2012 was not a banner year for the Big Ten. Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible to compete in a bowl game, leaving Wisconsin at 8-5 overall representing the conference in the Rose Bowl.
While 2012 was a shaky year for the conference, 2013 is looking better.
Ohio State is a national title contender and ranks as the No. 2 team in Athlon’s Top 25 for 2013. The Buckeyes are led by a Heisman candidate in quarterback Braxton Miller, and the defense should be better in the second year under coordinators Luke Fickell and Everett Withers.
Wisconsin is Ohio State’s biggest challenger in the Leaders Division. The Badgers are under the direction of a new coach in Gary Andersen, and despite the departure of running back Montee Ball, should have one of the Big Ten’s top backfields with Melvin Gordon and James White.
Penn State is ineligible to play in the postseason once again, but the Nittany Lions should have a winning record in Bill O’Brien’s second year in Happy Valley.
Indiana is making progress under coach Kevin Wilson, and the schedule is favorable enough to expect a bowl appearance.
Purdue and Illinois round out the division, as both teams have a lot of holes to fill in 2013.
While there’s a clear pecking order in the Leaders Division, the Legends is a much tougher one to predict.
Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern each have legitimate conference title hopes. The Wolverines have a rising star in quarterback Devin Gardner, and the defense should be steady despite the departure of a couple of key performers. Michigan State’s offense is a huge question mark, while Nebraska returns only four starters on defense. Northwestern is loaded on offense, but the Wildcats feature a tough crossover schedule with games against Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Inside the War Room: Key Questions That Shaped Athlon's 2013 Predictions
What gave Michigan the edge over Nebraska in the Legends Division?
Both teams have some solid talent, but both teams are flawed. Michigan is breaking in three new starters on the offensive line and is looking for playmakers at wide receiver. In addition, the Wolverines must replace key personnel on each level of their defense. Nebraska should be terrific on offense, but the Huskers’ defense is a concern. Remember, this team gave up an average of 53.5 points and 595.0 yards in its four losses last season. Nebraska, which doesn’t play Ohio State or Wisconsin from the Leaders Division, has the easier schedule. But in the end, we went with Michigan for two reasons — the Wolverines host Nebraska in November, and the Huskers are tough to trust; they have had some puzzling losses in the last two years.
Was there any thought to not picking Ohio State to win the Leaders Division?
None. The only discussion about Ohio State was about how high we would pick the Buckeyes in the national rankings. And after a brief discussion, we put Ohio State No. 2, right behind Alabama. This isn’t a team with elite talent at every position, but the Buckeyes should be very good on offense, and they have a proven commodity in head coach Urban Meyer. The schedule isn’t overly taxing, either. Aside from the season-finale at Michigan, you could make a case that Ohio State’s toughest game could be the early October trip to Northwestern. Even if the Bucks don’t navigate the regular season without a loss — as we are predicting — it will be a huge surprise if they don’t win the division and play in the Big Ten Championship Game.
How can Michigan State be picked fourth in the Legends with a schedule that doesn’t include Ohio State, Wisconsin or Penn State?
This was a huge topic for debate as we tried to settle on our third-place team in the Legends, Northwestern or Michigan State. The Wildcats, on paper, have the better team. They return almost every key piece from a team that won 10 games — and held double-digit second-half leads in the three games they did not win. But Northwestern’s schedule is not kind; the Cats have to play Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders and also travel to Nebraska. Michigan State, on the other hand, was handed a gift from the scheduling gods — no Ohio State, Wisconsin or Penn State. And for that reason, it was tempting to pick the Spartans ahead of Northwestern. Last year, much was made of Michigan State’s close losses. The Spartans lost five games by four points or less, but they also won four games by the same margin. And while there is a lot to like about this team — the defense will once again be stout — the offense remains a huge concern. So even with this relatively kind schedule, we don’t believe Michigan State will finish ahead of Northwestern in the league standings.
Is Indiana showing signs of progress under Kevin Wilson, or are the Hoosiers simply of a product of the soft second tier of the Leaders Division?
It’s a little bit of both. There’s no doubt that IU will benefit from playing in the weaker of the two divisions in 2013. The Hoosiers also have the added advantage of hosting the three most “winnable” games against its division foes — Penn State, Purdue and Illinois. But this program no doubt took a significant step forward in 2012, Wilson’s second season in Bloomington. The Hoosiers led the Big Ten in passing offense and ranked second in total offense en route to a 4–8 overall record and a 2–6 mark in the league. The offense should once again be among the best in the league. If the young defense can make the progression from bad to mediocre, Indiana will be in position to take advantage of its schedule and return to a bowl game for the first time since 2007.
Big Ten Team Previews
Big Ten Notebook
The Big Ten carousel didn’t spin quite as much as it did last year, when there were an unprecedented 40 total changes at the head coach and assistant levels, but the league had another long and active offseason of transactions. Wisconsin’s hiring of Jeff Genyk as tight ends coach/special teams coach in early March marked the 32nd and final (we think) coaching change in the Big Ten for the 2013 season.
Only two teams — Wisconsin and Purdue — hired new head coaches, but Darrell Hazell brought in an entirely new staff with the Boilers, and Gary Andersen retained only two assistants (Thomas Hammock and Ben Strickland) with the Badgers. Illinois kept Tim Beckman after a 2–10 debut, but Beckman had to replace more than half (five) of his assistants, four of whom left voluntarily.
Three Big Ten coordinators — Michigan State’s Dan Roushar (offense), Indiana’s Mike Ekeler (co-defense) and Penn State’s Ted Roof (defense) — left for other positions. Iowa welcomed in three new assistants for the second consecutive offseason, continuing a staff overhaul for a program that had seen tremendous continuity for much of the Kirk Ferentz era. Michigan saw its first coaching change of Brady Hoke’s tenure, as defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery left for Oklahoma.
The winter also featured two cases of intraleague coach poaching. Michigan State swiped Jim Bollman from Hazell’s staff at Purdue about a month after Bollman arrived. Hazell responded by hiring Jim Bridge — who had been at Illinois for about a month — to coach the Boilers’ offensive line.
Four Big Ten coaching staffs — Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State — remain fully intact for the 2013 season. Minnesota and Northwestern are the only FBS teams without a staff change for the past three seasons.
Quite a lot of firepower returns around the Big Ten for 2013. Thirty all-conference selections are back, the most since the 2005 season. The league also brings back the most first-team All-Big Ten selections (18) since 2005.
Eight of the 13 individual award winners from last season also return, including Ohio State’s Braxton Miller (Quarterback of the Year), Michigan’s Taylor Lewan (Offensive Lineman of the Year) and Penn State’s Allen Robinson (Wide Receiver of the Year).
Miller is the fourth consecutive Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year to return the following season. Seven of the top 10 rushers from 2012 are back, although the top three — Le’Veon Bell, Montee Ball and Denard Robinson — depart. The Big Ten also returns its top 10 receiving yards leaders from last season, led by Penn State’s Robinson.
More Big Ten teams are moving out of cupcake city and strategically scheduling for the future college football playoff. Ohio State recently added home-and-home series against Oregon, Texas and TCU. Nebraska renewed its rivalry against Oklahoma with a home-and-home, and Wisconsin, often criticized for soft non-league slates, scheduled a blockbuster season opener in 2015 against Alabama at Cowboys Stadium. Other exciting future series include Michigan State-Oregon, Michigan-Arkansas and Northwestern-Stanford.
The Legends Division isn’t so legendary after all. The Leaders are forsaking some of their leadership.
The Big Ten will ditch the much-lampooned division names in 2014 when Maryland and Rutgers join the league. Instead, the league will follow the lead of the SEC and Pac-12 with geographic divisions.
The East Division will feature Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers. The West will include Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin. All of the East teams are in the Eastern time zone, while every West team besides Purdue is in the Central time zone. Starting in 2016, the Big Ten will play a nine-game conference schedule.
The third year of division play means the crossover schedules flip for every Big Ten squad. That means good news for Michigan State, which doesn’t play Ohio State, Wisconsin or Penn State. Nebraska misses both the Buckeyes and the Badgers, while Wisconsin won’t face Michigan, Michigan State or Nebraska during the regular season. The crossover schedules get much harder for teams like Northwestern and Iowa, both of which get Ohio State and Wisconsin back on the schedule. Illinois plays three of the projected top four in the Legends division — Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern — and skips only Michigan.
Old: Chris Beatty, Bill Gonzales; New: Bill Cubit
Beatty was fired after the 2012 season. He is now the wide receivers coach at Wisconsin. Gonzales left Illinois to become the wide receivers coach at Mississippi State. Cubit was fired by Western Michigan after eight seasons as the Broncos’ head coach. Previously, he was the offensive coordinator at Stanford, Rutgers, Missouri and Western Michigan.
Old: Doug Mallory, Mike Ekeler; New: Doug Mallory, William Inge
Ekeler left Indiana in late February to become the linebackers coach at USC. Inge comes to Indiana after serving as an assistant defensive line coach with the Buffalo Bills in 2012. Previously, he was the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for two seasons at the University of Buffalo.
Old: Dan Roushar; New: Jim Bollman, Dave Warner
Roushar left Michigan State to become the running backs coach with the New Orleans Saints. Bollman had accepted a job to be the offensive line coach at Purdue under new coach Darrell Hazell but left to join the Michigan State staff. In 2012, he was the offensive line coach and running game coordinator at Boston College. Prior to that, he served as the OC at Ohio State for 11 years. Warner has been on the MSU staff as the quarterbacks coach for the past six seasons.
Old: Ted Roof; New: John Butler
Roof left Penn State after one season to become the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, his alma mater. Butler was promoted to DC after serving as Penn State’s secondary coach in 2011.
Old: Gary Nord; New: John Shoop
Nord has not landed a new job. Shoop was out of coaching last season. He previously served as the offensive coordinator at North Carolina from 2007-11 and also has a stint as the OC of the Chicago Bears (2001-03).
Old: Tim Tibesar; New: Greg Hudson
Tibesar was not retained by the new staff and was hired to coach linebackers by the Chicago Bears. He worked for new Bears coach Marc Trestman in the CFL. Hudson was the linebackers coach at Florida State from 2010-12. He was the DC at East Carolina from 2005-09.
Old: Matt Canada; New: Andy Ludwig
Canada is the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at NC State. Ludwig served as the offensive coordinator at San Diego State for the past two seasons. He has also had stints as the coordinator at California, Utah, Oregon and Fresno State.
Old: Chris Ash, Charlie Partridge; New: Dave Aranda
Ash and Partridge both followed Bret Bielema to Arkansas. Ash will be the Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator, and Partridge will coach the defensive line. Aranda was the defensive coordinator at Utah State last season, working for new Badgers coach Gary Andersen. Prior to that, he spent two years as the DC at Hawaii.
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