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The Legends and Leaders Divisions of the Big Ten were put in place in hopes of one day securing a Michigan vs. Ohio State conference championship game. It's a guarantee that won't happen this season.
It's not because Ohio State and Michigan don't have a chance of reaching the Big Ten Championship. Both teams definitely have the talent to get there this season.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, it doesn't matter. The Buckeyes are facing a bowl ban this season and won't be permitted to play in the Big Ten Championship as a result. This season the Buckeyes play for pride.
There are national championship and Heisman Trophy contenders in the Big Ten, which is entering its second season as a 12-team conference. Here's a look at how I see the conference playing out:
1. Michigan State (Projected: 10-2, 6-2 in conference)
Top players: DE William Gholston, OT Fou Fonoti, DE Marcus Rush, CB Johnny Adams, LB Denicos Allen, LB Max Bullough, OT Dan France, WR Tony Lippett, RB Le'Veon Bell, TE Dion Sims, LB Chris Norman, DB Isaiah Lewis, CB Darqueze Dennard.
Bowl projection: Capital One
Analysis: The Spartans have as much talent as anyone in the conference, but might be the best coached team with Mark Dantonio. This is a team capable of running the table in the Big Ten and should be the favorite to win the Legends Division ahead of both Nebraska and Michigan, which are very good teams in their own right. There are several playmakers on both sides of the ball for Michigan. The real question is how do they replace departed QB Kirk Cousins. Andrew Maxwell paid his dues backing up Cousins. Maxwell's transition to the starting role will weigh heavily on the amount of success the Spartans experience this season.
2. Nebraska (10-2, 6-2)
Top players: QB Taylor Martinez, RB Rex Burkhead, OG Spencer Long, OG Andrew Rodriguez, LB Will Compton, DT Baker Steinkuhler, DE Cameron Meredith, DB Daimon Stafford, DB Ciante Evans, WR Kenny Bell, OT Jeremiah Sirles
Bowl projection: Fiesta
Analysis: Nebraska is underrated beginning the season, and understandably so after the Huskers finished 9-4 last season. In the past, the Huskers have seemed to struggle with their identity on offense. This year, I believe they are figuring it out. There's nothing wrong with being a team that relies heavily on the run game, and the option run game in particular. That's what the Huskers' personnel dictates and it's what they should utilize. Martinez and Burkhead will get their yards, and Kenny Bell emerged as a big play option at receiver last year. The defense should also be improved. This is a team that can push for the conference title and a BCS berth.
3. Michigan (8-4, 6-2)
Top players: QB Denard Robinson, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, WR Roy Roundtree, OT Taylor Lewan, DB Jordan Kovacs, OG Patrick Omameh, WR Jeremy Gallon, DE Craig Roh, LB Kenny Demens, DB Thomas Gordon, CB JT Floyd
Bowl projection: Gator
Analysis: Expectations are as high as they've been in Ann Arbor in several years. Denard Robinson enters his senior season in command of an explosive offense. The Wolverines will put a lot of points on the board, but that's expected. The defense improved by leaps and bounds last season, and if it continues to progress, the Wolverines could find themselves in the BCS title picture. I'm just not sure the defense is good enough. I'll be stunned if Michigan can open the season with an upset of Alabama, and the Wolverines also have important road games at Nebraska and Ohio State. It's not an easy road for Michigan, making it hard to pick them even for a division title.
4. Iowa (8-4, 4-4)
Top players: WR Keenan Davis, CB Micah Hyde, LB James Morris, TE CJ Fiedorowicz, OC James Ferentz, OT Brandon Scherff, LB Christian Kirksey, DB Tanner Miller, QB James Vandenburg
Bowl projection: Insight
Analysis: Iowa will always be one of the best coached teams in the Big Ten, and therefore is always a threat to win no matter the opponent. The Hawkeyes have also proved capable of losing to just about anyone in recent memory. That's what makes a 4-4 conference a safe prediction for Iowa. This isn't coach Kirk Ferentz's most talented team, either. At the same time, if there's ever a team that can surprise in the Big Ten, it's Iowa. Can you tell I'm not quite sure what to make of the Hawkeyes?
5. Minnesota (3-9, 1-7)
Top players: CB Troy Stoudermire, QB Marqueis Gray, LB Mike Rallis, LB Keanon Cooper, OT Ed Olson
Bowl projection: None
Analysis: Outside of QB Marqueis Gray, the Golden Gophers don't really have a lot worth getting too excited about. But Gray is an exciting player to watch. He's a dual-threat at QB, who is much more dangerous with his legs than his arm. If he can develop more as a passer, the Gophers can at least hope to have a more formidable offense. Wins in the Big Ten won't come easily for Minnesota.
6. Northwestern (4-8, 1-7)
Top players: WR Demetrius Fields, OG Brian Mulroe, OT Patrick Ward, OC Brandon Vitabile, DB Ibraheim Campbell, QB Kain Colter
Bowl projection: None
Analysis: If Dan Persa were back for another year, I would probably rank the Wildcats a bit higher in the division. As it is, the Wildcats are breaking in a new QB in junior Kain Colter, who is more of a runner than a passer. He's got a solid OL in front of him and some weapons around him, but not enough to keep up in the conference. The Wildcats are a year away from having a chance of contending for a bowl game again.
1. Wisconsin (11-1, 7-1)
Top players: RB Montee Ball, OC Travis Frederick, OT Ricky Wagner, TE Jacob Pedersen, LB Mike Taylor, LB Chris Borland, RB James White, DB Shelton Johnson, QB Danny O'Brien, WR Jacob Abbrederis, DE Tyler Dippel
Bowl projection: Rose
Analysis: The Badgers had Russell Wilson transfer for one year and led them to the Rose Bowl. They're hopeful Danny O'Brien can do the same this season. O'Brien comes to Wisconsin from Maryland, giving the Badgers an experienced passer to go with record-setting and Heisman Trophy-contending RB Montee Ball. The Badgers have arguably the best offense in the Big Ten, and one of the best in the entire country. There are playmakers on the defensive side of the ball as well. This is a team that should be considered a national title contender and is the squad to beat in the Big Ten. I see a third straight Rose Bowl in the Badgers' future.
2. Ohio State (9-3, 5-3)
Top players: QB Braxton Miller, TE Jake Stoneburner, DT Johnathan Hankins, DE John Simon, OG Andrew Norwell, OT Jack Mewhort, RB Jordan Hall, WR Devin Smith, WR Corey Brown, DE Nathan Williams, LB Ryan Shazier, DB CJ Barnett, CB Bradley Roby
Bowl projection: None (suspended)
Analysis: Urban Meyer is not inheriting a bare cupboard. There is plenty of talent for Meyer to utilize in his first season at the helm of the Ohio State program, beginning with QB Braxton Miller who looks like the perfect signal-caller for Meyer's offense. The defense is just as talented with DT Johnathan Hankins and DE John Simon appearing to have a great future in the NFL. The Buckeyes are on their way back, and were they bowl eligible, this is a team that should be considered a dark horse for the BCS.
3. Illinois (8-4, 5-3)
Top players: LB Jonathan Brown, OC Graham Pocic, DT Akeem Spence, DE Michael Buchanan, CB Terry Hawthorne, OG Hugh Thornton, QB Nathan Scheelhaase
Bowl projection: Outback
Analysis: The Illini started last season 6-0 and finished 6-6, costing Ron Zook his job. Tim Beckman takes over the Illini after being the head coach at Toledo the last three seasons. With him Beckman brings a wide open offense that put up huge numbers at Toledo. He also inherits a talented dual-threat QB in Nathan Scheelhaase, who should have the Illini putting up points this season. There are also some playmakers on defense, particularly up front with DT Akeem Spence and DE Michael Buchanan. Illinois is a threat to every top tier team in the conference.
4. Purdue (6-6, 3-5)
Top players: DT Kawaan Short, CB Ricardo Allen, WR Antavian Edison, OG Peters Drey, DT Bruce Gaston, LB Will Lucas, LB Dwayne Beckford, OT Trevor Foy, RB Ralph Bolden, QB Caleb Terbush, RB Akeem Shavers
Bowl projection: TicketCity
Analysis: It won't surprise me if the Boilermakers do find their way into a bowl game. There's plenty of talent returning from a team that found its way into the postseason a year ago. The biggest question for Purdue is who will become the playmaker on offense. Defensively is where the Boilermakers are strongest. DT Kawaan Short is one of the best players in the conference. Many think Michigan State's William Gholston is the Big Ten's best defensive player. For my money, it's Short. They'll likely need three wins in conference play to sneak into the postseason and I see three, possibly four, available.
5. Penn State (7-5, 3-5)
Top players: LB Gerald Hodges, DE Sean Stanley, DT Jordan Hill, LB Michael Mauti, LB Glenn Carson, QB Matt McGloin, RB Curtis Dukes
Bowl projection: None (suspended)
Analysis: The biggest story at Penn State this fall is unfortunately not on the football field. But don't think the group of Nittany Lions still remaining from last season aren't going to play with pride. It seems like most of the defense's best players got together and decided to stay at Happy Valley. The lone defect was LB Khairi Fortt who went to Cal. The same can't be said of the offense. The Nittany Lions best playmakers, including RB Silas Redd, are gone. Scoring is going to be an issue for Penn State just like it has been for the past two seasons. However, scoring will also be an issue for the Nittany Lions' opponents. There's still enough talent on defense at Linebacker U., and plenty of pride to pick up a few wins in conference play.
6. Indiana (4-8, 1-7)
Top players: WR Kofi Hughes, DT Larry Black, RB Stephen Houston, QB Tre Roberson, OG Collin Rahrig, OC Will Matte
Bowl projection: None
Analysis: It's between Indiana and Minnesota for title of worst team in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers were 1-11 in Kevin Wilson's first year as head coach, and won't be significantly better in his second year, although three wins is an improvement. Tre Roberson gives the Hoosiers a dual-threat at QB and Stephen Houston was solid at RB. There are less questions about the OL this season as well. Finding more playmakers on defense will be the biggest challenge. I take it back, Minnesota is definitely the worst team in this conference. Things for Indiana at least appear to be headed in the right direction.
Big Ten Championship
Wisconsin over Michigan State -- The Badgers are just too talented for the Spartans. The Big Ten has turned into a high-scoring conference, and Wisconsin can put up more points than Michigan State. This will be the third straight Big Ten title for the Badgers. If it does happen, it will mark the first time in Wisconsin's program history.