The USA Today Coaches’ Poll was released yesterday afternoon. After a few minutes of indignation over Ohio State not being eligible and a few hours to digest the rankings of the other members of the Big Ten, it’s time to take a look at the positioning of the Midwest’s best teams and how they stack up against the rest of the country. We’ll explore which teams are rated too high, which are rated too low and which seem just right. We’ll also look at where the four teams ranked (Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin) will be at the end of the year, as well as some sleeper Big Ten teams that could sneak into the coaches’ top 25.
On the Bucks: Sure, they aren't eligible for the coaches’ poll, but they ARE eligible for the AP writers’ poll. In the unlikely event (in my opinion) that they are 12-0 at the end of the year, particularly in a scenario where there are no other unbeatens, it's hard not to see Ohio State factoring in to the AP's national championship picture. It remains to be seen how people would react outside of those wearing scarlet hued glasses, but a lot has to go right (nay perfectly) for that to even be in the realm of possibilities. Even given an extremely promising new staff, it has to seem a tad pollyannish.
Michigan: They enter 2012 as the highest ranked Big Ten squad at #8. Partially, this is because they have maybe the best player in the Big Ten playing quarterback for them. It's probably also in lieu of their relatively fortuitous victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. During the game, the Wolverines were outgained, often looked outmatched, but ultimately made enough plays down the stretch to get Michigan's first BCS bowl victory since Tom Brady was under center. In spite of coveted former Urban Meyer collaborationist Greg Mattison, I tend to think the Wolverines' defense isn't all it's cracked up to be. Particularly should the Wolverines come out of the gate even the least bit ineffectively against Alabama, and it's hard to see the season playing out in a way that sees them finish where they'll be starting. I might even go as far as to boldly project Wisconsin and/or Michigan State finish ahead of them when everything's said and done.
Wisconsin: Bucky Badger enters 2012 as the purported 12th best team in the land (and this actually feels like a pretty good spot for them). Montee Ball returns, and while he may have trouble repeating last year’s season where he scored something like a zillion touchdowns and broke the great Barry Sanders’ record, there is no denying that he is a Heisman contender. Ball is basically on another level from the rest of the backs in the Big Ten, and Wisconsin’s offensive line is going to be good like it is basically every year despite losing several players to the NFL. The Badgers are always well-coached with good technique. If Chris Borland plays a full season, the defense could be a little better than it was even last year. Wisconsin does lack the defensive line talent of Ohio State or Michigan State, but their linebacking corps is fast and athletic. Danny O’Brien might also not be as good as Russell Wilson, but he did make some impressive throws early on in his Maryland career before regressing (granted in a Randy Edsall/Gary Crowton offense). That being said, he's better than a lot of what other teams around the league will be trotting out at QB. With the increased focus on Ball for defenses, I think they may at times have a tougher time moving the ball, but they'll still probably remain in the top 25 all year.
Michigan State: Some might have Sparty at number thirteen as being too high for a team with an awful lot of losses to make up for. I'll actually go as far as to put myself in a contrarian class and say Michigan State should be even higher. State returns the crux of the nation's sixth best total defense including a number of players worthy of consideration at being the best at their particularly spots not just in the conference, but nationally. Anthony Rashad White is a beast in the middle of the defensive line and should frustrate opposing guards and centers all season long. The Spartans also return their defensive ends Marcus Rush and (the all-everything) William Gholston along with star middle linebacker Max Bullough and they retain the best corner pair in the league in Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. While it's true that Andrew Maxwell is brand new at quarterback, we saw LSU blast through the SEC (and Oregon and West Virginia) on the strength of an elite defense and stout running game, and the Spartans certainly have that with Le'Veon Bell, Nick Hill, and senior Larry Caper. I personally think Sparty is the favorite for the Rose Bowl, despite the loss of a few playmakers on offense. I wouldn't have had a problem seeing them in Michigan's spot.
Nebraska: Ranked at #16, my thoughts on the Cornhuskers are also follows: NOPE. NOPE. NOPE. Taylor Martinez has left much to be desired having gone from promising to still promising to worse in two years in Lincoln. The departure of Lavonte David, the heart and soul of their defense, and Jared Crick, their best defensive lineman, won't do Big Red any favors. The secondary lost Alfonzo Dennard and basically return a bunch of other guys who can best be broken down as "meh-to-outstandingly-meh". Rex Burkhead is a heck of a running back but he'll have to more than carry the entire load when Martinez is off, which seems to happen just about any time the Huskers run into an elite defense. In my mind, Nebraska will be hard pressed to be much more than average team at year's end. I'll honestly be surprised if they escape the eight win plateau. Burkhead and Martinez’ running will be enough against the lesser teams, but against Sparty, Ohio State, and anyone else professing to be the class of the conference? Nope.
Overall, I think you’ll see Michigan State ranked higher and the other three teams ranked a little lower than they are right now, with Nebraska potentially falling out of the top 25 altogether. The one team that may have a decent chance to break in to the top 25 not currently in it would be (*gasp*) Purdue. Now, before you collapse into hysterical laughter, hear me out.: Purdue’s non-conference schedule has Notre Dame and a bunch of directional schools. They host Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin, and the only team they face on the road that is clearly better than them is Ohio State. Iowa could be headed for a down year and they avoid Michigan State altogether. If Wisconsin falls apart once conference play starts, I'd have to think Purdue is a solid dark horse to sneak their way into the conference championship game.
Thoughts? Feelings? Hopes? Dreams? Let us know yours on the Big Ten’s place in the top 25 in the comments below.