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Big Ten Leaders Early Look

The Big Ten has been a bit down in recent years but the conference has some positive momentum, boosted by the addition of Nebraska last season and Urban Meyer joining Ohio State this off season. The Buckeyes will be on probation this season but the conference still presents a couple of teams that can make some national noise. Here is a look at the schedules in the Big Ten Leaders division this season and where the advantages and disadvantages lie for 2012. The early odds to win the Big Ten championship are also listed with each team.

Illinois (+2000): The Ron Zook era ended with disappointment, with six straight losses to close the 2011 regular season after starting the season 6-0. Zook was already out the door for the Fight Hunger Bowl win over UCLA and Tim Beckman was hired as the new coach, leaving Toledo. Illinois lost six of eight conference games last season and by the end of the year only the opening win over Arkansas State looked impressive. With that said Illinois lost very close games with Ohio State, Purdue, and Penn State and also gave eventual Big Ten champion Wisconsin a scare. The schedule this season is similar to last season with Arizona State as the marquee non-conference match-up, though this year the game is on the road. The draw from the Legends division includes Michigan but also features manageable games with Northwestern and Minnesota. The road schedule is exceptionally difficult in conference play, traveling to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State in the middle of the season but Illinois should be expected to win most of the home games.

Indiana (+6000): After going 0-8 last season there is nowhere to go but up for the Hoosiers in the second season for Coach Kevin Wilson. Only two of eight conference games were decided by less than 14 points for Indiana as it was a miserable year that also included non-conference losses to Ball State and North Texas. The non-conference schedule is very light this season and the Hoosiers should be expected to double last season's win total in the first two weeks with FCS foes in the first two games, though one of those games will be a rare road game for major conference team at a FCS school (future FBS member Massachusetts). In the Big Ten draw Indiana avoids Nebraska and Michigan but will have to play Iowa and Michigan State, though both of those games will be at home. The Big Ten home slate is very difficult with Ohio State and Wisconsin also visiting Bloomington and the Hoosiers may need to win on the road to avoid another winless conference season.

Ohio State (Ineligible): The Buckeyes won't be eligible for a bowl game or the conference championship but they can still make some noise in the Big Ten debut for legendary coach Urban Meyer. Ohio State was just 3-5 in Big Ten play but they did beat Wisconsin and all five conference losses came by razor thin margins. The Buckeyes will play all four non-conference games at home and there is a bit of quality in the schedule with Central Florida and California visiting the Horseshoe. It is perhaps for the best that the Buckeyes are not eligible for the postseason this year as they face the toughest possible draw from the Leaders division with Michigan, Nebraska, and Michigan State on the schedule. Ohio State also has to play at Penn State and at Wisconsin, likely the top two competitors in the Leaders division. This team is talented enough to score a few big wins but overall the schedule is as tough as it gets in the Big Ten and it could be a rocky transition season.

Penn State (+1200): Despite the horrific distractions that plagued the Penn State football team in 2011, the Lions managed to go 6-2 in Big Ten play. Penn State scored just 137 points in eight conference games, compared with 344 for Leaders winner Wisconsin through the same 6-2 record however so there is some ground to make up. Wisconsin pounded Penn State 45-7 in the final game of the regular season with the conference title game berth on the line but this year Wisconsin will have to travel to Happy Valley to close the season. Penn State will play at Iowa and at Nebraska for a relatively tough draw form the Legends bracket but they will also host Ohio State, getting a favorable draw within the division. The non-conference schedule features four reasonably challenging games as Ohio and Temple were two of the best programs in the MAC last year and Penn State will also play at Virginia and will host Navy. Bill O'Brien inherits some talent but also as difficult of a situation as any coach could step into, and given the many narrow wins last season it may be tough to repeat last year's record.

Purdue (+5000): If there is a sleeper in the Big Ten, particularly in the Leaders side, Purdue would qualify. The Boilermakers were 4-4 in the conference last season and ended up with a bowl victory in the Little Caesars Bowl for a solid season of progress in the third year for Coach Hope. Upsetting Ohio State was the marquee win of the year and there certainly were a few blowout losses that indicate that the gap between the elite teams in the conference is still significant. Purdue avoids Nebraska and Michigan State on this year's schedule and the toughest games will be at home with Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State all visiting West Lafayette. Road games at Ohio State and at Iowa certainly won't be easy for this team but this may again be a division where 6-2 is good enough for the top spot. Purdue should be favored in three of four non-conference games though they will play at Notre Dame in the second week of the season. An early week 4 bye week also could create some strain late in the year as well but overall Purdue has the schedule that can allow for a similar or slightly improved season.

Wisconsin (+285): With Ohio State on probation Wisconsin is the heavy favorite to return to the Big Ten championship this season. The Badgers captured the first ever title game in a wild shootout with Michigan State. An 11-3 season is certainly nothing to scoff at but there was some disappointment with a second straight Rose Bowl defeat and with both regular season losses basically coming on Hail Mary passes. The Badgers will look to transition in another talented transfer QB but the schedule could be a bit tougher this season. The non-conference schedule is again light but the game with Oregon State will be on the road this year. Wisconsin will have to play at Nebraska to open the conference season and after the way the Badgers welcomed the Huskers to the conference last year that will certainly be a game the Huskers are ready for. Wisconsin also has to play Michigan State again this year after two very memorable meetings last year. Michigan is absent from the schedule but the Badgers will play at Penn State in what could be a game that decides the Leaders division champion.

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