I’ve been saying this since spring, I think Penn State will repeat as Big Ten champions this coming season for a couple of reasons.
First, their schedule is rather cozy, with the two big time games (Iowa and Ohio State) at home. Second, across the board, they have the best talent returning to a conference that is getting a mixed bag of reactions.
At the same time I am of the belief there could be a two-loss team winning the conference title this year. While I think Penn State is the favorite, the group of Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois could all win this thing and head to the Rose Bowl or BCS bowl.
I will say this. I think the only Big Ten team that has a chance to compete for the national title spot is Penn State.
With that, I present to you the 2009 Big Ten preview, equipped with my picks, the top conference games, the top five players on offense and defense, and some other thoughts.
HOW IT SHAKES OUT
1. Penn State Nittany Lions (Last year: 11-2 overall, 7-1 conference, Big Ten co-champs, lost Rose Bowl to USC 38-24)
Why they will win it: It’s simple. Penn State returns the conferences top quarterback, Daryll Clark, who will ease transition for new wide receivers, they return the top running back in the conference in Evan Royster, the front seven, even without linebacker Mike Mauti is loaded, the schedule is right for them to rip through it.
Why they won’t win it: Clark gets hurt, the offensive line doesn’t pan out, more injuries on defense, the secondary is exploited early leaving it struggling all year, there is some sort of off-field distraction, yet again.
Opener: Sept 5, vs. Akron.
Toughest Game: At Illinois, which might have one of the most explosive offenses in the entire country.
Projected Bowl: Rose Bowl
2. Ohio State Buckeyes (Last year: 10-3 overall, 7-1 conference, Big Ten co-champs, lost Fiesta Bowl to Texas, 24-21)
Why they can win it: Ohio State is the best in the conference, if not one of the best in the country at replacing departed talent. Terrelle Pryor should
Ohio State is in good hands with Terrelle Pryor/Wire photo
explode on the scene as a full-fledged star this season. There are plenty of weapons on offense, especially in the backfield.
Why they won’t win it: You have to believe, on some level, that the losses the Buckeyes suffered on defense to the draft will rear their ugly heads at some point. It might not be early, but at some point, right?
Opener: Sept. 5 vs. Navy
Toughest Game: Vs. USC, Sept. 12, at the Horseshoe. USC will compete for the BCS title again, in fact they are one of my picks to make it to the title game. This should be a lot closer than last year’s landslide in L.A.
Projected Bowl: The Fiesta loves it some Ohio State for sure, but I say they land in the Sugar Bowl as an at-large.
3. Michigan State Spartans (Last year: 9-4 overall, 6-2 conference, lost Capital One Bowl to Georgia 24-12)
Why they can win it: Spartans have the best rising coach in the conference in Mark Dantonio, they have great wide receivers that will challenge any
Michigan State is on the rise under Mark Dantonio, who is rapidly approaching top coach status in the Big Ten
secondary they face, a tough defense led by Big Ten Preseason Defensive POY Greg Jones and the schedule does not include Ohio State.
Why they won’t: Likely will start a true freshman at running back, either new QB Cousins or Nichol won’t pan out, they get no production from either defensive end in Trevor Anderson or Colin Neely.
Opener: Sept. 5 vs. Montana State
Toughest Game: Notre Dame will be improved and very tricky for MSU, but the game to circle is the Oct. 10 game at Illinois. A win there, they may just rise all the way to the top of the conference.
Projected Bowl: Under my projections Ohio State and PSU both head back to the BCS, therefore Michigan State heads back to the Capital One. Let the SEC-Big Ten argument ensue…yet again.
3. Illinois Fighting Illini (Last Year: 5-7 overall, 3-5 conference, no bowl)
Why they could win it: The offense, led by Juice Williams, could be as lethal as any in the entire country. The wide receiver corps was already solid with Regis Benn and Jeff Cumberland, but it’s boosted by the addition of
Can Juice Williams will lead the potentially explosive Illinois offense back to the top of the Big Ten?
Jared Fayson. Scary that Daniel Dufrense the second leading rusher on the team last year may not even be the starter.
Why they won’t: Juice could revert to the inconsistent Juice that everyone has known the previous three seasons, and Ron Zook has made some questionable choices in-game at times. The defense may not stop anyone and Illinois could lose a lot of 38-37 style games.
Opener: Sept. 5 against Missouri in St. Louis
Toughest Game: The make or break game is easily the Sept. 26 date at Ohio State, where Illinois won two years ago.
Projected Bowl: I have a feeling I am going to be wrong about this one, but I see Illinois getting to the Outback Bowl. They very easily could end up back in the BCS.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes (Last year: 9-4 overall, 5-3 conference, won Outback Bowl 31-10 over South Carolina)
Why they could win it: Solid offensive line headed up by Bryan Bulaga, gritty but not great quarterback in Ricky Stanzi who has his top two receivers back, a very veteran linebacking corps and experience in the secondary make them solid all around. Plus Kirk Ferentz has a lot of teams’ numbers.
Why they won’t: They take one on the chin early at Penn State and downward spiral from there, too many tough road games (at Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State).
Opener: Sept. 5 vs. Northern Iowa
Toughest Game: At Penn State to open the Big Ten schedule, it’s at night, and despite the fact that Ferentz is 6-2 lifetime against PSU, this one is going to be very tough to win.
Projected Bowl: Another one I bet I am wrong on, but because I see a lot of potential in the teams above Iowa, I’m putting them in the Alamo Bowl, which they will win.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers (Last year: 7-6 overall, 3-5 conference, lost to Kansas 42-21 in the Insight Bowl)
Why they could win it: Yes, they can, by the way. Minnesota has awesome offensive talent in Adam Weber and Eric Decker. Plus they return their top four rushers from a season ago. The defense brings back eight
If healthy, Minnesota could surprise some this season
Why they won’t: Injuries derailed them a season ago, and that defense that returns eight starters also gave up 29, 35, 55 and 42 points in the last four games (including the Bowl).
Opener: Sept. 5 at Syracuse
Toughest Game: Minnesota has a brutal stretch of its schedule that includes four straight games at Penn State, at Ohio State, Michigan State and Illinois. It starts with PSU. If they are healthy and for real, they have to win that game.
Projected Bowl: Minnesota will stay healthy enough to make it to the Champs Sports Bowl….however they are my surprise team. See below.
7. Michigan Wolverines (Last year: 3-9 overall, 2-6 conference, no bowl)
Why they could win it: They can’t. Michigan has too many teams to leapfrog to get to the top and they are not quite where they need to be to make that move right now. Sorry UM fans. Just too many things need to align for this to happen in 2009.
Why they won’t win it: See above
Opener: Sept. 5 vs. Western Michigan
Toughest Game: If Michgian does make a move, they need to beat Notre Dame in week two. I have a feeling Notre Dame is a 9-10 win team and has BCS written all over it. No joke. This is Michigan’s benchmark. If they win that, then they have to win at East Lansing.
Projected Bowl: While I don’t think they are a viable conference title contender, I do believe Michigan and Rich Rodriguez will begin to write the ship and make it to a bowl game, albeit the Insight Bowl. But it’s a bowl and that is better than 3-9.
8. Wisconsin Badgers (Last year: 7-6 overall, 3-5 conference, lost to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, 42-13)
Why they could win it: Like Michigan, I just can’t see it right now. Badgers must find a quarterback, running back, get some proven receivers, but if there is a bright spot on this team, it’s the offensive line, which will be together this year and next. Defensively, Wisconsin is OK, and they could move up the ladder if winning games 16-13 works.
Why they won’t win it: Too many question marks, Brett Beielema is on the hot seat and that might linger over this team all season if they struggle.
Opener: Sept. 5 vs. Northern Illinois
Projected Bowl: None
8. Northwestern Wildcats (Last year: 9-4 overall, 5-3 conference, lost to Missouri in the Alamo Bowl 30-23)
Why they could win it: Everything aligns, Mike Kafka returns to the form he showed two seasons ago, the running game shapes up behind Stephen Simmons and others ahead of Northwestern tumble. The schedule is so bad they could be bowl eligible by Oct. 17, lose the rest of the games and still go bowling.
Why they won’t win it: There is too much balance at the top of the conference, and the offense has to break in five new starters against some pretty good defenses on the schedule.
Opener: Sept. 5 Towson
Toughest Game: They coast until they get to Minnesota on Sept. 26, which is shaping up to be a helluva day in the Big Ten.
Bowl Projection: They have to get to a Bowl, no? Motor City? Where do they fit in?
10. Purdue Boilermakers (Last year 4-8 overall, 2-6 conference, no bowl)
Why they could win it: They can’t. Enough said.
Why they won’t win it: Purdue is going to, at best, plateau this season. They may not be worse, but they aren’t going to be better.
Opener: Sept. 5 vs. Toledo
Bowl Projection: uh, none.
11. Indiana Hoosiers (Last year: 3-9 overall, 1-7 conference, no bowl)
Why they could find lightning in a bottle: Ben Chappell uses last year’s experience behind Kellen Lewis and becomes a bonafide college football quarterback and lights up everyone else, and Matt Mayberry and Jamie Kirlew go insane on defense.
Why they won’t win it: Really, outside of reasons I have to list why they could win it, can you tell me a reason why they will win? Indiana is the Big Ten doormat for 2009. Facts are facts.
Opener: Sept. 3 vs. Eastern Kentucky
Toughest Game: Sept. 26, at Michigan, a win there, things could turn around.
Bowl Projection: none
TOP FIVE CONFERENCE GAMES
1. Nov. 7, Ohio State at Penn State: This is the de facto conference title game, on paper right now. Ohio State looks to avenge its 13-9 loss to the Nittany Lions last season in Columbus, and Penn State looks to win two in a row over the Buckeyes, at home, midafternoon, and it should be cold.
2. Oct. 10 Michigan State at Illinois: If either one of these are to be taken serious as title contenders in the conference, they must eliminate one another here, in this game of rising Big Ten teams. Money, right now, is on Dantonio and the Spartans.
3. Nov. 21 Penn State at Michigan State: If all other hurdles are cleared, this is the Big Ten title game, possibly out right in 2009. It’s possible a tie still stands up because Michigan State does not play Ohio State.
4. Sept. 26 Illinois at Ohio State: Illini won at the ‘Shoe two years ago, and if they are going to get back on top of the Big Ten they need to make a statement here.
5. Nov. 21 Ohio State at Michigan: Just because.
BUY, SELL, HOLD
BUY: Minnesota, because if they stay healthy they can score and compete with the best. Adam Weber-to-Eric Decker might be the best combo in the conference. Again, they have to stay healthy.
SELL: Northwestern, because despite a cake opening month, per say, they should be bowl eligible by October, problem is they may not win a game the rest of the way.
HOLD: Illinois, because you never know with this team. They could explode for 45 points a game, and need every one of those points because the defense is the big question mark. Hang on to these guys now because they very well could be the conference champs.
5 TO WATCH ON OFFENSE
1. Arrelious Benn, WR, Illinois: The most explosive individual talent in the Big Ten. Can change a game on a dime.
2. Daryll Clark, QB, Penn State: The best QB in the conference, will make his WRs better just by being on the field with them and has the experience of a Big Ten title run under his belt already.
3. Terrelle Pryor, QB, Ohio State: Is ready to explode, the job is all his and he has been given the keys. Watch him take off.
4. Evan Royster, RB, Penn State: His on-field vision is ridiculous, he is a very underrated dual threat and he has underrated break away ability. Should continue assault on PSU rushing record books in ’09.
5. Eric Decker, WR, Minnesota: If it wasn’t for Benn, he’d be the best