ESPN Insider and preseason prognosticator Phil Steele has a list of nine teams he forecasts as the most improved clubs for the 2013 season, and two of them hail from the Big Ten.
Steele lists both Michigan State and Indiana as teams that should make a jump in the win column this year. Of the Spartans, he says that their luck in close games should improve. And he adds:
"The main reason for the expected improvement for the Spartans lies in a much more manageable schedule this year. Conference favorites Wisconsin and Ohio State drop off in cross-divisional play, while Purdue and Illinois are added. Overall, a return to a double-digit win season like 2010 and 2011 is not out of the question this year and would allow the Spartans to improve by three or more wins."
Steele cites Indiana's experience -- the Hoosiers return 19 starters from last year -- as a main reason for optimism. The schedule also helps.
"The schedule sets up nicely as they open the season with five straight home games. They have a solid shot at winning at least four of them. In Big Ten play, they also get winnable games against Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue all at home. Indiana has had just one winning season in 18 years, but I will go out on a limb and call for the Hoosiers to go from just five combined wins in 2011 and 2012 to at least six wins and a bowl this year."
I tend to agree with both these assessments. Michigan State's defense is so good that it should not go 6-6 in the regular season again if the offense makes even incremental progress. And dropping the Badgers and Buckeyes as crossover opponents is a big benefit. I don't know if the Spartans have enough at quarterback, running back and receiver to get back to 10 wins, but seven or eight is a reasonable baseline expectation.
As for Indiana, it has a chance to get to a bowl game this year. A lot will depend on how much the Hoosiers take advantage of their early home schedule, which has some tricky games like Navy and Bowling Green. But they should once again field one of the top passing attacks in the Big Ten, and with even minor progress on defense (yes, Indiana and Michigan State are like mirror images), they should be able to improve on last year's 3-9 mark.