Predicting the Big Ten: Can Penn State Buck Ohio State From Top?
The big question in the Big Ten this season is whether Penn State's conference championship was just a momentary burp in the conference's Buckeye-dominated food chain, or whether things might actually be shifting just a bit in the conference. Do the Buckeyes claim the title again? Will the Nittany Lions defend last year's crown and make a run at the national title? Will there be some giant, world-rocking surprise team that comes in and knocks them both out of the BCS?
Make the jump and all shall be revealed.
1. Penn State (11-1 overall, 7-1 conference). The Nits get the nod over the Buckeyes by virtue of having a little more experience all the way around the starting lineup. Not only that, but OSU is coming to Happy Valley this season and I expect Paterno's squad to beat them. However, Penn State won't get through the conference unscathed. I have them losing to Iowa in the conference opener, and I'll tell you why a little later.
2. Ohio State (10-2, 7-1). You know the one conference loss already, and you can probably guess the one non-conference loss. OSU has the firepower to win in Happy Valley. I just don't think they will. I look for Terrelle Pryor to have a huge season as long as he's facing teams that are a little thin at middle linebacker.
3. Michigan State (10-2, 6-2). Offense is a question mark for this largely anonymous team, but the defense should guarantee that the offense doesn't need to do too much to win. Not playing Ohio State helps them out a bit as well. However, don't ask me why, but I think Illinois is going to beat them.
4. Iowa (10-2, 6-2). The Hawks won't lose at Kinnick Stadium this season, though Arizona and Northwestern will push them hard. That leaves the five road games. Iowa State is a hanging curveball. They'll win at Penn State, where Kirk Ferentz just seems to have Joe Paterno's number. He has a better record against Penn State than against any other conference opponent and is 3-1 in games at Happy Valley . They'll win at Wisconsin, too, with a slightly better offense than the Badgers look to put up and a much better defensive front seven. They'll lose in Columbus and East Lansing, however.
5. Northwestern (9-3, 5-3). Pat Fitzgerald is replacing a lot of key players from last year, and it will show at times. This is a team primed to win ugly, but under Fitz, Northwestern has won its share of dogfights. They don't have the talent to hang with Penn State, though, and the road trips to Michigan State and Iowa will be extremely difficult.
6. Illinois (7-5, 4-4). I just don't get all the preseason love the Illini are getting. Yes, Arrelious Benn is a rare talent, and yes, Juice Williams has gotten better every season. Ron Zook has yet to prove that he can make the most of the incredible talent he recruits, and talent without coaching is like horsepower without traction. The running game is still iffy and Vontae Davis, who is now gone, singlehandedly kept the Illini in a lot of games over his career. No doubt they'll score a lot of points. No doubt they're going to need to.
7. Wisconsin (7-5, 3-5). Bret Bielema's job is not in danger so there's no need to ask whether this is enough to save it. There is little certainty under center, with the fans having a palpable lack of confidence in Dustin Scherer. The heart of the defense is also new, and Fresno State, though tough, will not provide enough of a challenge to prepare the team for their brutal first four conference games: Michigan State, at Minnesota, at Ohio State, and Iowa. They might not win any of those; in fact, I'm predicting they won't. The second half of the season is much friendlier.
8. Michigan (6-6, 2-6). Things will get better in Ann Arbor this year; they would about have to. Whoever winds up starting at quarterback will get four weeks without a serious test, but then gets hit with Michigan State and Iowa back to back on the road. That should take some wind out of the team's sails, and this will be a year when the Ohio State game is officially classified as Don't See TV. I expect a huge step forward next season.
9. Minnesota (5-7, 2-6). I love Tim Brewster's offense -- how could you not? -- and the new stadium is a huge plus for a program which has had a hard time generating buzz, even in the Twin Cities. Gopher football has been undone over the past half-decade by a failure to put up a decent defense. They got off to a good start last year but by the end of the season they were getting their doors blown off. With coordinator Ted Roof now on Gene Chizik's staff at Auburn, it's back to square one for the Gopher D, who have spent so much time at square one they might want to consider leaving their toothbrushes there.
10. Indiana (4-8, 1-7). I feel terrible writing this. IU football has done nothing wrong. Bill Lynch, by all accounts, is a decent and pleasant person. But where are the points going to come from? And who's going to stop the run? The Hoosiers had one of the best pass rushes in the conference last season and it figures to get better in 2009. But you can't win very many games with just a pass rush.
11. Purdue (3-9, 1-7). Danny Hope says his team is better than anybody thinks, which shows he knows exactly what everybody seems to think about this year's Boilermakers: No chance. It's not that everybody thinks his team is terrible; it's just that nobody knows what to expect from a team that didn't show anything noteworthy last season and didn't seem to clean up in recruiting. At least with the other squads we know what we're getting.