Big Ten predictions: Is Ohio State overrated? Can any team challenge Wisconsin in the West?

Florida coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Tim Tebow share a moment on the sidelines during the fourth quarter against Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2010 in New Orleans. (Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
Florida coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Tim Tebow share a moment on the sidelines during the fourth quarter against Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2010 in New Orleans. (Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Credit: Gary W. Green

Credit: Gary W. Green

Pat Fitzgerald concluded his media session Monday with these six words: “Enjoy the ride. Here we go.”

Big Ten football is finally upon us, starting with Northwestern-Purdue in prime time Thursday.

The offseason was quiet. Only three items made ripples: Quarterback Shea Patterson gained immediate eligibility at Michigan, giving Wolverines fans one less thing to whine about; Nebraska sold out its spring game in about 24 seconds (OK, 24 hours); and Northwestern opened the $270 million “Fitz Mahal” on the shores of Lake Michigan, allowing players to take cat naps to the sound of crashing waves.

August was a hideous month for many Big Ten programs. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer botched the Zach Smith affair and kept making it worse whenever he talked about it; Maryland admitted failure regarding the death of Jordan McNair and is poised to fire coach DJ Durkin; eight Rutgers players are accused in a credit-card fraud scheme; and two prominent Wisconsin receivers have been suspended pending sexual-assault charges.

There was once a time when the first AP poll would be the greatest source of preseason controversy. What?! We’re only sixth in receiving votes?

Fortunately NU quarterback Clayton Thorson knows what to do with those.

“Preseason rankings,” he said Monday, “are a bunch of trash.”

The Wildcats enter the season on an eight-game winning streak, longest of the Power Five schools. They did lose all-time rusher Justin Jackson, and there’s no guarantee Thorson will play early in the season after ACL surgery in January.

But Northwestern, which returns at least 15 starters, received only 13 votes in the AP poll, giving them a quasi-ranking of 35th.

“We’re still a program that, when you talk about the preseason, the hype season, the talking season … maybe our fans don’t click enough with their mouses,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what I’m guessing. If you did historical research on which schools have been ranked preseason, I have a sneaking suspicion you’d see a theme.

“We’re never going to be sexy. I’d rather go out and earn it anyway. Hype doesn’t matter; action is all that matters.”

Thorson is Northwestern’s only quarterback with any real experience, and the NFL scouts who watched him practice last week raved, supporting Fitzgerald’s projection that he will be a first-round draft pick.

Signs point to Thorson being available Thursday, given how many reps he has taken with the first-team offense and, for what it’s worth, his confident nature Monday before the cameras and microphones.

But consider that the Eagles’ Carson Wentz underwent ACL surgery Dec. 13, is being called doubtful for Week 1 and might not play, some believe, until Week 3, which is Sept. 23.

Thorson’s surgery was Jan. 9, four weeks after Wentz’s. Dr. James Andrews performed both.

“You’ll find out at 8:06 (p.m.) Eastern who is going to be playing,” said Fitzgerald, who was even more secretive than usual Monday.

After declining to say why kick returner Solomon Vault did not appear on the depth chart, Fitzgerald said he would talk about anyone on the two-deep. Then he declined to talk about receiver Riley Lees, who is listed as second string.

“I get one opener,” Fitzgerald said. “Sorry.”

In the interest of transparency (how’s that for a transition?), here’s how I see the Big Ten shaping up:


Michigan State 8-1 (11-1 overall)

Penn State 8-1 (11-1)

Ohio State 7-2 (9-3)

Michigan 6-3 (9-3)

Indiana 3-6 (5-7)

Rutgers 2-7 (5-7)

Maryland 1-8 (2-10)


Wisconsin 8-1 (11-1)

Northwestern 6-3 (8-4)

Nebraska 4-5 (7-5)

Iowa 4-5 (6-6)

Purdue 4-5 (6-6)

Minnesota 1-8 (4-8)

Illinois 1-8 (3-9)

— Michigan State is plus-800 (on a $100 bet) to win the Big Ten, and Penn State is plus-600, via Bovada. Just sayin’.

— One more for what it’s worth: Big Ten Network analyst J Leman and I have nearly identical predictions. The former star linebacker at Illinois views Ohio State as the No. 3 team in the East behind Penn State and Michigan State, calling the Spartans’ Brian Lewerke “the most underrated quarterback in the conference.”

He views Buckeyes tailback J.K. Dobbins as the league’s “most explosive” player and liked Michigan a lot more before Tarik Black, projected as the team’s top receiver, fractured his right foot.

In the West, Leman views Northwestern’s front seven as the only one in the division that can stand up to Wisconsin’s spectacular offensive line and rushing attack. Leman’s three questions for the Wildcats:

1. Is Thorson healthy?

2. Can the secondary remain healthy?

3. Could Jeremy Larkin, with his superior burst, prove to be an upgrade over Jackson? That might seem sacrilege until you consider Larkin averaged 6 yards per carry last season to Jackson’s 4.6.