Originally posted on Crystal Ball Run  |  Last updated 2/9/12

Ho-hum, another year in the Big Ten. What can we possibly write about? Well, for starters there are the tired and often recycled stories about how Ohio State can't beat SEC teams, Michigan can't play defense and how Joe Paterno is going for another milestone win. Oh, wait... what's that? Oh my.... 

No, the Big Ten is not adding any new members like the SEC and Big 12 are, nor are they in any legal disputes with any of their current members like the Big East is. Instead the Big Ten has mostly been quiet on the mid-western front when it comes to realignment this go-around. While the conference as a whole seems to be on solid ground it is easy to forget about some of the bigger story lines heading in to the 2012 season.

Urban Meyer taking over at Ohio State has, naturally, been a large focus for college football fans and media alike when discussing the Big Ten, but if you take another look there is plenty more to be paying attention to in the conference this season. Continuing our look at some of the top storylines in 2012 on Crystal Ball Run, here is a run down of some of the top stories in 2012 from Big Ten country.

10. Ohio State postseason ban leaves door wide open in Leaders

There is plenty of reason to be optimistic for Ohio State fans with the hiring of Urban Meyer as head coach, even if the Buckeyes will be held out of postseason play in the 2012 season. Ohio State will be prohibited from postseaosn play as part of an NCAA sanction stemming from violations tied to Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor and others last season.

With the Buckeyes ineligible to compete for a Big Ten title, the door will be left wide open for anyone else in the Leaders Division. Wisconsin is the defending division, and conference, champion and should be expected to take ful advantage of the Buckeyes' eligibility status in 2012. But if the Badgers happen to slip up then could a team like Penn State or Illinois jump in to the mix in the same way UCLA did in the Pac 12 South in 2011? Perhaps.

Any game Ohio State loses in the Big Ten will serve as a bonus for the winner. Games against Ohio State will still count in the Big Ten standings, despite the Buckeyes being ineligible. What teams take advantage of those wins?

9. Big Ten's dynamic quarterbacks to watch

The Big Ten is not normally known for their athletic quarterbacks on an annual basis, but that does not mean there will nto be a few players to keep an eye on in 2012. Certainly Michigan's Denard Robinson will be one of those players worth tuning in to watch on Saturdays. We know what he can do with his legs and what he is capable of when there is no pressure on him, but what we want to see out of Shoelaces in 2012 is an ability to read defenses better and improve his overall game. Against solid defenses Robinson tends to be a little erratic, as we saw a few times in 2012, including the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech. If we are to take Robinson as a serious Heisman Trophy candidate, which is not too far off as a possibility, then improving his passing game is an absolute must. But that doesn't mean we want to see him running the football less. When he gets loose it is fun to watch.

Ohio State's Braxton Miller showed some signs of a promising future last season as  true freshman. Now a sophomore and under the coaching of Urban Meyer, a coach who has said he likes what he sees in Miller, will he be able to continue growing and blossom in to a dynamite player? We know he has an arm and we know he can run with the best of them. There is no doubt, as a full time starting quarterback in 2012 that we will see some highlights from Miller in he fall.

One more quarterback worth paying attention to is Minnesota's MarQueis Gray. The Golden Gophers do not have a whole lot to offer, but Gray is a player who can cause some problems for defenses on any given Saturday. Last year he started 11 of 12 games for Minnesota under center, a season after starting all 12 games at wide receiver. The conversion resulted in 1,495 passing yards and eight touchdown passes and 966 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. He is asked to do a lot for Minnesota, and if Minnesota has any chance of improving in 2012 it will be largely in the hands (and feet) of Gray.

8. Bret Bielema the elder statesman of the Leaders Division coaching circle

The Leaders Division has a new leader at the top of the pack in terms of longevity. After the firing of Jim Tressel prior to the 2011 season and the dismissal of Joe Paterno in the second half of the season, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema has moved to the top of the pack in the division. The 2012 season will be Bielema's seventh on the Wisconsin sidelines. The rest of the coaches in the Leaders Division this season will have a total of four seasons as a head coach in the Big Ten.

Ohio State is a bit of an asterisk due to hiring Urban Meyer, who has been a head coach at Utah, Bowling Green and Florida and has two BCS championship rings. Penn State hired New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien for his first gig as a head coach and Illinois hired former Toledo head coach Tim Beckman. Purdue's Danny Hope has been on the job for three years and Indiana's Kevin Wilson is entering his second season as a head coach.

Bielema has taken the Badgers to back-to-back Rose Bowls, losing both (last year's was one of our Best Games of the 2011 Season). While he may not be on the hot seat the pressure to win a big game may start to warm up now that Meyer is at Ohio State. This could be the last season Bielema can lead the Badgers to a Big Ten title without much of a fight from the rest of the division.

7. Players on the rise

Russell Wilson took the Big Ten by storm in 2012, but he didn't do it alone. We'll get to running back Montee Ball in a bit but one of the players who started to emerge last season in Madison was wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. A season after catching just 20 passes Abbrederis exploded for the Badgers with 933 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. It remains to be seen what the passing game will be like in Madison next fall but look for Abbrederis to continue to be a top target for Wisconsin's offense. Who else should we be paying attention to next fall?

  • Silas Redd (Penn State RB) and Rex Burkhead (Nebraska RB) are certainly near the top of the list for offensive players. Montee Ball is still in a class of his own right now, but these two backs are no slouches. Burkhead is a bit of a beast that is not afraid to run over you if he has to. Redd will need to stay healthy as Penn State's best offensive weapon, but he can be tough to bring down as well. One more running back to mention would be Michigan's Fitz Toussaint. Toussaint rushed for 1,000 yards last season and finished the regular season with three straight 100-yard games as he became the top guy in the backfield. Expect more in 2012.
  • Michigan State has a couple defensive players that should be solid next fall. William Gholston (DE) and Denicos Allen (LB) were among the team leaders in tackles last season as sophomores. Allen was second behind Max Bullough. They should each be leading the team again in the fall. Of course on offense look for running back Le'Veon Bell to develop more as  a primary running back after leading the team in rushing in 2011 with 948 yards and 13 touchdowns. A 1,000-yard season from Bell would not be a shock at all.
  • Some others to keep in mind include linebackers Jonathan Brown (Illinois) and Ryan Shazier (Ohio State, and a heck of a linebacker's name). Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell could make some noise as well.

6. Can bottom-dwellers show improvement?

It was a rough year for Minnesota and Indiana under new leadership. Indiana allowed an average of 37.3 points per game (114th in the nation) in the first year under first-time head coach Kevin Wilson, a former assistant at Oklahoma. Minnesota went 3-9 in the first year under Jerry Kill, who suffered some health scares along the way. Each finished on the bottom of their respective divisions and were blown up by rivals along the way. So, what is the goal in 2012 for each?

Improving seems like it should be pretty easy when the bar was set so low in 2012. Neither team looks like it is ready to make a run to a bowl game, but that may be OK as long as there are signs of improvement this season. The focus, naturally should be on defense. Minnesota allowed 40 points or more four times in Big Ten play, including three straight against Michigan, Purdue and Nebraska. Indiana allowed 40 points or more five times in conference play, including a four game stretch in which they were outscored 204-89 following a Big Ten opening nail-biter against Penn State at home, 16-10.

Neither coach took on their respective jobs thinking it would change the program in to a BCS contender overnight, but after one year down they know now what they are up against in the conference. What will they have learned from year one?

5. Pat Fitzgerald, still making Northwestern proud, but for how long?

Nobody appreciates and respects what Pat Fitzgerald is doing at Northwestern as much as me (well except maybe these two guys). I have said for a few years now that nobody gets more effort out of less talent than Fitzgerald at Northwestern. It is a tremendous credit to his coaching style and philosophy and it is why his name always seems to pop up in coaching rumor mills every season. I do believe that Fitzgerald is a quality coach who could succeed at a higher profile program if he chose to give it a shot, but let's sit back and take a quick glance. Is he overrated, dare I say?

In each of the past four seasons Northwestern's win total has gone down, from nine wins in 2008 to six wins last fall. Along the way Northwestern has lost all four bowl appearances it has made. Credit Fitzgerald for turning Northwestern in to an annual bowl participant (only ten bowl appearances in program history for a program that dates back to the late 19th century), but at what point will more be required of Fitzgerald? Northwestern is not exactly the kind of program ready to pull the trigger on one of their own, especially a football legend like Fitzgerald, but it might be time to expect more out of Fitzgerald if we are all going to look at him as a rising coaching star. Right now, he is trending downward, and that pains me to say being a fan of his.

4. Is pressure mounting on Nebraska, Bo Pelini?

Speaking of which, what about Nebraska's Bo Pelini? In a recent episode of the Audible Audibles podcast on Husker Locker I asked of Nebraska whether they have reached a point under Pelini if it is acceptable to win division titles or expected to contend for BCS titles. It seems like a fair question to ask for a legendary program like Nebraska, who has Tom Osborne overseeing the athletic department.

Nebraska left the Big 12 with a pair of Big 12 championship game appearances and was touted as a Big Ten favorite by many right from the start. To be fair, they were close to competing for the Big Ten championship but ended their season with nine wins and losses to Wisconsin, Michigan, South Carolina and Northwestern (see above). the time for Nebraska to start taking that next step may be now, in Pelini's fifth year on the job.

3. Penn State enters a new era

The tale of the 2011 Penn State Nittany Lions never went according to the script and ended under a dark cloud the entire university is continuing to try and crawl out of. The passing of the legendary, and lately maligned Joe Paterno was a somber ending of sorts to one of the iconic coaching careers not only in college football but all of sports. In steps Bill O'Brien, a former assistant coach at multiple college football stops including Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke. Fresh off a month of pulling double duty as the new head coach at Penn State and coaching the New England Patriots offense through a Super Bowl defeat, O'Brien realizes what is in front of him.

Things will be quite different with O'Brien in charge of Penn State's football operations now, and the changes on game day should be somewhat noticeable right form the start as he intends to call his own plays on offense. The staples of Penn State football will likely remain, such as a dependable defense anchored by a solid linebacking corp, but O'Brien does have some challenges to tackle other than the negative image of the program left by the 2011 season's off-field distractions. For starters, who will be his quarterback? Then, how will he match wits with the likes of Bielema and Meyer in division play?

And this is just the beginning...

2. Is Michigan ready to make a run?

The Brady Hoke era in Ann Arbor got off to a good start in 2011, with the Wolverines returning to the BCS table in a Sugar Bowl victory against Virginia Tech. Whether you believe Michigan deserved a spot in the game or not, there is no denying that Michigan was a team that showed drastic improvement from 2010, and it all started with the defense. Michigan cut their average points allowed in half from 2010 and finally snapped a losing streak to Ohio State. So, what's next?

Given what Michigan did in the first year under Brady Hoke it might be fair to expect more in 2012, especially with higher expectations placed on quarterback Denard Robinson (mentioned earlier). A return trip to the Rose Bowl, for the first time since 2006, is certainly the ultimate goal in 2012 and it is not an unfair expectation. Michigan can get off to a great start if they can find a way to knock off defending BCS champion Alabama in Cowboys Stadium in week one. After that Michigan faces Air Force and UMass (now an FBS school, joining the MAC) at home before visiting Notre Dame, who will be out for revenge after last season's ending. Michigan's biggest road games will be played at Nebraska and Ohio State. It certainly feels like a national championship schedule if all the pieces fall in to place...

1. Montee Ball a Heisman Trophy favorite

Wisconsin running back Montee Ball made a late push for national Heisman Trophy consideration, and may have been hindered by early season Heisman hype for teammate Russell Wilson. But that should not be a problem in 2012. Ball is one of two Heisman finalists returning for 2012 (LSU's Tyrann Mathieu) and he should start the season with much more of a Heisman profile than he did in 2011. He was named the 2011 Big Ten Running Back of the Year and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, won the 2011 Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award, was First Team All-Big Ten and a consensus All-American in a season in which he tied an NCAA record for touchdowns with 39. The sad thing is Ball could have a great season but will have a tough time matching those numbers, and how many people might point to that?

A look at Wisconsin's schedule shows that Ball should be able to pile up some early yardage and touchdowns, with games against Northern Iowa, Oregon State, Utah State and UTEP lined up in September. Wisconsin also plays Minnesota and Indiana (see above) in conference play.

Ball was one of the top three rushers last season, behind LaMichael James (Oregon) and Bobby Rainey (Western Kentucky) and led the nation in rushing touchdowns with 33 (next closest was Temple's Bernard Pierce and Kansas State's Collin Klein with 27). Even if he scores six fewer touchdowns in 2012 he has a great chance to lead the nation once again, and that is scary. the rest of the Big Ten may be able to focus more on shutting down, or rather limiting, the production of Ball this season with Russell Wilson out of the picture, but if he can continue to put up numbers he should be a solid candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

Will Ball be the Big Ten's first Heisman Trophy winner since Troy Smith in 2006, and just the third Big Ten player since Wisconsin's own Ron Dayne won in 1999?


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