Whether Michigan defends its conference title or Ohio State breaks through to the Bowl Championship Series title game for the second time in three years, the Big Ten will have a profound impact on college football this season.
"Further review" on the use of instant replay in college football will come in the form of this fall's Big Ten games. The conference has decided to use instant replay for one year, trying out a system that, if it proves to be successful, could be implemented in other leagues. The system, similar to that used by the NFL, will be the first instant replay used in college.
"What we are talking about, with regards to instant replay, are sideline and goal line discrepancies, which is pretty much the same thing that you see on Sundays with the NFL, when coaches throw red flags," Big Ten coordinator of officials Dave Parry said. "The irony of officiating is that no one remembers the accurate calls that you make; they just remember the ones that you miss. There is nothing worse than finding out, an hour after the ballgame, that you missed a critical play."
Conference coaches, most notably Penn State's Joe Paterno, have been vocal in their criticism of referees over the past few years. During the 2002 season, after a game against Iowa, the coach ran after a referee, grabbed his shirt and forced him to turn around so Paterno could argue a call.
Six technical advisers will implement the system, which will be done from a booth above the field. Using video monitors, the advisers will push a button that sets off pagers on all four officials and a timer, if they see an obvious mistake. Officials will then be able to sort out the mistake via telephone with the adviser in the booth, taking less than a minute to complete the process.
Most of the Big Ten coaches have said they are in favor of the new system, but some have expressed reservations about cost or time requirements.
"I never really pushed for it," Paterno said at the Big Ten's media day in early August. "I was just always for figuring out a way to get it done where it didn't take a lot of time. . . . All of us want the game to be determined by the kids."
To overturn a call on the field, the technical advisers must find "indisputable evidence" that the original ruling was incorrect.
"Indisputable means that it has to be clear and obvious," Parry said. "If there is any question or doubt, the call will stand as made by the officials. It has to be the type of play where, if 100 people were looking at it, all 100 would say, 'Hey, that is not a touchdown.' "
While there will be changes in the officiating stemming from the instant replay system, on the field there might not be any changes at the top of the standings.
Michigan is favored to pick up a second straight conference title, despite losing its starting quarterback and running back. Even without John Navarre or Chris Perry, the Wolverines retain their strength at wide receiver and, with 17 starters returning from their Rose Bowl campaign in 2003, should have a tested and veteran squad.
The Wolverines' fate once again might be determined in their regular season finale at Ohio State. The Buckeyes will hope veteran running backs Lydell Ross and Branden Joe and a defense led by linebacker A.J. Hawk will make life easier for a rookie quarterback.
The rest of the conference doesn't look to shake out all that differently than last season. Wisconsin finished a disappointing seventh in 2003, tied with Northwestern, after going 6-1 to open the season but could deliver on its promise this year.
Minnesota, projected to be in the middle of the Big Ten standings, might have the conference's most explosive offense with one of the top running games in the nation and most of its offensive line returning.
But, even with the potential for a team or two to compete on the national level, the Big Ten's calling card in recent years has become parity, as upsets have become increasingly common.
"It's been 27 years now that I've been coaching in this conference, and it's always been tough," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said, "but I don't think it's ever been as balanced as it is today."