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Ohio State poised to assert itself in Big Ten and on national stage

FILE- In this April 13 2013 file phoOhio State quarterback BraxtMiller passes as head coach Urban Meyer rear watches during

FILE- In this April 13, 2013, file photo, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller passes as head coach Urban Meyer, rear, watches during the team's annual spring NCAA college football game in Cincinnati. Miller didn't make any headlines during the offseason, but he has been under a microscope for the past two years, ever since he first took over as the Buckeyes' starting quarterback. (AP Photo/Al Behrman, File)

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1. OHIO STATE

1 Unbeaten teams last
season. Even Alabama
(13-1) couldn’t match Ohio State’s 12-0.

Urban Meyer says: ‘‘This year’s team has high expectations, riding off the coattails of what those kids did last year. It’s very simple: If we get tremendous leadership from our coaching staff and, most important, our players, then we’ll have success.’’

The story line: Guided by a revered coach and freed from the shackles of an NCAA bowl ban, the Buckeyes begin the season as the team most likely to face the Crimson Tide in the national championship game in January.

The bottom line: Ohio State returns nine starters, including Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller at quarterback, from an offense that led the Big Ten with 37.2 points a game last season. The defense must replace seven starters (never a good thing), but the talent is there. The Buckeyes’ Big Ten opener against Wisconsin on Sept. 28 in Columbus will tell a lot.

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Updated: August 25, 2013 4:27PM



The Legends Division is
expected to go out with a four-way bang. The Leaders Division could go out with a rout.

That’s where Big Ten football seems to be headed this fall in its last 12-team incarnation. Next year, the Big Box — um, Big Ten — will expand to 14 teams with the
additions of Maryland and Rutgers.

This fall, though, it appears that Ohio State is ready to regain its perch atop the league. Second-year coach Urban Meyer, who won two national championships at Florida, could have the Buckeyes ready to contend on the biggest stage, as well as in the conference.

Barring a players-only
Tupperware party at a tattoo
parlor, Ohio State should romp in the Leaders Division. In the
Legends Division, Michigan,
Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern are pick-’ems. With the Wolverines joining Ohio State in the new Big Ten East for 2014, this will be the last opportunity for the descendants of Bo and Woody to play a same-season doubleheader by adding a rematch in the Big Ten championship game.

Elsewhere, the league welcomes two new coaches, Gary Andersen at Wisconsin and Darrell Hazell at Purdue.

The coach on the hot seat is
Illinois’ Tim Beckman, who goes from the frying pan into the fire after cooking up an ugly 2-10 start. And while Kirk Ferentz, the dean of Big Ten coaches, is hardly on a hot seat, he can’t be resting
comfortably after going 4-8.

Here’s the rest of the form chart as the Big Ten prepares to say goodbye to Legends and Leaders and say hello to Terrapins and Scarlet Knights:

LEADERS DIVISION

1. OHIO STATE

1 Unbeaten teams last
season. Even Alabama
(13-1) couldn’t match Ohio State’s 12-0.

Urban Meyer says: ‘‘This year’s team has high expectations, riding off the coattails of what those kids did last year. It’s very simple: If we get tremendous leadership from our coaching staff and, most important, our players, then we’ll have success.’’

The story line: Guided by a revered coach and freed from the shackles of an NCAA bowl ban, the Buckeyes begin the season as the team most likely to face the Crimson Tide in the national championship game in January.

The bottom line: Ohio State returns nine starters, including Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller at quarterback, from an offense that led the Big Ten with 37.2 points a game last season. The defense must replace seven starters (never a good thing), but the talent is there. The Buckeyes’ Big Ten opener against Wisconsin on Sept. 28 in Columbus will tell a lot.

2. WISCONSIN

5 Rose Bowl trips by the Badgers since 1998, tops in the Big Ten. Michigan (three) is the only other school with more than one appearance.

Gary Andersen says: ‘‘Trust me, I understand it. We walked into a program that is absolutely not broke. It’s been very successful, and there are great young men that have been recruited here.’’

The story line: Andersen, an Urban Meyer assistant at Utah in 2004 who was 11-2 at Utah State last season, inherits 14 returning starters from Bret Bielema, who bolted to
Arkansas. But the quarterbacks are unproven and the offensive line is regrouping.

The bottom line: The Badgers, the first five-loss team to reach the Rose Bowl, were better than their 8-6 record last
season. But with Ohio State armed and dangerous, they’ll need to be shockingly better to make their fourth consecutive trip to Pasadena.

3. PENN STATE

65 Scholarship
players at Penn State because of NCAA sanctions, leaving depth a big question in the second year of the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Bill O’Brien says: ‘‘We’re in a situation that’s unprecedented. But we’re thankful for our players. They’re tough. They’re resilient. They’re good kids. We’re looking forward to working with them. The rules are what they are.’’

The story line: O’Brien, who deserved all those coach-of-the-year accolades for guiding the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record last season after an 0-2 start, tries to put together another positive season for a program trying to survive weighty punishment.

The bottom line: For all their troubles, the Nittany Lions return a solid nucleus. A rugged conference schedule won’t help. But if O’Brien can find an effective new quarterback and Penn State can stay healthy, it can have another solid season.

4. INDIANA

19 Returning starters, 10 on offense and nine on defense.

Kevin Wilson says: ‘‘We have a lot of players returning that need to be better. We’re still maybe a sophomore-junior team, but I do think we’re a young team growing.’’

The story line: There’s a very positive buzz at Indiana, which lost four games (Ball State, Michigan State, Ohio State, Navy) by a combined 10 points last fall. The Hoosiers, who were fourth in the Big Ten in scoring last season (30.8 points), will need to make its biggest improvement on defense (a league-worst 35.2 points) to get where it wants to go.

The bottom line: Kudos to Wilson for generating excitement at Indiana, which has had only one winning season since 1994. The Hoosiers might be a year or two away in Wilson’s view, but a minor bowl trip is within their reach this fall. The Big Ten opener, Oct. 5 against Penn State in Bloomington, will be pivotal.

5. PURDUE

2 Gut-wrenching losses (at Notre Dame 20-17 and at Ohio State 29-22 in overtime) that cost Purdue an 8-4 season and cost Danny Hope his job.

Darrell Hazell says: ‘‘One of the first things I said to our team was, Purdue was always a team that’s perceived in the middle of the Big Ten. And I told them it’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re going to climb ourselves out of the middle and we’re going to put this program on national prominence for a long point in time.’’

The story line: Hazell, who
enjoyed two successful seasons at Kent State after a long run as receivers coach under Jim Tressel at Ohio State, might be stepping into a good situation. Coming off of two consecutive bowl trips, the Boilermakers, who return nine starters on defense and five on offense, have some pieces in place.

The bottom line: Hope didn’t
excite the Purdue faithful. But the last Big Ten school coming off back-to-back bowls that hired a Mid-American coach with a short résumé who had worked for Tressel was Illinois. Will Hazell end the similarities with Tim Beckman by getting out of the gate well? We’ll find out.

6. ILLINOIS

3 10-loss seasons in the last 12 years at feast-or-famine Illinois, the only school in the nation that has multiple 10-loss seasons and multiple BCS bowl berths (Sugar and Rose) during that span.

Tim Beckman says: ‘‘We’re taking one challenge at a time in a very, very positive way. We’re not going to let negativity infiltrate our program. We’re going to be positive with a great passion toward what we want to get accomplished.’’

The story line: After turning an inaugural season that seemed to have minor-bowl potential into a 2-10 nightmare,
Beckman probably needs to show progress this fall to keep his job. With a roster that has lost the core of its defense to NFL training camps, that won’t be easy.

The bottom line: New
coordinator Bill Cubit should infuse some life into the offense, but it still will be quarterack Nathan
Scheelhaase and 10 little Indians until the Illini prove otherwise.

LEGENDS DIVISION

1. MICHIGAN

2004 The last year Michigan won or shared the Big Ten title, the Wolverines’ longest drought in a half-century (1951-63).

Brady Hoke says: ‘‘The expectations never change, and that’s to win Big Ten championships. A year ago, we were 8-5. That’s unacceptable at Michigan.’’

The story line: In his third season in Ann Arbor, Hoke seems to have assembled his best team. He’ll need it against a difficult schedule that includes Notre Dame, Ohio State and a trip to Penn State. Only 10 starters return, and offseason/preseason injuries already have hurt depth. But promising quarterback Devin Gardner, solid running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and dazzling newcomer Derrick Green are great places to start.

The bottom line: Pieces need to fall into place on both sides of the ball. A championship-game berth is hardly a given in the toughest and deepest division in the Big Ten. But the ingredients are there to get the job done.

2. MICHIGAN STATE

5 Close losses for Michigan State, which lost five games by a combined 13 points, leaving it with a 7-6 record.

Mark Dantonio says: ‘‘This year’s mantra? ‘Chase it.’ [Because] 2012 was the year I think of the inches we didn’t come up with. We feel like our football team has an edge to them. We’ve got a lot of
experience back.’’

The story line: How does a team finish fourth in the nation in total defense (274.4 yards a game) and fourth in its division? Start with a quarterback who finishes 12th in the conference in passing efficiency. Don’t put it all on Andrew Maxwell, whose 52 percent completion rate was marred by dropped balls and general offensive messiness. With 16 starters back, though, including nine on offense, the Spartans are looking for more — and are positioned to get there.

The bottom line: The absence of Kirk Cousins was conspicuous in East Lansing last season. Bolstered by experience, the Spartans’ offense should be better. Coupled with another stout defensive performance, MSU could have a big season.

3. NORTHWESTERN

50 Victories under Pat Fitzgerald (50-39), who passed Lynn Waldorf (49-45-7 in 1935-46) as the Wildcats’ all-time winningest coach when NU won its first bowl game in more than 60 years on New Year’s Day.

Pat Fitzgerald says: ‘‘From an expectation standpoint, the goal hasn’t changed: It’s to win a Big Ten championship. You talk about the long-term goals, but then you take things down to day-by-day — what we do and how we do it.’’

The story line: With the deepest team he has had, Fitzgerald hopes to vault another major hurdle by adding a Rose Bowl trip. A stacked Legends Division will make that difficult, but the Cats look poised to continue their successful identity under Fitz: a clever offense that could take the next step with more timely defense.

The bottom line: At 38, Fitzgerald heads into his eighth season second in Big Ten tenure behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. NU knows what it wants to do and how it wants to do it. Handling the pressure to make that happen as the only private school among state-university juggernauts is the next step.

4. NEBRASKA

70-31 Final score when Nebraska was routed by five-loss Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game last December. In their only other conference loss, the Cornhuskers were drilled 63-38 by Ohio State.

Bo Pelini says: ‘‘It’s not a scheme thing. Those [blowout] things happen for a reason. Technique-wise and execution-wise, we need to be better. Because when you’re not, those bad things can
happen to you.’’

The story line: Entering its third season in the conference, Nebraska already has become a classic Big Ten team. It looks good on defense and runs well, but it seems to be in over its head in critical games.

The bottom line: With three of its division opponents poised for solid seasons, Nebraska will need to play better. The return of dynamic quarterback Taylor Martinez is a good place to start. Games against Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State will tell the tale.

5. IOWA

2000 The last time Iowa had a worse record than its 4-8 mark last season. The Hawkeyes went 3-9 in 2000, Kirk Ferentz’s second season at the school.

Kirk Ferentz says: ‘‘If you want to find a silver lining, we were training [in December] instead of getting ready for a ballgame. There’s a lot of negatives in that, too. We didn’t do a good job last year of doing the things we expect to do well. And it starts with coaching.’’

The story line: Coming off its second bowl-less season in 12 years, Iowa is at a bit of a crossroads. In his 15th season, Ferentz is the dean of Big Ten coaches, but he’s also in a what-have-you-done-lately business. Iowa hasn’t had a winning record in conference play since 2009. And its prospects aren’t bright for ending that skid.

The bottom line: Iowa should have another strong offensive line, a Ferentz trademark. But with a ton of holes to fill on offense and a defense that couldn’t save the Hawkeyes from losing their last six games in 2012, this looks like another tough season in Iowa City.

6. MINNESOTA

10 Victories posted by Jerry Kill in his third season at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. Kill went from 4-8 to 10-2 at SIU and from 7-6 to 10-2 at NIU.

Jerry Kill says: ‘‘The kids took the momentum out of the bowl game. We had our best spring ball. We had the largest crowd at our spring scrimmage since coach [Lou] Holtz was there [in 1985]. So enthusiasm is great. I just think our kids have come together over the last two years.’’

The story line: Nobody’s expecting Kill to win 10 games in his third season at Minnesota. Considering the Golden Gophers’ schedule, another 6-6 season wouldn’t be a bad thing. But with 16 starters back, including nine on offense, don’t rule out another stride.

The bottom line: The Gophers might not be ready to play with the big boys, but Kill is building a program at Minnesota, like he did at SIU and NIU. His epilepsy fits are heart-rending; his coaching is the real deal.



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