Last year, Wisconsin defeated Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game 42-39. In the first year of divisional existence, neither Michigan nor Ohio State won a division. It was thought that placing both of those programs in separate divisions would ensure that at least one would be competitive each year. That was not the case in 2011.
Late in the year, the heinous allegations of sexual abuse against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky surfaced. That forced the school to fire Joe Paterno. And since then, the NCAA has given the football program a highly stringent set of penalties, including a postseason ban for the 2012 season and the three following years.
Biggest Surprise: Illinois
With Penn State and Ohio State both ineligible to compete for the Big Ten Leaders Division title, Illinois could be competitive. The Illini offense will have the ability to make plays, like it did last year. But, I think the strength of the team will come on the defensive side of the ball. Statistically, Illinois defense was really strong coming down the stretch in 2011. Most of the playmakers from that team are returning. There is enough in place to make Wisconsin a bit uncomfortable in the race for the divisional crown.
Biggest Disappointment: Ohio State
Confidence is high going into the first year of Urban Meyer’s management of the Ohio State football program. Believe it or not, I think a less than double-digit win season for the Buckeyes will be classified as a disappointment. Nonetheless, there will be growing pains with the transition taking place.
Standout Player: Wisconsin RB Montee Ball
Montee Ball was never a secret in Madison, and after last season, he is not unknown nationally. With just under 2000 total yards gained total, Ball thrust himself into the Heisman conversation late in the 2011 season. Indeed, he received an invitation to attend the ceremony for the award in New York. If Wisconsin is in the BCS Championship picture at the end of the year, Ball will have had a significant role in getting it there.
Game to Watch: Wisconsin at Nebraska (September 29)
There is a more than decent chance this game will be a preview of the Big Ten Championship Game. You will definitely want to keep tabs on this game. It will have a major impact on each division.
Leaders Division Order of Finish:
- Wisconsin 11-1 (7-1)
- Illinois 8-4 (5-3)
- Indiana 6-6 (2-6)
- Purdue 4-8 (1-7)
- *Ohio State 9-3 (5-3)
- *Penn State 3-9 (0-8)
* = Ineligible to participate
Legends Division Order of Finish:
- Nebraska 11-1 (7-1)
- Michigan 9-3 (6-2)
- Michigan State 9-3 (6-2)
- Iowa 8-4 (4-4)
- Northwestern 7-5 (4-4)
- Minnesota 5-7 (1-7)
Champion: Nebraska (11-1) vs. Wisconsin (11-1)
Last year, the Cornhuskers simply could not get to the Big Ten Championship Game. Instead, Michigan State represented the Legends Division. I think Bo Pelini will have his team in championship form all year. It will be a good game, but I think Nebraska will be the champion of the Big Ten.