1. Ohio State (6-2, 10-2) - The Buckeyes are ineligible for the postseason, so Wisconsin is virtually assured of a berth in the Big Ten title game. But HC Urban Meyer inherits an excellent situation and OSU will be solid this season. The postseason ban provides OSU an extra edge in the regular season, so the Buckeyes get the nod over Wisconsin.
2. Wisconsin (5-3, 9-3) - Without amazing QB Russell Wilson and three departed stud OLs, the Badgers back up in 2012. The offense won't simply steamroll everyone this year. LBs Chris Borland and Mike Taylor are elite, but the rest of the defense is mediocre. Noncon schedule should be four wins, though Sept. 8 trip to Oregon State could be tricky.
3. Penn State (4-4, 7-5) - The Nittany Lions obviously have extraordinary circumstances that make it more difficult to project their season. Count us as optimistic due to defensive talent and belief in new HC Bill O'Brien. Like 2011, expect a lot of close games, but a few more might go against the Lions. Should be a three-way race for third place in the division.
4. Illinois (3-5, 6-6) - The Illini have a few very good players and a lot of returning starters, but like PSU they have a new coach/staff, and let's just say we're not as high on HC Tim Beckman's skill set and karma as we are O'Brien's. The Illini get Purdue at home so they get the nod over the 'Boilers.
4. Purdue (3-5, 6-6) - A trendy pick for big improvement, but we're stuck in believe-it-when-we-see-it mode with the Boilermakers, who have lost between 5-8 games for eight straight years. DT Kawann Short is a league defensive player of the year candidate, and there is decent talent on both sides of the ball. Now or never for HC Danny Hope?
6. Indiana (1-7, 3-9) - The Hoosiers should be improved in HC Kevin Wilson's second season, and if they had PSU, Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern at home, this projection might be better. But they play all of those mediocre teams on the road and could lose them all. IU is 13-67 in Big Ten play the past 10 years.
1. Michigan State (7-1, 11-1) - If new QB Andrew Maxwell can limit turnovers, and if the new WRs are capable, then this is the Year of Sparty. A program famous for underachieving is on the verge of a breakthrough under HC Mark Dantonio thanks to stellar defense. Late Oct. stretch at Michigan, at Wisconsin, vs. Nebraska is telltale. Tricky opener vs. Boise St.
2. Nebraska (5-3, 9-3) - QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead are unconventional but extremely effective, and HC Bo Pelini will cobble together another tough 'Husker defense despite loss of tackling machine Lavonte David. A better turnover margin will help as NU was -1 last season. and still went 9-4. Noncon includes trip to UCLA.
2. Michigan (5-3, 8-4) - Electric QB Denard Robinson is back for an encore, but it was the amazing defensive turnaround under DC Greg Mattison that sparked the 11-2 2011 season after the awful RichRod era. Opener vs. 'Bama and at ND highlight noncon schedule. Nebraska will avenge 2011 rout with win in Lincoln, so 'Huskers get nod for second over UM.
4. Northwestern (4-4, 7-5) - HC Pat Fitzgerald has been solid, but the former Wildcats star LB's defenses have been weak the past two seasons. The D is largely rebuilt in 2012, and maybe that's a good thing. Ultra-versatile QB Kain Colter is fun to watch. Avoiding Wisconsin and Ohio St., plus home game v. Iowa, lifts 'Cats higher than they might deserve.
4. Iowa (4-4, 8-4) - Like Wisconsin, Iowa does a lot of its best work when expectations are modest. With a solid veteran QB in James Vandenberg, the Hawkeyes should be able to scare the division favorites. The schedule sets up very favorably as Iowa avoids Ohio St. and Wisconsin, and gets noncon state rival Iowa State at home.
6. Minnesota (1-7, 4-8) - Touted 245-pound beast QB MarQueis Gray will make Minnesota interesting, and everyone likes second-year HC Jerry Kill and thinks he could turn the Gophers around. Not yet, that's for sure. Just not enough talent to compete week in and week out. Kill is mining Jucos and could make a breakthrough - next year
Championship game: Michigan State over Wisconsin.
College football 2012 Top 25
(projections are for the regular season)
- Alabama - Even if Michigan QB Denard Robinson shreds the rebuilt Tide defense in Week 1, ‘Bama can bounce back and make it to the SEC and BCS title games. The biggest obstacles clearly are at Arkansas, at LSU and vs. Auburn.
- Oklahoma - Veteran QB Landry Jones’ legacy hangs in the balance this season. Some questions on defense but an all-around very good team with mega-experience at QB. Toughest games: Texas, vs. Kansas St., vs. ND, at W. Virginia and at TCU.
- Oregon - HC Chip Kelly might be prickly, but his fast-faster-fastest system works like magic. Defenses simply can’t prepare for it in one week. New QB Marcus Mariota is the key in 2012. Ducks should be unbeaten heading into tough November.
- Georgia - 12 months ago HC Mark Richt was on the hot seat. The emergence of an abundance of defensive talent, plus veteran QB Aaron Murray with some good weapons, has changed things quickly. 2012 all hinges on young, rebuilt OL.
- Michigan State - The Spartans made a breakthrough the past two seasons under Mark Dantonio, winning 22 games. Plays at Michigan, at Wisconsin and vs. Nebraska back-to-back-to-back in late Oct., but new QB Andrew Maxwell should be OK by then.
- Texas - After a shocking stumble from the elite in 2010, Texas is working its way back toward the top. Very manageable schedule - W Virginia and TCU both at home, but with a dicey finale at Kansas St., which has had UT’s number.
- USC - Monte Kiffin’s defenses have been less than stellar at USC, and Lane Kiffin has been mediocre as a head coach. Those two factors will cost USC a couple of times. But the skill positions are ungodly good. Hosts Oregon on Nov. 3.
- Virginia Tech - Isn’t this where they always finish? QB Logan Thomas is a unique talent capable of huge games, and mediocre ones. The defense of course will be good, OL has questions. Hosts FSU on Thur. Nov. 8, they will play again for ACC title.
- LSU - The loss of Tyrann Mathieu will hurt, regardless of what anyone says. He was spectacular last season. Can new QB Zach Mettenberger vastly upgrade the offense? Plays at Florida, hosts ‘Bama on Nov. 3, closes Fri. Nov. 23 at Arkansas.
- Florida State - The great perennial underachievers, FSU is way overrated every season. Walkover early schedule gives OL time to improve. Similar to Georgia: talented veteran QB (E.J. Manuel), some playmakers and lots of defensive talent.
- Ohio State - Urban Meyer inherits a great situation, with modest expectations by Ohio State standards but plenty of talent including a Meyer-made QB in Braxton Miller. Easy noncon schedule should get the confidence rolling but could start 0-2 in Big Ten.
- Kansas State - Bill Snyder is a weird old guy, who built (twice!) a winning football program at a school with no business with a winning football program. Tebow-esque QB Collin Klein is back to dish out more punishment. The OL and DL have questions.
- Florida - Until the QB position solidifies, the Gators will rank behind the best teams in the SEC. But UF plays very good defense so the Gators should be competitive despite playing four of the Top 15 teams (Georgia, vs. LSU, at FSU, at So Carolina).
- Nebraska - QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead are unconventional but there are few better QB/RB combinations in the nation. Intense HC Bo Pelini will craft together a capable defense despite loss of tackling machine Lavonte David.
- South Carolina - Lost a lot of talent from 2011 so the ‘Cocks possibly are a little overrated by most, but they also now are freed of Stephen Garcia’s detrimental act. Three game stretch in early Oct. is critical: vs. Georgia, at LSU, at Florida.
- Arkansas - If the bizarro Bobby Petrino scandal/firing and unusual one-year interim arrangement with John L. Smith hadn’t happened, the Hogs would be a darkhorse national title contender behind gutty, prolific, stud QB Tyler Wilson. Now, who knows?
- Wisconsin - The Russell Wilson Coup was perhaps the greatest one-year rental in college football history. Danny O’Brien is good but no Wilson, and the Badgers will take a step back despite a favorable schedule aside from a trip to Nebraska.
- West Virginia - Aside from the clubbing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, the Mountaineers had a pretty ordinary season by their standards. So, which will it be this season? Probably some of both for the Big 12 newcomers. The offense will excel.
- Michigan - HC Brady Hoke and DC Greg Mattison performed a minor miracle on defense last season. Road games at ND, Nebraska and Ohio St could set back the Wolverines a bit this season, regardless of what happens in the opener vs. ‘Bama.
- Auburn - The Tigers are recruiting well and still glowing from the 2010 national title. But they play an SEC schedule and have uncertainty at QB, so more than eight wins will be tough. Opening two games are key, against Clemson and at Miss St.
- Notre Dame - Very tough first eight games could net several losses, but the Irish should finish strong. Opens in Ireland vs. Navy, which could cause hangover into Week 2 vs. Purdue. Big year for HC Brian Kelly, who has disappointed.
- Stanford - Welcome to the rest of your life, Stanford. Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck are gone - will Stanford vanish as an elite team, too? HC David Shaw has recruited well, so maybe the Cardinal will have some staying power.
- South Florida - The Bulls underachieved in 2011, so the pressure is on 3rd-year HC Skip Holtz. USF has 4th-year starter BJ Daniels at QB, a talented defense and a manageable schedule in the depleted Big East, plus a huge home game vs. FSU.
- Boise State - Regardless of what happens in opener at Michigan St, the Broncos have a workable schedule after that. Perhaps no school lost as much to graduation, but the Boise system is a proven winner and could yield 10 wins again.
- Clemson - Very hard team to project. Annihilation at hands of W. Virginia in Orange Bowl could produce a 2012 hangover, and the Tigers have some holes on DL and OL. Or, their awesome skill talent could carry them to 9-10 wins. Take your pick.