Welcome to the brave new world of the Big Ten.
When the conference’s preseason picks were announced last Thursday before the Big Ten media days kicked off in Chicago, Ohio State occupied the preseason No. 1 spot in the league in a vote of the conference’s media. The Buckeyes were followed by Wisconsin and Illinois.
That top three conjured up plenty of intrigue of its own. Can the favorites fulfill their potential and win an unheard-of third straight outright Big Ten crown? Will Wisconsin, coming off of a slightly disappointing season, live up to the hype this time around? Can Illinois, last year’s Rose Bowl surprise package, not slip back into the pack during its first appearance ever in the Big Ten preseason top three since the league started keeping track in 1996?
But what might have been the most interesting part of the top three is the one team missing. The team that is conspicuously absent, of course, is Michigan, which has been in every top three since 1996 and five times in that span was chosen to win the league.
Don’t expect anyone from Ohio State, though, to posit that the Wolverines are going to be anything but the traditionally powerful opponent that people have come to expect.
“We can’t afford to have that opinion,” cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. “Especially with a game of that caliber, and it will be our last chance in the Horseshoe. It’s our senior day. We can’t really take them lightly at all.”
That hasn’t stopped many national writers – and apparently, regional ones as well, as those are the ones who completed the Big Ten poll – from having a dim view of the Wolverines.
Perhaps that started last season, when a team expected to win the league got off to a disastrous 0-2 start that included a loss to Division I-AA foe Appalachian State and a home-field destruction at the hands of Oregon. Michigan finished the regular season at 8-4 and on a two-game losing streak, after which longtime head coach Lloyd Carr opted to retire.
In came Rich Rodriguez, the West Virginia head coach whose dynamic spread offense was seen as ill-fitting to the personnel on hand that had been recruited into a traditional pro-style offense, especially when the Wolverines could not recruit a quarterback seen as conducive to the system in the class of 2008. That, coupled with massive personnel losses at wide receiver and on the offensive line, has many thinking the Wolverines might not be a top 25 team.
That development would be news to Michigan cornerback Morgan Trent, who seemed less than perceptive to questions in Chicago about the down year purportedly on the horizon.
“I don’t really pay attention, honestly, to what people are saying or what they think we’re going to do,” Trent said. “I haven’t looked at magazines or looked at a newspaper. I could care less about where we’re at right now. We’ve been working entirely too hard to worry about, ‘Well, so and so says we’re going to do this and that.’ ”
As for whether or not Michigan could use the preseason ranking sleights for motivation, Trent responded, “We have all the motivation we need right now. I don’t need someone telling me we’re going to go 6-6 for motivation.”
Michigan does have some building blocks. They boast a stable of talented running backs in Brandon Minor, Kevin Grady and Carlos Brown. On defense, the team returns a formidable duo at cornerback in Trent and sophomore Donovan Warren, while the front seven should be fine with Terrance Taylor, Tim Jamison and Brandon Graham ready to star.
For reasons such as those, teams around the conference are slow to discount Michigan’s chances.
“That’s probably a misprint,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema of the Maize and Blue’s absence from the top three.
“Let’s be honest: Michigan always has players no matter what’s going on, coaching staff or whatever,” Jenkins said. “They’re always going to have some people to put on the field and actually play. It’s going to be new for us because they’re going to have a slightly new offense and things like that, so you never know what’s going to happen.”
Penn State, a traditional college football power, is also absent from the Big Ten’s top three, although that might not be much of a surprise. The Nittany Lions have not been pegged for a top-three league finish since 1999, a year in which they were projected to win the Big Ten.
Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman cautioned against counting either the Wolverines or Nittany Lions out, however.
“You never know,” the second-year starter said. “I think they recruit great players. Maybe they lost a lot, but they still have great guys coming back that are going to be capable of getting the job done.”