July 20, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan, Michigan State could get the best of Ohio State and its wimpy schedule

As much as Urban Meyer has ratcheted expectations, his team's weak schedule is one reason the Buckeyes are popular picks on a national scale. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The best and the brawniest gather in Chicago this week for the annual Big Ten football media binge, and you can bet the topics won't stray far from the basics.

» Will Urban Meyer ever lose a game at Ohio State?
» Will Braxton Miller win the Heisman at Ohio State?
» Is Ohio State great, or what?

It should be quite the smarmfest for Meyer, who went 12-0 leading the NCAA-incarcerated Buckeyes in his first season after being chased out of the SEC by Nick Saban (did I say that out loud?). When the votes are tallied, the Buckeyes will be heavy favorites to win the Big Ten, and are a fashionable pick to lose to Alabama in the championship game.

I'm not here to dispute that. I'm here to suggest Michigan and Michigan State sit just a notch below in the Big Ten, each with an outside shot at unseating the Buckeyes.

Granted, Ohio State's schedule is an embarrassment, with conference road games against Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois and Michigan — and neither Michigan State nor Nebraska on the slate. As much as Meyer has ratcheted expectations, that wimpy schedule is one reason the Buckeyes are popular picks on a national scale.

But Michigan does get Ohio State in Ann Arbor, and should be a more-settled team in its third season under Brady Hoke. With Devin Gardner making only his fourth start last season in place of injured Denard Robinson, the Wolverines came close in Columbus, losing 26-21.

Word out of Ann Arbor is Gardner has grown tremendously, which leads me to this: I think he could be every bit as dynamic and dangerous as Miller. And with a revamped offensive line that's inexperienced but fortified alongside tackle Taylor Lewan, the Wolverines should take another step toward their old smashmouth ways, and should start showing the benefits of major recruiting gains under Hoke.

The Spartans won't face the Buckeyes unless it's in the Big Ten championship game, but that's not far-fetched. Listen, Ohio State is going to win the final season of the lame Leaders Division, with Penn State still damaged and Wisconsin about to enter the post-Bret Bielema era.

But the Legends division is wide open. You could argue the four best teams after Ohio State are in the Legends — Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern. The Spartans have uncertainty at quarterback, but Mark Dantonio has solid options if Andrew Maxwell falters. He also has one of the nation's best defenses, led by linebacker Max Bullough and cornerback Darqueze Dennard.

If the Spartans handle the Wolverines at home again, they could win the division and meet the Buckeyes in Indianapolis. If the Wolverines win in East Lansing, look out, because their other road games -- Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa -- aren't horribly daunting.

The Wolverines underachieved at 8-5 last season and the Spartans underachieved at 7-6. Both will be better, with 9-3 a reasonable low-water mark. Michigan will get its shot against Ohio State, and Michigan State could earn its shot. Meyer hasn't faced the toughest competition yet in the Big Ten, but it's coming, and may be coming soon.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
Twitter.com/bobwojnowski