The bigger Big Ten is ready to go.
After talking about the move for more than a year, the biggest addition — No. 10 Nebraska — will begin its season Saturday and all 12 conference members are in action this week in a league that will have two divisions and a title game for the first time.
“It seems like it was a long time ago that we were invited in and accepted the invitation to join the Big Ten and I think everybody’s been excited about it,” Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini said Tuesday. “It’s now a sense of, ‘Wow, it’s finally here.’ “
Three schools hired new coaches — Brady Hoke at Michigan, Jerry Kill at Minnesota, Kevin Wilson at Indiana — but the biggest offseason news came from Ohio State. A scandal centered on a tattoo-parlor owner giving cash and discounts for memorabilia to several players eventually cost coach Jim Tressel his job in May after 10 years at the helm.
Longtime linebackers coach Luke Fickell is now leading one of the Big Ten’s most dominant programs.
“People ask me, `Are you nervous?’ No, it’s an excitement,” Fickell said. “All of our guys are guys are extremely excited, not about what’s happened in the past, but to truly be able to move forward here and start the season.”
While the 18th-ranked Buckeyes dealt with a tumultuous offseason, No. 11 Wisconsin dealt with a crushing loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl. The season kicks off when the Badgers host UNLV on Thursday night.
“I really don’t get nervous. I think nervous is when you’re not sure of what you’re going to do,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “I’m pretty confident in what our guys have been trained to do.”
While conference play doesn’t begin for a month, it’s time to brush up on the Legends and Leaders divisions since the conference decided not to follow geographical boundaries while attempting to retain as many regional rivalries as possible.
The Legends features Iowa, Michigan, No. 17 Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern. The Leaders will be Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin.
The top team from each will meet in the first Big Ten title game on Dec. 3 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
“We still have eight conference games,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We still play eight, the whole idea now is to advance to the ninth game, which will be very, very competitive for everybody. It just makes things a little bit more interesting probably for everyone. And, if you’re fortunate enough to get to Indianapolis, that’s a great thing to be able to deal with. It’d be the first time I’d be involved in an experience like that.”
For now, the Big Ten coaches are busy preparing for FCS opponents including Tennessee Tech, Youngstown State and Indiana State this week. The most interesting game may be when Kill’s Gophers travel to No. 25 Southern California.
“Would we like to open up with USC every year? No,” Kill said, laughing. “I’d like to open up right here at home, but it is what it is and I’m sure it’s going to be a great opportunity for us.”
With all the changes, there is a prominent sign of stability: Joe Paterno is back, and not even a blindside hit in camp to Penn State’s 84-year-old leader that hurt his hip and shoulder could keep him away. Paterno is entering his 46th season with a record of 401-135-3.
The style of play is also likely to remain steady, especially in nonconference games.
The Badgers will using their beefy offensive line to run the ball with Montee Ball and James White to take the pressure off transfer quarterback Russell Wilson. Quarterback Kirk Cousins will be expected to lead the Spartans’ offensive attack and Ohio State will still have a stout defense now led by linemen John Simon, Nate Williams and linebacker Andrew Sweat.
Even the new coaches bring their systems in from previous stops, giving the coaches a chance to watch either other closely before conference play begins.
“There is some history with all these football teams but it’s important to recognize as we move into the season, into Big Ten games, what’s the most recent history,” Michigan State coach Mike Dantonio said. “Regardless of what these new teams have or (who is) new to the Big Ten, they have an established system in place.”
That includes winning. With the Cornhuskers, the conference boasts four of the six programs with the most wins in college football history.
“Everybody’s looking forward to coming and competing in a tremendous conference. You’re competing against a lot of great football teams and great universities,” Pelini said. “We’ll be ready come Big Ten play. It’s a bit of a historic season. It’s going to be a fun season for us.”
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