Is this the year the Big Ten bounces back and becomes among the nation's elite conferences again? Probably not, but led by Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Penn State's Daryll Clark, there is talent in several key positions all over the conference.
It is starting to look more and more like the battle for the Big Ten crown is going to be a three-man race. This spring Ohio State and Penn State cemented their claim to the top two spots and are far and away the best two teams heading into the fall.
But the Iowa Hawkeyes are not far behind and before the season ends will once again play a major role in the Big Ten title race. If the Hawkeyes are not challenging for the title themselves, they will have a shot at knocking off both the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions—even though they must travel to Columbus and Happy Valley to do it.
Heading into the fall, there is still a lot of work to do for every team. These power rankings reflect how I see the teams after the close of spring practice. Pre-spring rankings are in parentheses.
1. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES (1)
The Buckeyes lost a large senior class and a few underclassmen to the NFL, but after two huge recruiting classes for Jim Tressel, the cupboards are far from bare in Columbus. The evidence was on full display at Ohio state's spring game.
Sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor showed significant improvement after 15 practices, receivers Dane Sanzenbacher, DeVier Posey, Ray Small, and Lamar Thomas could be better than the two Brians (Robiskie and Hartline), and the running back combo of Daniel Herron and Brandon Saine could add a different element to the Buckeyes offense.
Defensively the Buckeyes must replace superstars James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins, but before Laurinaitis and Jenkins there were A.J. Hawk and Donte Whitner. Ohio State always seems to be able to replace superstars on defense, and after this season we could be asking how the Buckeyes will be able to replace Austin Spitler and Chimdi Chekwa.
2. PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS (2)
The good thing about a good team playing a weak schedule is that the season can essentially be boiled down to a few games. For the Nittany Lions, 2009 boils down to four games, and the big one is at home. The Lions must travel to Illinois and Michigan State, while the revenge game against the Hawkeyes and what may end up being the de facto Big Ten Championship game against Ohio State are at home.
This team will be talented but young in key positions. The lines need a lot of retooling. Maurice Evans and Aaron Maybin are gone on the defensive line, and only guard Stefen Wisniewski returns on the offensive line.
Galen Hall and Jay Paterno must also find replacements for Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood, all of whom were four-year players.
3. IOWA HAWKEYES (3)
There is plenty to get excited about in Iowa City, but cautious optimism may be the best course of action for fans.
The offensive line was strong last season but lost guard Seth Olsen and center Rob Bruggeman; however, the tackles are back, as well as quarterback Ricky Stanzi and top receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos.
Jewel Hampton seems like he'll be a competent replacement for Shonn Greene, but Greene's ability to make something out of nothing isn't so easily replaced.
Defensively, replacing Mitch King and Matt Kroul is going to be difficult. The pair was certainly the best tackle combination in the conference last season. The Hawkeyes may have an easier time replacing King and Kroul than they do with their Big Ten road schedule: They visit Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State in 2009.
4. ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (5)
The skill players in Champaign might be the best in the conference. Juice Williams has matured into an efficient passer and a good all-around playmaker, and he has all his key parts back, from receivers Arrelious Benn and Jeff Cumberland to tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who will be a bigger part of the offense this season.
The Illini pass rush was the best in the Big Ten, and the entire front seven was great at getting into the backfield, but the run defense stunk. The team led the league in tackles for loss and still finished ninth in run defense. This season, the defense will again be active and athletic but must show it can be tough.
5. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS (4)
The defense showed some flashes last season but lacked the consistency that Mark Dantonio defenses usually have. This season, most of the defense returns and should be loaded with Greg Jones and Trevor Anderson leading a good front seven.
The defense will need to carry the load especially early on as quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol gain some experience. Replacing Javon Ringer is still a major concern heading into the fall, but a receiving corps that was mediocre last season should be better with a year of experience under its belt.
6. NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS (6)
The Wildcats were second in the Big Ten in sacks allowed last season, and that was with three redshirt freshmen starting. The entire line returns, including senior tackle Desmond Taylor, and could be the best offensive line in the conference heading into the season.
Offensively there is still work to do. Mike Kafka showed some improvement this spring at the quarterback position but still needs to prove he can do more than run, and Pat Fitzgerald is still looking for a steady running back to emerge to replace Tyrell Sutton.
7. MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS (7)
Tim Brewster joked that he fielded more questions about the new TCF Bank Stadium than he did about football this spring. Maybe it's because there isn't much new to report about the Gophers football team. Everyone is back.
Sure, Jack Simmons, Willie VanDeSteeg, and Deon Hightower were all major producers, but they’re the only ones missing from a team that started out last season so hot.
Everyone else is back, including quarterback Adam Weber, receiver Eric Decker, and eight other starters on offense, as well as nine starters on defense.
8. WISCONSIN BADGERS (9)
The Badgers might be tremendously flawed, and if they play like they did last year, they can be beaten by anyone, but the schedule works out relatively well with no Penn State or Illinois and plenty of winnable home games against teams like Wofford, Northern Illinois, and Purdue.
Another reason to get excited is the emergence of freshman quarterback Curt Phillips this spring. Although Dustin Sherer does have starting experience, Phillips' quick feet and running ability could give the Badgers offense the kick they so desperately need.
9. MICHIGAN WOLVERINES (8)
The Wolverines had a promising spring but still have major concerns all over the field. Last season, the defense was the strength of the team and can be directly credited with all three of the Wolverines' victories, but the losses of Tim Jamison and Terrence Taylor on the line and Morgan Trent and Brandon Harrison in the secondary seem all the more devastating after the defensive unit struggled this spring.
The star this spring was undeniably freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who struggled early on but had seemingly taken over as the leader of the quarterback race heading into the fall.
10. PURDUE BOILERMAKERS (10)
Danny Hope's first spring as Purdue's head coach is over, and while there is reason to be excited about a defense that returns its entire secondary—which led the Big Ten in pass defense—there is still reason for concern about an offense that lost everyone of significance from last season.
Hope looks to the fall when he can add talented freshmen Eric Williams, Gary Bush, and Gabe Holmes to the mix on offense. Al-Terek McBurse needs to step up this fall and show that he can carry the rushing load left by Kory Sheets.
11. INDIANA HOOSIERS (11)
The Hoosiers were last in the Big Ten in almost every meaningful defensive category, struggled offensively, and were blown out in every FBS game but two last season. Is the talent level there to improve?
Bill Lynch kicked Kellen Lewis, his best offensive player, off the team, and the defense, led by defensive end Jammie Kirlew, didn't show much growth in the spring. It's hard to see the Hoosiers improving on last season's 3-9 record.