The countdown to the start of the 2012 college football season has reached single digits, and the conference previews continue.
And now, with just four days remaining until the start of the season, we head to the Midwest.
Say hello to the Big Ten.
It’s an intriguing conference. On one hand, it’s one of the most stable conferences in all of college football this year, as no new teams departed or were added. And there was minimal coaching upheaval as well.
But two of the conference’s three coaching changes come at the hands of controversy. Two storied programs deal with sanctions and a new football culture.
Beyond those two programs, there’s a great deal of talent. Two Heisman hopefuls. A preseason Top 10 team. Can the Big Ten overcome its new sanction-riddled image in 2012?
Tim Beckman, head coach, Illinois: Previously the head coach at Toledo, Beckman takes over a program that went 7-6 in 2011. Beckman accepted the Illinois job prior to his Toledo team’s appearance in the 2012 Military Bowl, which the Rockets won 42-41.
Urban Meyer, head coach, Ohio State: Meyer was easily the splashiest hire in all of college football in the offseason. After resigning from Florida in 2010, citing health and family issues, Meyer took a year off from coaching and joined the comfy seats as an analyst at ESPN. But the allure of being the head coach at Ohio State was apparently too much to keep him as a TV personality. Meyer takes over a program that is ineligible for the postseason this year. He replaces Luke Fickell, who served as interim coach for the entire 2011 season after the departure of Jim Tressel.
Bill O’Brien, head coach, Penn State: The former offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots becomes a head coach for the first time at any level in quite possibly the most impossible of circumstances. Handed unprecedented sanctions by the NCAA, the rebuilding process at Penn State will be a long road. His last collegiate coaching experience was as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Duke in 2006.
Ron Zook, head coach, Illinois: Zook was fired at the end of the regular season, prior to Illinois’ win in the Fight Hunger Bowl over UCLA. He was hired earlier this month as an analyst for CBS Sports Network.
Joe Paterno, head coach, Penn State: One of the winningest coaches of all time, Paterno died in January 2012 due to complications from lung cancer. He was removed as head coach in November 2011 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. In the NCAA’s recent sanctions on the program, based on the Freeh Report, all of Paterno’s 111 wins between 1998 and 2011 were vacated.
They’re STILL HERE?
Luke Fickell, co-defensive coordinator, Ohio State: After serving as the Buckeyes interim head coach in 2011, Fickell (pictured at right) was retained by new head coach Urban Meyer. He returns to his position as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. He led Ohio State to a very respectable 6-7 season in 2011, including a loss in the Gator Bowl.
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: Sorry, Leaders division, he’s back for more. After racking up 1,923 yards on 307 carries and 33 touchdowns last year as a junior, Ball has his sights set on a Heisman Trophy and a national title run for the Badgers. With both Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the conference title game, his team is already the favorite in the division.
Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan: The dual-threat quarterback also returns for his senior season and also has Heisman hopes. Not only did Robinson throw for more than 2,000 yards last season, he also led his team in rushing yards with 1,176. He scored 36 touchdowns – 20 through the air and 16 on the ground.
The Mascots: There’s a lot of seriousness in the Big Ten this year. Tough topics to deal with. So let’s take a moment for some ridiculousness, shall we? Yes, it’s another “Call Me Maybe” video, this time featuring the conference mascots. Seriously. And yet, despite this, the mascots apparently have been allowed to return to their respective sidelines this season.
Games NOT HAPPENING this season:
Other than the aforementioned postseason ineligibility of both Ohio State and Penn State, the slate of games this year in the Big Ten is routine.
Games that ARE HAPPENING this season:
Michigan vs. Alabama (Sept. 1): Talk about hitting the ground running. Michigan, itself hoping to play into the 2012 national title picture, opens its season at Cowboys Stadium against the defending national champ. It’s a game that will quickly define each team’s season. Can Michigan’s offensive machine outperform the solid Alabama defense?
Wisconsin at Nebraska (Sept. 29): A full discussion of the Big Ten can’t happen without mention of Nebraska, which figures to weigh in heavily on the Legends division title. The Huskers return all of their offensive leaders, including quarterback Taylor Martinez, who finished second on the team in rushing last year. This year, the winner of this game will likely win the division and head to the conference title game. A lot on the line for late September.
Michigan State at Michigan (Oct. 20): The 105th meeting between the two in-state rivals is arguably the best conference game in the month of October. While the conference’s postseason hopes are hanging with Michigan, the highest ranked bowl-eligible team in the conference heading into the year, Michigan State has the opportunity to make a statement in the national spotlight with a strong performance in this game.
Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 24): In the final game of the regular season, this storied rivalry adds a new twist this year. Michigan should enter this game as the representative for the Leaders division in the conference title game. But the Wolverines could have much more on the line, including a BCS bowl berth or even national championship hopes. Regardless of the outcome, this will be the final game of the year for the Buckeyes, which cannot play in the conference title game or a bowl game. Wouldn’t the boys in red love anything more than to ruin the season of their archrival? The Horseshoe will be rocking for this one, guaranteed.
STORYLINES to watch:
1. How will the “Meyer effect” affect the conference?
Urban Meyer is one of the best recruiting coaches in the nation. There’s no arguing that. Shortly after being named the head coach at Ohio State, Meyer was able to convince several major prospects to “flip” their commitments to join the Buckeyes in a Signing Day coup. While this is second nature in other conferences, especially the SEC, this is an entirely different way to play the game in Big Ten country. Will the so-called “Meyer effect” cause other coaches in the conference to step up their games when it comes to recruiting?
2. Can a team rise up to grab the spotlight away from the controversies?
Like it or not, a good deal of the attention in the Big Ten this year will go toward both Ohio State and Penn State, simply because of their circumstances. But Michigan has a huge opportunity in this opening week to turn the attention away from scandals and controversies and back to the football field. Michigan State also opens with an intriguing game against Boise State. Will either team have a strong enough performance to snag the spotlight?
3. Will Penn State be relevant?
It’s been a year like no other in State College. With the loss of a number of transfers – including star running back Silas Redd to USC – the Nittany Lions have a lot to overcome. But there are some pieces returning, including most of the defense and senior quarterback Matt McGloin. A lot will ride on how the team opens its season, particularly its Sept. 22 game against Temple. Last year, Penn State squeaked out a 14-10 win over the Owls, a game that Temple arguably should have won. If the Nittany Lions exit September with a winning record, the possibility of a 6-6 season will exist.
4. Can the Big Ten live up to expectations?
According to the Athlon Sports preseason ranking, there are three conferences with five teams each in the Top 25: The Big 12, the SEC … and the Big Ten. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Big Ten was criticized for its teams’ lackluster performances in bowl games. (Remember the 0-5 performance on Jan. 1, 2011?) Four of the five ranked teams – Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State – have the opportunity this season to make their marks on the national scene. Will this finally be the year – even without Ohio State and Penn State – that the Big Ten steps up to the same plate as the two perennial postseason powerhouse conferences?