Big 10 Leaders Schedule Outlook
August 7, 2013
By Joe Nelson
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The Big Ten will be going through major changes next season, but this year, the conference looks to gain back some national credibility after a few down seasons in a row and a 4-7 record in BCS bowls the last six seasons. The Leaders division did not offer much intrigue last season with two ineligible teams and 4-4 being good enough to advance to the Big Ten title game, but that figures to change this season. Here is a look at the six squads in Leaders division and the schedules ahead in the 2013 regular season.
Illinois Fighting Illini: With a new coaching staff, there were great challenges last season for Illinois, going from underwhelming back-to-back 7-6 seasons to just 2-10. Illinois scored less than 17 points per game with horrible offensive numbers and the defense allowed over 100 more yards per game than the previous season. Illinois does not have a lot of breaks on the schedule with two tough non-conference games and a very tough conference schedule in which they will likely be an underdog in every single game. With several returning players on offense however there should be improvement and Illinois should take a small step forward even with a tough slate.
Legends Draw: Nebraska, Michigan State, and Northwestern
Toughest Back-to-Back: The critical point in the season will come in mid-October where after a bye week Illinois faces two huge home games, hosting Wisconsin and then Michigan State for homecoming. Illinois could see its season turn for the better if they can get an upset in one of those games and build confidence for some of the winnable road games down the stretch.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: Illinois will play Washington at Soldier Field in the third game of the season in what should be a big game for the program and a chance to shine in the big Chicago market. Illinois was hammered in a matchup with the Pac-12 last season and while it will be a challenging game it will be a game the team should be focused for, especially if they lose to Cincinnati in the previous game.
Indiana Hoosiers: Most project a big improvement and a breakthrough season for a deep and experienced Indiana team this season. Matching last season’s win count should be possible in the first five games of the season with five straight home games to open the year, but Indiana has a tough conference schedule with road games against both Michigan schools in the Legends draw. A big plus on the schedule is winnable home games in the Big Ten slate, hosting Penn State, Minnesota, Illinois, and Purdue, giving Indiana a great chance to have its best conference record in many years. The road schedule in the conference is brutally tough, so contending in this division may be a reach.
Legends Draw: Michigan State, Michigan, and Minnesota
Toughest Back-to-Back: In November, Indiana faces the top two projected teams in this division on the road in back-to-back games, playing at Wisconsin and then at Ohio State. Indiana has a reasonable chance to be bowl eligible before those games, but if not pressure will mount with a finale at home against state rival Purdue.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: While no win is guaranteed for an Indiana program with one winning season since 1994, Indiana has a very good chance to start off 3-0 in non-conference play before getting a chance to face SEC newcomer Missouri in the fourth game of the season. That will be a big proving ground game to see if Indiana is really ready to compete in the Big Ten this season.
Ohio State Buckeyes: The Buckeyes completed a perfect season last year although they were quite shaky along the way with several narrow wins and a lot of good fortune. Many are projecting a repeat performance this season and the schedule is a big reason why with a rather light non-conference slate and a great draw from the other side of the conference as well as many of the toughest games coming at home. Ohio State has the schedule it needs for a big season, but they will need many of the same breaks they received last season for another 12-0 campaign.
Legends Draw: Northwestern, Iowa, and Michigan
Toughest Back-to-Back: The big games will be early in conference play for Ohio State, opening the Big Ten schedule with a home game against Wisconsin. Last season, the Badgers dominated the statistics, but lost in overtime at home and it will be the game many expect to decide the division race. A very tricky road game looms the following week as the Buckeyes travel to face Northwestern in what could be a flat spot on the schedule against a Wildcats team that should be dangerous this season.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: The only road game in the non-conference slate as well as the only major conference foe comes at California in mid-September. Last season, a dreadful Bears team gave Ohio State a great game and winning on the road is never easy with long travel and a motivated opponent.
Penn State Nittany Lions: After an extremely challenging offseason, Penn State delivered a commendable 8-4 season last year to make for a nice story. The statistics were solid on both sides of the ball and the Lions should maintain a competitive team again this season, although the schedule is perhaps more difficult in conference play. With a light non-conference slate, Penn State can produce another winning season and survive another year of the sanctions with positive results.
Legends Draw: Michigan, Minnesota, and Nebraska
Toughest Back-to-Back: The final two games of the season look very difficult for Penn State with a home date against Nebraska and a road trip at Wisconsin. Both of those teams could be fighting for division titles or bowl positioning, while Penn State won’t have those same hopes to shoot for, making keeping the focus for the team potentially challenging.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: Penn State lost the first two games of last season despite finishing 8-4, so a stronger start will be a priority. A big game with Syracuse kicks off the season and playing at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey will be a big draw for the players and fans in a big opening game.
Purdue Boilermakers: Despite back-to-back bowl trips, Purdue made major off-season changes and it could be a challenging first season for Darrell Hazell and his staff as the non-conference slate is extremely difficult, featuring three teams that won 10 or more games last season. Purdue does not have an easy Legends draw and will face very tough road games on the season. It looks like a challenging rebuilding season for Purdue with this schedule.
Legends Draw: Nebraska, Michigan State, and Iowa
Toughest Back-to-Back: There are several two-game stretches that will be very difficult and a late September run hosting Notre Dame and then playing at Wisconsin figures to be the toughest, especially for a team in transition early in the year. Playing Nebraska and Michigan State in back-to-back weeks in October will certainly be difficult as well.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: While games with Cincinnati and Notre Dame will rate highly for the team, a more important game may be a home homecoming date with Northern Illinois. That game follows up the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin and will be a big game for Coach Hazell, who left a MAC team to take this job and will not want to suffer a loss that would hurt the confidence of his fan base.
Wisconsin Badgers: The Badgers have been in the Rose Bowl three straight seasons, including being the Leaders division representative in the Big Ten Championship game each year of its existence. A coaching change and the loss of several prominent players will take a toll, but Wisconsin has a schedule conducive to another strong season with only five road games and likely the most favorable Legends draw in this division, missing Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska.
Legends Draw: Northwestern, Iowa, and Minnesota
Toughest Back-to-Back: There are perhaps more important games on the schedule, but a critical stretch will come to open up November with a big game at Iowa off a bye week and then facing a tricky non-conference game late in the season at home against BYU. Head Coach Andersen is certainly familiar with the Cougars and this will be a key game to avoid getting tripped up in between big conference games.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: The late season game with BYU will be important, but a Week 3 game at Arizona State will be telling as to how Wisconsin will fare this season. Last season, a highly-ranked Badgers team lost on the west coast at Oregon State in a game that changed the trajectory of the season and a loss in Tempe would be a big disappointment in the early stages of Coach Andersen’s tenure in Madison.