The Big Ten, once college football's premier conference, now has to answer questions about its relevancy.
The league has won just one national title in the Bowl Championship Series era and is 1-9 in its last 10 Rose Bowl appearances. Many of the questions are obvious, but the answers are murky. Can the league contend for a BCS title or will it continue to become a national punchline for the Southeastern Conference? That one can be answered only at the end of the season. But here are 10 other questions facing the Big Ten and its teams that will be answered at some point this season.
1. Can Ohio State win the national title in Urban Meyer's second season as head coach?
The odds don't favor a repeat performance of 2012 when the Buckeyes finished unbeaten but won two games in overtime, another by one point and allowed 49 to Indiana and still won. Only one starter returns in the front seven on defense, but linebacker Ryan Shazier might be the nation's best at his position.
"Defense is where the issues are," Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer said. "We lost our entire front seven."
Bottom line: Consecutive unbeaten seasons are borderline impossible, and there's plenty of competition for the second spot opposite the SEC champion in last year of the winner-take-all BCS. Ohio State has the league's best offense but big question marks on defense.
2. Is Michigan ready to ready to regain its mantle as a consistent national contender?
The Wolverines' overall talent and style of play is back to Michigan standards entering year three of the Brady Hoke era. Devin Gardner is a playmaker at quarterback and five-star freshman Derrick Green can elevate the running game. But with stud linebacker Jake Ryan out with an ACL tear and three of the Wolverines' other five top tacklers gone from a year ago, it's a stretch to put Michigan back near its historical top-10 slot just yet.
"We're a young team," Michigan Coach Brady Hoke said. "We've got to replace some guys who have been very important to Michigan football. But with that youth comes a lot of competition, and that competition is always good. And the expectations, though, never change. And that's to win Big Ten championships."
3. Will Wisconsin continue its unprecedented run as an elite Big Ten program?
Even with a new coach and uncertainty at quarterback, Wisconsin appears ready to stay at eight wins or more for the near future. Gary Andersen is a down-to-earth, low-key coach He's completely the opposite of his brash predecessor, Bret Bielema, who led Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls. But Andersen also is intense and has provided subtle changes (zone read on offense, 3-4 on defense) that could keep the Badgers evolving and highly competitive this year and beyond.
"It’s not like we’re complacent at all, but having a new coach doesn’t allow you to be complacent," Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis said. "I don’t think we’ve ever been complacent. A lot of our guys are goal setters, that we always want to try to reach the next level in our game. So bringing in a new coach like Coach Andersen, he’s got a lot of fresh ideas, he brings a lot of energy. It’s been good."
4. Will Nebraska continue to languish in four-loss territory?
It's very possible if Coach Bo Pelini can't fix the defense. Granted, the Cornhuskers don't play Ohio State and Wisconsin, which put up 63 and 70 points on Nebraska, respectively. But three teams rushed for more than 340 yards on the Cornhuskers last year, and Nebraska lost six of its regular seven starters up front. The team rallied from second-half deficits five times to win league games.
Pelini has won at least nine games in every one of his five seasons, but Nebraska has lost exactly four games every year. The key to rising above four losses to fix the defense. It won't be easy, but Pelini is aware of the deficiencies.
"Fundamentally, technique-wise and execution-wise, we need to be better," he said. "We need to be better consistently because when you're not, those bad things can happen to you."
5. Can Iowa return as a consistent Big Ten contender?
With a 4-8 finish, the Hawkeyes had their worst season under Kirk Ferentz since 2000. They ranked 102nd in passing yards per game, 113th in scoring and only two teams nationally had fewer touchdown passes than Iowa's seven. But the Hawkeyes also lost five games by six points or less and four games by three or less.
It's almost impossible for an offense to play that poorly. The defense lost just three starters. While contention might be a stretch for the team this year, staying competitive is not.
"I thought we were a better team at the end of spring than we were back in November, and now we're back to it again and building up to it as we go," Coach Kirk Ferentz said.
6. Can Northwestern repeat as a 10-win team? The Wildcats were 5 minutes, 3 seconds from an undefeated regular season last year. But they also were fortunate. Northwestern was plus-14 in turnovers last year, best in the Big Ten. Nearly every year there's a contending team with championship aspirations that hits a perplexing rough patch (see Iowa 2010, Michigan State 2012). An injury to either Kain Colter or Venric Mark could sink the Wildcats into that unwanted grouping.
Additionally, Northwestern plays Wisconsin and Ohio State in divisional crossovers and travels to California for an early-season night game.
"I think our coaches have done a good job of moving us in the right direction," Mark said. "We’re a very close team. Everyone’s passionate. We’re going in the right direction, let’s just say that."
7. Can Michigan State's offense come close to matching its defense? The Spartans have yet to make a final decision at quarterback with four players vying for the top spot. Michigan State loses its top running back and tight end to the NFL, but returns its top three wide receivers and most of its offensive line. The Spartans led the Big Ten in total defense and scoring defense but ranked 10th in scoring offense.
"I'm extremely excited about our quarterback position," Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio said. "We've got four guys with big-time talent. They have talent. They can throw the ball 60 yards and they can put it on a rope. What they do though in terms of decision making and creativity will define them."
8. What's the ceiling for Minnesota under Jerry Kill? The Gophers' revival is in their fifth decade, but Kill quietly has built a hard-nosed, disciplined program. With a new practice facility planned and the program's first bowl game since 2009 in the bank, it appears momentum is starting to build in Minnesota.
"The commitment and the direction we're headed at the University of Minnesota is good, and we're excited about this season," Kill said.
9. Will Illinois win a Big Ten game this year? The Fighting Illini were outscored 281-94 in eight Big Ten games in Tim Beckman's debut season. The crossover schedule is difficult with opponents Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern. Their three winnable games on paper are on the road (Penn State, Indiana, Purdue). The school has lost 14 straight Big Ten games.
"We'll be young, but we will be ... and what I've seen since December, a very eager football team and a very eager football team to be better as a family," Beckman said.
10. Is Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller a Heisman Trophy candidate? Miller is a dynamic athlete, rushing for more than 1,200 yards and passing for more than 2,000. He was a little inconsistent throwing the football last year but if he can elevate the Buckeyes in some high-profile games, there's a good chance he'll be in contention all season.
"On offense, we return a bunch of experienced (players), including one of the best quarterbacks in America, Braxton Miller," Meyer said. "He has really grown as a quarterback, has grown as a leader."
Michigan State 9-3 6-2*
Michigan 10-2 6-2
Nebraska 9-3 5-3
Northwestern 9-3 5-3
Iowa 7-5, 4-4
Minnesota 6-6 2-6
*Wins head-t0-head with Michigan
Ohio State 10-2 6-2
Wisconsin 8-4 5-3
Indiana 6-6 4-4
Penn State 6-6 2-6
Purdue 3-9 2-6
Illinois 2-10 0-8
BIG TEN TITLE
Ohio State beats Michigan State
Rose: Ohio State
Capital One: Michigan State
Buffalo Wild Wings: Nebraska
Heart of Dallas: Indiana
Little Caesar's: Minnesota
5 BOLD PREDICTIONS
Northwestern will upset Ohio State. Winning streaks don't last forever, and if Ohio State is 5-0 entering that game, the Buckeyes will have won 17 straight. Northwestern's Ryan Field hardly has the home-field advantage of, well, any other field west of Evanston or east of Indiana. But the Wildcats can match the Buckeyes' explosive offensive talent and the the primetime atmosphere in October will provide a unique atmosphere. (Other potential upsets to watch: Minnesota over Wisconsin; Penn State over Nebraska; Iowa over Northwestern; Bowling Green over Indiana)
Michigan-Michigan State winner will decide Legends champion. Four teams are considered Legends Division contenders, and all have both dynamic units and areas of concern. Michigan's overall team balance and Michigan State's schedule places both atop the division. I look for Michigan State to win that meeting on Nov. 2, because it has the league's best defense, and the game is held in East Lansing.
Indiana will return to a bowl game. Just about everyone considers the Hoosiers as a rising team, but Indiana has two difficult non-conference home games against Bowling Green and Missouri. The Hoosiers have enough offense to rack up the points, but do they have the defense to stop comparable offenses? I think Indiana has enough for six wins to gain its first bowl berth since 2007.
NCAA sanctions will affect Penn State. Bill O'Brien easily was the national coach of the year with his masterful job of managing the program in the wake of the Sandusky sex abuse fallout. But he had incredible senior leadership that kept the program going. With young quarterbacks and most of last year's leaders on NFL rosters, it's going to be more difficult for O'Brien to keep the team focused. A few injuries could really sink the Nittany Lions.
Purdue's Darrell Hazell is the right guy ... but this year isn't his year. Hazell will elevate the Boilermakers in time, but this year the team likely will struggle. Purdue lost too much talent and faces too difficult of a schedule to remain in competition for its third straight bowl appearance. But within three years Hazell will have the team competing for a divisional title.