With the 2012 college football season officially kicking off on Thursday, it's time to release the first power rankings for each conference.
Every Monday during the season I will release league power rankings, which you can find under the College tab at the top of this page. The six BCS conferences will all have their own power rankings, while I will also rank the best of the non-BCS squads.
With that in mind, let's take a look at how the Big Ten shapes up:
1. Michigan State: Andrew Maxwell has taken the reins from three-year starter Kirk Cousins at quarterback, and all the buzz out of East Lansing is that he is ready to lead this offense. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett being given a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA is huge for an offense that lost its best receivers. He’ll be joined at the position by Bennie Fowler. The running game will be strong, as Le'Veon Bell will be the central focus of the offensive attack. Defensively, Pat Narduzzi’s unit may be the best in the Big Ten. Overall, the Spartans may be the most athletic team in the league.
US PRESSWIREThe Badgers will rely on Chris Borland to pace the defense.
2. Wisconsin: Head coach Bret Bielema had to hire six new assistants this offseason, and all eyes will continue to be on new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who replaces Paul Chryst. Russell Wilson is gone, but Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien could be primed to revert back to his 2010 ACC newcomer of the year ways. Meanwhile, prolific running back Montee Ball returns, but he’ll be running behind an offensive line that is replacing three high-quality blockers. Defensively, end David Gilbert returns after missing most of last season with a broken foot. And the linebacker combo of Mike Taylor and Chris Borland is impressive. However, the secondary is young.
3. Michigan: Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison transformed a previous weak unit into a strength last season because of his emphasis on strong play up front. With Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen gone, this area becomes a question mark, which could be troubling for a secondary that is still green. Offensively, Denard Robinson will enter his final season in Ann Arbor with a year of Al Borges’ offense under his belt. “Shoelace” is a rare talent, but he must cut down on his 15 interceptions if this team wants to return to a BCS game. Fitzgerald Toussaint, meanwhile, proved last season that he can be a No. 1 running back. But will he be available for the opener against Alabama? Head coach Brady Hoke remains mum on the subject.
4. Nebraska: Head coach Bo Pelini is replacing linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and defensive tackle Jared Crick — three of the Big Ten’s best defenders, although Crick missed most of last season due to injury. This Cornhuskers defense has a new coordinator in John Papuchis, and he’s looking for playmakers and leaders to emerge. On the offensive side, Taylor Martinez worked hard on his mechanics this offseason to develop as a passer. He completed just over 56 percent of his throws last fall, but he will enter his second year in Tim Beck’s offense and will be aided by Rex Burkhead, arguably the most overlooked back in the nation.
5. Ohio State: The Buckeyes will not be going bowling in 2012, but the program has been revived under former Florida head coach Urban Meyer, who brings two national championships to Columbus. Braxton Miller is the prototypical quarterback for this spread offense, but playmakers need to be found offensively. Can freshman Michael Thomas, who caught 12 passes for 131 yards in the team's spring game, be the guy? Meyer is coming off of a recruiting cycle that featured SEC-type defensive linemen — exactly the type of situation to excite co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Everett Withers. The team's de facto bowl game will unquestionably be the closing tilt against Michigan.
6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have new coordinators on both sides of the ball, as Phil Parker and Greg Davis will be running the defensive and offensive shows, respectively. For Parker, his main concern is along the defensive line, where the Hawkeyes lost three starters, including tackle and NFL draft pick Mike Daniels. Offensively, Davis will need to rely on an unproven batch of running backs to complement quarterback James Vandenberg and the passing attack. Can true freshman Greg Garmon eventually emerge as the lead back in the new up-tempo, multi-dimensional offense?
7. Illinois: The Fighting Illini enter the Tim Beckman era after Ron Zook failed to win consistently in Champaign, and they very well could be the surprise of the Big Ten. New defensive coordinator Tim Banks will have a good defensive line to work with despite the loss of All-American end Whitney Mercilus, who was dominant last fall. End Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence lead the way up front. Meanwhile, co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty will try to aid quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase as he attempts to bounce back from an up-and-down 2011. Josh Ferguson could be the answer at running back, but who will make plays at receiver?
8. Purdue: Caleb TerBush won the tight quarterback battle over Robert Marve and Rob Henry, so there is good depth at the position for head coach Danny Hope if TerBush, who started every game in 2011, gets injured. Defensively, another new coordinator arrived in West Lafayette — the third consecutive season a change has been made. Tim Tibesar is the new DC and will look to improve a unit that struggled to create turnovers last season (bowl game aside). Hope is excited about this team, especially because it returns so many starters. If the offensive line plays well, this could be a dark horse Big Ten squad.
9. Northwestern: The Wildcats will always be able to move the football and score points while running the spread offense, and Kain Colter will seamlessly take over for star Dan Persa at quarterback this fall. He'll have one of the deepest receiving corps in the Big Ten, a unit that include USC transfer Kyle Prater. But head coach Pat Fitzgerald's defense must make significant improvements after struggling against both the run and the pass. Young players such as defensive end Tyler Scott and linebacker Collin Ellis saw action last year, and the hope is that they will mature as starters. But the woeful secondary lost their best players — including All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters and four-year starting cornerback Jordan Mabin. Cornerback Nick VanHoose is a name to remember.
10. Penn State: Former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien has perhaps the toughest job in America, for a multitude of obvious reasons. The Nittany Lion players who stayed in State College were able to get comfortable with the new staff this offseason, but it will take time for the new coaches to fully implement their systems. How much improvement will the team see from Matt McGloin in the new up-tempo offense? Expect to see Paul Jones get some snaps at some point, because I think he is a better fit for this offense if his academics are in order. With Silas Redd gone, Bill Belton gets his shot to be a lead back behind an improved offensive line. The strength of the defense will be the front seven, as coordinator Ted Roof looks to rebound from a rocky stop at Auburn.
11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill endured a rough first season with the Golden Gophers, both on and off the field. But if Minnesota is to improve in Year 2, dual-threat quarterback Marqueis Gray needs some playmakers to emerge around him. Defensively, coordinator Tracy Claeys may have to be creative in lieu of a lack of talent across the board. The defensive line should be improved, though, and that's huge for a defense that hasn't been able to generate a strong pass rush the last few seasons.
12. Indiana: The Hoosiers hope to provide head coach Kevin Wilson a smoother campaign in his second year on the job. New offensive coordinator Seth Littrell will try to help quarterback Tre Roberson in the passing game, but this team cannot compete if the defense is as woeful as it’s been in recent years. An influx of youth and junior college players need to contribute immediately. This team played a ton of freshmen in 2011, so a year of experience will certainly help.
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