Football Season Preview | Big Ten

On August 7, 2012 by

Welcome to week five of your eight-week Empire season preview for the 2012 football Buckeyes. At noon on Tuesdays between now and kickoff, we’ll break down a different component of the fall season (see topics and links to past posts below). Some will be written by me. Some will be presented in roundtable format.

Week One: Welcome to the Urban Era
Week Two: The Roster
Week Three: The Schedule
Week Four: No Bowling Allowed
Week Five: Big Ten
Week Six: The Shoe
Week Seven: Beyond 2012
Week Eight: Predictions

This week, I discuss the Big Ten as a whole and make my predictions for both divisions and the conference championship game (Buckeye-specific predictions have to wait a few weeks).

Leaders (predicted order of finish)

1. Michigan Wolverines
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers
3. Michigan State Spartans
4. Iowa Hawkeyes
5. Northwestern Wildcats
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Michigan is back.

This is an Ohio State blog. Michigan is Ohio State’s archrival. That makes Michigan’s resurgence a touchy topic. But I can’t see the return of the conference’s second national power as anything but a positive for both the conference and the Buckeyes.

It’s true that the Wolverines didn’t deserve their Sugar Bowl berth last season, a sentiment that some rationally-minded members of their fanbase share. It’s also true that their record last season was, in part, a result of a weak schedule. But the team’s recruiting is as good as it’s ever been and Brady Hoke is both a perfect and permanent fit for the Michigan ideal.

That means that the Buckeyes may not enjoy another decade of dominance like the one that just ended. But the positives of that realization outweigh the negatives. The conference’s profile improves when Michigan thrives; it’s one of two programs in the B1G capable of making an annual national impact. Wins against Michigan are more satisfying when the games are competitive and their fan base comes in overconfident as opposed to downtrodden. Finally, a late-season victory (or two, if you count the conference championship) against a highly-ranked Michigan will carry significant weight with the committee that decides the field of the coming college football playoff.

That’s a complicated way of saying something simpler: Michigan is the class of the Leaders division and will be for decades to come.

That doesn’t mean that their path is unobstructed. In contrast to the Buckeyes, who should be topping the Legends division for years to come, it won’t be surprise to see Nebraska and Michigan State, both excellent programs, steal one from the Wolverines every few years. But it won’t happen this year. Though the Spartans lost several offensive weapons, their stingy defense should be at least as strong as last year’s incarnation. Nebraska should be similarly competitive, but to win the division, they need an above-average passer. Taylor Martinez doesn’t fit that mold.

Legends (predicted order of finish)

1. Ohio State Buckeyes*
2. Wisconsin Badgers
3. Purdue Boilermakers
4. Illinois Fighting Illini
5. Penn State Nittany Lions
6. Indiana Hoosiers

* The Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play, which leaves the second-place team, Wisconsin, as the de facto division winner.

Realignment has never sounded so good.

When originally conceived, the two divisions of the Big Ten were, on their face, balanced. Each was headlined by a national power, Ohio State in the Legends and Michigan in the Leaders. Each power was supported by two perennial contenders (Wisconsin/Penn State and Nebraska/Michigan State) two consistently solid squads (Illinois/Purdue and Northwestern/Iowa), and one dud (Indiana and Minnesota) .

When trying to balance power between two divisions, it’s inevitable that their relative strength will shift from decade to decade. However, when Big Ten leadership formulated their divisions they lived in blissful ignorance of the impending scandal at Penn State.

Suddenly, a perennial contender in the Legends division and a flag-bearing program for the conference is reduced to a shadow of its former self and new competitor with Indiana for worst-in-the-division honors. The structure of the NCAA’s sanctions could have spared the Lions a respectable season, with one glaring exception: their players can transfer without penalty. Almost every skill position player who made a substantial contribution to the team’s limited offensive success last season has taken advantage of that offer. The results won’t be pretty.

Realignment won’t happen in the aftermath of the disaster in State College. The conference is betting that, long-term, the divisions will adjust themselves (my bet is that Illinois steps into Penn State’s shoes). But that doesn’t change one simple fact: the Legends division is unequivocally weaker than its Leaders counterpart.

That benefits the Buckeyes, particularly in 2012. This year, and for the foreseeable future, the Buckeyes will dominate the division. Wisconsin fielded a strong team last year and, for the second straight season, they’ll finish the year with an excellent record and a berth in the conference championship game. But in the context of the rest of the country, their star has faded slightly. This season, they won’t be blessed with Russell Wilson‘s arm, relying instead on Montee Ball‘s legs. Though the running back posted Heisman-candidate numbers last season, he did so in part because of the well-balanced offense he was used in. It remains to be seen whether he can compensate.

That said, the Badgers are well-coached and talented. They’re a formidable opponent and they match up well against every team in the division outside of the Buckeyes.

It should be noted that, though Illinois isn’t likely to make an impact in the Legends division in 2012, they’re a rising power. Tim Beckman is an excellent coach, one who I would have supported as an Ohio State hire had the Urban Meyer deal fallen through.

Wisconsin is weak, Penn State is in shambles, and Illinois is a few years away. That leaves the door open for the vastly improved Buckeyes to finish first in the division. That, ironically, leaves the door open for the Badgers. As noted above, the Buckeyes aren’t eligible for postseason play, which means the . Consider it a gift. The Badgers will represent the division in the B1G Championship Game this season. But it’ll be their last for quite some time.

Overall Impressions

Just a few months ago, one of the principal story lines surrounding Urban Meyer’s arrival in Columbus was the effect that his presence in the Big Ten would have on the conference as a whole.

In the long run, the conference will change. But if change is coming, it won’t happen this quickly.

But this is Meyer’s first year and the Buckeyes are ineligible to represent the B1G on a national scale. On a whole, the Big Ten is a solid, if not exceptional, conference that can justly claim the regional superiority of the SEC without the title contenders.

This year, the conference will be represented by Michigan and Wisconsin in the conference championship game. A lot can change, but right now, Michigan is the better team, meaning they’ll represent the conference in their first Rose Bowl since 2007.

Where they’ll lose.

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