SI.com's Stewart Mandel breaks down the 2003 conference race and predicts the final standings.
Not that the Ohio State-Michigan game isn't a big deal regardless, but it had been a few years since the stakes were anywhere near as high as last year's edition.
This year's could be even bigger.
Craig Krenzel, Maurice Clarett (pending an NCAA investigation), Chris Gamble and a host of other familiar faces from the Buckeyes' national championship run are back. So, too, are John Navarre, Braylon Edwards, Marlin Jackson and a core of Wolverines who went 10-3 and came within one pass break-up of dashing those Buckeye title dreams.
Chances seem good that when the two rivals meet again Nov. 22 there will be Rose and/or Sugar Bowl implications on the line for at least one of them. Both figure to take their offenses to the next level this season while keeping their already stingy defenses at a high level.
But it's also no secret that the Big Ten long ago lost its "big two, little eight" rep, and that several teams will challenge the Buckeyes and Wolverines for the conference title.
Purdue, coming off consecutive disappointing seasons, appears poised for a breakthrough. Joe Tiller has instilled renewed faith in junior QB Kyle Orton to lead an offense that could finally return to its Rose Bowl form of 2000. Wisconsin returns 1,500-yard rusher Anthony Davis and welcomes back former All-America receiver Lee Evans, who missed last season with an ACL injury. And Minnesota brings back nearly everyone from a team that started 7-1 and clobbered Arkansas in the Music City Bowl.
On the flip side, Iowa and Penn State will have trouble duplicating their impressive records of a year ago. The Hawkeyes, 11-2 in 2002, must replace Heisman runner-up Brad Banks, not to mention four seniors from their dominating offensive line, while the Nittany Lions lost nearly every key offensive and defensive player from their Citrus Bowl team, save QB Zack Mills.
Michigan State, Northwestern and Indiana may improve on last year's disasters but will have a hard time escaping the league's lower rung.
Chris Gamble, Ohio State receiver/defensive back: The two-way extraordinare not only will be OSU's top defensive back but also should be a bigger factor in the offense this season.
Ibrahim "E.B." Halsey, Illinois running back : His freshman season delayed a year by legal troubles back home, the Illini's top 2002 recruit will make a push for the starting job.
Marlin Jackson, Michigan cornerback: Having drawn the Charles Woodson comparisons practically since he enrolled, this could be the year Jackson takes his game to that level.
Matt LoVecchio, Indiana quarterback: The ballyhooed transfer, limited to mostly running the option at Notre Dame, was impressive leading a West Coast offense in the spring.
Matt Roth, Iowa defensive end: Overshadowed by the many stars on his own team last season, the junior-to-be quietly notched 10 sacks and should be an even bigger force.
Can Wisconsin win with Jim Sorgi? When replacing a four-year starter like Brooks Bollinger, it's nice to have a guy who's already thrown 271 passes waiting in the wings. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin senior is a career 0-5 starter with modest numbers. With an arsenal of talented receivers at his disposal, how Sorgi handles finally being "the guy" will largely dictate whether the Badgers can reach their fourth Rose Bowl in a decade.
Will Michigan relocate its running game? A Lloyd Carr team averaging 3.8 yards per carry? What's up with that? Yes, tailback Chris Perry reached 1,110 yards last season, but if the Wolverines hope to take their offense to the next level they need Perry to become more explosive and break more big runs. A lot will depend on the development of a new starting fullback, probably converted linebacker Brian Thompson.
Will the Twins make the playoffs? Don't laugh, but if baseball's Minnesota Twins remain even remotely in the hunt, the football Gophers may have to play scheduled October home games against Michigan and Michigan State on the road because of Metrodome scheduling conflicts. That could be a potentially crushing blow for a promising team with an otherwise favorable schedule (no Ohio State or Purdue).
Aug. 30: The defending national champions begin their repeat quest with a prime time game against Rick Neuheisel-less -- but still dangerous -- Washington.
Sept. 13: It's two huge non-conference showdowns -- one traditional, one not so much as Notre Dame travels to Ann Arbor and upstart N.C. State visits Columbus.
Oct. 18: Big Ten fans finally get the matchup they missed out on last year: Iowa-Ohio State. Unfortunately, Brad Banks will not be on hand.
Nov. 22: The sky will be gray, the stadium packed as the two arch-enemies meet for their annual season-ending grudge match. Yep, Indiana-Purdue should be a doozy.