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Big Ten 2012 conference preview

Big Ten 2012 Conference Report
Can Wisconsin win a third consecutive league title? Will Michigan State finally reach a BCS bowl? How will Ohio State and Penn State handle bowl bans? Andy Staples answers that and more in his 2012 Big Ten conference report. For more coverage, visit our preseason content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.
 
How They'll Finish
 
LEADERSConferenceOverall
Wisconsin7-111-1
Illinois5-39-3
Ohio State*5-39-3
Penn State*3-56-6
Purdue2-65-7
Indiana1-75-7
 
LEGENDSConferenceOverall
Michigan State7-111-1
Michigan6-29-3
Nebraska5-39-3
Iowa4-48-4
Northwestern3-56-6
Minnesota1-74-8
Conference championship: Wisconsin beats Michigan State
* -- Postseason ban
 
Offensive MVP
 
RB
Monteé Ball
2011 stats: 307 CAR, 1,923 YDS, 33 TD; 24 REC, 306 YDS, 6 TD
2012 projection: 285 CAR, 1,750 YDS, 28 TD; 20 REC, 250 YDS, 4 TD
Five men attacked Ball July 31, leaving him with a concussion, but the senior said he should be ready to play in Week 1. It won't be easy to replicate last year's stats, but even a less productive Ball can still be the Big Ten's top offensive player. Wisconsin's O-line remains dominant, and if Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien can come close to duplicating Russell Wilson's 2011 efficiency at quarterback, Ball should have plenty of chances to score.
Debate: Can Wisconsin win a third consecutive Big Ten title?
 
Defensive MVP
 
LB
Denicos Allen
2011 stats: 83 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks
2012 projection: 80 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 12 sacks
There are players with higher pro ceilings -- Purdue DT Kawann Short, for one -- but no returning Big Ten defender wreaks as much havoc. Allen is the most productive player on the league's most athletic defense, and he also may have the most appropriate nickname. After hurdling a blocker and sacking OSU's Joe Bauserman last year, Allen was dubbed The Waterboy. See for yourself how close the play was to one of Bobby Boucher's best.
Mandel: MSU looks to end Rose Bowl drought on strength of D
 
Impact Freshman
 
WR
Michael Thomas
2011 stats (prep school): 23 REC, 497 YDS, 7 TD
2012 projection: 60 REC, 850 YDS, 8 TD
New Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer needs quality receivers for his offense to work, but none of Ohio State's veterans have established themselves as stars. Enter the 6-4 Thomas, who enrolled early and caught 12 passes from first-team quarterback Braxton Miller in the spring game. If Miller and Thomas maintain that kind of chemistry, Thomas could wind up targeted often this fall.
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Danny Hope
Last season: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Career at Purdue: 16-21 (10-14 Big Ten)
This is more a case of having to put someone in this spot, because this might be one of those rare years in which no coaches get fired. The only coaches who seem remotely in danger are Hope and Minnesota's Jerry Kill, but each seems to be building in a positive direction. Last year, despite terrible injury luck, Hope led the Boilermakers to their first bowl appearance since 2007. That got him a contract extension in the offseason. But with a 16-21 record in three seasons, Hope has not continued the success of predecessor Joe Tiller. If Purdue backslides this season, Hope might have a problem.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Boise State at Michigan State
Friday, Aug. 31
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
It's a shame we couldn't get this game last year. Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore against coordinator Pat Narduzzi's defense would have been a brilliant matchup. Now, the Spartans are probably the much better team, but it will be interesting to see how well Boise State coach Chris Petersen has recruited and developed the players behind the core group that won so many games the past four seasons.
 
Iowa vs. Northern Illinois (at Soldier Field)
Saturday, Sept. 1
3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU
This is a Week 1 Admiral Ackbar Special. Iowa should beat Northern Illinois, but the Huskies are not the usual MAC cannon fodder Big Ten teams enjoy beating down in September. Plus, as I was writing this passage on Saturday, Iowa's greatest nemesis struck again. Essential Iowa blog Black Heart Gold Pants dubbed the phenomenon Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God, because some force seems to cause Iowa backs to either break the law or tear their ACLs in disproportionate numbers compared to backs at other programs. Saturday, during a scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium, freshman back Barkley Hill injured his knee while scoring a touchdown. Mixing AIRBHG and the reigning kings of MACtion in the season opener at a neutral site seems a dangerous proposition.
 
Michigan vs. Alabama
Saturday, Sept. 1
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Wolverines have a chance to prove they belong in the national title conversation when they open against the defending national champs. Alabama will be the most physical team Michigan plays all season, and it will be intriguing to see if the Crimson Tide can nullify Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson's speed. In the 2011 Gator Bowl, Mississippi State's defense did just that. Michigan's offense is better now, but Alabama's defense is also quite a bit better than that Mississippi State defense.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
Michigan State at Wisconsin
Saturday, Oct. 27
3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
This could be the first of a two-game season series, and if it bears any resemblance to the two meetings between the Spartans and Badgers last year, you'll want to tune in, or, better yet, get yourself to Madison for some cheese curds at Dottie Dumpling's Dowry and a between-quarter Jump Around workout. These are the teams most likely to meet for the Big Ten title, but only the winner of this meeting will remain in the national title picture.
 
Michigan at Nebraska
Saturday, Oct. 27
8 p.m. ET
The Cornhuskers probably will have a chance to decide in this matchup whether they truly want to compete in the Legends Division. Nebraska, which got stomped by the Wolverines in Ann Arbor last year, gets Michigan and Michigan State in consecutive weeks. Go 2-0 in those games and stay awake down the stretch, and the Cornhuskers could be playing for the conference title.
 
Michigan at Ohio State
Saturday, Nov. 24
Noon ET, ABC
The Wolverines snapped Ohio State's seven-game series win streak last year in Ann Arbor, but Meyer and the Buckeyes will have extra motivation to make sure Michigan doesn't start a streak of its own. The NCAA has banned Ohio State from playing in a bowl this season, so this will be the last time the Buckeyes take the field before Aug. 31, 2013. They will not want to stew over a loss to their hated rivals for nine months.
 
Five Key Questions
 
Can Michigan be better in 2012 but finish with a worse record than in 2011? Absolutely. That's the risk Michigan took by scheduling Alabama to open the season. No matter the result in Arlington, Texas, the future looks bright in Ann Arbor. The most important thing for Michigan is the Legends Division, because winning that gives the Wolverines a shot to return to the Rose Bowl. The key stretch for Michigan will come in late October, when they face Michigan State at the Big House a week before traveling to Lincoln to face Nebraska. The Wolverines need to break Michigan State's four-year stranglehold on that rivalry, but if they do, they can't relax. If they can go 2-0 in that stretch, they might reach Pasadena by way of Indianapolis.
Michigan's Robinson headlines SI.com's preseason All-Big Ten Team
What can Penn State reasonably expect this year? I have the Nittany Lions going 6-6 in the first year of crippling NCAA sanctions, but that may be a little low. Penn State doesn't have to play Michigan or Michigan State, and the Nittany Lions should have an above-average defense led by linebacker Gerald Hodges and defensive end Jordan Hill. How quickly the offense can adjust to the scheme new coach Bill O'Brien brought from the New England Patriots will determine whether Penn State wins those swing games. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin has secured the starting job because he quickly grasped the offense, but McGloin doesn't have the physical tools of backup Paul Jones. Jones could be useful in a zone read-heavy package that would force defenses to prepare for two different styles. Meanwhile, Bill Belton, who ran Penn State's Wildcat package last season, will try to replace leading rusher Silas Redd, who took advantage of the NCAA's lifting of transfer rules and decamped to USC. Freshman Akeel Lynch should also earn plenty of carries.
How will Ohio State fare in Urban Meyer's first season? The bowl ban may actually keep expectations at a reasonable level. Meyer busted the BCS at Utah, and he won two national titles at Florida, so naturally the Ohio State faithful expect him to harness the Buckeyes' resources and fertile recruiting grounds to win big immediately. But check Meyer's history. His teams make their biggest improvements between years one and two. Utah went undefeated in Meyer's second season in Salt Lake City. Florida won the national title in Meyer's second season in Gainesville. What Meyer inherited at Ohio State isn't all that dissimilar to what he inherited at Florida. He's got a talented defense and an offense with few proven playmakers. While Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller is far better suited for Meyer's offense than Florida's Chris Leak was, Miller's fitness for the scheme might not matter if the players he's handing off and throwing to don't perform. If not for the bowl ban, an eight- or nine-win season at Ohio State might be considered a failure instead of progress, but those result would certainly represent progress after a 6-7 year. The only catch is that at Utah and at Florida, Meyer used those bowl practices after the first season to develop younger players who went on to play key roles the following season. Now, that development will have to be crammed into 2013 spring practice.
With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible to play for the Big Ten title, can anyone challenge Wisconsin in the Leaders Division? Illinois has the best shot. First-year coach Tim Beckman inherits a talented group that imploded during the second half of last season. Pass-rusher extraordinaire Whitney Mercilus is gone, but defensive end Michael Buchanan should pick up some of the slack. Meanwhile, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who led Illinois in passing and rushing last season, will lead an offense designed to play to his strengths. As Ohio State's Urban Meyer can attest, succeeding Ron Zook is a coach's dream. While Zook may not have had the success Illinois wanted on the field, he always had a good eye for athletes, and Beckman should reap the benefits of Zook's recruiting prowess.
With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible to play for the Big Ten title, should the conference have realigned its divisions -- even temporarily? Yes, the Leaders Division is a lot easier to win with two teams ineligible, but that doesn't mean the Big Ten should scrap its alignments for what really is a one-year problem. Penn State will be ineligible to play for the title for three more years, but with Ohio State eligible again in 2013, the Leaders race should be plenty interesting again. Besides, even if the Buckeyes were eligible, they would have to exceed expectations to top Wisconsin. One of the issues with divisional play is that the divisions can become competitively unbalanced for reasons conference leaders never anticipated. But this is not new. The SEC East was better than the SEC West for most of the '90s, and the SEC West is much better than the SEC East now. By the time the Big 12 scrapped divisional play after the 2010 season, the North Division hadn't won a title since 2003. (We'll pause here to allow Nebraska fans to gnash their teeth at the memory of the officiating in the 2009 Big 12 title game.) The point is that it takes an incredible amount of luck to have two competitively balanced divisions. Changing things now probably wouldn't make things any less lopsided in the future.
 
Big Ten Video Preview
Debate: Can Wisconsin win another Big Ten title?
Source: SI
Andy Staples and Stewart Mandel preview the Big Ten race, including the Badgers' chances for a three-peat.
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