The top two teams in the Big Ten should be very strong this season. Ohio State is coming off a dream, undefeated, national championship season in 2002 and returns all 11 starters on offense, including Heisman Trophy candidate RB Maurice Clarett as well as dependable QB Craig Krenzel. Three starters from the DL are gone, but the secondary is in good shape with CB Chris Gamble and FS Will Allen returning.
The Michigan offense should be in good hands this year with QB John Navarre slinging passes at WR Braylon Edwards and RB Chris Perry running the ball. Those are three of the seven returning offensive starters; the defense returns six starters from 2002, including All-America candidate CB Marlin Jackson. I'm giving the Wolves the edge over OSU due to the difficulty of the Buckeyes' conference schedule: they must travel to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan this year.
I'm picking the Nittany Lions slightly higher than some even though the loss of RB Larry Johnson will hurt. PSU gets to host Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio State while their toughest road game is at Purdue.
Speaking of the Boilers, a total of 17 starters return to West Lafayette (8 offensive and 9 defensive). QB Kyle Orton will get to throw to what is likely one of the top 10 receiving units in the land: WRs John Standeford, Taylor Stubblefield, and Anthony Chambers.
Right there with Purdue should be the Wisconsin Badgers. UW capped off last season with a dramatic win over Colorado in the Alamo Bowl and returns 16 starters in 2003. QB Jim Sorgi, though not a returning starter, has plenty of experience himself and plenty around him. RB Anthony Davis has continued the UW running back tradition in fine fashion, and I'm really expecting WR Lee Evans to come back on fire.
Illinois is kind of a question mark team. They were 5-7 and up and down last year. They lost to San Jose State but beat Purdue and Wisconsin and also took Ohio State to overtime. A 5-3 conference prediction is probably generous, but the Illini should be able to win three conference games at their own place.
Minnesota finished 2002 with a convincing win over Arkansas in the Music City Bowl. Sixteen starters return to face an extremely easy non-conference schedule (Tulsa, Troy State, Ohio, LA-Lafayette). I expect UM to finish with a winning record but not because they are bowling over Big Ten teams. The offensive backfield should be in good shape, however, with QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq (possibly the best name in college football once Antwaan Randle El left), RB Marion Barber, and FB Thomas Tapeh all returning.
After a terrific 2002 season and BCS bowl appearance, I'm not expecting much from the Iowa Hawkeyes this season. RB Fred Russell and WR Maurice Brown have the potential to make some noise, but only 11 starters return.
Michigan State, Northwestern, and Indiana will continue to struggle in 2003. With a little luck, the Spartans could near .500 overall since they host winnable home games with Iowa and Indiana, as well as playing three winnable non-conference games in East Lansing.