The biggest storyline in the Big Ten this season is what can't happen: Ohio State and Penn State can't win the league and can't play in the postseason because of NCAA violations.
That's two of college football's premier programs that will be home for the holidays because of NCAA transgressions. That they are members of the Big Ten, which generally has had a pristine image when it comes to following the rules, makes it a true eyebrow-raiser.
The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are in the Leaders Division, and their ineligibility for the division title has left the door wide open for Wisconsin to wear the crown for the second season in a row. Indeed, it would be a shock if the Badgers did not win the division.
The Legends Division should have a much more entertaining race between Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska. All have potential fatal flaws: Michigan with its defensive line, Michigan State with its passing attack and Nebraska with its run defense.
In terms of individual honors, Wisconsin TB Montee Ball and Michigan QB Denard Robinson should be strong Heisman contenders. Both have a chance to set NCAA records this season: Ball for most rushing TDs in a career and Robinson for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a career.
Finally, this will be the first season since 1950 that Joe Paterno won't be on the sideline for Penn State games. He was a Nittany Lions assistant from 1950-65, then became coach in '66.
The order of finish
Leaders Division: 1. Wisconsin; 2. Ohio State; 3. Illinois; 4. Penn State; 5. Purdue; 6. Indiana
Legends Division: 1. Michigan; 2. Michigan State; 3. Nebraska; 4. Iowa; 5. Northwestern; 6. Minnesota
Best offensive player: Wisconsin TB Montee Ball. He was the Heisman runner-up last season after he ran for 1,923 yards and scored 39 touchdowns, tying Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record. He has rushed for 55 TDs in his career and is 18 shy of tying the NCAA record for career rushing TDs, held by former Miami (Ohio) RB Travis Prentice. Ball has scored a TD in 20 consecutive games and has not lost a fumble in 617 career touches.
Best defensive player: Michigan State DE William Gholston. This is a leap of faith of sorts because as good as Gholston was last season (70 tackles, five sacks, 16 tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery), his production hasn't yet matched his potential. If it does, he's a sure All-American. Gholston's size (6 feet 7/278 pounds), athleticism and speed make him a fearsome sight off the edge.
Offensive player on the spot: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. Miller, a sophomore, looks to be a perfect fit for new coach Urban Meyer's version of the spread. Miller is a good runner who has the speed to get around the corner. But he must improve as a passer. Miller threw 13 TD passes and four interceptions last season, but he completed just 54.1 percent of his passes and didn't look all that comfortable when he was asked to put the ball in the air. Miller will be dangerous on the option, but he still has to prove he can throw the ball downfield with consistency. If he does, Ohio State can win nine games.
Defensive player on the spot: Michigan DT William Campbell. The Wolverines return just one starting defensive lineman (E Craig Roh) and are looking for two new tackles. Campbell is a former five-star recruit who will start; truthfully, though, he has done nothing in his career (just 19 tackles) to make folks think he is going to be a success. He seems to have the needed physical tools, but must find some consistency. Depth basically is non-existent at tackle, so it's vital that Campbell finally live up to his high school hype.
Breakout offensive star: Michigan State TB Le'Veon Bell. Yes, we're aware that Bell ran for a team-high 948 yards last season. But he only started six games, and the tailback job now is all his. He will run behind one of the Big Ten's best lines and plays in an offense with an unproven quarterback and unproven receivers. In short, the bruising Bell (6-2/244) almost assuredly will be the focal point of the offense, which means a 1,200-yard season and numerous postseason accolades is a legit goal. He is an excellent receiver, too, so his presence will be huge for the Spartans.
Breakout defensive star: Nebraska S Daimion Stafford. Stafford was a starter last season after transferring from junior college and was known for his big hits. Now, with a year of seasoning and better knowledge of the scheme, Stafford should become one of the top dozen safeties in the nation. He has a high ceiling, and if he plays as well as expected, he will go in the first three rounds of the 2013 NFL draft.
Best offensive newcomer: Iowa TB Greg Garmon. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz loves to run the ball, and even with a coordinator change, that's not going to change. One problem: The Hawkeyes have zero experienced tailbacks because of injuries, transfers and dismissals. Enter Garmon, a touted true freshman from Erie, Pa. He rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his last two years in high school and will be given every opportunity to produce similar numbers for the Hawkeyes.
Best defensive newcomer: Nebraska CB Mohammed Seisay. While Seisay is new to Nebraska as a JC transfer, he is not new to Division I football. He started for Memphis as a redshirt freshman in 2010 and was a Conference USA all-freshman selection. He played well last season at Eastern Arizona CC, then enrolled at Nebraska in January and looked good in spring practice. Seisay has excellent size (6-2/200) and is expected to add a physical presence to the Huskers' cornerback rotation.
Coach on the hottest seat: Purdue's Danny Hope. While he received a contract extension in December after leading the Boilermakers to a victory in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, Hope won't survive a three- or four-win season. A big plus for Hope: The non-conference schedule is such that Purdue should go 3-1, so it really shouldn't be all that hard to get to another bowl.
Best coaching staff: Ohio State. Meyer has put together a big-time staff. Both of his coordinators, Tom Herman on offense and Everett Withers on defense, look to be future head coaches. Luke Fickell, the Buckeyes' interim coach last season, and Mike Vrabel are other defensive assistants. This also is one of the best recruiting staffs in the nation.
Best offensive coordinator: Ohio State's Tom Herman. Meyer's hiring of Herman probably brought shrugs from most fans. Herman was hired away from Iowa State, which wasn't exactly an offensive juggernaut during his three seasons as coordinator. But before that, Herman did excellent work at Rice, and he has shown that when he has talent commensurate to the rest of the league – which certainly will be the case at Ohio State – his offenses put up huge numbers.
Best defensive coordinator: Michigan's Greg Mattison. Mattison, 62, seemingly has been around college football since the dawn of time. There's a reason: He is an accomplished teacher and motivator. Among his former bosses are R.C. Slocum, Lloyd Carr and Urban Meyer. He was the co-DC (with Charlie Strong) on the Florida team that won the 2006 national title. From 2008-10, he was the Baltimore Ravens' DC, but decided to return to college ball when Brady Hoke approached him about taking over Michigan's defense. The Wolverines made dramatic defensive improvement last season, and Mattison was the biggest reason.
Game of the year: Michigan State at Michigan, Oct. 20. The Spartans have four consecutive victories over the Wolverines. That ties the Spartans' longest winning streak in the series. Last season's victory also helped Michigan State win the Legends Division title, and the winner of this one likely takes the division this season. That's right: Michigan-Michigan State is more important this season than Michigan-Ohio State.
Toughest schedule: Nebraska. There's a relatively challenging non-conference schedule, which includes games against Southern Miss, Arkansas State and UCLA. The Big Ten crossover opponents that the Huskers miss are Illinois, Indiana and Purdue (i.e., three eminently winnable games); the crossover foes include Ohio State (road) and Wisconsin, the two best teams in the Leaders Division. There also are Legends Division road games against Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern, which won in Lincoln last season. The one positive: Division foe Michigan visits Lincoln.
Easiest schedule: Indiana. The worst team in the league has the easiest schedule. Shouldn't it always be that way? The non-conference schedule is Indiana State, Massachusetts, Ball State and Navy. Two of those are on the road (UMass and Navy), but it's not as if those foes are Alabama and LSU. The Hoosiers miss division crossover games with Michigan and Nebraska and play their toughest crossover opponent, Michigan State, at home. There also are home games with Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The toughest league road game is Penn State. The caveat: While the schedule is easy, this team isn't good. A losing record still beckons.
The 10 best conference games:
10. Illinois at Ohio State, Nov. 3
9. Nebraska at Ohio State, Oct. 6
8. Ohio State at Michigan State, Sept. 29
7. Nebraska at Michigan State, Nov. 3
6. Wisconsin at Nebraska, Sept 29
5. Michigan at Nebraska, Oct. 27
4. Ohio State at Wisconsin, Nov. 17
3. Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 24
2. Michigan State at Wisconsin, Oct. 27
1. Michigan State at Michigan, Oct. 20
The 10 best non-conference games:
10. Penn State at Virginia, Sept. 8
9. Vanderbilt at Northwestern, Sept. 8
8. Wisconsin at Oregon State, Sept. 8
7. Illinois at Arizona State, Sept. 8
6. California at Ohio State, Sept. 15
5. Nebraska at UCLA, Sept. 8
4. Notre Dame at Michigan State, Sept. 15
3. Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 22
2. Boise State at Michigan State, Aug. 31
1. Alabama vs. Michigan in Arlington, Texas, Sept. 1
The preseason All-Big Ten team
QB Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
WR Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
WR Keenan Davis, Iowa
TE Jacob Pedersen, Wisconsin
T Taylor Lewan, Michigan
T Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
G Chris McDonald, Michigan State
G Brian Mulroe, Northwestern
C Travis Frederick, Wisconsin
E William Gholston, Michigan State
T Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
T Kawann Short, Purdue
E John Simon, Ohio State
LB Denicos Allen, Michigan State
LB Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB Gerald Hodges, Penn State
CB Johnny Adams, Michigan State
CB Micah Hyde, Iowa
S Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
S Daimion Stafford, Nebraska
K Brett Maher, Nebraska
P Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
QB James Vandenberg, Iowa
RB Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
RB Stephen Houston, Indiana
WR Demetrius Fields, Northwestern
WR Roy Roundtree, Michigan
TE Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State
T Fou Fonoti, Michigan State
T Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
G Spencer Long, Nebraska
G Patrick Omameh, Michigan
C Graham Pocic, Illinois
E Michael Buchanan, Illinois
T Jordan Hill, Penn State
T Akeem Spence, Illinois
E Cameron Meredith, Nebraska
LB Jonathan Brown, Illinois
LB Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB Mike Taylor, Wisconsin
CB Ricardo Allen, Purdue
CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State
S C.J. Barnett, Ohio State
S Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
K Dan Conroy, Michigan State
P Cody Webster, Purdue
KR Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
PR Venric Mark, Northwestern
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