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Big Ten Legends 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 Legends 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.

Iowa (+1500): The Hawkeyes had high expectations entering the 2011 season but it was a marginal season, opening with a loss to Iowa State early in the year and the going just 4-4 in Big Ten games. Losing to Minnesota was a big blow in the middle of the season but the Hawkeyes did beat Michigan last year for a bright spot. Iowa played commendably but lost to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl to wrap up an underwhelming 7-6 season. The odds have Iowa as the fourth best team in this division but don't rule out a strong season in Iowa City. Iowa owns a very favorable non-conference slate and they are one of two Big Ten teams that will only play four true road games on the year. The draw from the Leaders division is excellent with both Wisconsin and Ohio State absent and the game with Penn State will be at home. Legends games with Michigan State and Michigan will both be on the road but the Hawkeyes do get a bye week before playing the Spartans. The finale with Nebraska will be at home in a huge game for the program. All in all an improved record is likely for Iowa this season with this slate and the Hawkeyes should not be ruled out as a sleeper to win the division.

Michigan (+200): Michigan enters the year as the Big Ten favorites but the season will open with a brutally tough game facing Alabama in Texas. The non-conference schedule will be the toughest in the conference with additional games against Air Force and playing at Notre Dame. It won't be a shock if Michigan is 2-2 entering Big Ten play but the Wolverines should have a strong start in league play. Missing Wisconsin on the schedule is a nice break and games with Michigan State and Iowa will be at home. The toughest road games on the schedule come at Nebraska and at Ohio State to close the season. Both losses for Michigan came on the road last season and the season finished strongly with back-to-back wins over Nebraska and Ohio State and then a miraculous bowl win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Michigan is clearly back as a national presence but this is also a team that won several tight games last season and sustaining that success will be easier said than done.

Michigan State (+800): The Spartans lose several key players from what has been a great two-year run with back-to-back 7-1 conference seasons. Michigan State will face a tough draw from the Leaders division with both Ohio State and Wisconsin on the schedule but they do get to play Indiana as well. The season will open with an intriguing game with Boise State and Notre Dame is also on the non-conference schedule. Both of those games as well as the Big Ten opener with Ohio State will be at home so the potential for a strong start to the season with serious quality wins is there. October will be a tough month with Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska in consecutive weeks starting in mid-October with the middle two games both on the road. That is a gauntlet that will likely bump the Spartans out of contention for Legends division as they try to repeat and earn another shot at the Big Ten championship game after heart-breaking loss last year. The Spartans were one of the few Big Ten teams to deliver in the postseason with an upset win over Georgia and this has been an underrated program in recent years.

Minnesota (+8800): The Gophers are the steepest long shots to win the Big Ten this season in year two for Coach Jerry Kill, who had an eventful debut season. The Gophers nearly upset USC to open last season but then would go on to lose to teams like New Mexico State and North Dakota State in a disappointing 3-9 season. Wins late in the year came against Iowa and Illinois and the Gophers gave Michigan State a very tough game last year so there were some promising moments. Minnesota will face a manageable non-conference slate that could allow the team to match last season's win total very early in the year and build some momentum for the conference season. In the new format of the league the Gophers will draw Wisconsin every year, which at least at this point in time is a big disadvantage but the other two games from the Leaders draw are against Purdue and Illinois. Michigan State and Michigan will visit Minneapolis but the Gophers play at Iowa and at Nebraska this season. Overall with the strength and depth of the Legends division it will be a tough conference season and matching last year's 2-6 mark would be a decent accomplishment. Minnesota could still reach 6-6 however if they avoid slipping up in non-conference action and that would certainly be a step forward for the constantly rebuilding program.

Nebraska (+250): While Nebraska did not run over the Big Ten as some projected, they had a respectable 5-3 first season in the conference, facing a very tough first year draw and getting every team's best shot. The loss to Northwestern was costly but more concerning were blowout losses against Wisconsin and Michigan, two teams still on the schedule this year. Nebraska has again been dealt the toughest possible pull from the Leaders division with Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin games ahead, not to mention the formidable match-ups within the division. Games with Iowa and Michigan State will be on the road this season and the Huskers were the only team to beat the Spartans in the conference regular season. Nebraska will get some tests early with Southern Miss, UCLA, and Arkansas State filling up a reasonably difficult non-conference slate and while Nebraska could well be the best team in the Big Ten, the schedule makes it unlikely that they will come out on top in this division. Michigan State, Michigan, and Iowa all have much easier paths to win this division.

Northwestern (+3300): The Wildcats will play three major conference foes in the non-conference schedule but they are all games that Northwestern can win. Those results will determine the success or the failure of the season as another mediocre Big Ten campaign is likely ahead. The Wildcats were just 3-5 in the conference last year, beating Nebraska but failing to get another quality win despite several tight games. The draw form the Leaders division is favorable with Illinois, Indiana, and Penn State as the Wildcats avoid both Wisconsin and Ohio State. Games with Michigan and Michigan State will both be on the road within the Legends draw but a bye week precedes those consecutive games. For the season to be a real success Northwestern will need to pull off an upset at some point but that is something this program generally finds a way to do each year. This is a team that could start hot with 5-2 or 6-1 a real possibility out of the gate but the second half schedule will be challenging.

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