The season begins next week -- huzzah! -- and so does the chase for the four spots in the second College Football Playoff.
Ohio State is a heavy favorite to return to the playoff, and Michigan State has also been mentioned as a strong candidate. But are there any other Big Ten teams with a shot? Remember that TCU came pretty much out of nowhere last year to almost make the field.
Who is a Big Ten playoff sleeper? Let's discuss.
Brian Bennett: Wisconsin
The Badgers are the Big Ten's only other ranked team in the preseason and have been the league's most successful program outside of the Buckeyes and Spartans the past five years. Wisconsin gets an early playoff-statement game in the opener against Alabama; win that one, or even play well in a close loss, and things set up well for the rest of an advantageous schedule. Paul Chryst's team does travel to Nebraska and Minnesota but misses Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State from the East. The Badgers went 7-1 in the Big Ten last year and might have been undefeated if the starting quarterback decision wasn't botched in August. Even a close loss to, say, Ohio State in the Big Ten title game wouldn't be a killer if there's a win over Alabama on the résumé, and anything can happen in a one-game situation in Indianapolis, anyway. Is Wisconsin actually good enough to make this happen under a first-year head coach? Maybe not, but it did beat trendy preseason playoff pick Auburn the last time it took the field.
Austin Ward: Michigan State
Under most circumstances, a team ranked just outside of the top four wouldn’t remotely qualify as a sleeper, but Michigan State’s situation might make it an exception. Nobody disputes the talent the No. 5 Spartans are bringing back this fall, but the general consensus is there is a surefire loss on the schedule when they head to take on Ohio State at the Horseshoe, which is causing many to write off their chances of qualifying for the playoff. But if Michigan State turns in an impressive showing against Oregon in Week 2, its only loss does wind up coming to the defending champs. And if Ohio State finishes undefeated, there would be a strong case for two Big Ten teams making the field. And there’s a decent chance that a veteran quarterback, a stacked defensive line and a proven coach like Mark Dantonio make it even simpler and just win the conference outright.
Mitch Sherman: Minnesota
Stop laughing. I realize the Gophers open with No. 2 TCU and must play at Ohio State in Week 10. Forget for a moment, though, about November and consider only what would happen if Minnesota beats the Horned Frogs next week in Minneapolis. Is it a long shot? Sure, but it's not inconceivable behind a shutdown secondary and an experienced quarterback in Mitch Leidner, who will limit mistakes and an energized atmosphere. So let's say the Gophers take down TCU. They may just roll off eight wins to open the season, which brings us to Nov. 7 at the Horseshoe. No, I don't give Minnesota much of a shot to win at Ohio State. But we're looking for a dark horse here. It's safe to say that of legitimate contenders to win a Big Ten division, Minnesota best fits the profile of a sleeper. And the Gophers actually get a chance to prove their worth against the nation's best.
Josh Moyer: Nebraska
I know, I know -- dynamic wideout/returner De'Mornay Pierson-El is likely out until October, and the nonconference schedule is far, far from a cakewalk. But the fact is this is still one of the B1G's top teams, and there's no doubt that -- even without Ameer Abdullah -- offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf is going to find a way to get the ball into his playmakers' hands. This is QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.'s third season as a starter, and I expect him to take another step forward. Plus, with opponents like Michigan State, BYU and Miami (Florida) -- not too mention the division foes -- it certainly seems like the Huskers can potentially lose one game and still find a spot in the playoff. It also doesn't hurt that Nebraska will host most of its key games. The path to the playoff isn't an easy one, and I don't plan on predicting the Huskers in the national title game. But we're looking for dark horses here, and I think Nebraska has the potential to surprise.
Dan Murphy: Wisconsin
Crazy things happen in college football. Get your team into a one-off situation, and you've got a chance. No one in the Big Ten is better situated to give themselves a chance than the Badgers. Last year's West champs return a playoff-caliber defense and a steady running game. If they can get to the Big Ten title game again (with an undefeated record in league play this time), the opportunity is there. Even with a competitive loss to Alabama in the season opener, provided the Tide rolls into the playoff, wouldn't preclude Wisconsin from a playoff spot. New coach Chryst will have to find a passing game to get there, but if we're scanning nooks and crannies for possible dark horses, let's start in Madison.