the past four meetings between the in-state rivals. As it was for Purdue last season, the finale could provide both of these teams a shot at becoming bowl eligible.

Coach Hazell says: “Purdue was always a team that’s perceived in the middle of the Big Ten. ... And I told (the team) it’s going to take a lot of work but we’re going to climb ourselves out of the middle and we’re going to put this program on national prominence for a long point in time.”

11. Iowa Hawkeyes

Coach: Kirk Ferentz 15th season, 100-74 career

Last season: 4-8 (2-6 Legends)

Returning starters: Offense (6) — Mark Weisman (Jr., RB); Kevonte Martin-Manley (Jr., WR); C.J. Fiedorowicz (Sr., TE); Austin Blythe (So., C); Brett Van Sloten (Sr., OT); Brandon Scherff (Jr., OT); Defense (7) — Dominic Alvis (Sr., DE); Louis Trinica-Pasat (Jr., DT); Anthony Hitchens (Sr., LB); James Morris (Sr., LB); Christian Kirksey (Sr., LB); B.J. Lowery (Sr., CB); Tanner Miller (Sr., S).

The skinny: Iowa struggled mightily in all facets last season. The Hawkeyes were second to last in the Big Ten in scoring offense, failing to crack 20 points per game. They were ninth in total defense, giving up more than 380 yards per game. They fielded the worst rushing offense and gave up nearly 2,000 rushing yards on the season. Iowa has nowhere to go but up and needs playmakers to emerge on both sides of the ball.

Pennsylvania connections: Marcus Collins (Jr., LB, Monsignor Bonnor)

Don’t miss this one: Sept 14 at Iowa State — This was a back-and-forth game between the two rivals last season that featured eight lead changes. Iowa State pulled out the 9-6 win.

Coach Ferentz says: “Last year was obviously very disappointing for all of us, and as soon as the season ended in November, we encouraged our players to turn the page and wanted to get them looking forward and then go back to work, and that’s pretty much what we’ve done.”

12. Illinois Fighting Illini

Coach: Tim Beckman, second season, 2-10 (23-26 career)

Returning starters: Offense (8) Nathan Scheelhaase (Sr., QB); Donovonn Young (Jr., RB); Spencer Harris (Sr., WR); Ryan Lankford (Sr., WR); Jon Davis (Jr., TE); Ted Karras (So., G); Michael Heitz (Jr., G); Simon Cvijanovic (Jr., OT); Defense (4) — Tim Kynard (Sr., DE); Jonathan Brown (Sr., LB); Mason Monheim (So., LB); Earnest Thomas (Jr., S)

The skinny: Scheelhaase was banged up last season and the Illini never established any sort of consistent play. There isn’t much back in the way of defensive experience but that might bode well for a defense that was among the league’s worst. It was no coincidence that the Illini suffered even more when Brown went down with a shoulder injury with three games left. Illinois gave up an average of 32 points per game and will lean on a healthy Brown, who was a Butkus Award semifinalist, to help right the ship. The Illini badly need an offensive playmaker or two to step up as there aren’t any proven ones on the roster.

Pennsylvania connections: None

Don’t miss this one: Nov. 30 vs. Northwestern — It could be a chance for the Illini to play spoiler against their rivals.

Coach Beckman says: “I guess the word I like to use is anxious. I’m very anxious to see the progress that this football team has made since the first of December.”