2011 was rough for Big Ten baseball. Other than Illinois’ automatic conference bid to the NCAA tournament, the conference failed for the second year in a row to qualify any other teams. One of the nation’s most prestigious conferences continued to sink into the depths of the college baseball hierarchy, succumbing to the beasts of the SEC and ACC.

But that was 2011. Things have changed, and the future of baseball in the Big Ten is a favorable one. The question now is, how long will we have to wait for this new era to reveal itself?

There’s a different feeling to this season. A mild winter has let the grass grow a little greener, the sun shine a little brighter and the aura of change to feel a little stronger. Purdue is as strong as ever, Michigan State has the talent to take home another conference title and Nebraska is looking to make its mark on the Big Ten. But will it all be enough? The questions still remain. Who will capitalize on the opportunity in 2012? Will Nebraska prove it’s the new sheriff in town? Can Michigan prove its finish at the bottom of the standings last year was merely a fluke?

We will answer these questions and more as we highlight this year’s contenders and pretenders in our Big Ten preview.

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

In their first year as a member of the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers are well aware of their perception in the conference. They’re the new kids on the block and haven’t made the time to formally introduce themselves to their suburbia neighbors. Rather than bringing by some baked goods as a courteous gesture, Nebraska will try to prove it’s here to stay by taking home the Big Ten championship in 2012.

Former Husker and ex-major leaguer Darin Erstad takes over as the new commander-in-chief for Nebraska, replacing veteran Mike Anderson after last year’s embarrassing 3-8 May record. With eight returning starters, Erstad will rely on an experienced Cornhusker squad to improve on last season’s .270 team batting average. Junior outfielder Chad Christensen should emerge as one of the team’s top offensive threats, backed up by the big bat of sophomore outfielder Michael Pritchard. Sophomore left-handed pitcher Zach Hirsch will be an ace on the mound, while sophomore right-hander Brandon Pierce will be one of the conference’s top closers.

SPARTY ON

Michigan State will be back with a vengeance in 2012 after being snubbed of an at-large bid for last season’s NCAA Tournament. After tallying its second-consecutive 30-win season, the Spartans split the 2011 Big Ten title with Illinois. The conference’s best-hitting team will have to maintain its momentum late into the season, though, as a late collapse cost the team an opportunity to win the title outright.

Though the majority of Michigan State’s roster will return, the Spartans must recover from a few key losses on the mound and at the plate. Big Ten batting champion Brandon Eckerle and the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year first basemen Jeff Holm, were both drafted by the Detroit Tigers. Senior right-hander Tony Bucciferro will be one of the Big Ten’s premier stars, listed as the 34th-best player in College Baseball Daily’s 2012 Top 100 Player Countdown. The Spartans won’t have the opportunity to play Nebraska this year, but their pre-conference success should be deserving of a postseason bid.

PUR-DOING IT RIGHT

Some would say Purdue’s 37-win season last year may be the Boilermakers’ pinnacle mark. As the team moves into its new home at the state-of-the-art Northwest Complex this spring, Purdue believes it can keep the fire stoked in 2012. The only Big Ten team currently ranked in the nation’s top 25, the Boilermakers are returning an experienced team that has arguably the best infield in the conference. If Purdue can reproduce last season’s .309 batting average and .967 fielding percentage, this may be the team’s year to make a deep postseason run.

Purdue’s only weakness may be the lack of depth of its pitching rotation. In addition to losing ace Matt Morgan to the major leagues, right-hander Brad Schrieber will miss the majority of the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Boilermakers will rely on their workhorse, senior right-handed pitcher Lance Breedlove, who leads the Big Ten in strikeouts thus far. For offensive production, Purdue will turn to fifth-year senior infielder Eric Charles and junior catcher Kevin Plawecki. Despite a challenging non-conference schedule, the Boilermakers currently hold the best overall record in the Big Ten.

BLUE TIMES IN ANN ARBOR

If there’s one team in the Big Ten that has something to prove, it’s Rich Maloney’s Michigan squad. The Wolverines finished last in the conference a year ago at 7-16. After struggling early in the season, Michigan’s losing streak seemed to simply snowball before the team could diagnose its issues. A year later, the same team that was battered and bruised at the bottom of the Big Ten barrel is looking to “flip it” by capturing a Big Ten championship this season.

But it will take a lot more than just words and motivation. The Wolverines need improvement in both their lineup and bullpen, looking to improve on a conference-worst 5.09 ERA and .245 batting average. Junior outfielder Patrick Biondi has been exceptional for Michigan thus far and will be the rock of this season’s lineup. Look for freshman outfielder Will Drake to emerge as one of the Wolverines’ top performers, along with the consistent bat of sophomore outfielder Michael O’Neill.

Michigan’s bullpen still lacks reliable relief pitching, an area the Wolverines must continue to develop in Big Ten play. The starting rotation, headlined by junior right-hander Ben Ballantine, has shown glimpses of dominance early this year but has struggled of late with its inability to shut down opposing lineups. The Wolverines have the talent to compete with the conference’s giants, but they need to execute in big games if they hope to change the fate of baseball in Ann Arbor.

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