Big Ten Primer: More Than Big Four
Would the Big Ten absorb Nebraska? Rutgers? Missouri? Notre Dame? Texas?!? Would commissioner Jim Delany stop at 12 schools, 16, or not until Big 12 counterpart Dan Beebe cried "Uncle?" Was Delany actually the Smoke Monster from "Lost?"
When the actual smoke settled, the Big Ten had added a 12th program, the Cornhuskers, for 2011. And it will add a conference championship game, to be played in Indianapolis, as well. All that remains is the squabbling over divisional alignments (read: to split up or not to split up Michigan and Ohio State), the musing over whether Penn State coach Joe Paterno, on the threshold of his 400th career victories, will retire, and, oh yeah, the launching of a final old world conference season with the Big Ten appearing as robust as it has in a decade.
Four Big Ten schools appear in the top 19 of The Associated Press preseason poll (No. 2 Ohio State, No. 9 Iowa, No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 19 Penn State) and that same quartet are all within the top 14 spots of the Coaches' Poll. No other conference has four schools collectively so highly touted in either poll (the ACC has 10, 13, 16 and 18 in the AP vote, but that pales in comparison to the expectations of the Big Ten).
In this final conference championship game-free Big Ten season, most experts predict the de facto championship will be staged on Nov. 20 in Iowa City (when the Buckeyes visit Iowa), unless it's staged on Oct. 16 in Madison (when Ohio State visits Wisconsin), unless of course the Badgers win, in which case it'll be staged one week later in -- you guessed it -- Iowa City, when Wisconsin visits the Hawkeyes.
Don't be so sure, even if you did actually follow that line of thought. Michigan State, with second-year starter Kirk Cousins at quarterback and the beastly linebacker duo of Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, is the Big Ten sleeper. Too, the Spartans avoid Ohio State. Penn State won't win the conference, but with Evan Royster at tailback it could spoil Iowa's or Ohio State's BCS bowl hopes. And Northwestern, the most mercurial team in the land, is just as capable of taking down an unbeaten in November on the road (Iowa fans will remind you) as they are of losing at Syracuse in September.
Individually, the Big Ten has a shot at sending not one but two players to Heisman Trophy weekend. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor is the odds-on favorite, but Wisconsin tailback John Clay (1,517 yards in 2009) could go along with, or instead of, Pryor.
That angle is but a subplot. Last season the Big Ten sent two schools to BCS bowls, Ohio State and Iowa, and both emerged with a win. Neither played in the BCS Championship Game, however. This year, anything less than two Big Ten teams earning BCS bowl bids and one playing for a national title will be a disappointment.
A QUICK TRIP AROUND THE BIG TEN
*Who should win the conference: Ohio State. The Buckeyes return the two leading tacklers (neither of whom are the unit's best player; that would be DE Cameron Heyward) from a unit that finished 5th nationally in scoring defense and total defense. Then there's that Pryor kid at quarterback. He's all right.
*Who will win the conference: Wisconsin. The Badgers return 10 starters to the Big Ten's most potent offense from a year ago and they'll get the Buckeyes both at home and at night in mid-October.
*Who might win the conference: Iowa. The Hawkeyes have experience at quarterback with Ricky Stanzi, the league's (if not the nation's) top defensive line, and their four toughest opponents (Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State) all must visit Kinnick Stadium.
*Who might fall flat: Penn State. A new QB, no experience at linebacker (and this at Linebacker U.), and an average offensive line spells trouble. All that plus an early-season pilgrimage to face the hardest-hitting team in the land, Alabama, may persuade JoePa to join Bobby Bowden on the motivational speaking circuit.
*Coach of the year: If the above prediction holds true, it'll be Badger Bret Bielema. He has yet to recapture the magic of his inaugural 12-1 season of 2006, but this is his best chance to do so.
*Coach you will love It's still JoePa, who opened his first fall camp press conference earlier this month by saying, "Please, don't ask me if I'm going to die tomorrow."
*Coach who may water-ski off into the sunset: Ron Zook, Illinois. The Zooker is 8-16 the past two seasons and Illinois only returns three starters on offense.
*Player of the year: If it isn't Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, there are going to be a whole lot of disappointed people in Columbus.
*Player you will love: Somehow Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones has more tackles in each of his three seasons in East Lansing (78, 127, 154, respectively) than he did in his senior year at Archbishop Moeller in Cincinnati. That may explain how Jim Tressel allowed the Big Ten's, if not the nation's, best defensive player out of his own backyard.
*The Big Uglies Bowl: When Wisconsin visits Iowa (Oct. 23), it'll likely be the nation's top offensive line (the Badgers) engaged in trench warfare versus the best defensive line in the land.
*Most Intriguing Newbie: Purdue quarterback Robert Marve. Boilermaker fans hope, as does coach Danny Hope, that the Miami transfer will follow in the path of campus legends such as Drew Brees, Jim Everett and Bob Griese.
*Ten games to watch (as if you won't watch more): Penn State at Alabama, Sept. 11; Miami at Ohio State, Sept. 11; Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 11; Wisconsin at Michigan State, Oct. 2; Penn State at Iowa, Oct. 2; Ohio State at Wisconsin, Oct. 16; Wisconsin at Iowa, Oct. 23; Illinois at Northwestern, from Wrigley Field, Nov. 20; Ohio State at Iowa, Nov. 20; Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 27. Big Ten Championship Game from Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis -- oops, that's next year.
*Home turf that is farthest from home: Landover, Md., where on Nov. 20 Indiana will "host" Penn State, even though the Nittany Lions' campus is hundreds of miles closer to FedEx Field.