At the midpoint of the 2013 college football season, the Big Ten’s Legends Division is still one of the toughest leagues to predict.
Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State are considered the frontrunners, with Northwestern slightly off the radar with an 0-2 start in conference play.
Nebraska has experienced a roller-coaster ride this season, losing to UCLA 41-21 in early September, which created a firestorm of criticism on coach Bo Pelini. However, an easy schedule has helped the Cornhuskers get back on track, as Nebraska is 5-1 and is back on track to have a top-25 finish in the final polls.
Michigan and Michigan State have also experienced their share of struggles. Michigan barely beat Akron and UConn and lost to Penn State last Saturday. Michigan State’s offense struggled mightily early in the year but has found a spark behind quarterback Connor Cook.
With the first half of the season in the books, let’s turn the page to the second half of 2013. Athlon’s editors debate: Who will win the Legends Division?
Michigan, Nebraska or Michigan State: Who Wins the Legends Division?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
After seven weeks, there’s not much clarity to the Legends Division. Michigan was my preseason pick, but after losing to Penn State, I think the Wolverines will finish out of the top spot. There’s not much separation between Nebraska and Michigan State right now, as both teams suffered a non-conference loss in September and are 2-0 in Big Ten action. Deciding between these two teams is essentially a coin flip, but I give a slight edge to the Cornhuskers. Nebraska has one more tune up (at Minnesota) before its brutal November schedule. All five games in November will be tough for the Cornhuskers, but three – Northwestern, Michigan State and Iowa are all at home. Trips to Michigan and Penn State are winnable. However, playing on the road in the Big Ten is never easy. Even if Nebraska loses two games in conference play and beats Michigan State, that should be enough – provided the Spartans lose once (Michigan or at Northwestern). After a rough showing against UCLA and talk of coach Bo Pelini being on the hot seat, what a turnaround it would be for Nebraska to play for the Big Ten title.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
I had Nebraska winning the division in the preseason so I will stick with the Cornhuskers. They avoid Wisconsin and Ohio State altogether this season and get both Northwestern and Michigan State at home. The road trip to Ann Arbor to face Michigan will be brutal, but with the Wolverines already having a conference loss and have remaining games at Michigan State, at Northwestern and Ohio State at home still. So even a loss to Michigan likely won't hurt the Huskers too much. Nebraska's defense has shown marked improvement since entering Big Ten play and Taylor Martinez' turf toe should be close to 100-percent by the time November rolls around and Nebraska is faced with its first tough conference game (Northwestern, Nov. 2). This is one of the quietest one-loss teams in the nation.
Coach Bill Mallory, former head coach of Miami (Ohio), Colorado, Northern Illinois, Indiana and current voting member of the Legends Poll:
Out of those three teams, the one that surprised me recently, was Michigan State. They have been playing really good defense but struggling on offense. Against Indiana this past weekend, their young quarterback, Connor Cook, came into his own. I would not count them out of the race to win their division. They played an impressive game and look to be headed towards being the team to beat.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
This is going to be a wild finish, but I’d tend to favor the two teams that are already 2-0 in the division, Nebraska and Michigan State. The Cornhuskers took plenty of criticism for their bad defense early in the season, but Nebraska allowed fewer yards to Illinois and Purdue combined as it did to Wyoming. Purdue’s offense is awful, but Illinois’ is not. Let’s give a little bit of credit here. The Huskers have their injury concerns with Taylor Martinez’s toe and the season-ending injury for offensive lineman Spencer Long. But Ameer Abdullah has proven capable of carrying the Nebraska offense for the time being. Nebraska also has the most beneficial schedule of the four big contenders, facing only Minnesota and Michigan on the road.
I was a big Northwestern supporter before the season started, but the Wildcats already have two conference losses and a rough November ahead of them. That leaves the Michigan schools and Nebraska. The Wolverines lost last week to Penn State in four overtimes and their season finale with Ohio State puts them at a disadvantage in my opinion. That brings us to the Spartans and Cornhuskers. One team has offensive issues, the other has defensive flaws. Too bad we can't combine them into one squad. That said, as hard as it may be to believe, it looks like Bo Pelini's team is sitting in the catbird's seat here. While the Cornhuskers still have to go to Ann Arbor, they get the Spartans (and the Wildcats) at home. Take care of business in Lincoln and then in University Park, Pa., against Penn State the following week, and Pelini will have plenty to say to all those who were calling for his head earlier this season. Then again, the Spartans could muster up enough offense to win the division, or the Wolverines could put it all together at the right time. Even Northwestern, despite its 0-2 conference mark, isn't completely out of it yet, not with three games in a row in November against the aforementioned trio. The Big Ten may have lost some of its luster this season, but the last month of conference play is shaping up to be, well, legendary.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com and Crystal Ball Run
As we reach mid-October the Big Ten Legends Division looks fairly wide open to me, and I do not feel overly confident about any of the options to choose from in this one. With Northwestern having already dug a hole in the division, I don't like their chances with games against Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State still to come. I think Iowa keeps things interesting but ultimately I expect them to fall back at some point in the race. For me it is a three-team race between Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State. I have no faith in Michigan State's offense but do believe they have the best defense. Michigan has failed to impress me even before that loss to Penn State. I'm going with my preseason pick in the division, Nebraska, even though I may like their schedule the least.
Road games at Michigan and Penn State could go either way, but I think a split for the Huskers is all they will need out of those two games. Getting Northwestern, Michigan State and Iowa at home will turn out to be pivotal for the Huskers this season and help them maneuver their way to the top of the Big Ten Legends Division.