Conference Breakdown: Ranking the Big 10

RunTellMattContributor IJuly 19, 2009

EVANSTON, IL - NOVEMBER 11:  The Ohio State Buckeyes take the field prior to the start of a game against the Northwestern Wildcats on November 11, 2006 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois. Ohio State defeated Northwestern 54-10.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
by RunTellMatt

Every summer I make do with the monotony and the boring, college football-less Saturdays by doing my best to scout all 120 FBS teams.  Plus, as a gambling man and a rabid college football fan, I like to know what I’m talking about.  
In this 12-part feature, I’ll break down each conference, including the independents, ranking the teams in order of how good I perceive them to be heading into the season, complete with last years W-L record and my predictions for each teams 2009-10 W-L record.  
Feel free to comment on what a splendid job you think I’ve done and how my analysis and forecast is dead-on.  Or you can disagree, whatever.
In Part 2 of this feature, I'm scoping the Big 10.

11. Purdue Boilermakers | Last Year: 4-8 | My 2009 Prediction: 1-11
To say Purdue is in a big rebuilding year is an understatement as they lose Curtis Painter, their best QB in years, their top RB Kory Sheets and their two top WR’s.  In fact, only 13 starters return to a  team whose best win last year was against Central Michigan.  I know, they beat Michigan as well, but so did everyone else.  
So, gone are the name-brand talent, including Joe Tiller who coached Purdue the last 12 years,  but back is QB Joey Elliott who played nicely spelling Painter last year.  A few good D-linemen and good secondary also return.  
Purdue, at the very least, has a good depth of young, but inexperienced talent.  The home opener against Toledo should be a good gauge, but I’m taking Toledo.  Purdue simply won’t be able to rely on the OFF firepower they’ve enjoyed for so many years. 
Purdue starts their season with their four non-conference games against Toledo, Oregon, Northern Illinois and Notre Dame with the one road game being at Oregon. The Boilermakers will be lucky to start the season 2-4.  With that being said, it’s Big 10 the rest of the way and considering Purdue is sitting at my 11 spot, I don’t see them standing a chance in any of their conference games with the lone exception being the last game of the season at Indiana, maybe.   

10. Indiana Hoosiers | Last Year: 3-9 | My 2009 Prediction: 2-10
Indiana returns plenty of experience with several Juniors and Seniors in key spots.  However, such was the case last year and it didn’t seem to make a difference as Indiana went 1-9 against FBS teams.  
The secondary looks to be a glaring weak spot, but the DEF does have some decent linebackers and two very good DE’s in Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, both seniors. The O-line may be decent, but will need to be more consistent in pass protection.
If QB Ben Chappell is able to properly execute more of a pistol formation like they want to and spread the field to utilize their quickness, they’ll have the players in place to be able to put up the points.  But can the DEF do what it needs to do to be competitive?  
Without a power RB, Indiana will be forced to the edge where they’ll be promptly stopped by teams with athletic DE’s and a solid LB corp.  It will take some time to get their new OFF right, putting more pressure on the DEF to hold up.  With so many players overcoming injuries, the DEF could wear down quickly if the OFF can’t keep them off the field.

9. Michigan Wolverines | Last Year: 3-9 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6
In 2006, Michigan should have played for a national championship against Ohio State when, before meeting the Buckeyes at the end of the season, they were a perfect 11-0 and ranked #2 in the nation.  That was the last time they were officially regarded as a national powerhouse.  
Now, they must continue to rebuild back to that level of play in year two of the Rich Rodriguez project, which has had mixed reviews from the fans.  Michigan showed signs of actually making it work last year, but proved to be pretty far off.  
This year they have all 11 starters returning on OFF and the right players in place to run the high-powered OFF once perfected by RichRod at West Virginia.   However, the QB position, and perhaps the ultimate success of the spread OFF they want to run, lies on the shoulders of an unproven Frosh QB Tate Forcier.  
There’s a talented secondary who’ll be needed to win the turnover battle as Michigan gave up the rock 18 times in 12 games last year.  This year’s Michigan will be much better and will most likely make a bowl again, but they’re still another year away from competing for the Big 10 Championship again.  They’ll be tested right out of the gate as they take on Western Michigan— a team that may just win the MAC this year.

8. Michigan State Spartans | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6
The Spartans may prove to have one of the better DEF in the Big 10 this year returning 8 starters led by LB Greg Jones, their leading tackler the past two years.  The questions for this team will be on the OFF side of the ball where they need to replace one of the top RB’s in the country last year, Javon Ringer.  
The Spartans do return four potentially great WR’s, but yet another question is who’s going to throw to them, Keith Nichol, an Oklahoma transfer, or Kirk Cousins who spelled QB Brian Hoyer last year.  Most likely they will both see time.  
Michigan State and its fans will know exactly where they stand when they face Central Michigan, the consensus front runner for a MAC Championship this year, in the second game of the season.  If they can win that game, they’ll be 2-0 when they head to South Bend, IN to face a much-improved Notre Dame team, which could just be the pivotal game for the season.  
If the Spartans win, look out.  If they lose, they’ll most likely nosedive into a 6-6 season.

7. Northwestern Wildcats | Last Year: 9-4  | My 2009 Prediction: 7-5
With Pat Fitzgerald (two-time Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner) as your head coach, you can bet a lot of attention is paid to the DEF unit, which looks to be the strength of the Wildcats this year.  
All four starters return in the secondary along with NFL prospect DE Corey Wootton. The O-line is good, but might have to play even better to give a new trio of RB’s, each possessing a different skill set, and new QB Mike Kafka time to operate.  We know Kafka can run (83 yards against Ohio State and 217 yards against Minnesota, a Big 10 record by a QB), but the key to, and ultimate success of the OFF will be if he can stand in the pocket and deliver.  
If Kafka doesn’t develop as a passer, he’ll attempt to rely on his legs too much which will hurt the OFF significantly as Northwestern doesn’t have a Javon Ringer-type RB who can carry the OFF load.  Teams will simply stack the box, shut down the OFF and force the DEF to be on the field more than they can afford.  

6. Wisconsin Badgers | Last Year: 7-6 | My 2009 Prediction: 7-5
Wisconsin’s OFF strategy of acquiring huge 250 lb RB’s and pounding the ball 30+ times per game has proven to be consistently effective (e.g. Ron Dayne, P.J. Hill).  At 6’2”, 247 lbs,  RB John Clay looks to fit the mold.  
Once again, there is a QB controversy in Wisky with QB Dustin Sherer, who is the better, more experienced passer, and the more mobile redshirt Freshman Curt Phillips.  
The lines must replace 3 starters each and the DEF lost 4 of their top 6 tacklers as well.  The success of the Badgers this year may live and die with the success of the QB play.  
There's a big early test in the second game of the season at home vs. Fresno St.  This Wisconsin team should be very similar to last season and could go either way as far as improving or not.

5. Minnesota Golden Gophers | Last Year: 7-6 | My 2009 Prediction: 7-5
In 2007, Minnesota went a miserable 1-11 on the season only to turn it completely around and start 2008 7-1. Unfortunately, they finished with 5 straight losses including a 42-21 New Year’s Eve loss to Kansas.  
Although Minny has improved even more coming into 2009, significantly improving the record may not be possible as they have to face all four Big 10 teams ranked ahead of them.  However, Minnesota can still improve by being competitive in their marquee games and not just against the teams they’re expected to beat.  
With 9 starters back on OFF and 8 on DEF, including their top 4 tacklers, the Golden Gophers are looking better than they have in years.  Their ground game will need more production than 3.1 YPC like last year, which has been a point of emphasis during the spring.  The OFF can only improve and the DEF is now more experienced and should be better as well.  
There’s a lot to be excited about in Minnesota with a brand new stadium and possibly a new era if they can improve on last years success.  

4. Illinois Fighting Illini | Last Year: 5-7 | My 2009  Prediction: 10-2
The Illinois OFF looks scary good with talent at all the skill positions including QB Juice Williams, Phil Steele’s Big 10 1st Team choice, WR Arrelious Benn, who’s being heralded as the next Anquan Boldin, Florida transfer and five star recruit, WR Jarred Fayson, Senior TE Mike Hoomanawanui, and even RB’s Jason Ford and Daniel Dufrene.  
However, the DEF will be the biggest question mark with only 5 starters returning and will be led by outstanding athlete and LB Martez Wilson, who is a beast with 4.5 40 speed.  He’ll be relied on heavily as the other 2 LB’s on each side of him are brand new.   The secondary returns a lot of experience minus CB Vontae Davis, who left early for the money.  
Despite any perceived deficiencies in the DEF, Ron Zook is a relentless recruiter and you can bet there’s plenty of talent across the board.  Nonetheless, it will be a major disappointment if the Illini cannot improve on last year’s mark.  
Illinois should once again be in for a lot of shoot-out’s.  The OFF firepower will be there and the DEF will mature, but unfortunately the schedule is opposite of most with the tougher games, such as Missouri, Ohio State, Penn State & Michigan State, in four of the first five.  

3. Iowa State Hawkeyes | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2
Iowa looks to be somewhat the opposite of Illinois with a solid DEF, returning 8 starters, with the question marks being on the OFF side, returning 6.  Iowa’s questions on OFF aren’t nearly as glaring as the Illini’s questions on DEF which is why I have Iowa ranked ahead of them.  
Second year starter QB Ricky Stanzi isn’t the best passer, but he certainly should get the time with RT Bryan Bulaga providing protection.  No longer is there Shonn Greene to hand off to, but there is (was?) RB Jewel Hampton along with Paki O’Meara and Jeff Brinson.  I question whether Hampton will even play this year having torn his ACL this spring.  I’ve read he’s out for the season and also that the injury isn't nearly as severe as originally thought, which could make him available for the season opener.  Either way, there’s depth at RB so they should be fine.  
Overall, the DEF will be smothering and the OFF may struggle so they could be in for some low-scoring close games.  If the OFF can find a rhythm and produce points, Iowa could be a very dangerous team with a shot at the Big 10 title.

2. Penn State Nittany Lions | Last Year: 11-2 | My 2009 Prediction: 11-1
I’m not sure why a few sources (including Phil Steele) have the Nittany Lions ranked ahead of Ohio State considering they have 9 total players returning on OFF and DEF leaving several questions to be answered.  
However, QB Daryll Clark and RB’s Evan Royster and Stephon Green return from last year’s team that was a last second field goal away from going undefeated and playing for a national championship.  
One question will be if they can have the same kind of success playing behind an O-line that must replace three first-team All Big Ten linemen.  Clark will also be without his top three WR’s from last year.  DE Sean Lee comes back from a knee injury that sidelined him for all of 2008 and Novorro Bowman may turn out to be the best LB in the Big 10 if not the country.  
Despite, the losses, Penn State is as big a program as any and will have solid players top to bottom.  The Nittany Lions are in store for another solid year, and the winner of their game with Ohio State could determine the Big 10 Championship.  

1. Ohio State Buckeyes | Last Year: 10-3 | My 2009 Prediction: 12-0
I don’t know that I can do a good job of objectively looking at the Buckeyes on any given year.  I watch every game (sometimes more than once),  I know every player and despite only returning 5 on OFF and 7 on DEF, there aren’t any names atop the depth chart that Buckeye fans didn’t hear quite a bit of last year.  
Aside from having the nation’s best player, QB Terrelle Pryor, the Buckeyes reload as well as anyone in the country with multiple 3, 4 and 5 star recruits coming to Columbus each year.  
It is impossible to replace a stud like Beanie Wells, but the run game won’t suffer any with a pair of solid RB’s in Daniel “Boom” Herron and Brandon Saine, both of which will see plenty of carries.  Although top WR’s Robiskie and Hartline are gone, Sanzenbacher, Small, Posey and “Flash” Thomas are next in line and will produce better numbers with more emphasis on the passing attack.  
“The DEF won’t be better now that (insert highly decorated LB here) is gone.”  That’s what is said each time a void is left when Ohio State loses their star LB from the DEF, such as Andy Katzenmoyer, A.J. Hawk, James Laurinaitis, but the only thing left is some pretty large shoes to fill.  The question is, who will be the next great LB produced by the Buckeyes?  
The biggest loss may be in the secondary where 1st Team All American CB Malcolm Jenkins used to play.  If they can become a shut down unit, the DEF will be among the best in the country as the D-line is already top 5.  
The schedule should be recognized for how difficult and ambitious it really is considering the Buckeyes catch every one of the top teams in the Big 10, as well as USC, Toledo, a MAC title contender, and Navy, who has led the nation in rushing 4 straight years and 5 of the last 6.  
If the Buckeyes make it through this tough schedule unscathed or even with 1 loss to one of the top teams, they’ll no doubt be back in the title game discussion.

Go Buckeyes!