Ohio State heavy favorite in Big Ten

By every measure, Urban Meyer’s first season at Ohio State was a
smashing success. The Buckeyes won all 12 games, and Braxton Miller
developed into a superstar quarterback along the way.

That’s all gone now, practically ancient history in football-mad
Columbus. The pressure is on for a blockbuster sequel, even if
Meyer himself is preoccupied with the opening scenes.

”Our job is to compete for championships in November. That’s
all I want them to think about,” Meyer said. ”A team is a complex
animal that you got to be really careful how you approach things.
Start talking about things that are way beyond even, I don’t want
to say expectations, but we don’t talk about those things. We talk
about we have to get to November to compete for a championship and
that’s complicated enough.”

It sure is. While Miller and Ohio State begin the year as the
Big Ten favorite, there are plenty of potential challengers.

Dynamic quarterback Devin Gardner thinks he’s ready to lead
Michigan back to the top of the conference. Taylor Martinez wants
to put together another great year in his final season at Nebraska.
Then there’s Wisconsin, coming off a Rose Bowl trip and looking to
make a smooth transition to new coach Gary Andersen, and Michigan
State and more.

”I like our football team,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.
”I usually don’t say that. I said it after the spring. I will
continue to say it because I like how they’ve handled themselves on
the field and off the field so far this summer. I like their work
ethic, and I like how they’ve represented Michigan in a lot of
ways.”

Denard Robinson is gone after a stellar career, but Gardner is
back to provide the same sort of sizzle in Michigan’s backfield.
The 6-foot-4 junior began last season at wide receiver, and then
played quarterback for the last five games. He threw for 1,219
yards and 11 touchdowns against five interceptions, and also had
101 yards and seven TDs on the ground.

Gardner is a work in progress – ”I have to start to checking
the ball down. Always want the big play,” he said – but his
teammates have noticed a change in the former Detroit prep star
since he became the starter behind center.

”He’s grown right into it,” senior safety Thomas Gordon said.
”He’s a lot more comfortable. You can see that.”

While Gardner is the toast of Ann Arbor, he has a ways to go to
match the celebrity that Martinez enjoys in Nebraska. The senior
star, who accounted for a school-record 3,890 yards of offense and
33 touchdowns last season, spent more than an hour signing
autographs during one recent trip to the mall.

Martinez has started 39 consecutive games for the Cornhuskers
and will leave the school with several offensive records. While he
will go down as one of the best players ever at the powerhouse
program, he doesn’t seem too concerned with his legacy headed into
his final year.

”I’ve done a lot so far in my career, so I’ve just got to take
this season for what it’s worth and just enjoy it and just remember
everything that happens,” Martinez said.

Five things to watch in the Big Ten:

1. TOUGH UP FRONT: If you love the big guys up front, check out
the offensive linemen of the Big Ten. Senior Jack Mewhort leads an
experienced group for Ohio State, and Martinez raves about the unit
at Nebraska. Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan flirted with the NFL
draft before deciding to return for one more season. He prepared
for his final year by adopting a strict diet that he said helped
increase his strength and quickness. ”I’ve cheated a couple times,
here and there,” Lewan said. ”I’m a sucker for ice cream.”

2. DUAL THREATS: Miller, Gardner and Martinez will grab all the
headlines, but they aren’t the only Big Ten quarterbacks who can
score through the air or on the ground. Northwestern’s Kain Kolter
helped the Wildcats to a 10-3 record last season and their first
bowl victory since 1949. Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase rushed for
303 yards and four touchdowns last year.

3. WHO’S THE NEW GUY: There are two new head coaches this year,
with Andersen taking over at Wisconsin and Darrell Hazell going
from Kent State to Purdue. The Badgers routed Nebraska in the Big
Ten title game on Dec. 1, but Bret Bielema still decided to leave
for Arkansas before Wisconsin’s narrow loss to Stanford in the Rose
Bowl. Enter Andersen, who left Utah State for quite the unusual
transition with the Badgers. ”There’s going to be differences when
you take over a program,” Andersen said. ”It’s important to put
your own stamp on it.”

4. SLEEPERS: Pat Fitzgerald has coached Northwestern to five
consecutive bowl berths, culminating in the Wildcats’ 34-20 victory
over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl in January. Ohio State,
Michigan and Michigan State come to Evanston this year, where
Northwestern doesn’t enjoy much of a home-field advantage but could
begin to build one with a couple victories. Indiana also could
surprise people, with 19 starters back from last year’s 4-8
team.

5. GO DEEP: Penn State star Allen Robinson is the big name, but
there are plenty of other solid receivers spread throughout the Big
Ten. Kenny Bell (Nebraska), Jared Abbrederis (Wisconsin) and Jeremy
Gallon (Michigan) each had over 800 yards receiving last season
while averaging at least 16.9 yards per catch. Also keep a close
eye on Cody Latimer (Indiana) and Corey Brown (Ohio State).

Predicted order of finish:

Legends: Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan State, Northwestern, Iowa,
Minnesota.

Leaders: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Indiana, Purdue,
Illinois.

Title game winner: Ohio State.

Online:

AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org

Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap