This definitely is the toughest Big Ten I have seen in years. There are four legitimate contenders for the conference title, and five teams that can beat any of those schools on any given day. Even the two teams in the cellar have enthusiastic new coaches anxious to prove they can turn around their programs.
Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Purdue made my Preseason Sweet 16. OSU is a different team with Troy Smith at quarterback. He adds a dimension to the offense that opens up things for everybody else. If Michigan can step up its defense just a notch from last year, the Wolverines could find themselves back in the Rose Bowl. Iowa never is out of a game as long as it has the miracle man, Drew Tate, at quarterback, and Purdue has all 11 starters back on defense and doesn't have to play Ohio State or Michigan.
This also will be the year Penn State gets back on track, giving Joe Paterno a much-needed winning season. Up in Wisconsin, players could rise to the occasion and send Barry Alvarez out on a good note, and Michigan State coach John L. Smith will have a surprise or two up his sleeve. Minnesota will have one of the best running games in the country, and Northwestern will upset one of the top four teams in the conference. Ron Zook will bring in a new level of athlete to Illinois, and Terry Hoeppner will bring a breath of fresh air to the Hoosiers.
|1. Ohio State Buckeyes Team page | Schedule | Roster | SportingNews.com preview |
Ranked fourth in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16
Quarterback Troy Smith's ability to run and throw accurately led the Buckeyes to four victories in their last five regular-season games, pumping new life into a stagnant Buckeye offense. The strength of this offense is its receivers – look for coach Jim Tressel to spread his personnel and find creative ways to get the ball to Santonio Holmes and sensational flanker Teddy Ginn. The more ways they can get the ball to Ginn, the better off they're going to be. Nine starters are back on offense, and if Antonio Pittman, Eric Haw or even true freshman Maurice Wells can come through at running back, this offense will be pretty hard to stop. With the loss of kicker Mike Nugent, Tressel shouldn't want to conservatively play games down to a tight fourth quarter, especially since has the guns to put people away early.
What really should have the Buckeye faithful excited is the defense. Linebacker A.J. Hawk, who finds the ball like a heat-seeking missile, leads nine returning starters. I see no weaknesses on this squad with Quinn Pitcock leading the front four, cornerback Ashton Youboty leading the secondary and Hawk leading one of the best linebacker corps in the country.
There are two critical games in September against Texas and Iowa that will determine whether the Buckeyes have what it takes to make another run at the national championship.
|2. Michigan Wolverines Team page | Schedule | Roster | SportingNews.com preview |
Ranked fifth in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16
If someone had told me Michigan would share a piece of the Big Ten title last year with a true freshman at quarterback and tailback, I would have told them they were crazy. But the Wolverines did. The very fact that QB Chad Henne has a year of experience under his belt is enough in and of itself to make this a much better team.
There is a veteran offensive line led by tackles Jake Long and Adam Stenavich. Tim Massaquoi is a three-year starter at tight end and is backed up by veteran Tyler Ecker. Although first-round NFL draft choice Braylon Edwards is gone, there still is a lot of danger coming from receivers Steve Breaston and Jason Avant. And sensational tailback Michael Hart, who rushed for 1,455 yards last year as a true freshman, may have to give up some of his carries to fellow sophomore Max Martin and true freshman Kevin Grady.
In other words, folks, this Wolverine offense is loaded.
Defensively, they should be outstanding as well. Then again, there was no reason they should not have been outstanding last year, but Michigan gave up 37, 37 and 38 points in three of its last four games, leaving a lot of people shaking their heads.
The front four comes back intact, and this should be the strength of the defense. Giant defensive tackles Gabe Watson and Pat Massey should be able to stuff the run, and veteran ends Pierre Woods and LaMarr Woodley should put plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The back seven is where some new guys are going to have to step up their games. The coaches are really excited about linebacker Chris Graham, who plays with a fast motor. Leon Hall is a tough-minded cornerback who will have to shut down the opponents' best receivers.
The schedule brings both Notre Dame and Ohio State into Ann Arbor. Iowa on the road is the other big game. If the defense is totally committed to shutting down the run and putting offenses in predictable passing situations, the Wolverines can make it back to the Rose Bowl. If they sit back and let offenses bring the fight to them, they'll be watching someone else make a run for the Roses.
|3. Iowa Hawkeyes Team page | Schedule | Roster | SportingNews.com preview |
Ranked 11th in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16
The book on Iowa is that the Hawkeyes win games by shutting down the run on defense and running the ball on offense. Last season they had the fifth-best run defense in the country – led by four senior defensive linemen who stuffed the run, pressured the passer and seldom came out of the game. All those guys have graduated, and the new group expected to start this year has nine total tackles between them. There will be some early-season growing pains with this front, but the good news is that they will be backed up by one of the best linebacker crews in the nation. Seniors Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway are the studs. The secondary is led by two senior cornerbacks who make up in quickness and speed what they lack in height. Still, look for teams to try to exploit them with taller, rangy receivers.
The amazing thing about last year's 10-2 season is that, with the top four running backs lost to season-ending injuries, the running attack was the worst at Iowa since 1971. That's where all-Big Ten quarterback Drew Tate comes in. This guy has uncanny scrambling ability and always seems to make something happen to win the close games. In fact, three times last year, Iowa won by two points, and it won the Capital One Bowl on a 56-yard touchdown pass to Warren Hollaway as time expired. Hollaway has graduated, but senior wideouts Clinton Solomon and Ed Hinkel give the Hawkeyes one of the better pass-catching duos in the league.
There still are too many question marks in the running game and defensive line to know whether Iowa can repeat as co-champion of the Big Ten. Games at Iowa State, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin, and home games against Michigan and Minnesota give Iowa one of the toughest schedules in the Big Ten as well.
|4. Purdue Boilermakers Team page | Schedule | Roster | SportingNews.com preview |
Ranked 14th in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16
If ever there were "somebody's year" in the Big Ten, this would have to be it for Purdue. To have all 11 starters back on defense in the same year you do not play Ohio State and Michigan is just too good to be true. But the Boilermakers must prove they can play with the other big boys after going 0-4 last year against ranked opponents.
Not only does Purdue return everybody on defense, but we're talking about the 15th-best scoring defense in the country. Purdue's defensive line, led by end Ray Edwards, was extremely tough against the run last year and also led the Big Ten in sacks. Middle linebacker George Hall is the best of the 'backers, and two-year starter Bernard Pollard anchors the secondary from his strong safety position. If the Boilermakers can create more turnovers this year (Purdue was 79th in turnover margin last year) it would go a long way toward making this a championship-caliber defense.
Offensively, quarterback Kyle Orton has moved on to the Chicago Bears, and it's time for fourth-year junior Brandon Kirsch to have his at-bat. Kirsch is a different kind of animal when it comes to quarterbacks. He will hurt you with his legs as much as his arm, and as a result coach Joe Tiller has added a little option to his spread offense. The good news is that Kirsch can make more things happen as a quarterback than Orton. The bad news is that a lot of those things aren't so good.
Record-setting receiver Taylor Stubblefield is gone, but there are enough returning receivers and tight ends to make this possibly the best overall group in the Big Ten. Running backs Jerod Void, Brandon Jones and Kory Sheets all can make things happen in the backfield.
The bottom line is that if Kirsch can limit his miscues and show good decision-making skills, this could be a special year for Purdue.
|5. Michigan State Spartans Team page | Schedule | Roster |
The key to turning last year's 5-7 record into a winning season will be quarterback Drew Stanton's ability to master the passing game – and stay healthy. Stanton is some kind of athlete, and he led Michigan State to the No. 1 offense in the Big Ten with 460 yards per game. State will miss breakaway threat DeAndra Cobb at running back, but Jason Teague and Jahuu Caulcrick return. There are plenty of receivers to make the passing game go.
Defensively, the Spartans need to become more disciplined in not giving up the big play. No one has really stepped up in the secondary.
Most importantly, Michigan State needs to take care of the football. You're not going to make any progress ranking 105th in the nation in turnover margin.
|6. Penn State Nittany Lions Team page | Schedule | Roster |
There just is no way a team should have the fifth-best scoring defense in college football and not have a winning record. In fact, not one Penn State opponent last year scored more than 21 points. However, when you also have the worst scoring offense in the conference, you still are going to have problems winning games. With nine starters back on defense, the Nittany Lions have a chance to be very good again on that side of the ball.
With an athletic fifth-year senior at quarterback in Michael Robinson, the coaching staff must come up with some kind of offensive scheme that can put some points on the board. If Penn State can get anything out of the offense, the Nittany Lions ought to be 5-0 by Oct. 1 and heading for a much-needed winning season. It should help that Penn State has attracted some much-heralded recruits in Derrick Williams and Justin King who ought to give the Nittany Lions some much-needed explosiveness.
|7. Minnesota Golden Gophers Team page | Schedule | Roster |
Even with the loss of 1,200-yard rusher Marion Barber III, Minnesota will return one of the nation's best running backs in Laurence Maroney, who accounted for 1,348 yards last season. However, for Minnesota to become a serious threat for the conference title, the Golden Gophers must get better in the passing game so they can have more balance against the better teams on their schedule.
On defense Minnesota's strength will be stopping the run, but that's kind of scary because last year the Gophers were one of the worst teams in college football when it came to stopping the pass. With seven starters back on defense the emphasis must be on becoming more fundamentally sound and not giving up the big play.
With all four of the top teams in the conference on the schedule, the Gophers will have a hard time repeating the seven-win season they had last year.
|8. Wisconsin Badgers Team page | Schedule | Roster |
Now that Barry Alvarez has announced his retirement as head coach at the end of the season, you have to wonder what kind of distraction it will be. I never have liked the idea of the players feeling like they had to do something special for their coach in his final season instead of just going out and playing football.
With only nine starters returning, it is hard to imagine Wisconsin repeating last year's 9-3 season. But if Colorado transfer Brian Calhoun is as good at running back as Alvarez thinks, Calhoun could be the catalyst for another really big season.
|9. Northwestern Wildcats Team page | Schedule | Roster |
Fourth-year starting quarterback Brett Basanez will become the school's all-time leading passer with just 530 more yards. But the Wildcats have to find a way to finish their drives and get the ball into the end zone. Last year Northwestern scored just 24 touchdowns on 39 trips into the red zone. That ain't good, dadgumit.
Defensively, Northwestern will be led by a strong linebacker group, including senior Tim McCarigle and juniors Nick Roach and Adam Kadela.
Northwestern had four overtime games last year and won three of them – and still didn't make a bowl. This year's schedule looks even more daunting.
|10. Illinois Fighting Illini Team page | Schedule | Roster |
Former Florida coach Ron Zook may have gone out of the furnace and into the fire. Illinois has had only two winning seasons in the last decade. The biggest thing he can do is win as many games as he can – and it is not going to be many – then go get some better football players. Four or five wins would be nice this year.
|11. Indiana Hoosiers Team page | Schedule | Roster |
I really like the selection of Terry Hoeppner as the new head coach. I covered the Miami (Ohio)-Michigan game to open last season, and Hoeppner, the RedHawks' coach, really impressed me as a guy who knew where he wanted to go and how he was going to get there. I have always felt that at Indiana you have to schedule yourself three really good non-conference chances to win, and then coach your butt off to get three or four in your conference. Hoeppner has a good spread offensive scheme that should eventually give him a chance to win, if he can just get a few more decent athletes.