Listed in predicted order of finish by Star Tribune college football writer Phil Miller
Coach: Mark Dantonio, 62-39 overall in eight years; 44-22 in five years at MSU
2011: 11-3 (7-1 in Big Ten), lost 42-39 to Wisconsin in Big Ten Championship Game, defeated Georgia 33-30 (3OT) in Outback Bowl
Returning starters: Five offense, eight defense
Most Important Player: Defensive end William Gholston is big, fast and aggressive, and personifies what should be the Big Ten's most ferocious defense.
Outlook: The Spartans' grind-it-out style, emphasizing punishing defense and running the ball, might not be pretty, but there's no arguing with the results. This might be the Spartans' year, depending upon how quickly quarterback Andrew Maxwell learns his just-don't-kill-us role. Dantonio has raised Michigan State to elite status; can the Spartans stay there?
Coach: Brady Hoke, 58-52 overall in nine years; 11-2 in one year at Michigan
2011: 11-2 (6-2 Big Ten), defeated Virginia Tech 23-20 (OT) in Sugar Bowl
Returning starters: Six offense, seven defense
Most Important Player: Hoke managed to harness Denard Robinson's habit of running; now he needs to cut down on his habit of throwing interceptions, 15 last year.
Outlook: Hoke's first year in Ann Arbor was such an enormous success, expectations might be outstripping the talent level -- for now. But given his recruiting haul, there is little doubt that the Wolverines' title drought -- they haven't finished atop the Big Ten since 2004 -- will end soon. The league's toughest schedule, starting with Alabama in the opener, might be too much, even for the Big Ten's most electrifying Shoelace.
Coach: Bo Pelini, 39-16 in four years, all at Nebraska
2011: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten), lost 30-13 to South Carolina in Capital One Bowl
Returning starters: Eight offense, seven defense
Most Important Player: Rex Burkhead is listed as an I-back, but he does far more than run the ball. He's a superb blocker, pass-catcher, and even can quarterback the Wildcat offense.
Outlook: Yeah, the Big Ten was a little tougher than the Huskers thought, particularly stopping those offenses. Nebraska should score plenty, even though nobody in Lincoln seems to have much faith in quarterback Taylor Martinez. But saying goodbye to Lavonte David, Alfonzo Dennard and Jared Crick on defense means improvement in a below-average defense is no given.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 40-36 in six years, all at Northwestern
2011: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten), lost 33-22 to Texas A&M in Meineke Car Care Bowl
Returning starters: Five offense, seven defense
Most Important Player: Ibraheim Campbell made 100 tackles at safety last year, and now is the lone veteran in a rebuilt secondary.
Outlook: The Wildcats' record has declined by one victory in each of the past three seasons, but Kain Colter throwing to what might be the conference's deepest receiving corps appears poised to interrupt that trend. It's clear that Fitzgerald has raised the talent level of his program, but the defense surrenders too many big plays -- and gave up 30 or more points in five consecutive games last year -- to take the Wildcats seriously as a top-of-the-standings contender.
Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 108-87 overall in 16 years; 96-66 in 13 years at Iowa
2011: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten), lost 31-14 to Oklahoma in Insight Bowl
Returning starters: Six offense, five defense
Most Important Player: He doesn't get the acclaim of some other Big Ten quarterbacks, but James Vandenberg quietly piled up 232.5 passing yards per game last year, third most in the conference.
Outlook: Two new coordinators for the first time in a generation have brought new energy to Iowa City. But changes take time, and a defense that was picked apart unmercifully by opposing quarterbacks last year needs an overhaul. The Hawkeyes should be dangerous with the ball, but they appear destined to lose some high-scoring games.
Coach: Jerry Kill, 130-82 overall in 18 years; 3-9 in one year at Minnesota
2011: 3-9 (2-6 Big Ten)
Returning starters: Seven offense, six defense
Most Important Player: MarQueis Gray is undoubtedly Minnesota's biggest offensive weapon, but the Gophers need him to power the offense with his arm this year, not his legs.
Outlook: The roster still teems with underclassmen, and the Gophers lost their leading receiver, their best rushing tailback, and their top two tacklers. Yet there is far more optimism about a breakthrough than a year ago. If Gray's apparent improvement as a passer is real, they could surprise a few opponents. And with a cushy nonconference schedule, a bowl game isn't out of the question.