After a stellar bowl season where the conference had a winning record and should have gone 5-2 considering how many chances Minnesota and Northwestern had before losing, the expectations are high for a great year. Furthermore, excitement is at a fever pitch with Nebraska joining the conference next season. Before the Cornhuskers get here, a compelling battle between five-time defending champs Ohio State and the other teams in the top tier (Iowa, Wisconsin, PSU) should make for good games every single weekend of conference play. This is a referendum year for at least three coaches in the Big Ten as Rich Rodriguez, Ron Zook, and Tim Brewster face difficult times ahead unless the results on the field improve. Lots of compelling storylines and a great conference battle with no fewer than 3 national championship contenders makes Big Ten football the second-best conference behind only the SEC to watch, and we'll get into the SEC early next week to cap the preview season.
Ohio State Buckeyes
What more could be said about the Jim Tressel era in Columbus? One national title, six conference titles, seven BCS bowls (4-3 record), and boatloads of NFL talent explain the dominance OSU has had over the league. However, this year the schedule is brutal with Miami out of conference and Iowa and Wisconsin on the road. The Buckeyes will have potential Heisman candidates at QB in Terrelle Pryor and RB in Brandon Saine. Even with the unexpected loss of talented WR Duron Carter, expect Pryor to put up monster numbers by OSU standards if the Rose Bowl is any indication. Having a healthy offensive line should be a key to the Buckeye offense. The defense has consistently given up less than 14 points per game the past 4 years and an experienced defensive back 7 led by LB Ross Homan should not step back too far. The defensive line is the big question mark in Columbus with at least three new starters joining Cameron Heyward, and the defensive line is crucial in a league that prides itself of run-first, pass-second. The special teams will reload with Devin Barclay and Ben Buchanan, but that could end up being crucial in the tough road games in Madison and Iowa City. If everything breaks right, this is a BCS Championship year.
Other than Ohio State and Michigan, the Iowa defense made every opposing offense look silly in 2009, including strong units at Penn State and Georgia Tech. With 8 starters back on a unit that took OSU to overtime in the Horseshoe, the defense looks ready to make a serious push at their first conference title since 2002. The Hawkeye defensive secondary is one of the best in the country with Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood looking to add to their high interception total in 2009. The defensive line is also probably the best unit in the conference with ends Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns looking to add to 17.5 sacks last season. On the offense, the key to Iowa's success will be whether an offensive line full of fresh faces can open adequate holes for RB Adam Robinson and keep QB Ricky Stanzi clean. Stanzi does have a solid backup in James Vandenberg, who almost led Iowa past OSU last year. However, Iowa needs Stanzi to be good instead of inconsistent, especially with such a good crew of receivers including Derrell Johson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt. Presumably, the Rose Bowl will be on the line on November 20, so Iowa just has to keep focused until the Buckeyes come calling then.
Bret Bielema has taken Wisconsin from a good program to a top-notch program in the Big Ten, and this could be their year as the schedule really boils down to two consecutive games in mid-October: OSU at home and at Iowa. The offense returns 10 starters from a potent unit that racked up over 400 yards per game, half on the ground. Although the spotlight will rightfully be on RB John Clay and his experienced offensive line, look for QB Scott Tolzien to have a breakout senior season with the pressure lessened by the attention paid to Clay. Clay needs to perform against the big boys in the league though, as he was completely held in check by Iowa and OSU last season. Wisconsin will also need to eliminate the turnovers that doomed them last season. On defense, the Badgers will be a good unit with LB Culmer St. Jean, CB Devin Smith leading the way in the backfield. While it should be expected that the Badgers will give up more than the 21 points per game from a year ago, the offense will more than make up for any downtick in this department. Anything less than 10 wins and a New Year's Day bowl berth will be disappointing for this team.
Penn State Nittany Lions
After being truly awful in the first half of the decade, the Nittany Lions have won at least nine games the past five seasons and made Joe Paterno look like a genius again (two shared Big Ten titles). Even if the road games at Alabama and Penn State go south, JoePa is almost certainly playing for win number 400 of his career against Michigan in late October. The Nittany Lions will miss Wisconsin on the schedule but will be competing every week for top rushing honors as Evan Royster returns behind an experienced offensive line. Expect Royster to approach 2000 yards rushing especially with the emphasis being shifted back towards the run with a new QB Kevin Newsome. When Penn Stae does need to throw the ball, three top receivers will be available in Graham Zug, Curtis Drake, and Derek Moye. The defense will need to reload quite a bit with all new starters in the linebacker threesome. Although the defensive backfield has some stars including Nick Sukay, Penn State will stumble unexpectedly if the Nittany Lions do not effectively get good performance from the new starters in the front seven. Other than road games at 3 BCS bowl winners Alabama, Iowa, and OSU, the schedule favors them in every other game and a New Year's Day bowl game should be expected.
IN THE MIX
Although many including myself thought that the Wolverines would be a bowl team last year, the rebuilding job in Ann Arbor is clearly a slow one when the schemes change as much as they did between Lloyd Carr and Rich Rodriguez. A bowl game is likely not enough for the proud Michigan program this year, as Rich Rodriguez likely needs 8 wins to defray the controversy from the offseason. This is likely Michigan's best team since 2006 though, so there's a chance that some of the six hard games on the schedule will be handled. Although Tate Forcier looked like the starter of the future, shoelace-less Denard Robinson appears to have won the job away for good this autumn and will definitely fit the Rodriguez offense well in his third year. The running game will also be solidifed with new starter RB Fitzgerald Toussaint replacing what became a banged up inconsistent trio last year. William Campbell should be a nice anchor on the defensive line and all of the linebackers return in a 3-4 defense that will be much better this year. Although safety Jordan Kovacs should not be number 2 in tackles again this season if things go well, it is nice to have a solid young talent like Kovacs running the defense from the backside. A bowl game is not a lock but it should be with this much talent.
Northwestern has also become one of those up and coming programs in the Big Ten under Pat Fitzgerald, and two straight 5-3 conference records lead Wildcats fans to believe that a Rose Bowl may be right around the corner. This year only 13 starters return, but Fitzgerald will have another solid defense while hoping the offense continues to be enough of a thorn to opponents to get the job done. Mike Kafka is gone, but junior Dan Persa steps in at quarterback and will be a more accurate pocket passer than Kafka was. The running game will carry the day for the Wildcats with Arby Fields and Scott Concannon sharing carries behind a line with five returning starters and a likely new starter moving in somewhere in Patrick Ward. The defense will need to return 3/4 of the backfield which could be a problem in other leagues but maybe not so much in the Big Ten. The defense will bring a lot of blitzes and aggressive play, so the new starters back there will have to learn quickly or face a very unhappy coach. The opening six games are laughably easy, so if Northwestern does not lock up bowl eiglibility on or before the Indiana game October 30, this season will be a huge disappointment. With OSU and Michigan off the schedule, Northwestern could be back to New Year's with one upset.
Michigan State Spartans
Coach Mark Dantonio has moved MSU up a rung as far as programs go in the Big Ten, but everyone is still waiting for the breakout year. This might be an opportunity year with OSU off the schedule and the only really tough road games at Iowa and PSU (to be fair, Northwestern and Michigan road games are nothing to sneeze at either). The field general QB Kirk Cousins enters his junior season looking for 3000 yards and another 20 touchdowns. The rushing game will be tailback by committee again, but all three of the top rushers including Larry Caper return to make that part of the offense potent. The defense has six returning starters including senior LB Greg Jones, who is the best defensive player in the conference. Jones and Eric Gordon combined for nearly 250 tackles last year and will likely put up gaudy numbers again as both sniff out plays well. The kicking game could be dicey with redshirt freshman Kevin Muma coming in, which could make or break a team with a lot of close road games in 2010. Double-digit wins are possible, but the Spartans will have to come up with some upsets to make that happen. A bowl is a certainty.
The Boilermakers were languishing in Danny Hope's first season until one magical day when Ohio State turned the ball over 5 times in West Lafayette and opened the door for a Purdue resurgence. While 5-7 did not send the Boilers to a bowl, nobody doubts that Purdue is back in the mix after knocking off the likes of OSU and Michigan at the Big House. The offense will be led by new starter Robert Marve who started 11 games for the Miami Hurricanes two years ago. Marve will have solid talent to throw to with seniors Keith Smith and Cortez Smith back for one more season. The defensive front has a lot of freshmen and redshirt freshman waiting in the wings who will see playtime, but six of the seven in the front 7 are back again. The biggest question mark will be the defensive backfield, where four new starters come in led by safety Albert Evans. Although the opening game at South Bend will be tough with the new backfield, the schedule is more than manageable with PSU and Iowa off the docket. Look for Purdue to surprise a couple of teams and end up with 6-8 wins and a bowl berth.
ALL THE REST
Illinois Fighting Illini
Is there any more confusing team than Illinois in the Big Ten? Just when it looks like Illinois has no chance, they end up in a Rose Bowl. With Wisconsin and Iowa off the schedule for one more season, this has the makings of one of those surprising years if Ron Zook gets the ball rolling early. The offense returns five starters but three of those are on the line and RB Mikel Leshoure is another. Thus, expect the running game to be a big priority as Juice Williams is gone and replaced with another speedster Nathan Scheelhaase. Scheelhaase will really focus on throwing the ball, which is something Juice Williams never really mastered on a consistent basis. The Illini defense returns all of their linebackers and will be led by Ian Thomas, who had 95 tackles a year ago. On the whole, expect the Illini to keep teams in the 20's unlike a year ago. The special teams will likely be down a notch in the return game without Arrelious Benn, but the kicking and punting game will be solid with Derek Dimke and Anthony Santella back. Illinois only has 3 true road games at the Michigan schools and PSU, so Illinois could play their way up well into bowl eligibility and perhaps to a New Year's Bowl if the offense keeps going like the past two seasons.
The Hoosiers have fallen back to earth after their bowl season of 2007, and with 7 new faces on defense, this does not look like the year for another bowl berth. Bill Lynch will have a potent offense with nine returning starters, including every skill position player and 3 of the 5 linemen. Ben Chappell will again approach 3000 yards but he will need more help from the running game, which has starter Darius Willis back but is missing his next two backups from a year ago. Willis is the best talent at running back Indiana has had in years though, so perhaps this is the year Indiana breaks out for 30 points per game. The problem will be keeping teams in reach even with that potent of an offense. The defense returns two linemen, but LB Tyler Replogle is the only player in the top 8 tacklers from a year ago as nobody else had more than 32 tackles in 2009. By missing Minnesota on the schedule, Indiana draws brutal luck and may miss a bowl even though the four non conference games are cupcakes. The ones to win for a 6-6 season are Northwestern at home and either Illinois or Purdue on the road. Tough season for the Hoosiers.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
When Tim Brewster took over in 2007, a 1-11 season was forgiven as a rebuilding year. But when Minnesota won 7 games in 2008 and built new TCF Bank stadium, expectations were high going into last year. However, a 6-6 season and another disappointment in the Insight Bowl has the heat on Minnesota now to win. Unfortunately for the Golden Gophers, only two starters return from a defense that was fairly decent. The only returning starters are both safeties Kyle Theret and Kim Royston, both of whom are seniors. However, there's only so much you can affect from the back of the defense and expect the stronger running games to run wild over Minnesota. The offense does return nine starters including QB Adam Weber, but he looked absolutely lost without star WR Eric Decker last year after Decker's injury and Brandon Green will have to fill that spot this year. The offensive line needs to improve or else it will not matter how much experience Weber has behind center. The home schedule is brutal with USC, PSU, OSU, and Iowa. thus, the road games are the winnable ones but Minnesota has not played well away from hom under Tim Brewster. Thus, a bowl is almost certainly out of the realm of possibility and Brewster could be looking for work elsewhere.
In a year with so many good teams at the top, I believe nobody will come out unscathed and Iowa-Wisconsin-OSU will end up 1-1 against each other in the round robin. Wisconsin will drop into a tie with PSU by dropping another game unexpectedly which will give Iowa the automatic berth to the BCS instead of OSU this year. However, both teams end up back in the BCS and in their favorite bowl locales (Iowa to Pasadena, OSU to Phoenix for the Fiesta Bowl). The Hawkeyes hold all the cards by bringing everyone into Iowa City, but Ohio State is more talented overall and Wisconsin has a better offense. However, this is the year of the Hawkeyes and the Rose Bowl should expect another invasion from a fan base that has gone too long between Rose Bowls, just like OSU last season. I also believe Tim Brewster and Rich Rodriguez will be fired while Ron Zook will hold onto his job as Illinois is slightly more patient than the other two programs.