My hope was that after the Spring practices ended, things would seem more clear in the Big Ten. I think that there is only one thing that is clear: there is no national champion coming from our ranks this season. As I look through the league, I see a deep, balanced league. That should be great for exciting games between seven and eight win teams. It should also mean that we won't see a team run through conference play undefeated.
To be honest, picking the conference champion is a question of likelihoods. In other words, how shocked would you be if Team X won the Big Ten? I break it down this way:
Best Guesses: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska
I Could See That: Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern
Who Saw That Coming?: Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota
If you're following my logic, I think that 8 of the 12 teams have the possibility of winning the league. Fans of those eight teams are probably looking at that list and thinking, "well, if he develops, and if we can plug that hole, and if we catch a break..." Not since 2002 has the league been more ripe for the taking. Who will take it? Maybe I'll have a better idea in August...
First, let's remember that there are rules:
The best teams don't always go to the best games. In the end, butts in the seat and eyes to the television are the biggest factors.
The order of BCS selection is 1) Replacement for #1 Team; 2) Replacement for #2 Team; 3) Fiesta Bowl; 4) Sugar Bowl; 5) Orange Bowl.
If a Big Ten or Pac-10 team qualifies for the BCS Championship Game, the Rose Bowl will NOT be required to take a non-automatic qualifier. This was only required of the Rose Bowl the first time it occurred over the current four-year contract.
The Insight Bowl picks its Big Ten team ahead of the Gator Bowl this year. It will rotate the other way next year.
Got it? Good. Let's get on to the projections.
Oklahoma gets an easier road, with no threat of Nebraska in a Big 12 Championship Game. They have a stacked lineup returning and a great chance to run the table to get to New Orleans.
Alabama has a rougher go, and while the losses of Ingram, Jones and McElroy may weaken the offense, the defense is going to be stronger and the offensive replacements more than adequate. If you don't already, expect to know a lot about Trent Richardson by this time next year.
Wisconsin again? I think so. I believe that they are the best situated to benefit from Ohio State's rule breaking and Penn State's lack of a quarterback.
I don't think that Oregon can run the schedule again, but I don't see anyone better than them in the Pac-10. Ducks would have some pressure in this one, after losing two straight years in BCS games.
And the Fiesta Bowl gets this year's embarrassment of riches. It selects 10-2 Texas to replace Oklahoma. Then, with the first at large pick, it grabs 10-2 Notre Dame. While a huge game for the BCS, the order of selection means that the Big Ten will be without two BCS selections for the first time since 2004.
The SEC balance of power still lies in the West, and runner-up LSU gets chosen to replace Alabama and stay in Louisiana to face Boise State.
Boise State makes some new history in 2011. They become the first non-AQ team to make a BCS game with a loss. At 11-1, they win the Mountain West and get selected by Sugar with the second to last pick.
It's an annual tradition. Predict the Seminoles to win the ACC and then watch them lose. They have the best squad returning, and should win the league. That said, watch out for Miami. If they gain some confidence with a win over a depleted Buckeye squad, they too have the players to win the ACC this year.
The Big East Champ, for the fourth consecutive year, is the last selection of the BCS Bowls. Louisville? Maybe...
I think Nebraska wins the Legends Division, but loses in the Championship Game. I'm guessing that makes them 10-3, and a perfect match for 10-3 SEC East Champion Georgia.
This game will sound a lot better than it will be. I'll pencil Ohio State in at 9-3 and Florida at 8-4. Not bad, but not what is was when they met five years ago.
EDIT: For the record, this is assuming that there is no bowl ban in place for Ohio State for the 2011 season. Should there be a ban, move every Big Ten team below them up one bowl, and say goodbye to the Bronx.
I'm mentally coming around on this Michigan team. 8 wins and second place in the Legends? I think so.
This is the fifth team from the Big 12, so we're looking at this being a 7 or 8 win team. The days of this being a Top 15 team from the league ended with Mizzou last year.
If you have two quarterbacks, you have none. Penn State is good enough elsewhere to get to 7 or 8 wins, but I'm no longer thinking that this is a title caliber team.
Auburn is going to have a big fall. I can't think of any other champion that was so dependent upon two players - one on each side of the ball. Now that they're gone, this should be a mid-pack SEC team again.
Iowa has another 7-5 season, but this time it's not under-achieving. It's also not able to move up any higher on the bowl pecking order.
If the Big 12 is to fill this slot, it will need K-State, Kansas, Baylor, or Iowa State to get to six wins - and do it against a 9 game conference slate. That's a tall order (considering that all 4 of them look to have at least one loss in the non-con). I'll take K-State, but don't be surprised if this is an at large team.
I think that the losses on defense result in Sparty taking a step or two back this season. 7 wins sounds right.
The Ticket City Bowl will pit the Big Ten against C-USA in odd numbered years. It also has to look to C-USA to replace the B12 if the league can't fill the slot. With the smaller membership, you can expect to see B1G v. C-USA here for the next three years.
I'm buying Purdue as a bowl team. Sixth win comes against Indiana, but I think that they have the schedule and team to get this far. Detroit is just happy that expansion means that the Big Ten should be sending a team to the Motor City every year to face a MAC squad.
The more that I've thought about this, the more I'm bailing on the Wildcats. Shaky defense. Quarterback coming back from injury. Quarterback injury may limit his mobility, which was his biggest asset and team's strength. 6 wins. Maybe. As the 9th Big Ten team with only 1 BCS bid, that puts them on the market. I suspect that they'll be an attractive choice, and I can see them filling a Big 12 slot in the Bronx.
Connecticut has enough coming back to contend for the Big East title again, but my guess is that they don't get all of the breaks this year.
When you can't get to six wins, you know that you'll spend the bowl season On the Couch with the Queso Bowl (sponsored by Ro*Tel).
Minnesota will be improved, as they won't have Tim Brewster. That said, they start the season against USC and have a pretty tough slate in the conference. 5 wins seems like their cap.
Indiana looks destined for another losing season. The question is: will they lose a road game versus a non-AQ teams (Ball State or North Texas), a home game against Virginia, or a combination of both. Sadly, I'm on the latter.
Would it shock me to see Illinois have a season similar to last year? No. Is it more likely that they struggle to replace the three studs who went pro early and miss a bowl? I think so. Could this be the end of the Zook era? Hmmm...
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