1. Michigan (7-1 Big Ten, 10-1 Overall)
Sure, Michigan lost Chris Perry and John Navarre. But what they return should be good enough to make a second consecutive run for the Roses. Braylon Edwards, who last year caught 85 passes for 1,138 yards and 14 touchdowns, will lead the best receiving corps in the nation, and whomever Lloyd Carr chooses to start at running back should not have any trouble running behind an excellent offensive line led by All-American candidate David Baas. The defense is the same story, as the Wolverines return their back seven from a defense which last year allowed only 16.8 points per game. Marlin Jackson, who was switched from corner to safety last year out of necessity, will return to his original position this year and by the end of the season will be recognized as one of the best defensive backs in the country. The special teams is solid enough not to lose any game for Michigan, with Garrett Rivas (9-12 field goals in 2003) and Adam Finley (40.0 yards per punt) returning.
T2. Minnesota (6-2, 9-2)
Glen Mason's Gophers were downright scary on offense last year, amassing a stunning 289.2 yards per game on the ground. Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III could be the best running back tandem in the nation, and they should have plenty of holes to run through behind a veteran offensive line led by All-American center Greg Eslinger. Minnesota also returns their leading receiver from last season, Jared Ellerson. The biggest question mark on offense is Bryan Cupito, who has only thrown one pass in a collegiate game but will probably be the starting quarterback on September 4th. The defense was one giant question mark last year, but with 6 starters returning, a second year under the defensive coordinator's belt, and an extra year to bulk up, expect an improvement. The special teams, which was a question heading into last season, should be just fine as PK Rhys Lloyd turned out to be one of 2003's biggest surprises.
T2. Ohio State (6-2, 8-3)
Jim Tressel enters his fourth season with the Buckeyes facing his greatest challenge yet. Justin Zwick, one of the most highly touted quarterback recruits in recent Ohio State history, will finally take the helm behind a less than stellar offensive front. The O-Line returns just two starters, and will more than likely be starting two sophomores in the upcoming season. Santonio Holmes, a big play receiver who averaged 17.2 yards per catch last season, should be Zwick's number one target on offense. Lydell Ross, last year's starter at running back, will have to be the workhorse for the offense at least until Zwick gets his feet wet. On defense, the Buckeyes should be stacked despite losing three starters off the line and two starting linebackers. Transfers Anthony Schlegel (Air Force) and John Kerr (Indiana) add themselves to an already potent mix of linebackers including leading tackler A.J. Hawk and junior Bobby Carpenter. The secondary should not be bad, however with one new starter at corner and a new strong safety, don't be surprised if teams attempt to exploit them deep. The kicking game should not be a problem as Mike Nugent, one of the nation's most accurate kickers, returns for his senior season.
T4. Iowa (5-3, 8-3)
Kirk Ferentz deserves to be in the hunt for national coach of the year almost every season. His work turning what should be a middle of the pack team into a title contender has been great the past couple of seasons. In this writer's opinion, this year should be no different. Iowa loses their starting quarterback, starting running back, 3 starting offensive linemen, their starting wide receivers, and their starting tight end. These are losses that are coming from an offense that was already anemic, finishing ranked 92nd in the nation. The offense, however, can rely on a stalwart defense to put them in some great positions to win games. Seven starters return to the defense, ranked fourth in the Big Ten last season, most of which are now seniors and juniors. Linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway will be the emotional and statistical leaders of this great group. Kicker Nate Kaeding will be sorely missed, but his replacement Kyle Schlicher should be solid enough in his duties as the new kicker.
T4. Wisconsin (5-3, 8-3)
The Badgers have been one of the biggest disappointments in the Big Ten over the past few seasons. Picked by some experts to win the conference last season, they finished 7-6 including losses to UNLV and Northwestern. This year, they again have the talent to win the Big Ten but will come up short. Five starters return to the offensive line, and they are set to open up huge holes for Heisman hopeful running back Anthony Davis. Were it not for a nagging ankle injury last season, Davis would have run for well over 1,000 yards. At quarterback, John Stocco will take over the starting job from Jim Sorgi, and if the spring game and limited action last season are any indication, he should be at least average. The strength of the defense will be the line, where 3 starters return including All-American candidate Anttaj Hawthorne. New starters at free safety and cornerback will test the secondary, but feisty defender Jim Leonhard should anchor the Badgers well enough to prevent being beat time and time again.
T6. Penn State (4-4, 7-4)
For several years now, many college football fans have been wondering when Joe Paterno will retire from coaching. With the promising young talent he has on his 2004 Nittany Lion squad, it may be at least a couple years before we see Joe Pa ride off into the sunset. Austin Scott, a sophomore, looks to become one of the Big Ten's most recognizable running backs by season's end. If his offensive line can open holes, he could be in the hunt for All-Conference. At quarterback, Zack Mills returns yet again to lead a Penn State offense that last year flat out stunk. The Lions averaged a mere 313.33 yards per game last season, landing them in last place in the Big Ten and 103rd in Division 1-A. On the defensive side of the ball, youth is the overwhelming characteristic as the Lions will more than likely start only one senior on September 4th. Junior cornerback Alan Zemaitis, who last year broke up 18 passes, should continue his magnificent play this season.
T6. Purdue (4-4, 6-5)
Purdue has been to a bowl the past 7 seasons, and to achieve that mark again could mean upsetting one or more of the teams above. The offense should be one of the best in the conference, returning a stellar quarterback in Kyle Orton and a steady wide receiver in Taylor Stubblefield. The running game will also be above average, as junior Jerod Void returns after getting close to 1,000 yards rushing last season. As good as the offense will be, that's how bad the defense could be. The defense only returns 3 starters and will probably be starting six sophomores and freshmen. Cornerback Antwaun Rogers, the only senior projected to start this season, will be the shining star of this mediocre unit. The special teams should be extremely solid, as Groza semi-finalist Ben Jones returns at kicker and All-Academic Big Ten punter Aaron Levin comes back for his senior season.
8. Michigan State (3-5, 7-5)
Last season, Jeff Smoker provided the Spartans with their necessary punch on offense. Unfortunately for fans in East Lansing, Smoker is gone, and what is left is a three man race for the vacant spot. Drew Stanton, Stephen Reaves, and Damon Dowdell all have a chance to be starting when MSU faces off against Rutgers. Whichever quarterback is chosen to lead the Spartans, however, can rest easy knowing that the receiving corps is one of the best in the conference. Kyle Brown, Agim Shabaj, and Matt Trannon all have the speed and athleticism to be very good receivers in the Big Ten. The offensive line will have to find some way to improve on the meager 97.38 yards per game on the ground, or the lack of balance could be devastating to the offense. On defense, the lack of a superstar is not a problem. Senior free safety Jason Harmon, who led the team with 108 tackles last season, will most likely be the heart and soul of the Spartan defense. The team will also look to keep up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks; last season, they had a stunning 45 sacks.
9. Northwestern (2-6, 3-9)
The Wildcats surprised many last season, winning 6 games and making it to a bowl game. This season however, don't expect the same results. Some easy scheduling last season allowed for Northwestern to have some very winnable games on their slate. This year their out of conference gets tougher, as Air Force is replaced with Arizona State, and Duke is replaced with WAC contender Hawaii. The rushing attack should be fine this season, with Noah Herron returning after averaging 6.2 yards per carry last season. Quarterback Brett Basanez will have to step up and make plays as well, since last season he threw 12 interceptions to only 4 touchdowns. All signs point to an improved defense, with 10 starters returning. However, the pass defense must get much better after surrendering 253.23 yards per game through the air last season. Brian Huffman will start at punter and kicker, and while he doesn't have the leg to hit from long range, he should be adequate for the Wildcats.
10. Illinois (1-7, 3-8)
Where have you gone 2001? That 10-2 season for the Illini seems light years away after going just 1-11 last season, a season that included zero Division 1-A wins. On offense, Jon Beutjer returns for a sixth season after missing most of last year with a back injury. He has a solid group of receivers to throw to, including Mark Kornfield who averaged 12 yards per catch last season. To be a good Big Ten football team however, the Illini must find some consistency in running the football. Last season they averaged a mere 110.67 yards rushing per game, a stat that the Illini would like to improve this year but most likely won't due to a lackluster offensive line. The defense was downright embarrassing last season, allowing 224.3 yards rushing per game. The defensive line needs to step up this year if the Illini want to cut down on their 33.2 points allowed per game. This could be Ron Turner's last season in Champaign if there is no improvement.
11. Indiana (1-7, 2-9)
Gerry DiNardo has his work cut out for him. After failing to get a winning record in any of his three seasons as Indiana's head coach, this year has to show some progress or DiNardo could be searching for a job. Indiana isn't completely hopeless, returning 10 starters on offense and 9 on defense. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a young back who will probably be the workhorse for the offense after gaining over 900 yards on the ground last season. Matt LoVecchio, a transfer from Notre Dame, will look to improve on last seasons 9 interceptions to only 3 touchdowns. On the defensive side of the ball, a lack of size and toughness is a bad combination on this squad which allowed over 420 yards per game last year. Defensive tackle Jodie Clemons is a bright spot after getting to the quarterback six times last season. Scheduling is not kind to the Hoosiers, as out of conference dates with Oregon and Kentucky loom large.
Preseason First Team All-Conference
Now for a few conference bests
Best Team - Michigan. Offense, defense, and special teams should propel the Wolverines to another Big Ten championship.
Best Coach - Kirk Ferentz. He is the perennial overachiever in the Big Ten, taking what should be 4-4 teams and making them into 6-2 or better teams.
Best Player - Anthony Davis. A dark horse Heisman candidate, if Davis can stay healthy this year, he has the chance to run for 2,000 yards.
Best Stadium - Camp Randall. 5th quarter, jump around, and the rowdiest student section in the conference, if not the nation. With the new additions, it's in a league of its own.
Best Game of the Upcoming Season - Michigan at Ohio State. It's Woody, it's Bo, it's Eddie, it's Desmond, it's Go Blue and O-H-I-O. It's the biggest rivalry in the country, and this year it should affect the Big Ten championship.
Best Fans - Ohio State. From near and far they come in droves to Columbus, rock and rolling all night and partying every Saturday. While Iowa and Wisconsin could lay claim to best fans, nothing compares to the Horseshoe by the Olentangy.
Best Tradition - Ohio State. From dotting the I in Script Ohio, to Hang on Sloopy, to Heisman winners and Woody Hayes, the Buckeyes are one of the most storied programs in the history of college sports.
Best Bet to Over-achieve - Minnesota. The Gophers have a tough yet winnable non conference schedule which should prepare them for a run through the Big Ten. The most important game will be at Michigan.
Best Bet to Under-achieve - Wisconsin. Since the year 2000, the Badgers have averaged only six wins per season. Barry Alvarez, the newly appointed Athletic Director in Madison, will have his hands full to live up to Badger fans' lofty expectations.
The Big Ten is looking to regain the strength as a conference that it had only a few years ago when Ohio State won the national championship. Other power conferences such as the SEC and ACC seem to be better top to bottom, but with great upper tier teams such as Ohio State, Michigan, and Iowa, solid rising teams such as Minnesota, and young lower tier teams like Northwestern, the conference should have nowhere to go but up in the coming months and years.
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