CHICAGO — When Michigan State polished off Ohio State’s 24-game winning streak last December, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio suggested a fundamental shift had rocked the Big Ten hierarchy.
“We're now at the top,” he said at a fund-raiser in Toledo earlier this year, “and that's where Ohio State has been.”
And will be again?
As Big Ten media days kick off in Chicago today, the fight for league supremacy between the reigning conference champion Spartans and Ohio State will be among the top plotlines.
Here’s an early crack at that debate — and a guess how the other 12 teams in a bigger-but-not-better league will stack up. (The Big Ten eliminated its traditional preseason balloting in 2011 at the request of the league’s coaches.)
BIG TEN EAST
1. Ohio State: For all of their success in Urban Meyer’s first two years, the Buckeyes have yet to win a title of consequence — denied by a postseason ban in 2012 and the Spartans in last year’s Big Ten title game. That could change this season, with Heisman-gazing quarterback Braxton Miller guiding a rebuilt offense and expectations of an improved defense.
2. Michigan State: Oddsmakers in Las Vegas installed the Spartans as a one-point favorite in the Big Ten’s showdown of the season — the Nov. 8 primetime visit from OSU. That is more a nod to the expected foundation-rattling scene than the Jimmy’s and Joe’s. The Spartans must replace six starters from their national-best defense, including cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebacker Max Bullough among four all-conference selections.
3. Michigan: The Wolverines look to douse the suspense surrounding the future of coach Brady Hoke, who could be in trouble with a third straight disappointing season. How the drama unfolds will pivot largely on new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s ability to lift a unit that averaged 2.5 yards per rush during a 2-6 season-ending slide last year.
4. Penn State: Watch out for Penn State ... in 2016. New coach James Franklin is on a recruiting tear and quarterback Christian Hackenberg — who broke 11 school records as a freshman last season — has the look of a star. Depth is a major concern as the Nittany Lions continue to feel the crunch of their scholarship shortage.
5. Maryland: The Terrapins should at least be competitive in their first swing through the league. Maryland returns 17 starters from last year’s 7-6 team while sixth-year quarterback C.J. Brown will air it out to perhaps the league’s top big-play receiver tandem — Stefon Diggs (17.3 yards per catch last season) and Deon Long (15.3).
6. Indiana: The Hoosiers will go bowling for the first time under fourth-year coach Kevin Wilson if their defense is merely bad. Last year, Indiana was the only FBS program to rank among the top 20 nationally in total offense and still finish with a losing record.
7. Rutgers: Pros to debt-ridden Rutgers’ invite to the Big Ten: that big skyline 40 miles to the northeast. Cons: everything else. The Scarlet Knights have appeared in the year-end national rankings once in the past 38 years, and that won’t change this season. The good and bad news for Rutgers fans is 16 starters return from a team that went 2-5 in the watered-down American Athletic Conference last season.
BIG TEN WEST
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have not beaten Ohio State and Michigan in the same year since 1962. But no sweat. They play neither this season, nor much of anybody else. Iowa avoids the top four teams in the Big Ten East — including Michigan State and Penn State — and has its league road games against Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota, and Illinois. After a reviving eight-win season last year, junior quarterback Jake Rudock looks to nudge Iowa all the way atop the Big Ten Least.
2. Wisconsin: The earth will continue to move in Madison, where preseason All-American tailback Melvin Gordon will run behind four returning Goliaths on the offensive line. The electric junior ran for 1,609 yards with 12 touchdowns on 206 carries last season as part of a timeshare backfield. This year, the stage is his alone, beginning with the Badgers’ season opener against LSU in Houston — a showdown that could establish Gordon as an early Heisman contender. One major concern: the defense does not return a single starter from the front seven.
3. Nebraska: Bo Pelini displayed a lighter side when he carried a kitten onto the field before Nebraska’s spring game. Does the irascible coach have a winning side, too? After six good-but-never-great seasons — his Nebraska teams have lost exactly four games every year — Cornhuskers fans are still waiting for a return to national contention. This doesn’t look to be the year, with only five starters returning from a blah defense. Just don’t tell that to quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr. — who went 7-1 as a starter last season — or star running back Ameer Abdullah.
4. Northwestern: Ask the eggheads in Evanston, and they’ll tell you the Probability theory suggests last year’s 1-7 freefall in the Big Ten was an anomaly. They’re right. The Wildcats lost four games by eight points or less — not to mention star rusher Venric Mark to a season-ending injury. Mark is back, as are 15 other starters.
5. Minnesota: The Gophers have moved on up lately, from three wins in coach Jerry Kill’s first year in 2011 to eight wins — and the program’s first four-game league winning streak since 1973 — last season. A tough crossover schedule — they play Ohio State and Michigan — and the loss of NFL-bound defensive stars Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen could put the progress on hold.
6. Illinois: Will it be three-and-out for former Toledo coach Tim Beckman? After winning just one Big Ten game in his first two seasons at Illinois, Beckman is squarely on the hot seat. His return could depend on the powerful right arm of sophomore quarterback Wes Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State once touted among the nation’s top recruits.
7. Purdue: The Boilermakers should be better in Darrell Hazell’s second season. But that’s like upgrading from a 1986 Yugo to an ’87. Purdue’s only win last season came by six points at home over a 1-11 Indiana State team from the FCS, and a second straight winless Big Ten season appears likely.