Buckeyes start spring season at top of Big Ten -- again

The mass exodus never happened, and Ohio State is geared up to annoy the rest of the country with another BCS national championship push. There's a clear gap between the Buckeyes and the rest of the league, though Wisconsin and Penn State could inch closer by finding capable starting quarterbacks. Illinois lost a lot of star power, but has talented reinforcements, and Michigan is the league's acknowledged wild card. The league's middle could be reshuffled as teams like Purdue, Michigan State, Indiana and Northwestern all return proven quarterbacks.

Here's the ranking based on what we know, and what we don't:

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

What we know: Linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman are back, along with cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, to headline an outstanding defense.
What we don't know: The health of Freeman and defensive end Lawrence Wilson following injuries.
How the Buckeyes can win the league title: Survive road tests at Wisconsin and Illinois.

2. Wisconsin Badgers

What we know: The Badgers are ridiculously deep at running back, boasting starter P.J. Hill and reserves Zach Brown and Lance Smith, and return nine starters on defense.
What we don't know: Who will start at quarterback after the graduation of Tyler Donovan.
How the Badgers can win the league title: Restore the defense to its 2006 form and capitalize on a favorable home schedule (Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois).

3. Penn State Nittany Lions

What we know: The Nittany Lions boast a veteran offensive line and seasoned wide receivers in Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood.
What we don't know: The starting quarterback.
How the Nittany Lions can win the league title: Solidify the quarterback spot and ride a solid defense led by linebacker Sean Lee and strong safety Anthony Scirrotto.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini

What we know: Juice Williams is back for his third season as starting quarterback after helping his team reach the Rose Bowl.
What we don't know: Who joins Williams in the backfield after the loss of star running back Rashard Mendenhall.
How the Illini can win the league title: By improving the passing game to offset the loss of Mendenhall and solidifying the defensive midsection.

5. Michigan Wolverines

What we know: The spread offense arrives as one of its architects, Rich Rodriguez, begins his tenure as coach.
What we don't know: Almost everything: the starting quarterback, the wide receivers, the running back, the offensive line, the safeties.
How the Wolverines can win the league title: Swiftly grasp Rodriguez's offense and win key early home games (Wisconsin and Illinois).

6. Purdue Boilermakers

What we know: Quarterback Curtis Painter is back after passing for 7,831 yards over the last two seasons.
What we don't know: Who will catch those passes after the losses of Dorien Bryant, Dustin Keller and Selwyn Lymon (dismissed from team).
How the Boilermakers can win the league title: Find playmakers in the passing game, fill gaps at linebacker and offensive line, and avoid annual October slide.

7. Michigan State Spartans

What we know: Javon Ringer joins quarterback Brian Hoyer in the backfield after rushing for 1,447 yards as a junior.
What we don't know: How the offensive and defensive lines will shape up without standouts like offensive tackle Pete Clifford and defensive end Jonal Saint-Dic.
How the Spartans can win the league title: By filling a plethora of holes on both sides of the ball, namely along the defensive line.

8. Northwestern Wildcats

What we know: The Wildcats are stocked with skill players, led by quarterback C.J. Bacher and running back Tyrell Sutton, a fourth-year starter.
What we don't know: Who will replace three offensive line starters.
How the Wildcats can win the league title: Solidify the offensive line around Bacher, who must limit interceptions, and get much more production from a veteran defense.

9. Indiana Hoosiers

What we know: Do-it-all quarterback Kellen Lewis leads an exciting offense.
What we don't know: Who replaces superstar wide receiver James Hardy.
How the Hoosiers can win the league title: Find playmakers on offense and shore up the secondary for a favorable schedule (no Ohio State or Michigan).

10. Iowa Hawkeyes

What we know: The entire offensive line is back, and Mitch King anchors the defensive front.
What we don't know: Who steps in at running back and how Kirk Ferentz's staff shuffle will play out.
How the Hawkeyes can win the league title: Kidnap Terrelle Pryor.

11. Minnesota Golden Gophers

What we know: Quarterback Adam Weber and wide receiver Eric Decker form one of the league's top young passing combos.
What we don't know: How the nation's worst defense adjusts to a new coordinator.
How the Gophers can win the league title: They can't.

Adam Rittenberg covers college football and college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com