- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The 2011 season will be a historic one for the Big Ten as Nebraska joins the conference, the league splits into two divisions and the first Big Ten title game is held in December.
Here's the first of what will be many preseason installments of the power rankings. Keep in mind that it's early and these will change in the coming months.
There's clear separation with the top four. The next pack includes six teams that could make a jump or backslide. Both Minnesota and Indiana have some work to do following coaching changes.
1. Ohio State: The upcoming suspensions make the Buckeyes less of a firm favorite than normal, but Ohio State still boasts the most dominant program in the Big Ten. Although the Buckeyes lose a sizable senior class, they have shown the ability to reload and should improve at several positions like running back. The first half of the season will be a grind, but until someone consistently beats the Buckeyes, they're on top.
2. Wisconsin: Arguably no Big Ten team loses more outstanding individuals than Wisconsin, but the Badgers still boast a lot of depth, especially on offense. The run game and offensive line will be fine, and it comes down to Wisconsin identifying a capable quarterback. Standout linebacker Chris Borland returns to a defense that should be solid in the back seven.
3. Nebraska: There likely will be an adjustment period for the Huskers, but the Pelini-led defense makes Nebraska an immediate Big Ten title contender. Quarterback Taylor Martinez will face better defenses in the Big Ten than he did in the Big 12, but if he recaptures his form from the first half of 2010, look out. A brutal schedule does Nebraska no favors, but the Huskers have an immediate opportunity to distinguish themselves.
4. Michigan State: It wouldn't surprise me one bit to see the Spartans rise in the power rankings throughout the offseason, but I need to see improvement in several areas after a revealing Capital One Bowl loss. Can Kirk Cousins take the next step in his development? Who replaces Greg Jones and Eric Gordon at linebacker? Will Michigan State become a force along both the offensive and defensive lines? These are some of the questions facing a potential league title contender.
5. Penn State: There's a drop-off after the top four, but keep an eye on Penn State entering the 2011 season. The ingredients are there for the program to take a step forward, particularly on defense, after a mediocre 2010 campaign. It will be very interesting to see what happens with the quarterback competition this spring as Rob Bolden seemingly has rejoined the mix.
6. Northwestern: Star quarterback Dan Persa returns from injury and should make Northwestern one of the Big Ten's top offenses entering 2011. The Wildcats should be able to rack up plenty of points and yards as they lose only one starter on the offensive side. But there are major questions on defense after the unit allowed 163 points in its final three games.
7. Iowa: This is another team that likely will rise in the power rankings before the season kicks off. There are quite a few question marks after the departure of a sizable senior class, but players like Marcus Coker and Micah Hyde began to provide answers in the Insight Bowl victory. Iowa is typically at its best under the radar, so look out for Kirk Ferentz's crew.
8. Illinois: The NFL departures undoubtedly hurt the Illini, but the program took a step forward in 2010 and returns a decent core led by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Illinois has some reloading to do on defense if tackle Corey Liuget joins linebacker Martez Wilson as an early entrant to the NFL draft. But this team has shown that it can beat anyone when things are clicking.
9. Michigan: It's very hard to rank Michigan right now as the program lacks a head coach or much schematic direction. The Wolverines still will have significant issues on defense but will be older and most likely deeper at several spots, namely the secondary. If Denard Robinson can continue to flourish in a spread offense, the Wolverines will put up points.
10. Purdue: The Boilers once again enter the fall as a potential sleeper team in the Big Ten. They'll be healthier and most likely a lot better on offense as key players return at the skill positions. Purdue boasts some exciting returnees on defense but must find a way to replace All-American defensive end Ryan Kerrigan.
11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill inherits some talent on offense, namely junior MarQueis Gray, who returns to the quarterback spot after a season as a receiver. The Gophers will be a year older on defense but need to make strides in several phases to keep pace in a tough division.
12. Indiana: I really like Kevin Wilson's plan for the Hoosiers, and when he gets more of his players in the program, IU should take a step forward. There are too many holes on defense to foresee a breakthrough this fall, and replacing quarterback Ben Chappell won't be easy.
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