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Friday, May 3, 2013
Big Ten post-spring power rankings

By Brian Bennett

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes haven't lost a game since January 2012, and nothing that happened this spring changed the reality that they're the team to beat in 2013. The defensive front was a major question mark, but sophomore defensive ends Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence calmed concerns there with huge springs. A blue-chip recruiting class will only add depth to the league's top team.

2. Michigan: We put the Wolverines No. 5 in our initial 2013 rankings. That was before we knew Taylor Lewan would return and before Michigan signed stud running back prospect Derrick Green. Those developments, plus the continued progress of Devin Gardner at quarterback, should be enough to overcome the loss of star linebacker Jake Ryan to a knee injury and make the Maize and Blue a Legends Division favorite.

3. Northwestern: The Wildcats had a mostly drama-free spring, which suited Pat Fitzgerald just fine. The team was missing several projected starters because of injury, but they should all be ready by fall camp. With most important pieces back from a 10-win team, including all-American running back/returner Venric Mark, Fitzgerald is confident that Northwestern can contend for a Big Ten title.

4. Nebraska: The good news: The Cornhuskers' prolific offense, powered by senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, looked to be in midseason form this spring. The bad news: The defense definitely needs a few more months, at least, to figure things out. A favorable early schedule should help Bo Pelini's club get off to a strong start, but Nebraska will go only as far as its young, unproven defenders will take it.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers appear to be adapting well to new head coach Gary Andersen, though the loss of defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot injuries was a setback. Joel Stave and Curt Phillips played well at quarterback this spring, though neither has won the job outright. Andersen has enough returning talent to give Ohio State all it can handle in the Leaders Division race.

6. Michigan State: Remember what we said about Nebraska? Just flip first those two sentences around. The Spartans' defense looked strong as ever this spring, and maybe even a little better up front. But that defense may have to be great if the offense plays like it did in the spring game. An unsettled quarterback situation and questions over who replaces Le'Veon Bell at running back puts Michigan State a notch behind the top Big Ten teams, though the schedule is desirable.

7. Penn State: Whoever plays quarterback for Penn State will be making his major-college debut after Steven Bench surprisingly transferred shortly after spring drills. It looks like junior college import Tyler Ferguson is the man under center for head coach Bill O'Brien, whose Year 2 fortunes could revolve around that position's progress and how the Nittany Lions replace several key defensive leaders from last season.

8. Minnesota: Getting to a bowl game last season seems to have helped the Gophers' confidence this offseason. That and the comfort level for the players under third-year coach Jerry Kill and his staff have Minnesota thinking about taking the next step this fall. Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson held onto the starting job this spring and needs to lead a better downfield passing attack, while Kill is hoping some junior college transfers help fill the holes at linebacker. Don't sleep on the Gophers this year.

9. Indiana: Teams are going to have to score a lot of points to beat the Hoosiers this year. They led the Big Ten in passing last year despite having to shuffle three quarterbacks, and now all three (Tre Roberson, Nate Sudfeld and Cameron Coffman) are battling for the right to throw to a loaded receiving corps. If Indiana can just reach mediocrity on defense -- that's a big if, based on recent history -- Kevin Wilson's club could make some noise in the Big Ten and get to a bowl game.

10. Purdue: This may be too low for a team coming off back-to-back bowl bids. But we're in wait-and-see mode with the Boilermakers because they're undergoing a coaching transition and have questions at quarterback and linebacker. Darrell Hazell's arrival should bring some more discipline and toughness, however. The secondary could be one of the best in the league, and running back Akeem Hunt looked like one of the league's most improved players this spring.

11. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have nowhere to go but up after an uncharacteristic 4-8 season under Kirk Ferentz last year. Of course, they're also breaking in a new quarterback and haven't yet chosen between Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard. There are issues on the defensive line, at receiver and in the secondary. But the running game should be a strength, with Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock leading a deep tailback group.

12. Illinois: The Illini showed in the spring game that they're not afraid to throw the ball around in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's system, and that should help a team that finished last in the Big Ten in scoring last year. Several junior college players, including receiver Martize Barr and linebacker/safety Eric Finney, stepped in and contributed already this spring. Yet second-year coach Tim Beckman still has several holes to fill after a 2-10 season.