Big Ten Inaugural Players To Watch List
(NOTE: The conference voted not to release a preseason media poll. In past seasons, the conference would only announce the order of the top three teams.)
The Big Ten expands to two divisions - Legends and Leaders - with the addition of Nebraska. Despite growing to 12 teams, the conference continues to call itself the Big Ten and commissioner Jim Delany says it always will.
The inaugural Big Ten championship game will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on December 3rd and broadcast at 8:17 ET on Fox Sports.
The Congrove Computer Rankings project Wisconsin to win the Leaders Division and Nebraska to take the Legends, with the 'Huskers getting a 3.22-point edge over the Badgers for the title. That game would be a rematch of an October 1st game in which Nebraska is favored by just 0.21 at Madison.
So where does Ohio State land?
The school was rocked when Jim Tressel resigned on Memorial Day. Assistant head coach Luke Fickell, who served as Tressel's linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator, assumed the interim head coaching duties for the 2011 season. He started a school record 50 games at nose guard for the Buckeyes from 1993-1996.
Ohio State came under NCAA scrutiny last season when it was found that several players, including QB Terrelle Pryor, received extra benefits when they sold or exchanged items such as Ohio State bowl championship class rings, bowl pants, etc, with a tattoo parlor owner. What seemed like minor violations in the beginning, became bigger as more news developed. The actions of the players were later learned to have been covered up by Tressel who, in turn, lied to the NCAA about his knowledge of their actions. The tattoo parlor owner was arrested on May 27 on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering.
Five players were suspended for the first 5 games of the upcoming 2011 seasons, another was suspended for 1 game. Tressel was initially sanctioned for two games, but that penalty was later stretched to five. Fickell had already been appointed to serve as acting head coach for those games.
On June 8, the fallout continued as QB Terrelle Pryor announced he would not play for Ohio State this year.
Tressel had quickly endeared himself to Buckeye followers when he guided the team to a BCS title in his second season in Columbus in 2002, though his teams later lost back-to-back title games in 2006 and 2007. He took Ohio State to 8 BCS bowl games in his 10 seasons, and won or shared 7 Big Ten titles. He posted records of 106-22 overall with the Buckeyes, 66-14 in conference, 9-1 vs. Michigan, and 6-4 in bowl games.
Not exclusively due to those developments, the Ohio State forecast is bleak if you are a Buckeye fan. It projects an 8-4 season overall with a break-even conference record - still good enough to take 2nd place behind Wisconsin in the Leaders Division. Penn State and Illinois are expected to be in the hunt for 2nd, as well, with Purdue finishing 5th.
Ironically, Ohio State's toughest nonconference game of the season was supposed to be its home date with the Miami Hurricanes on September 17. But the 'Canes enter the season having just suspended 8 players, including QB Jacory Harris, in the wake of an NCAA investigation of that program's transgressions.
One school which may be enjoying all of the negative publicity about the Buckeyes is, of course, Michigan. With a new sheriff in Ann Arbor, and problems galore in Columbus, the computer gives the Wolverines a 0.59-point edge in the annual rivalry game between the two schools in the season finale.
The new sheriff is Michigan alum Brady Hoke, who spent 8 seasons in Ann Arbor coaching the defensive line before honing his skills as a head coach with Ball State (2003-2008) and the Aztecs (2009-2010). He guided the Cardinals to a 12-0 regular season finish in 2008 before falling to Buffalo in the MAC Championship game. Hoke then led San Diego State on a resurgence from a 2-10 season the year before he arrived to a 9-4 campaign that included a Poinsettia Bowl victory over Navy in 2010. His 8-year career record is just 47-50, and while both schools showed dramatic improvement under his tutelage, he has left each job too quickly to see if he could sustain any success. All told, he has had just 3 winning seasons as a head coach, going 7-6 with Ball State in 2007, 12-1 with the Cards in 2008 and 9-4 with the Aztecs last year.
Michigan ditched Rodriguez on January 5, four days after an embarrassing 52-14 blowout loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl that concluded a 7-6 season with 3 straight losses. His tenure reaped three seasons of NCAA investigations and unaccustomed losing. The winningest program in college football history was 15-22 under Rodriguez, 6-18 against Big Ten foes and 11-11 at home. Rodriguez' Wolverines won a total of 10 games in three years against teams from BCS automatic qualifier conferences and were 5-20 overall in games played each season after September 30. He was 1-11 vs. ranked teams and 0-6 vs. Michigan's chief rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State.
The computer gives Michigan a 7-5 projection overall, and a 4-4 conference record for a 4th-place finish in the Legends Division.
Indiana and Minnesota will enter the 2011 season with new head coaches, as well. The Hoosiers went with Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson to replace Bill Lynch whose four-year stint produced records of 19-30 overall, 6-26 in the Big Ten. The Golden Gophers snatched Jerry Kill from Northern Illinois where he was 23-16 in three seasons, including a 10-3 mark and a MAC West title in 2010. Both schools are forecasted to end the year in the cellar of their respective divisions, well behind the 5th-place teams.
Michigan State, whom we last saw getting trounced 49-7 by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl, is the computer's 2nd-place pick in the Legends Division with a 10-2 overall record, with Northwestern taking 3rd with a 9-3 mark. Iowa is forecasted to go 5-7 and end up in 5th.
With all of the change and tumult that the offseason brought - the Ohio State investigation; new coaches at Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana; the addition of Nebraska and the split into two divisions - almost anything is possible in the Big Ten this season.