Big 10 of the Big Ten: Breaking down the conference’s top contenders

_Editor’s note: Big 10 of the Big Ten is a collection of tidbits from around the conference. This weekly feature provides a recap from the previous slate of games, and it also serves as a preview to the upcoming football weekend._

*Where they rank*

The Big Ten, along with the SEC, leads the nation with five teams ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 poll. Michigan tops the list with its No. 8 ranking. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State all appear in the top 20. The Big Ten is searching for its first participant in the BCS National Championship Game since the 2007 season.

*A new chapter*

Penn State will take the field for the first time since the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal when it plays Ohio on Saturday. While the program looks to put a tumultuous offseason behind it, the stains still remain. The Nittany Lions are not eligible for postseason play until 2016.

*New faces*

Ohio State’s Urban Meyer has the best resume of the new Big Ten coaches, but Penn State’s Bill O’Brien and Illinois’ Tim Beckman have strong football backgrounds as well. O’Brien was the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots in 2011 and ushers in a new era in University Park. Beckman has coached defense at the Division-I level since 1998.

*Game to watch*

No. 8 Michigan meets No. 2 Alabama at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in this week’s high-profile matchup. The defending BCS national champions return only four starters to its highly touted defense whose job will be to slow Denard Robinson.

*Game to keep an eye on*

The post-Kirk Cousins era at Michigan State begins with a battle against Chris Petersen’s ever-competitive Boise State. The Broncos have replaced 13 starters from the best senior class in school history. They will meet the Spartans in East Lansing, Mich., on Friday.

*Battle for the Leaders*

With Penn State and Ohio State ineligible for postseason play due to NCAA sanctions, the Leaders Division is down to a four-team race. Two-time defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin is the favorite to play for a third straight title. Purdue and Illinois each return more than 14 starters.

*Battle for the Legends*

The Legends Division race is wide open. Michigan State won the division in 2011, finishing a game ahead of Michigan and Nebraska. All three teams appear to be in the hunt again in 2012. It may come down to the Oct. 20 meeting between Michigan and Michigan State. The Spartans have won the last four meetings, their longest such streak since 1962.

*Heisman watch*

The last Heisman winner from the Big Ten was Ohio State’s Troy Smith in 2006. Denard Robinson and Montee Ball have the best chances to bring the trophy back to the conference. Ball tied Barry Sander’s NCAA single-season touchdown record last season. Robinson has passed for more than 2,000 yards and rushed for more than 1,000 in each of the past two seasons.

*Players to watch on defense*

Michigan State returns eight defensive starters, including cornerback Johnny Adams. He will be a threat in the secondary, where he made 51 total tackles and had three interceptions in 2011. John Simon headlines the nine starters returning for Ohio State. Simon had 17 tackles for loss and seven sacks last season.

*Quote of the week*

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald on playing in the Carrier Dome at Syracuse: “It’s been warm in Chicagoland. We’ve got that sweat going. I call it the ‘dome sweat.’ It feels good in pregame, but once you get into the dome, it never ends until you get out of the shower.”

_The reporter can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @sean_hammond._