Thank God, they're back. As of yesterday afternoon, all 12 (yes, TWELVE!) Big Ten teams have started practices for what might be the most significant (and perhaps wide-open) season in our proud conference's history. By my count/prognostication, any of 9 different league teams could end up hoisting a championship trophy in Indianapolis on December 3rd, 2012, and for each of the three teams that most likely don't have that shot (Minnesota, Purdue, Indiana) there are very real and legitimate reasons to be optimistic that they'll be bowling this season.
But before discussing and previewing the upcoming season, it's time we look back at a very eventful offseason, and ask a simple question -- who won the offseason in the B1G?
Now, there isn't any set criteria or blueprint for winning the offseason. The OTE judges were free to consider the entire gamut of events that occurred this offseason -- leaving a terrible conference for a phenomenal one (welcome, Nebraska!), getting stuck with a impossibly difficult schedule in that new awesome conference (hello, Nebraska!),recruiting (the nation's top-ranked QB Gunner Kiel announcing his verbal commitment to Indiana, the ongoing Bubba Starling drama at Nebraska), transfers (Russell Wilson heading to the Badgers), positive coaching changes (Hokemania in Ann Arbor, Kevin Wilson in Bloomington, and Jerry "The Gopher" Kill at Minnesota), negative coaching changes (Zook still having a job, Tressel departing), freakishly scary medical stories that taught conference fans a new word (the rhabdomyolysis outbreak at Iowa), terrible NCAA decisions (denying Purdue's Keith Smith at 6th season), terrible NCAA decisions in the opinion of Ann Arbor (Ohio State not getting a bowl ban/scholarship reductions....yet), getting a program national attention (#PERSASTRONG), new facilities (Iowa's new football facilities set to open soon, Northwestern to announce a facilities overhaul in the coming months), and even continuing to breathe (JoePa's still alive!).
We tallied the votes (12 points for 1st place, 1 point for last), and Off-Tackle Empire is proud to present the "Offseason Winners and Losers" Power Rankings (with comments from OTE Writers on each):
1. Wisconsin (77 points out of a possible 84 points)
- MSULaxer27: (1st place -12 points) Russell Wilson (above) transfer makes an already strong team better.
- Chadnudj: (1st place -12 points) They were arguably prohibitive favorites in the Big Ten before Russell Wilson. Now? Legitimate national title contender.
- JDMill: (4th place - 9 points) Bret had a gift fall in his lap with Russell Wilson...the rich get richer. Yikes these guys will be tough.
- Ted Glover: (3rd place - 10 points) When all you need is a quarterback to be considered a serious player for the National Championship, and Russell Wilson lands in your lap, that's a win.
- Graham Filler: (2nd place - 11 points) Russell Wilson solidifies the most important position on the field. That's a win.
- Jonathan Franz: (1st place - 12 points) Aside from debating Paul Chryst's play calling ability, there's been nothing to get upset about in Madison this offseason. Bret Bielema was voted the B1G's best coach, and the remarkable transfer of Russell Wilson filled the team's only real position of need. Wisconsin is B1G offseason champion hands down.
- KennardHusker: (2nd place - 11 points) Is there a team with more ‘upside' mentions in the B1G? Grabbing the top free agent (is that even legal to say in the NCAA?) certainly helps.
2. Indiana (64.5 points)
- KennardHusker: (tie for 8th place) You got a top-flight recruit. The fact that it was such a surprise? Probably means you're tenth in this poll.
- Ted Glover: (2nd place) So raise your hand is you saw Gunner Kiel picking Indiana over Notre Dame. Hell, Indiana over Purdue. New coach Kevin Wilson (above) comes from a winning program, and he must also be a silver tongued devil to get Kiel to commit. There's something going on in Indiana, and it seems pretty good.
- Jonathan Franz: (4th place) Two words: Gunner Kiel.
- Graham Filler: (1st place) OMG They won something. I can't believe they have a new coach and a hot new recruit. I can't believe Wilson would take the job. That's like a hot girl dating Chris Griffin.
- JDMill: (3rd place) That. Just. Happened. They comin'!
- Chadnudj: (4th place) The fact they landed the top QB in the nation? Impressive. Then again, offense was never the problem in Bloomington, and I'm wary of all recruiting rankings. Still, a good offseason by the Hoosiers.
- MSULaxer27: (3rd place) A new coach (again). A prized recruit chose them. Still it is IU football.
3. Nebraska (62 points)
- MSULaxer27: (7th place) Out from under the thumb of Tejas. Brand new conference. Verdict - Push.
- Chadnudj: (6th place) The transition to the Big Ten is a huge win long-term for the Huskers -- isn't life sweeter without the Longhorns around? (Bonus: no more Iowa State, either). But the first year schedule does them absolutely no favors, they have 8 first-time opponents to prepare for, Bubba Starling is still a question mark, and Taylor Martinez is a talented enigma. Sounds like a middle of the pack offseason to me.
- JDMill: (1st place) You leave the shadow of Longhorn Nation and join the best conference in the history of sports as an immediate contender. Duh, winning.
- Graham Filler: (3rd place) New conference, new offense. Fun time to be a Cornhusker.
- Jonathan Franz: (3rd place) No news is good news in Lincoln, where the Cornhuskers have enjoyed a productive offseason on the field and a (largely) incident-free one off. And as far as competing for conference titles goes, their timing couldn't be more perfect.
- Ted Glover: (6th place) You're in the B1G and out of The Big Texas. And you're making a shit ton of money because of it. Yeah, win.
- KennardHusker: (3rd place) Well, they may not have any additions, but addition by subtraction at OC may be the best thing ever (if you watched multiple 9-6 games, you'd be pumped at the opportunity for good offense).
4. Minnesota (61.5 points)
- KennardHusker: (tie for 8th) Since this isn't a, "poll of who is best," but rather on who is on top, I think Minny deserves a spot here for trying something new. Also ridding themselves of Cosgrove is a plus.
- Ted Glover: (1st place) Jerry Kill has been a 55 gallon drum full of win from almost the moment he was hired. He named MarQueis Gray the starter, he has fired up a moribund fan base, and he's beating Iowa and Wisconsin...in recruiting in-state kids. Nothing has translated on the field yet, but you get the feeling that it will.
- Jonathan Franz: (5th place) Joel Maturi whiffed on his promise to bring a "big name" to Minneapolis, but Jerry Kill has won over the fan-base with his no-nonsense blue collar work ethic, and self-deprecating sense of humor. Oh, and have you heard, he's recruiting a monster offensive line?
- Graham Filler: (6th place) Jerry Kill oh thank God you're here you wouldn't believe what we've been going through.
- JDMill: (2nd place) Yeah, I'm biased, get over it. The off-season was kicked off last fall when the ol' addition-by-subtraction happened with Tim Brewster. Bring in a real hard-ass, workmanlike coach with a penchant for folksy sayings in Jerry Kill, and finally get MarQueis Gray behind center. I'll take it. Plus Jerry Kill is actually doing what Tim Brewster only talked about: locking up the borders.
- Chadnudj: (2nd place) Anytime you can hire a coach that looks like your mascot, it's a win. But in all seriousness, Jerry Kill was the best coaching hire of the offseason, and it's not even close. This team may struggle to get bowl-eligible this season, but CERTAINLY will be turning heads in 2012 and beyond. I'm seriously dreading the rise of the Gophers under Jerry Kill.
- MSULaxer27: (4th place) No Brewster. Coach Kill!!!!
5. Michigan (61 points)
- MSULaxer27: (2nd place) Hokemania's running wild. Regained their state of Michigan February Recruiting championship.
- Chadnudj: (5th place) Brady Hoke has fired up the fanbase, which needed it, but he was still their 4th or 5th choice. (If Northwestern's coach is turning you down, something's wrong.) His pro-style offense is a questionable fit for Shoelaces skill set (the offense wasn't broken). But getting the first night game at the Big House versus That School in South Bend is a victory, and recruiting has picked up. So 5th place for me (and overall) felt right.
- JDMill: (5th place) You know that addition-by-subtraction thing... yeah. Michigan lands a coveted coach in Hoke, and then OSU tumbles from grace? YAHTZEE!!!
- Graham Filler: (4th place) Recruiting improvement, return to the Pro-Form and the 4-3. Win win win.
- Jonathan Franz: (2nd place) The Wolverines might have gotten my No. 1 vote if not for an embarrassing coaching search that led to the school settling for its fourth choice, a guy with a 47-50 career head coaching record. Seven months later, Dave Brandon looks like a genius. Brady Hoke has re-energized the fan base, made the best coordinator hire in the country, put together a Top 5 recruiting class (with many elite players poached from Ohio State's backyard), and added more fuel to the fire of The Rivalry than any Michigan Man since Bo.
- Ted Glover: (5th place) You win just by getting rid of the worst defensive coordinator in college football running the stupidest scheme. You add Brady Hoke, a guy who gets what it means to be at Michigan more than anyone. Big win.
- KennardHusker: (7th place) This seems about right. The Hoke, "Michigan Man" thing is getting old, but if they play defense marginally better, this offseason was a win.
6. Northwestern (53 points)
- KennardHusker: (4th place) A billboard! Surely that's reason enough for those silly smart kids to cheer. Seriously, though, it's good to see their relevance... (I'm sure there's a joke there. I'm still new...)
- Ted Glover: (7th place) You get Dan Persa back, win. Still not going to be enought to overcome the defense though.
- Jonathan Franz: (7th place) Dan Persa is healthy and the school's "Persa Strong" Heisman campaign is original, clever, and bound to bring the program plenty of national attention.
- Graham Filler: (5th place) Healthy, jacked Persa.
- JDMill: (6th place) #PersaStrong
- Chadnudj: (3rd place) Honestly, I'm surprised Northwestern is this low overall. I considered ranking them first. To recap: (1) their coach was approached by Michigan....and turned them down; (2) Fitz signed a deal to remain as head coach until 2020; (3) they announced plans for a $300-$400 million (maybe more) facilities upgrade that includes a potential lake-front football traning facility; (4) announced a home-and-home series versus That School in South Bend; (5) Dan Persa came back #PersaStrong from injury; (6) their APR scores and graduation rate were once again amongst the top in the nation; (7) their athletic director Jim Phillips signed a contract extenstion through 2020 after being sought heavily by Illinois (Phillips' alma mater, no less); and (8) the #PersaStrong campaign for Heisman got a ton of positive press for a program that needs to grow its fanbase/fill seats with purple-clad fans at Ryan Field. This offseason was spectacular.
- MSULaxer27: (6th place) Persa is ahead of schedule on his rehab and every body's favorite mini-me for Heisman.
7. Michigan State (49 points)
- Chadnudj: (8th place) No news is good news, but the rise of Michigan recruiting bodes ill for Michigan State, and there are rumblings (although I don't believe them) that OSU might go after Dantonio. Not a bad offseason, but not a great one (although Kirk Cousins' speech is a must-read, and made us all proud of the conference and its student-athletes).
- MSULaxer27: (5th place) Little controversy. Solid if not spectacular recruiting.
- JDMill and Graham Filler: (7th place)
- Jonathan Franz: (6th place) Again, no news is good news in East Lansing. Kirk Cousins is a media darling after delivering a pitch perfect speech at the B1G Kickoff Luncheon, and the Spartans (like the Cornhuskers) stand to benefit from Ohio State's fall from grace.
- Ted Glover: (4th place) You have the most returning seniors at key positions than anyone in the B1G, and you'll need them.
- KennardHusker: (5th place) I mean, that speech by Cousins is probably enough to call this season a win. I haven't heard too much negative about them this offseason, so that's a plus.
8. Penn State (35 points)
- KennardHusker: (6th place) They should be in the top half of every power poll while JoePa is there. He is doing his thing, and managed to keep a QB there despite the pressure to let kids move on.
- Ted Glover: (9th place) Not a lot of win in the off season. Still have an unsettled QB position, and if Matt McGloin plays a lot, it won't be pretty.
- Jonathan Franz: (9th place) JoePa shined at B1G Media Days, but this team still has a number of questions starting at quarterback.
- Graham Filler and JDMill: (8th place)
- Chadnudj: (7th place) Lots of respect for JoePa, and a clean offseason (including numerous reports in the wake of OSU rightfully pointing out that Penn State has never had a major violation). But the QB controversy looms large, and every offseason without a clear JoePa succession plan is discounted/difficult to score too highly.
- MSULaxer27: (9th place) Joe Pa didn't pass away. Or retire.
9. Illinois (28.5 points)
- MSULaxer27: (10th place) Zooker still in charge. For now.
- Chadnudj: (9th place) Struggling to find an athletic director....and Zook is still there. They're also really struggling to lock-up in-state recruits, where both Northwestern and Iowa and Wisconsin are reaping the benefits.
- JDMill and Graham Filler: (9th place)
- Jonathan Franz: (8th place) No news is good news in Champaign, too.
- Ted Glover: (8th place) Lost Mikel Leshoure, but Nate Scheelhaase is back. Can he avoid the sophomore slump?
- KennardHusker: (tied for 8th) For getting on every single, "Darkhorse" mention in the magazines. I still think Ron Zook is crazy.
10. Iowa (21.5 points)
- KennardHusker: (tied for 8th) Iowegians, take heart, I don't mean this as a slam, but Rhabdo was bad. Very bad. What was worst? Watching your administration try to deal with it.
- Chadnudj: (10th place) Ditto what KennardHusker said. The new facilities look great, though.
- Ted Glover: (11th place) Had the biggest, most experienced senior class in school history and were disappointing. A lot of questions entering the year, and the Rhabdogate was a black eye on the program.
- Jonathan Franz: (11th place) In late-January 13 Hawkeyes were hospitalized with a muscle disorder following a series of grueling offseason workouts. The incident, and the school's reaction to it, left a bit of a black eye on the program. Sure, it's not that big of a deal, but in the fickle world of offseason rankings, it's enough to relegate the Hawks to the basement.
- Graham Filler and JDMill: (10th place)
- MSULaxer27: (8th place) 10 some odd players suffered life threatening injuries due to work outs. No ACL injuries that I know of.
11. Ohio State (17 points)
- Chadnudj: (12th place) How did these guys avoid the bottom? One aberrant vote as you'll see. Still, when you lose your legendary coach, starting QB, and 4 other guys for the first 5 games, forfeit your previous season, and still have the NCAA sword over your head, it's an AWFUL offseason.
- MSULaxer27: (12th place) Nothing to see here. Move it along folks.
- JDMill: (12th place) Scandal this, Jim Tressel that... you get the idea.
- Graham Filler: (12th place)
- Jonathan Franz: (12th place) Have you been living under a rock?
- Ted Glover: (12th place) Iowa had a black eye, but not as big a black eye as OSU got. You may have avoided serious sanctions (probably, but not definitively), but the conference's best coach and best QB are gone, leaving an inexperienced Luke Fickell calling the shots and Braxton Miller calling the plays.
- KennardHusker: (1st place) While the argument could be made that they lost a legendary coach, a top-flight QB, got trashed by the media, and are now widely considered a shady program, tOSU is walking out of this maelstrom without the death penalty from the NCAA, much less a bowl ban. That's winning in my book.
12. Purdue (15 points)
- Chadnudj: (11th place) The Keith Smith decision was frankly terrible by the NCAA. Worse? The utter lack of buzz around this program, other than a QB controversy. Iowa's most hated rival is probably in the basement of the B1G this year, which means we'll probably see a lot of "Goodbye, Hope" headlines in the 2012 offseason.
- KennardHusker: (12th place) They are NOT the worst team in the B1G, but this has been a crappy offseason. Godspeed Purdue. You can only go up from here.
- Ted Glover: (10th place) Finally healthy, and you have Robert Marve. But not much else.
- Jonathan Franz: (10th place) It's not that anything bad happened in West Lafayette this offseason. In fact, a number of potential standout players are healthy. But more-and-more people seem to be smelling blood in water of Danny Hope's tenure. And that makes Purdue's offseason a little less sweet than the aforementioned programs.
- Graham Filler and JDMill: (11th place)
- MSULaxer27: (11th place) Was the best news out of West Lafayette that their basketball coach didn't leave for another middling program with little NCAA success? Or that two of the five QB's on their roster are academically eligible or another returned from injury. Wait. Maybe it's the extra gray in Hope's mustache - might confuse the faithful into thinking Tiller is back on the sideline.