...An additional look into the conference from a different perspective...
Last season was very competitive and close, as Penn State and Ohio State took home half the BCS bowls for the league. The rest of the conference had a disappointing bowl season, but the competitiveness of the league will not be lost by this minor setback. The Big Ten might bring home two more BCS berths and bowl wins, maybe even a national title this season.
By far the worst Big Ten team last season returns 22 of 24 starters and therefore should improve greatly this year. The offense should be decent again, but the defense will have to get a lot better than an almost nationwide worst set of stats from the 2005 season. The Illini held only one team below 30 points all year, and even in the new offensive driven Big Ten conference, defense wins titles, as Ohio State and Penn State proved last season. The schedule is not all that rough for the Big Ten but will be more than this team can handle. No bowl trip this year.
After starting with promise last season, the Hoosiers were smacked around by most of the conference. The skill players on offense, QB Blake Powers and WR James Hardy, will be one of the best combinations in the league to watch this year, assuming the offensive line holds up long enough. The defense is also reloading up front, and that could make it very easy to establish the important running game against the Hoosiers. The non-conference schedule appears to be sweep-able again this season, but they will have to win a game or two in a tough stretch (Iowa, at Ohio State, Michigan State, at Minnesota, Michigan) in the latter half of the season to make a bowl for the first time in recent history.
Now a perennial contender under Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes will again be in the mix in 2006. QB Drew Tate and RB Albert Young come back to lead the offense, but the main question will be how to replace the receivers lost to graduation. The Hawks also lost two great linebackers in Hodge and Greenway, so the secondary now becomes more shaky than it was last season. The defensive unit will need to find some answers to stop the high-powered offenses in the Big Ten. With the exception of a home game against Ohio State and a trip to Michigan, their schedule looks very winnable. Expect BCS possibilities if they knock off OSU to go 5-0 in September, but also watch for a possible upset by Iowa State or Northern Illinois in the remodeled Kinnick Stadium.
The only bright points of a very disappointing five-loss season last fall were beating Big Ten champion Penn State (the only team to accomplish the feat) and having a good bowl performance which should have been rewarded with a victory over Nebraska. Collapses against teams like Ohio State (at home when you lead by 11 in the fourth quarter) got the defensive coordinator fired, and the inability to salt the game away with the running game got the offensive coordinator fired. Chad Henne and Mike Hart enter their junior seasons hoping to recapture some of the magic of their freshman campaigns, but the weak offensive line needs to hold up to keep the offense going. The defense should be stronger, but their schedule includes road games at Notre Dame, Penn State, and Ohio State. They will compete, but probably not win the Big Ten this year.
Two years, two November and December collapses for the John L. Smith boys. Last season fell apart when the inconsistent field goal unit and bad clock management ruined a chance at going into halftime at Ohio Stadium with a 20-7 lead. Instead, MSU gave up a block and return for TD that made the score 17-14 and started the unraveling. The Spartans only return 13 starters, but QB Drew Stanton and leading RB Javon Ringer and top WR Jerrany Scott are all back to lead an offense that was pretty good last year. The schedule is rough, including Notre Dame and Ohio State at home and Michigan, Penn State, and Pittsburgh on the road. If Michigan State can take care of business and live up to their talent, they will not miss a bowl game for a third straight year.
Trouble may loom for this year's Golden Gopher squad after losing both their 1000-yard rushers and the anchors of their defense. Bryan Cupito is a QB not to be underestimated, but he will not look as good without the Glen Mason running attack. The only saving grace is that the schedule is relatively easy out-of-conference and should launch them to a bowl bid, even if it is just the Music City or Motor City again.
The tragic news of coach Randy Walker's death comes at a terrible time for the Wildcats, who are trying to gear up for another good year in the Big Ten. This could be a rallying cry or a chance for the team to fall apart, so it will be interesting to see how these guys open against a breeze of an out-of-conference schedule. Tyrell Sutton should bring a lot of running yards again, but a quarterback controversy will not be easily solved with a new coach leading the way. Northwestern needs to have six wins by the time they start their rough stretch (at Michigan, at Iowa, Ohio State) late in the season or else they will be missing a bowl berth in 2006.
Usually a team returning only 11 starters would not even be considered a national title contender, but this year that is exactly what has happened. The Buckeyes only lost to the national champion Texas and fellow BCS bowl winner Penn State last season, but that was with a great defense. The offense exploded behind Troy Smith and company in the second half of 2005, and with the exception of losing a couple linemen (WR Santonio Holmes will probably not be missed too badly), the offense is back to romp over the Big Ten again. The question is how many points they will need to score, as the defense only returns 2 starters. Two! Defense wins titles, and this reloading defense will need to prove itself early as the September schedule features Northern Illinois and Penn State at home as well as Texas and Iowa on the road. If Ohio State makes it out of September 5-0, pencil them in for a BCS title game appearance.
The Big Ten champ from last season returns the same number of starters (11) as OSU, but the hopes are not as high this year for the Nittany Lions. QB Michael Robinson really made this offense tick, and without him Penn State might lack the leader they need. Questions exist on the offensive line and the defensive secondary, but hopefully Paul Posluszny and the returning Penn State defenders will have as good a year as they did in 2005. Two September road games at Notre Dame and Ohio State will prove if they are a legitimate Big Ten contender. Sweep those games, and PSU might actually win the Big Ten again this season.
Another team only returning 11 starters, the Boilermakers will try again to take advantage of the nice Big Ten schedule (no Michigan or Ohio State), which made them a conference title pick last season. Expect the defense to play better and the offense to keep growing behind a great offensive line. Purdue cannot pull the unthinkable of missing bowl games in the two years they have the dream Big Ten schedule, so a rebound is in order. They might even be in contention, but nobody will be foolish enough to call them a favorite this season.
You might have 13 starters, including 8 defensive starters, coming back, but the real question surrounding the Badgers is how to replace a coaching legend in Barry Alvarez. The offensive line took Auburn to task in the bowl game, and they only got bigger and faster in the offseason. QB John Stocco returns, but will he have enough good skill players around him to make a difference? The Badgers do have a forgiving schedule, missing OSU, and only having two of their three tough games back-to-back late in the season (Penn State and at Iowa). They will make a bowl game again, but Michigan, Iowa, and OSU are the real contenders this season.