All predictions and point spreads based on our preseason F/+ ratings. For the full ratings, see the this year's edition of the Football Outsiders Almanac.
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Previously: Projecting the ACC Atlantic, ACC Coastal and Big Ten Leaders.
1 Michigan State
Best-Case. Michigan State was that team in 2012 that achieves an uneasy equilibrium between two extremes: The Big Ten's best defense at one end of the rope, an inert offense at the other, locked in a season-long tug-of-war that was never settled for either side. Nine games were decided by four points or less. In six of them, neither team exceeded 17 points in regulation; only once did either team crack thirty. Of the nine, MSU managed to win four and lose five. No streak, winning or losing, exceeded two games.
To go from weekly stalemates to the Rose Bowl in one year may seem like too great of a leap, especially for an outfit still in search of an answer at quarterback. (And tailback, and… actually, let's just go ahead and file all of the skill positions under that heading.) And faced with the same schedule, it might be. Faced with this schedule, one that replaces Leaders Division heavies Ohio State and Wisconsin with doormats Purdue and Illinois, the red carpet to the Big Ten title game is unfurling as we speak. Recall that before last season's slump to 7–6, Michigan State won eleven games in both 2010 and 2011. This year, the only hurdle to an 8–0 start is an early trip to Notre Dame, where an upset could put the Spartans back on the national map going into the forgiving B1G slate. From there, two wins in the crucial three-game stretch against Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern ought to be enough to get them to Indianapolis, with Pasadena – most recent trip: 1987 – suddenly within sight.
Worst-Case. If there is any gap between MSU and the rest of the conference's middle class, it's yet to show up on the field. And the schedule, while undeniably softer sans the Badgers and Buckeyes, is a red herring without some tangible separation from everyone else. Every week in 2012 was a struggle to the death. In a six-week span, the Spartans blew late fourth-quarter leads in losses to Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska, and dropped another nail-biter to Northwestern, all games they could have – they'd say should have – won. At other points, though, they had to rally from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Boise State, Indiana, Wisconsin and TCU in games they very well could have lost. The only Big Ten game that didn't come down to the final possession was the last one, a 26–10 win at Minnesota, which is not exactly a convincing romp.
Statistically, that's exactly how a random handful of excruciatingly close calls should break: You win some, you lose some. But what is the compelling case for this particular team to move to one extreme – the one where it turns a corner in all those near-misses – as opposed to the other? That it has distanced itself from Iowa, Indiana and Purdue? It's one thing to assume the offense can't possibly be any worse, and another to seriously consider replacing the incumbent quarterback with a true freshman. If a breakthrough is just a matter of turning a few corners, the route back to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl is no less convenient.
Reality. Michigan State is in this spot because they were much better according to advanced stats in 2012 than according to the final record, so much so that Study Hall colleague Bill Connelly has suggested the 2013 Spartans could be in for a closing-the-gap season rivaling Notre Dame's in 2012. (The Irish were 13th in the final F/+ rankings in 2011 despite an 8–5 record, foreshadowing last year's leap into the BCS title game; Michigan State was 15th in F/+ in 2012, on par with its 2010-11 performances despite falling from eleven wins to seven.) The defense is largely intact and still more than capable of keeping every game within reach. With any spark whatsoever on offense, they're all winnable, even if it's not pretty. Getting back to ten wins is just a matter of holding onto the ball and finishing.
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Projected Record: 10–2 (7–1 Big Ten)
Best-Case. You don't need to know jack about these Cornhuskers, specifically, to know that there's no excuse for anything less than a 7–0 start. Like Michigan State, Nebraska exchanges Ohio State and Wisconsin for Illinois and Purdue in the conference rotation, and as a result will not face a meaningful test – depending on your opinion of UCLA; ours is lower than most – until November at the earliest. At which point the Huskers will be on the verge of the top five and the subjects of "Big Red Rising?" segments on GameDay and enigmatic quarterback Taylor Martinez will probably be in the thick of Heisman hype. Then things start to get interesting.
The best that can be said of Martinez to date against the top half of the schedule is that a) He's capable in the clutch, having led fourth-quarter comebacks last year against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Northwestern, and b) His mistakes are correctable. As discussed here earlier this week, and incessantly among Nebraska fans for the past eight months, turnovers have set a glass ceiling throughout Martinez's career: In his 12 losses as a starter, the Cornhuskers have given the ball away 31 times with a margin of –21. In four losses in 2012, turnovers led directly to 52 points for opponents.
The good news there is that ghastly turnover margins rarely carry over from one year to the next: It's one of those "random" numbers (unlike core statistics on offense and defense) that notoriously tends to regress to the mean. Eliminate the giveaways, and you're left with an attack that led the conference in total offense en route to the division title, and went over 30 points in all four losses. Michigan State has to come to Lincoln, where the Huskers were undefeated in 2012 and are 7–1 in Big Ten games since joining the conference; a win there, coupled with a road win at Michigan or Penn State, and the 12-year BCS drought may be finished whether the B1G title game goes their way or not.
Worst-Case. The core statistics on defense are far less encouraging, as is the attrition there – last year's top five tacklers are all gone, along with three other seniors in the top ten. The front seven is almost entirely new, and was arguably the weak point of the team to begin with, yielding 344 yards on the ground to UCLA, 371 to Ohio State, 238 to Michigan State and 539 to Wisconsin in a debacle of a conference championship game. Another early lapse against the Bruins, at home, would be an ominous sign for the November stretch, where a burgeoning BCS run can be detoured to the Heart of Dallas Bowl in a matter of weeks.
Reality. Nebraska fans are not the type to succumb to pie-in-the-sky optimism, but there's no way to look at this schedule and not at least entertain the notion of an undefeated regular season. Ultimately, though, neither the defensive issues nor Martinez's butterfingery relationship with the ball are confined to 2012. In all five years under Bo Pelini, the Cornhuskers have finished with four losses, and the last three editions have all finished between 20th and 25th in the final polls. It's possible, but nothing about the 2013 edition suggests a breakthrough.
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Projected Record: 10–2 (6–2 Big Ten)
Rick Osentoski / USA Today Sports
Best-Case. The answer here rests heavily on the trajectory of the new quarterback, Devin Gardner, who was a minor revelation last November after converting from receiver, and subsequently impressed pro scouts this summer by not looking like a gangly project. The offense, a top-ten attack by F/+ standards in 2010 and 2011, suffered from severely diminishing returns through the first two-thirds of 2012, failing to find the end zone a single time against Notre Dame, Michigan State or Nebraska. (By contrast, two meaningless touchdowns in the season-opening debacle against Alabama look like a triumph.) With Denard Robinson nursing an injured shoulder down the stretch, though, the Wolverines looked immediately rejuvenated by Gardner's promotion and averaged 32.8 points in his five starts.
One of those starts was a 38-31, overtime escape against Northwestern, Michigan's only win over a team that landed in the final polls; in two others, season-ending losses at the hands of Ohio State and South Carolina, the Wolverines led late with potentially season-defining upsets in their grasp. This year, like last year, the schedule includes five teams (Notre Dame, Penn State, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State) with projected F/+ ratings in the top 25, three of them in Ann Arbor. Last year, Michigan was 0–5 in those games. If Gardner has come far enough, fast enough to turn the corner in three of them – especially if one of those three happens to be Ohio State in the finale – a BCS bid is in order.
Worst-Case. Although Michigan was tooth-and-nail with everyone who wasn't Alabama, the goose egg against ranked opponents and razor-thin margins over Michigan State and Northwestern do not suggest a team on the cusp of its first conference championship since 2004. Quite the opposite, in fact: With three new starters on the offensive line and the best defensive player, Jake Ryan, out until midseason at the earliest, there's no reason to expect improvement in 2013 unless you think Gardner is the second coming of Vince Young. Otherwise, six wins is as likely as ten.
Reality. Alabama's nowhere to be found on the schedule, so every game is within reach, at least. If he stays healthy and gets some reliable support from the running backs – a glaring issue last year – Gardner has the potential to challenge Taylor Martinez and Ohio State's Braxton Miller as the best quarterback in the conference. Until he fulfills it, though, there's not enough evidence of above-the-fold talent to lift the team out of the doldrums.
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Projected Record: 7–5 (4–4 Big Ten)
Best-Case. Five consecutive bowl games notwithstanding, Northwestern isn't about to shed its "Revenge of the Nerds" image anytime soon. (Viral photos of linemen wielding celebratory lightsabers don't help in that regard.) Historically speaking, though, 2012 was about as good as Wildcat football gets: Ten wins tied a school record, and the final ranking, 17th, snapped a 15-year absence from the year-end polls. The bowl win over Mississippi State was Northwestern's first since 1948.
And still, somehow, a breakthrough season also qualified as a missed opportunity for a team that blew double-digit, fourth-quarter leads in all three losses. In that sense, the ceiling is higher than it has been in ages, thanks in no small part to all-purpose dynamos Kain Colter and Venric Mark, who are back to lead a solid, veteran core after accounting more than two-thirds of the Wildcats' total offense as juniors. Both Michigan and Michigan State come to Evanston in late November; with a split in those games and a stolen road win at Wisconsin or Nebraska (a far less-touted Northwestern team won in Lincoln in 2011), another nine-win regular season is very much on the table.
Worst-Case. As with Michigan State and Nebraska, the most glaring difference on paper is not with any aspect of the lineup, but with the schedule. Last year the cross-divisional exchange broke in the Wildcats' favor; this year, it's their turn to deal with Ohio State and Wisconsin, neither of whom showed up on the 2012 slate, and at the front end of the conference run, no less. By then, it's very possible they'll already be bearing a red-siren loss at the hands of Cal or Syracuse. If that happens, talent gap being what it is, it leaves Northwestern only one upset – at Iowa, perhaps? Minnesota? – away from being bounced from the postseason picture altogether.
Reality. The F/+ system wasn't as enthusiastic about the 2012 edition as the pollsters, holding Northwestern out of the top 25 at No. 29, and remains skeptical about 2013. (The preseason Coaches' and AP polls both like the 'Cats at No. 22; in the projected F/+ rankings, they're 35th.) But even among non-numbers geeks, last year's breakthrough hasn't changed the broad consensus about the Wildcats' place in the division, which is still decidedly behind the traditional heavyweights. One more big year might be enough to change that perception, and with Colter and Mark on hand, this is that year. Unfortunately, this is not that schedule.
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Projected Record: 7–5 (4–4 Big Ten)
Reese Strickland / USA Today Sports
Best-Case. Somewhere in the bowels of the Internet, I'm positive, there's a Hawkeye message board that indulges authors of violent Greg Davis fanfic. So if your idea of the best possible outcome for Iowa involves a horrible calamity befalling its offensive coordinator, that is the place for you.
Here, we'll start on a positive note by pointing out Kirk Ferentz's penchant for turning a wayward ship around, having rebuilt the program not just once – taking the Hawkeyes from a single win in his first season, 1999, to back-to-back-to-back conference championships from 2002–04 – but twice, later rebounding from a mediocre turn from 2005–07 to deliver a pair of top-20 finishes in 2008 and 2009. (The '09 team tied a school record for wins and claimed Iowa's best AP ranking since 1960.) "Mediocre" would be kind to the 2012 edition, easily the worst since the early days of the Ferentz era at 4–8. But it was also a team besieged by a staggering number of injuries at running back, even by Iowa standards, and by enough bad luck to lose to Iowa State, Central Michigan, Indiana and Purdue by a combined ten points.
So it's hard to imagine things quite that wrong again against the bottom half of the schedule, which stands to supply five wins even if the Hawkeyes merely hold the line. With minimal improvement, courtesy of a deeper backfield and a relatively long-in-the-tooth defense, home upsets over Northern Illinois, Northwestern and Michigan are also within reason. (Recall that the Hawkeyes dealt NIU its only regular season loss in 2012.) Take two of those three in Kinnick Stadium, and no one can complain about the record returning to the black.
Worst-Case. So, yeah, this is largely the same team that lost to Iowa State, Central Michigan, Indiana and Purdue in 2012, only without the experienced senior quarterback. The new quarterback, Jake Rudock, was an obscure three-star recruit in 2011 and has yet to take a snap in the meantime. Which brings us back to Greg Davis.
Not that he was working with the 2005 USC Trojans, but even the rock-bottom numbers (114th nationally in total offense, 111th in scoring, 94th in Offensive F/+) don't quite capture the depths of the malaise that Davis' play calling inspired in his first season; for that, you need a desperate fan analyzing the three plays that actually worked. True, even with a young, untested, unheralded quarterback, it cannot be worse. There is also no one on hand who figures to make it appreciably better, meaning Iowa State, Minnesota and Purdue are all threats to blow the tightrope rope to .500 to kingdom come.
Reality. Bring up Ferentz's job security, and you can prepare to be met with the details of his inexplicably large buyout, which most Hawkeye fans agree – or lament, depending on their patience – leaves Ferentz's seat cold as stone. Maybe. It's true that Iowa has at least a fighting chance in every home game, including dates with Michigan State, Northwestern and Michigan that stand to make the difference between another season on the fringes of bowl eligibility and an actual return to the living. But the real must-wins where Ferentz's future is concerned are those road trips to Iowa State, Minnesota and Purdue, the games that will make the difference between bowl eligibility and another last-place debacle. Assuming Ferentz is safe with a milquetoast, 6–6 finish is taking those games for granted, which last year proved he cannot afford.
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Projected Record: 6–6 (3–5 Big Ten)
Best-Case. With six wins in 2012, Minnesota matched its win total in 2010 and 2011 combined, and came within two minutes of a winning record in the Car Care Bowl. But the progress was most obvious in September, when they won the games they were actually supposed to win – routine, instantly forgettable victories over UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse – which marked an important step forward after early, season-killing losses to South Dakota, New Mexico State and North Dakota State the previous two years. Another 4–0 run against another cushy non-conference slate would put the Gophers back on track for the postseason with plenty of margin for error over the last two months.
Worst-Case. ….and (all together now) they're going to need it. In conference games, there was no progress at all: The Gophers were outmanned by 100 yards and two touchdowns per game, and only topped 17 points once. The obligatory two wins necessary for bowl eligibility came against two fellow conference doormats, Purdue and Illinois, that have rotated off the schedule to make room for Penn State and Indiana. That's exactly what you'd expect from a program that has lagged significantly behind the rest of the Big Ten on the recruiting trail (in aggregate, Rivals has ranked Minnesota's signing classes since 2009 as the worst in the league, below Illinois, Indiana and Northwestern), and in fact may be the most we can realistically expect. As far as the F/+ system is concerned, Minnesota is a decided underdog in every conference game. A non-conference lapse would be a harbinger of regressive doom.
Reality. Part of the problem down the stretch was the result of a true freshman quarterback, Philip Nelson, taking his lumps after being thrown into the fire at midseason at the controls of a very young offense. Now, even with only two senior starters, the offense as a whole is one of the most experienced in the league in terms of career starts, especially on the offensive line. There are still no reliable playmakers, though, and the ostensible headliner on defense, defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, is still more potential than production. Iowa and Indiana are within reach; everywhere, it's just about keeping it close.
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Projected Record: 4–8 (1–7 Big Ten)