2013 Big Ten football megapreview: Who can stop Ohio State?

Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

After going undefeated last year, the Buckeyes are the B1G favorites to win the conference and have their sights set on even more -- but there's a bevy of capable squads looking to knock them off after some close calls last year.

If Urban Meyer, Braxton Miller and Ohio State want to contend for the national championship, they'll have to get through the Big Ten first -- and while the knock on the B1G has been the lack of title contenders, nobody's going to roll over for the Buckeyes.

Finally free of postseason sanctions, Ohio State is universally expected to win this conference. Miller's a monster, the defense has two of the top five defenders in the conference (and is solid throughout) and Meyer has an evil hex on the rest of the league so far.

But they're not alone. Wisconsin's won back-to-back-to-back titles, and its rushing game should be as strong as ever behind a stout offensive line. Michigan State has an elite defense. Taylor Martinez and the Cornhuskers are hoping for revenge after getting demolished in last year's B1G Championship game. Northwestern has an exciting offense and is a definite contender, and, no, that's not a joke. And, of course, there's Michigan. Led by Devin Gardner after years with Denard Robinson at the helm, they will be waiting for Ohio State in Ann Arbor to spoil the coronation if nobody else can.

Here's your primer on all things B1G in 2013.

Seven games to watch

Wisconsin at Ohio State, Sept. 28

Just call this the Leaders Division title game. With Penn State ineligible, nobody else is going to represent the division in the conference championship besides one of these two. But which will it be? Ohio State probably seals a trip to Indianapolis in prime time.

Ohio State at Northwestern, Oct. 5

The Wildcats have a tougher road to the Legends Division title than anybody else: They open conference play with Ohio State and Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks. Here's their shot.

Both teams have relatively easy out-of-conference schedules, so this could be a matchup of undefeated, top-15 teams. This one's under the lights at Ryan Field, and because there aren't actually any Northwestern fans, there'll likely be a raucous 50-50 crowd.

Michigan at Michigan State, Nov. 2

Michigan's the dominator in the Paul Bunyan Trophy rivalry, but MSU reeled off a string of four straight before last year. Both squads will be very much in the mix for a Legends Division title. Last year's matchup was classic B1G -- a 12-10 defensive struggle, with Michigan getting the win without scoring a touchdown.

Considering the Spartans' incredible defense, this game might not be visually pleasing, but it will be between two very good teams that don't like each other.

Northwestern at Nebraska, Nov. 2

The other two teams likely competing for a Legends Division title meet on the same day. The new NU vs. NU series is actually kinda tense: the Wildcats shocked the No. 10 Huskers in Lincoln, 28-25, in 2011. Last year, Nebraska scored a pair of touchdowns in the last six minutes before a desperation Northwestern field goal sailed a few feet to the right as the Huskers held on for a 29-28 win.

Both will be competitors in the Legends Division, and this could serve as a division title elimination game.

Michigan State at Nebraska, Nov. 16

Last year's matchup between these two was all Taylor Martinez at his most Taylor Martinez, and was a nightmare for Michigan State fans. Martinez threw three picks, but kept the Huskers in the game due to 205 yards rushing, including a pair of long scoring plays. After a truly terrible pass interference call, Nebraska had one last chance to score and did, winning 28-24.

Both teams are in the Legends Division hunt, and the Spartans are looking to win for the first time against the Huskers -- they're 0-7 all-time.

Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 30

The Big Ten's signature rivalry. The last week of the regular season, with title berths possibly at stake for both squads. The two likely best quarterbacks in the conference. What more could you ask for in one game? The only diluting factor is that they could end up replaying the week after.

Penn State at Wisconsin, Nov. 30

Last year, the Nittany Lions' season finale was an awesome end to a sentimental season, as they won 24-21 in overtime after a late Wisconsin score. But the Badgers went home happy, because they still got to go to the Big Ten title game. Penn State once again won't have anything to play for besides another good-feeling ending, but Wisconsin might very well be in the mix for Indy, and I'm sure Bill O'Brien would love to play spoiler.

Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis vs. Penn State. Evan Habeeb, US Presswire

Six Twitter accounts to follow

Five spots to visit

Help us fill this list out in the comments. Thanks to our Big Ten sites for getting us started here.

  • The Great Dane in Madison
  • HopCat in East Lansing
  • Katzinger's Delicatessen in Columbus
  • Matt's Bar in Minneapolis
  • Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor

Four players to love

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State

The Big Ten has one legitimate Heisman candidate. He wasn't a perfect passer last year -- just a great one, with a 58.3 percent completion rating, 15 touchdowns, six picks -- and actually had a few games in which he legitimately was vexed throwing the ball.

But in those games he used his feet to make moves, and at 6'2 and 215 pounds, he's not exactly easy to take down. He ran for over 100 yards or more in half of his team's games last year.

His passing's supposedly improved over the offseason, and if so, that's not fun for anybody.

Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan

For the past few years, everybody has wondered whether the person under center for Michigan was, in fact, a quarterback. Denard Robinson could run better than nearly anybody in the country, but he was not blessed with throwing talent. Yet the Wolverines let him run the show because he was too talented to take the ball out of his hands.

There's no question about Gardner's position. He did play wide receiver in stints while waiting his turn, but just because he's got legs shouldn't take away from his passing talent. He threw five picks in five games last year, but got experience under center and put up some nice passing numbers while keeping the Wolverines in tough games without their star.

Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin

Tough to pick between the multiple elite linebackers in the B1G. You've got Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, the preseason pick for DPOY. You've got Max Bullough, who makes Michigan State one of the nation's most fearsome run defenses.

But Borland creates football chaos by getting the ball on the ground. He's just one off the NCAA career record for forced fumbles, and he'll likely hit the mark in 2013. Turnovers win games, and Borland does an incredible job of forcing them.

Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska

The knock on T-Magic is that he can't throw, because, from a quarterback coach's perspective, he can't. As former Wisconsin defensive end David Gilbert so astutely put it last year, Taylor Martinez looks like he's skipping rocks, and well ... he looks like he's skipping rocks. It's not quite Tebow, but it's the next best (best?) thing.

But every year, he becomes a better passer -- last year, he had career highs with 2,871 yards passing and a 62.0 percent completion rating. And he remains as explosive a runner as ever, with a career-high 1,019 yards, including four 100-yard running game and one 200-yard game.

Now in his fourth and final year as Nebraska's go-to guy, he'll hope to do something he hasn't yet -- give his squad a conference title.

Three coaches to know ...

Bill O'Brien, Penn State

What O'Brien's done at Penn State is nothing short of incredible. Nobody gave the Nittany Lions a shot in 2012 in the wake of unprecedented NCAA sanctions, with players told they could leave the program at will. O'Brien stood strong. He kept almost all the important players, whipped together an effective defense, and, as a noted QB guru, turned one-time walk-on/walking punchline Matt McGloin into one of the conference's best passers.

And he convinced blue-chip recruits to come to Penn State despite restrictions. One, Adam Breneman, will factor at tight end. The other, Christian Hackenberg, will be in the mix to start at QB.

Urban Meyer, Ohio State

Hating ain't the Midwestern way, but everybody's got something to say about Urbz. Like O'Brien, he took over a program with a bowl ban in 2012 and was brilliant, getting Jim Tressel's players to go undefeated.

But his disciplinary record has taken the front seat. He got grilled at Big Ten Media Days, with questions about former player Aaron Hernandez, then-recent arrests to stars Carlos Hyde and Bradley Roby and about generally everything but football. But he calmly answered every question, and even though Hyde and Roby's allegations turned out not to be severe, he suspended both to show he wasn't messing around.

Now, everybody expects a natty run -- can Meyer provide it?

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

Perhaps no person in college football is more important to his program. Twice, Fitzgerald has taken over the historically horrific Wildcats and turned them into something. As a player, he came in unrecruited by major schools and left as the two-time winner of every major defensive award, leading the Cats to Big Ten titles in 1995 and 1996, their first since the 1930s.

He struggled his first year in 2006 after taking over as head coach mere weeks before the season due to the sudden death of Randy Walker, but has now led the team to a school-record five straight bowl games. Last year, NU won 10 games for just the third time in program history and the team's first bowl since 1949, and the excitable Fitz has now brought in the best recruiting class it's ever seen.

... plus the new kids on the block

Gary Andersen, Wisconsin: Bret Bielema leaving the three-time defending champ Badgers for a middling SEC squad at Arkansas was a slap in the face to the Big Ten, but Andersen looks primed to lead in Madison. His Utah State program came just two points away from shocking Wisconsin last year, and although they didn't know it yet, the Badgers had found their new coach in the mild-mannered Utahn. His new team matches his coaching style, so he's a solid fit.

Darrell Hazell, Purdue: It's tough to expect much from Hazell in Year 1, as the Boilermakers are nowhere near bowl-ready, but he took a 5-7 Kent State squad to 11-3 in just a year. Culture might be tougher to change in West Lafayette, where it's been a while since anything good happened.

Two things to treasure

Jack Hoffman

Nebraska players developed a relationship with the seven-year-old cancer patient, letting him play in the team's spring game. The result is the most heartwarming video of the offseason:

Hoffman was actually listed as the top rusher in the game and ended up winning an ESPY for Best Moment. It'll be tough to root against Nebraska knowing that somewhere, Jack will be cheering for them. He's now finished with his chemotherapy.

Trophy games

Not everybody in the Big Ten will have a chance to win the conference title or go to a bowl game. But all 12 Big Ten teams will have the opportunity to take the field after a win and shove some random trophy over their heads like it's the most important thing in the world.

More than any other conference, the B1G loves itself some traveling trophies. Some, like Paul Bunyan's Axe (Wisconsin vs. Minnesota), are old, storied relics with awesome backstories. Some, like the Land-Grant Trophy (Michigan State and Penn State), are random objects strewn together. Each trophy brings meaning to pointless Saturdays, and reminds us that, although college football is a messed-up thing, it's also kids enjoying their chances to take part in immense traditions bigger and older than themselves.

Plus, Iowa and Minnesota play for a pig.

See? A pig. Reese Strickland, US Presswire

One thing to remember (about each team)

From Bill Connelly's massive, 125-team preview series, which began in February ...

Illinois Fighting Illini

I would never predict that a coach will get fired after two seasons, and I won't do it with Tim Beckman here. He inherited a roster bereft of play-making ability and should get quite a bit of leeway for that. But it's difficult to see this team winning more than about three games, and if nothing else, a 5-19 record after two years will put Beckman square at the top of the Hot Seat lists in 2014.

Indiana Hoosiers

Of Indiana's obnoxious eight (!) home games, six are against teams projected 66th or worse in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, and the other two are against teams that combined for just a 13-11 record last year. If the Hoosiers can just manage minimal improvement on each side of the ball, they could pretty easily end up with six wins and a bowl bid, even if they get blown out in each of their four road games.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Again, turnarounds can happen. That Kirk Ferentz has already pulled one off in his tenure proves that he is indeed capable of it. But Mark Weisman probably isn't Shonn Greene. Kevonte Martin-Manley and Tevaun Smith are probably not Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt. Nobody on the defensive line is anywhere close to Adrian Clayborn. And it doesn't appear there's a Tyler Sash or Amari Spievey for that matter, either. Recruiting has not produced much standout talent recently, and Ferentz didn't exactly inspire with his choice of offensive coordinator.

Michigan Wolverines

In short, Devin Gardner is a big reason for Michigan's wildcard status. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 projections are rather lukewarm on the Wolverines this season, but Gardner is incredibly intriguing, and his development could determine how far Michigan goes in the Big Ten race.

Michigan State Spartans

On paper, State looks so much like Notre Dame did a year ago, from the higher-than-expected ratings the year before, to the insanely good linebacking, to the significant question marks at quarterback. Notre Dame figured out answers and rolled to a 12-0 regular season. It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Spartans could do the same. But I just don't think they will. Top 20? Definitely? Anything better? Probably not.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

In the Big Ten, Minnesota is a chicken breast. And the grill operator has not been up to snuff. Still, the Gophers did reach a bowl in Jerry Kill's second season, albeit with a team that was not markedly better than any of Minnesota's last five. You can find momentum if you're spinning for it, but recruiting has in no way picked up, and though experience is solid throughout, the Gophers head into 2013 without 2012's best offensive player and probably three of its four or five best defensive players. Has culture taken hold enough to hold off disadvantages in athleticism, recent history, et cetera?

Nebraska Cornhuskers

In 2013, Nebraska should have its best offense of the Bo Pelini era. It should also have a defense that regresses just enough to offset offensive gains. In other words, the Huskers are looking at nine or 10 wins and an F/+ ranking between about 15th and 20th. Again.

Perhaps this is the blue-blood version of Glen Mason Territory, where a program is simultaneously successful and disappointing, and fans grow both impatient and guilty about feeling impatient. Nebraska is better than most programs and nowhere near as good as the dominant programs it seeks to emulate. And to the extent that anything actually needs fixing, there's no obvious fix in sight.

Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern's 2013 team should look quite a bit like its 2012 team, one that, despite its weaknesses, finished in the F/+ top 30 and was a handful of plays away from 12-0. TheFootball Outsiders Almanac 2013 projections are conservative here -- that's what happens when your five-year averages and recent recruiting are both average and not great -- but it's certainly easy to see the Wildcats producing a level similar to that of last season.

Ohio State Buckeyes

As long as the Buckeyes beat the Badgers on September 28, they'll probably win the conference. I'm buying that. But even with the schedule, I don't see them as a favorite to reach the national title game. I can't tell you who they'll lose to, but the odds are good that they'll lose to somebody.

Penn State Nittany Lions

With a top-25 team (like the one Bill O'Brien generated last year), Penn State could certainly go 10-2 in 2013, and bowls or no, that would be an incredible accomplishment, all things considered. But the quarterback situation could lead to some early landmines (Syracuse aside, neither UCF nor Kent State are easy outs, and the trip to Indiana could be sketchy for a team with no offense), and again, you just can't talk about Penn State without fearing what injuries could do. It only took a few injuries to gash USC (another team with scholarship restrictions) last year, and Penn State's situation is at least as bad as the Trojans' and getting worse.

Purdue Boilermakers

In Darrell Hazell, Purdue made an incredibly safe hire. Lucky or not, Hazell oversaw a miracle run in 2012, and he's got all the midwestern ties you could possibly want. But is Purdue squad is probably flawed in too many damning ways to survive this schedule, and we probably won't learn a lot about Hazell's potential until 2014.

Wisconsin Badgers

You like to run, Gary Andersen? And you hired Andy Ludwig, coordinator of a 2012 San Diego State offense that ran 67 percent of the time on standard downs and 48 percent on passing downs last year, to run your offense? You'll fit in just fine here.

More from SB Nation:

The prettiest, smartest college football preview collection anywhere, by Bill Connelly

Bama-Oregon title game, plus all 34 other bowl projections

•The conference megapreview series begins: Big Ten | SEC

Projecting every 2013 college football conference race

Today’s college football news | Manziel meets NCAA | Saban’s annual national title complaint

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