2012 NCAA Football Preview: Big Ten Conference

August 18, 2012

Due to the fact that I’m from the Midwest, the Big Ten Conference preview tends to be one of Around The Corn’s most read articles each year. That said, I always try to do a thorough job of covering the conference because I’m immersed in the culture of Big Ten football. However, to skeptics who believe that the post must be inherently biased as a result, don’t be fooled. I do my best to remain as unbiased as possible…you know, for a college football preview full of opinions and predictions.

Here is the Big Ten Conference preview.


If you took a poll of each of the twelve teams in the Big Ten Conference asking them about their goals for the upcoming season, it is quite possible that you would come back with twelve different responses. In the world of coach speak where almost nothing is revealed, that is saying something. For teams such as Penn State and Ohio State, who are serving sentences that will keep them out of the postseason, the national championship picture is the last thing on players and coaches minds. For teams such as Wisconsin and Michigan State, perfection is plausible. For a team like Minnesota, a simple winning season would be huge.

Take all this into account, and you have a recipe for a very entertaining conference. While there are definitely a few teams that are more talented than others on paper, it isn’t a stretch to say that a healthy handful of the conference could realistically contend for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game. From a national perspective, the Big Ten should be on par with teams from the Pac-12 and Big 12. Unlike at the beginning of last season, it doesn’t appear that the conference has enough firepower to dethrone the SEC in 2012.

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


For a second consecutive year, the Badgers are poised to be the class of the Big Ten. While the loss of quarterback Russell Wilson will be something to keep an eye on, Wisconsin has once again plucked a talented quarterback from the ACC in Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien. O’Brien’s success will likely come as a surprise to most of the nation because Maryland struggled last year, but he is a former ACC Rookie of the Year with a strong arm. However, the spotlight will be cast on the running game, which will be anchored led by Heisman hopeful Montee Ball. Ball’s speed and field vision should more than compensate for the fact that the Badgers will be breaking in several pieces of the offensive line.

If Wisconsin wants to make it through the season unscathed, it will need to do two things. One is develop the offensive line, which will have to be excellent in order to compete with the best defenses in the nation. An indicator as to whether that has occurred will be when the Badgers take on Ohio State’s mammoth defensive line on November 17th. Wisconsin will also have need to improve on last year’s defense, which gave up too many big plays that led to heartbreaking back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Ohio State in October.

If it can do those two things, watch out. The Badgers have a dangerous offense with lots of weapons and have a favorable schedule that only sees them going on the road against one preseason Top 25 team.

Michigan State 

Before all the fans of Big Blue cry foul, let’s get something straight: the Wolverines are only ranked eighth in the nation and received a first place vote in order to sweeten the pot for the College Football Kick-Off game against Alabama. In addition, Michigan’s schedule is deceptively difficult. Sure, the Wolverines don’t have to face Wisconsin, but they do have to face Notre Dame, Purdue, Nebraska and Ohio State, all of which are tricky games on the road. Other than a grueling three week stretch where they go on the road to face Michigan, Wisconsin and come home to battle Nebraska, the Spartans get to play all their difficult games at home.

This is a bit of a reach, because Michigan State must replace the leadership and quarterback skills of Kirk Cousins and doesn’t bring a whole lot back on the offensive side. However, the defense is stacked, led by standout defensive end William Gholston. The defense should be able to keep Michigan State afloat even if the offense takes longer than expected to develop. If junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell can come into his own and the offensive line allows tailback Le’Veon Bell (who will be the focal point of the offense early on) room to work, this is a team that has the talent to make it to Miami.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Ohio State

This just seems too easy. A young cast full of potential that is now coached by Urban Meyer? Anyone could predict that they might surprise people this season. With sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller still in the developmental stage, it could be a rough start to the Big Ten season for the Buckeyes as they start off conference play in East Lansing and then come home to face Nebraska one week later. But if Miller and the rest of the relatively green offense picked up on Meyer’s spread offense this summer, things could get very exciting in Columbus.

The defense is anchored by the defensive line, although there are playmakers all over the field on defense for Ohio State. Assuming that the offense is not as stagnant as it was at times last season, the pressure on the defense to hold opponents won’t be as great. History suggests that with Urban Meyer as head coach, pressure on the defense won’t be a big issue.

This is a team capable of notching double-digits in the win category, which would be a surprise based on the youth of this team and the schedule it faces. However, don’t tell that to the Buckeye Nation; they think that success will come quickly with Urban at the helm.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Kain Colter (Jr.), Northwestern quarterback

There are a lot of players in the Big Ten that will see plenty time on SportsCenter (Denard Robinson, Montee Ball, Fitzgerald Toussaint, to name a few), but one of the league’s rising stars plays for a team that probably won’t be making too much of a splash on the national stage. Thanks to an Achilles injury to former Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa, Kain Colter got a chance to call the shots for Northwestern for the better part of the 2011-2012 season. Colter is extremely versatile (he has played slotback, wide receiver, running back and quarterback for the Wildcats) and a big reason why head coach Pat Fitzgerald thinks the spread system could be the key to success in Evanston. 

Colter isn’t Superman, so don’t expect him to work some type of magic that sends Northwestern to a BCS bowl. However, he will be one of the most electric players in the Big Ten (and possibly the nation), and it would be a shame to miss out on him solely because his team isn’t a threat to win the league.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Michigan vs. Alabama (September 1st)

College GameDay will be there, which means it must be a pretty big game. Without a doubt, this is the biggest non-conference matchup of the regular season, and it will determine whether Alabama or Michigan jumps into the fast lane towards the national title game. The Big Ten has not fared well against the SEC in marquee matchups, but Michigan has a chance to make a huge statement for both itself and the conference with a win.

One of the knocks on the Wolverines is that their up-tempo offense doesn’t do well against more physical defenses. Michigan can prove that isn’t true by taking it to the Alabama defense, which will still be very physical despite losing the bulk of the cast from last season. If Michigan is to win, this will have to be a high scoring affair. Alabama can win either way, although it would be silly to assume Nick Saban doesn’t want to see another defensive stalemate in which he emerges the victor.

In-Conference Game To Watch

Michigan State vs. Wisconsin (October 27th)

Wisconsin gets a chance to avenge its gut-wrenching, last second loss to Sparty that spoiled a perfect season. Michigan State gets a chance to prove to the country that it can do it again, and possibly preserve a perfect season of its own. We’ll be in for a treat if this game is even half as entertaining as last year’s.

By the time this game rolls around, both teams should have established an identity. Wisconsin’s will most likely be a power rushing attack, but Michigan State may have found a niche in the passing game if Andrew Maxwell and his young receivers pan out. The uncertainty is an element that makes this game one to anticipate. Regardless, defense will also play a role in this game, as one turnover could be the difference between these two teams.

Conference Predictions

Leaders Division

1. Wisconsin (11-1, [7-1])

2. Ohio State (9-3, [5-3])

3. Penn State (7-5, [4-4])

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

5. Illinois (7-5, [3-5])

6. Indiana (3-9, [0-8])

Legends Division

1. Michigan State (10-2, [7-1])

2. Michigan (9-3, [6-2])

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

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

5. Iowa (7-5, [3-5])

6. Minnesota (3-9, [2-6])

Big Ten Championship Game (Wisconsin vs. Michigan State)

Winner: Wisconsin

Questions from the Readers

Q. Who will be Ohio State’s leading rusher? (Submitted by @kcox803)

A. This is actually much more than a “glance and answer” question. With Urban Meyer installing more of a spread offense, a guy like tailback Jordan Hall may be used more like Percy Harvin was at Florida. In addition, Hall is expected to miss at least the first two games of the season, which will make being the team’s leading rusher a challenge.

Here is what I see happening. Hall will end up getting the most touches as a “tailback”, but Braxton Miller has the potential to rack up some yardage as well if he becomes anxious in the pocket and reverts to using his legs to get out of trouble. Remember, Miller is only a sophomore, so there will still be some sort of a learning curve. I expect Hall to end up with the most yards at the end of the season, but don’t be surprised if Miller is close behind or even the leader.

Q. How has Penn State fared in recruiting the past 9 months, with the coach transition plus incredible black eye? (Submitted by @NXPenguin)

A. Determining how recruiting was truly affected is difficult to pin down. Looking at the facts, the Nittany Lions have received nine commitments from the Class of 2013, three of which are four star recruits. Obviously, National Signing Day (in February) is where a lot of the blue chip recruits make their decision, so that is where we can really get a better idea on how the entire Paterno/Sandusky scandal affected the program.

This is what I believe will happen. The penalties suffered in addition to Paterno no longer being the coach will result in some recruits who want to play for national titles overlooking Penn State. However, they’re still going to get three types of players: 1. those who were overlooked by the top schools because they were a little slower or a little smaller 2. those who want to create a new legacy at Penn State and do not care about postseason opportunities 3. those who have always wanted to be a Nittany Lion for whatever reason (relative played there, grew up a fan, live in the area, etc.) and would have committed regardless.

In that scenario, I think Penn State could end up with a team full of guys with a chip on their shoulder, who feel like they have something to prove, and the program could end up not falling as far as some people think they will. The irony is that they could end up becoming a team people root for, without all the prima donna five-star recruits that never pan out anyway.

Q. With the Ohio State and Penn State suspensions affecting bowl eligibility for both teams this upcoming season, do you think a team from the Southwest division (I REFUSE to call it the “Leaders” division) could surprise the Big Ten and make a run to the Big Ten Championship Game and beyond? (Sumbitted by Coleman M.)

A. As you read above, I think that Ohio State actually has a chance to be the team that could surprise some people. However, another team from the “Southwest” division that has a chance to make some noise is Purdue. Coming off a bowl win and returning 13 starters from last year’s team, the Boilermakers have something to build on for this season. Caleb TerBush isn’t a spectacular quarterback, but he can get the job done and is really more of a game manager anyway. I think that head coach Danny Hope should make a decision at quarterback and not go with the two quarterback system that he has been flirting with in the past, and that might get them an extra win or two.

The Boilermakers sometimes appear to settle for mediocrity, but this year’s team has a considerable amount of talent. I could see them racking up as many as eight wins, which is pretty good in West Lafayette.

– K. Becks


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