The inaugural Big Ten title game featured the teams widely regarded as the league’s best. This season’s race could be less clear-cut. The Legends Division looks rock solid, while the Leaders is filled with more than a few question marks. Michigan and Michigan State both come off 11-win seasons that resulted in bowl victories (Sugar and Outback, respectively). Nebraska, with seven starters back on both sides of the ball, will be formidable as well.
After a transitional year on offense, Michigan should be more comfortable in Al Borges’ system and returns a dynamic backfield in senior quarterback Denard Robinson and junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Maturity is a big theme for Nebraska after some breakdowns in 2011, and the Huskers will be older and wiser on offense. Quarterback Taylor Martinez returns for his third season as the starter, and Nebraska will be more seasoned at spots like receiver and offensive line.
Michigan State loses more star power, namely three-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins and All-America defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. But Mark Dantonio’s squad also is loaded with difference-makers on defense — end William Gholston and linebacker Denicos Allen among them — and has built a culture of winning in East Lansing.
The Leaders division is murkier after significant personnel turnover with both coaches and players. Ohio State is banned from the postseason, but the Buckeyes could have the division’s top team. New coach Urban Meyer has energized a program coming off its first seven-loss season since 1897. Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman usher in an offense that should help quarterback Braxton Miller, the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year in 2011.
Wisconsin likely will be the favorite to return to the Big Ten title game despite losing several key players and six assistants from the 2011 team. The Badgers will count on another transfer quarterback (Danny O’Brien) to lead the offense, but they return a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Montee Ball and several veteran defenders, including linebacker Chris Borland.
Penn State and Illinois both went through coaching changes, but both teams could make noise in the division because of their defenses. The Nittany Lions return one of the nation’s best linebacker groups, headlined by Gerald Hodges. Illinois must replace All-America end Whitney Mercilus but should once again be strong in the front seven.
Purdue returns defensive tackle Kawann Short and most of its core pieces from 2011. The Boilers could be a sleeper team in the Leaders. Both Northwestern and Iowa lose several experienced players but could make some noise in the Legends.
Athlon's 2012 Big Ten Team Previews
The Big Ten coaching ranks have a dramatically different look after another historic offseason. For the second consecutive year, three league squads made coaching changes, including Penn State, which dismissed the late Joe Paterno in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
Bill O’Brien’s first head coaching job poses unique challenges, as he tries to establish his vision during a fragile time for the university and win over a Penn State fan base mostly skeptical about his hiring. A strong season in Year 1 of the post-Paterno era will accelerate the healing process.
Although Ohio State won’t go bowling this year, the worst appears to be over in Columbus. Ohio State emerged from all the Jim Tressel turmoil with Urban Meyer, a two-time BCS national championship-winning coach who has Buckeyes fans giddy in his return to his home state. No stranger to lofty expectations, Meyer has set the bar high and inherits a young but talented team in 2012.
One of Meyer’s coaching disciples, Tim Beckman, takes over at Illinois following Ron Zook’s firing. The Illini have recorded bowl wins in consecutive seasons for the first time, but they flat-lined late last season and haven’t built momentum from their Rose Bowl trip after the 2007 season. It’s up to Beckman to foster more consistent success in Champaign.
After relative quiet in 2008 and 2009, the Big Ten coaching carousel has been spinning out of control. This year alone, the league had 40 changes at head coach or assistant coach.
Kirk Ferentz, who enters his 14th season at Iowa, is now the dean of Big Ten coaches, having held his position seven years longer than anyone else. Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema, 42, and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, 37, are the league’s second-longest-serving coaches.
Three Big Ten teams have bolstered their passing attacks with coveted transfers.
For the second consecutive year, Wisconsin added a quarterback from the ACC to lead its offense. Former Maryland signal-caller Danny O’Brien follows former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson to Madison. Like Wilson, O’Brien has completed his degree, so he won’t have to sit out a season at Wisconsin. O’Brien, who picked Wisconsin over Penn State, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, has two years of eligibility remaining. He’ll enter preseason camp as the frontrunner to win the job.
Michigan State and Northwestern, meanwhile, both added talented wide receiver transfers. DeAnthony Arnett transferred from Tennessee to Michigan State to be closer to his ailing father in Flint, Mich. Arnett, whom Michigan State had targeted in recruiting but couldn’t land, recorded 24 receptions for 242 yards and two touchdowns for the Vols in 2011. He has been granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA that will allow him to play immediately. The Spartans lose their top three receivers from 2011 and could use a playmaker like Arnett.
Northwestern also added a big piece to its receiving corps in Kyle Prater, a transfer from USC. Prater, one of the nation’s top recruits in 2010, grew up in the Chicago area but headed west to play college ball. He struggled with injuries the past two seasons and wanted to play closer to his family. Prater chose Northwestern ahead of both Wisconsin and Illinois. As of early June, he had not yet heard from the NCAA regarding his request for immediate eligibility.
A Rosey Partnership
After the last round of realignment fever, the Big Ten and Pac-12 decided to strengthen their relationship beyond the traditional Rose Bowl bond. The leagues in December announced a major scheduling partnership across all sports, billing it as a brand-building alternative to further expansion.
By 2017, the leagues plan to have a complete 12-game schedule pitting Big Ten teams against their Pac-12 counterparts. The Big Ten had planned to adopt a nine-game conference schedule in 2017 but shelved the idea when the Pac-12 partnership surfaced. Games will be played in the schools’ home stadiums, and the leagues are also exploring neutral-site contests at certain venues.
In addition to the Rose Bowl, the 2012 slate includes four Big Ten-Pac-12 matchups, and additional scheduling agreements between the conferences — such as Michigan State’s home-and-home series with Oregon — have been finalized since the partnership was announced.
The Big Ten returns nine of its top 10 rushers from 2011, including Wisconsin’s Montee Ball and three quarterbacks (Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray and Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez). The league returns seven of its top 10 passers, just two of its top 10 receivers, seven of its top 10 tacklers and five of its top 10 sack leaders.
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