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A Second Look: Big Ten Leaders Division Preview

September 12, 2012

College Football, Features

1. Ohio State Buckeyes:

Braxton Miller should find the endzone a lot this year for the Buckeyes, but it won’t matter in the end.

Ohio State looks like the best team in the Leaders Division, but it won’t even matter at the end of the season. The Buckeyes’ postseason ban renders them ineligible for the Big Ten Championship game and, of course, any bowl games. They can still win a trophy and would be technically considered the division champions, but that “title” won’t get them anywhere. The Buckeyes have brought back nine starters on defense and seven on offense, including quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller has looked spectacular and has done it all for the Buckeyes, through the air and on the ground. The defense has looked solid too. I’m anxious to see how the Buckeyes look against a good team (Miami of Ohio and Central Florida don’t quite qualify) and they will get the challenge in their first week of Big Ten play when they take on Michigan State. Bottom line for Ohio State: They are the best team in the Leaders Division, but they won’t be able to represent it in the Big Ten Championship game…I’m not too upset about it.

2. Wisconsin Badgers:

Will Montee Ball be able to carry the Badgers back to a Big Ten Championship with a struggling offensive line?

The Badgers are in turmoil right now. They just fired offensive line coach MikeĀ Markuson after losing to the unranked Oregon State Beavers and only putting up seven points as they dropped out of the nati0nal rankings. The week before, they just barely beat Northern Iowa 26-21. Wisconsin lost quarterback Russel Wilson to the NFL and only return four starters on offense and six on defense. The good news for them is that Heisman candidate Montee Ball is still in the backfield, but he certainly hasn’t looked very impressive so far and he can’t do much with an underachieving offensive line. The fact that the Badgers should be the second best team in the Leaders Division shows how much weaker it is than the Legends Division. In Wisconsin’s defense, even though Oregon State was unranked, they are still a respectable opponent. Getting to the Big Ten Championship game is going to be much more difficult for the Badgers than I expected going into this season, but I can’t see any other Legends team really posing much of a threat.

3. Purdue Boilermakers:

I can’t say I would have made this argument in a preseason preview, but the Boilermakers could legitimately challenge Wisconsin for a berth in the Big Ten Championship game. Like Wisconsin, Purdue sits at 1-1; unlike Wisconsin, Purdue dominated their week one opponent (48-6 over Eastern Kentucky) and lost a close one to a rankedopponent in week two (20-17 to then #22 Notre Dame).

The Leaders Division could come down to the October 13 battle between Purdue and Wisconsin.

The Boilermakers have returned eight starters on offense and seven on defense, and are especially intriguing to watch because of this rotating quarterback situation they have going on. They have a solid stable of running backs as well. Purdue has a chance to pad its record against Eastern Michigan and Marshall over the next couple weeks before entering the most crucial three week stretch of perhaps any team in the Big Ten: vs. Michigan, vs. Wisconsin, @ Ohio State. How Purdue comes out of those three games will determine its positioning at the end of the year.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini:

Josh Ferguson will lead what should be a solid rushing attack for the Fighting Illini this year.

Illinois is sitting at 1-1 after getting smacked around by Arizona State in week two. All I can really do at this point of the Leaders Division rankings is reiterate how weak this half of the conference is. I’m not sold on their passing game, but I think Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young will make for a solid ground game. The defense isn’t much to write home about. Indiana could challenge Illinois for the #4 spot, but after the Hoosiers’ debacle of a season last year, I have to give the Fighting Illini the nod.

5. Indiana Hoosiers:

The Hoosiers are returning more starters than any other team in the Big Ten, but that might not be the best thing for them.

As I just mentioned, the Hoosiers could challenge Illinois for the #4 spot in the Leaders Division. Indiana is 2-0, but has had very weak competition thus far in Indiana State and UMASS. Much like Minnesota, the fact that Indiana returns eight offensive starters and nine defensive starters (most overall in the Big Ten) is both a good and bad thing. The Hoosiers have to hope that experience will win out for them, but is it really beneficial to return so many starters from a team that went 1-11 last year? I would argue that it’s not.

6. Penn State Nittany Lions:

Team unity and pride will be key for Penn State in what will likely be a rough season for the Nittany Lions.

The bottom-feeders of the Big Ten. It’s still hard to fathom the mighty fall that Penn State has taken. They were competitive in their losses thus far to Ohio and Virginia, and I expect them to be very competitive this entire year. Unfortunately for Penn State, how “competitive” a team is doesn’t change its record. Those who remained with Penn State through the turmoil are eager to prove that this team can still win games. That pride is what will keep them competitive, but I still think they will be the Big Ten’s punching bag. The Nittany Lions are in disaster recovery mode and should remain there for a long, long time.

Final Analysis: I’ve mentioned it a few times now, but the Leaders Division is much weaker than the Legends Division. With Ohio State out of the equation by default, the Leaders is Wisconsin’s division to lose. That won’t help the Badgers in the long run, though…whether it’s Michigan State, Michigan, or Nebraska that come out of the Legends Division, I’m picking them. As much as I loath Ohio State, its postseason ban makes the Leaders Division, and the Big Ten as a whole, much less interesting this year. Purdue’s aforementioned three week stretch to start conference play will be the thing to watch for in the Leaders Division, especially the October 13 against Wisconsin. That could be the game that decides who will represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten Championship game.

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