November 27, 2010; Columbus, OH, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson (16) carries the ball and tries to avoid a tackle from Ohio State Buckeyes defensive lineman Johnathan Hankins (52) at Ohio Stadium. Robinson lost the ball on the tackle. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-US PRESSWIRE

Going Out On A Limb: Big Ten Edition

College football’s oldest conference is in a state of transition. For the first time since the early 1990s, the league is at 10 in the sense that only that many of its members can compete for the conference championship. Both Penn State and Ohio State are serving NCAA sanctions that disqualify them from the postseason.

Meanwhile, each of the 2011 title game participants replace NFL draftees at quarterback as well as two of the Big Ten’s best wide receivers. Three programs welcome new head coaches, in addition to the three that had first year leaders a season ago.

The Big Ten season should be unpredictable, which would make for an exciting season and plenty of potential for upheaval. To that end, Purdue is a tempting pick to win the Leaders Division — but that’s proving not to be that thin a limb. The Boilermakers are generating considerable buzz as a conference title dark horse, and where’s the fun in hopping on a growing bandwagon?

Besides, there’s another Big Ten team I’m sizing up for a surprise run at the crown.

Northwestern Is Unbeaten Entering A Mid-November Stretch of Road Games at Michigan and Michigan State

October 15, 2011; Iowa City, IA, USA; Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Kain Coulter (2) is pressued by Iowa Hawkeyes player Lebron Daniel (58) at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa beat Northwestern 41-31. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-US PRESSWIRE

Pat Fitzgerald knows about getting Northwestern to the Rose Bowl. He was a star of the Wildcats’ unlikely 1995 Big Ten championship roster. As head coach, he has established a level of consistency at NU rarely seen. But none of his Wildcats have teased reaching that pinnacle Fitzgerald and Co. planted a flag.

It would take a Herculean effort for 2012 to be the year NU returns to Pasadena. The Wildcats play both Michigan and Michigan State on the road, in consecutive weeks. But don’t count the Wildcats out for contention heading into that stretch. In fact, NU could be unbeaten when it visits the Big House.

The Wildcats open with Syracuse before hosting Vanderbilt. I’ll spare you the corny “Battle of the Brains” rhetoric sure to get pummeled leading up to that one — wait, I just invoked it. Dammit. OK, well forget that these are two of the best academic institutions in the nation, and consider instead that these are two teams with high ceilings; young, hungry head coaches; and quarterbacks primed for breakout seasons in Kain Colter and Jordan Rodgers. You don’t need an NU or VU degree to deduce that adds to a stellar match-up.

Should NU survive, the Wildcats draw Boston College (which NU beat in 2011), South Dakota and Indiana, all at home. That’s 5-0. Trips to a depleted Penn State and Minnesota are next, leading up to an Oct. 20 date with Nebraska. The Cornhuskers likely have this circled on their calendar, the Wildcats having trumped Nebraska in Lincoln a season ago. Such a rematch with an unbeaten bunch of Wildcats just might lure GameDay to Evanston.

NU thrived on turnovers that Saturday in Lincoln. If Fitzgerald can make lightning strikes again, the Wildcats are suddenly 8-0 with Iowa coming to town.

MarQueis Gray Skyrockets Up Draft Boards, Leads Minnesota to a Bowl

Minnesota quarterback Marqueis Gray has garnered some attention as a potential NFL Draft sleeper. He has great size and proven athleticism, which Jerry Kill’s offensive scheme should accentuate more in 2012. Kill flourished at Northern Illinois, facilitating the dual skilled Chandler Harnish. Gray approaching Harnish’s effectiveness would command plenty of attention in the Big Ten. Moreover, it would make the Golden Gophers bowl candidates.

UM opens in Las Vegas against UNLV. Both lost to FCS opponents a season ago; not exactly the tagline any match-up wants on its season opener. But routing the Rebels would get the Gophers started in washing away the taste of a mostly bitter 2011. Following are games against New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse, all at TCF Bank Stadium. Wins there has Minny already two-thirds of the way to bowl eligibility heading to Iowa, the Gophers’ rival and a team against which UM has had surprising success of late.

Could UM really be 5-0 by the time it faces Northwestern, which I also have tabbed for 5-0? What kind of Bizarro Big Ten is this? It’s a Big Ten in which Gray passes for 2000 yards and rushes for 1100 with a combined 27 touchdowns.

Ohio State Runs The Table, Winning the Associated Press No. 1 & Splitting National Championship Honors with One-Loss BCS Winner

November 26, 2011; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller (5) during the game against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Football talking-and-writing types are abuzz over the possibilities Urban Meyer presents for Ohio State football’s future. Well, what if I told you the future…is now?! Yes, the Buckeyes are coming off a 6-7 season that included a losing streak of four to close it out. That’s hardly the momentum conducive to a clean sheet the season following.

Terrelle Pryor’s early departure may have been one of the best things that could have happened to the Buckeyes, as it allowed Braxton Miller to test the waters in a season of little consequence. The ballyhooed freshman led OSU in rushing and was outstanding in marquee match-ups against Wisconsin (two rushing touchdowns and one *very* key score passing) and in the loss at Michigan (235 yards passing and 100 rushing). He’s proven that there’s steak to the sizzle, and in Meyer’s system he should really cook.

Miller will be the focal point of OSU’s offense this year, and his No. 5 should be called plenty. Much has been made of the Buckeyes lacking a Percy Harvin type — in fact, it’s reaching “Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley were roommates” and “Miss Lippy’s car is green” levels of inanity.

But OSU does have an Aaron Hernandez type in Jake Stoneburner. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end has 35 receptions over the last two seasons, but his production could increase under Meyer. Hernandez was targeted an astounding 68 times at Florida in 2009; Cornelius Ingram was targeted almost as many times in the 2006 and 2007 seasons each, as Stoneburner has in his entire collegiate career.

While the formation of the offense makes the headlines, a Buckeye defense that yielded just 21 points per game remains stout. I don’t purchase a 3-D TV for the sole reason I fear Johnathan Hankins someone emerging from the screen during a Buckeye broadcast and destroying my living room.

Now, going unbeaten is a tall order for any team. It’s especially so for a team with no bowl to play for and a first year head coach. Furthermore, OSU travels to MSU and Wisconsin.

Tags: Football Minnesota Golden Gophers Northwestern Wildcats Ohio State Buckeyes

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