1. FOUR-TEAM RACE
The Leaders Division probably will turn into a two-team race between Ohio State and Wisconsin. They meet Sept. 28. The Legends Division could be a four-team scrum between Nebraska, Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State. Michigan narrowly edged Nebraska as the division favorite in a preseason poll of 28 Big Ten writers.
2. KEY MATCHUPS
There are six key matchups: Nov. 2 — Michigan at Michigan State, Northwestern at Nebraska; Nov. 9 — Nebraska at Michigan; Nov. 16 — Northwestern at Michigan, Michigan State at Nebraska; No. 23 — Michigan State at Northwestern.
3. NORTHWESTERN, REALLY?
Even after returning most of the firepower from last year’s 10-3 squad, Northwestern was picked to finished fourth in the media poll. But hard-fought losses against Nebraska (29-28) and Michigan (38-31) and a victory over Michigan State (23-20) last year proved the Wildcats can compete.
4. TIME TO REBOUND
Michigan State won the Legends Division in 2011. The Spartans have enough talent on defense to stay in every game, and once they pick a quarterback, that player could gain confidence from this inviting October schedule: at Iowa, Indiana, Purdue, at Illinois.
5. GOOD RIDDANCE
The Leaders and Legends Divisions are going away after this season, as the Big Ten splits into East and West. The Gophers will be in the West with Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Purdue. The East will have Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, along with Indiana, Rutgers and Maryland.
A LOOK AT THE LEGENDS
In predicted order of finish by Star Tribune college football writer Joe Christensen
Coach: Bo Pelini, 49-20 in five seasons, sixth year at Nebraska.
2012: 10-4 (7-1 Big Ten), lost to Wisconsin 70-31 in Big Ten Championship Game, lost to Georgia 45-31 in Capital One Bowl.
Returning starters: Seven offense, four defense.
Key player: Nebraska’s run defense ranked 90th in the nation last year, but the pass defense actually ranked fourth, led by senior nickel back Ciante Evans.
Outlook: With five home games to start the season, followed by road games at Purdue and Minnesota, Nebraska has a chance to build serious momentum, especially if it can handle UCLA at home on Sept. 14. Pelini was a defensive coordinator before becoming the head coach so fixing that unit should be his specialty. Nebraska has won at least nine games each year under Pelini, but Cornhuskers fans demand more.
Coach: Brady Hoke, 66-57 overall in 10 seasons; third year at Michigan.
2012: 8-5 (6-2 Big Ten), lost to South Carolina 33-28 in Outback Bowl.
Returning starters: Five offense, five defense.
Key player: Left tackle Taylor Lewan was a projected top-15 NFL draft pick, and his return bolstered a line that lost its starting center and both guards to graduation.
Outlook: With the Denard Robinson era over, the Wolverines are returning to more of a pro-style offense with quarterback Devin Gardner, who showed big potential in five starts last year. Michigan also will unveil the nation’s top running back recruit, Derrick Green. The team’s leading tackler last season, linebacker Jake Ryan, tore an ACL in his knee during spring practice but is determined to return by mid-October.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 50-39 overall in seven seasons; eighth year at Northwestern.
2012: 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten).
Returning starters: Eight offense, seven defense.
Key player: Senior running back Venric Mark rushed for 1,371 yards last year and was an All-America punt returner, too.
Outlook: The Wildcats return most key weapons from a team that lost three games by a combined 19 points last season. Northwestern’s schedule is tougher, starting with crossover games against Wisconsin and Ohio State from the Leaders Division. But the Wildcats present all kinds of matchup problems of their own, with Mark and two quality quarterback options in Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. There are playmakers on defense, too, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell and defensive end Tyler Scott.
Coach: Mark Dantonio, 69-45 overall in nine seasons, seventh year at Michigan State.
2012: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten), defeated TCU 17-16 in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Returning starters: Nine offense, seven defense.
Key player: Linebacker Max Bullough is the heart and soul of a defense that ranked in the top 10 nationally last year.
Outlook: Coming off two 11-win seasons, Michigan State sputtered last year when its final five losses came by a combined 13 points. The defense should be superb again, but a struggling offense has to replace 1,700-yard rusher Le’Veon Bell, who left early for the NFL. Dantonio kept the heat on senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell all offseason and declared that position a four-man battle during training camp with the starter TBA.
Coach: Jerry Kill, 136-89 overall in 19 seasons; third year at Minnesota.
2012: 6-7 (2-6 Big Ten), lost to Texas Tech 34-31 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Returning starters: Nine offense, seven defense
Key player: Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman has a chance to be a top-50 NFL draft pick, and opposing offenses will have to game-plan around him.
Outlook: The Gophers are counting on two junior college transfers — Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell — to fill holes at linebacker. The offense returns largely intact, but it’s still a young group, with just one senior expected to start (wide receiver Derrick Engel). Philip Nelson returns to quarterback after starting seven games as a true freshman, but the team will rely on the run.
Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 112-95 overall in 17 seasons; 15th year at Iowa.
2012: 4-8 (2-6 Big Ten).
Returning starters: Six offense, eight defense.
Key player: Offensive tackle Brandon Scherff is back from a leg injury that derailed his season last year, and this unit as a whole is looking forward to better health.
Outlook: Iowa’s win totals the past four years have been 11, eight, seven and four. The Hawkeyes get an immediate test again, hosting Northern Illinois in Saturday’s opener .