Big Ten Football Predictions
The 2012 season was bittersweet for Big Ten fans. Ohio State was one of the best teams in the country by going 12-0 during the regular season. However, it was not eligible for postseason play, otherwise there’s a good chance that the Buckeyes would have been playing for a national title. Also, Penn State was ineligible due to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, therefore it could not play in the postseason despite a solid 8-4 campaign.
Despite finishing third in the Big Ten Leaders Division, the Wisconsin Badgers were able to play in the conference championship due to the postseason bans for Ohio State and Penn State. The Badgers would take advantage, putting together their most complete game of the season in a 70-31 laugher over Nebraska in Indianapolis. Incredibly, Wisconsin will now be going for its fourth straight Big Ten title (outright or shared) in 2013.
Big Ten Predictions
1. Ohio State – The Buckeyes went on the road last season to beat both Wisconsin and Penn State to win the Leaders Division and finish 12-0. This year, they get both of their top division rivals at home, and they’ll now be eligible for the postseason after a one-year ban. They don’t have to play Michigan State or Nebraska from the Legends, who they played last season. With 13 returning starters, including Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes are even stronger in 2013 in the second season under Urban Meyer. While they may not go undefeated like they did in 2012 while winning six games by 7 points or less, they will do enough to win the Leaders Division.
2. Wisconsin – The Badgers were certainly a better team than their 8-6 record would indicate last year. All six of their losses came by 7 points or less. That included a 14-20 setback to Stanford in the Rose Bowl as they became the first team in college football history to play in that bowl with five losses during the regular season. Gary Anderson takes over for Bret Bielema, who has bolted for Arkansas. Anderson led Utah State to a school-record 11 wins in 2012 and I believe he was a great hire. He’ll be working with 14 returning starters as Wisconsin goes for its 4th straight Big Ten title. It avoids Nebraska, Michigan State and Michigan out of the Legends, while also drawing Penn State at home. If the Badgers want to get back to Indianapolis, they will have to win in Columbus on September 28th.
3. Penn State – Miraculously, head coach Bill O’Brien stuck by his team and opted not to leave for the NFL in the offseason. He did a tremendous job in leading the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 campaign in 2012 despite an 0-2 start. They actually outgained opponents in Big Ten play by 82 yards per game, and now they go from having six returning starters last year to 14 this year. However, they lose quarterback Matt McGloin, who is simply irreplaceable. They also part ways with four of their top five tacklers on defense, including stud linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti. Penn State also draws Ohio State and Wisconsin on the road, which is why I have it settling for third place in the Leaders in 2013.
4. Indiana – The Hoosiers have their best chance to make it to their second bowl since 1993 in Kevin Wilson’s third year on the job. He returns the most experienced team in the Big Ten with 19 starters coming back. This team will be much improved upon their -106 yards per game in Big Ten play from a season ago. While its four conference road games come against arguably the top four teams in the league, Indiana draws Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota and Penn State at home. It will have to go at least 3-1 in those games to make it to a bowl, and I believe it will.
5. Purdue – Purdue went just 6-7 last year, but it was really only two plays away from going 8-5 with wins over Notre Dame (12-1) and Ohio State (12-0). New head coach Darrell Hazell comes over from Kent State after leading the program to a school-record 11 wins in 2012. The Boilermakers return 13 starters, including eight on defense, which will allow the defensive-minded Hazell to make improvements on that side of the ball. However, Purdue draws both Nebraska and Michigan State out of the Legends, and it must play Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois out of conference. I anticipate that the Boilermakers will not be going bowling again in 2013.
6. Illinois – It was a disastrous first season for head coach Tim Beckman at Illinois. Quarterback injuries certainly contributed to the team’s 2-10 campaign, which includes an 0-8 mark in Big Ten play. The Fighting Illini were only able to beat Western Michigan and Charleston Southern in 2012, and they were outscored by an average of 23.3 points per game in conference play. The defense figures to give up big points once again with only four starters back, but the offense should be improved with eight returning starters provided QB Nathan Sheelhaase stays healthy. All four of Illinois’ Big Ten home games will come against teams that could be ranked at the time it plays them, and it draws Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern out of the Legends.
1. Michigan State - It has been a tale of two completely different seasons for the Spartans over the last couple of years. In 2011, they won all of their close games to make it to the Big Ten title game. In ’12, they went just 3-5 in Big Ten play, but their five losses came by 1, 2, 3, 3, and 4 points, or by a combined 13 points. With only 13 lettermen lost and 15 returning starters, Michigan State will learn from last year’s close losses and will come out on the right side of those games in 2013. The schedule sets up well as the Spartans drop Ohio State and Wisconsin, who they played last year. They also avoid Penn State, so they don’t have to play the top three teams from the Legends Division. They draw Michigan at home on November 2, and I believe a win over the Wolverines will be the reason that they win the Legends Division.
2. Michigan – After an 11-2 campaign in 2011, the Wolverines dropped to 8-5 last year. However, in Brady Hoke’s third season on the job, this is arguably his most talented team yet despite only 12 returning starters. While this may be the best team in the Legends, the schedule simply doesn’t set up well for Michigan. It has to play both Ohio State and Penn State from the Leaders, while also facing two of its top three contenders in the Legends on the road (Michigan State, Northwestern). If they can somehow manage this schedule, the Wolverines would actually have their only shot to face rival Ohio State twice as they will be moving into the same division as the Buckeyes next year.
3. Nebraska – The Huskers made it to the Big Ten title game last season thanks to several close wins during the regular season. In fact, they went 7-1 within the conference with five of those victories coming by single-digits. However, they were exposed in the Big Ten title game and the Capital One Bowl, giving up a combined 115 points in losses to Wisconsin and Georgia, respectively. Nebraska figures to have one of the best offenses in the Big Ten with eight starters back from a unit that put up 34.8 points per game a year ago. It draws the easiest schedule in the conference by getting two of its top three contenders from the Legends at home, while also avoiding Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders. What will hold the Huskers back from winning the Legends is the fact that they return only four starters on defense, losing eight of their top 10 tacklers on that side of the ball.
4. Northwestern – There is certainly a lot to like about the Wildcats after a surprising 10-win season that concluded with a 34-20 victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. This could be head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s best team yet with 15 starters and 54 lettermen returning for the 2013 campaign. After avoiding both Ohio State and Wisconsin in recent years, the Wildcats will have to play both of them this season. If they can find a way to win at Wisconsin and Nebraska, while taking care of business against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State at home, they could be playing for a Big Ten title. Unfortunately, that schedule will likely have Northwestern finishing in the middle of the pack in the Legends in 2013.
5. Iowa – The Hawkeyes have been underrated under head coach Kirk Ferentz during most of his 14-year tenure in Iowa City. In fact, they have been eligible for a bowl in 11 of those seasons. However, they are coming off a forgettable 4-8 campaign in 2012. This team does seem to be at its best when expectations are low, and they could surprise some people in ’13. The problem is a schedule that will have the Hawkeyes listed as an underdog in all eight of their Big Ten games. They do have 13 returning starters, which is more than each of the last two seasons. But they must find an answer at quarterback if they are to get back to a bowl game. Iowa gave up just 22.9 points per game last year and it returns seven starters on this side of the ball, including its three best players at linebacker. It will have to rely on its defense early in 2013 while the offense gets some time to gel before heading into a tough Big Ten slate.
6. Minnesota – Jerry Kill managed to get the Golden Gophers back to a bowl game in his second year on the job in 2012. They took advantage of a soft non-conference schedule by going 4-0 before finishing 2-6 in Big Ten play with their only wins coming against Purdue and Illinois. They finished 6-7 after falling to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. There is a lot to like about Minnesota heading into 2013 considering it returns 16 starters and 55 lettermen. However, playing in the same division with four teams that will likely be ranked, plus drawing Wisconsin and Penn State from the Leaders, has me picking the Golden Gophers to finish last in the Legends.
Conference Championship Game Prediction – Ohio State Defeats Michigan State