The Big Ten may be the best conference in the country this year. The depth of the conference is truly shocking this year. Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio State all are serious national title contenders. Purdue, Minnesota, and Penn State are all threats to sneak into contention for the conference title. Wisconsin and Michigan State look like they could pull off some upsets along the way, and Northwestern always seems to be a dangerous crew these days. Indiana and Illinois have new coaches and are looking to make some instant splashes as they move up the conference ranks. There just will not be an easy week this year in the Big Ten.
1. Iowa (9-2, 7-1)- The Hawkeyes return the ultra talented Drew Tate at quarterback. Tate is a junior now and looks primed to go the next step in his development. Last year the offense struggled at times, producing just seven points in the 44-7 loss to Arizona State and just six in the 6-4 win over Penn State. But things looked better late in the year, and most of that is due to the rapid improvement of Tate. He will still be throwing the ball to Clinton Solomon (905 receiving yards a year ago) and Ed Hinkel (63 catches a year ago), so the passing game should only improve. The offensive line returns three starters and has two seniors stepping in at the the other two spots. The problem last year for the Hawkeyes was a rushing game that averaged just 72.6 yards per game (good for 116 in the country). Injuries made it impossible for any consistency to be gained at running back. That means that this year, there is a lot of experience running the football. Marques Simmons, Damian Sims, Marcus Schnoor, and Albert Young all should run the ball a lot. The Hawkeyes may have the best duo of linebackers in the country in Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway. Both are phenomenal. Jovon Johnson is a stellar cornerback. Antwan Allen has loads of experience. They both interecepted four passes a year ago. The inexperience on defense is on the line. All four starters will be new, and three sophomores and one freshman are expected to be starting on the defensive line. An early road trip to Iowa State will not be easy, and a trip to Ohio State on September 24 will decide a lot. There is another road trip to Purdue on October 8 and Wisconsin on November 12. Michigan comes to Iowa on October 22, and the Hawkeyes rarely lose at home.
2. Michigan (10-1, 7-1)- The Wolverines were inexperienced last year when they started Chad Henne and Mike Hart (both freshmen) in the backfield. Now, that one two punch is back. Henne has the makings to be one of the truly special quarterbacks of this generation in college football. Hart pounded away for almost 1500 yards rushing a year ago. The offensive line returns four starters, which will give Henne and Hart plenty of room to operate. Without Braylon Edwards at receiver, Jason Avant and Steve Breaston will need to step up. Both have the talent to do so. The defense gave up 10 or more points in every single game a year ago and more than 20 in 7 out of twelve games a year ago. The 75 points allowed to Ohio State and Texas in their final two losses was really crushing. The defensive line returns Pat Massey, who had five sacks a year ago. Gabe Watson is also back looking to make good on all of his potential. LaMarr Woodley is the playmaker at linebacker and had 70 tackles a year ago. Leon Hall and Ryan Mundy return in the secondary and will have to step up even more after the loss of Marlin Jackson and Ernest Shazor. Road trips to Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Northwestern are relatively easy for a Big Ten schedule. Home dates with Notre Dame, Minnesota, Penn State, and Ohio State all should be winnable at home for the Wolverines. The toughest test must be the trip to Iowa on October 22. A win there and this team has the makings of a national title contender. Of course, with their defense, any week could get interesting very quickly.
3. Ohio State (9-2, 6-2)- Talk about an interesting team. After beginning the year 3-3, and then being 6-4, blowout wins over Michigan and Oklahoma State have the program thinking big for this season. Justin Zwick and Troy Smith will again battle for the quarterback job. Smith is the expected starter and he is a playmaker. The running game will be lead by Antonio Pittman, who has a lot of breakaway speed. The offensive line, which returns four starters, should be dynamite and open plenty of holes for Pittman. The receivers are the real strength for the Buckeyes. Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr. both have big play capabilty and the opportunity to really dominate a football game. The defense will also be a strength, a common occurrence under coach Jim Tressel. The linebackers are lead by A.J. Hawk, one of the best defensive players in all of college football. Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel are there to help him out. Ashton Youboty appears to be a rising star in the secondary, while E.J. Underwood, Tyler Everett and Nate Salley all have plenty of starting experience. In the mean time, do not be surprised if Ginn Jr. winds up playing some in the secondary. The defensive line recorded just nine sacks a year ago. With Marcus Green, Quinn Pitcock, Mike Kudla, and Jay Richardson all back on the line, much more is expected from them. September is the month to watch these Buckeyes. In that month, the Buckeyes play home dates with Miami (OH), Texas, San Diego State, and Iowa. After an off week, they go to Penn State on October 8. A road trip to Minnesota follows in October and a trip to Michigan on November 19 will be incredibly tough as well. This team has a lot of talent, but their very difficult schedule may mean that they are not going to get back to the national championship game this year.
4. Penn State (8-3, 5-3)- The Nittany Lions appear loaded for a run this season. Everything seems to be lining up for this to be Joe Paterno's last stand. The offense will be lead by Michael Robinson at quarterback. He is an athletic playmaker, but he has yet to prove that he can handle the role of starting quarterback for the Nittany Lions. The offensive line returns all five starters, which is good news for players like Tony Hunt, Austin Scott, and Rodney Kinlaw. All have big play ability at tailback. The only returning receivers are Terrell Golden and Mark Rubin, but the recruiting class featured a lot of talent at that position. Derrick Williams enrolled in January and is expected to have an immediate impact on the offense as a playmaking wide receiver. The defense was one of the five best in the country last year, and should only get better. Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor return at linebacker to make this a solid linebacker group. They secondary will be lead by Alan Zamaitis, a true shutdown corner. Anwar Phillips, Calvin Lowry, and Chris Harrell all have a ton of experience. The line is the real strength of the defense. Tamba Hall, Ed Johnson, Scott Paxson, and Matthew Rice all are returning starters and proven veterans. The schedule opens up very nicely with home dates with South Florida, Cincinnati, and Central Michigan to start the season. If the Nittany Lions can then win at Northwestern and against Minnesota, then they should be 5-0 start heading into a home date with Ohio State followed by a trip to Michigan. A home game with Purdue is two weeks later and a home game against Wisconsin and a trip to Michigan State close out the season. There is a chance for a Big Ten title run and a magical season with this schedule. However, there is also the chance for another disappointment and possibly not winning more than two Big Ten games like they did last year. Joe Paterno wants to have one more magical season and with 13 expected starters being seniors this year, this may be his last chance.
5. Minnesota (8-3, 5-3)- The Golden Gophers lost Marion Barbour III. For most schools that loss would be devastating. But few can sustain that loss like the Gophers, who return Laurence Maroney, who ran for over 1300 yards a year ago. With three starters back on the offensive line, things are looking good for the Gophers running game. Bryan Cupito is back at quarterback as well, but must improve on his passing game. With Jared Ellerson and Ernie Wheelwright running the routes at receiver, this team has the capabilities to make some big plays in the passing game, which is all this offense needs to be truly explosive. The defense will need to improve dramatically. Anthony Montgomery and Mark Losli are on the defensive line and are capable run stoppers. John Shevlin is expected to be a team leader as a sophomore from his linebacker position. Kyle McKenzie also returns as a starter. The secondary, which was much maligned for a large portion of last year, will be lead by Trumaine Banks, Brandon Owens, and John Pawielski. How much the secondary improves could have a direct coorelation to how many games this team wins. Trips to Michigan, Iowa, and Penn State, and home games with Purdue and Ohio State give this schdule an extra kick. The Gophers should have a very solid team again, and everyone keeps on waiting for Glen Mason's crew to put it all together and win the Big Ten title. Their clock is running down. This group needs to do it this year, although there is a chance that next year's team could be every bit as good.
6. Purdue (7-4, 5-3)- Everyone is high on the Boilermakers this season, and for good reason. The loss of Kyle Orton would be crushing at some places, but with Brandon Kirsch there ready to take over, things are not as bad as they would seem. Kyle Ingrham will become the team's go to receiver, while Dorien Bryant, Ryan Williams, and Brian Hare are more than capable receivers. The offensive line returns three starters. They are a solid front, and will spend their time blocking for the talented Jerod Void. Brandon Jones and Kory Sheets will be backing him up. Void has the capability to come up with a breakout season. The defense will be lead by the defensive line. Ray Edwards and Anthony Spencer are very tough against the run. Brent Grover and Brandon Villareal are wonderful from the tackle positions. The linebackers feature Bobby Iwuchukwu, George Hall, and Stanford Keglar. All are huge playmakers, though Hall is the leader of the bunch. Bernard Pollard is the best player in the secondary, while Paul Long, Brian Hickman, Torri Williams, and Kyle Smith are more than adequate back ups. Trips to Arizona and Minnesota in September are not going to be fun, while home dates with Notre Dame and Iowa will not be easy either. The trips to Wisconsin and Penn State in October could be tough. All in all, without Ohio State or Michigan on the schedule, the Boilermakers look primed to make a run at the national title. But the team lost five games by a total of fourteen points a year ago, and once things turned down hill, they kept on going down hill. Until the Boilermakers prove they can win the close ones and bounce back from a tough game and prove they can win a truly huge game, they will have to be considered a step below several other Big Ten teams.
7. Wisconsin (5-7, 4-4)- The Badgers three losses at the end of last season were truly disappointing, especially considering that they were 9-0 when the losses began. With only two starters back on the offensive line, things look like they could be tough again. But if the offensive line develops, this offense has a chance to be very very good. John Stocco returns at quarterback, and he will be throwing the ball to the talented wide receivers. Those wide receivers are Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr. The two are very good and possess game breaking speed. The running game will be lead by fullback Matt Bernstein, while tailback Brian Calhoun appears to be a big playmaker that can step in at quarterback. The brightest spot on the Badgers defense is the linebackers. Mark Zalewski, Andry Crooks, and Dontez Sanders are all returning starters for the Badgers. The rest of the defense is unproven. The defensive line is all new. Jamal Cooper is the best player on the line. The secondary is full of questions as well. Levonne Rowan may be the most important player to the secondary. If he can fufill his potential at corner, then the rest of the secondary may fall into place. The Badgers don't play Ohio State and get Michigan, Iowa and Purdue all at home. They can have their mark on the Big Ten race. Of course, the home date with Bowling Green in the opening week may be one of the more interesting games of the first week. If the Badgers find people to play both lines, then this team has potential to be very very good again.
8. Michigan State (4-7, 2-6)- The Spartans return one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the conference in Drew Stanton. He worked a lot on his accuracy in the spring and if he has a true breakout year, then there is no telling how high these Spartans could go. He will be throwing the ball to Jerramy Scott, Kyle Brown, and Matt Trannon, one of the better groups of receivers in the Big Ten. The running game will be lead by Jason Teague and Jehuu Caulrick, who ran for over 1300 yards combined last year as back ups for DeAndra Cobb. The offensive line returns three starters and could be among the conferences best. The defensive line is lead by the big play ability of Clifron Ryan, and Brandon McKinney has a world of potential. The linebackers are anchored by David Herron Jr., who is still growing in experience at the position. Eric Smith is also a very talented player. The secondary needs to provide some solid play. They are returning virtually no experience back there. If the Spartans can win at Notre Dame on September 17, then the season really opens up. A 4-0 start would be likely heading into the Michigan and Ohio State games. Northwestern and Indiana would come after that, meaning this team has the capability put together a 7 or 8 win season pretty easily. Of course, the down side is that a loss to the Irish could send the team spiraling, and if they don't recover in time, a loss at Illinois the following week in the Illini's first conference game under the new coaching staff is a distinct possibility.
9. Northwestern (3-8, 2-6)- With Brett Basanez back at quarterback, anything is possible for these Wildcats. He is a four year starter and very durable. He will be throwing the ball to Jonathan Fields and Mark Philmore, two big play threats at receiver. The offensive line returns just two starters and a new tailback must be found. Terrell Jordan is the favorite at the running back spot, where he ran for 315 yards a year ago. The defense will be lead by Loren Howard and Barry Coefield on the defensive line. They are both future NFL prospects. At linebacker, Nick Roach and Tim McGarigle are expected to shine. McGarigle had 151 tackles a year ago, and Roach recorded five sacks. Jeff Backes should become a very good cornerback this year in the secondary. Marquice Cole, who was injured last year, returns to help shore that area up as well. For the Wildcats, Michigan, Iowa, Penn State, and Wisconsin all come to play at their place. Road trips to Arizona State, Purdue, and Ohio State will not be fun either. Another run at a bowl game is possible, but not likely for the Wildcats.
10. Indiana (4-7, 1-7)- The Hoosiers will be looking to improve under new head coach Terry Hoeppner. With just three starters back on offense, and all the offensive line, the skill positions players will need to step up. Blake Powers has a strong arm and is very mobile at quarterback, but getting him experience will be the key. Chris Taylor has been a top back up for three years for the Hoosiers and finally gets the chance to be the starting running back. Jahkeem Gilmore is the lone returning threat at receiver. The defense will be lead by the linebackers. John Pannozzo, Jake Powers, and Kyle Killion are all stars in the making at that position. The defensive line returns three startes, but lacks depth. Victor Adeyanju, Russ Richardson, Ben Ishola, and Kenny Kenday all are solid on the line but those are the only players with much experience. The secondary will be lead by Tracy Porter and Leslie Majors, making teams have to struggle to get the ball into their receivers hands. The schedule begins with Central Michigan, Nicholls State, and Kentucky. Illinois comes to town on October 8. The possibility for a 4-1 start is there, and that confidence could carry over to the rest of the season if the Hoosiers can get it rolling. Things will be interesting to say the least.
11. Illinois (2-9, 1-7)- The Illini will be improved under Ron Zook and will improve more in the coming years. The strength of the Illini this year will be the running game. With E.B. Halsey and Pierre Thomas running the ball, the Illini will be able to move the ball down the field. The offensive line also returns three starters, adding to the team's ability to run the ball. The offense will be lead by Tim Brasic or Kisan Flakes at quarterback, more than likely. Kendrick Jones is the team's best receiver. The defense will be lead by a new look defensive line that is trying to focus more on getting to the quarterback. Derek Walker, Ryan Matha, Chris Norwell, and Xaveir Fulton should benefit from that. The linebackers are still looking for their next star. Remond Willis is expected to be just that as he moves into a starting role this year. Anthony Thornhill may be the best returning linebacker. Charles Bailey and Alan Ball return to anchor the secondary. The Illini open with Rutgers and San Jose State and get Michigan State at home early. Zook will find a way to win a few he shouldn't this year and start getting the Illini back to respectability.
ALL BIG TEN
QB Chad Henne, Michigan
RB Mike Hart, Michigan
RB Laurence Maroney, Minnesota
WR Steve Breaston, Michigan
WR Ted Ginn Jr, Ohio State
TE Tim Massaquoi, Michigan
OL Jake Long, Michigan
OL Mike Otto, Purdue
OL Chris Morris, Michigan State
OL Greg Eslinger, Minnesota
OL Mike Setterstrom, Minnesota
DL Gabe Watson, Michigan
DL Quinn Pitcock, Ohio State
DL Ray Edwards, Pudue
DL Tambe Hall, Penn State
LB Chad Greenway, Iowa
LB LaMarr Woodley, Michigan
LB A.J. Hawk, Ohio State
DB Jovon Johnson, Iowa
DB Antwan Allen, Iowa
DB Bernard Pollard, Purdue
DB Alan Zemaitis, Penn State
K Garrett Rivas, Michigan
P Brandon Fields, Michigan State
KR Steve Breaston, Michigan
PR Ted Ginn Jr., Ohio State