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Senior College Football Columnist

Big Ten preview: After all the drama, Wisconsin stands at center stage

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With Heisman finalist Montee Ball back, and a manageable schedule, Wisconsin is the favorite. (US Presswire)  
With Heisman finalist Montee Ball back, and a manageable schedule, Wisconsin is the favorite. (US Presswire)  

And now for something completely football in the Big Ten.

Wow, there's a switch. The league with the best network, the most fans and the oldest, richest bowl, just hasn't been able to stay away from round-the-clock drama this year. If it wasn't the Penn State penalties staining the conference's rep, it was the playoff discussion guided -– some say manipulated -- by the Big Ten world view.

That was in 2012's first seven months. There is a generation of grade schoolers growing up without knowledge of Wisconsin's starting quarterback. But they sure as heck know the machinations of the Big Ten commissioner, Jim Delany.

Bret Bielema intends to change that. The Wisconsin coach has tilted the league's base of power toward Madison. The Badgers are aiming for their third consecutive Rose Bowl with their third different quarterback.

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Grade schoolers take note of Danny O'Brien. For the second year in a row, Wisconsin's coach has scoured the waiver wire for the best man left on the board. More precisely, Bielema once again benefitted from an ACC quarterback taking advantage of the NCAA rule allows players with a degree to transfer without penalty to complete their eligibility.

Call Bielema John Calipari in reverse.

"It has really worked to our advantage," said Bielema, in his seventh year as AD Barry Alvarez's hand-picked successor. "It shows we put a premium on winning but on the same account we don't bring in bad kids. We bring in kids who are good for our system."

Two years ago, O'Brien was the ACC freshman of the year at Maryland. Last season was a nightmare. O'Brien lost the starting job, got injured and generally fell into disfavor with coach Randy Edsall.

He arrives in Big Ten country a much different player than his predecessor, Russell Wilson. He is taller (6-foot-3 vs. 6-0) and more stationary. Plus, Wisconsin can build around him -- O'Brien has two years of eligibility -- instead of Wilson who was one and done.

"Compared to Russell, I put him more in the category of Scotty Tolzien, a very accurate passer," Bielema said of the 73 percent passer who led the Badgers to the 2011 Rose Bowl, "Russell made some plays with his legs ... What Russell did here really opens some eyes as to what a quarterback can do if you add certain elements to his game. It's a neat thing to continue to explore."

New offensive coordinator Matt Canada seemingly can dabble all he wants. If you're worried about breaking in a new quarterback, tailback Montee Ball is the most talented safety net in the country. Ball dropped 25 pounds before accounting for 39 touchdowns while becoming the Big Ten offensive player of the year and a Heisman finalist.

Wilson, a North Carolina State transfer, led the conference in pass efficiency and set the school record for touchdown passes (33) in establishing Wisconsin as one of the more diverse offenses in the country. How many teams had a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,900-yard rusher? The answer, is 2007 at Rutgers with Ray Rice and Mike Teel.

Denard Robinson is back to try and lead Michigan to another BCS bowl. (US Presswire)  
Denard Robinson is back to try and lead Michigan to another BCS bowl. (US Presswire)  
"In Russell's view, he didn't come in here and need to be a miracle worker," Bielema said. "He just came in and was surrounded by a bunch of really good players."

That paid advertisement is brought to you by the school that has had a combined 11 players drafted the past two seasons. Hey, why not? We told you the balance of power was tilting toward Madison. Go with it.

The Badgers won't be as powerful on either side of the ball. (The defense finished first in conference yards allowed and turnovers forced.) But they won’t have to be. The Wisconsin culture seems to be everlasting -- recruit monster linemen on both sides of the ball, rinse, repeat.

And the league is coming back to them. Leaders Division rivals Ohio State and Penn State in ineligible for bowls. The Badgers could finish third in the division and still play in the Big Ten championship game. Wisconsin misses Michigan and gets Michigan State and Nebraska at home.

It's O'Brien's show. He endured his own drama when the quarterback was blocked by Edsall from transferring to Vanderbilt. The Maryland coach apparently never took a basic PR class. Note to Randy: After a 2-10 season, try to minimize the damage. Don't let the world question your judgment further by blocking a kid from going to Vandy.

"[Wisconsin] was the best situation for him without a doubt," Bielema said. "I think that was played out a little more in the media that it really, really, really actually was. I don't think Danny ever really considered fully Vandy. I think coaches tend to get a little paranoid. I really felt good about us all along."

Bielema got the final word about his next quarterback when O'Brien was on a visit to Penn State.

"You're going to see me on the Internet but don't worry about it, coach," O'Brien told Bielema.

He seemingly won't be the first player to leave State College. Drama. The Big Ten doesn't need any more of it.

Tom Fornelli's predicted order of finish:

Legends

1. Michigan: Brady Hoke was able to get things back on track awfully quick in his first season at Michigan, as the Wolverines finished the year with a Sugar Bowl victory against Virginia Tech. Now the Wolverines return 15 starters and look ready to take the next step: a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth.

2. Michigan State: The Legends Division will go through the state of Michigan once again this season, and the Spartans want to make sure they remain the only school to have a Legends Division title. It won't be easy, as the Spartans must replace Kirk Cousins and must play Michigan and Wisconsin on the road the last two Saturdays of October.

3. Nebraska: With a year of Big Ten play under its belt, Nebraska should be a lot more comfortable this season. Returning 16 starters won't hurt, either, but if Nebraska wants to get to a Big Ten title game it'll have to get through road games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa to do so. Not to mention opening conference play against Wisconsin for a second consecutive season, though at least this time Wisconsin comes to Lincoln.

4. Iowa: The chances of Iowa struggling this season are greater than in previous seasons. Not only do the Hawkeyes have new coordinators on both sides of the ball for the first time under Kirk Ferentz, but they also have to replace three starters on both the offensive and defensive lines. However, given this team's consistent history, we're still putting them in fourth in the Legends Division.

5. Northwestern: Northwestern catches a bit of a break in its schedule this season. Its cross-divisional games are against Illinois, Indiana and Penn State, which could help the Wildcats pick up another conference win or two and surprise people this season. The key will be how a defense that returns only five starters can perform. Of course, considering how Northwestern's defense performed last year, only having five starters return may not be a bad thing.

6. Minnesota: Odds are Minnesota won't be returning to its first bowl game since the 2009 Insight Bowl this year. It's only Jerry Kill's second season at Minnesota, and there's still a lot of work left to be done. If MarQueis Gray can improve as a quarterback, though, it may speed up the process.

Leaders

1. Wisconsin: Even without the postseason bans at both Ohio State and Penn State the Badgers would be the clear cut favorite in the Leaders Division. With winnable road games against Nebraska, Purdue, Indiana and Penn State, it's possible that Wisconsin could not only compete for a Big Ten championship, but a national title as well.

2. Ohio State: Urban Meyer isn't in a terrible position his first year in Columbus. With the postseason ban in play he can focus more on implementing his system at Ohio State than results on the field. Sure, fans will want wins, and Ohio State has the talent to get them, but there's not exactly a lot of pressure on anybody this season.

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3. Penn State: Given the NCAA sanctions against Penn State it's not exactly easy to predict how this team is going to do until we know for sure who is staying and who is going. There's also the fact that a whole new coaching staff is now in place. Should the right players stay, this team still has enough talent to win Big Ten games this season.

4. Purdue: Of the "darkhorse" teams in the Leaders Division, Purdue may be the one best positioned to surprise people in 2012. The Boilermakers return 15 starters from a team that won three of its final four games last season, including a win over Ohio State. Purdue also catches a break by getting Michigan and Wisconsin at home this year, and if Purdue can spring off an upset somewhere along the way all hell might break loose in this division.

5. Illinois: Illinois has talent. Ron Zook may not have been the best at utilizing that talent, but it's there, and now we'll see what Tim Beckman can do with it. Odds are that the offense will hit a few bumps in the road as it adjusts, but a defense that was one of the best in the country last season and returns seven starters this year could cover for it. Like Purdue, Illinois is a team that could take advantage of unusual circumstances in the Big Ten this season and surprise people.

6. Indiana: The good news for Indiana is that the Hoosiers return 15 starters from last year's team. The bad news for Indiana is that last year's team didn't win a single conference game. The Hoosiers do catch a break in that they get to play Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin in Bloomington this season, but I'm not sure they have the fire power needed to pull off the upsets needed to get back to a bowl game this year.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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