While the race for the Big Ten Leaders Division title seems very one-sided, with Wisconsin being heavily favored, the competition will be much stiffer to win the Legends Division.
Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State are all expected to be neck-and-neck to represent the other half of the Big Ten in the championship game, and even Iowa will be a factor in the picture this season.
Michigan leads the odds at 6-5, with Nebraska and Michigan State close behind at 3-1. Iowa (10-1), Northwestern (15-1) and Minnesota (50-1) round out the division.
The Wolverines are the reigning Big Ten champs, and they figure to be even stronger in Brady Hoke's second season. The bar has been raised quite high for the maize and blue after an 11-2 season with a Sugar Bowl win in his first year on the job.
The best news is that Denard Robinson is back for his senior season. The dynamic quarterback guided an offense that averaged 33.3 points a game last season, which is unusually explosive for a conference like the Big Ten. The key will be the team's defense, which was bailed out by the offense almost all season long. If the defensive line hasn't improved, teams like Michigan State and Nebraska can still push them around. If they’re at all improved, the Wolverines should be in control of this race the entire way.
The Wolverines have a very challenging schedule that could be a big factor. They start with the reigning BCS National Champions Alabama and will also take on Air Force and Notre Dame in three of their first four games.
The Cornhuskers have things a little bit easier — especially with Michigan coming to their house. The key for them will be to get off the roller coaster and play consistently. Nebraska had an up-and-down first year in the Big Ten in 2011, which included wins over Ohio State and Legends Division winner Michigan State. But the Huskers were also crushed by Wisconsin and Michigan, which ruined their BCS hopes.
The offense was — and will be — competent, with Taylor Martinez under center and Rex Burkhead behind him. The team would love to see Martinez become a better passer, but he's still very effective considering he's produced the top total offense seasons in school history in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
The defense was surprisingly weak last season, and it's a concern heading into 2012. The linebacking corps is thin now that heart-and-soul backer Lavonte David is gone, and a young secondary that was inconsistent last season has a lot of questions.
Michigan State will try to make its case after a magical season, but the reality is that they have to replace quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was the winningest quarterback in school history. There's plenty of pressure on junior Andrew Maxwell to fill the big shoes of the school's all-time leading passer, but Maxwell is very talented. If the transition is seamless and the defense continues to perform like one of the best in the country — as it was a year ago — this team will contend. It's still quite a bit of pressure to put on a new quarterback.
The Hawkeyes will be competitive in 2012, but it doesn't look like they’ll be anything more than a thorn in the side of the divisional contenders. They still have a revolving door at running back and have revamped the coaching staff. There figures to be a transitional period, and while the defense will be good, the offense just isn’t on the same level as Nebraska and Michigan.
As for Northwestern and Minnesota, they're definitely on the outside looking in. Northwestern has to replace their entire core on defense as well as key offensive players. Meanwhile, Minnesota barely managed to win three games last season.
Expect the Big Ten Legends division to be a race between Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State, with the Wolverines clearly in charge to start the year.