Who Will Win the Big Ten Legends Division?
Big Ten Football Championship Trophy
In 2012, the Big Ten Legends Division had three teams vying for a chance to play in the Big Ten Championship game, with Nebraska eventually earning the spot over Michigan and Northwestern with a 7-1 conference record. The Cornhuskers went on to get annihilated in the championship game by Wisconsin, 70-31, leaving the Legends Division winless in the two championship games since the realignment.
The 2013 season should be intriguing as teams will be replacing key contributors such as Denard Robinson, LeVeon Bell and Rex Burkhead. Plenty of talent returns, however, in All-Big Ten quarterback Taylor Martinez, exciting Northwestern duo Kain Colter and Venric Mark, and Devin Gardner who showed glimpses of stardom in his five starts last season. Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern will all be strong contenders once again with Michigan State expected to join the fray after a disappointing 2012 season.
A lot of factors will contribute to winning the division. Among those are schedules, returning talent, injuries and breakout players. Michigan State has the biggest advantage when it comes to the softness of schedule as they avoid Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. And while the Spartans possess the best overall unit in their defense, the best overall talent in terms of balance on both sides of the ball belongs to the Wolverines, who also have the player most likely to breakout and become a household name in Devin Gardner. Nebraska has the best overall returning player in Taylor Martinez who will continue to rewrite the record books at Nebraska. Northwestern also returns the key parts of their dynamic two quarterback offense as well as a stout defense.
It will be an exciting season from start to finish as there won’t be a definitive favorite which should make for exciting games and lots of storylines. After the dust settles, here’s how I see the Legends Division playing out.
Mitchell Weiss is a Big Ten Football writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Mitchell_JWeiss, “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.
The Iowa Hawkeyes are coming off a 2012 in which they went 4-8 (2-6) and missed going to a bowl for the first time since the 2008 season. They will be replacing quarterback James Vandenberg, center James Ferentz and defensive back Micah Hyde, among others and appear to be in rebuilding mode. They face a tough schedule in 2013 as they play on the road against Ohio State, Purdue and Nebraska and will host Michigan and Michigan State. Iowa should once again finish in last place in the division but will not be a pushover under long tenured coach Kirk Ferentz.
Predicted 2013 record: 4-8 (1-7)
Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Minnesota Golden Gophers are coming off their first bowl appearance under coach Jerry Kill. Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson is expected to step up and be the man after an up and down freshman season in which he started the final seven games. Running back Donnell Kirkwood also returns after nearly eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark in 2012. The schedule is daunting in 2013 as the Gophers will travel to Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State and will welcome Nebraska, Penn State, and Wisconsin to Minneapolis. The Golden Gophers will be talented, but their schedule will be hard for them to overcome.
Predicted 2013 record: 6-6 (2-6)
The Northwestern Wildcats had a very successful season in 2012 as they won 10 games and defeated Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl for their first bowl victory in 63 years. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald is building a solid program in Evanston, and they return a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Wildcats bring back their quarterback tandem of Kain Colter, who is the running threat, and Trevor Siemian, who leads the aerial assault. Star running back Venric Mark also returns after posting nearly 1,400 yards last season. On defense they return leading tackler Damien Proby, defensive lineman Tyler Scott who posted nice sacks in 2012 and All-Freshman defensive back Nick VanHoose who tied for the team lead with three interceptions last season. Their schedule will be tough, but they will benefit from playing Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State at home.
Predicted 2013 record: 8-4 (4-4)
Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State was one of the more disappointing teams in 2012, and they lost some key players to the NFL in LeVeon Bell, Dion Sims, and William Gholston. Their defense will be among the nation's best once again in 2013 as they return tons of talent and experience. The offense, however, leaves a lot to be desired, and with the departure of the aforementioned Bell and Sims, they will struggle to score points this season. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell returns for his senior season, but he had the worst passer efficiency in the Big Ten in 2012 and will be pushed by Connor Cook who saw snaps in the Spartans' bowl game. They also don’t have a running back on the roster that the coaching staff feels comfortable with which was evidenced when Riley Bullough switched from linebacker to the offensive backfield during spring practice. Luckily for the Spartans their defense will keep them in every game and they have the easiest schedule among the Legends Division teams. They play at Nebraska and Northwestern and will play rival Michigan at home.
Predicted 2013 record: 8-4 (5-3)
Nebraska will look to repeat as Legends Division champion in 2013. Their offense will be one of the best in the country as they return their leading passer, rusher, and receiver. Taylor Martinez comes back looking to improve on his All-Big Ten season of a year ago while fellow 1,000 yard rusher Ameer Abdullah returns as the main weapon at running back. Wide receiver Kenny Bell will likely eclipse the 1,000 yard receiving mark as he came close in 2012. On defense the Cornhuskers return lots of experience at every level and should rank near the top of the conference. Their schedule is favorable, but they face a four game gauntlet as they’ll host Northwestern, travel to Michigan, come back home to play Michigan State and play at Penn State.
Predicted 2013 record: 10-2 (6-2)
The Michigan Wolverines endured one of the toughest schedules in the country in 2012 and finished a game back of Nebraska for the Legends Division crown. If it wasn’t for Denard Robinson's elbow injury in the game against the Cornhuskers they may have represented the division in the championship game. The silver lining in the injury, however, was the emergence of Devin Gardner. Gardner will return for his junior season and with a full offseason as the starting quarterback, should emerge as one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten and garner national attention. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint will also return and hope to regain his form from the 2011 season in which he rushed for 1,000 yards. He will be pushed by incoming freshman Derrick Green who was rated as the #1 running back prospect in the class by many recruiting experts. Leading receiver Jeremy Gallon also returns and he really emerged as the #1 target once Gardner took over. On defense, the Wolverines will be without star linebacker Jake Ryan who tore his ACL prior to spring practice, but there is hope he can return in October. Michigan will welcome back sophomore cornerback Blake Countess who suffered his own ACL injury last season in the first quarter of the Wolverines' opening game against Alabama. The schedule will be tough in 2013, but Michigan will benefit from playing at home against Ohio State and Nebraska. They will, however, have to play on the road against Penn State, Michigan State and Northwestern.
Predicted 2013 record: 10-2 (6-2)
The Wolverines will emerge as the champion of the Legends Division as their head to head win over Nebraska will break the tie.