Ohio State Buckeyes: Danny Hope
Darin from Lyme, N.H., writes: The Buckeyes don't need to worry about making the national title game if they win out. If you look at the BCS historically, only one out of 15 years has an undefeated team from a major conference not made the game (Auburn 2004). The odds are extremely long that we will end up with more than two undefeated teams.
Adam Rittenberg: Darin, you make a good point. The BCS usually works itself out to where undefeated teams from major conferences aren't on the outside looking in. Oregon's loss to Stanford on Thursday night certainly helps Ohio State, as the Ducks once again won't be going to the national title game. Baylor's big victory against Oklahoma helps the Bears' chances, but I still don't think Baylor runs the table. Ohio State won't jump Florida State or Alabama if both teams win out, and FSU's path to the title game certainly looks easier than that of Alabama, which still has LSU, Auburn and most likely South Carolina or Missouri in the SEC title game. The Buckeyes simply need to keep winning, ideally in impressive fashion, and hope teams like Wisconsin and Michigan State also continue to win. Ohio State already has beaten Wisconsin and would benefit from facing an 11-1 MSU team in the Big Ten championship game.
Bob from Forest, Va., writes: I realize you don't know much about the Rutgers program. Regarding coaching salaries you said "fairly or unfairly" the fact that RU is paying the football coach 800-900K per year leaves the perception that RU doesn't belong in a league like the Big Ten. Do you recall what they paid Coach Flood's predecessor? Also I always thought it was on-field performance that determined whether or not a team belonged. Outside of Ohio State, is there really a single B1G team RU can't compete with? We've held our own vs the Big Ten if you take out Penn State pre-B1G with a .500 record. What I don't get are the jabs from you. Is it an ESPN thing or are you just writing what you think your readers want to hear?
Adam Rittenberg: Bob, you're absolutely right that on-field performance, and not coach salary, determines whether a team like Rutgers will sink or swim in the Big Ten. It always comes down to winning, and Rutgers has an excellent opportunity to prove itself in a loaded East Division with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State. You say Rutgers has held its own with the Big Ten outside of Penn State. Who else has Rutgers played? Rutgers hasn't played a Big Ten team since 2006 (Illinois) and has never faced seven current Big Ten teams (Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin). Your argument is therefore irrelevant.
I realize Rutgers paid more for Greg Schiano, and that Flood is a young coach who doesn't demand a huge salary. But like I wrote, the perception looks like Rutgers is small time when every other Big Ten coach is making at least $1.2 million. Placed in the larger context of what major conference coaches make, it looks pretty low. Purdue faced the same perception when it paid coach Danny Hope less than $1 million. That's just the way it is. But you're right that Rutgers can improve its perception by beating teams coached by guys making four times as much as Flood does.
Anthony from New York writes: Why didn't you include Michigan in your list of BCS at-large candidates? We know from 2011 that a two-loss Michigan team will be attractive to BCS bowls if ranked in the top 14. As you've said, Michigan is better off not making the B1G title game if it wants an at-large bid. It is perfectly plausible to see Michigan beat Nebraska, Iowa, and Northwestern (though none are easy games). Add in an upset of unbeaten Ohio and you've got a top-14 Michigan team coming off four straight wins. Wouldn't they be a very attractive team?
Adam Rittenberg: Anthony, as I specified in the top of the post, I'm not including any unranked teams in the conversation for at-large berths at this point. If and when Michigan re-enters the BCS standings, it will appear as a candidate. But even then, how attractive would Michigan be? The Wolverines would have to look a lot better in their final four games than they have in their first eight. You and your fellow Michigan fans won't agree, but it would be a real shame if a Michigan State team that went 11-1 in the regular season and lost in the Big Ten title game to Ohio State missed out on a BCS berth in favor of a team like Michigan, which the Spartans embarrassed last week. I also wonder whether Michigan would get into the top 14 of the final BCS standings and be eligible for selection. An Ohio State win certainly would help, but it would depend on what other teams do elsewhere. Let's see how things play out, but I don't see a top-15 team in Ann Arbor this year.
Pat from East Lansing, Mich., writes: You both always pretty much have the same predictions week to week. Can we get creative?
Adam Rittenberg: We have to pick the teams we think will win, Pat, and sometimes they'll all be the same. I've differed from Brian in one game in each of the past two weeks and lost both times, as Nebraska's Hail Mary got me last week. One chatter Thursday suggested we incorporate score prediction into the race, which isn't a bad idea. We might look to do something with that next year. I think you'll see a few more disagreements down the stretch, but we're not going to be contrarians here, especially with an expensive dinner in Indianapolis on the line.
Charley from New York writes: Is it a journalist's job to lobby for millionaires to paid even more money? I must admit my jaw dropped when I read from you: "Both Wilson and Kill earn less than coaches from Colorado State, Navy, South Florida and Central Florida. That seems a bit troubling for teams in a loaded league like the Big Ten." Troubling? I notice you haven't been much of an advocate for paying the kids who actually generate the millions of dollars colleges earn from football, but you have always been an advocate for higher head and assistant coaches' salaries. Is this your way of trying to brown-nose your sources or do you really believe that educational institutions should devote more and more of their budgets to football coaches' salaries?
Adam Rittenberg: Charley, do I believe college football coaches make ridiculous salaries for university employees? Yes. But they also bring in a ton of money, and the market is dictating what they're making. We can have a discussion on the larger issue of coach salaries if you want, but the pay structures are what they are in major conferences. People look at why the Big Ten is struggling right now. It's hard to completely dismiss the fact that SEC head coaches are making much more on average (SEC assistants are, too). As I wrote last month, money isn't the problem in the Big Ten, even though the league sponsors more sports than the SEC. From a perception standpoint, not necessarily reality, it doesn't look like Minnesota and Indiana are that invested in their programs when you look at the league they're in and the market rates for college coaches.
Chris from Knoxville, Tenn., writes: I know most people, myself a Michigan fan, included, favor Ohio State over Michigan later this month. But so many people are calling it to be a blowout. I disagree -- even in 2011 a downtrodden Ohio State kept that game close, and I expect this year's game to also be close, especially since it's at the Big House. Teams tend to preform better in rivalry games. Who do you think is right, the many people mentioned or my pick of a close game?
Adam Rittenberg: It's way too soon to call for a blowout in The Game. It's still three weeks away, we don't know the injury situations for both teams and we don't know how the teams will be playing entering that one. I don't expect Michigan to magically become a top-10 team by Nov. 30, but the Wolverines could remedy some of their issues before Ohio State comes to town. You're absolutely right that teams perform better in rivalry games. Michigan likely is out of the Big Ten title mix, so beating Ohio State is really the only major goal left for Brady Hoke's crew. More important, as you mention, Michigan plays much better at home under Hoke, never losing a game in his two-plus seasons. I'm not sure of my prediction for The Game, but I doubt I'll pick Ohio State to win by more than 10 points. Michigan will give its best effort on that day.
Grant from Cincinnati writes: Is it just me, or is Luke Fickell's stock much higher than it should be? His track record as a recruiter and positions coach is well documented, and he seems to be a high quality, character guy. However, in his only season as head coach, he went 6-7. It's not as though the cupboard was bare for him, as that year was sandwiched between a Sugar Bowl victory and an undefeated season. Also, his defense has underachieved for much of this season, though it seems to be getting back on track a bit. Now he's interviewing for a head coaching gig and you're mentioning that you expected him to hold out for a major conference head coaching position. In short, Fickell seems like a good guy, but why the love fest?
Adam Rittenberg: Some fair points here, Grant. Fickell's stock certainly seemed higher before he became a head coach -- albeit under very difficult circumstances -- or a defensive play-caller (Jim Heacock handled those duties until last season). I don't think you can judge him too much for the struggles in 2011, as the program was rocked by Jim Tressel's resignation and had a tough situation at quarterback because of Terrelle Pryor's departure. Fickell handled himself well overall, although the on-field product left much to be desired. There have been some valid criticisms of him as a defensive coordinator, as Ohio State hasn't been a salty as it used to be on that side of the ball. But I think Fickell could thrive as a head coach because of his personality and recruiting ability. He might be a better CEO type than a coordinator, and I think fans and players would rally around him. It needs to be the right situation, unlike the one in 2011.
Nick from East Lansing, Mich., writes: How likely is it that MSU has to look for a new coach in the offseason? It would be hard to turn down if Texas came calling.
Adam Rittenberg: Sure, Texas certainly has its perks, but I highly doubt Mark Dantonio is going anywhere. He's in a great situation at Michigan State, works for a great athletic director (Mark Hollis) who he loves, and has roots in the Midwest as an Ohio native. Dantonio definitely is due a raise at Michigan State, although it's more important to him to pay his assistants, which the school has been doing. At this stage in his career, I don't think Dantonio wants to deal with all the excess stuff at a place like Texas. You never say never, but I'd be very surprised if he's not back at MSU in 2014.
Matt from Michigan writes: I am a little confused after reading the "rooting interests" article. Why would Michigan want Minnesota to lose? If Michigan State loses to Minnesota and either Northwestern or Nebraska and if (big IF) Michigan were to win out and finish 6-2 along with MSU finishing 6-2, it would be MSU winning the tie breaker. However, wouldn't Michigan still have a chance to represent the Legends in a three-way (or even four-way) tie at 6-2? Looking at the schedule, I think it is possible to have MSU, Michigan, Nebraska and Minnesota ALL finish at 6-2. Not saying likely, but that would make for a compelling last weekend!
Adam Rittenberg: Indeed it would, Matt. My rationale for the Minnesota loss would be to knock the Gophers out of the race, but if the tiebreaker is Michigan's best chance to win the division, which it may well be, it would make sense for Minnesota to win out. The key obviously is for Michigan State to start losing games, beginning next week against Nebraska. If Michigan State loses out -- highly unlikely -- and Michigan wins out, the Wolverines would go to Indy.
Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.
Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.
We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.
1. The Ineligibles overachieved under great coaches: We won't see Ohio State or Penn State until next fall, but both teams went out on positive notes to end seasons in which they overachieved. Aside from die-hard Buckeyes believers, who expected Ohio State to go 12-0 and record just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history? Even fewer people expected Penn State to go 8-4 after a tumultuous offseason that featured the exodus of running back Silas Redd and other key players. And when the Lions started 0-2, most folks wrote them off. But Bill O'Brien and his team never lost faith and surged through most of the Big Ten season. It was fitting that kicker Sam Ficken, whose struggles at Virginia led to Penn State's loss, had the game-winning field goal Saturday as the Lions beat Wisconsin in overtime. O'Brien exceeded all expectations in his first season as a head coach, recording the most wins ever by a first-year Lions boss. Will he be Big Ten Coach of the Year? The only other worthy candidate is Urban Meyer, who took a seven-loss Buckeyes team with significant depth issues and transformed it into one of the nation's best.
3. Rex Burkhead still can make an impact: This hasn't been the season the Nebraska senior running back envisioned, but he can still play a major role in how it turns out for Big Red. Burkhead returned to the field in the second half Friday against Iowa after Nebraska's offense stumbled and fell behind 7-3. In his first appearance since Oct. 20, Burkhead racked up 69 yards and Nebraska's only touchdown on 16 carries. He might not be 100 percent, but he showed the skills that make him beloved in the Cornhusker State, particularly on a grinding 9-yard run to pick up a first down after Nebraska was pinned inside its own 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Nebraska had hoped to get through the Iowa game without Burkhead, but when the team needed him, he delivered. He likely will play a bigger role this week against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Burkhead had 86 rush yards against the Badgers in the Big Ten opener, the only full game he has played this season. He could be the boost Nebraska needs to win its first league title since 1999 and possibly win the Rose Bowl, too.
4. Danny Hope's players didn't quit on him: Many Purdue fans have seen enough of fourth-year coach Danny Hope, but Hope has plenty of allies in his locker room. The Boilers easily could have quit after dropping their first five Big Ten games -- four blowouts (three at home) plus the heartbreaker at Ohio State. Some teams projected to do much more would have gone in the tank. But Purdue rallied behind Hope and gutsy quarterback Robert Marve, who played despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and won its final three games to secure a bowl berth. The product rarely looked pretty, and even Saturday's Bucket game against Indiana featured some bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments. But Purdue's players never stopped fighting and will head somewhere warm for the holidays. Whether Hope joins them remains to be seen, but he deserves some credit for keeping the team afloat during such a difficult stretch.
5. Bowl practices will be crucial for Big Ten teams: We don't know the bowl matchups yet, but they will be daunting for the Big Ten, which will be without two of its best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) in the postseason. For the league to avoid another bad bowl performance, several teams must take significant steps during bowl practices. Michigan State has the defense and the running back (Le'Veon Bell) to win its bowl game, but it needs quarterback Andrew Maxwell and a young receiving corps to develop. Coach Mark Dantonio hinted this week that his offense needed an update to keep up with the times. Maybe that can start next month in earnest. Minnesota has to get healthy and re-establish its offensive identity behind true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who will benefit from the 15 practices. Wisconsin also will have a chance to iron out its offensive issues, while a young Northwestern team that made major strides this fall must make another before facing what should be a heavily favored SEC foe in Florida. Michigan also gets some extra time to figure out its vision on offense with Gardner and Robinson.
No. 14 Nebraska (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) at Iowa (4-7, 2-5), Noon, ABC: In the second installment of the Heroes Game, Iowa will need a heroic effort to pull off the upset, even at home. The Hawkeyes have lost five straight, while Nebraska comes in riding a five-game winning streak and just needing to take care of business here to win the Legends Division. It's hard to imagine the Huskers slipping up now, but as we saw this past weekend, sometimes crazy stuff happens.
No. 19 Michigan (8-3, 6-1) at Ohio State (11-0, 7-0), Noon, ABC: Perhaps you've heard that these two schools have a little bit of a rivalry going on. The Game is always a big deal, and this year's edition looks like the biggest one since 2006. The Buckeyes are looking to finish off a perfect season, while the Wolverines would not only love to ruin that but need it to stay alive for a division title and for an outside shot at a BCS at-large bid. The Devin Gardner/Denard Robinson combo gives Michigan some crazy explosiveness, while Braxton Miller will try to rebound from his first subpar game of the season at Wisconsin. And it's Urban Meyer's first entry into this rivalry as head coach. Is it Saturday yet?
Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3) at Penn State (7-4, 5-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN2: This game is meaningless in the big picture, but it won't feel that way for the Nittany Lions' seniors who have created a unique legacy. The Badgers no longer have a division title to play for and are going to Indianapolis regardless. Still, Wisconsin can help its bowl placement with a win and doesn't want to go into the Big Ten title game on a two-game losing streak. Montee Ball needs one more touchdown to break a tie with Travis Prentice for the NCAA career record.
Michigan State (5-6, 2-5) at Minnesota (6-5, 2-5), 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network: It's still a little hard to believe that the Spartans have to win their finale just to go bowling, but that's the predicament they put themselves in. At least they're on the road and not at home, where they went winless in Big Ten play. Will any Michigan State fan even want to travel to watch this team play another game? Minnesota could make that a moot point by winning on senior day and getting to seven wins, which would be a great achievement in Jerry Kill's second year. The Gophers' home finale could be overshadowed by the A.J. Barker controversy this week, however.
Indiana (4-7, 2-5) at Purdue (5-6, 2-5), Noon, BTN: The Old Oaken Bucket game takes on real meaning as Purdue needs to win to reach its second straight bowl. Indiana saw its bowl hopes end last week, but the Hoosiers will be fired up for this rivalry and would love to keep the Boilermakers home. Danny Hope could be coaching for his job. Purdue has won eight of the last 10 meetings between these two, but Indiana came out on top the last time they met in West Lafayette in 2010.
Illinois (2-9, 0-7) at Northwestern (8-3, 4-3), Noon, BTN: Northwestern can wrap up a pretty impressive nine-win season and extend the misery of its top rival. The health of Kain Colter and Venric Mark will be the main angle to watch this week. Illinois coach Tim Beckman hasn't done much if anything to endear himself to Illini fans this season, but a win here could be a small step in that direction. His team is really thin, though, after enduring several more injuries last week. What are the chances Daniel Day-Lewis can show up in character to present the Land of Lincoln Trophy?
1. Ballin' for history: Thirteen years after Ron Dayne broke the NCAA career rushing record, another Wisconsin running back is on the doorstep of a major milestone. Badgers senior Montee Ball, who, unlike Dayne, spent a year and a half as a reserve, needs one more touchdown Saturday against Ohio State to tie the NCAA career mark of 78 held by former Miami (Ohio) star Travis Prentice. Ball has scored 13 touchdowns in his past six games and is averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. A big performance against the unbeaten Buckeyes will once again put Ball on the radar for top national honors. Ball's next rushing touchdown will mark his 72nd, moving him past Dayne for the Big Ten career record.
2. Holding serve in the Legends: Nebraska and Michigan are tied atop the Legends Division at 5-1, and on paper, they should stay that way after Week 12. Both teams are favored to take care of Minnesota and Iowa, respectively, on senior day in Lincoln and Ann Arbor. Nebraska's magic number (wins and Michigan losses) to punch its ticket to Indianapolis is 2. A Huskers loss and a Michigan win puts the Wolverines in control of their own fate in the division. One senior day subplot is whether face-of-the-program stars like Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will play after missing time with injuries. Burkhead (knee) returned to practice this week and seems closer to a return, while Robinson (elbow) remains day-to-day.
4. Hope and a prayer: There's growing talk that Purdue will make a head-coaching change after the regular season no matter what happens in the final two games. But can fourth-year boss Danny Hope save himself with a three-game win streak to become bowl-eligible? It's reason enough to tune in for an otherwise off-the-radar game between Purdue and slumping Illinois on Saturday. A loss to the Illini would prevent Purdue from getting bowl-eligible and likely seal Hope's fate, while a Purdue win adds intrigue to next week's Bucket game against Indiana. The Boilers' offense got on track last week behind quarterback Robert Marve and running back Ralph Bolden, while defensive tackle Kawann Short had his best game of the season at Iowa.
5. Rivalry renewed: Saturday's game at Camp Randall Stadium won't decide which Leaders Division team goes to the Big Ten title game, as Wisconsin already punched its ticket last week. But Ohio State can lock up the Leaders Division championship -- the only title it can win this season -- while Wisconsin can legitimize its trip to Indy by handing Urban Meyer's Buckeyes their first loss of the season. Looking ahead, the Ohio State-Wisconsin game likely will be the signature contest in the division for years to come. Illinois is a mess, Purdue has backslid this season, Indiana is still building and Penn State still has three more years of postseason bans. "I hate Wisconsin just as much as Michigan," Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown said this week. While Meyer and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema say their post-signing day spat is a thing of a past, it could bubble up Saturday depending on how the game goes.
6. Taking a pass: The Big Ten might not be flush with elite quarterbacks and high-powered offenses this season, but a few of its teams can sling the ball a bit, and two of them meet at Beaver Stadium. Indiana and Penn State are the Big Ten's top two pass offenses, ranking 26th and 40th nationally, respectively. They'll share the field Saturday as they try to rebound from different types of losses. Indiana quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with his accuracy (25-for-46) in last week's loss to Wisconsin and looks for a sharper afternoon. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin wasn't a happy guy after the Nebraska loss and will try to take it out on IU. The game features two of the Big Ten's top receivers in Penn State's Allen Robinson and Indiana's Cody Latimer.
7. Hawkeye hex: Iowa has been in a funk for much of the season and particularly in the past month, dropping four consecutive Big Ten contests. Perhaps a date with Michigan can put the Hawkeyes back on track. See, Iowa has won three straight against Michigan for the first time in team history and five of its past eight against the Wolverines. Michigan's seniors are anxious to finally get over the hump against Iowa, one of two Big Ten teams (Penn State the other) they have yet to beat. But maybe it works the other way and Iowa finally shows a spark on offense and stiffens its defense. If not, the Hawkeyes won't be going bowling for the first time since the 2006 season, and it'll be a very long winter for Kirk Ferentz. "It doesn't hurt, obviously," Ferentz said of his team's Michigan win streak, "but it doesn't guarantee us anything."
8. Backs of different sizes: Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell is the biggest featured running back in the Big Ten, checking in at 6-2 and 244 pounds. Northwestern's Venric Mark is the smallest, checking in at 5-8 and 175 pounds. But both have been extremely effective this season with the ball in their hands. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,249), while Mark ranks third in rushing yards (1,181) and first in all-purpose yards (1,917). Each has been the MVP of his respective offense, and it'll be interesting to see them on the same field at Spartan Stadium. Both Michigan State and Northwestern defend the run well, too, both ranking in the top 25 nationally.
9. Illini look for a spark: Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and total offense, and lingers near the bottom of the FBS in all the significant categories. The Illini need some sort of boost on offense or a 2-10 season is a virtual certainty. Head coach Tim Beckman, whose background is defense but who had a high-powered offense at Toledo the past few years, took a more active role with the offense this week in an effort to get things going. Beckman also noted that co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales call plays on different downs. Hmmm. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne took more reps with the wide receivers this week and could see an increased role against Purdue. Illinois aims to win on senior day for the first time since 2007.
10. Bowl picture taking shape: We learned a little more about the Big Ten bowl contingent last week as Minnesota became bowl-eligible, Purdue took a big step toward the postseason and both Iowa and Indiana took a step toward a winter at home. There should be some more answers in Week 12. Michigan State aims for its sixth win to go bowling for the sixth consecutive season under coach Mark Dantonio. Purdue must keep its bowl hopes alive at Illinois, while both Iowa and Indiana must win on the road to avoid loss No. 7. It won't be easy for the Hawkeyes or Hoosiers. Indiana never has won at Beaver Stadium in 15 previous meetings with Penn State. Iowa never has won consecutive games at Michigan Stadium.
The so-called Ineligi-bowl on Saturday night in State College paired the top two teams in the most recent power rankings. Penn State came in brimming with confidence following five straight wins, but it missed several big opportunities early in the game. Ohio State took over behind Miller and a surprisingly good defense, showing that it remains the class of the Big Ten.
Nebraska moves up to the No. 2 spot after keeping Michigan out of the end zone, while Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State and Iowa all drop. Wisconsin looks very shaky without top quarterback Joel Stave, and Iowa is a mess after being outclassed for the second straight week. Aside from Wisconsin's and Iowa's drops, and Minnesota's and Indiana's rises, there's not a ton of movement. Purdue and Illinois remain at the bottom of the barrel.
As a reminder, the power rankings are a snapshot of a team's current state -- how it is performing in real time. Injuries are considered.
Here's the rundown ...
1. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): The Buckeyes have the Big Ten's best player in Miller and the league's best team, period. They racked up 234 rush yards and three touchdowns against a stout Penn State defense and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ohio State's defense had one of its best efforts, keeping Penn State out of the end zone for more than three quarters. Urban Meyer's squad had looked shaky the previous two weeks, but it cranked things up in the second and third quarters and never looked back. A perfect season seems much more realistic with three games to play.
2. Nebraska (6-2, 3-1, last week: 5): Three weeks after being crushed by Ohio State in Columbus, Nebraska has new life and control of the Legends Division. The Huskers have regained their swagger on defense and capitalized on a Denard Robinson-less Michigan team in the second half Saturday night, allowing just 52 yards. Nebraska has survived almost two full Big Ten games without top running back Rex Burkhead, who should be back this week at Michigan State. Bo Pelini challenged his team to win out after Ohio State, and the players have responded. Another test awaits this week against the Spartans.
3. Penn State (5-3, 3-1, last week: 2): Bill O'Brien's team had been efficient and opportunistic in its first three Big Ten games. The Lions were neither against Ohio State, failing to build a bigger first-half lead and making too many mistakes in the middle part of the game. Penn State had too many penalties, not enough third-down conversions, not enough in the run game and not enough third-down stops against Ohio State. The Lions took a big step up in class but couldn't match the Buckeyes despite an electric atmosphere in State College. They aim to get back in the win column this week at Purdue.
4. Michigan (5-3, 3-1, last week: 3): No Robinson equaled big, big problems for Michigan against Nebraska. Backup quarterback Russell Bellomy struggled mightily, and Michigan could have a tough time in the coming weeks if No. 16 doesn't return to the field. The defense still performed well against Nebraska, at least until the fourth quarter, but Michigan is too invested in Robinson on offense and has very few answers without him. The Jug Game becomes a lot more interesting as Michigan visits a Minnesota team coming off of its best performance in Big Ten play.
5. Northwestern (7-2, 3-2, last week: 6): After three very shaky weeks on offense, Northwestern finally established its identity behind junior quarterback Kain Colter and the option game. Iowa had no answers for Colter and the Wildcats' ground attack, as Northwestern piled up 349 rush yards, averaging 7.1 yards per attempt. Northwestern's defense once again allowed some yards but limited points and big plays, making Iowa work for every point it scored. Pat Fitzgerald's team got through October, a month when it typically struggles, at 2-2, and enters November with some momentum.
6. Michigan State (5-4, 2-3, last week: 7): There's new life in Sparta as Michigan State's beleaguered offense showed up just in time and helped the Spartans rally past Wisconsin in Madison. Pat Narduzzi's defense has been elite for most of the season but cranked things up a notch at Camp Randall Stadium, limiting Wisconsin to 10 first downs and 19 net rushing yards, and racking up five sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Defensive end William Gholston finally had a breakout game, and linebacker Max Bullough and others were fabulous. The Spartans now return home to play the spoiler role as they host Legends Division front-runner Nebraska.
7. Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2, last week: 4): The Badgers lost their first home game since 2009 and also their top quarterback, Stave, to injury. All the mojo generated from three consecutive impressive wins is gone, as Wisconsin's offense reverted to its early September form under backup Danny O'Brien. Wisconsin still has the inside track to represent the Leaders Division in Indianapolis, but Indiana is now in the running, too, and the Badgers must get things together offensively during a much-needed open week before heading to Bloomington.
8. Minnesota (5-3, 1-3, last week: 10): The future is now, and his name is Philip Nelson. Minnesota's freshman quarterback dazzled before the home faithful Saturday against Purdue, firing three first-half touchdown passes and finishing with 246 pass yards, 37 rush yards and no interceptions. With Nelson at the controls, Minnesota scored more points (44) against Purdue than it had in its first three Big Ten contests (39). An improved defense shut down Purdue until garbage time and received a nice lift from cornerback Michael Carter. Minnesota looks to make a major statement and regain the Little Brown Jug this week against Michigan.
9. Indiana (3-5, 1-3, last week: 11): Kevin Wilson and his team finally celebrated a Big Ten win Saturday, and several more could be coming in the next few weeks. Indiana -- yes, Indiana -- controls its own fate in the Leaders Division and has two huge home games coming up against Iowa and then Wisconsin, the only other team that can represent the Leaders in Indianapolis. The Hoosiers made fewer mistakes than Illinois, received a nice lift from their defense at times and seemed to identify their top quarterback in freshman Nate Sudfeld. IU has been in every game this season and could be tough to beat down the stretch.
10. Iowa (4-4, 2-2, last week: 8): The frustration is mounting in Hawkeye Country as Iowa received a thorough beating for the second straight week. The Hawkeyes lost by only 11 at Northwestern, but they never stopped the Wildcats' rushing attack and couldn't attack a shorthanded secondary down the field. The offense piled up 336 yards but couldn't translate them into nearly enough points. A bigger concern is a defense that has surrendered 937 yards the past two weeks. If Iowa can't rebound this week against Indiana, it could be staring at a bowl-less season.
11. Purdue (3-5, 0-4, last week: 11): The Boilers' season is on life support, and Danny Hope's tenure as head coach could be, too. Billed by Hope as his best team, Purdue hasn't shown up for three of its first four Big Ten contests. The Boilers' defense, featuring several future NFL players, let Minnesota's Nelson have his way with them Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Caleb TerBush clearly isn't the answer at quarterback, but it has taken too long for Hope to figure that out. Purdue has replaced Michigan State as the Big Ten's biggest disappointment, and it'll be tough for the Boilers to get bowl-eligible with four games to play.
12. Illinois (2-6, 0-4, last week: 12): Illinois had more first downs (23-14) and total yards (372-292) than Indiana, and held the ball for more than 33 minutes Saturday. But a flurry of mistakes -- penalties, turnovers, sacks, you name it -- allowed Indiana to score 24 of the game's final 27 points. Nathan Scheelhaase did some good things and Donovonn Young (124 rush yards) provided a boost in the ground game, but Illinois makes far too many errors to win games right now. It only gets tougher for Tim Beckman's crew as it heads to Columbus.
Team of the week: Penn State. Plenty of candidates this week, as Michigan ended Michigan State's four-game winning streak in the rivalry, Nebraska got a much-needed road victory and Wisconsin kept chopping in the Axe series. But no team was as impressive as the Nittany Lions, who went on the road in a hostile atmosphere and simply dismantled Iowa from start to finish in a 38-14 win. That was as complete a performance as you're going to see in this league, and as Adam wrote on Saturday, Bill O'Brien's team is no longer just a nice little story.
Biggest play: The first play of that Ohio State tying drive was a 39-yard completion from Guiton to Devin Smith that made everything else possible. It was a slow-developing play that the Buckeyes were a little hesitant to call because it demands such good protection by the O-line. Maybe too good, as Purdue coach Danny Hope complained that his defense "probably would have [gotten to Guiton] if we didn't have quite so many hooks and so many hands on our jerseys." Regardless, it was still a play that will go down in Ohio State lore.
After a pair of identical 4-1 marks in Week 6, Adam Rittenberg maintains a four-game lead against Brian Bennett in the season standings. Those shrimp cocktails at St. Elmo's in Indianapolis -- on Brian's dime -- are sounding pretty good right now, but there's still a long way to go and time for Brian to catch up.
It's prediction time ...
IOWA at MICHIGAN STATE
Brian Bennett: Get ready for a classically rugged Big Ten game between two teams who love to pound the rock and play defense. Neither team will be able to sustain many long drives against strong defenses. But home-field advantage and a key turnover forced by the Spartans' defense will make the difference. Le'Veon Bell contributes two scores as he outduels Mark Weisman. ... Michigan State 17, Iowa 14
Adam Rittenberg: While I'm tempted to pick Iowa in the upset, Michigan State matches up well against the Hawkeyes on both sides of the ball. The Spartans' defense holds Weisman to 90 rushing yards and records a key second-half interception against James Vandenberg. Bell records 100 yards and two scores as Michigan State grabs the early lead and holds on for its second straight win. ... Michigan State 21, Iowa 17
NORTHWESTERN at MINNESOTA
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern can't afford another poor start on offense, and I think the Wildcats come out of the gates a little stronger and take an early lead. Minnesota's Max Shortell makes some plays in the pass game, firing two touchdown passes, but Northwestern gets the ball in the hands of playmakers Venric Mark and Kain Colter a lot more often this week than last. Mark and Colter combine for three touchdowns and Northwestern survives a late scare to improve to 6-1. ... Northwestern 28, Minnesota 24
Brian Bennett: If the Gophers had a fully healthy MarQueis Gray, I'd be more likely to pick them here. As it stands, I don't think a gimpy Gray gives them enough firepower to get past Northwestern. Minnesota struggled against the run last time out against Iowa, and will do the same against Colter and Mark. A Jeff Budzien field goal provides the difference. ... Northwestern 31, Minnesota 28
WISCONSIN at PURDUE
Brian Bennett: It's practically do-or-die time for the Boilermakers, and I expect them to play as if their Leaders Division lives depend on this effort. In fact, they will lead most of the way after a couple of quick-strike scores early. But an improving Wisconsin offense chips away until Joel Stave hits Jared Abbrederis for a long touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the Badgers' defense hangs on late. ... Wisconsin 23, Purdue 20
Adam Rittenberg: You touched on the sense of urgency for Purdue and coach Danny Hope, and I think that'll be the difference in this game. A Boilers defense hungry to avenge last week's poor showing records an early takeaway against Stave. Both Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve play and fire touchdown passes. Although Wisconsin's Montee Ball records two rushing scores, the kicking game is the difference as Raheem Mostert breaks off a long return to set up the game-winning touchdown. ... Purdue 27, Wisconsin 24
ILLINOIS at No. 25 MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: Little is going right for the Illini right now, and they catch Michigan at the wrong time. After a quiet first quarter, Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson turns in another big performance (150 rushing yards, 175 pass yards, 2 rushing TDs, 2 passing TDs), and linebacker Jake Ryan records his first interception of the season. Versatile running back Josh Ferguson has a nice game for the Illini, but Michigan has far too much firepower and pulls away in the second quarter. ... Michigan 37, Illinois 14
Brian Bennett: The Illini's problems defending the spread and finding any kind of offensive rhythm don't bode well for this week's game in Ann Arbor. Robinson will throw for three touchdowns this week, and Michigan's defense holds Illinois to under 250 yards. ... Michigan 34, Illinois 10
No. 8 OHIO STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers are getting closer and closer to finally winning a Big Ten game. But it won't happen this week, as their shaky run defense is going to have a lot of trouble containing Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. Those two combine for four touchdowns, and Bradley Roby picks off another pass to stymie Indiana's mild second-half charge as the Buckeyes move to 7-0. ... Ohio State 42, Indiana 24
Adam Rittenberg: I've also been impressed with Indiana's ability to compete, but this is just a tough matchup against Big Bad Brax. Miller runs for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and Hyde records his second straight 100-yard rushing performance. Quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld both play and have some success in the first half, and receiver Cody Latimer tests the Buckeyes' defense, but Ohio State shifts into fifth gear late in the second quarter and cruises to 7-0. ... Ohio State 45, Indiana 21
Nebraska and Penn State are off this week.
Adam Rittenberg: 45-12 (.789)
Brian Bennett: 41-16 (.719)
Bring that beat back.
Team(s) of the week: Ohio State and Michigan share top billing this week. The Buckeyes turned in an attention-grabbing 63-38 blowout of Nebraska on national TV and have climbed up to No. 8 in The Associated Press poll. An undefeated season remains a strong possibility. Michigan was also very impressive, going on the road to clobber Purdue 44-13 in a must-have win. Anybody else already looking forward to The Game this year?
Best game: Even though Northwestern led Penn State 28-17 in the fourth quarter, you just knew it wasn't over. In fact, the Nittany Lions were just getting started. They reeled off 22 fourth-quarter points in a game that featured several wild momentum swings and fourth-down plays.
Best call: No one can accuse Bill O'Brien of playing it safe. Even though Penn State's kicking game is very shaky, most coaches would have settled for the field goal on fourth-and-4 from the other team's 5-yard line when trailing by three points in the fourth quarter. O'Brien is not most coaches. He rolled the dice and went for it, and Matt McGloin scrambled into the end zone for what turned out to be the winning score. Penn State was 5-of-6 on fourth-down conversion attempts against Northwestern.
Second guessing: Indiana was humming along in the first half against Michigan State but got strangely conservative right before halftime. Kevin Wilson gambled and pulled off an onsides kick after going up 24-14 late in the half. But after driving to the Michigan State 6-yard line, the Hoosiers ran three straight running plays and gained only 4 yards. Wilson elected to kick the field goal instead of going for it on fourth down, even though Michigan State was on the ropes and a touchdown might have provided a knockout blow. That's not the reason Indiana lost, because the Spartans pitched a shutout in the second half. But I bet Wilson would at least throw a pass into the end zone if he had to do that over again. Maybe he and O'Brien should compare notes.
Big men on campus (offense): It's all about the quarterbacks. Michigan's Denard Robinson ran for 235 yards (more than Purdue's entire offense generated) and threw for 105 more in the win over the Boilermakers. Ohio State's Braxton Miller ran for 186 yards and threw for 127 more in the pasting of Nebraska. And McGloin threw for 282 yards and accounted for three touchdowns while leading the Nittany Lions' fourth-quarter comeback.
Big man on campus (defense): Ohio State's Bradley Roby had a pair of interceptions against Nebraska and returned the first one 49 yards for a touchdown to open the Buckeyes' scoring onslaught. Props also to Roby's teammate John Simon, who had five tackles for loss versus the Huskers.
Big men on campus (special teams): Northwestern's Venric Mark and Ohio State's Corey Brown each scored on punt returns. Mark went for 75 yards against Penn State, while Brown took his 76 yards to the house.
Worst hangover: Purdue. Yes, Nebraska isn't going to enjoy the next two weeks after getting steamrolled by Ohio State. But the Cornhuskers always knew that was going to be a tough road game they could lose and still win the Big Ten. The Boilermakers were fired up after a solid start to the season, and many around the team believed a breakthrough was coming for Danny Hope's program. Instead, Michigan waltzed into Ross-Ade Stadium, rolled out to a 28-3 first-half lead and put Purdue back in its place. Now there are questions again about whether the Boilers will ever turn the corner under Hope. A win over Wisconsin this week now becomes paramount.
Strangest moment(s): It was a painful day for some of the officials in the Big Ten on Saturday.
In the Northwestern-Penn State game, line judge Michael Mahouski suffered a ruptured quad tendon while avoiding a hit on the sideline and had to be carted off. Another line judge was carted off in the Illinois-Wisconsin game. Forget replacement refs. Big Ten officials might need some replacement hips at this rate.
But those weren't even the weirdest circumstances involving an official on Saturday. In that Illinois-Wisconsin game, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tried to high-five back judge Mike Brown after scoring on a short touchdown run. Brown was not having any of it.
"Our deal is to hand the ball to the official," Scheelhaase explained. "But somehow the ball got loose -- I probably, like, threw it a little bit -- and in apology, I tried to give him a high-five. I almost knocked him over. He almost tripped.
“I don’t think they can [high-five players]. One of the refs told me they weren't able to do that.”
At least Mahouski got a handshake from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald as he left the field on the cart.
1. Miller Time, T-Magic on display: Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez might not be traditional Big Ten quarterbacks, but they're the faces of the quarterback position in the league these days. Both are dynamic dual threats who have made significant strides from the 2011 season. Miller aims to continue his Heisman Trophy campaign Saturday night against a Nebraska defense that struggled to contain him last year before he left the game with an ankle injury. Martinez led the biggest comeback in Huskers history last year against Ohio State and has accounted for eight touchdowns (6 pass, 2 rush) in his past three games.
2. Boiling point: Purdue coach Danny Hope says he already knows a lot about his team after three non-league wins and a 3-point road loss at Notre Dame. The rest of us aren't quite as sure about what the Boilers will be this season. The good news: Everyone will find out in the next three weeks, as Purdue opens Big Ten play with its defining stretch of the season. Before hosting Wisconsin and visiting Ohio State, Purdue hosts Michigan on Saturday in its most anticipated game since perhaps Wisconsin in 2004. The Boilers average 51 points per game on their home field, where they open league play against the Wolverines for the first time since 1970.
3. Oktoberfest: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald made October a major point of emphasis as far back as the summer, mindful of his team's struggles in the season's middle month. The Wildcats have done well in September (20-9) and November (13-8) under Fitzgerald, but they've had their difficulties in October (10-15), including a 1-4 mark in 2011. Northwestern is 5-0 for the third time in five seasons and takes a national ranking to Happy Valley, where it faces a streaking Penn State squad. It's a good chance for Northwestern to change its October fortunes against its most challenging opponent to date.
4. Seeking mojo in Mad City: Austin Powers would steer clear of the Illinois-Wisconsin game Saturday. Both teams are looking for their mojo after the first five weeks. Illinois tries to find it in a very tough place (Camp Randall Stadium) after being embarrassed on its home field in back-to-back weeks. Asked this week about boosting team morale, first-year coach Tim Beckman said, "That's what we're dealing with each and every day." Wisconsin appeared to make strides last week against Nebraska before collapsing down the stretch. Coach Bret Bielema is encouraged with his team's progress amid transition, but Wisconsin can't start Big Ten play at 0-2. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis called the Illinois game a must-win for Wisconsin.
5. MSU offense looks for green flag: After puttering around the track in the first five games, Michigan State's offense heads to the Crossroads of America (Indiana) hoping to finally shift into fifth gear. Coach Mark Dantonio shuffled the depth chart a bit this week, as freshman wide receiver Aaron Burbridge will start and other young players like freshman receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. should see increased time. Michigan State can't neglect the run game, though, as it boasts a 15-1 record when Le'Veon Bell scores at least one rush touchdown. Indiana surrendered 704 yards to Northwestern last week (394 rushing). Saturday is the time for Michigan State to finally put it all together on offense.
7. Whiteout in Happy Valley: Sparked by their team's three-game win streak, Penn State students are planning a whiteout at Beaver Stadium for Saturday's game against Northwestern. The Lions aim for their first home win against a ranked opponent since the 2008 season, and several players called the contest a must-win. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin has owned Northwestern in his career (417 pass yards, 6 TDs, 0 INTs in two games), and McGloin is a much better quarterback in Bill O'Brien's offense. After an ominous start, Penn State can enter an off week with a ton of momentum with a victory.
8. Bo heads home: While his team aims for a signature road win in the Big Ten, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini makes a homecoming of sorts Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Pelini played safety for the Buckeyes from 1987 to '90 and hails from Youngstown, Ohio. Not surprisingly, the Huskers' boss downplayed his Ohio State roots this week, saying he's "at a different time in my life, a different place" and "has a job to do." It's wise for Pelini to keep himself out of the spotlight as much as possible, but he'll likely experience some emotion when Nebraska takes the field at The Shoe. And a victory against his alma mater will mean a little extra.
9. Two Hoosiers take aim: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson doesn't see much separating quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, and he'll likely use both against Michigan State. Coffman has started the past two games, while Sudfeld has finished them, providing a spark down the stretch. Wilson likes the competition and plays down the other C-word (controversy), but the picture could clear up Saturday as the two quarterbacks face by far the best defense they've seen this season. Whoever better commands the IU offense -- and gets the ball to talented receivers Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer -- will take a step closer to locking up the top job.
10. Badgers' 2-minute drill: Joel Stave is Wisconsin's starting quarterback, and he looked the part last week against Nebraska in his first career road start. But in crunch time, after Stave got a bit shaken up, the Badgers followed their plan and went with veteran Danny O'Brien under center rather than Stave. O'Brien moved Wisconsin to midfield but botched the call on a fourth-and-1 play, leading to a fumble that clinched the victory for the Huskers. It'll be interesting how the Badgers proceed should a two-minute situation come up against Illinois. Will they turn to O'Brien or give Stave a shot? Stay tuned.
Minnesota at UNLV (11 p.m., CBS Sports Network): Grab an extra cup of coffee Thursday afternoon and get ready to watch the Gophers kick off the season for the Big Ten. Minnesota should be improved in Year Two under Jerry Kill. If so, they should be able to beat a struggling UNLV program, even on the road.
No. 24 Boise State at No. 13 Michigan State (8 p.m., ESPN): We waited nearly nine months for college football to return, and this is a reward for our patience. Two new quarterbacks are the big story here, as both get tossed into the fire against stout defenses. Should be great.
Northwestern at Syracuse (Noon, ESPN2): The journalism bowl helps get the first Saturday of the season started. Kain Colter and the Wildcats' skill players should have some fun running on the Carrier Dome turf.
Ohio at Penn State (Noon, ESPN): The Bill O'Brien era kicks off, and there are sure to be plenty of stories focusing on the atmosphere around Beaver Stadium. But don't overlook the Bobcats, who won 10 games last year for Frank Solich.
Western Michigan at Illinois (Noon, ESPNU): The Tim Beckman era begins against a Broncos team that played the Illini tough last year in Champaign. Beckman coached Toledo to a 66-63 victory over Western Michigan last year. There will probably be less scoring this weekend.
Miami (Ohio) at No. 18 Ohio State (Noon, Big Ten Network): Urban Meyer coaches his first game for the Buckeyes, who figure to be heavy favorites over the RedHawks. The spread offense will take over the 'Shoe.
Iowa vs. Northern Illinois (3;30 p.m., ESPNU): Hawkeyes fans are sure to flock to Chicago's Soldier Field to watch their team take on the Huskies, who went 11-3 last season. It could be a tough early test for Iowa's rebuilt defensive line.
Eastern Kentucky at Purdue (3:30 p.m., BTN): Boilermakers coach Danny Hope faces his alma mater, but the FCS Colonels shouldn't be much of a match for what appears to be an improved Purdue squad. If they are, that's a bad sign.
Southern Miss at No. 17 Nebraska (3:30 p.m., ABC regional): The Huskers don't have a gimme in their opener against the Golden Eagles, who went 12-2 in 2011. But Southern Miss has a new coach and several new starters, so Taylor Martinez and Co. should take care of business.
Northern Iowa at No. 12 Wisconsin (3:30 p.m., BTN): Northern Iowa is a good FCS program that won 10 games last season. But the Badgers, who debut new starting quarterback Danny O'Brien, usually make quick work of outmanned opponents at Camp Randall Stadium.
No. 8 Michigan vs. No. 2 Alabama (8 p.m., ABC): You might have heard a little something about this game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Wolverines could plant a big flag for the Big Ten and themselves if they can pull this one off.
Indiana State at Indiana (8 p.m., BTN): You'll probably be watching Michigan-Alabama, but if you switch to this game you'll like see the Hoosiers win their first game since Sept. 17 of last year.
Game week is here, and not a moment too soon.
Preseason camps have wrapped up around the Big Ten, and teams are now locking in for their openers this coming weekend. The power rankings will appear each Monday throughout the season, and we're getting things kicked off today.
There aren't many changes from our last version, although some offseason news has affected the rundown. The top five teams certainly have separated themselves in our eyes, while there's not much separating the next five on the list.
Here we go ...
1. Michigan State: We understand why Michigan is the highest-rated Big Ten team in the polls, but Michigan State gets the top spot in our power rankings because of its defense. A top-10 unit in 2011 could easily become a top-five unit this season, as the Spartans are strong at just about every position. While the concerns at quarterback and receiver are warranted, the offense will be effective enough with the run as Le'Veon Bell and a more seasoned line return.
2. Michigan: The Wolverines endured some injuries and off-field issues this summer and in camp, but they still enter the season with justifiably high hopes. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson has matured during his career and could make a serious push for national awards this fall. Michigan must shore up its lines and hope some young players grow up in a hurry. A relentless schedule is the biggest challenge for Brady Hoke's squad.
3. Wisconsin: The offense might not be as electric as it was the past two seasons and the defense has some question marks (secondary, pass rush), but Wisconsin knows how to win and boasts enough to claim another Big Ten title. Montee Ball is extremely motivated after a rough summer, and while Danny O'Brien isn't Russell Wilson, he gives the offense some stability. A favorable schedule with both Michigan State and Ohio State at home helps the Badgers.
4. Ohio State: It's a close call for the No. 4 spot, but the Buckeyes get the edge based on a defense with the potential to be one of the nation's best. John Simon anchors arguably the league's top defensive line, and almost everyone returns in the secondary. While there will be growing pains on offense, the unit can't possibly be worse than last year's, and Braxton Miller has a chance to make significant strides this season.
5. Nebraska: Fifteen starters return to a Huskers team that should be much more comfortable with the Big Ten in Year 2. But questions remain surrounding quarterback Taylor Martinez, replacing star power on defense and getting over the hump on the road. A signature road victory would go a long way for Bo Pelini's program, which returns 15 starters and has a great chance to climb this list and challenge for the Legends division.
6. Purdue: Danny Hope repeatedly called this his best Boilers team during the offseason, and we can see why. Purdue boasts a formidable defensive front and two bona-fide stars on defense in tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen. The Boilers also return most of their key weapons on offense. What we still need to see is a team that can avoid the major mistakes and mental lapses that have plagued Purdue throughout Hope's tenure. A challenging start to Big Ten play will tell a lot about the Boilers.
7. Penn State: The Lions will ride emotion and a stout defensive front seven this fall, and they could go further than most think after a brutal offseason. Still, it's hard to figure out how Penn State will score points, and the turmoil is bound to catch up with Bill O'Brien's crew at some point. If O'Brien bolsters an offense featuring mostly unproven personnel, Penn State could make a strong push. The schedule is favorable as the Lions get both Ohio State and Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium.
8. Iowa: Youth will be served this fall in Iowa City as the Hawkeyes turn to unproven players at several spots, namely defensive line and running back. The good news is that Iowa boasts a veteran in senior quarterback James Vandenberg, who could thrive under new coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa must ride Vandenberg's right arm and a talented back seven on defense headlined by cornerback Micah Hyde and linebacker James Morris. Iowa also should benefit from its schedule.
9. Illinois: The Illini and Penn State are nearly mirror images, as both teams have first-year coaches, talented defensive front sevens and question marks on offense. Defense could carry Illinois a long way this fall, as end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown anchor the unit. A new offensive scheme could spark third-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, although he'll need unproven weapons to emerge. Illinois could be a sleeper team this fall, although its Big Ten road schedule is flat-out brutal (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern).
10. Northwestern: After a drop in wins the past three seasons, can Northwestern get things turned around? The Wildcats once again should be strong on offense as Kain Colter takes over at quarterback, although there are some questions up front. The defense can't be much worse than it was in 2011, and while there will be more youth throughout the unit, there also should be more talent. Northwestern must capitalize on the first chunk of the schedule, which features several toss-up games but isn't overly taxing.
11. Minnesota: The Gophers will be an improved team in Year 2 under Jerry Kill. The problem is they play in a loaded division and face a tricky schedule with no gimme games. Quarterback MarQueis Gray has a chance to do big things as a senior, although his supporting cast remains a mystery. Troy Stoudermire's return should spark the defense, which played better down the stretch in 2011. Like Northwestern, Minnesota needs to get off to a good start and build confidence.
12. Indiana: The Hoosiers won't go 1-11 again, and they could be dangerous on the offensive side as sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson matures and the passing game becomes a bigger part of the plan. Question marks remain throughout the defense, and Indiana hopes an influx of junior-college players helps the situation immediately. Indiana will be older and better than it was in 2011, and the Hoosiers should be more competitive in Big Ten games. But until they prove otherwise, they're at the bottom.
Today, we're going to take a look at the position that puts every player under the spotlight: quarterback. We're ranking the top 10 individual players at each spot and then offering team rankings a little later on. These rankings are based on past performance and potential for the 2012 season, placing a bit more emphasis on their track record to this point.
Quarterback is an intriguing group heading into '12. Here's our Top 10:
1. Denard Robinson, Michigan, senior: Say what you will about Robinson's faults -- and we've said plenty about his sometimes erratic throws and Big Ten worst 15 interceptions in 2011. Robinson remains one of the best playmakers in the country and a three-year starter who's got plenty of heroic moments under his belt. He showed improved passing mechanics this spring and should benefit from his second year under Al Borges. And we all know what he can do with his feet. With the league's top precision passers from 2011 all having moved on, Robinson inherits the top spot.
2. James Vandenberg, Iowa, senior: Only 17 returning players in the FBS threw for more yards in 2011 than Vandenberg, who had 3,022, plus 25 touchdowns. His completion percentage needs to improve, as does his road performance, and he won't have Marvin McNutt around anymore. But he's easily the most polished pocket passer in the league heading into the season.
3. Braxton Miller, Ohio State, sophomore: Miller still has a lot to learn and he'll be doing so in an entirely new offensive system. Yet he showed flashes of brilliance last year, such as his performance against Michigan or his game-winning play versus Wisconsin. He's got the athleticism to be a tremendous dual threat quarterback. Matched with Urban Meyer's creativity, Miller has enormous potential.
4. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska, junior: Martinez put in a lot of time this offseason working on his throwing motion. His dedication to self-correction is very encouraging, and a better understanding of Tim Beck's offense plus more experienced receivers could lead to a higher completion percentage than last year's 56.3. If Martinez can become a reliable passer to go along with his explosive running skills, look out.
5. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota, senior: Gray had a rocky beginning to the season as he adjusted back to the quarterback position and a new coaching staff. But in his last five games, he averaged 255 yards of total offense. Of returning Big Ten players, only Robinson, Vandenberg and Martinez were responsible for more total yardage than Gray last season. Like many on this list, Gray has worked on improving his mechanics and accuracy. There isn't a more impressive physical specimen at quarterback than this 6-foot-4, 240-pounder.
7. Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois, junior: After a promising freshman campaign and solid start to 2011, Scheelhaase struggled along with the entire Illini offense. He bounced back with a good bowl game performance against UCLA and now must master the new spread attack under Tim Beckman. There are always going to be questions about Scheelhaase's size and arm strength but not about his intelligence and toughness. Does he have enough skill position complements this year?
8. Kain Colter, Northwestern, junior: Is Colter simply an athlete playing quarterback? Or can he become much more than that? Those are big questions heading into the year for a guy who filled in quite nicely for Dan Persa last year. Colter has elite athleticism but only attempted 22 passes in Northwestern's final 10 games. He could be helped by perhaps the league's deepest receiving corps.
9. Caleb TerBush, Purdue: Though he's being pushed by veterans Robert Marve and Rob Henry, TerBush got the vote of confidence as the starter from Danny Hope after spring ball. Thrust into a starter's role because of injuries to start last season, he improved as the year went on. He'll need to continue working on his decision-making, because the Boilermakers won't hesitate to go to one of their other options.
10. Andrew Maxwell, QB, Michigan State: Maxwell has attempted only 51 career passes in mostly mop-up duty. But he has spent four years in the Spartans' system, being groomed under Kirk Cousins. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, he's got the physical and mental makeup needed to be a standout Big Ten quarterback. He just needs more experience.