Previewing the Big Ten’s contenders- Leaders Division

Theres a dark cloud hanging over Penn State. As reported, Illinois sent coaches to State College to attempt to lure players away from the storm. Ohio State also has its own sanctions to worry about. Three new coaches enter the Leaders division. Wisconsin looks to repeat as the Big Ten champs with only four of the six teams eligible to make it to Indianapolis. You could make the argument that the Big Ten Leaders division could be the most compelling division in all of college football. Does the national champion exist in this division? Of course not. I don’t really know why I’m posing this question.

*Wisconsin*

For two straight years, Bret Bielema’s squad has fell short in the Rose Bowl. Still, you can’t take away from the program he has advanced in his six years at the helm. Wisconsin has seemed to master the transfer rules, luring their second straight “rental quarterback” to Madison. Last year it was Russell Wilson, and this year it’s Danny O’Brien this year. O’Brien will have two years of eligibility after graduating early from Maryland.

Like Wilson, O’Brien enters the season as probably the best quarterback in the conference without even taking a snap in the Big Ten.

It’s certainly a definite that senior running back Montee (now pronounced “Mon-tay”) Ball is the best running back in the conference. He’ll be one of the Heisman frontrunners at the beginning of the season. Ball says the transitions from Scott Tolzien, to Wilson, to O’Brien behind center has given him different ways to attack defenses. Tolzien was a game-manager, Wilson was a risk taker and O’Brien should be a combination of both.

Ball on what Heisman candidates he’s keeping an eye on: “Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina). I have much respect for him and how hard he works. To see the stats he puts up, I most definitely try to match him or beat him and I’m sure he does the same.”

*Ohio State*

Enter Urban Meyer to the Big Ten. After a year in the broadcast booth calling Big Ten games, Meyer brings his championship pedigree and SEC speed from Florida to a conference that has been slowly evolving from traditional stereotype of pro-style offenses and defenses. Meyer’s offense is very quarterback-centered (see Alex Smith, Chris Leak and some fellow named Tebow), so Braxton Miller comes into the spotlight after a freshman year in which Ohio State fans would cringe when he dropped back to pass. Despite a year where the postseason isn’t a option for the Scarlet and Grey, an easy nonconference schedule (not a surprise) and favorable Big Ten slate could have Ohio State sitting pretty for a high finish. One can only expect the Michigan game to be Ohio State’s bowl game.

Meyer on the Big Ten competing with the SEC: “They have to win bowl games. The coaches in this conference would know much better than I would. I’ll know more obviously next year. But I know one thing: I’ve watched enough film this summer, there’s some very good teams in this conference. I anticipate winning is not that far off.”

*Penn State*

Originally, Penn State players were not going to attend to Big Ten Media Days. It wasn’t until a few moments before the event started that it was made aware that they would be in attendance. It’s hard to view Joe Paterno in a different light after what has been uncovered through the Freeh Report, but try to bear with me on this. Paterno was still a person that brought players to Penn State that left program as role models in society. And that’s exactly what the three Penn State players showed with every question presented: class. Head coach Bill O’Brien does have a lot on his plate in his first year, facing the uphill climb of the sanctions delivered by the NCAA. But based on the quality of players he was able to retain for the upcoming season, he can still sell the program’s quality and the NFL pedigree he hails from.

Linebacker Michael Mauti on the support from the Penn State community: “I’ve had plenty of students email, text me. We hang those emails on our wall for motivation. We’ve gotten support from entire Penn State family. I’ve heard from department heads, former players, former coaches. The whole community is backing us.”

*Illinois*

Before it was reported that Illinois had coaches in State College, they were just another school coming to Chicago to talk to the media about the upcoming season. Instead, first-year head coach Tim Beckman was bombarded with questions about his decision to look at Penn Sate players. Other coaches were quick to say they decided to not look into Penn State. Then again, can you blame Illinois at all for this? Penn Sate players can play right away, and Beckman is trying to put his mark on a program that has been marred by inconsistency during the Ron Zook era.

As far as the season goes, Illinois will look to make the most of the absence of Ohio State and Penn State from reaching the Big Ten Championship game. Expect plenty of competition entering the start of Camp Rantoul.

Beckman on the offseason mentality: “If you’ve read any of the Twitter stuff that I tweet about Illini Football (@coachbeckman), you know that we build it through competition. I think we had 15 outstanding days of spring going over, competing and playing the first play as if we played the last play and playing at a tempo that we believe is going to be the Illini tempo and being a finisher by competing.”

*Purdue*

Danny Hope says he actually has a good team coming back to West Lafayette, Ind. Purdue really embodied the concept of sharing, as it wouldn’t be uncommon to see five or more players get multiple touches in a game. Hope still has three quarterbacks to shuffle with as Rob Henry comes off surgery to fight for the starting spot with Caleb Terbush and Robert Marve, who seems like he was at Miami 10 years ago.

Hope on Penn State and Ohio State not being eligible for the postseason: “Obviously, it increases those that are eligible, increases their odds some. But it’s still going to boil down to who wins the most, who plays the best. I think we certainly have to grasp the idea that we have to win.

*Indiana*

There is an offensive evolution in the Big Ten, but its gets lost that Kevin Wilson brought his “Sam Bradford, throw 50-plus times” offense from Oklahoma to Bloomington, Ind. Indiana suffered from a 1-11 season, with its only win coming against FCS teams, losing to North Texas and Ball State, and dropping every conference game by more than 24 points. Then, star commit Gunner Kiel pulled out of his commitment to Indiana and turned his recruitment into a game of musical chairs. Tre Roberson struggled his freshman year, but should be able to get up to speed this season, as the Hoosiers open the season up with Indiana State and Divison I newcomer UMass.

Wilson on the offensive evolution in the Big Ten: “The game’s changing quite a bit. A lot of people associate the Big Ten with the old NFC Central, priding yourself on running the football and playing defense. But it all comes down winning the turnover battle and moving the ball. The spread isn’t that new, but more coaches will emphasize it.”