A Balanced Big 10 Could Lead to More Excitement

Scott Taylor@@Taylor_SportsCorrespondent IJuly 31, 2008

I have been a huge critic of the Big 10 over the years, but I think that this year will be a rebound year for the conference.

There are a lot of experienced teams in the conference and the bottom-feeders like Indiana and Northwestern are better than they have been in the past.

However, the conference is still owned by Ohio State and I don't see that changing this year.

1. Ohio State 10-2, 7-1

When a team has 19 returning starters from a team that was in the championship game the year before, it is dangerous.

Todd Boeckman surprised many last year with his performance at quarterback and now he has a year of experience.

Chris Wells is a Heisman Trophy candidate in the backfield, while the whole stable of wide receivers are returning.

Nearly the whole defense is returning as well, and it was one of the best in the country last year. James Laurinaitis staying in school was a huge plus for the Buckeyes.

The schedule though won’t be the piece of cake that it was last year.

Of course by now you know of the game of the year at USC on Sep. 13.

There also is a trip to Camp Randall Stadium to face the Badgers. The last time the Buckeyes played there was in 2003 when they were No. 3 and lost 17-10. I expect another loss there this year.

Trips to Michigan State and Illinois will also be tough, as will a visit from Penn State.

There are too many landmines this year for another trip to the championship, but another Big 10 title seems likely.

2. Wisconsin 9-3, 6-2

As likely as it is for OSU to win the Big 10, it has been just as likely that Wisconsin is playing in January.

A big question will be at the quarterback position, but that has been the case virtually all decade and the Badgers still find a way to win.

P.J. Hill, Zach Brown and possibly Lance Smith give the Badgers one of the best stable of backs in the country. The offensive line is back basically intact, making the running game dangerous once again.

Travis Beckum is one of the top tight ends in the country, but he will need some help from Kyle Jefferson and others at WR.

The defense struggled surprisingly last year, but I look for an experienced group to rebound nicely.

An early season trip to Fresno State has the makings of another great Sep. 13 game.

It is a brutal start to the conference season with a trip to Michigan, followed by OSU and PSU at home.

While I think the Badgers will win all three, it doesn’t get any easier as trips to Iowa and MSU loom. They have struggled against both teams in the past (could have lost to both at home last year) and I see them getting beat by at least one of them.

3. Penn State 10-2, 6-2

The Nittany Lions are highly regarded this year, based largely on switching to the spread offense that worked well in 2005.

I guess I am buying into it too based on where I have them.

Daryll Clark and Pat Devlin will be competing for the QB position, but both can run the spread like Michael Robinson did in 2005.

It will be a less potent backfield though without Randy Kinlaw, but Evan Royster and a great offensive line should keep the running game good.

The wide receiver trio of Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams are all back and have underachieved based on potential. They will have to live up to their potential if they want a title of some sort.

All of the off the field issues and injuries have crippled the defense a bit, but it should still be solid.

The schedule sets up nicely for the most part, but trips to Wisconsin and OSU surround a home game with Michigan.

Other than that, it should be pretty smooth sailing for JoePa.

4. Iowa 8-4, 5-3

This is a very gutsy pick for me since I have loved to put this team down over the years.

Jake Christensen should be a lot better in year two at the helm, while the running games has to be healthier than in years past.

The receivers have struggled lately as well, but this could be a breakthrough year for them if Christensen heats up.

A once-feared defense as been average the past couple of years and that doesn’t look to get much better this year, although it should improve.

It should be three easy wins for the Hawkeyes before an interesting trip to Pitt to see which team is for real.

Once again Michigan and OSU are off their schedule, and I think they will take advantage of that more this year.

PSU and Wisconsin both come to Iowa, which is why I think this team will over achieve.

5. Michigan 7-5, 4-4

Nobody really knows what to expect with the Wolverines under Rich Rodriguez in his first year.

With the change to the spread offense, it should take a couple of years before the offense clicks.

However, with the likes of Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown and Kevin Grady, the running backs should make the transition easier than normal.

It will also be a good time for a change to the run with the top two receivers from last year gone. Expect Greg Mathews to be the guy this year.

The defense struggled at times last year and they lose their top four tacklers, which makes the unit a question.

Michigan could start off behind the eight ball again with a tough game with Utah to open the season.

The conference season starts with two tough home games against Wisconsin and Illinois.

Trips to Penn State and Ohio State could lead to the worst finish for Michigan in years.

6. Illinios 7-5, 4-4

Illinois should how good it isn’t in the bowl game last year and I think it weaknesses will be shown this year.

Juice Williams is an overrated QB and I actually think that the Illini would be better with Eddie McGee.

The loss of Rashard Mendenhall will be a huge loss, but expect Daniel Dunfree to have a solid year.

Arelious Benn has the potential to be a stud at WR, but it will be hard without a consistent QB.

The defense will probably end up pretty similar to last year, despite losing J Leman and Antonio Steele. The line and secondary will make up for their loss.

The braggin’ rights game to start the season will be a tough one to win again, but if they can pull it off, it could be another good year.

However, the Illini open the conference season at PSU and Michigan, so thinks could start off pretty rocky as well.

There also are a pair of games against teams with some revenge on their mind (@ Wisconsin, vs. OSU).

7. Michigan State 6-6, 3-5

After suffering six losses by one score a year ago, I really wanted to put the Spartans up higher, but I just don’t see it.

Javon Ringer and Bryan Hoyer will keep the offense solid, but the loss of Devin Thomas will really hurt this team.

The good news is the defense should be better than last year, which was good enough to stay in games.

The problem for Sparty is the schedule.

A trip to California to start the season is rough, but not having an easy conference game is even worse.

There is no Minnesota on the schedule and MSU travels to both Northwestern and Indiana, making those games toss ups.

Home games against Wisconsin and OSU aren’t walks in the park either.

I could see MSU going anywhere from 4-8 to 9-3 this year, so expect a lot of close games like last year.

8. Purdue 6-6, 3-5

It doesn’t look like it will be a good final year for Joe Tiller.

Curtis Painter has a good chance to be the all-time leading passer in school history, but the depleted receiving corps will hurt the passing game.

That will put a little more pressure on the running games of Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor, which may not be a bad thing with a solid offensive line.

The defense hasn’t been nearly as good as it was at the turn of the century, which is a big reason why the success as a team hasn’t been there.

Expect that to be a big problem again this year.

The potential is there for a strong season based on the schedule, but I don’t see the Boliers being strong enough to win away from West Lafayette.

It is a tough way to open the conference season with a home game against PSU, followed by trips to OSU and Northwestern.

9. Minnesota 5-7, 2-6

I will never understand why the Gophers got rid of Glenn Mason, but I hope they are happy after last year.

The team should be much improved this year though behind QB Adam Weber and WR Eric Decker.

It should also be a better year on the defensive end, which isn’t saying much.

Last year the Gophers were embarrassed by a bunch of bad teams. I do think that they will be good enough to beat more of those super tough non-conference games.

The big break for the Gophers is that they get Indiana and Northwestern at home, which is why they finish ahead of both, although they are still the worst team in the conference.

10. Indiana 6-6, 2-6

This was an exciting team last year and if Kellen Lewis plays, the Hoosiers should be exciting again this year.

I hesitate to put them higher because of that question, as well as losing James Hardy.

Look for Marcus Thigpen to break loose this year with a better offensive line.

The Hoosiers will probably have some problems on defense, which will keep them from going to a bowl game.

Getting Northwestern, Iowa and MSU at homes gives this team some hope though.

11. Northwestern 6-6, 2-6

I really think the Wildcats are better than where they will likely finish.

C.J. Bacher is a solid QB if he can keep away from all the interceptions.

Tyler Sutton needs to stay healthy though for the offense to reach its full potential.

I expect the defense to keep improving with a defensive-minded head coach in Pat Fitzgerald.

A big problem for the Wildcats is the conference schedule.

However, it could be a big plus if they are a little bit better than what I think they will be.

They get their toughest opponents all at home, making those games more winnable. They also have winnable trips to Indiana and Minnesota, giving them the potential to stay out of the cellar. I just don’t see it happening for the Wildcats.


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