Previewing the Big Ten’s contenders- Legends Division

The Legends Division get some early tests to start the season. All six teams have interesting matchups against BCS opponents to get them ready for a conference slate that should be grueling. It’s a wide-open division to make it Indianapolis, in which Michigan State emerged last season.

*Iowa*

Kirk Ferentz has taken the Hawkeyes to consecutive Insight bowls, including Oklahoma last season. Iowa hasn’t been very consistent the past few years, which is unlike a Kirk Ferentz squad. What’s hidden behind the sanctions that happened to Penn State and Ohio State is that Iowa has had its fair share of off-the-field problems, with running backs leaving the program and a wide receiver getting busted for running a drug house. Iowa opens the season with Northern Illinois at Soldier Field and lucks out by not seeing Ohio State or Wisconsin. It will, however, have to face Michigan and Michigan State, both on the road.

Center James Ferentz on not getting a chance to play Illinois: “When you play in the Big Ten, it seems that everyone you play turns into a rivalry just because the league is so competitive. Everybody is talented enough to beat you every week. I just think the trophy makes it more public.”

*Nebraska*

The inaugural season in the Big Ten for the newcomers from Lincoln had its up and downs. They held their own at home, killed on the road, destroyed in the bowl game. Credit the rest of the conference for holding their own last season as many were expecting the Huskers to win the conference handily in their first season. Now that it has the lay of the land, Nebraska can get more familiar with its opponents. Senior running back Rex Burkhead was the ultimate workhorse last season, but expect other backs to get reps next season. However, Nebraska will be very reliant on the run if quarterback Taylor Martinez can’t correct his infamous throwing motion.

Burkhead on his workload and the offense: “It depends how the games go. But we have a few new guys that had a good offseason. You’re going to see a lot more comfortable team. Guys know what they were doing now and aren’t running around like chickens with their heads cut off.”

*Northwestern*

My new man crush is Pat Fitzgerald. Not kidding. He’s done wonders with his alma mater. The Wildcats became the first team in the Big Ten to sign on with Under Armour and released their new jersey designs last week. Northwestern faces Boston College and Vanderbilt this season, as it looks to stake its dominance as the best academic school on the football field. A tough stretch of at Michigan, at Michigan State and Illinois to end the season might determine Northwestern’s postseason fate.

Fitzgerald on making strides from last season’s bowl victory: “It’s one game. Obviously there’s a lot of games in between now and then that we have to be successful at to have that opportunity again. You walk into our team room to my right, in our dressing room would be our goals. The first one is to consistently prepare. The second is to win our division. The third is to win the Big Ten Championship. The fourth is to win our bowl game.

*Michigan*

The success of head coach Brady Hoke’s first season warrants him a name on a sandwich at any Ann Arbor eating establishment. I love how Hoke is more personable on the sidelines, never putting on a headset. His coordinators did a masterful job of playing to the team’s strengths of offensive speed on the edges and interior strength on defense. We’re still waiting on Denard Robinson to become a better passer.

Not many are expecting him to come out and carve up the Alabama secondary to open the season. Shoelace and the Wolverines will have to survive road tests at Nebraska and Ohio State to be in contention to make it back to Indy.

Hoke on having the tag of the favorite: “Not much, to be honest. I think we were picked fifth in our division a year ago. We don’t put much stock in that. It’s like anything in life: It’s not where we start but where we finish.”

*Michigan State*

Running the football and good defense — basic, but its what made head coach Mark Dantonio successful in East Lansing. Last season reminded me of shades of Jeff Smoker, T.J. Duckett and Charles Rogers (back when Sparty wasn’t a choke artist). The offense loses a lot of fire power, especially at wide receiver. DeAnthony Arnett arrives from Tennessee and should be the primary target. Defensive end William Gholston and defensive back Johnny Adams were two of the 10 that were named players to watch in the Big Ten.

Dantonio on reaching the posteason: “It’s always been our conversation in our locker room, to get to the Rose Bowl, whether it was 2007 or what year it’s been. And that, to me, is our goal. I think you have to make your goals and you have to climb the ladder when you get to your goals, to get to those goals.”

*Minnesota*

The Golden Gophers had some really bad performances last season, including a loss to FCS school North Dakota State at home. But it showed glimpses of promise with a win over Iowa and capping of Illinois’ historic six-game losing streak to end the season.

MarQueis Gray is back at quarterback and the Gophers should benefit from a light nonconference schedule. They do still have to face Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road, as well as finishing with Michigan State at home. Silently, head coach Jerry Kill is putting this program in position for a bowl game, though it might not be until 2013.

Kill on building the program: “We’ve added about 36 new players on our football team. I think we’re in a huge transition but a positive one, and our kids have been through some adversity, some tragedy through the past year. I think it’s brought us closer together.”