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.