In just a few weeks the Big Ten's best will gather in Chicago for Big Ten Media Day. Many of the same questions asked last year will appear this year . Can the Big Ten match up better with other power conference teams in the bowl season? Will Terrelle Pryor be able to lead Ohio State to the title? Will the Rich Rodriguez style be a good fit in Michigan?
Many experts are asking these valid questions. But, if you ask me, the same teams will be there again but in a different order this year.
IOWA 9-4 (5-3) The Hawkeyes are my pick to win the Big Ten. Junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi leads an offense that leaned on Shonn Greene's legs last year and now will look to the arm of Stanzi to help them move the ball. Replacing Greene is Jewel Hampton, who did run for over 400 yards last year in a limited role. The offensive line is solid, with three starters returning, including Bryan Bulaga, Julian Vandervelde, and Kyle Calloway.
Where the Hawks may struggle is in the passing game. The big question is who will step up and catch the ball. Derrell Johnson-Koulianos was the leading receiver last year with 44 catches and three scores, but the Hawks will need more production this year out of their receivers with Greene gone.
On defense, replacing Mitch King is a must. The 2008 Defensive Player of the year leaves a big hole up the middle, that many Big Ten foes will try to expose. Where Iowa is strongest on defense is in the secondary. Last year they had 23 INT's and gave up just 9 passing touchdowns. Junior corner Amari Spievey will be a candidate for All Big Ten.
Overall the Hawks seem like the most stable of last year's big guns. Their two toughest games are road contests with Penn. St and Ohio St. A win in Happy Valley on September 26th will be the one that gets them to Pasadena in the end, as I have Iowa going 11-1 (7-1) and going to the Rose Bowl.
Ohio State 10-3 (7-1) The Buckeyes will be the team on the outside when it is all said and done. The big game with USC, and a trip to Penn State will be their big stumbles on an otherwise straight march through the Big Ten. Several key offensive starters departed from last year, including Chris Wells and Brian Robiskie. Returning is all world playmaker Terrelle Pryor at QB. Expect him to help out the running game, one that may be a running back by committee type style. The line had its issues last year at times, but look for a more physical style this year.
Defensively the question is how do you replace your best? Gone are James Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman, and Malcolm Jenkins. Strong safety Kurt Coleman will provide leadership from the secondary. Up front 3 starters return and look to replace Freeman. With Laurinaitis gone, teams will look to batter the Bucks up the middle, and test if they are the "solid as usual D."
Bottom line in Columbus, they are still a top dog. At 10-2 (7-1) with losses to only Penn State and USC, look for the Buckeyes to secure an at large BCS bowl. I am gonna say Sugar Bowl. They will beat Iowa on November 14th, but a USC loss will be the difference. A share of the conference crown will go to Columbus.
Penn St 11-2 (7-1) Joe Paterno keeps churning out winning teams up at State College. After a four win campaign in '04, the Lions have had four winning seasons with 11, 9,9, and 11 wins respectively. Quarterback Daryll Clark and tailback Evan Royster return. They will be the stars of this offense. All the big play receivers left. The Nittany Lions will look to a tandem of junior receivers to set the pace. The O-line is lead by Junior Center Stefan Wisniewski, an all Big Ten selection a year ago.
The question with this unit will be at right guard where freshman Matt Stankiewitch takes over. Look for the combo of Clark and Royster to pace the Lions and gain them all the points and yards they need to compete in the Big Ten.
The defense loses seven starters from its championship unit including all four defensive backs and defensive end Aaron Maybin. Look for linebackers Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman to make up for the losses the new secondary gels. Look for Jared Odrick to be the big run stopper up front, for a defense that will bend but not break, and again be just good enough to win most of their games.
A cupcake schedule out of conference will net the Lions four easy wins, but when Iowa comes calling in late September, look for the young defense to struggle, and Royster to be bottled up. A let down game at Northwestern on Halloween will fuel an angry Nitanny Lion team, as they stun Ohio State the next week. 10-2 (6-2) will send Joe Pa to Orlando and the Capital One Bowl on New Years Day.
Minnesota 7-6 (3-5) The Gophers will look to forget its second half collapse from last year. The late game loss at home versus Northwestern sent Minnesota in a tailspin. This year many of the same faces return. Junior quarterback Adam Weber is back to star in their wide open attack. Catching most of the balls is all-world receiver Eric Decker, who will be back healthy after an ankle slowed him down at the end of the season.
Improvement is needed on the ground. Tailbacks DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon must improve on their 3.1 yards per carry average from last year. The O-line will get better via Notre Dame transfer Matt Carufel and junior college transfer Jeff Wills.
To say the defense needs to improve would be an understatement.The pass defense may or may not be with Tramaine Brock, thus senior corner Traye Simmons will have to improve. The question is who helps him out? Look for the front seven to be vastly improved, despite the departure of Wille VanDeSteeg. They will look to erase the memory of a 200 yard effort from Northwestern's backup QB.
TCF Bank Stadium will inject new blood into the Gopher program. Look for them to start out fast with wins over Syracuse and Air Force, but stumble against a better Cal team. The Gophers will be good enough to win 5 league games, with losses coming all on the road at Iowa, Penn St, and Ohio State. 8-4 (5-3) will send Minnesota to Tampa and the Outback Bowl.
Northwestern 9-4 (5-3) Coach Fitz has brought a lot of energy and optimism to a program that fell on hard times after the death of Randy Walker. There are many questions on the offensive side of the ball. Mike Kafka takes over at QB. Kafka has the running ability, as was seen in the Minnesota game last year, but the question is whether he can make the throws.
Then the question after that is who will be catching the ball? Gone are the veteran receivers from last year and in are a group of unproven guys looking to get a chance to play. The strength of the offense is the line, where four of five starters return, including Sophomore Al Netter. Stephen Simmons is penciled in at tailback, but look for incoming freshman Arby Fields to make an impact.
The Cats defense will be where they win games. Defensive end Corey Wootton returns and gives Northwestern a much needed pass rush. In the secondary, Sherrick McMannis is a shut down corner, along with solid safeties Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips. The linebacking unit should also be a solid group, led by middle linebacker Nate Williams.
An easy out of conference will aid Northwestern's march to back to back bowl games. Set backs to Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois will be it. The Cats will go back to back nine win seasons at 9-3 (5-3) and will head to the Champ Sports Bowl, since they were in the Alamo already the year before.
Illinois 5-7 (3-5) The Illini followed up a Rose Bowl trip in 2007 with a less than stellar performance in 2008. Returning is Juice Williams at QB and Arrelios Benn at wide out. These two will have huge years. Benn, a playmaker on special teams, will be a key to setting up the offense in positive field position where quarterback Williams and running back Daniel Dufrene can run free. The question is whether a retooled line can aid the big play offense to score enough to compensate for a defense that is mediocre at best.
On D the loss of Vontae Davis at corner is the least of issues. Off-the-field issues have left several question marks as to who will play defense. Martez Wilson appears to be the big play guy at linebacker, but can he make enough of them?
The one thing we know is that Ron Zook can recruit. What has been the problem is being able to coach these young talents. An early win over Missouri will give them confidence, but losses at Ohio State, Minnesota, and Cinncinnati, plus setbacks at home versus Penn St and Michigan will leave Illinois at 7-5 (4-4) headed to the Alamo Bowl.
Wisconsin 7-6 (3-5) The Badgers continue in mediocrity. Last year they were flying high heading into the season looking to improve on their nine win campaign of 2007. Questions at quarterback, wide receiver, and running back will keep the Badgers near the middle of the pack. Dustin Sherer takes the helm at QB this year, and many wonder if he can make the throws. John Clay is a solid sophomore back, as he looks to fill the shoes left by P.J. Hill.
The receiving corps is lead by David Gilreath, and tight end Garret Graham. Never a question is the line and ever since the days of Barry Alvarez you could guarantee two things: Winning football and 300 pound lineman.
Defensively the Badgers need a lot of help up front. Central Michigan transfer JJ Watt could be the best up front, since he plays both inside and out. The secondary may be the most stable. Returning corner Niles Brinkley could be all conference, if teams decide to go at him.
Basically it comes down to this. If Brett Bielema doesn't get them back to winning 8-9 games a year, fans may stop jumping around before the fourth quarter, and start jumping on him. I look for Wisconsin to trip at home versus Fresno State, on the road at Hawaii, and lose against Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio State, and Northwestern. 6-6 (4-4) will be good enough to get them to the Insight Bowl.
Michigan State 9-4 (6-2) The Spartans attempt to maintain the momentum from last year's campaign. But gone are QB Brian Hoyer and all world back Javon Ringer. That equals big problems in East Lansing; Kirk Cousins may take the snaps, and he is more of the option guy than Hoyer, so look for several option looks to add to the offense. Ashton Leggett will fill Ringer's shoes. The 200 plus pounder will need every ounce to get through a line that returns only two starters.
A bright spot is on the outside with several experienced receivers returning, including Blair White and B.J. Cunningham. The question is can their QB get the ball to them?
On the other side of the ball the defense will be better than last year. With pass rusher Trevor Anderson creating havoc, the veteran secondary looks to make big plays. Among the returning starters is corner Ross Weaver. Look for him to have a break out year. Even with a better, deeper defense, the question remains, how many points will they give up?
Mark Dantonio has a good thing going in East Lansing. This is just simply a rebuilding year. 5-7 (2-6) will not get the job done and they will be left watching bowl games at home.
Michigan 3-9 (3-5) Rich Rodriguez looks to get the maze and blue back to form this year and bounce back from one of Michigan's worst years. Offensively, it is all about who will take the snaps. Right now it looks to be Tate Forcier. But by the end of camp who knows? One thing is certain, Brandon Minor is a 1000 yard back looking to erupt. If given the ball enough, he could easily have a career year. At wideout watch out for sophomore Martavious Odoms. A Florida native, he struggled in the cold, but should have a big year catching the ball and returning it.
The vaunted defense will be the same solid group it always is. Last year a poor offense was a bigger enemy than the opposing offense. Brandon Graham is a load at DE, and Obi Ezeh will lead a talented group of Linebackers. In the secondary Safety Stevie Brown is back, and corner Donovan Warren is a superstar waiting to be.
This year will be better than last, it has to be right? Look for the maze and blue to hang tough with the big dogs, and beat up on Indiana and Purdue. 5-7 (2-6) will be the mark, with a top tier team being born in 2010.
Indiana 3-9 (1-7) Bill Lynch may not be there when they beat Purdue for the bucket on November 21st. That's because he has a team that is overmatched pretty much everywhere. One of the few bright spots could be tailback Darius Willis. He combines power and speed and could be the only reason to watch a Hoosier game. The receiver corps are young and untested as is QB Ben Chappell.
The line is a solid group of big guys, and are strong run blockers. But, you can't run the ball when you are 40 points down now can you?
Linebacker Matt Mayberry and end Jammie Kirlew are the leaders on D. In the secondary the return of injured safeties Nick Polk and Austin Thomas could aid in the maturation of several young corners.
Bottom line is 3-0 against cupcakes, 1-7 in the Big Ten, and a loss to Virginia. Bill Lynch is gone by season's end, and Darius Willis goes for 1200 yards. There are better days ahead for Indiana football.
Purdue 4-8 (2-6) Joe Tiller is no more, and that will lead to a difficult season in West Lafayette. At QB it is untested senior Joey Elliott's job to lose. Although he only threw 15 passes last year, he is gonna have to be the guy on a team that is quarterback thin. The O-line is experienced and big, returning four starters from last year's team. All of the skill positions lack experience however. Dan Dierking will take the hand offs and a plethora of receivers will compete for the starting jobs.
Defensively the Boilers should be okay. Returning end Ryan Kerrigan looks to set the pace for any opposing team wanting to run the ball. The real question here is if the secondary will be able to break up passes. Last year they allowed better than 50% pass completion percentage to opponents. Looking to step up are corners Brandon King and David Pender.
New coach Danny Hope will do that this year, hopefully. With a group of young, untested players, success is a bit further in the future. Two and ten with a goose egg in the Big Ten will leave Boiler fans waiting for basketball season by early October.