Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, January 17, 2013

The final punctuation mark has been put on the 2012 season and we closed that latest chapter. Now, we turn the page and look toward 2013. Before you know it, spring football will be here.

In anticipation of the fall of 2013, here?s my early, early-and I mean EARLY-look at how the Big Ten could stack up from 1-12.

1. Ohio State. The Buckeyes welcome back lots of talent from a team that went 12-0 in Urban Meyer?s debut. What can Meyer do for an encore? Most of the talent is on offense. And the schedule is very manageable. Bottom line: This team could play for the national championship. For what it?s worth, Jim Tressel won a national championship in his second season.
Key players: QB Braxton Miller; CB Bradley Roby; LB Ryan Shazier

2. Michigan. Life without Denard Robinson will be just fine for the Wolverines in Year Three under Brady Hoke. This was a young team that needs to learn how to win the big games. Michigan must bolster the rushing attack and the defense must mature.
Key players: QB Devin Gardner; LB Jake Ryan; WR Jeremy Gallon

Big Ten Final Standings
Conference Overall
Ohio State 8-0 12-0
Penn State 6-2 8-4
Wisconsin 4-4 8-6
Purdue 3-5 6-7
Indiana 2-6 4-8
Illinois 0-8 2-10
Conference Overall
Nebraska 7-1 10-4
Michigan 6-2 8-5
Northwestern 5-3 10-3
Michigan State 3-5 7-6
Iowa 2-6 4-8
Minnesota 2-6 6-7

3. Nebraska. Will this be the season the Cornhuskers finally get over the proverbial hump and win their first league title since 1999? The offense should keep on buzzing as one of the Big Ten?s best with coordinator Tim Beck pushing the buttons. The key to perhaps winning the Big Ten will be tightening up a defense that at times-ahem–failed miserably. Where are the defensive playmakers?
Key players: QB Taylor Martinez; RB Ameer Abdullah; WR Kenny Bell

4. Wisconsin. Long before he bolted for Arkansas, Bret Bielema said his 2013 team would be one of his best. Well, here we are. The Badgers are coming off three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. And they again figure to be formidable under first-year coach Gary Andersen, who inherits myriad returning starters upon arrival from Utah State. Keep an eye on the quarterback situation and secondary.
Key players: LB Chris Borland; RB James White; WR Jared Abbrederis

5. Northwestern. The Wildcats should continue to be strong, especially on offense with both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian back under center. And Northwestern has the makings of perhaps its best defense since Pat Fitzgerald took over, as the Wildcats are coming off a 10-win season and first bowl win since taking the Rose Bowl after the 1948 season. Can you say ?momentum??
Key players: RB Venric Mark; DE Tyler Scott; SS Ibraheim Campbell

6. Michigan State. There will be no lack for motivation coming off a disappointing 7-6 season in which the Spartan offense struggled for consistency. The defense again figures to be formidable. But all eyes will be on an offense that may be tweaked and could have a new quarterback. Who will replace RB Le?Veon Bell?
Key players: LB Max Bullough, S Isaiah Lewis; CB Darqueze Dennard

7. Penn State. If the Nittany Lions remain healthy, they could be decent. The big keys will be to develop depth and chemistry in the trenches on both sides of the ball, as roster numbers begin to shrink because of probation. Also: Who will play quarterback? The best thing Penn State has going for it? Bill O?Brien is back.
Key players: DE Deion Barnes; WR Allen Robinson; RB Zach Zwinak

8. Iowa. Many questions loom for a program coming off its worst season since 2000. Goal No. 1 is fixing an offense that never got on track last season, especially when it came to passing. Who will be the quarterback? Who will catch passes? This is a key year for Kirk Ferentz, as he begins his 15th season in Iowa City. Progress is needed.
Key players: RB Mark Weisman; LB Anthony Hitchens; TE C.J. Fiedorowicz

9. Minnesota. Jerry Kill continues to make steady progress; expect more of the same in Year Three under his regime. The offense needs more consistency when it comes to passing. It will be interesting to see what happens at quarterback. And a defense with improving speed and athletic ability needs to build on big strides made in 2012.
Key players: DT Ra?Shede Hageman; RB Donnell Kirkwood; OT Ed Olson

10. Indiana. Kevin Wilson breathed life into the Hoosiers in his second season. Now, he needs lift Indiana to its first bowl since 2007. The offense figures to get a boost from the return of QB Tre Roberson from injury. But can the defense become solid? The M.O. will remain the same: Try to out score opponents.
Key players: WR Cody Latimer; OT Jason Spriggs; S Greg Heban

11. Purdue. Danny Hope is out after four mostly dreary seasons. Enter Darrell Hazell, who breathed life into formally moribund Kent State. His job in West Lafayette figures to be every bit as challenging. The $64,000 question: What is the offense gonna look like?
Key players: CB Ricardo Allen; DE Ryan Russell; DT Bruce Gaston

12. Illinois. The Tim Beckman era opened with a resounded thud. The bright side: There?s really only one way to go after a 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten) season. The offense was an absolute train wreck. That?s why new coordinator Bill Cubit was brought it. And 10 early enrollees-TEN!-already are on campus. Yes, there is a sense of urgency in Champaign.
Key players: QB Nathan Scheelhaase; LB Jonathan Brown; WR Ryan Lankford

About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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