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Ohio State, Michigan lead 2013 Big Ten conference preview

Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

After going 12-0 last season, Braxton Miller and Ohio State will look to emerge from the Big Ten in '13.

Can Ohio State replicate last year's undefeated campaign? Can quarterback Devin Gardner lead Michigan to the conference title game in Indianapolis? Will first-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen be able to continue the program's recent Rose Bowl tradition? Stewart Mandel answers these questions and more in his Big Ten preview. For more coverage, check out SI.com's 2013 college football preview content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.

Big Ten Conference Report
 
How They'll Finish
 
LEADERS Conference Overall
Ohio State 7-1 11-1
Wisconsin 6-2 9-3
Indiana 4-4 7-5
Penn State 3-5 6-6
Purdue 2-6 3-9
Illinois 0-8 2-10
 
LEGENDS Conference Overall
Michigan 6-2 10-2
Nebraska 6-2 10-2
Michigan State 6-2 9-3
Northwestern 5-3 9-3
Minnesota 2-6 6-6
Iowa 1-7 4-8
Conference championship: Ohio State def. Michigan
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Braxton Miller
2012 stats: 2,039 pass yards, 15 TD, 6 INT; 1,271 rush yards, 13 TD
2013 projection: 2,870 pass yards, 22 TD, 8 INT; 1,020 rush yards, 16 TD
Entering his second year in Urban Meyer's offense, Miller should become a more complete quarterback. With a better supporting cast, the Buckeyes won't be so dependent on him as a runner, while Miller should have increased confidence in his talented receiving corps. "He's comfortable in distributing the football and getting the ball out of his hands, better now than he's ever been," said offensive coordinator Tom Herman.
MANDEL: Ohio State ranks No. 4 in SI's preseason Top 25
 
Defensive MVP
 
LB
Ryan Shazier
2012 stats: 115 tackles, 17 TFL, 11 pass breakups, three forced fumbles
2013 projection: 124 tackles, 19 TFL, three INT, two forced fumbles
Longtime Meyer strength coach Mickey Marotti recently called Shazier "the fastest linebacker I've ever coached, and it's not even close." That's scary, considering Shazier didn't truly come on until about halfway through last season. Now the undisputed leader of the Buckeyes' front seven, Shazier will help break in the starters around him while continuing to make game-changing plays like last year's pick-six at Penn State.
Staff: Ryan Shazier on SI.com's 2013 Preseason All-America Team
 
Breakout Star
 
RB
Melvin Gordon
2012 stats: 62 carries, 621 yards, three TD
2013 projection: 170 carries, 1,071 yards, 12 TD
While veteran James White (806 yards, 12 touchdown in 2012) will take over for Montee Ball as the Badgers' primary tailback, Gordon should see plenty of action in 2013. The speedster burst onto the scene as a freshman late last season, amassing 216 yards on nine carries against Nebraska in the Big Ten title game and 51 yards on nine carries against Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Gordon won't likely replicate last year's impressive 10 yards-per-carry average, but he's a consistent home-run threat.
 
Impact Freshman
 
RB
Dontre Wilson
2012 stats (high school): 1,895 rush yards, 37 TD; 750 rec. yards, 9 TD
2013 projection: 750 rush yards, 10 TD; 360 rec. yards; 2 return TD
Meyer is counting on several track-speed signees from his 2013 class to become immediate difference-makers as freshmen. Based on early accounts out of Columbus, Wilson figures to fit that mold. "He's got something that we didn't have, and that's just electric speed," said Meyer. With running back Carlos Hyde's season-opening three-game suspension, Wilson should get early carries while also seeing time as a receiver and return man.
BAUMGAERTNER: Freshman 15: Impact newcomers in 2013
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Tim Beckman
Last season: 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten)
Career at Illinois: 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten)
Not many coaches qualify for hot seat status just one year into their tenure, but Beckman would've been hard-pressed to make a worse first impression. Despite inheriting a relatively talented roster from Ron Zook (who could always recruit), the Illini plummeted from mediocre to awful in 2012, and Beckman's early recruiting returns aren't much more promising. He'll need new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit to resuscitate fourth-year quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
RICKMAN: Hot Seat Watch: Which coaches have the most at stake in 2013?
 
Big Ten Video Preview
Staples' three keys: Big Ten
Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples breaks down the three things to watch for in the Big Ten and says why Ohio State is the conference's biggest national contender.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Notre Dame at Michigan
Saturday, Sept. 7
8 p.m. ET, ABC
Two years ago, Denard Robinson's miraculous last-second touchdown drive completed a huge Wolverines comeback in the first-ever night game at The Big House. When the rivals reunite this fall, Michigan will look to avenge 2012's loss to the Irish and prove it can be a national contender by knocking off one of last season's BCS title game participants.
 
UCLA at Nebraska
Saturday, Sept. 14
Noon ET, ABC
Last September, then first-year UCLA coach Jim L. Mora used a 36-30 upset of the Huskers in Pasadena to build momentum en route to an eventual division title. Bo Pelini's team reached its own conference championship game in 2012, but it has grown stagnant on the national scene. Nebraska could really use a victory against a high-profile intersectional opponent.
 
Wisconsin at Arizona State
Saturday, Sept. 14
10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The three-time defending Big Ten champs visit a Sun Devils team that won eight games in coach Todd Graham's debut season and is considered a legitimate threat to win the Pac-12 South in 2013. New Badgers coach Gary Andersen opens with UMass and Tennessee Tech, so this should be his first test. Wisconsin's prolific rushing attack must contend with All-America defensive tackle Will Sutton.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
Ohio State at Northwestern
Saturday, Oct. 5
8 p.m. ET, ABC
A week after opening conference play against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes face a potential trap game in Evanston, where the Wildcats will host homecoming under the lights. Northwestern's quarterback-running back tandem of Kain Colter and Venric Mark can break big plays. Ohio State has lost to the 'Cats just once in the last 40 years, in another night game at Ryan Field in 2004.
 
Nebraska at Michigan
Saturday, Nov. 9
TBD
The Huskers' 23-9 victory over Michigan in Lincoln last season ultimately proved the difference in lifting Nebraska to a Legends division title. Quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Ameer Abdullah figure to be two of the most exciting offensive players in the conference. The Wolverines figure to have star linebacker Jake Ryan back at full strength following his recovery from an ACL injury.
 
Ohio State at Michigan
Saturday, Nov. 30
TBD
The Game is an annual fixture in this category, but this fall's installment could be the biggest in years if the Buckeyes and Wolverines both live up to their preseason billing. With the Big Ten realigning its divisional format next season, this is also the last year in which it's possible the two teams could stage a rematch in Indianapolis a week later -- the exact scenario predicted here.
 
Five Key Questions
 
Can Michigan State complete a pass? The Spartans were plenty strong defensively last season, but they lost five games by four points or fewer in large part because of the nation's 114th-ranked pass efficiency offense. Quarterbacks Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook and Michigan State's receiving corps must improve.
Does Penn State have enough bodies? Bill O'Brien's sanction-riddled program has enough young talent to match or exceed last year's eight-win campaign, but it will start with only about 70 scholarship players on roster. The Nittany Lions are already set to break in a new quarterback. They can't afford to suffer too many injuries.
Can Northwestern handle expectations? After finally conquering its 64-year bowl-victory drought and winning 10 games for the first time since 1995, Pat Fitzgerald's team is in the unusual position of entering the fall ranked in the Top 25. Will the Wildcats play with the same chip that's driven them in recent seasons?
MANDEL: Revenge of the Nerds: How the 'smart schools' got good at football
Will Indiana take the next step? The Hoosiers were more competitive in coach Kevin Wilson's second season before their defense collapsed down the stretch to finish 4-8. With 17 starters returning, Indiana could return to a bowl game for the first time in six years if its offense continues to progress.
Does Kirk Ferentz have a plan? After replacing the only coordinators he had on staff for 13 years, including making a move to hire former Vince Young/Colt McCoy mentor Greg Davis, Ferentz watched his Hawkeyes fall to 4-8 in 2012. Iowa needs to rediscover its identity for the respected but embattled coach to restore confidence around the program.
 

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