Best – and worst - of the Big Ten

This week, Illinois and the rest of the Big Ten schools hit the football field. The Big Ten has a national title contender, a Heisman candidate and a whole bunch of teams pointing toward the postseason. College football writer Bob Asmussen gives you a look at what lies ahead. And ranks the conference up, down and sideways.

Teams

1. Ohio State. Just a hunch the Buckeyes will play for the national championship, probably against two-time defending king Alabama. Or Oregon. Or Stanford. Or Georgia.

2. Michigan. We were just a year off with the Wolverines. This is the year they get serious. Brady Hoke is the next Bo ... Schembechler, not Pelini.

3. Northwestern. The world has been flipped upside down. The Wildcats are the Midwest version of “Revenge of the Nerds.” The Fighting Fitzes are looking for back-to-back bowl wins. Wow.

4. Wisconsin. The new guy, Gary Andersen, is different from Bret Bielema. But don’t count out a team that is loaded with talent, especially at running back. The Badgers know how to win. It is in their genes.

5. Nebraska. Plenty is expected in Lincoln. Maybe at an unreasonable level. Nine-win seasons don’t cut it. The blowout loss in the Big Ten title game has the fans seething.

6. Michigan State. Mark Dantonio lost close games last year that cost him a bigger bowl. Time to play on Jan. 1. A lot depends on production at quarterback, which has been a problem. But the defense figures to be stout (Loren Tate term.)

7. Penn State. Bill O’Brien pulled off a miracle last year. We will see if he can keep winning without the lure of the postseason. And the talent is starting to dry up.

8. Minnesota. Jerry Kill still has the weather advantage. Mr. Turnaround is actually ahead of schedule.

9. Indiana. One of these days, the Hoosiers are going to figure out this football thing. Until then, there is basketball. And baseball.

10. Iowa. Once upon a time, Kirk Ferentz was a hot commodity (farm term.) Not now.

11. Illinois. The pressure is on second-year coach Tim Beckman. Health/depth are the major concerns.

12. Purdue. Picking Rob Henry as the starting quarterback doesn’t spark a lot of confidence.

Offensive MVP

1. Braxton Miller, Ohio State. The Heisman front-runner gets it done with his arm and legs. As a bonus, he is a leader. And he behaves himself off the field, a lesson lost on Johnny Manziel.

2. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska. The quarterback has improved dramatically during his four years. An early enigma, he has taken pride in his job. Ignore the odd throwing motion. It works.

3. Taylor Lewan, Michigan. It is the Year of the Taylor in the Big Ten. The road grader will open endless holes for the Michigan backs.

Defensive MVP

1. Chris Borland, Wisconsin. All the linebacker does is tackle everybody. That’s his job. A star from the start.

2. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State. The linebacker will get some of the runover pub from Miller. The Buckeyes can’t win the title unless he has a big season.

3. Noah Spence, Ohio State. Expect him to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. Big Ten OCs know his name.

Special teams MVP

1. Jeff Budzien, Northwestern. Kicker is the key to winning close games. As clutch as LeBron James in the Finals.

2. Cody Webster, Purdue. When the offense bogs down, and it will, the punter will get the Boilers out of trouble.

3. Dennis Norfleet, Michigan. Another in a long line of dynamic returners in Ann Arbor (see Woodson, Charles).

Best coaches

1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State. The Nick Saban of the North. Great at every stop. If you can win in Utah, you can win anywhere.

2. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern. Doesn’t worry about admissions standards. Maybe the best coach in school history. And that is a good list. Hope he is a lifer.

3. Brady Hoke, Michigan. The old line coach loves his school, loves his job and loves being in charge in Ann Arbor. Old-school style appeals to recruits.

Best coordinators

1. Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State. Someday soon he is running his own program. Was mentioned as a possibility at Illinois. The people who really know football love his work.

2. Luke Fickell, Ohio State. The defensive coordinator got a one-year tryout as Jim Tressel’s replacement. He is ripe for a full-time gig. He should be high on several schools’ must-hire lists, both for his recruiting ability and knowledge.

3. Bill Cubit, Illinois. Adds stability to a place that is desperate for it. Watch how much the offense improves with him in charge.

Best freshmen

1. Derrick Green, Michigan. The running back fills a need after a standout prep career.

2. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State. Quarterback should play right away for Bill O’Brien, who will often say, “I coached Tom Brady.” We will see how Brady-like the tall guy really is.

3. Jalin Marshall, Ohio State. Receiver isn’t the biggest in the country, but he has the skill set to help Miller and the offense. A key target.

Most improved

1. Devin Gardner, Michigan. No pressure, all he has to do is replace Denard Robinson. Last year’s playing time should help.

2. Philip Nelson, Minnesota. Forced on the field last year, the quarterback now has all of Jerry Kill’s expertise working for him. He is a good fit.

3. David Santos, Nebraska. Team needs major help on defense, and the linebacker could be a key. Coming off a solid season, he can cover and tackle.

Comeback Player of the Year

1. Jordan Hall, Ohio State. The tiny receiver is back after playing in three games last season. He will help the Buckeyes on offense and special teams. Time for some good luck after a cut on his foot cost him time.

2. Fou Fonoti, Michigan State. The offensive lineman was missed after suffering an early injury. He gives the offense a chance to make needed improvement.

3. Corey Lewis, Illinois. Applaud the offensive lineman for continuing to fight back after years of injuries. An inspiration to others.

Best nonconference games

1. Notre Dame at Michigan, Sept. 7. It is always a big-timer when the Irish visit Ann Arbor. Remember the game two years ago. Humdinger.

2. UCLA at Nebraska, Sept. 14. A long, long time ago, before you were born, the Bruins knocked off two-time defending national champ Nebraska. Pelini seeks revenge. Sort of.

3. Wisconsin at Arizona State, Sept. 14. Huge test for the new-look Badgers. Gary Andersen will try to do what Illinois wasn’t able to do: win in Tempe.

Best conference games

1. Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 30. Nothing the Wolverines would like better than to ruin Ohio State’s perfect season. One of the best rivalries in sports (sorry, Yankees-Red Sox and Lakers-Celtics.)

2. Ohio State at Northwestern, Oct. 5. Should be the most difficult game of the year for the Buckeyes. And the Wildcats will bring their own fans.

3. Wisconsin at Ohio State, Sept. 28. Two of the top contenders in the league. Ohio State is going to want to show that last year was no fluke.

Best new things

1. Indiana helmets. There are five different versions, including a candy-stripe model. The Hoosiers will change helmets for their home games.

2. More seats in Lincoln. The third-largest “city” in the state on game day has increased capacity by 6,000. Eventually, the building might hold the entire population of Nebraska. The extra fans will see Nebraska in black for the first time when the Huskers host UCLA.

3. Performance center at Wisconsin. The $77 million building at the north end of the stadium should make the Badgers bigger, faster and stronger.

Best mascots

1. Bucky Badger. Enjoys fake fights with the other mascots. We assume he likes the beer.

2. Brutus. He’s got all those wins. And the Buckeye stickers are the envy of the rest. Mr. Met lookalike can probably sneak into MLB parks.

3. Goldy. Carl Spackler is not a fan.

Best tailgating scenes

1. Penn State. It takes so long to get there that the fans make sure to get their money’s worth. Even post-Paterno, it remains vibrant.

2. Iowa. Of course, the No. 1 party school knows how to have fun on game days.

3. Nebraska. Fans are spread across town, but they make it work. And Valentino’s Pizza, a Lincoln staple, is available nearby.

Best stadiums

1. Ohio Stadium. Just a huge place that might be the best in the country. Illinois had a blast there in 2007.

2. Nebraska. The building has been sold out since Loren Tate wore short pants. Somewhere, Tom Osborne is smiling.

3. Illinois. The new scoreboards add plenty to a setup with best views and parking anywhere.

Best uniforms

1. Michigan. Stick with the classics. The helmets pull it together. Never change.

2. Ohio State. The color scheme is unusual and makes the players look bigger than they actually are.

3. Michigan State. Great helmet. Perfect shade of green.

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