New teams rising to top of Big Ten
Ohio St., Michigan not expected to be part of first title game
CHICAGO -- The first Big Ten football championship game will be played in December at the home of the Indianapolis Colts.
If neither Ohio State nor Michigan is playing at Lucas Oil Stadium that day, no one will be particularly surprised. The teams that have combined to win 77 Big Ten titles aren't even favored to win their divisions.
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Things really have changed in the Big Ten, haven't they?
In Columbus, Ohio, the Buckeyes are coming off a sixth consecutive season in which they at least tied for first in the Big Ten. But a stormy offseason cost them coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor and could lead to NCAA sanctions.
Further complicating Ohio State's season is the suspension of four key players, including running back Daniel Herron and receiver DeVier Posey, for the first five games of the season for their involvement in the tattoo-for-memorablia scandal that led to Tressel and Pryor's departures.
The Buckeyes don't lack talent, but so much uncertainty could be difficult for iterim coach Luke Fickell to overcome.
Of course football players never miss a chance to turn adversity into motivation.
"It is different than the past three years," senior center Mike Brewster said. "But I think we're kind of embracing the challenge. Let's prove people wrong. People are counting us out, but we're more alive than ever now."
Up the road in Ann Arbor, Mich., things haven't been too rosey lately, either.
Three years under Rich Rodriguez produced one winning season and one case of major NCAA violations. Rodriguez was let go after last season and the Wolverines turned to former Michigan assistant Brady Hoke to turn things around.
Hoke inherited a team full of players who have taken their lumps playing major roles before they were probably ready, especially on defense. Now the Wolverines might be ready to quickly improve.
"We're eliminating the mistakes," defensive tackle Mike Martin said. "There's no more excuses for those guys."
Michigan State Spartans
Key players: QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker; DL Jerel Worthy. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Cousins, a fifth-year senior going onto his third season as starter, holds the school record for career completion percentage at 64 percent. But even he ackowledges the Spartans must run well to win. ... Baker ran for 1,201 yards and scored 13 TDs, but he should get plenty of help from fellow sophomore Le'Veon Bell and junior Larry Casper.
Key players: QB Taylor Martinez, DT Jared Crick; LB Lavonte David. Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Martinez started his freshman season looking like a Heisman Trophy candidate, but injuries slowed him and defenses started to adjust. ... During the past two seasons, Nebraska has allowed the fourth fewest points in the nation. ... The Huskers' first Big Ten schedule is brutal. They play everyone except Indiana, Illinois and Purdue.
Key players: QB Denard Robinson; DT Mike Martin; WR Roy Roundtree. Returning starters: 9 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: Hoke brings a prostyle offense back to The Big House. Robinson excelled in the spread, averaging 328 total yards per game, but Hoke is confident he'll be just as good spending less time in the shotgun. ... New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is switching to a 4-3 scheme.
Key players: QB Dan Persa, SS Brian Peters, Jeremy Ebert. Returning starters: 9 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: The school is pumping up Persa, one of the most overlooked players in the country last season, as a Heisman Trophy contender in 2011. The campaign slogan is 'PersaStrong' and the school has been sending media members a set of purple 7-pound dumbells in the mail.
Key players: WR Marvin McNutt; CB Shaun Prater; T Reily Reiff. Returning starters: 5 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: QB James Vandenberg replaces the departed Ricky Stanzi. Vanderberg was thrown into big games as a freshman in 2009 and had some memorable moments. ... Sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz could be Iowa's next All-American tight end.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Key players: QB MarQueis Gray; LB Gary Tinsley; WR Da'Jon McKnight. Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: What has Minnesota fans excited is Gray being installed as the starting quarterback by new coach Jerry Kill. He was a huge quarterback recruit out of high school, but has mostly played receiver.
Key players: QB Russell Wilson, RB LB Chris Borland, RB James White. Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Coach Bret Bielema called Wilson, the North Carolina State transfer, a "potential starter" during Big Ten media day. In reality, he's the type of player who could push the Badgers into national title contention. ... First true road game comes Oct. 22 at Michigan State. Then Badgers play at Ohio State the next week.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Key players: DT John Simon, OT Mike Adams, WR DeVier Posey. Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: Who plays quarterback? With Pryor gone, it opens the possibility that freshman Braxton Miller could grab the job. Senior Joe Bauserman might be the front-runner to start. ... Posey, Adams, Herron and DE Solomon Thomas will miss first five games. Of those five, a trip to Miami and the Big Ten opener vs. Michigan State could be problematic.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Key players: LB Mike Mauti, DE Jack Crawford, WR Derek Moye. Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: QB controversy in Happy Valley? Joe Paterno, entering his 46th season as Nittany Lions coach, hopes not. Rob Bolden started as a freshman last year. Matt McGloin ended the season as the starter. One of them has to emerge for Penn State to succeed.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Key players: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, CB Tavon Wilson, WR A.J. Jenkins. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: The schedule shapes up nicely for coach Ron Zook's team with road trips to Indiana, Purdue, Penn State and Minnesota and the rest of the Illini's games at home. ... Can RB Jason Ford become Illinois' next star runner.
Key players: DL Kawann Short, DT Bruce Gaston, RB Ralph Bolden. Returning starters: 6 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: QB Robert Marve returns for a knee injury, along with Rob Henry, who filled in for Marve. Coach Danny Hope says he might play both. ... Bolden also returns from a knee injury.
Key players: WR Demarlo Belcher; RB Darius Willis; DE Darius Johnson. Returning starters: 9 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson takes over a program that has floundered for years. The Hoosiers won't be any good this year, but there is reason for optimism: five-star quarterback recruit Gunner Kiel from Columbus, Ind., has committed to the Hoosiers.