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