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July 23, 2013

Top storylines to watch during Big Ten Media Days

As the Big Ten prepares for its annual Media Days in Chicago, there is plenty of news swirling around the conference, both on and off the field. HuskerOnline.com will be bringing extensive coverage of both Nebraska and the rest of the conference over the next few days.

Here are a few storylines to keep an eye on as league's coaches and players meet with reporters at the Hilton Chicago Hotel on Wednesday and Thursday…

Ohio State's run for a title

Given Ohio State's circumstances going into the 2012 season with its self-imposed bowl ban, head coach Urban Meyer couldn't have had a better debut with the Buckeyes last year. After going a perfect 12-0 through the regular season, OSU is the near unanimous favorite to not only win the Big Ten Championship in 2013, but also contend for the national title.

Led by star quarterback Braxton Miller, who is one of the leading preseason Heisman Trophy candidates, Ohio State boasts an explosive arsenal of offensive weapons with a defense that was downright dominant at times last year.

The Buckeyes have a cake non-conference schedule with the likes of Buffalo, San Diego State, California and Florida A&M, and outside of their Big Ten opener at home against Wisconsin and trips to Northwestern and Michigan, their league slate isn't much tougher. Monday's news of running back Carlos Hyde being suspended indefinitely was definitely a major blow, but the table still very much appears set for a serious run in 2013.

Gardner filling Shoelace's shoes

Michigan must replace last season's face of the Big Ten in quarterback Denard Robinson, who rewrote the league's record books and took his talents on to the NFL. The good news for the Wolverines is they feel they have just the man to fill "Shoelace's" shoes.

Junior Devin Gardner gave Michigan fans plenty of reason for optimism after posting a very impressive spring and creating a ton of buzz over what the future could hold with offensive coordinator Al Borges finally able to run his true system. Gardner saw extensive playing time late last season and put up solid numbers, and the hope in Ann Arbor is his curve only continues to project upward.

Looking at his stats from his five starts to close last season, Gardner was on pace to eclipse 3,000 yards passing and 28 touchdowns through the air had he played a full schedule. Even more impressive is that he also ran for eight more touchdowns, making him potentially one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the Big Ten this year.

Badgers begin Andersen era

As three-time defending Big Ten champions, Wisconsin has some serious standards to live up to as it enters the 2013 season. Former coach Brett Bielema left to take the head job at Arkansas shortly after UW's trouncing of Nebraska in the conference title game, and new head coach Gary Andersen now takes the reigns to try and keep the impressive run going.

Andersen comes to Madison after spending the past four seasons at Utah State, where he posted records of 4-8, 4-8, 7-6 and 11-2 in his four seasons with the Aggies, a program that had only 46 winning seasons from 1900 through 2008.

However, the Big Ten is a much different animal than the Mountain West, especially with foes like Ohio State, Northwestern and Penn State on the Badgers' schedule. On the positive side, Wisconsin returns two star running backs in James White and Melvin Gordon, an all-conference wide out in Jared Abbrederis and another mauling offensive line for it to rely on during its transition.

Is Northwestern ready to make the jump?

After years of being the Big Ten's whipping boy, Northwestern quickly became one of those pesky teams you couldn't overlook when former Wildcat linebacker Pat Fitzgerald returned to take over as head coach in 2006. All of a sudden, the 'Cats are now a legitimate contender in the Legends Division.

With a team that has fully adopted his fire and intensity, Fitzgerald has built Northwestern into a program on the cusp on joining the traditional powers near the top of the conference standings. With Ohio State being the only truly dominant team in the Big Ten, though, the table very well could be set for the Wildcats to make that jump this season.

There are several big hurdles for Northwestern to accomplish that feat, with Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State all waiting on a brutal league schedule. However, no team in the Big Ten will be taking anything for granted against the Wildcats this year, as they've already made far too many teams pay for doing so over the past few years.

The future of the Big Ten

Just two years after Nebraska shook up the college football world and moved from the Big 12, the landscape of the Big Ten is set to change even more when the 2013 season comes to an end. Maryland and Rutgers are set to join the league in 2014, meaning the divisional alignment fans were just now starting to get comfortable with will take on another new look.

With the additions, the Big Ten will eventually make the move to a nine-game conference schedule in the coming years, which could have a notable impact on the league when it comes to the forthcoming four-team College Football Playoff and the new bowl lineup.

The realignment will give the Big Ten, and college football as a whole for that matter, a totally different look after this season, and there's no doubt that will be one of the hottest topics of discussion for commissioner Jim Delany when he takes the podium at Media Days this week.


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