Back to the Days of the “Big 2”?
Before Hayden Fry took over at Iowa in the late 1970’s, no Big-10 program had really challenged Ohio State or Michigan the previous 20 years. Iowa didn’t back down. They went toe-to-toe with the big bad bullies of the Big-10 the next decade, which paved the way for other programs to be competitive in this league. Ohio State and Michigan have remained the dominating programs in the Big-10, but there has been a lot more parity this century.
As we head into 2013, many think the “Big 2” is back to dominating the conference. Urban Meyer hasn’t lost a game at Ohio State yet and Brady Hoke has Michigan back on the rise. Iowa is crumbling before our very eyes under Kirk Ferentz, Bret Bielema bolted from Wisconsin, Illinois continues to struggle, Penn State is on probation and Purdue heads into a new era with question marks on both sides of the ball. And, let’s be honest, the conference has taken a verbal beating from fans and analysts around the country the past decade.
Despite all of that, the Big-10 isn’t back to the days of the “Big 2”. There is still some parity in this league and a handful of quality programs. Nebraska is still Nebraska. They’re not the Nebraska of the 1980’s and 1990’s, but they’re no pushover either. Northwestern consistently fields a respectable ball club under Pat Fitzgerald. Bielema left behind plenty of talent in Madison. And Mark Dantonio has Michigan State back in a position to compete for a conference title following a disappointing 2012 season. It’s going to be a great year for Big-10 football.
Let’s take a look at our conference predictions, starting with projected conference finishes…
- Michigan State
- Ohio State
- Penn State (ineligible for postseason)
Conference Championship Game: Ohio State over Michigan State
Bowl Eligible Teams: Michigan State, Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Legends Division Overview: A Division of Parity
Michigan State is our pick to win the Legends Division because of their defense. The Spartans bring back 8 starters from a defense that was one of the best in the country. Yes, they did struggle offensively last year…big-time. But improved quarterback play by Andrew Maxwell is expected. Michigan, Nebraska, and yes, even Northwestern should head into the season expecting to contend. This will be Pat Fitzgerald’s most talented squad. Northwestern is going to be a real force in this league this year. Michigan and Nebraska are Michigan and Nebraska. Michigan is either going to be really good this year or an 8-4 squad. It all depends on if defensive coordinator Greg Mattison can get that side of the ball back to what it was in 2011.
Iowa is another team that, on paper, appears to be one of the weak links of the Big-10. But that’s what the pundits said in 2002 (Big-10 champs), 2003 (Top 10 national finish), and 2008 (Top 20 national finish). Kirk Ferentz has his doubters but no one can doubt his ability to put together a surprising team. The Hawkeyes appear to be a 4-5 win football team but if they win 9-10 games, no one should be surprised.
Leaders Division Overview: Heavy at the Top, Light at the Bottom
There’s no doubting who the favorite in the Leaders Division is – THE Ohio State University. Barring injuries to key players, Ohio State is going to win this division. Quarterback Braxton Miller is the league’s top Heisman Trophy candidate heading into the fall. The Buckeyes went unbeaten last year, but the only win that really mattered was Michigan. Now they’re off probation and are as strong of a national title contender as there is.
Last year, the top two teams in the division – Ohio State and Penn State – were ineligible for postseason. So Wisconsin ended up representing the division in the Big-10 Championship game with a 7-5 overall record. The Badgers will likely have a similar record this year to start the post-Bielema era. Penn State surprised everyone with an 8-4 record in Bill O’Brien’s first season. There could be some drop-off due to a lack of motivation. O’Brien was able to motivate his team to play for pride last year despite being ineligible for the postseason. But can he do it two years in a row? Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue simply do not have the talent to contend in this league. All 3 teams are early in their rebuilding projects. If you like high scoring football games, tune into the Hoosiers this year. They’ll score 30…and give up 40.