Big Ten Football: How Many Bowl-Eligible Teams Will League Have In 2010?
With the Big Ten football season drawing ever-closer, there are 11 football programs in the conference that all have dreams, aspirations, and expectations of playing in the postseason.
Many of them will reach that goal.
Some will not.
I evaluated the schedules, crunched the numbers, ran through the possibilities, and came up with a total of eight Big Ten teams that are destined to be playing football in December or January.
Is your favorite team one of them?
Illinois Fighting Illini? NO
The Illini have been underwhelming in Big Ten play the last couple of years; in fact, you can count on one hand the number of league wins Ron Zook has registered since the 2007 season (which happened to finish in Pasadena, for those who don't remember).
With offensive stalwarts Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn out of eligibility, fans are hard-pressed to find six winnable games on the 2010 Fighting Illini schedule (which is especially sad considering "directional" in-state opponents Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois both visit Champaign early on).
Is this the last hurrah for the Zooker?
Indiana Hoosiers? NO
Indiana boasts enough offensive talent to win arguably every game on their schedule.
"It's an opportunity for us to figure out how to get the ball in all those guys' hands," head coach Bill Lynch says of a unit featuring familiar standouts such as Demarlo Belcher, Tandon Doss, Terrance Turner, and Darius Willis.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball...
(Sorry, I'm still looking for something good to say.)
The Hoosiers will have to win some high-scoring ballgames in 2010, and despite all their skill-position firepower on offense, I still don't think they'll make it to six victories.
IU has a fighting chance to go 4-0 in the soft non-conference slate (I've seen better high school schedules), but I struggle to find two league games that they're destined to come out on top of. (To put things in perspective, the Hoosiers haven't won two league games in the same year since 2007.)
Maybe they can get by Northwestern at home, maybe they can pick off Illinois on the road. But can the Hoosiers definitely grab both of those?
I'm saying no.
Iowa Hawkeyes? YES
Depending on who you ask, the Hawkeyes are either favorites, co-favorites, or at the worst, likely runners-up in the 2010 Big Ten season.
Translation: winning at least a half dozen games shouldn't be a problem.
With Adrian Clayborn, Ricky Stanzi, and a preseason AP Top 10 ranking, hopes are high in Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes catch a little break in the scheduling department as well, since conference big boys Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State all have to visit Iowa City.
Book those postseason flights now, Iowa fans.
Michigan Wolverines? YES
Of all eleven conference teams, the Wolverines were the most difficult to predict. Their schedule does them no favors (Notre Dame and Connecticut in non-conference play), the focus in Ann Arbor has been on anything but football (remember all those NCAA hearings?), and they completely choked after a 4-0 start a season ago (finishing tied for last in the Big Ten).
But, the Maize and Blue have plenty of talent, a coach who needs to win to keep his job, and the excitement of a renovated stadium that still offers a home-field advantage unlike any other.
"We have a lot of guys coming back," Rodriguez told reporters earlier this month. "The key is to be able to execute better.
"There's a lot of hungry football players in Ann Arbor."
This should be a team on the rise.
Key word being "should".
So I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and pencil them in for six wins.
(Begging the question, is a postseason trip to Detroit still a postseason worth celebrating?)
Michigan State Spartans? YES
I'm tabbing the Spartans as my surprise team of 2010, thanks to a schedule that doesn't force them out of the state until the eighth game of the season.
Yes, you read that correctly: Michigan State's first seven football games are all in-state (five home, one at Michigan, one against Florida Atlantic in Detroit).
With Kirk Cousins leading the way under center and All-American Greg Jones anchoring the defense, Michigan State could be bowl-eligible before they ever have to cross the state line.
They definitely will be by the time the regular season wraps up.
Minnesota Golden Gophers? NO
Last year, the Golden Gophers had Eric Decker, didn't have to play USC, and lost seven games.
This year, the Gophers don't have their do-everything superstar, do have to face off with the mighty Trojans in non-conference play, and will likely lose at least seven games.
If Adam Weber has a season like he did in 2008 (as compared to an abysmal 2009), Minnesota at least has a fighting chance of sniffing the six-win plateau.
But with a brutal home schedule (including USC, Penn State, Ohio State, and Iowa), the Gophers will have to win more road games than simply is realistic (for their talent level) to finish the regular season at .500.
Small consolation: At least the new stadium is nice.
Northwestern Wildcats? YES
The Wildcats haven't had a losing season since 2006--a testimony to the solid job Pat Fitzgerald has done in his first head coaching assignment--and Northwestern looks primed for another trip to the postseason this year.
It won't be easy in Evanston, as the 'Cats have a pair of road trips in non-conference play and probably won't equal last year's 5-3 Big Ten mark, but there are enough pieces in place for the Wildcats to once again qualify for a bowl.
"With the number of starters we have coming back, we're excited about 2010," said Fitzgerald. "We have 17 wins over the last two years, and that foundation of success, I think, has provided us with motivation to take the next step."
Keep an eye on how Fitz's team fares in the first month (at Vanderbilt, Illinois State, at Rice, Central Michigan). A 4-0 September means this team could make some serious noise in league play. A 2-2 start might make things a little uneasy for the Wildcat fans (with the conference powers still looming later in the year.)
Ohio State Buckeyes? YES
The Buckeyes aren't worried about winning six regular-season games; they're dreaming of how to get all 12.
Ohio State should get a serious test from the Miami Hurricanes in Week Two (will the winning quarterback--Terrelle Pryor or Jacory Harris--have a leg up in the Heisman race?), but from there, the sailing is relatively smooth until trips to Wisconsin and Iowa.
"We're a very capable team," said OSU coach Jim Tressel. "I know we'll be a team that's being targeted. We'll always get everyone's best shot.
"With that in mind, we'd better make sure our best shot's ready each Saturday."
Whether the Bucks can go undefeated and play for a BCS championship is a column for another time...but it's safe to say qualifying for postseason play is a pretty sure thing.
Penn State Nittany Lions? YES
Penn State starts Joe Paterno's 193rd season* at the helm with a Top-20 ranking, an established running back, and a lot of confidence.
They also start with one of the most brutal schedules in college football history.
Never before has a team had to visit three opponents in the same year who all won BCS games a season ago. With trips to Alabama, Iowa, and Ohio State on tap, that's the task facing the Nittany Lions.
However, even if the Lions were to lose all three brutal trips (a worst-case scenario, obviously), they can even things out by disposing of Youngstown State, Kent State, and Temple at home.
That still leaves home games against Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern, and Michigan State (plus the Hoosiers in nearby Maryland)...plenty of opportunities for Evan Royster to run wild and help the Lions to Paterno's 177th straight* bowl game.
*Yes, I know. I exaggerated.
But not by much.
Purdue Boilermakers? YES
The Boilermakers nearly qualified for the postseason last year despite a brutal five-game losing streak, and with offensive leader Keith Smith and defensive anchor Ryan Kerrigan returning for their senior seasons, Purdue should improve on 2009's 5-7 finish.
"Expect to be amazed", Smith says of his 2010 squad. "Our goal is to go to a January 1st bowl game. It's eluded me the past couple years, and I need to get there."
The Boilers will have to develop a running game to keep defenses honest (Ralph Bolden's torn ACL could be a bigger blow than most fans realize), but transfer quarterback Robert Marve has enough weapons on the outside (Basketball on Grass, Part Two?) to lead Danny Hope's team to a special season.
(Oh, and facing inferior foes Western Illinois, Ball State, and Toledo on consecutive September weekends can't hurt either.)
Wisconsin Badgers? YES
Last season's Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year still resides in the Wisconsin Badgers' backfield (junior running back John Clay), and after a 10-win 2009 season, even greater things are expected from Clay and company this fall.
The Badgers gained some recognition and notoriety on the national stage after knocking off Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl, and Bret Bielema's team has a chance to build on its reputation with a hot start this September (Wisconsin's four non-conference opponents went a combined 15-32 in 2009).
"Because of the way we finished the season a year ago, there's a lot of high expectations," Bielema says. "It's an exciting time for us at Wisconsin."
Whether the Badgers' season ultimately ends up as "rosy" as fans in Madison hope, there are definitely more than six wins on the slate this fall.
And if Clay puts up the numbers he's capable of, look for Wisconsin's win total to reach double digits for the second straight year.