It's been a tumultuous couple of years up in Big Ten country.
From the disastrous Rich Rodriguez era at Michigan to the fall of Jim Tressel at Ohio State to the stunning developments at Penn State, it's hard to recall a time when the Big Ten has seen so much turmoil at some of its proudest and most successful programs.
Along with the conference's ongoing inability to compete with the rival SEC, these trials and tribulations have not done much to bolster the league's standing nationwide.
But this is still the Big Ten, home of some of the most passionate college football fans in the nation, and with the arrival of some exciting new coaches, there is some hope once more than the league (and its top programs) to regain their status among the national elite.
Here, we ask (and answer) three questions about the Big Ten as we head into the 2012 season.
How much difference will Urban Meyer make in Year One at Ohio State?
My guess? A massive difference. I've said it before, but in some bizarre way, Ohio State has actually emerged (well, almost emerged) from its NCAA penalties even stronger than it was before those penalties came down. Yes, Jim Tressel was a phenomenal coach; indeed, a case can be made that he was the best coach in Buckeye history. He won the national championship, dominated the Big Ten like no coach in modern history and basically made it impossible for any other Big Ten program to recruit well enough to make the jump up to his program's level. He was, unquestionably, one of the top three or four coaches in the country, so when the NCAA hammer came down and Tressel got the boot, it was really quite easy to foresee a new Big Ten reality in which the Buckeyes would cede their status as annual frontrunner. And then? Well, then the Buckeyes went out and hired one of maybe two guys in the country who could be said to be an even better coach than Tressel. Urban Meyer arrived in Columbus with an astonishing record of success and the kind of cred that simply can't be found outside that exclusive club of coaches who have won, you know, multiple national titles. So even though Ohio State still hasn't escaped its NCAA probation hell and even though Wisconsin has exerted itself as a force in the new-look Big Ten, I find it all but impossible to conclude that Meyer will, in very short order, have the Buckeyes firing on all cylinders. Expect to see a rejuvenated Buckeye team this year, and a national title contender by next year.
Is Michigan legit? As in Top 10 legit?
When I rolled out my preseason Top 25 rankings way back in the spring, I took some heat for placing the Wolverines at No. 4. A lot of heat, actually. Which is understandable in a way, given how far the program fell in the later years of Lloyd Carr and the disaster that was the Rich Rodriguez era. But at the same time, I can't help but wonder what all of those Michigan critics were watching last year. Because if their eyes were open, they would have seen quite clearly just how much the program had improved, in just one year, under the guidance of the very underrated Brady Hoke. I mean, think about this, folks: The Wolverines went 7-6 and could barely stop anybody in 2010, the last year of Rodriguez's reign. Last season, basically that same Michigan team catapulted themselves to an 11-2 mark. And while much of their success can be attributed to the continued evolution of Denard Robinson, perhaps the most exciting player in the country, a great deal of it must also be pinned on the vastly improved defense, a unit that was a perpetual failure under Rodriguez. While Hoke is a great X's and O's coach, perhaps his greatest achievement last season was simply getting Michigan to play (and hit) like Michigan again. One can only assume that the progress will continue here in Year 2 of his tenure, and with Robinson running the show, the Wolverines will certainly put up some serious points. Though many seem to believe Wisconsin will again win the Big Ten (even though they'll be without Russell Wilson, their best player last season), I'm sticking with the Wolverines. And yeah, I really do believe they are the fourth-best team in the country.
So, what about Penn State?
Much has been written and said about Penn State over the past nine months or so. Perhaps too much. The Nittany Lions, for all the wrong reasons, have dominated the national conversation since late last fall, when those devastating revelations about Jerry Sandusky--and the university's handling of Jerry Sandusky--led to the near immediate firing of Joe Paterno and the near complete derailment of one of the most successful programs in college football history. But now here we are, on the cusp of the 2012 season, and finally, it seems, Penn Staters and non-Penn Staters alike can start talking about Penn State football again--the actual on-the-field stuff, I mean. It's very refreshing, and for Penn State Nation, very badly needed. But as for the football they'll be watching this year? Well, they ought to prepare themselves for some struggles. Before the sanctions came down and before the likes of Silas Redd and Justin Brown transferred, I had the Nits pegged as a Top 25 team--a squad that could win nine and maybe even ten games. But now? Well, anything north of .500 ought to be considered a major victory for new coach Bill O'Brien and his staff. While the Nittany Lions aren't completely devoid of top-level talent--linebacker Gerald Hodges is among the best in the Big Ten, as is defensive tackle Jordan Hill--they are scary thin at tailback, scary thing at wideout and scary thin at defensive back, where they are one or two injuries away from playing with borderline walk-on quality talent. My advice for Penn State fans? Just enjoy the football for the football. The success will come eventually. But it won't come anytime soon.