We are just days away from kickoff of the 2013 college football season, and to prepare Sports on Earth is spending all week publishing everything you need to know about each conference in America. The schedule:
Here is everything you need to know about the Big Ten:
1. For all the criticism, times could be worse for the Big Ten. It has a legitimate national title contender in Ohio State, Michigan is back on the upswing, Nebraska may have its best team under Bo Pelini, Michigan State has found competitive stability under Mark Dantonio, Northwestern continues to surprise, Wisconsin shouldn't see a drop-off despite a coaching transition and even Penn State is handling sanctions better than expected. This isn't a dominant Big Ten of the past, but there is a solid collection of teams at the top, a wide-open race in the Legends Division and a bunch of interesting quarterbacks.
2. It all starts, of course, with Braxton Miller, who has found his perfect match in Urban Meyer. Miller was far from perfect as a passer, throwing for 2,039 yards with a 58.3 percent completion rate, but it was a big improvement over his shaky freshman season, and his big plays as a runner and thrower fueled the Buckeyes' undefeated seasons. We like to think of Meyer quarterbacks as runners, and Miller is the most explosive he's had, rushing 227 times for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns, making him the Big Ten's leading returning rusher in terms of yards per game.
3. Miller had a little more help and is bigger, but his numbers still bring to mind Denard Robinson at Michigan, who ran 256 times for 1,702 yards and 14 touchdowns in his sophomore season, when he was the Wolverines' entire offense. The Robinson era is over, though, making room for Devin Gardner, who is poised to become a star this fall. Gardner can run too -- he had 16 catches last year -- but more important, he's a better passer with a bigger frame. We've seen a fair amount of him already, and it's clear he's a better fit for what offensive coordinator Al Borges wants to do with the Wolverines' offense as a more traditional pro-style attack. In limited action last year, he completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,219 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions, just scratching the surface as Michigan adjusted its offense on the fly.
4. The closest thing the Big Ten still has to a Robinson is Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, who has been criticized as a passer -- and it seems has been in Lincoln for a decade (this breakout game feels like a lifetime ago). We've now finished offseason No. 3 of "No, seriously, his throwing motion is better!" but maybe, in his senior season, we should just accept him for what he is: a great runner who can get by as a passer. He actually had the Big Ten's best passer rating overall, but he still struggles on third down. He can do ridiculous things as a runner though, and he's surrounded by talent, from Spencer Long and Jeremiah Sirles up front to 1,100-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah to Kenny Bell, who's one of the two best receivers in the league.
5. Miller, Gardner and Martinez can all run, but the most versatile QB in the league is Northwestern's Kain Colter. That doesn't mean he's great at everything, as he's certainly more of a liability on passing downs than Martinez -- so much so that Northwestern used a rotation in which QB Trevor Siemian was essentially the passing-down quarterback. Siemian was solid, but Colter is the star, capable of playing QB, RB and WR. Last year, he threw for 872 yards and eight touchdowns, ran for 894 yards and 12 touchdowns and caught 16 passes for 169 yards. Northwestern always has to be a bit more creative and deceptive with its play calling than the Big Ten's traditional powers, and Colter is a perfect fit, to go along with explosive tailback Venric Mark (1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns).
The 20 Best Players in the Big Ten
1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
2. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
3. Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
4. Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
5. Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
6. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska
7. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
8. Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
9. Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
10. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
11. Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
12. Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
13. Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
14. Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
15. Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
16. Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
17. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
18. Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
19. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
20. Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
6. There is, however, another end of the "interesting quarterbacks in the Big Ten" spectrum. There's Michigan State, which apparently has four quarterbacks now vying for the starting job with barely more than a week left until kickoff. This could partially be a good thing, if true freshman Damion Terry truly looks like he's ready. However, it also means that neither of the two QBs with experience -- senior Andrew Maxwell, last year's starter, and sophomore Connor Cook, who replaced an ineffective Maxwell during the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl -- has done anything to separate himself. Despite the presence of Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for 1,793 yards, the Spartans were dreadful offensively, finishing 111th in yards per play nationally and last in the Big Ten in team passer rating. All of which means there are ample questions to answer for what is still expected to be a Legends Division contender: The receivers struggled to hold onto the ball, and leading returning rusher Nick Hill had 48 yards in 2012. Converted linebacker Riley Bullough may start at running back, although pay attention to freshman Gerald Holmes too.
7. Despite some positive vibes in the league, this is still the Big Ten, which means Michigan State is far from alone with its problems on offense. At the bottom of the Legends, both Minnesota and Iowa joined Michigan State among the worst 20 teams nationally in yards per play. Jerry Kill got the Golden Gophers back to a bowl game, and he has almost his entire offense returning, including sophomore QB Philip Nelson and junior tailback Donnell Kirkwood, but returning a bunch of starters to a bad offense doesn't necessarily mean it will suddenly get better. The Golden Gophers' only nonconference road game is at New Mexico State, though, so it's not as if wins aren't on the table, especially with a solid defense led by tackle Ra'Shede Hageman. At Iowa, the Kirk Ferentz era has gotten messy. The Hawkeyes aren't that far removed from an Orange Bowl bid (2009), but they've fallen from eight wins to seven wins to four wins since then, with running backs never staying healthy and starting quarterbacks throwing seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. They're usually at least solid defensively, but even that fell apart last year in a messy second half starting with a blowout home loss to Penn State that opened a six-game losing streak. Good linebackers and a solid running back in Mark Weisman may not be enough to avoid a second straight season without a bowl.
8. Purdue and Illinois are even more lost in the Leaders Division. It's easy to forget that Purdue actually went to a bowl game last year -- a terrible mismatch against Oklahoma State -- but the Boilermakers failed to lose fewer than six games in any of Danny Hope's four seasons. Once the most innovative offense in the Big Ten, Purdue has become one of the blandest programs in college football. It's up to former Kent State coach Darrell Hazell to change that, and he does at least have a weapon in explosive tailback Akeem Hunt, although he's yet to see many carries and probably needs to be part of a rotation. At quarterback, Hazell named senior Rob Henry the starter for now, but don't be surprised if freshman Danny Etling unseats him at some point. Purdue is certainly in better shape than Illinois, which has lost 16 of its last 19 games since starting 6-0 in 2011, and failed to win a Big Ten game in Tim Beckman's first season as coach. Veteran QB Nathan Scheelhaase has seemingly regressed, as he threw four touchdowns and eight interceptions as part of an offense that scored a total of 10 points against Penn State, Michigan and Minnesota.
9. Indiana is trying to escape from that bottom tier. If nothing else, under former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, the Hoosiers are at least capable of some occasional fireworks, including 49 points in a loss to Ohio State. They jumped from 1-11 to 4-8 last year, and with eight home games and an experienced roster, it's possible Indiana can get to .500 and its second bowl game since 1993 with an upset or two, although we still don't know who will be playing quarterback between Tre Roberson (a dual threat who broke his leg in Week 2 last year) and Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld (who replaced Roberson after the injury).
10. We also don't know who will be Bill O'Brien's quarterback in his second year at Penn State. O'Brien helped turn Matt McGloin into the Big Ten's leading passer, but now Penn State doesn't have anyone who's thrown a D-I pass. The favorite is true freshman Christian Hackenberg, a strong-armed passer rated by some as the No. 1 QB recruit in the country, although juco transfer Tyler Ferguson has an advantage in that he participated in spring practice. Whoever wins the job has a solid supporting cast, including a talented group of tight ends, star receiver Allen Robinson and 1,000-yard back Zach Zwinak, but the Nittany Lions desperately need to stay healthy as they deal with limited depth on both sides of the ball because of NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions. While the QB position is a concern, the schedule is manageable enough that, with some injury luck, O'Brien should lead another season above .500, which should be considered a success given the context.
Five Big Ten Heisman Candidates
1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
2. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
3. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska
4. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
5. Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
Five Breakout Players
1. Derrick Green, RB, Michigan
2. Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, DE, Ohio State
3. Dontre Wilson, RB, Ohio State
4. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
5. Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan
11. Penn State's most dramatic win last year came in its overtime season finale against Wisconsin, and little did we know that we wouldn't see much more of Bret Bielema on the Badgers sideline. Of course, despite three straight Rose Bowl appearances, athletic director Barry Alvarez isn't exactly shedding any tears over the coaching change, as reported by USA TODAY Sports. And for good reason: Gary Andersen inherits a good situation, and there's little reason to think Wisconsin won't keep humming along at the competitive level we've come to expect. Andersen took an unsuccessful Utah State program to two straight bowl games, capped by an 11-2 season last year, and he appears to be a perfect fit to keep Wisconsin playing exactly the way it's been playing.
12. That means solid defense, powerful offensive lines, quarterbacks who don't mistakes and, once again, highly productive Badgers running backs. Yes, Wisconsin loses the NCAA's all-time leader in touchdowns, Montee Ball, but all the Badgers ever do is brush off losses at running back and replace them with new All-Big Ten caliber producers. This year, we'll see plenty of senior James White, who actually ran for 1,000 yards as a freshman, but the breakout star should be sophomore Melvin Gordon, who as the third running back ran for 621 yards on only 62 carries. The Badgers have a lot of talented and experienced players back on both sides of the ball, from wideout Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen on offense to linebacker Chris Borland on defense, and they will put some pressure on Ohio State in the division.
13. Like Wisconsin, Michigan State appears to have finally found steadiness under Mark Dantonio, something we certainly couldn't say about the previous John L. Smith era. While the offense remains littered with problems, the Spartans boast one of the best defenses in college football, and that can keep them in every game. They finished a disappointing 7-6 last year after a pair of 11-win seasons, but they were the victims of some bad breaks/calls and lost to Nebraska, Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa and Ohio State by a total of 13 points. They also beat Boise State, Indiana and Wisconsin by a total of 11 points, so basically their entire season was full of maddeningly close games in which the offense struggled. We'll likely see more of the same in 2013, but the defense, led by linebacker Max Bullough, cornerback Darqueze Dennard and a handful of other all-league candidates, should hopefully allow the Spartans to catch a few more breaks.
14. Division rival Northwestern knows about close games all too well too. While the Wildcats did pull out a 23-20 win over Michigan State, they also have developed a reputation for blowing leads by doing it in all three of their losses last year against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. That means Northwestern was awfully close to winning the Legends Division, and success like that remains remarkable for Pat Fitzgerald. Northwestern is not an easy place to win, and it won't be this year with a schedule that includes both Ohio State and Wisconsin in cross-division games, but the Wildcats are good enough to beat anyone in the league. Once the pesky team capable of an upset, they're now an all-around good team.
15. For a place like Northwestern, a bunch of four-loss seasons would be great. For Nebraska, four-loss seasons are getting old. It's not as if Bo Pelini is doing a bad job, but in five seasons, Pelini has gone 10-4 or 9-4 every time, with two Holiday Bowls, two Capital One Bowls and a Gator Bowl. Good? Yes. Up to Nebraska's standards? No. Not that Nebraska can reasonably expect to compete for national championships every year anymore, but it should still compete every once in a while and get into BCS games. Nebraska had a shot at the Rose Bowl last year, but the Huskers responded by giving up 70 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. We know the experienced offense will be fine; it's an unproven defense that loses its top five tacklers after giving up 115 points in its last two games that's the problem.
1. Ohio State (11-1, 7-1)
2. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2)
3. Penn State (8-4, 4-4)
4. Indiana (6-6, 3-5)
5. Purdue (3-9, 2-6)
6. Illinois (2-10, 0-8)
1. Michigan (10-2, 6-2)
2. Nebraska (10-2, 6-2)
3. Northwestern (9-3, 5-3)
4. Michigan State (8-4, 5-3)
5. Minnesota (6-6, 2-6)
6. Iowa (5-7, 2-6)
16. Nebraska did, however, hold fellow Legends Division frontrunner Michigan to nine points last year. And the division should ultimately come down to the Wolverines and Cornhuskers this season. As Gardner appears poised for a breakout season, he'll also need some other young talent to step up around him. For now, senior Fitz Toussaint is the starting running back upon returning from a bad leg injury, but he'll almost certainly be pushed by talented true freshman Derrick Green, who is apparently still adjusting to college ball. With Gardner at QB, athletic sophomore tight end Devin Funchess should see an expanded role alongside senior wideout Jeremy Gallon as prime targets -- especially now with the news that WR Amara Darboh, a possible starter, will miss the season with a foot injury.
17. Injuries haven't been kind to Michigan. Defensively, the Wolverines get one key player back from injury, cornerback Blake Countess, but they lost their best playmaker, linebacker Jake Ryan, to a torn ACL in the spring. Incredibly, Ryan could actually return midway through the season, so the only games of consequence he may miss are Notre Dame and at Penn State.
18. So Ryan is expected to be on the field when Michigan hosts Ohio State on Nov. 30, in what could be the first of two meetings between the rivals in two weeks. Fortunately, this is the last year of the Legends/Leaders system, meaning Michigan and Ohio State will play together in the East Division next season -- meaning they cannot face each other in the conference championship game. But we could see the dreaded rematch this year, if Michigan can outlast Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern in the Legends.
19. That's the uncertain part. What we do know is that Ohio State will almost certainly be representing the Leaders Division in the Big Ten title game, even if Wisconsin is better than expected. Obviously, Braxton Miller is Urban Meyer's centerpiece. The rest of Ohio State's fate could, like Michigan, depend on some touted young players stepping up. The Buckeyes lacked depth at the skill positions last year, and starting tailback Carlos Hyde didn't help matters by getting suspended for three games to open this season. With that backfield uncertainty, the most important young player on offense could be true freshman Dontre Wilson, who, if all goes well, is expected to fill the "joker"-type role that Percy Harvin played for Meyer at Florida. Maybe even more important, Ohio State is counting on a few young stars on defense, where six of seven starters in the front seven are gone. But if ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are as good as advertised, there might not actually be much to be concerned about.
20. With that said, Ohio State will win the conference, but it will not go undefeated. By record, the Buckeyes were a perfect 12-0 last year, but they were on the right side of a lot of breaks, escaping in tight wins against mediocre teams like Cal, UAB, Indiana and Purdue. They will be better, and the schedule is laughable in some respects -- no Michigan State or Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin at home - but someone is going to trip them up. Maybe it'll be Northwestern, or, with everything on the line on the final weekend, maybe it will be Michigan in the best rivalry in college football. Even with a rematch cloud possibly hanging over it, we should be looking at the biggest Michigan-Ohio State game since 2006.