Ahh the maligned big boys of the Midwest, the Big (eleven) Ten. Whether it's Ohio State's recent BCS struggles or the entire league's problems with USC, the conference certainly has earned a poor reputation in recent seasons. It is relatively unfair to criticize a major conference for sturggling when they play up to high competition in the bowl game slate, but eventually the conference has to win some high profile games and turn things around. Ohio State will have the biggest chance to redeem the back half of the decade by beating a reloading USC team, but there will be other opportunities against Missouri and Notre Dame (multiple times) to start making amends to the country. There's no doubt the Big Ten is one of the best three football conferences in the country over the course of time, but right now they need to act like it.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Although Michigan was right in the national mix in 2005 and 2006, there's no question that Penn State has supplanted the Wolverines as one of the big two programs in the conference over the past 5 seasons. Although a slew of top-caliber talent is gone to greener pastures, Joe Paterno has plenty of talent recruited after winning Big Ten titles in 2005 and 2008 to reload instead of rebuild. The offense will need to hope the line play comes together behind their leader OT Dennis Landolt to protect the best players on the team, QB Daryll Clark and RB Evan Royster. The defensive secondary will be a joke, but this is the Big Ten and that should not matter. The season comes down to Ohio State in Happy Valley and a roadtrip to East Lansing in November. Win both of those and Penn State has no excuse to miss the BCS Championship this time around.
Ohio State Buckeyes
It might not have seemed like the sexy hire at the time, but the Buckeyes became the program of the decade in this conference when Jim Tressel came aboard. Tressel has been criticized for recent big game losses, but you could tell after the Fiesta Bowl loss that a new culture is here with QB Terrelle Pryor, a culture where moral victories are not enough. QB Terrelle Pryor is the real deal and getting put in the fire against USC, Penn State, and Texas last year will allow him to blossom into a darkhorse Heisman candidate. The defense will be absurdly loaded on the line, which will help with the core linebacker crew being entirely new. If the new linkebackers come together and the offensive line plays better, then there's no doubt the Buckeyes will play in Pasadena in January. The question is whether it will be the first Rose Bowl in 13 years or a third national championship in four years.
The Hawkeyes remain one of the biggest enigmas of the decade in the Big Ten. One year they split a conference title, the next they struggle to bowl eligibility. The Kirk Ferentz era has seen some highs and lows and last season was a microcosm of the decade with the 3-3 start and the 6-1 finish, including ruining Penn State's season. So while the talent is certainly in place to fill the graduation gaps and RB Shonn Greene's early departure, there's no telling whether this will be a surprise national championship contender or another 7-5 Big Ten team. While the defense will be likely the best unit in the conference, the schedule is the biggest roadblock to success. The hardest home game is Arizona, but the road slate is Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State, which means 6-2 would likely be a success.
Michigan State Spartans
In two seasons coach Mark Dantonio has shown that the apple doesn't fall far from the sweater-vest tree. The Spartans are playing very conservative and are becoming a top-flight conference program by winning all the games against inferiro competition. As Ohio State has proven, this is enough to get you a lot of BCS attention and perhaps even a national championship attempt when things break correctly. Even though there's a new quarterback and running back to break in, the solid core of wide receivers will make any new quarterback step in smoothly. The defensive backfield is amazing and anchored by linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. The toughest road games are Wisconsin and Illinois, so if the Spartans protect the home field, a conference championship is likely in the mix sooner rather than later.
IN THE MIX
The Wildcats have not really been the joke academic program of the Big Ten recently, and coach Pat Fitzgerald has the program headed back towards conference titles again like the mid-1990's. The defense will be rock solid assuming injuries don't decimate the unit, but the real questions lie with all the new skill players on offense. Still, Pat Fitzgerald has built this program to win with good line play and defense, and that's just what he has this year. The schedule is very easy in the first half, but toadtrips to Michigan State, Illinois, and Iowa will be tough. A January bowl game is the goal but there's potential to win the conference.
Illinois Fightin Illini
It's now or never for the first talented crop of recruits Ron Zook brought in to revitalize the program. There's more than enough star talent on offense with QB Juice Williams tossing to Arrelious Benn and Jared Fayson. The question mark will be on defense, where there's plenty of talent but seemingly no good plan from the coaches. This team could again disappoint like the 5-7 record in 2008 or they could shock the world like the Rose Bowl trip in 2007. The Illini will be the most entertaining team to watch in the slogging Big Ten.
Wisconsin played so many tough or close games last season, it came as a real shock when the Badgers completely disappeared in a Champs Sports Bowl shellacking that did nothing to help the conference reputation. This season the only really troubling roadtrip is to Ohio State, where the Badgers have played very well the past decade. Even though there are questions at quarterback and on both lines, this team could ride an easy schedule and the experience of last season to double-digit wins. However, Wisconsin could be shrinking back to irrelevancy and a couple more bad years will spell the doom of coach Bielema.
ALL THE REST
Minnesota Golden Gophers
One of the most entertaining battles of 2009 will be whether redshirt freshman MarQueis Gray can take the quarterback job away from Adam Weber. Between seven wins last season and a slew of new talent coming in thanks to the new outdoor stadium (and thank God or good riddance to the Metrodome), the Golden Gophers are poised to keep improving. Another brutal four game stretch faces Minnesota this season with Penn State and OSU on the road followed by Michigan State and Illinois. Survive that better than the closing stretch in 2008 and Minnesota will be bowl bound again.
Although most experts thought it would take a couple of years for Michigan to reset itself with athletes for Rich Rodriguez, a 3-9 season was more abysmal than the lowest expectations. Unlike the legend of the sweater vest knocking off Big Blue in Ann Arbor in his first season, RichRod made no such promises and thankfully so after a 42-7 debacle in 2008. Thankfully the Rodriguez recruiting machine is back in order now and freshman QB Tate Forcier will be a superstar in all likelihood in 2-3 years. The defense has to replace a lot of talent and things will still be slow, but look for signs of life by the end of the season and a true battle at home against the Buckeyes. Win that game and nobody will care about 2008-09 rebuilding.
You know it's full-on rebuilding time when two-thirds of your best players are sophomores and freshman, but that's where Purdue finds themselves in Danny Hope's first season at the helm. There will certainly be growing pains, but the defense will be one of the better untis in the conference and should keep Purdue in a handful of games that the Boilers have no right to be in quite yet. A bowl berth is likely still way too much to wish for, but there's no doubt Purdue will not stay a bottom-feeder for too long.
Whoa, that was a huge step back and a nasty fall into the cellar after the Hoosiers saw the light of day in a bowl game in 2007. Perhaps that season was just a special abberration, but Indiana seems to have enough talent to compete for a .500 record again soon. This year will be tough with a new quarterback Ben Chappell and a poor defense, but there's always potential for a surprise. Hoosier fans hope so.
So will this be the year the Big Ten turns the national reputation around? With Notre Dame hitting their stride and USC reloading, there are certainly opportunities to make a statement before bowl season. Then as always, there will be a slew of January bowl games as well to show off. While Ohio State and Penn State will be favored, do not overlook the chances of the next five teams on the list, foremost Michigan State. A Rose Bowl for the Spartans would place the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions in position to win some pride against the SEC, and yes I mean those same Buckeyes. It's been a few years since a real surprise in the conference, but maybe the likes of Michigan or Wisconsin can provide that spark this year. Join us next week as we run through the ACC on Monday.