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#1 The Urban Effect

To say that Urban Meyer's arrival at Ohio State has been controversial would be putting it mildly.  The Buckeyes landed the big fish in the coaching pond when they signed Meyer, but there was grumbling from the get-go, first from people taking shots at Meyer for returning to the sport only a year after health issues and an alleged desire to spend more time with his family had forced him to retire, and then from opposing coaches and fans when Meyer hit the recruiting trail.  Since former Buckeye coach Luke Fickell and his staff stayed in place through the Gator Bowl, Meyer and his staff had nothing to do but recruit -- and oh how they recruited.  They took the Big Ten by storm, flipping several big-time recruits that had been verbally committed to other programs and landing several other blue chippers that hadn't yet made up their minds.  By the time they were down they had a top-5 class dripping with talent -- and a host of rival coaches who were already pissed at Meyer.  But all of the sour grapes bitching from the likes of Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio can't obscure the undeniable reality: Urban Meyer has changed the way things are done in the Big Ten and the onus is on the rest of the league to catch up now or get left in his dust.  The only sour note for Ohio State in December and January was the sound of the NCAA sanctions slamming down on them, most notably in the form of a post-season ban in 2013.  Ohio State's return to greatness is going to be delayed at least one year thanks to that little issue.


#2 The Big Blue Takeover

Brady Hoke arrived at Michigan and in one year he took Big Blue from a middling 7-5 program that got throttled by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl to a team that (finally!) beat Ohio State and won the Sugar Bowl.  Not a bad first effort.  There was awkwardness fitting Denard Robinson into a more pro-style offensive scheme (although when push came to shove the offense often seemed to revert back to "Just go make something happen, Denard"), but the biggest surprise was a defense that went from a national punchline to a top-25 defense, nationally.  DC Greg Mattison deserves a great deal of credit for that turnaround, but improving upon that mark in 2012 will be hard without underrated DT Mike Martin.  Michigan also loses several faces on the offensive line, so duplicating 2011's 11-2 effort may be difficult... but given the uncertainty in the rest of the league and the amount of talent they do return, they still look the odds-on favorite to win the league.

#3 Life After JoePa

For the first time in almost half a century, Penn State will begin a season with a football coach other than Joe Paterno patrolling the sidelines.  Former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien has the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Paterno (and dealing with any further fallout from the sex abuse scandal that continues to hang over the university and football program) and he'll do with just 12 returning starters: five on offense, five on defense, and both kickers.  He'll also be downgrading from one of the best quarterbacks in the game (Tom Brady) to a muddled QB situation that didn't get any clearer over the course of the 2011 season (Robert Bolden v. Matt McGloin).  Penn State clawed their way to nine wins a year ago on the back of a stingy defense, but with a more inexperienced unit on that side of the ball (plus the perpetually unimpressive Ted Roof onboard as defensive coordinator), matching last year's win total will mean getting a significant upgrade from the offense and it's unclear how much O'Brien will be able to squeeze out of the Mattbert McGloinden two-headed monster at QB.

#4 Spartan Repeat

Michigan State is coming of one of the best two-year stretches in program history, with a co-Big Ten championship in 2010 and a runner-up finish in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game last year, but their attempt to improve upon that finish in 2012 is going to have to come without their leading passer (Kirk Cousins), second-leading rusher (Edwin Baker), and leading receiver (B.J. Cunningham) and, in fact, with just four returning starters on offense.  If they are able to repeat as Legends division champions next year, it will be back on the back of a defense that returns eight starters, including budding star William Gholston (DE).  If that defense can once again hold Denard Robinson and the Michigan offense in check (they've been successful two years in a row now), they just might be able to emerge as head of the class in their division.

#5 A Badger Trilogy

Wisconsin has won a share of the Big Ten title in each of the last two years and represented the league in the Rose Bowl both years.  Can they make it three in a row?  The biggest challenge to their threepeat quest will be their own inexperience: they have the fewest returning starters of any team in the league, with 10 total (4 on offense, 6 on defense).  They lose all-everything QB Russell Wilson, their best receiver (Nick Toon), and several of their best offensive linemen.

Excellent RB Montee Ball is returning, which is good, but it's going to be nigh-impossible for him to duplicate his numbers behind a new offensive line and without Russell Wilson in the backfield to force opponents to respect the passing game.  That said, their main competitor for the Leaders division title is barred from the postseason (Ohio State) and they don't have to play the Legends division favorite (Michigan) in the regular season.  With OSU's postseason ban looming, all Wisconsin has to do is be good enough to be second place in the Leaders division -- that seems doable. 

#6 Life In The B1G: Year Two 

Nebraska's first year in the Big Ten went about as well as most people expected, given their brutal schedule (road trips to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan; home games against Ohio State and Michigan State).  They managed to go 3-2 against the best teams on their schedule (winning at Penn State and holding serve at home against OSU and MSU), but stubbed their toe against Northwestern, a loss which crippled their Big Ten title aspirations.  Things should get slightly easier in year two in the Big Ten, though; they'll have a year's worth of experience to draw upon and they get to host Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan in Lincoln.  Trips to the Horseshoe and Spartan Stadium will still be daunting and they may have to rely on their offense (and inconsistent QB Taylor Martinez) more than ever with the departure of their two best defenders (LB Lavonte David and DT Jared Crick), but they should be in the mix for a Legends division title all the same.

#7 Dark Horse Threats

The favorites for the league title are pretty easy to spot -- Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska -- but that doesn't mean there isn't a chance for a team lurking beneath that group to jump up and make a play for the championship.  It's easier to envision a dark horse team making the Big Ten Championship Game in the Leaders division, what with Ohio State barred from post-season play and Wisconsin and Penn State in the midst of rebuilds.  In light of that turmoil, enter... Purdue?  Don't laugh -- it could happen.  Purdue returns several starters on both sides of the ball and if they can avoid the freakish injury misfortune that's befallen them the past two seasons, they could easily field a team strong enough to win the chaotic Leaders division (or at least finish second to Ohio State, which would make them the de facto champions).  As for the Legends division, it's harder to see a dark horse emerging there given the returning strength of Michigan, the stout power of Michigan State's defense, and Nebraska's quality, but Iowa has the schedule to potentially make some noise in that division.  They avoid Ohio State and Wisconsin and get Penn State and Nebraska at home and have a cakewalk non-conference schedule.  On the other hand, they also have to go to Michigan and Michigan State and break in several new coaches and players.  It's not very likely that they'll sneak out a division title, but they've excelled in the past when little was expected of them and the staff shake-up could energize a program that was beginning to look a bit stagnant.

#8 The Beckman Cometh

It happened probably 2-3 years later than most people expected it to happen, but Illinois finally cut ties with Ron Zook after a 2011 season that began with six wins and ended with six straight losses, a turnaround of fortune that was an NCAA record.  Zook did some good things at Illinois -- he recruited well,  took them to three bowl games (including back-to-back bowl games the past two seasons, the first time any Illinois coach had done that in decades), and went to a Rose Bowl -- but ultimately there were too many losses.  Losses to good teams, losses to bad teams, losses to damn near everyone on the schedule.  In Zook's best year (that 2007 Rose Bowl campaign), the Illini still wound up with four losses at the end of the season.  So out goes the Zooker, in comes the Beckman.  Tim Beckman oversaw an offensive powerhouse at Toledo the past few seasons, which should be good news for the likes of Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois' talented dual-threat QB.  Beckman had a good record in the MAC the past two seasons (14-2), but he never won a MAC title, or even played in the MAC Championship Game.  Moving to the Big Ten is going to be a big jump for him and the going will probably be rocky in the short term.

# 9 Light At The End Of The Tunnel

The two bottom-dwellers in the Big Ten in 2011 didn't fire their coaches -- but that was only because they'd already done that after scraping the bottom in the 2010 season.  It was tough sledding in 2011 for both Kevin Wilson at Indiana and Jerry Kill at Minnesota, especially the latter who had to deal with a series of frightening seizure-related medical issues during the season.  On the bright side, Kill's Gopher team did manage to win two league games, including a second-straight home upset over hated rival Iowa.  On the down side, they also lost three of four non-conference games, including head-scratchers to North Dakota State and New Mexico State.  Indiana was even worse: 0-8 in B1G play and 1-3 in non-league play with the sole win coming against South Carolina State.  They were absolutely drilled in most of their league games, too.  How much better will either team be in 2012?  Indiana was expected to bring would-be savior Gunner Kiel at QB, but he ended up at Notre Dame (after a brief pit-stop at LSU), although they still have returning sophomore QB Tre Roberson, a dynamic athlete who looked capable of making plays for the Hoosiers.  Whether he has enough help on offense -- and anything to stop the bleeding on defense -- is up for debate.  A bowl game probably is probably still far away, but they should improve on that 1-11 record.  Minnesota has more reason for optimism, given their spirited play in much of 2011, the arrival of some big-time recruits (including WR Andre McDonald), although they also play in arguably the tougher division and still need to shore up their own defense.  But the non-conference schedule in 2012 is cozy (@ UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan, Syracuse), so if they can hold serve there and poach two wins from league play, they could be back in a bowl game.

#10 Way-Too-Early Projections

Legends

1) Michigan

2) Michigan State

3) Nebraska

4) Iowa

5) Northwestern

6) Minnesota

Leaders

1) Ohio State (ineligible)

2) Wisconsin

3) Penn State

4) Purdue

5) Indiana

6) Illinois

Big Ten Championship Game: Michigan over Wisconsin


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