There is no better source for comprehensive Big Ten coverage than ESPN’s Big Ten Blog, a year-round news hub for all things Legends and Leaders (or East and West, or whatever). Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett churn out content at a prolific rate, provide even-keeled coverage for the league’s 12 teams and otherwise offer the most diverse assortment of Big Ten commentary and analysis on the web. You should be reading the blog everyday, plain and simple. Adam took some time last week to discuss the Big Ten and Northwestern’s prospects coming off a 10-win season. You can follow the blog on twitter @ESPN_BigTen.
The Following is an edited transcript of our phone conversation from Friday.
Who is the biggest sleeper entering the Big Ten this season?
AR: I think it’s going to be the usual suspects in terms of the league title, the same teams that finished near the top last year.
Indiana has a chance to make some noise. They already have one of the better offenses in the conference, and they have tremendous depth at quarterback and receiver – one of the best receiving corps in the league. They’re going to be able to score points. They just have to find some answers on defense.
Michigan State is another team to look out for. They don’t have to do a whole lot to improve on offense to put themselves in position to compete for a championship, because their defense is going to be loaded again.
Who is the most overrated team?
AR: I don’t think there’s an obviously overrated team in the Big Ten right now.
Nebraska or Michigan. Michigan might be a top-10 or top-15 team, but if you look at everything they have to address, they have questions at running back and along the interior offensive line. They have to address losing [middle linebacker] Jake Ryan and the defensive line is a big question mark.
Nebraska could be a top 20 team, and they’re going to have one of the best offenses, but that might be a little high for a team that had a bunch of questions on defense last season.
Where does Northwestern rank in the Legends Division?
AR: There is not much separating Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern on top of that division. You can make a case, based on who comes back, that Northwestern is maybe the favorite to win it.
Northwestern doesn’t really have to replace anybody significant when you compare them with all the question marks I mentioned about Michigan and Nebraska, who has to replace a lot on defense. They’re certainly not hurting in terms of returning starters.
The key is can they get over the hump? Can they beat Michigan and Nebraska? I think those three are all legitimate contenders for the division.
What is the biggest trap game on Northwestern’s schedule?
AR: The Minnesota game could be tricky, coming after two very tough games against Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Minnesota is an improving team that Northwestern hasn’t lost to in a long time, but after two emotional games, you don’t really know.
Is it possible Northwestern could have a better team but a worse record this season?
AR: I think there’s a strong possibility.
I don’t think Michigan was as good as its record two years ago, but probably better than its record last year. And that was just because it’s schedule was so much harder.
I think it could easily be the case for northwestern this year. I think Northwestern was every bit as good as its record last year – they probably should have won the Nebraska game and definitely should have won the Michigan game.
But there’s definitely a possibility they could have a worse record this year even though the team might be better overall because of the schedule.
It’s not an easy schedule by any means. Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Nebraska, Michigan. Those are all going to be tough games.
What will be a more challenging game next season? At Nebraska or home against Ohio State (homecoming)?
AR: I would say Ohio State. If you look back historically, Ohio State is still the team that makes Northwestern look like it hasn’t arrived. There is still a bit of an intimidation factor against Northwestern. I think that will change because of the talent northwestern is bringing in, but it’s hard to predict that right now, with the way Ohio State looks coming into this season.
It’s kind of weird, because Purdue has been very successful against Ohio State. But for some reason Northwestern, with the exception of that win in 2004, has been embarrassed almost every time they’ve played each other. Ohio State is the one team that makes you think Northwestern hasn’t turned the corner.
Nebraska will be a tough game, but Northwestern won there in 2011 with what I think we can agree was a worse team.
What is your season prediction for Northwestern?
AR: I think they’ll be in the 8-4 9-3 range.
It’s going to be really important to get through nonconference play without a loss. The Cal game could be a challenge, same with Syracuse, but they should win both of those games.
If they lose a nonconference game, you could be looking at 7-5. If they get through nonconference unscathed, you’re looking at 9-3 or 8-4. I think the key stretch is that Ohio State-Wisconsin pair. If you split those two games, you could be looking at something better, maybe 10 wins.