The Big Ten Conference has been taking its lumps....on the field, and consequently, in the media...for the last couple of seasons, due mostly to the disturbing tendency of the league's elite to look its worst when the stakes are the highest and the audience the largest. USC alone has done a large share of the negative image-making, with recent lopsided wins over Illinois, Penn State and Ohio State. And the big-stage humiliations of the Buckeyes by SEC powers Florida and LSU in BCS championships are also still fresh in the public memory. And yes, it has been happening regularly enough for the observant fan to detect a pattern...even a trend.
But new seasons are supposed to wipe the slate clean in college football. Past seasons, past players, past matchups...they're over and done. You don't hear the Big Ten gloating about the bowl game they won last year.....well, do you? It has only been seven seasons now since a Big Ten team sat atop the college football world, and it's not outrageous to think it could happen again soon. So let's get on with the games!
We're here today to evaluate the rest of the Big Ten...that is, the ten teams that are not Ohio State. Here at TCF, we have spent the last four or five months previewing the 2009 Buckeyes, and you can find all that data and opinion at our Buckeyes page, and at the article archives forJesse Lamovsky and yours truly. Before we get into the individual teams, a brief overview...
Last season the prevailing preseason opinion was that the Ohio State Buckeyes occupied some lofty perch barely within sight, let alone within reach, of the rest of the Big Ten commoners. I admit that I partook of that Kool-Aid, along with many others, both inside and outside Buckeye Nation. The season, of course, proved that no such gap separated OSU from its competitors, as Penn State shot the Buckeyes right off that perch, which had already been lowered considerably by the USC Trojans.
There appears to be even more balance in the conference this year than last. While Penn State and Ohio State appear to have the most talent again, and are the favorites to end up on top of the standings, a second tier of teams that includes Michigan State and Illinois looms as a threat to knock off either of the favorites on any given Saturday afternoon. Perhaps just a step or two behind that second group are Iowa and Wisconsin, and maybe even a regrouping Michigan squad, that can make the top teams sweat bullets if they don't play at their best.
Minnesota and Northwestern look to be down a bit in 2009, but even they will be able to look down the standings at year's end and see Purdue and Indiana looking up at them from the bottom of the conference heap. Those four teams can be fairly said to have regressed from 2008, while the top seven (with the possible exception of Penn State) are probably all at least a little better this year.
Young running backs will surely emerge in the Big Ten in 2009, but the conference lost six of its top seven rushers from last year, as the top three, Javon Ringer, Shonn Greene and Chris Wells moved on to the NFL, and Tyrell Sutton, PJ Hill and Kory Sheets may also end up playing on Sundays. Only Penn State's Evan Royster returns from that elite group of seven backs that led the Big Ten in 2008, and it may be a while before we see a group that talented again.
By contrast, the quarterback play should be improved in the conference this year. Purdue's Curtis Painter, (he of the disappointing season in 2008) and C.J. Bacher of Northwestern have graduated, and the loss to Michigan State of Brian Hoyer may be seen as addition by subtraction, at least where the Spartans' passing attack is concerned. In other words, a lot more talent is returning than what was lost. Coming back for at least one more season in 2009 are Darryl Clark, Terrelle Pryor, Juice Williams, Iowa's Ricki Stanzi, and Minnesota's Adam Weber. MSU's Kirk Cousins and Purdue's Joey Elliott are good-looking first-time starters that join the established conference QB's. Assume some improvement with an added year of experience, and we could be in for some exciting QB play in the coming season.
All the games count the same in the conference standings of course, but it's easy enough to spot a few key contests in advance of the season that have the potential to be turning points in the Big Ten race. Here are a few of those to circle on your calendar...
Sept. 12 - Notre Dame at Michigan - A non-conference yardstick by which to measure Michigan's improvement or lack of it, and a key momentum boost, one way or the other, for the Wolverines.
Sept. 12 - USC at Ohio State - Also not a conference game, but one that is a bellwether for the whole season of one of the conference favorites...for obvious reasons.
Sept. 26 - Illinois at Ohio State - The conference opener for both teams, and potentially a wild afternoon, pitting two of the most dynamic QB's in the nation, Juice Williams and Terrelle Pryor, against each other.
Oct. 3 - Penn State at Illinois - The first road game of the year for the Lions (and the only one in their first seven games) should be a good test of their mettle as defending champs. Key also for the Illini, as it is the second of three straight (at OSU, PSU, MSU) games that will make or break their season.
Oct. 10 - Michigan State at Illinois - The winner has the upper hand to challenge PSU and OSU for conference supremacy.
Oct. 24 - Penn State at Michigan - potential trap game for the Lions...UM has won five straight in Ann Arbor over PSU.
Nov. 7 - Ohio State at Penn State - Very possibly the game that decides the Big Ten championship, and maybe also a BCS berth, (perhaps the only one a Big Ten team will earn.)
Nov 21 - Penn State at Michigan State - The Spartans don't play the Buckeyes, and here they get PSU at home on the season's final Saturday. Could the Spartans be looking to wrap up the title that day?
As always, some of the best games will be the ones nobody expects to be the great games...but that's just to whet your appetites anyway.
We'll get to the final predictions for the 2009 Big Ten standings and some All-Conference teams at the end of this thing. For now, let's look a bit more in depth at "the other ten".....in alphabetical order..._______________________
Illinois Fighting Illini
Head Coach - Ron Zook - 5th Year
Offense: Last year's Illini led the conference in passing yards and total yards, and they could be even more explosive than that in 2009. Big (6' 2", 220) Arrelious Benn may be the best receiver in the country, and senior quarterback Juice Williams has a crowd of other talented receivers as well, including Jarred Fayson and Ohio natives Jeff Cumberland (6' 5", 255) and Cordale Scott (6' 3", 215). They'll need to run the ball effectively though, and Jason Ford and Dan Dufrene are the guys that will be counted on to keep the heat off Juice, (though Dufrene is now said to be questionable for the opener). They should be good enough to keep the Illini offense one of the best in the league. Three offensive line starters return, with eight total starters returning to the offense. Consistency from Juice is what this group desperately needs.Defense: This Illini defense has just five starters returning, but they look strong at defensive tackle and linebacker, featuring Josh Brent and Martez Wilson respectively. Wilson is moving to the middle. Sophomore Tavon Wilson looks like a good up-and-coming replacement for Vontae Davis at cornerback, but they're not as strong at safety, and the secondary has to be a concern overall. I'm not sure this group is good enough to keep Illinois in every game, even with that explosive offense.
Summary: Illinois was in the bottom half of the conference defensive statistics in 2008, and I think that continues. With Benn and Williams likely gone after the season, it's Zook's year to make it happen. But it's just too easy to see the inconsistency that has plagued this team doing it again in 2009. The schedule is front-loaded, with Missouri to open, and then two weeks later they play the three best teams in the conference, in a row...at Ohio State, and home games with Penn State and Michigan State. It gets easier, but then they close at Cincinnati and home against Fresno State, neither one a pushover for Illinois. I see them in the upper half of the conference, but a step below the top three. If they knock off either PSU or MSU at home in early October, the conference race could be wide open. Several ranking services have them in the Top 30 nationally. I just don't see it.
Good News: They'll be fun to watch...at least on offense. One of two Big Ten teams (Wisc.) to have two open dates on the schedule. (All other teams play 12 consecutive weeks.)Bad News: As if the schedule isn't tough enough, Illinois hasn't beaten Michigan back-to-back in 52 years. They trounced the Wolverines 45-20 last year.Returning Starters:122008 Record: 5-7 (3-5 in Big Ten) Best 2009 starter that no one knows about yet: Jarred FaysonLast Beat OSU: 2007, 28-21Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2009: 28%Buckeye Matchup - 2009: September 26, in Columbus. After being a late-season matchup for a few years, the Ohio State game comes early this year, the conference opener for both teams. And what a track meet it could turn out to be, as Terrelle Pryor and Juice Williams duel on a fast track at the Shoe. Last year Illinois put up 455 yds. against OSU, but self-destructed with turnovers and mistakes.
---Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams) #4 Lindy's; #5 Athlon's; #T2 Phil Steele's; #5 TSNPreseason National Ranking - (119 teams) #27 Lindy's; #16 Athlon's; #19 Phil Steele's Links:2008 OSU-Illinois Game Recap
2009 Illinois Roster
2009 Illinois Schedule
Head Coach - Bill Lynch - 3rd Year
Offense: With quarterback Kellen Lewis expelled from the program in the offseason, the chances of Indiana taking a step forward in Big ten competition pretty much went down the drain. Junior Ben Chappell will start at QB, and they'll be very young at the skill positions. Freshman Darius Willis should start at RB, and there are some talented young receivers in Damario Belcher and Tandon Doss. Most of the O-line returns, but this group will struggle to score enough to win many conference games.Defense: Indiana boasts perhaps the best set of defensive ends in the conference in Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew, and they are bolstered in the middle by tackles Jarrod Smith and Deonte Mack, both juniors. Senior Matt Mayberry mans the middle at linebacker, but it gets thin behind him, and defense remains the Hoosiers' chief problem. The secondary returns all four starters, but as a group this defense will often just be overmatched athletically, and will probably be among the league's worst...again.Summary: The 2007 Hoosiers' 7-6 record and bowl game appearance seem to have been a one-off. They stumbled to a 3-9 mark in 2008, and it's hard to project more than three wins for this team in 2009. As you see in the preseason rankings below, there is widespread unanimity on where the Hoosiers are likely to finish in the conference standings.
---Good News: Hard to find much. Overall a more veteran team in 2009. Strong D-line could give lots of teams problems. Bad News: OSU is back on the schedule after a two-year hiatus.Returning Starters: 152008 Record: 3-9 (1-7 in Big Ten) Best 2009 starter no one knows about yet: RB Darius WillisLast Beat OSU: 1988; 41-7Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2009: 3%
Buckeye Matchup - 2009: October 3, in Bloomington. Indiana has lost 14 straight to Ohio State. That is not going to change this year.
Preseason Big Ten Ranking: (11 teams) #11 Lindy's; #11 Athlon's; #11 Phil Steele's; #11 The Sporting News (TSN)Preseason National Ranking (119 teams)- #73 Lindy's; #78 Athlon'sLinks:2009 Indiana Roster
2009 Indiana Schedule
Head Coach - Kirk Ferentz - 11th YearOffense: The Iowa offense was already dealing with a major question mark trying to replace running back Shonn Greene and his 1850 yards, 6.0 yards per carry, and 20 touchdowns from 2008. They thought that sophomore Jewel Hampton would be their answer, but Hampton has suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp, so the Hawkeye coaches must look elsewhere. Freshman Brandon Wegher or redshirt freshman Jeff Brinson are the likely candidates. Iowa does have a solid offensive line, with tackles Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway possibly the class of the conference at that position. Junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi is back with some more game experience, and tight end Tony Moeaki will help, but this is not a big-play scheme, and the lack of a solid rushing attack could make everything else Ferentz tries to do more difficult. The Hawkeyes ranked 9th in the conference in passing yardage in 2008, and if they have to pass more often this year as a result of a sputtering rushing attack, they might not like the results.Defense: All but one of the Hawkeyes back seven from '08 return this year, and they have a lot of talent at linebacker in AJ Edds, Pat Angerer and Jeremiha Hunter. Mitch King and Matt Kroul are gone up front, but juniors Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard are returning starters at the defensive ends, and should generate a better pass rush than last year's 19-sack showing. The experienced secondary features free safety Brett Greenwood and cornerback Amari Spievey, who was 2nd team all-Big Ten in '08. Iowa was the third best overall defensive team in the Big Ten last year, and first against the run. Even with the solid linebacking, that might be tough to repeat with new defensive tackles, but you can count on Ferentz' defensive unit to be disciplined and tough. This should be a strong defense overall in 2009, but still susceptible to a good passing attack.Summary: After three years of averaging six losses per season, Kirk Ferentz turned the Iowa Hawkeyes around in 2008, going 9-4 and tying for 4th place in the Big Ten with Northwestern at 5-3. With games against the Big Ten heavies OSU, PSU and MSU (plus Wisconsin) all on the road in 2009, it's reasonable to project the Hawkeyes to win every home game. A decent Arizona team visits Iowa City in September, and that game could be telling for the Hawkeyes season outlook. There are not a lot of offensive weapons on this team that are going to keep defensive coordinators awake nights before playing Iowa. I suspect they'll be hard-pressed to equal last year's 29.8 ppg in conference. And despite the progress they made last year, it's tough for me to consider them a threat for the Big Ten title, when three conference losses are fairly predictable. I think a 4th place finish in the Big Ten is about the ceiling for the '09 Hawkeyes.
---Good News: Iowa has a good enough kicking game to make a difference in close games...and three of their four 2008 losses were by three points or less. LT Bryan Bulaga is on several preseason All-American teams.
Bad News: Hampton's injury tops the list, with the tough road schedule a close second. Also, the Buckeyes are back on the schedule for the first time since '06.Returning Starters: 142008 Record: 9-4 (5-3 in Big Ten)Best 2009 starter that no one knows about yet: S Tyler SashLast Beat OSU: 2004, 33-7Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2009: 26%
Buckeye Matchup 2009 - November 14, in Columbus. Iowa is 1-10 vs. OSU since 1992, and 0-5 in Columbus.
Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams) #6 Lindy's, #4 Athlon's; #T4 Phil Steele's; #4 TSNPreseason National Ranking (119 teams) - #22 AP; #21 USA Today; #32 Lindy's; #23 Athlon's; #20 Phil Steele's
Links:2009 Iowa Roster
2009 Iowa Schedule
Head Coach - Rich Rodriguez - 2nd Year
Offense: There is one near certainty for the 2009 Michigan offense. It can't be worse than last year's. And that starts at quarterback, where as a passer, freshman Tate Forcier is an major upgrade over Steven Threet or Nick Sheridan. A full year under Rich Rodriguez' system should help too, and the Wolverines have their other 10 starters on offense returning, including a better than average pair of running backs in Brandon Minor and Kevin Grady. Darryl Stonum is a good-looking young receiver, and with Greg Matthews and Martavious Odoms, plus tight end Kevin Koger, Forcier will have a pretty good receiving corps. Experience can't help but improve an offensive line that leaked a lot (28 sacks) in 2008. Michigan was 9th overall in the conference in offense last year, and they'll have to move up several notches if they hope to make it to a bowl game. Rodriguez' promise to play as many as three different QB's might be a good long term move, but can't bode well for 2009.Defense: Only five starters return to a defense that wasn't very good in 2008 (8th in BT), and with a new coordinator changing the system to a 3-4, it may take some time to get things rolling on defense for the Wolves. Defensive end Brandon Graham is the best player on that side of the ball, and one of the best at his position in the country, but there are lots of questions after that. The linebackers, with Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton returning as starters, and Stevie Brown moving from safety to a hybrid LB position, should be better this year. The secondary is a major concern for this defense, with only CB Donovan Warren experienced as a starter. Punter Zoltan Mesko got a workout last year as the Wolverines led the conference in three-and-out possessions, but he's got a great leg, and chances are he'll be showing it a lot again this fall.
Summary: "Disarray" might be too strong a word to describe the Michigan football program as the 2009 opener looms, but surely Rodriguez didn't need the distraction of the friendly fire coming from UM players past and present that has erupted in the last week before the season, accusing the coaching staff of violating NCAA guidelines for practice sessions and offseason workouts. Rodriguez has a track record of success in his second season at the helm, but major improvement for the Wolverines may not come fast enough to suit the already edgy alumni and administration who have been regularly embarrassed by the RichRod regime since he arrived. Two tough games (Western Michigan and Notre Dame) to start the season complicate Rodriguez' plight, as a fast start might calm the growing storm in Ann Arbor. Unless they start very fast, it's hard to envision them being favored in any of their conference road games (MSU, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin). Penn State and Ohio State come calling in Ann Arbor along with the Irish, so the schedule conspires against a major turnaround for the Wolverines, and that's just what may be required to save Rodriguez' job.
Good News: It doesn't look like Rodriguez will lose any starters to the Witness Protection Program. They can't finish lower than last year (11th) in total offense and passing offense. Once again this year, someone has to lose the Michigan-ND game.Bad News: Traditionally easy victories, Northwestern and Minnesota rotate off the schedule. Coach can't decide if the players who left the program or the ones who stayed are causing him more grief.
Returning Starters: 152008 Record: 3-9 (2-6 in Big Ten)
Best player starting in 2009 that no one knows about yet: CB Boubacar CissokoLast Beat OSU: 2003, 35-21Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2009: 36%Buckeye Matchup - 2009: November 21, in Ann Arbor. Five straight wins for OSU is an unprecedented streak in this series. It has to end sometime, but I don't think this is the year.
---Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams) #7 Lindy's; #8 Athlon's; #6 Phil Steele's; #6 TSNPreseason National Ranking - (119 teams) #47 Lindy's; #55 Athlon's; Unranked Phil Steele's
Links:2008 OSU-UM Game Recap
UM 2009 Roster
UM 2009 Schedule
Michigan State Spartans
Head Coach - Mark Dantonio - 3rd Year
Offense: Even with first-year starter Kirk Cousins at quarterback, the Spartans look to have an improved passing attack in 2009. Whatever Brian Hoyer's strengths may have been, his downfield passing prowess was not among them. The Spartan receivers are deep and talented, with Mark Dell, Blair White, and B.J. Cunningham starting in the 3-wide set. Javon Ringer required a ton of carries (390) to pile up his 1637 rushing yards (4.2 ypc) in 2008, and he will be replaced by a pair of very good incoming freshman backs in Larry Caper and Edwin Baker, so the running attack could be better than the 10th best (that's right) Big Ten ranking they had in 2008. Sophomore guard Joel Foreman looks like a keeper, but the O-line will be breaking in two new starters. This unit was right in the middle of the conference (6th) in scoring offense last year (25.1 ppg) and with more balance should be at least that high again in 2009.Defense: Dantonio's defense has eight starters returning to a unit that was in the bottom half of the conference statistically in 2008, but still managed to contribute to nine victories. The linebacking corps is very good, with MLB Greg Jones projected as the Big Ten's best defensive player, and speedy junior Eric Gordon moving to the strongside spot for this year. End Trevor Anderson and tackle Oren Wilson anchor the D-line, and overall the defense will be deeper than last year's model, with three starters returning to the secondary and a good recruiting class bolstering coordinator Pat Narduzzi's troops across the board. This unit is well-coached, but seems to lack the kind of big-play potential that would make them competitive with the conference's top defenses.
Summary: Mark Dantonio has presided over the Spartans' recent rise, albeit in a conference widely thought to be in decline overall, and he deserves credit for that. They stepped up to a 3rd place finish in the conference last year, and made it to a New Year's Day bowl game. With 15 starters back, many of the pundits predict another step up, this time into the conference elite, in 2009. The schedule is their friend this season, with a weaker second half for a team with a recent track record of folding late in the season. The early road schedule is tough...(at ND, at Wisconsin, at Illinois) but a win in either of those two conference road tests could keep them in the Big Ten conversation at least until the Nov. 21 home game against Penn State, one of the two elite teams (OSU is the other) against whom the Spartans have struggled mightily.
---Good News: No Buckeyes on the schedule...they have lost by an average of 25 points to OSU in last three years.
Bad News: A first-year starter at QB usually translates to a couple of conference losses. Freshman running backs make mistakes too. MSU has both.
Returning Starters: 152008 Record: 9-4 (6-2 in Big Ten) Lost to Georgia 24-12 in Capitol One Bowl.Best player starting in 2009 that no one knows about yet: TE Charlie GanttLast Beat OSU: 1999, 23-7Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2009: 0% (not scheduled)
---Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams) #3 Lindy's; #7 Athlon's; #T4 Phil Steele's; #6 TSN
Preseason National Ranking - (119 teams) #24 Lindy's; #20 Athlon's; #29 Phil Steele's
2008 OSU-MSU Game Recap
MSU 2009 Roster
MSU 2009 Schedule
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Head Coach - Tim Brewster - 3rd Year
Offense: The Gophers have some offensive weapons, with Adam Weber returning as one of the Big Ten's best passers (62.2%, 2761 yds., 15 TD's, 8 Int. in '08) throwing to Eric Decker (84 rec., 1074 yds., 7 TD's in '08) one of the conference's top receivers. The running game is a bigger question mark, especially since the Weber to Decker combo will be a surprise to no one this year, and defenses will force Minnesota to diversify. Brewster will try to get back to the power rushing scheme that Minnesota ran with success for years, and DeLeon Eskridge figures to be the main man in the backfield for the Gophers, but there's little reason to believe he'll make people forget Lawrence Maroney or Marion Barber anytime soon. The Gophers lost just eight total starts in experience off the O-line, but the dramatic shift from the spread offense to a pro-style set won't come without problems. Even with Weber and Decker having big years in 2008, the Gophers still scored just 17.0 points (10th) per game in conference, and ranked last in total offense and rushing offense.Defense: The defense returns eight starters, including some strength up the middle in the front seven, with senior DT's Garrett Brown and Eric Small, and linebacker Lee Campbell. Simoni Lawrence could be a playmaker at MLB, and in Traye Simmons, the Gophers have one of the best cornerbacks in the conference. Promising safety Tramaine Brock, an academic casualty, won't be back this year, and that hurts the secondary. As a team, the Gophers will struggle to equal last year's 31 turnovers forced, due largely to a tougher schedule.
Summary: Last year the Gophers were the September Surprise, running out to a 4-0 mark before getting trounced by the Buckeyes. They bounced back with three more wins, including an upset of Illinois in Champaign before collapsing in their last four games and then getting smashed by Kansas in the Insight Bowl. It's easy to exceed expectations when there are so few, and that's the story of the 2008 Gophers. This year's team gets Cal and Air Force in September instead of the likes of Montana State and Florida Atlantic and they travel to Syracuse for their opener. Opponents are likely to blanket Decker and force Brewster to demonstrate the power rushing attack for which he may not have the horses this year. The defense looks to be below average, and Gophers may find themselves in the role of favorite at most three or four times all year. Only pitiful teams at Indiana and Purdue keep the Gophers out of the Big Ten basement.Good News: New stadium, new enthusiasm, new hope...especially for future recruiting success.Bad News: Playing outdoors in November in Minnesota will take some getting used to for the home team.Returning Starters:152008 Record: 7-6 (3-5 in Big Ten)Best player starting in 2009 that no one knows about yet: LB Simoni LawrenceLast Beat OSU: 2000, 29-17Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2009: 10%Buckeye Matchup - 2009: October 24, in Columbus, where the Gophers are 1-18 since 1969. Due to a scheduling quirk, Minnesota plays in Columbus for the second year in a row.Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams) #9 Lindy's; #9 Athlon's; #8 Phil Steele's; #8 TSNPreseason National Ranking - (119 teams) #56 Lindy's; #61 Athlon's;Links:2008 Minnesota-OSU Game Recap
2009 Minnesota Roster
2009 Minnesota Schedule
Head Coach - Pat Fitzgerald - 4rd YearOffense: The Wildcats will be fielding first-year starters at all the skill positions on offense, although projected quarterback starter Mike Kafka played quite a bit in 2008 when C.J. Bacher was hurt or ineffective. Four of five O-line starters are back and RT Kurt Mattes returns from a knee injury that cost him most of the '08 season. Three of last year's starters on the line were freshmen, so the improvement could be dramatic on that unit. But the Cats will be very young and unproven at both running back (Stephen Simmons, Alex Daniel) and at wide receiver (Jeremy Ebert, Sidney Stewart) so Kafka will have his work cut out for him to move the chains consistently, especially early in the season. Kafka was mainly a runner from the QB spot last year (217 yds rushing against Minnesota) but has yet to show he can direct a competent passing attack. The short, ball-control variety is what you can expect from him.
Defense: Defensive end Corey Wootten (6' 7", 265) is the star of the Northwestern defense, and he'll be terrorizing Big Ten QB's for one more year before leaving to play on Sundays. Fitzgerald has a pretty solid defensive group around him, with eight starters returning and a top notch secondary leading the way. Safety Chad Phillips and CB Jordan Mabin, a freshman All-American last year, headline a unit that returns all four starters. The Wildcats have some questions at linebacker, but Nate Williams and Quentin Davie are returning starters who can play. Good recruiting in recent years has made this Fitzgerald's deepest Wildcat team yet, and the defense will be asked to carry the team until the offense rounds into form.
Summary: Fitzgerald put himself on the national coaching map last year with a 9-4 season that included a Top 25 (#22) ranking after the regular season, upset wins over Illinois and Michigan, a road win at Iowa and a solid performance against a very good Missouri team in a 30-23 Alamo Bowl loss. It will be difficult for him to repeat last year's 4th place Big Ten finish however, due to the losses of Bacher and Tyrell Sutton as well as receivers Eric Peterman and Ross Lane from the offense. But the Cats play six games before they run into a truly daunting opponent (at Michigan State) and they avoid OSU and Michigan on the schedule. They have a tough finishing schedule (Penn St, at Iowa, at Illinois, and Wisconsin) but by that time their new offensive starters will be a bit seasoned. With their soft non-conference slate and given a few breaks, another 9-win season and a 5-3 Big Ten mark are entirely possible. But a slight step backwards to a 4-4 conference record is more likely.
---Good News: A fast start against an easy non-con schedule could build confidence and gain experience for a young offense. No OSU for two years.Bad News: Kafka is no Bacher as a passer. No experience to speak of at the skill positions.Returning Starters: 132008 Record: 9-4 (5-3 in Big Ten)Best player starting in 2009 that no one knows about yet: DE Vince BrowneLast Beat OSU: 2004 33-27 (OT)Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2009: 0% (not scheduled)
---Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams) #8 Lindy's; #6 Athlon's; #9 Phil Steele's; #9 TSNPreseason National Ranking - (119 teams) #51 Lindy's; #39 Athlon'sLinks:2008 Northwestern-OSU Game Recap
2009 Northwestern Roster
2009 Northwestern Schedule
Penn State Nittany Lions
Head Coach - Joe Paterno - 44th YearOffense: The Nittany Lion offense must reload on the offensive line and in the wide receiver corps for 2009, but in QB Darryl Clark and running back Evan Royster, the Lions have two of the top offensive performers in the conference back for another season. Whether that will be enough to keep Penn State atop the conference standings for another year remains to be seen, but the new kids on the block will be cutting their teeth in some easy non-conference games before things get tougher in the Big Ten slate. Royster is by far the best returning RB in a conference that lost Ringer, Wells and Greene to the NFL. He averaged an impressive 6.5 yards per carry in '08, piling up 1236 yards rushing, and Stephon Green added another 578, at a 5.5 yard average. Three starters are gone from the O-line, but all-conference center Steve Wisniewski is back to stabilize things up front, and tackle Dennis Landolt returns as well. Graham Zug, Brett Brackett and Chaz Powell look like the best bets to man the wide receiver spots, but this will be primarily a running team (including Clark as a running threat) and they will be good at it, as usual. Freshman placekicker Anthony Fera has a great leg, and is one to watch.
Defense: Just four starters return to the defense for the defending Big Ten champs, and several unknowns dot the lineup. Both defensive tackles are back, including Jared Odrick, who is an all-conference type talent. DE Jerome Hayes will be counted on to rush the passer in the absence of Maurice Evans and Aaron Maybin this year. Linebackers should be very solid if Sean Lee can return to form after missing 2008, and join Michael Mauti and Navorro Bowman in that unit. The secondary is the real concern on defense, as all four 2008 starters are gone, and with the primary pass rushers gone as well, the Lions could be vulnerable to good passing attacks.Summary: Paterno is taking well-justified criticism for the slate of non-conference patsies he has on the '09 schedule (Akron, Temple, Syracuse, Eastern Illinois) and that means the Lions will be largely untested and probably unbeaten when they travel to Illinois on Oct. 3. Overall, the conference schedule is friendly as well, and the fact that they host the Buckeyes on November 7 is reason enough for many of the experts to pick Penn State over OSU for the league title once again. Like OSU, this Nittany Lion team enters the season with lots of question marks...enough to predict that not every one of them will work out swimmingly. Still they are clearly one of the top three teams in the Big Ten, and another 11-2 season and another BCS berth are well within reach.
Good News: Best running back depth in the conference. No worries out of conference.
Bad News: Lots of personnel losses...serious questions in secondary, at WR and on O-line. Tough finishing game at MSU, where they are 2-4 in last six games.
Returning Starters: 92008 Record: 11-2 (7-1 in Big Ten) Lost to USC 38-24 in the Rose BowlBest player starting in 2009 that no one knows about yet: WR Chaz PowellLast Beat OSU: 2008 13-6Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2009: 51%Buckeye Matchup - 2009: November 7, in State College, PA. Like last year, when PSU broke a long losing streak in Columbus, this one could be for the Big Ten title, and possibly for a BCS berth.
Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams) #2 Lindy's; #2 Athlon's; #1 Phil Steele's; #2 TSNPreseason National Ranking - (119 teams) #9 AP; #8 USA Today; #11 Lindy's; #7 Athlon's; #5 Phil Steele's; #12 TSN
Links:2008 Penn State-OSU Game Recap
2009 Penn State Roster
2009 Penn State Schedule
Head Coach - Danny Hope- 1st YearOffense: Longtime Boilermaker QB Curtis Painter is gone, and his projected replacement Justin Siller is history too, having been booted from school due to academic failings. That leaves senior Joey Elliott as the presumed starter, and he'll be joined by a bunch of younger skill position players that will also be starters for the first time. The new crop of running backs is talented and deep, and will include Dan Dierking, Jaycen Taylor and Al-Terek McBurse competing for carries in the offense. Keith Smith and Aaron Valentine are projected at the wide receiver spots, and could be joined by converted DB Royce Adams, the senior from Glenville. Four O-linemen return for the Boilers, so the offensive cupboard isn't completely bare of experience, but this group will struggle to score enough to stay close in conference games.
Defense: The defensive line is led by standout end Ryan Kerrigan, and if you count Keyon Brown, who started 12 games in 2007, you have experienced starters at both tackle spots, with Mike Neal also a veteran on the line. Sophomore Chris Carlino has a high upside as a middle linebacker, and Joe Holland converted from safety a year ago and will play the weakside LB spot. Corners Brandon King and David Pender are a solid duo, but there is less experience at safety. This defense is sound, but a little thin on experience, and will be working with a new coordinator in Donn Landholm.
Summary: Purdue is one of several conference teams to lose so much offensive firepower that they'll have to rely on their defense to get them through the transition period to new offensive personnel. In the case of the Boilermakers though, they are also transitioning to both a new head coach and a new defensive coordinator at the same time. There are two tough non-conference games on the slate, as Purdue travels to Oregon and hosts Notre Dame, both in September. They get OSU, MSU and Illinois all at home, where they have a fighting chance, so the schedule-maker wasn't too unkind to them this year. But the combination of the new coaching regime and the talent exodus in the last two years may be too much to overcome, as far as surpassing last year's 4-8 record goes. A couple of conference wins again is probably the expectation for this bunch.
---Good News: RB Jaycen Taylor and DT Keyon Brown are veterans coming off injury-plagued seasons last year, and the Boilermakers are much better with these two guys in there. Two of the better teams in the conference, Penn State and Iowa, rotate off the schedule for two years.
Bad News: Skill position talent is too thin and inexperienced to compete in most Big Ten contests.
Returning Starters: 122007 Record: 4-8 (2-6 in Big Ten)Best player starting in 2009 that no one knows about yet: MLB Chris CarlinoLast Beat OSU: 2004 24-17Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2009: 14%Buckeye Matchup - 2009: October 17, in West Lafayette, IN
---Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams) #10 Lindy's; #10 Athlon's; #T9 Phil Steele's; #10 TSNPreseason National Ranking - (119 teams) #68 Lindy's; #74 Athlon's;Links:2008 Purdue-OSU Game Recap
2009 Purdue Roster
2009 Purdue Schedule
Head Coach - Bret Bielema - 4th YearOffense: The 2009 Badgers offense will feature one of the league's best running backs, a solid tight end, a deep wide receiver corps, and experience on the line. The questions all revolve around the quarterback position. Dustin Scherer took over for Alan Evridge in mid-season last year, and ended the season with over 1300 yards and 6 TD's, but also threw 5 interceptions, and didn't get anyone too excited about his future. The Badgers have a more dynamic athlete in redshirt freshman QB Curt Phillips, but he's not ready to take over the offense just yet. As fall practice progressed, junior QB Scott Tolzien emerged as the likely starter, and Scherer has fallen to third behind Phillips. Garrett Graham is the heir apparent to TE Travis Beckum, and in Nick Toon, David Gilreath and Kyle Jefferson among others, Wisconsin has a depth at wide receiver not seen in a few years. Sophomore running back John Clay should be the workhorse for the Badgers, and his talent is unquestioned, but his maturity is a work in progress. Zach Brown is a fine back in his own right, and will play a lot regardless of who starts. If the Badgers can craft a reliable downfield passing attack to go with their traditionally strong running game, they could make a quick return to the Big Ten's first division.
Defense: Wisconsin has been forced to play ball control offense because for the last couple years, their defense hasn't been able to stop anybody. The defensive problems may continue into 2009 as the Badgers have to replace five of their front seven, as only DE O'Brien Schofield and ILB Jaevery McFadden return from last year's starters. The secondary looks to be better, with three starters returning, plus CB Aaron Henry returns from missing '08 with an injury. Safety Jay Valai is the standout in that DB group. He's one of the league's hardest hitters and is showing up on the preseason all-conference lists.
Summary: This Badger team is perhaps the hardest to get a handle on going into 2009. They started last year ranked as high as #11 in some polls, went 3-0 out of the gate, and led Michigan 19-0 at halftime in the Big House...when the wheels came off. Once the negative momentum kicked in, they couldn't stop the skid. A close last-minute loss at home to OSU followed the next week, and then they completely collapsed in wipeout losses to Penn State and Iowa. They bounced back to beat Illinois, but fell to the Spartans the next week. And the less said about their bowl game against Florida State the better. They could be in some high-scoring affairs this season, considering their potential on offense and their question marks on defense. The Badgers are a team that is accustomed to winning at home, and all but one (OSU) of their four road games are against the conference's lesser lights. The non-conference slate is fairly tame...(Wofford?), so they could, and should improve on their seven 2008 victories. But if they don't get consistently good quarterback play, it could all come undone for them...like last year.
---Good News: They don't play Penn State or Illinois....no wonder that schedule looks easy. They get a December trip to Hawaii, which isn't bad either.
Bad News: A week before the opener, they're not sure who the quarterback is going to be.
Returning Starters: 112008 Record: 7-6 (3-5 in Big Ten) Lost to Florida State 42-13 in Champs Sports BowlBest player starting in 2009 that no one knows about yet: C John Moffit
Last Beat OSU: 2004 24-13Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2009: 28%Buckeye Matchup - 2009: October 10, in Columbus.
Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams) #5 Lindy's; #7 Athlon's; #T6 Phil Steele's; #7 TSNPreseason National Ranking - (119 teams) #29 Lindy's; #42 Athlon's; #38 Phil Steele'sLinks:2008 Wisconsin-OSU Game Recap
2009 Wisconsin Roster
2009 Wisconsin Schedule
Predictions and All-Conference Team Projections
All-Big Ten Teams - 2009
(First Team / Second Team)
QB - Terrelle Pryor (OSU) / Juice Williams (Ill)
RB - Evan Royster (PSU) / Jaycen Taylor (Pur)
RB - John Clay (Wis) / Edwin Baker (MSU)
WR - Eric Decker (Minn) / David Gilreath (Wis)
WR - Arrelious Benn (Ill) / DeVier Posey (OSU)
WR - Mark Dell (MSU) / Martavious Odoms (Mich)
TE - Garrett Graham (Wis) / Tony Moeaki (Iowa)
OT - Bryan Bulaga (Iowa) / Dennis Landolt (PSU)
OT - Gabe Carimi (Wis) / Jeff Allen (Ill)
OG - Justin Boren (OSU) / Jon Asamoah (Ill)
OG - Joel Foreman (MSU) / Stephen Schilling (Mich)
C - Steve Wisniewski (PSU)/ Mike Brewster (OSU)
K - Brett Swenson (MSU) / Phillip Welch (Wis)
DE - Corey Wootton (NW) / Brandon Graham (Mich)
DE - Thad Gibson (OSU) / Jammie Kirlew (Ind)
DT - Jared Odrick (PSU) / Corey Liuget (Ill)
DT - Josh Brent (Ill) / Cam Heyward (OSU)
LB - Greg Jones (MSU) / AJ Edds (Iowa)
LB - Pat Angerer (Iowa) / Ross Homan (OSU)
LB - Navorro Bowman (PSU)/ Martez Wilson (Ill)
CB - Traye Simmons (Minn) / Chimdi Chekwa (OSU)
CB - Amari Spievey (Iowa) / David Pender (Pur)
S - Kurt Coleman (OSU) / Brett Greenwood (Iowa)
S - Brad Phillips (NW) / Jay Valai (Wis)
P - Zoltan Mesko (Mich) / Jeremy Boone (PSU)
And finally, my best guess as to the final standings in the Big Ten for 2009....
I copped out and listed Ohio State and Penn State as tied for 1st place, because I still think it will come down to the game in State College, PA on Nov. 7th to decide the title....and it's way too early to predict an outcome to that game. Also, I think that both teams could already have a conference loss by the time they meet.
I pick MSU over Illinois more on the basis of how the schedule favors the Spartans than on who I think is the better team...I think Illinois probably is. Iowa may also be better than the Spartans, but their schedule is tougher than MSU as well.
1 - Ohio State
1 - Penn State
3 - Michigan State
4 - Illinois
5 - Iowa
6 - Wisconsin
7 - Michigan
8 - Northwestern
9 - Minnesota
10 - Purdue
11 - Indiana