2013 NCAA Football Preview: Big Ten Conference

August 22, 2013
By K. Becks

If I had to take a guess, I would say that this article is one of my most read pieces every year. I live in Big Ten country, and there is nothing that people in that area of the country love more than the start of college football season.

Since Around The Corn has become primarily a site filled with predictions over the past year or so, the Big Ten football preview has become one of my most important and favorite articles that I write.

Let’s dive right in to the Big Ten Conference football preview.

Overview

Will this finally be the year that the Big Ten breaks through and ends the SEC’s reign as college football’s monopoly on national championships?

Fans in other parts of the country may laugh whole-heartedly at this question. For years, the Big Ten has made the claim that they pose the greatest threat to ending the SEC’s dominance, but there hasn’t been much success to back up that claim. Since 2007, the Big Ten has put a grand total of zero teams in the national title game, and not since 2003 when Ohio State stunned Miami has a Big Ten team even been competitive in a national championship game.

Laugh if you want, but once again the optimism is high in Big Ten country, especially in Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeyes have put together a pretty talented team for 2013 and are coming off the heels of an undefeated 2012 campaign in which Ohio State was ineligible to silence the critics. Still, it feels like there is a lot that the conference still has to prove. What if the Buckeyes do in fact remain unbeaten this season? Was the conference strong enough from top to bottom to prepare them for the SEC team they will most likely meet in Pasadena?

These are the questions that are being thrown around right now. One loss by Ohio State, and they’ll stop. But so will the claims that its conference is capable of competing with the SEC. Welcome to the Big Ten, where the schools are proud and the critics are loud.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a National Championship Bid

Ohio State

As a student on the campus, let me tell you, the expectations in Columbus are much higher for the Buckeyes than they are anywhere else. And this isn’t because the rest of the nation doesn’t truly believe that Ohio State is the No. 2 team in the nation, either. Even if the Buckeyes were perceived as one of the top squads in the nation by fans in every corner of the country, the expectations would still be ten times greater in Columbus.

A new thing this is not, but head coach Urban Meyer has invigorated a fan base that needed invigoration about as much as Alex Rodriguez needs sympathy. Thanks to a stellar 2013 recruiting class that ranked No. 2 in the nation by Rivals.com, this optimism isn’t likely to subside.

But enthusiasm and optimism for the future isn’t why Ohio State has a good shot at running the table this year. All you have to do to come to that conclusion is look at the number of returning starters and the schedule. Nine returning starters on offense and a schedule that marks games against Northwestern (yes, really) and Michigan (as always) as the most difficult hurdles bodes well for a team with a coach that demands perfection even in games against teams such as Florida A&M (also on the schedule).

The most difficult challenge the Buckeyes may face this year is themselves. With suspensions to Carlos Hyde, Rod Smith and Bradley Roby already handed down, it is apparent that Coach Meyer will have to deal with more than just on the field issues with his team. This isn’t a knock on Meyer’s ability to do so, rather an acknowledgement of the fact. If Ohio State can keep from shooting itself in the foot, Pasadena won’t look like 2,233 miles away from Columbus for long.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Minnesota

For years Minnesota has been the doormat of the Big Ten, but times are changing in the Twin Cities. After a surprising 6-6 season that saw the Golden Gophers qualify for a bowl game, Jerry Kill’s squad brings back a lot of pieces from a team that was overmatched physically but hung in against most of the Big Ten teams it played. With a year of experience under his belt, sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson should continue to take steps towards being one of the conference’s best up-and-comers at the position.

The schedule isn’t much easier than last season (games on the road at Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State), but it would be surprising if the Golden Gophers weren’t in most or all of the games they play this season. Cutting the deficit heading into the fourth quarter is the first step for a team like Minnesota, which showed it has the ability to play heads up football when it nearly took down Texas Tech in a bowl game that was essentially a home game for the Red Raiders. A Legends Division title may be a bit far-fetched this year, but seven or even eight wins is not out of the question.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Ameer Abdullah (Jr.), Nebraska running back

With the departure of Rex Burkhead, Abdullah becomes the feature back in a Nebraska offense that will ultimately have to carry the Cornhuskers if they expect to compete for the Big Ten championship. Although Abdullah was technically the backup to Burkhead last season, he still ran for over 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns as Burkhead went down with a knee injury in the middle of the year.

Teams in the Big Ten will have to game plan specifically for Abdullah because of his quickness and cut back ability. With Taylor Martinez at quarterback, the Cornhuskers could have one of the most feared rushing attacks in the country and may be able to parlay that strength into a very strong record heading into its heavyweight battle with Michigan. Abdullah could end up leading the conference in rushing this season.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Notre Dame vs. Michigan (September 7th)

If last year’s game between these two teams is any indication, then the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry is well on its way to revival. Both Michigan coach Brady Hoke and Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly must be commended for putting together solid football teams after coming to their respective programs facing all sorts of wreckage. But this game could favor Michigan if Notre Dame cannot find a quick replacement for quarterback Everett Golson, who is suspended for the season.

Despite Golson’s absence, Notre Dame still has a lot of talent on its defense which should contribute heavily to the final tally on the scoreboard. Michigan is hoping that Gardner can continue to help the Wolverines move towards a pro-style offense that will thrive in the Big Ten. While it appeared that the transition was going well near the end of the season, Michigan dropped its final two games against arguably its strongest opponents of the latter half of the year. This game is the first of the 2013 campaign where the Wolverines can prove the new offensive scheme is good enough to beat quality football teams.

In-Conference Game To Watch

Ohio State vs. Northwestern (October 5th)

Although Ohio State may have to fear itself more than any team it plays this season, the Buckeyes cannot overlook the Northwestern Wildcats. Pat Fitzgerald’s squad is coming into the 2013 season with more momentum and expectations than ever before, and the Wildcats have the ability to live up to those expectations. The two quarterback system with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian is one of the few in the nation that actually works, and that’s not even the best part of Northwestern’s offense. Senior running back Venric Mark is arguably the team’s most important asset.

The Buckeyes will need to find a way to slow down the passing attack when Siemian is in, but also be smart enough not to over pursue the run game when Colter comes into the game. There is a good chance that both teams will be ranked and unbeaten when this game rolls around, and the Wildcats will have a chance to make history. Don’t be fooled into thinking these brainiacs aren’t good enough to pull off an upset.

Conference Predictions

Leaders Division

1. Ohio State (11-1, [7-1])

2. Wisconsin (10-2, [6-2])

3. Penn State (9-3, [5-3])

4. Indiana (5-7, [3-5])

5. Purdue (4-8, [2-6])

6. Illinois (2-10, [0-8])

Legends Division

1. Nebraska (10-2, [6-2])

2. Northwestern (10-2, [6-2])

3. Michigan (9-3, [5-3])

4. Michigan State (7-5, [4-4])

5. Minnesota (7-5, [4-4])

6. Iowa (4-8, [1-7])

Championship Game (Ohio State vs. Nebraska)

Winner: Ohio State

Questions from the Readers

Q. Who is the biggest threat to Ohio State making the championship game this year?…spoiler alert: themselves. (Submitted by @OtterArfArf)

@OtterArfArf makes a good point. For what it’s worth, the Buckeyes are more talented and will be favored against every team on their schedule. They themselves will be the biggest obstacle to overcome, because winning football games is more than just having the most talented players on the field.

That being said, I still think there is one team that is going to give Ohio State a lot of trouble this year. Mark your calendars for October 5th if you haven’t already, Buckeye fans. Northwestern is the real deal, and that game under the lights is going to be Ohio State’s stiffest test of the season save The Game. The Wildcats were in every single game last season, and there is evidence to suggest that they will only be better in 2013.

Q. Are you upset at the possibility that OSU/UM could play twice? (Submitted by @kfitz8)

Not really. The Game will always be sacred to both fan bases, and just because there is the potential for a rematch a week later in a dome for the right to go to the Rose Bowl (or national championship) doesn’t mean that the final game of the regular season will mean any less.

The Big Ten Championship Game isn’t in the Big House or The Shoe. They aren’t the same, and the fans at the B1G conference title game aren’t the same as the ones at The Game.

Besides, while it’s a possibility, I don’t see a rematch of the two teams this year, anyways.

Q. If OSU does not win the B1G conference, what would that mean for coach Urban Meyer? (Submitted by @TrentGardner1)

No one puts more pressure on himself to win than Urban Meyer, so to not win the Big Ten Conference (which would mean either not winning the conference championship game or finishing behind anyone but Penn State in the Leaders Division) would obviously be a huge disappointment to Meyer himself. However, it would also draw a lot of criticism from both Ohio State fans and the national media.

Buckeye fans believe that this is a year where they are destined to make it to the national title game. If that doesn’t happen, anything but a Rose Bowl berth would be a huge disappointment. Both the local and national media do not believe that there is much else in the Big Ten to get excited about other than Ohio State, and while that may not be entirely true, the fact is that the Buckeyes are the overwhelming favorite to win the conference.

Would it put a dent in his legacy? Perhaps. But wouldn’t a huge loss in the national championship game to Alabama put a bigger dent in his legacy as a coach? That’s what everyone in Columbus would prefer, though.

Q. What do you think OSU’s biggest “trap game” is? (Submitted by @kfitz8)

I’ll define trap game in this manner: a game in which a team is not expected to lose to or have trouble with.

That being said, I’m taking Northwestern off the table. I do think the Buckeyes will have trouble with the Wildcats, and if you look at my conference predictions, I even have the Buckeyes suffering their lone loss of the season to Northwestern.

There aren’t many, but the biggest trap game for the Buckeyes in my mind is against Wisconsin. The Badgers aren’t expected to win a fourth straight Big Ten crown, but they have the personnel to do it. Also, there is the chance, however slim it may be thanks to Coach Meyer that Ohio State looks ahead to Northwestern and gets surprised by the Badgers at home.

I think Ohio State will overwhelm Wisconsin offensively if they are focused, but that is definitely a game that I would define as a potential trap for the Buckeyes.

- K. Becks

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