The story of the Big Ten’s death has been greatly exaggerated. The conference once thought of as slow and unathletic, playing nothing more than “three yards and a cloud of dust” football, is changing the script and eyeing resurgence onto the national scene. Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern enter the season ranked in the preseason Top 25 polls. Penn State likely would have nearly cracked the Top 25, were it not for the sanctions forbidding it. The Big Ten welcomes two new coaches to the conference in former Ohio State assistant Darrell Hazell at Purdue and former Ohio State and Arkansas assistant Gary Anderson taking the job vacated by Bret Bielema at Wisconsin. So, what should fans expect from the Big Ten this year?
Ohio State enters the season ranked number two in the land and will be favored against every team they play this season. They went undefeated last year, but due to the NCAA sanctions stemming from “Tattoogate” they were banned from postseason play and were not permitted to play in the Big Ten Championship Game or any bowl game. They lose quite a few players on defense, but return their top playmakers in Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby. Big things are expected out of Noah Spence, the highly recruited defensive end entering his sophomore season as the full-time starter. On offense, quarterback Braxton Miller — who led the team in both passing and rushing — is being touted as a Heisman favorite, but will certainly have to improve his passing numbers if that is to come to fruition; Ohio State finished 105th in the FBS last season in passing yards. Top running back Carlos Hyde returns, as do the top two receivers Corey Brown and speedster Devin Smith. This is not a team without question marks, but they have enough raw talent, as well as impeccable coaching from Urban Meyer, to be the favorite to win the conference championship come December.
Offensive Players to Watch
- Braxton Miller QB (Ohio State): As previously alluded to, Braxton Miller is a real Heisman contender this fall. The junior quarterback is an electrifying runner and while not an elite passer, he is good enough that the defense cannot sell out against the run. He passed for over 2,000 yards last season and ran for another 1,200 — but only had a completion rate of 58% and 15 passing scores. He looks to improve on all those numbers this season.
- Venric Mark RB (Northwestern): Mark is the top returning rusher in the Big Ten. The diminutive senior running back stands at 5’8” 175lbs but managed 1,366 yards last season and 12 touchdowns. He added a bonus 20 receptions out of the backfield. Last year he also doubled as an impressive return man for the Wildcats and the same should be expected this year.
- Allen Robinson WR (Penn State): After having just three receptions his freshman season, Robinson exploded onto the scene in 2012. He led the Big Ten in receptions (77) , yards (1018 and receiving touchdowns (11). Standing at 6’3” 210lbs, Robinson is a load for any defensive back to bring down. That, along with his innate ability to high-point the ball in flight makes him the most dangerous receiver in the Big Ten and a valuable target for whomever will take the reins as the new quarterback at Penn State.
Defensive Players to Watch
- Deion Barnes DE (Penn State): After redshirting his true freshman season, Barnes saw the field early and often his redshirt freshman season of 2012. Working as part of a rotation, Barnes tallied six sacks and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The sophomore has added strength and weight during the offseason to become a better every down player and will garner more play time this fall.
- Ryan Shazier LB (Ohio State): The Junior linebacker was an all-conference defender last season, accounting for 115 unofficial tackles and six sacks. He is by far the best returning player on Ohio State’s front seven — and probably their whole defense. He will be looked upon as a leader for defense with a lot of big shoes to fill.
- Chris Borland LB (Wisconsin): Borland comes into his senior season as a reigning all-conference pick and one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. He accounted for over 100 tackles last season and looks to be a team captain this year. A strong senior defensive presence is just what new head man Gary Anderson needs in his first year on the job.
This won’t be your father’s Northwestern Wildcats. While a preseason Top-25 team having a successful season wouldn’t usually constitute a surprise, an exception can be made in this case. Northwestern’s football tradition is fairly bare and because of this and other factors — such as their academic requirements — it is not easy to successfully recruit players to and coach at Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald is routinely considered a top coach in the game today and finally has a squad who can compete with every roster in the Big Ten. This is a squad that won ten games in 2012 and returns 15 starters, including their top two offensive playmakers, quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. They won’t be an easy out for anyone and could be poised to have one of the best seasons in Northwestern’s history if games against teams like Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska go their way.