With the start of the season just days away, our Big Ten reporters predict the record of each Big Ten team and offer up a quick explanation of their picks.
The toughest part of predicting the order of finish is figuring out the jumble atop the West. I think Nebraska has the most talent but the hardest schedule, while Wisconsin and Iowa are pretty equal. In the end, I see the Badgers as a team that will continue to improve throughout the course of the year and will benefit from its backloaded schedule. I think Gary Andersen's team beats Nebraska at home and Iowa on the road, making up for a pair of early conference losses and winning the division tiebreaker over the Hawkeyes to set up a rematch of the inaugural Big Ten championship game versus Michigan State.
With Braxton Miller's season-ending injury, the East basically explains itself. The Spartans are the new favorite … or, depending on your point of view, remain the easy favorite. A new defensive coordinator in Indiana gives me hope that the Hoosiers' offense marching downfield won't just be a futile exercise, and Rutgers? Well, maybe next year, kid. The West is much, much trickier -- and the three top teams all have their own question marks. What kind of passing offense and front seven will Wisconsin have? Can Iowa overcome three departed linebackers? How's Nebraska's secondary? I have more faith in Tommy Armstrong than Tanner McEvoy, and I'm picking Randy Gregory for the B1G defensive player of the year. So, while it's a toss-up, I'm still comfortable sticking with Nebraska.
It's never easy making the won-loss records match up and I'm sure I'll be wrong about a lot of this. I see the parity in the West Division playing out as Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin will beat up on one another. It's not easy to run the table in league play two years in a row, but Ohio State did it in 2012 and 2013 and Michigan State will repeat in 2013 and 2014. I see Indiana squeaking into a bowl game and Illinois falling just shy. Ohio State starts off strong but stumbles twice in league play, while new league members Maryland and Rutgers both go through some growing pains in their Big Ten debuts.
Injuries happen. But when they happen in August, injuries jumble predicted standings. Since we first ranked the Big Ten teams early this month, much has changed. The loss of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller pushed Michigan State, for me, past the Buckeyes. And in the West Division, Nebraska's key defensive losses -- linebacker Michael Rose and nickel cornerback Charles Jackson are out for the year with injuries -- knocked the Huskers down a notch to third. The best candidate for team most likely to drive its fans crazy? How about Iowa. I've got the Hawkeyes with three Big Ten losses -- at Maryland, at Minnesota and to Northwestern -- with November wins over Wisconsin and the Nebraska. Look for Notre Dame to go 3-0 against the Big Ten. And curious about the lone wins for Rutgers and Purdue? I'm taking the Scarlet Knights over Penn State and the Boilermakers to beat Northwestern.
With just two horses to pick from and one now dealing with a significant injury at the game's most important position, handicapping the East was a relatively straightforward proposition. Good luck with the West, though, since that battle has the potential to go down to the final weekend with multiple teams fighting for a berth in the title game. With each potential candidate having some minor flaws to pick on, trying to figure out which might be most easily overcome is the biggest chore heading into the opener, but Wisconsin's dynamic combination of tailbacks should allow it to weather any growing pains at quarterback once the conference season begins. It won't, however, be enough to get past the Spartans for the league crown as Mark Dantonio's program is set to go back to back once it gets past a wounded Ohio State on Nov. 8 for the East title.