OSU Buckeyes: Nathan Scheelhaase
We're going back now and issuing a final, postseason ranking for each position group, and these will be far less subjective now because we have an actual full season's worth of data on hand.
Quarterbacks, naturally, are up first. (Those guys hog all the glory). You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth is an important factor in these position rankings, but having a standout main guy under center (or in the shotgun) is the most overriding concern with this group.
2. Penn State (Preseason: 12): The Nittany Lions were dead last in our preseason rankings, and with good reason considering their past performances at the position. But I did write at the time: "Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter." Uh, yeah. McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24) while throwing only five interceptions. And he stayed healthy, keeping Penn State's youthful backups from getting exposed.
3. Nebraska (Preseason: 3): Taylor Martinez led the Big Ten in total offense and completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes. When he was good, he was as good as there was in the league. But he still struggled with turnovers in key games, including 12 interceptions and numerous fumbles. If he can eliminate the mistakes, the sky's the limit.
4. Michigan (Preseason: 2): The Wolverines are a hard to team to peg in these rankings. Do we rank them based on Denard Robinson's poor showings in big games against Alabama and Notre Dame? Do we rank them based on Devin Gardner's strong finish to the season, when he was as productive as any Big Ten QB? How much do we factor in the team's lack of a solid backup plan in the Nebraska loss when Robinson got hurt early? You have to weigh the good with the bad, which makes this spot feel about right.
5. Northwestern (Preseason: 9): Starting quarterback Kain Colter threw for 872 yards, which was nearly 450 yards less than nominal backup Trevor Siemian. But Colter also rushed for 894 yards and kept defenses off balance with his versatility. Meanwhile, the Wildcats could use Siemian when they needed to stretch the field. The next step for Northwestern is developing a more consistent downfield passing attack.
6. Indiana (Preseason: 11): Who would have guessed in the preseason that the Hoosiers would actually exhibit the best depth at quarterback? After starter Tre Roberson went down in Week 2, Indiana was able to plug in juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld to sustain the league's top passing offense. The three combined to throw for more than 3,700 yards. Coffman got the bulk of the work but needed a better touchdown-to-interception ration than his 15-to-11 mark.
7. Purdue (Preseason: 1): We overrated the Boilermakers' depth in the preseason. It turned out that only one of the trio of former starters performed at a high level, and Robert Marve didn't play enough because of a torn ACL and Danny Hope's misguided insistence on sticking with Caleb TerBush. Purdue actually led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (30) and finished third in passing yards, but much of that was because the team often had to throw the ball a lot after falling way behind. This ranking could have been higher with a full season of Marve.
8. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): Danny O'Brien quickly showed that he was not the next Russell Wilson, but luckily the Badgers had some depth. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave showed major promise before his season was derailed by a broken collarbone, and Curt Phillips turned in a nice comeback story by managing the team well down the stretch. Still, Wisconsin ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards.
9. Michigan State (Preseason: 10): It was not exactly a season to remember for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell, who was benched late in the Spartans' bowl game. But for all his struggles, Maxwell still finished No. 4 in the league in passing and had some nice games in the middle of the year.
10. Minnesota (Preseason: 6): What could MarQueis Gray have done if he hadn't hurt his ankle, prompting an eventual move to receiver? True freshman Philip Nelson took over the reins midseason and broke out with a huge first half against Purdue. However, he failed to throw for more than 80 yards in the team's final three regular season games. Nelson led the team with just 873 passing yards on the season, and the Gophers threw 15 interceptions.
11. Iowa (Preseason: 4): Nobody took a bigger tumble than the Hawkeyes, as James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard passer as a junior to often looking lost as a senior. He completed only 57.3 percent of his passes and tossed only seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and Iowa showed almost no ability to go vertical. And no other Hawkeye attempted a pass all season.
12. Illinois (Preseason: 7): The Illini had experience at the position with Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but they were both part of a wildly dysfunctional offense. Illinois was next-to-last in passing yards in the Big Ten and also had just 11 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions. In fairness, both QBs were often running for their lives and had very little help.
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.
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.
This week's slate certainly looks a lot more manageable for the Big Ten, and several teams -- looking at you, Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State -- definitely need a W.
It's prediction time ...
WESTERN MICHIGAN at MINNESOTA
Brian Bennett: The Gophers improve to 3-0 -- barely. Jordan Wettstein nails his second game winner of the young season after MarQueis Gray leads the team down the field in the final two minutes. Minnesota overcomes three turnovers to escape at home. ... Minnesota 27, Western Michigan 24
Adam Rittenberg: Broncos quarterback Alex Carder provides the first real test for Minnesota, which gives up two early touchdowns before settling down. It'll be a close one, but Gray and the run game do enough as Minnesota goes to 3-0. ... Minnesota 30, Western Michigan 24
ARKANSAS STATE at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: It'll take more than a week for Nebraska to fix its defensive woes against fast-paced, spread-ish offenses. Gus Malzahn's team makes some plays, but Arkansas State can't stop anyone, and both Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah rush for more than 100 yards. ... Nebraska 41, Arkansas State 21
Brian Bennett: I think the Huskers come out angry after the loss to UCLA and take it out on Malzahn's team. The defense gives up some big plays but keeps Arkansas State under 400 total yards. Martinez has four touchdowns, including two scoring tosses to Kenny Bell. ... Nebraska 45, Arkansas State 24
CALIFORNIA at No. 12 OHIO STATE
Brian Bennett: No rest this week for Braxton Miller, but he'll enjoy running and passing against Cal's shaky defense. The Golden Bears hang around for a while, but two more picks by an opportunistic Buckeyes defense kills any upset thoughts ... Ohio State 35, Cal 21
Adam Rittenberg: I grew up in Berkeley going to Bears games, and it's sad to say the Cal program is in free fall under coach Jeff Tedford. Ohio State has some initial trouble figuring out the Cal defense, but Miller gets going eventually and accounts for three touchdowns. Cornerback Bradley Roby records his first interception of the season as Ohio State pulls away in the third quarter. ... Ohio State 31, Cal 17
CHARLESTON SOUTHERN at ILLINOIS
Adam Rittenberg: We ranked this as the worst Big Ten nonconference game, and it won't disappoint (not sure if that's possible). Josh Ferguson eclipses 200 rushing yards, and at least two Illinois quarterbacks fire touchdown passes as the Illini roll. ... Illinois 45, Charleston Southern 3
Brian Bennett: I'd be more interested in watching the Illini stage an intrasquad scrimmage than this yawner. Doesn't matter if Nathan Scheelhaase or a line cook from Nathan's Famous starts at quarterback. Illinois will win in a rout, and we won't learn a thing. ... Illinois 49, Charleston Southern 0
EASTERN MICHIGAN at PURDUE
Adam Rittenberg: Eastern Michigan looks like the perfect opponent for Purdue's offense to recharge against. Akeem Shavers rushes for 150 yards and three scores against the nation's No. 118 rush defense, and Caleb TerBush fires two touchdown passes. ... Purdue 38, Eastern Michigan 14
Brian Bennett: The Boilers, still smarting from the Notre Dame loss and the Robert Marve injury news, get off to a slow start. But their defense and running game take over and wear down Eastern Michigan. Shavers runs for 100 yards and two scores. ... Purdue 42, Eastern Michigan 17
BOSTON COLLEGE at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: I love the way the Northwestern defense stepped up against Vandy, and Venric Mark is becoming a star. But ... history tells us the Cats usually slip up after good things happen. So I'm picking the mild upset here, with Chase Rettig throwing the winning score late in the fourth quarter. ... BC 31, Northwestern 28
Adam Rittenberg: Toughest game of the week to predict. (I haven't been right on Northwestern yet.) I like Pat Fitzgerald's approach to ward off a letdown, and while Boston College jumps ahead early and attacks Northwestern's secondary more, I don't think the Eagles can slow down Mark and the run game for four quarters. Expect another Trevor Siemian-led rally as Northwestern improves to 3-0. ... Northwestern 28, Boston College 27
MASSACHUSETTS at No. 17 MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: This isn't the same UMass team that nearly stunned Michigan in the Big House in 2010. The Minutemen are awful. Fitz Toussaint gets back in the groove with three rushing touchdowns, and Denard Robinson puts up more sick stats in a total laugher. ... Michigan 65, UMass 0
Brian Bennett: If Brady Hoke wanted Robinson to get 700 yards in this game, he could. Instead, Robinson puts up 100 yards rushing and three total touchdowns before sitting in the third quarter, while Toussaint finally gets going against what is likely the nation's worst FBS team. ... Michigan 55, UMass 3
NAVY at PENN STATE
Brian Bennett: OK, I incorrectly picked the Nittany Lions to win the first two weeks (although they won everywhere but the scoreboard at Virginia). I'm guaranteeing that Penn State gets off the schneid against the Midshipmen. The Lions' problems on defense have revolved around stopping the pass, which won't be an issue against the option. Matt McGloin helps PSU find the end zone three times. ... Penn State 24, Navy 14
Adam Rittenberg: Penn State has played well enough to win, and the Lions finally get over the hump this week. I like the matchup for Penn State's defense, which doesn't have to worry too much about the pass. McGloin fires two touchdown passes, and Sam Ficken connects on a 50-yarder as Penn State finally celebrates. ... Penn State 17, Navy 13
NORTHERN IOWA at IOWA
Adam Rittenberg: I've wanted to pick against Iowa twice now and hesitated, getting burned last week. This time, I'm going against the Hawkeyes, even though the opponent is Northern Iowa. The FCS Panthers have nothing to lose, while Iowa continues to play tight on offense. UNI nearly beat a good Iowa team in 2009. It beats a bad one this year. ... Northern Iowa 17, Iowa 16
Brian Bennett: The Hawkeyes fail to score a touchdown yet again, but get by on four Mike Meyer field goals. Iowa blocks a three-point try by the Panthers on the final play to survive. ... Iowa 12, Northern Iowa 9
BALL STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: The 2-0 start for Indiana is a nice story, but the schedule hasn't been very good. Ball State is a major step up, and with Cameron Coffman getting his first start at quarterback, this is a dangerous assignment for the young Hoosiers. They lead early but can't control the Cardinals' running game in the fourth quarter. ... Ball State 35, Indiana 28
Adam Rittenberg: I really think the Hoosiers are getting better, but I agree with you about the schedule. Ball State is a significant jump in competition, and while Coffman fires two touchdown passes, he also fires two interceptions in his first start. The Cardinals rally to make it three straight against the Hoosiers. ... Ball State 31, Indiana 30
No. 20 NOTRE DAME at No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE
Adam Rittenberg: Get ready for another defensive struggle at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State's defense has been as advertised, and coordinator Pat Narduzzi told me this week that the unit is nowhere near its potential. Isaiah Lewis and the Spartans make it a rough night for Notre Dame's quarterbacks, and Le'Veon Bell rushes for two scores as MSU improves to 3-0. ... Michigan State 17, Notre Dame 10
Brian Bennett: This one will come down to defense, as Michigan State hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown all year and the Irish front seven will give Andrew Maxwell some problems. The Spartans' D is just better, however, and creates one score off a turnover. Bell does the rest with two touchdowns. ... Michigan State 21, Notre Dame 17
UTAH STATE at WISCONSIN
Brian Bennett: No Badgers assistant coaches will lose their jobs after the team gets back in the winning column. But it won't be easy against an Aggies team that just beat Utah. The Wisconsin offensive line looks a bit better, and Montee Ball runs for 125 yards and two scores. ... Wisconsin 23, Utah State 14
Adam Rittenberg: If Wisconsin's offensive linemen have any pride, they come out angry in this one. And a bunch of angry 300-pounders means bad things for the Aggies. The Badgers start quickly and get their swagger back, racking up 250 rush yards. ... Wisconsin 31, Utah State 17
Rittenberg: 18-6 (.750)
Bennett: 17-7 (.708)
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.