Big Ten: Legends Division Preview

Can Devin Gardner lead the Michigan Wolverines to the Big Ten Championship Game?

Can Devin Gardner lead the Michigan Wolverines to the Big Ten Championship Game?

While the Ohio State Buckeyes are expected to run away with the Big Ten’s Leaders Division, life in the Legends Division is looking to be a lot closer this season.

Following on from last week’s look at the Leaders Division, this week takes a closer inspection of the Legends Division, a division looking to send a school to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2004. Who will come out on top and do they have any chance against a Buckeyes team expected to challenge for a national title?

NOTE: All odds quoted are supplied by Bovada.

No. 17 Michigan Wolverines

Big_Ten_standings_2012Last season began with a hefty wedge of expectation for the Michigan Wolverines. A No. 8 preseason ranking from the Associated Press came alongside hopes of a first Big Ten title in nine years. A 41-14 loss to the eventual national champion Alabama Crimson Tide on opening day suggested things might not go as expected though. A second loss in September, this time to national championship runners up, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, had Brady Hoke’s side reeling.

Things didn’t get much better when conference play rolled around. Losses to the Nebraska and Ohio State would cost the team a place in the Big Ten title game, while an overtime win over Northwestern merely kept things from really spiraling out of control. Eventually, a 6-2 conference record wasn’t nearly what the team had hoped for.

This season, much of the expectation has been eradicated. With the Buckeyes in firm control of the conference, the Wolverines are playing for second place in many peoples’ eyes. The team is however the favorite to win the Legends Division, with odds currently standing at 2/1.

The team will return 13 of 22 starters, but crucially one of those players that need replacing is quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson accounted for 2,616 all-purpose yards last season, including 1,266 rushing. Devin Gardner took over from Robinson at the QB position towards the end of last season. His addition means the team will revert to a more standard set-up.

The Wolverines will be thankful not to have Alabama on the schedule this season, but with Notre Dame and Ohio State still there, the team will need to win its intra-division games if it’s to play for the Big Ten championship in December.

Current odds: Division: 2/1 | Conference: 7/2 | National Championship: 33/1

No. 18 Nebraska Cornhuskers

Taylor Martinez will look to lead Nebraska to victory.

Taylor Martinez will look to lead Nebraska to victory.

After a fairly innocuous introduction to the Big Ten in 2011, the Nebraska Cornhuskers took the Legends Division in 2012 by way of a 7-1 conference record. When the dust had settled, a 23-9 win over Michigan in September proved to make all the difference. Of course, as far as the Big Ten Championship Game goes, people in Lincoln would probably prefer not to talk about it.

This season, the Cornhuskers enter the season just behind Michigan in the eyes of the bookmakers, and level with Michigan State. Odds of Nebraska winning the Legends Division again currently stand at 11/4.

Head coach Bo Pelini will once again look to make good use of the talents of senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, who last season passed for 2,871 yards and ran for another 1,019 yards, tallying 22 touchdowns in the process. It’ll take this sort of performance to become a conference champion. Running back Ameer Abdullah returns alongside Martinez, looking to replicate the 1,100-plus yard season he had last year.

Nebraska will have an advantage over Michigan thanks to scheduling. The Cornhuskers will not play Ohio State, which gives then an additional win, in theory at least. That means a Nov. 9 clash in Ann Arbor could again prove the difference in the division.

Current odds: Division: 11/4 | Conference: 15/2 | National Championship: 40/1

Michigan State Spartans

Can Michigan State contend without Le'Veon Bell?

Can Michigan State contend without Le’Veon Bell?

The Michigan State Spartans will hope to have something to say about who goes on to represent the division in the conference championship. The East Lansing side is currently tied with Nebraska at 11/4 to win the division.

Last season proved a disappointment for the Spartans, who compiled a meager 3-5 Big Ten record just one year after playing for the conference championship. Meanwhile, only a win in Minnesota on the last day of the regular season assured the side of a Bowl appearance. Head coach Mark Dantonio will expect better of his side this year.

Better might be hard to come by though. The Spartans will be without running back Le’Veon Bell, the focal point of last year’s offense. Bell – who was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft – rushed for 1,793 yards last season, and tallied a total of 13 touchdowns. That’s a lot of productivity for a team to replace, particularly one that may be starting redshirt freshman Riley Bullough – a former linebacker – in the backfield.

Michigan State’s toughest out-of-conference matchup comes against Notre Dame (Sept. 21). After that, it’s conference play all the way. Like Nebraska, the Spartans will not face Ohio State which gives them an advantage over Michigan, but a three-week stand against the Wolverines, Cornhuskers and Northwestern in October will be a huge hurdle to jump. If the Spartans get through that part of the schedule, they deserve to be playing for a Big Ten title.

Current odds: Division: 11/4 | Conference: 15/2 | National Championship: 100/1

No. 22 Northwestern Wildcats

Dual threat QB Kain Colter will be vital for Northwestern.

Dual threat QB Kain Colter will be vital for Northwestern.

Odds makers may prefer Michigan State, but the AP voters think the Northwestern Wildcats have a better shot this season than the Spartans, as demonstrated by a No. 22 selection in the preseason Top 25.

The Wildcats got off to a fast start last season, putting together a 5-0 record which included a one-point win over the Syracuse Orange on opening day. After this successful start though, three conference losses (to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan) resulted in the team falling out of contention. The season ended on a high though as the Wildcats defeated the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl, ending a nine-game Bowl losing streak. The win also marked the school’s first Bowl win since winning the Rose Bowl in 1948.

The quarterback tandem of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemen will be back on the field in Evanston, Ill., this season, with Colter expected to be the starter. The two combined for 2,184 yards and 14 passing touchdowns last year. Colter added another 12 rushing TDs to his tally also. The Wildcats will return nine starters on offense (and another eight on defense) which should stand them in good stead.

Schedule-wise, the Wildcats look to be in trouble. They open conference play on October 5 by welcoming Ohio State before traveling to Wisconsin a week later. After facing the two favorites in the Leaders Division, the team will also meet Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan across a three week span in November. Perhaps there’s a reason the Wildcats are only 10/1 to win the division.

Current odds: Division: 4/1 | Conference: 10/1 | National championship: 150/1

Iowa Hawkeyes

Will Kirk Ferentz see improvement at Iowa?

Will Kirk Ferentz see improvement at Iowa?

2012 was a miserable year for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Having split four non-conference games, the Iowa City team handed Minnesota its first loss of the season before outlasting Michigan State in double overtime. From there it was all downhill as the school lost its last six games of the season to finish with a 2-6 conference record and 4-8 overall tally. Subsequently, the Hawkeyes missed out on a Bowl game for just the second time in 12 years.

Things may not look quite so bad this season. Hawkeye fans would have reveled in a Bleacher Report article documenting five signs of hope for Iowa this season, an article that makes a lot of sense. But, and to put this bluntly, Iowa has no chance of winning the Big Ten this year.

In the space of four weeks, the Hawkeyes will face Michigan State, Ohio State, Northwestern and Wisconsin, the latter three all being ranked in the AP Top 25 to start the season. Add to that a home game against Michigan followed by a trip to Nebraska to close the season, and you have a team facing the toughest schedule in all of the Big Ten. The best the team can hope for is to play spoiler along the way.

Current odds: Division: 10/1 | Conference: 33/1 | National Championship: 500/1

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Jerry Kill will hope for a better season.

Jerry Kill will hope for a better season.

For many, a 6-7 record would not be something to write home about. For the Minnesota Golden Gophers, a team that had compiled just six wins in the previous two seasons, 2012 was a success, sort of.

For the opening month of the season the Gophers looked to be onto something, recording four wins from four before embarking on conference play. A 2-6 record in the Big Ten saw the school propping up the Legends Division for the second year in a row. Only the winless Illinois Fighting Illini kept the Gophers from sharing the conference’s worst record.

Minnesota’s lack of success in recent years – the school has recorded just one winning season in seven years – has bookmakers looking at the Gophers to once again finish last in the division. Odds of the team winning the Legends Division currently stand at 20/1. The Gophers however face an easier schedule that Iowa, which could prove telling come the end of the year. Still, with four teams in the AP’s preseason Top 25 on the schedule, expected a busy loss column this year.

Current odds: Division: 20/1 | Conference: 66/1 | National Championship: OFF

* * * * *

The Big Ten season commences Thursday August 29 with a pair of games at 7:00 p.m. ET. The Hoosiers host the Indiana State Sycamores of the FCS’ Missouri Valley Conference, while the Minnesota Golden Gophers welcome the Mountain West’s UNLV Rebels.

Conference play begins September 21 with Purdue at Wisconsin.

For Bovada’s latest conference odds across College Football, click here.

For the latest team prop bets, click here.

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