Big Ten Preview: Sizing Up the Big One and the Little Ten

Brendan MonaghanCorrespondent IAugust 2, 2008

1.  Ohio State

It’s good to be the kings, and ever since the guy with the sweater vest arrived, that’s what the Buckeyes have been.

Now, with just about all their weapons returning—including quarterback Todd Boeckman, running back Chris “Beanie” Wells (easily the Big Ten’s strongest Heisman candidate), and linebacker James Laurinaitis—it’s difficult to see the Buckeyes as anything but the Big Ten champions for 2008. 

The Buffalo Bucks have a lot of doubters (not the least of which reside below the Mason-Dixon Line), and they can go a long way toward proving them wrong (for a little while) when they visit the USC Trojans at the Coliseum.

On the other hand, just remember what happened the last time the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten opened up against a team from Division I-AA.

2.  Wisconsin

One of the more consistent teams in recent years has been the Wisconsin Badgers. When Bret Bielema took over for living legend Barry Alvarez, the Badgers didn’t miss a beat.

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With PJ Hill—the Wisconsin Winnebago—returning, along with talented tight end Travis Beckum and quarterback Allan Evridge, 10 wins and a return to Florida on New Year’s Day look like a cinch.

The offense looks as powerful as ever, but the defense—a traditional Badger staple—needs improvement, particularly a secondary that yielded 222 passing yards per game.

The schedule gets tough late in September, but softens up again once November hits.  After a trip to Ann Arbor and an evening visit from the Buckeyes, the rest doesn’t look so bad.  Don’t expect a title, however, unless something dreadful happens at the top.

3.  Illinois

Betcha can’t do that again! Ron Zook’s third year in Champaign proved to be a breakthrough few could have foreseen. The Illini won nine games, and by virtue of beating Ohio State, made their first Rose Bowl since the 1983 season.

So what can you do for an encore?  Running back Rashard Mendenhall left a year early to the NFL, and the defense’s emotional leader J Leman graduated.

The good news, however, is that Isaiah “Juice” Williams is only a junior, and receiver Arrelious Benn returns after winning the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year award. Inexperience looms at linebacker, while the safeties also look suspect.

The schedule—complete with several daunting streaks—is rather ominous.  For starters, the Illini haven’t beaten Ohio State in Champaign since 1991. Instead of a return trip to Pasadena, a New Year’s date in Florida seems more likely.

4.  Michigan

The Wolverines were one of the most disappointing teams in college football last year—certainly in the Big Ten—and they still almost won the conference before beating Florida in the Capital One Bowl. This year, however, almost certainly looks like a down season.

The starting quarterback is expected to be a redshirt freshman, the tailback should be fumble-prone Brandon Minor, and the receiving corps is almost totally unknown. What’s more, new head coach Rich Rodriguez insists on running his spread offense with the personnel he has, which looks like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

The defense shows potential, but is similarly depleted of much of the talent from previous seasons. Michigan’s schedule is forgiving enough for the Wolverines to be competitive in the Big Ten, and plenty of fans will tell you that lesser Michigan teams have knocked off mightier Buckeye teams before, thus ruining their conference and national title hopes.

On the whole, however, this looks like a team headed for San Antonio. Enjoy it while you can, Michigan haters.

5.  Purdue

Joe Tiller’s reign in West Lafayette has brought unparalleled success to a once pitiful and forgotten program. His final season should take the Boilermakers to their 11th bowl in 12 seasons. There is certainly enough talent on offense to do just that—and maybe just a little more.

Quarterback Curtis Painter will have plenty of options to throw the ball to in seniors Greg Orton, Desmond Tardy, and Brandon Whittington. He can also hand it off to Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor.

Where the Boilers desperately need help is on defense, which has steadily declined since they led the conference in total defense in 2003. This, more than anything else, has limited Purdue’s upward mobility in the conference in recent seasons. 

In any case, Purdue will go bowling again, probably the Insight Bowl, and offensive line coach Danny Hope will have big shoes to fill when Tiller steps aside at the end of the year.

6.  Michigan State

Mark Dantonio’s first year experiment to transform the Spartans was a success.  The team went bowling for the first time since 2003, and they even beat rival Penn State, which had bested them consistently in recent seasons.

However, they still lost an awful lot of close games, including another gut-wrenching bout with the Wolverines. The Spartans return a talented quarterback in Brian Hoyer as well as a powerful running back named Javon Ringer.

Questions arise, however, at wide receiver and tight end. The Spartan defense is small, which could hurt them once the Buckeyes, Wolverines, and Badgers pay visits. 

If the Spartans can survive a week one trip to Berkeley—and stave off another late-season collapse—maybe Sparty will get a chance to avenge last year’s loss with another trip to the Champs Sports Bowl.

7.  Penn State

Something is rotten in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  While the Nittany Lions played unremarkable football on the field (they won all of one road game, in Bloomington, Indiana), their off-the-field conduct gathered plenty of headlines.

Six suspensions last season and two dismissals before this season suggest that the legendary coach Joe Paterno may have lost control of his program. 

Indeed, with a lot of talent gone, particularly on defense, this looks to be another disappointing season in State College.

Taking the place of the inconsistent and much-maligned Anthony Morelli will be Daryll Clark, who reminds some of 2005 star Michael Robinson. The wide receiver corps looks strong, with seniors Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood.

There are big questions, however, on a defense that has been hit by graduation, dismissal, and injuries. A bowl game looks within reach, even if it’s in Detroit.

8.  Iowa

The Big Ten’s hottest seat belongs to Kirk Ferentz. The popular view in Iowa City is that Captain Kirk isn’t being paid $2.8 million a season to win six games. The Hawkeyes missed a bowl game for the first time since 2000, Ferentz’ second season. They were also dogged by disciplinary problems and suspensions which kept the team from competing in the conference.

The questions start at quarterback. Jake Christensen did what could best be described as a season-long impersonation of Rex Grossman, hurling almost as many balls in to the stands as in to the end zone.

The questions continue at tailback and keep right on going into the receiving corps. The defense, however, looks decent, and is anchored by a strong line. 

It’s safe to say that since winning two Big Ten titles in 2002 and 2004, Iowa has declined—and Kirk Ferentz’ NFL stock has fallen along with it.  If Iowa fails to make a postseason appearance—and fails to beat the Cyclones—Captain Kirk could be looking for a new starship.

9.  Indiana

Bill Lynch’s first season in Bloomington could be regarded as one of the most inspirational in college football last year. After taking over for the late Terry Hoeppner, the Hoosiers “Played 13” for the first time in 13 years.

And you know what? With the easiest schedule in the Big Ten, a record eight home games, and quarterback Kellen Lewis coming back, they could just do it again. 

Lewis is the engine that powers the team, and he’ll get help from veteran tailback Marcus Thigpen. James Hardy may be gone, but Lewis can count on James Bailey, Andrew Means, and Ray Fisher when he throws.

A second straight bowl appearance rests on the shoulders of the defensive line, of which junior Greg Middleton is a part.

A weak non-conference schedule should allow for four wins right off the bat. Winning three in conference—say, at Minnesota, and home games against Iowa and Northwestern—would guarantee a spot.

10.  Northwestern

As hard as it is to blame third-year head coach Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern football isn’t delivering under his tenure. The Wildcats skipped out on a bowl for the second straight year in 2007, but talent on offense and a very soft schedule make a return possible. 

That doesn’t mean they’ll perform well in conference. CJ Bacher leads the offense, and what should be a highlight-rich senior season closes out an outstanding Wildcat career for Tyrell Sutton.

However, the offense won’t be able to score as many points on a consistent basis as the Wildcats should give up on defense. 

Without much strength or athleticism, it’s hard to compete defensively in a league as physical and tough as the Big Ten.  Running the table non-conference is doable, but if the Cats want to make it to a bowl game, they’ll have to win at least one conference game on the road.

11.  Minnesota

Expectations were not supposed to be high in the Twin Cities, but nobody thought 2007 would be this bad for Tim Brewster’s Golden Gophers.

One win. That’s all the Gophers could manage in Brewster’s debut season, and it came against the Miami RedHawks. 

That means they also lost 32-31 to Bowling Green, 42-39 to Florida Atlantic, and they even did the Wolverines one better by losing 27-21 to Division I-AA North Dakota State (a team they escaped losing to thanks to a blocked field goal the year before). The Gophers also went 0-8 in Big Ten play. 

While their record should improve, their placement, ultimately, will not. There isn’t a lot of talent on either side of the ball, but the youthful offense may show some signs of potential in the future.

Brewster, however, isn’t as focused on this year as he is down the road. The 2009 season brings a new stadium, and maybe new results in Minneapolis.

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