The Big Ten had a tough 2007 as the conference dealt with the fallout from 2006’s stunning showing during the bowl season where both Ohio State and Michigan lost badly after finishing the regular season both ranked in the top 3 and boasted 23 wins combined. Despite the Big Ten’s bowl record of 2-1 against the SEC, it was open season on the conference, especially down south. How did the Big Ten respond? By preseason top five selection Michigan losing to Appalachian State in one of the biggest upsets in history! The Big Ten had a big chance to redeem itself in the Rose Bowl and BCS National Title Game but Illinois and Ohio State lost both of those games as well, furthering the perception that the conference had fallen off. Needless to say, the Big Ten is in need of image rehabilitation after a down year.
Luckily, 2008 is looking up for the Big Ten, which returns a huge number of returning players and features three legitimate top ten caliber teams in Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin. The conference returns 8 teams with 13 or more starters along with eight returning starting quarterbacks. Another major storyline will be the debut of new Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, who marks a huge departure from traditional Michigan football after using the spread offense to turn West Virginia into a perennially successful team. As always, conference strength ebbs and flows amongst the major powers and this year should be a strong year for the Big Ten and the conference could answer all of its critics with a strong year.
2007 finished much like 2006 for the Buckeyes, with a loss on college football’s biggest stage. The Buckeyes were at least competitive last year before falling to LSU (unlike the previous year’s stunning flop against Florida) but they have become one of the country’s most hated teams after consecutive title losses. What was overlooked by the nation last year was that Ohio State had to replace their entire offense and wasn’t expected to even win the Big Ten, much less make the National Title Game. This year was supposed Ohio State’s year and the Buckeyes return 19 starters, including no less than five seniors who turned down a shot at getting picked in the 1 st round of the NFL draft, to a team that has played in the last two National Title Games! The Buckeyes might be the most experienced team in the BCS era to challenge for a National Title and expectations are enormous.
On offense, sixth year senior Todd Boeckman will return as the starting quarterback after throwing for 2,300 yards and 25 TDs last fall. Boeckman is expected to cut down on the 14 interceptions that he threw in 2007 and should benefit greatly from a year of starting experience after sitting for four years. At tailback, Ohio State has the nation’s best running back in junior Beanie Wells, who is a Heisman Trophy favorite going into the fall. Wells will run behind one of the country’s elite offensive lines which returns four starters from last year. Expect Ohio State to have a very powerful running game, especially with the presence of the nation’s number one prospect, quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Expect the freakishly athletic freshman to infuse a Tebow-like change of pace into the Buckeye offense. The passing attack should also be better this year, led by senior receiver Brian Robiskie, who had 11 TD catches last fall. Ohio State has a very diverse and impressive attack and should easily improve upon last year’s 31 points per game average.
Ohio State’s defense has been incredible the last two years, allowing opponents less than 13 points per game! The Buckeyes were the nation’s number one defense last fall, but the specter of two straight disappointments in the National Title Game will hover over this team all year. On the defensive line, Ohio State will look to junior DE Lawrence Wilson to be a major impact player after missing last year with a broken bone in his leg. Wilson was expected to be Ohio State’s cornerstone lineman last fall and he could match Vernon Gholston’s production (an OSU record 14 sacks) from last season on his own. The rest of the Buckeye line should be vastly improved as well, especially at defensive tackle. The linebackers are the country’s best, led by seniors James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman. Expect both to be absolute studs this fall for the Bucks. The Ohio State secondary is also among the nation’s best as it returns the entire two deep from the 2007 unit. Senior cornerback Malcolm Jenkins would likely have been the first defensive back drafted had he gone pro after last year and he should be nothing short of a lockdown corner. However, the secondary has plenty of room to improve on holding onto interceptions, especially junior safety Anderson Russell, who treated every easy errant football thrown his way like it was a greased pig last fall. Ohio State’s defense returns virtually intact for the 3rd straight year and should be one of the elite units in the nation.
The schedule for the Buckeyes is pretty difficult, featuring road conference games at Michigan State, Illinois, and at night at Wisconsin, a very dangerous game for Ohio State. The Bucks are also participating in the biggest non-conference game in college football when they travel to Los Angeles to face off against USC. Overall, Ohio State is by far the best team in the Big Ten and will be gunning for their third consecutive outright Big Ten Title, a feat that has never happened in the 100+ year history of the conference! The Ohio State University will be one of the nation’s best teams this fall with a myriad of returning starters, a wealth of talent and expectations in Columbus from both the players and the fans can be summed up in one phrase: National Title or Bust.
Big Games: Sept. 13th @ USC, Oct. 4th @ Wisconsin, Oct. 18th @ Michigan St, Oct. 25th vs. Penn St, Nov. 15th @ Illinois, Nov. 22nd vs. Michigan
Penn State (Predicted Conference Record: 7-1)
Penn State had a solid 2007, finishing 9-4 with a bowl victory. The Nittany Lions have now won three consecutive bowl games and have amassed a 29-9 record the past three years despite fierce criticism towards PSU’s aging icon, Joe Paterno. Penn State returns 16 starters this fall and should far exceed what appear to be surprisingly low expectations outside of Happy Valley.
The Nittany Lions will have a new quarterback this fall, which is a good thing because former starter Anthony Morelli’s play never matched his talent level and he couldn’t be counted to show up in big games. Replacing him will be senior Darryl Clark, whose skills fit the new ‘Spread HD’ system that PSU is installing. Clark impressed last year as a change of pace in the bowl game and he should prove to be a solid quarterback. The Nittany Lions have an impressive returning offensive line, featuring all five of last year’s starters, and should be one of the nation’s best units. Expect sophomore tailback Evan Royster to find a lot of running room this fall. The Nittany Lions also have a very veteran receiving corps, led by seniors Deon Butler, Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood, who have all been major contributors for the past four years! Expect Clark to find all three of them open a lot this fall. It is not a stretch to think that Penn State’s offense could be as impressive as the 2005 unit, which averaged 34 points per game en route to a #3 final national ranking and a Big Ten title.
Penn State has been a very solid defense the last three years, holding opposition under 100 rushing yards per game every season. The strength of Penn State’s defense will be the defensive line, which returns three starters from last year and is a very talented unit. Junior DE Maurice Evans rampaged to 12.5 sacks last fall and will be the leader of one of the Big Ten’s best D-Lines. At linebacker, PSU suffered a huge loss in spring practice when Sean Lee tore an ACL and will miss the entire season. However, PSU still has a lot of talent and expect senior Tyrell Sales to step up in Lee’s absence. The secondary should also be a very good group for JoePa’s team as three starters are back and all are seniors. Safety Anthony Scirrotto made over 60 tackles last fall and picked off three passes while the rest of the secondary underperformed last year. Expect this group to get their hands on a lot more passes this fall and be very stingy against the aerial attack. Penn State should have an excellent defense for the fifth straight year.
The schedule is pretty tough for the Nittany Lions, featuring road trips to Wisconsin, Purdue and Ohio State. Particularly difficult will be a three week stretch which bookends night trips to Camp Randall and Ohio Stadium around a home contest against Michigan, who PSU hasn’t beaten in a decade. Expect that to change this fall. The trip to Wisconsin also comes at a good time, as the Badgers will be coming off of consecutive games against Michigan and OSU and they may be ripe for a fall. Penn State’s out of conference schedule features an intriguing matchup with Oregon State, one of four Big 10 versus Pac 10 battles this year. Overall, Penn State should be a very good team in 2008. With Darryl Clark at the helm of the offense and playing behind a very veteran O-Line, PSU should score a ton of points while their defense should be as tough as ever. Penn State is a contender to knock off the Buckeyes, though they have never beaten Ohio State in Columbus since joining the Big Ten and they must play in a rare night game at Ohio Stadium. I would be stunned if PSU knocked off the Buckeyes but I would be equally surprised if the Penn State Nittany Lions didn’t win ten games and garner serious consideration for a BCS at large bid.
Big Games: Sept. 6th vs. Oregon St, Sept. 27th vs. Illinois, Oct. 11th @ Wisconsin, Oct. 18th vs. Michigan, Oct. 25th @ Ohio St, Nov. 22nd vs. Michigan St
Wisconsin (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)
Wisconsin was a solid team in 2007, finishing 9-4 in Head Coach Brett Bielema’s second season while playing in their fourth consecutive January bowl game. In fact, Wisconsin has won 40 games in the last 4 years and has only lost one home game during that span! Furthermore, the Badgers return 17 starters from last year’s team, meaning that Wisconsin could be a very dangerous team this fall.
On offense, senior Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge is expected to start under center. Evridge, who started some as a true freshman at K-State, will likely be more of a game manager because of the weapons around him. First of all, Evridge will have the best tight end in the country to snag a lot of his passes in senior Travis Beckum, whose 75 catches, 980 yards, and 6 TDs were enough to earn him a 3 rd team All-American nod. Second, a veteran offensive line that returns four starters should give Evridge plenty of time to look downfield for sophomore Kyle Jefferson and Wisconsin’s other talented wideouts. Finally, a very solid offensive line will open holes for one of the best running back corps in the country. Led by junior PJ Hill, Wisconsin will have three tailbacks which will see a lot of carries and the Badgers will look to run the ball down the opposition’s throat. Expect Wisconsin to at least match last year’s 200 ground yards per game average and score a lot of points this fall.
Wisconsin’s defense was somewhat of a disappointment at times last fall, allowing over 30 points five times in conference play. Expect that defense to grow up a lot this fall, as six seniors return among the nine starters back! The defensive line should be very strong, returning three senior starters. Joining the first unit will be sophomore DE Kirk DeCremer, who recorded 5.5 sacks as a freshman last fall. The linebackers are also very solid, returning all three starters and all the top backups. Wisconsin’s run defense should be very stout this fall. The secondary should be pretty solid despite the early NFL entry of corner Jack Ikegwuono. Junior safety Shane Carter led the Big Ten in interceptions with seven last year and if any of the other defensive backs can hold onto the football, Wisconsin could make a big jump in pass defense. Overall, expect improvement across the board from the Badgers on defense and this will be one of the elite units in the Big Ten.
The schedule is pretty tough, featuring road trips to Michigan, Michigan State and rival Iowa. Furthermore, the Badgers face Ohio State and Penn State in back to back weeks after traveling to Ann Arbor to kick off the Big Ten slate. Wisconsin also faces a dangerous road game at Fresno State early in the year, a game they cannot afford to lose if they want to compete for a BCS berth. Wisconsin’s offense should work out very similar to last year’s unit, featuring a power run attack and a heavy dose of Travis Beckum while the defense should be much improved. Wisconsin is a definite contender for the Big Ten title and if any team in the conference is going to beat Ohio State, it will be the Badgers as they attempt to conjure up memories of a night victory over Ohio State in 2003 that broke the then-defending National Champion Buckeyes’ 19 game winning streak. In short, if Wisconsin can overcome a tough early conference slate, the Badgers could see themselves playing in a BCS bowl this fall. Anything short of a ten win season will be a disappointment in Madison.
Big Games: Sept. 13th @ Fresno State, Sept. 27th @ Michigan, Oct. 4th vs. OSU, Oct. 11th vs. PSU, Oct. 25th vs. Illinois, Nov. 1st @ MSU
Michigan State (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)
2007 may turn out to have been a groundbreaking year at Michigan State in Head Coach Mark Dantonio’s first season. Unlike years past, Michigan State responded to adversity during the middle of the year and finished the year strong to make a bowl game instead of falling apart as was traditional under former coach John L. Smith. Dantonio, who was Ohio State’s defensive coordinator during their national title season of 2002 and Cincinnati’s head coach for three years after that, is a strong recruiter and defensive coach and he returns 13 starters from last year’s team in a year where Michigan State may take another step forward to make an impact in the Big Ten race and nationally.
The Michigan State offense was very solid last fall, racking up over 33 points per game after averaging only 25 the previous fall. Senior quarterback Brian Hoyer returns after throwing for over 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns. Hoyer is rarely mentioned when the subject of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks comes up, but he is underrated and should be very solid this year. His savvy should also help offset the major losses at receiver, where sophomore Mark Dell is the leading returning receiver with only 220 yards from last fall. The Spartans also feature one of the country’s best tailbacks in senior Javon Ringer, who ran for over 1,400 yards last fall and 6 TDs. With the departure of goal line back Jehuu Caulcrick, who had 21 TDs in 2007, expect Ringer to improve upon those already impressive numbers. Ringer will run behind an offensive line which returns three starters from last fall and a number of other players who have starting experience. Expect Michigan State to have a very strong running attack this fall which should anchor a very good offense.
The MSU defense was improved last year under Dantonio’s tutelage, but they still allowed nearly 27 points per game. Expect Dantonio to make improving that statistic a priority this fall. On the defensive line, MSU loses a lot of production as only senior Justin Kershaw returns from last year’s starters. The defense end losses, where the starters combined for 18.5 sacks last fall, should be slightly offset by the presence of junior Trevor Anderson, who had ten sacks in two years at Cincinnati before transferring to MSU to again play for Dantonio. Anderson has been much talked about during MSU camp and should be an impact player. At linebacker, sophomore Greg Jones was the team’s leading tackler in 2007 and he and fellow sophomore Eric Gordon should be the building blocks of a strong MSU run defense this year and in years to come. The secondary is also a strong group, led by senior safety Otis Wiley, who had four picks last fall. Expect the Spartans to improve upon 2007’s relatively paltry interception totals in 2008. Overall, Michigan State should have a very solid defense this fall, but they aren’t quite on par with the Big Ten’s top units.
The Spartans get a break in the conference schedule, avoiding Illinois and hosting Ohio State and Wisconsin. However, the Spartans have a pretty tough non-conference schedule, traveling to Cal to start the year before welcoming Sun Belt favorite Florida Atlantic and rival Notre Dame. The Spartans also don’t have a bye until they’ve played 11 games, so MSU won’t get any breaks until November! The toughest stretch for Michigan State features three home games against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Purdue and a road trip to hated Michigan at the end of the eleven game kick to begin the season, so the Spartans will play their toughest conference foes to close out a tiring stretch. Overall, Michigan State is clearly a team on the rise and their offense will feature a strong running game and a solid passing attack (assuming their young receivers step up) and their defense should be solid. Mark Dantonio is building a very strong program and the Spartans look like a team which will contend for the Big Ten Title in the future. However, this fall the most realistic expectations should be for an eight or nine win season, a victory over hated rival Michigan and a national ranking.
Big Games: Aug. 30th @ Cal, Sept. 20th vs. Notre Dame, Oct. 18th vs. Ohio State, Oct. 25th @ Michigan, Nov. 22nd @ PSU
Illinois (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)
2007 was nothing short of a phenomenal and stunning season for the Fighting Illini, catapulting from a 2-10 mark in 2006 all the way to a 9-4 finish and a Rose Bowl berth! Head Coach Ron Zook’s turnaround of a previously moribund program has been founded on his exceptional recruiting and a continued improvement on defense. Illinois suffers a lot of big losses from last year’s surprising team (only 13 starters return) so many of Zook’s young recruits will be given their first chance to take ownership of their team.
On offense, Illinois will revolve around junior quarterback Isaiah “Juice” Williams, who is a significant threat to run and pass, will look to develop as a passer after only throwing one more touchdown than interceptions last year (13-12 ratio). Williams will have a much improved receiving corps to throw to this fall, led by supremely talented sophomore Regus Benn, who was very impressive as a true freshman last year. The Illini also return three starters on the offensive line, but lose a 1 st team All-American and a two year starter, so the losses are fairly significant. However, the biggest loss on offense, by far, is at the tailback position where Rashard Mendenhall left early for the NFL and became a first round pick. In his place, Illinois has a large group of young candidates to take over. Expect junior Daniel Dufrene to have the first crack at toting the rock, but no one is going to make up for Mendenhall’s nearly 1,700 rush yards and 19 total TDs on their own. Illinois should still have a very solid offense, but they will have to rely on the pass more this fall to come close to matching last year’s production.
On defense, Illinois has improved more than any other team in the country over the past three years. In Zook’s first year, the Illini allowed nearly 40 points per game. Last fall, they allowed fewer than 22! That’s nearly three touchdowns better! This year, the strength of the Illinois defense will be along the defensive line, where three starters return. Despite the tough loss of senior Sirod Williams to a torn ACL during camp, the three returning starters registered 19.5 sacks last fall and the Illini defensive front should be quite stout. However, there is concern at linebacker, as Illinois must replace their top two tacklers from last fall, including 1 st team All-American J Leman. However, sophomore Martez Wilson has been the talk of camp and senior Britt Miller is expected to make a nearly seamless transition to Leman’s middle linebacker spot, so Illinois should still have solid linebacker play. Still, there probably will be a little bit of a drop off after losing so much talent. In the secondary, Illinois will be young at safety after graduating both starters. However, both starting cornerbacks return and junior Vontae Davis had 4 picks and was a 1 st team All-Big Ten selection. Overall, Illinois should be a pretty strong defense, but they will have to replace a lot of production from last year and are a middle of the pack defense in the conference.
Illinois’ schedule is one of the Big Ten’s most difficult, facing road trips to Penn State and Michigan in back to back weeks to begin conference play before traveling to Wisconsin and rival Northwestern later in the year. The Fighting Illini do avoid Michigan State and Purdue but they will host what is expected to be a very angry Ohio State team out for revenge for last year’s stunning upset late in the season. The non-conference schedule also features one of the country’s biggest games this fall when Illinois faces off against preseason #6 Missouri in St. Louis. Illinois has suffered a lot of losses from last year in key spots, but there is a lot of talent in Champaign this fall. While a tough schedule and a little bit of inexperience should hold the Illini back from contending for the Big Ten Title, Illinois could easily win 8 or 9 games this fall and are definitely a team which should contend for the Big Ten title in future years.
Big Games: Aug. 30th vs. Missouri, Sept. 27th @ PSU, Oct. 4th @ Michigan, Oct. 25th @ Wisconsin, Nov. 15th vs. OSU, Nov. 22nd @ Northwestern
Michigan (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)
2007 can only be described as a massive disappointment for the Wolverines. First the Wolverines began the year ranked #5 only to lose to Appalachian State, following that up by getting blown out by Oregon the next week. Then after they rebounded to win 8 games in a row, Michigan’s senior class failed to beat Ohio State for the 4 th straight year, meaning the graduating seniors never defeated their archrival! Head Coach Lloyd Carr announced his retirement soon thereafter and Michigan sent him out properly with a bowl win over Florida in the Capital One bowl. Michigan’s new boss is former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez will bring his vaunted spread offense to Ann Arbor, a transition that may cause the Wolverines to struggle on offense this fall. However, after losing their all-time leaders in quarterback starts, passing yards, rushing yards, the #1 pick in the NFL draft, three other starting lineman and both of their starting receivers, Michigan would have struggled anyway. With only two starters back on offense and nine overall, Michigan could see its worst year in a very long time.
On offense, Georgia Tech transfer Steven Threet and sophomore Nick Sheridan are both expected to play at quarterback, but neither fits Rodriguez’s model for his system so run-first true freshman Justin Feagin could see time as well. Whoever is at QB will have to play behind an offensive line which was utterly ransacked by graduation and the defection of Justin Boren to Ohio State, returning only one starter! That doesn’t bode well for the Wolverines’ running game either, as juniors Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor could struggle to find running room and neither has a lot of experience since Mike Hart started for the last four years. At receiver, junior Greg Matthews is the only returnee of note, with over 350 receiving yards and 3 TDs last fall, and junior tight end Carson Butler will probably be an afterthought in the new offense as WVU’s tight ends had less than ten catches last year. Simply put, Michigan could really struggle on offense this year.
The Michigan defense has a much brighter outlook, returning seven starters from last year, five of which are seniors. The defensive line is the unquestioned biggest strength on defense, as all four starters return and only Brendan Graham (8.5 sacks last year) is not a senior. Michigan allowed over 110 more rushing yards per game than in 2006, giving up nearly 160 yards on average last fall. Expect that to markedly improve in 2008 as Michigan has one of the conference’s best defensive lines. At linebacker, sophomore Obi Ezeh will have to quickly take on a leadership role after starting throughout his freshman year last fall. Michigan has some talent otherwise, but they will be much less experienced than last year’s unit. The secondary should also be fairly strong as Michigan’s top three cornerbacks return from last fall. Seniors Morgan Trent and Brendan Harrison and sophomore Donovan Warren only combined for four picks last year, a number that has to improve. Expect Michigan to be fairly tough against the pass in 2008. Overall, Michigan’s defense is a pretty tough unit and should be very much improved against the run. The Wolverines’ defense should be one of the Big Ten’s better units and will have to carry the team for much of the early going if they are to be competitive in Rodriguez’s first year.
The schedule is also very tough for the Wolverines. The first four conference games are at home against Wisconsin and Illinois, at Penn State, and at home against Michigan State! That’s not the teams that Rodriguez would have picked for his offense to go against early and Michigan could conceivably start the Big Ten schedule 0-4! The Wolverines also have to travel to archrival Ohio State to close out the year and they will be massive underdogs as Jim Tressel is 6-1 against Michigan and 3-0 in the Horseshoe and the Buckeyes are one of the country’s best teams. Don’t expect a repeat of the 1969 game where first year coach Bo Schembechler stunned an undefeated and overwhelming favorite Buckeye squad, a game that Michigan fans seem to continually bring up when referring to Rodriguez, who has a long way to go to earn a favorable comparison one of the patriarchs of Michigan football. The out of conference schedule is also pretty difficult, beginning with a very difficult season opener against Utah. If Michigan loses that game, they could fair to qualify for a bowl for the first time in 40 years! Games against a tough Miami of Ohio team and a visit to rival Notre Dame will also be tough. Overall, Rich Rodriguez is looking a big rebuilding project in Ann Arbor on offense and the Wolverine defense simply isn’t strong enough to carry the team to a very strong record. At every place that Rodriguez has coached, his first year has been very tough. At West Virginia, the Mountaineers went 3-8 in his first year before reeling off 6 straight wining seasons, meaning Michigan could struggle this fall. Anything more than a six or seven win season will be a big surprise.
Big Games: Aug. 30th vs. Utah, Sept. 13th @ Notre Dame, Sept. 27th vs. Wisconsin, Oct. 18th @ Penn St, Oct. 25th vs. MSU, Nov. 22nd @ Ohio State
Iowa (Predicted Conference Record: (3-5)
Iowa had a very difficult 2007, opening the year sluggishly before fighting their way back into the bowl picture and then inexplicably losing the final game of the season at home against Western Michigan to remove them from bowl consideration. It was a stunning turn of events for a program which finished #8 in the country for three consecutive years from 2002-2004 and has only won a total of 19 games the past three years! Head Coach Kirk Ferentz isn’t on the hot seat yet but a disappointing 2008 could put him there. As off-field issues continue to dog the Hawkeyes, Ferentz will have to hope that 13 returning starters can be the foundation of a team which returns to a bowl game and prevents his job security from worsening.
The offense has by and large been the biggest culprit in Iowa’s falloff the past three years. The Hawkeyes averaged a paltry 18.5 points per game last fall, by far the worst in the Big Ten. Junior quarterback Jake Christensen returns a year after throwing for 2,200 yards and 17 TDs. However, those stats are deceiving as Christensen had a couple of absolute stinkers, including a 5-15 effort for 53 yards in a double OT win over MSU! Christensen is expected to improve significantly this fall, something that can only help the Hawkeyes. He will play behind an offensive line that returns all five starters from last fall! Expect the line to be the key to a much improved running game and Christensen should have a little more time to throw as well. The running game will be led by junior Shonn Greene, who didn’t play last fall but seems to have won the position during camp and averaged over five yards per carry in 2005 and 2006. Wide receiver is a big concern for the Hawkeyes, as sophomore Darrell Johnson-Koulianos returns after leading the team last fall. However, Iowa has been very inconsistent during camp and while this offense should improve upon last year’s anemic effort, they’ll likely struggle at times as well.
Iowa’s defense has been very consistent under Ferentz, not allowing more than 21 points per game in any of the last six years. Last year’s unit allowed less than 19 points per game and was tough against both the run and pass. On the defensive line, Iowa returns two senior DTs in Mitch King and Matt Kroul, who combined for over 130 tackles last fall. King also notched 4.5 sacks and an impressive 10 tackles for a loss. However, they will be joined by a pair of sophomores on the end who combined for 4.5 sacks in limited time as freshman, so Iowa could boast a solid defensive line. At linebacker, junior AJ Edds returns after ringing up 80 tackles last fall. He will be counted on to lead what is expected to be a young group. The secondary returns both starters at safety, led by sophomore Brett Greenwood, who racked up 45 tackles and 2 picks last year. The starting cornerbacks are probably going to be sophomores and Iowa could find itself a little shaky against the pass in the early going. Overall, the Hawkeyes should build off of a stout line of scrimmage and their defense should turn out to be fairly solid.
Iowa gets a big break on the Big Ten schedule, avoiding both Ohio State and Michigan! The Hawkeyes also welcome Penn State, Wisconsin, and Purdue to Iowa City this fall. Road trips to Michigan State and Illinois should also prove to be tough tests. The Hawkeyes have a pretty solid out of conference schedule, highlighted by rival Iowa State and a visit to rising Pittsburgh in back to back weeks. Overall, Iowa should have a fairly solid defense and their offense will likely be improved from last season’s awful output. However, the Hawkeyes will still face a tough schedule in spite not facing the Buckeyes and Wolverines and Ferentz’s gang will have to deal with a lot of off the field distractions as well. If Iowa wins eight games this fall, it would be a surprise.
Big Games: Sept. 13th vs. ISU, Sept. 20th @ Pitt, Oct. 4th @ MSU, Oct. 18th vs. Wisconsin, Nov. 1st @ Illinois, Nov. 8th vs. PSU, Nov. 22nd @ Minnesota
Purdue (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)
Purdue finished 2007 with a solid 8-5 mark, their best record since 2003. The Boilermakers were led by a solid passing attack en route to a bowl victory in Head Coach Joe Tiller’s penultimate season. This fall will be Tiller’s 12 th and final season in West Lafayette and offensive line coach Danny Hope is his appointed successor. So, expect the theme of this fall to be to win one for Joe. However, the Boilermakers only return 12 starters so there could be some growing pains, especially on defense.
On offense, Purdue features perhaps the finest quarterback in the Big Ten in senior Curtis Painter. Painter, who has started the previous three years, threw for over 3,800 yards and 29 TDs last fall and will be the unquestioned leader of the offense. Painter will have a young receiving corps to throw to, but senior wideout Greg Orton is back after catching 67 passes last fall and should be the go-to receiver. At tailback, senior Kory Sheets returns after rushing for nearly 900 yards last fall and 11 TDs. He should find plenty of room to maneuver behind a fairly veteran offensive line which returns three starters from last year’s team. Expect Purdue to have a very productive offense that should finish on par with last year’s group that averaged over 34 points per game.
The Boilermakers’ defense has been a sore spot the past three years, allowing no less than 27 points per game. This year, Purdue’s defense features a defensive line which returns three starters. Led by junior DE Keyon Brown, who had 3.5 sacks last fall, Purdue’s defensive line should be improved after underperforming last year. The linebackers will be led by senior Anthony Heywood, who notched 81 tackles, including 14 for a loss, last fall. He should anchor a fairly strong run defense and should help offset some of the inexperience surrounding him. In the secondary, Purdue returns two starters; Juniors David Pender and Brandon King, both of whom recorded 44 tackles and 1 pick last fall. Purdue loses most of its interceptions from 2007, so the new starters will have to step up to fill the void. Overall, Purdue has the makings of a decent defense but they will likely end up in the Big Ten’s lower half this fall.
The schedule for Purdue is downright friendly, avoiding Wisconsin and Illinois! The Boilermakers also welcome Penn State, Michigan, and rival Indiana to West Lafayette, meaning that they have the potential to be stronger than their predicted 3-5 mark. Purdue plays a tough non-conference schedule; welcoming Oregon and 2 time MAC champ CMU (who the Boilers beat twice last fall) to Ross-Ade Stadium in consecutive weeks, while traveling to rival Notre Dame the week afterwards. Overall, Purdue’s biggest strength will be the passing attack led by Curtis Painter and they should have a very good offense. However, their defense may take some time to develop and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Boilermakers lose a lot of high scoring games. Purdue should be a bowl team, but any more than seven wins is unlikely.
Big Games: Sept. 13th vs. Oregon, Sept. 27th @ Notre Dame, Oct. 4th vs. PSU, Oct. 11th @ OSU, Nov. 8th @ MSU, Nov. 22nd vs. Indiana
Northwestern (Predicted Conference Record: 2-6)
Northwestern had a difficult 6-6 season last fall in former star linebacker Pat Fitzgerald’s second season at the helm. The Wildcats missed out on a bowl game because of an awful loss to Duke at home and their defense regressed as well. 2008, however, is looking bright in Evanston, as Fitzgerald’s stated goal this fall has been to reach a bowl game. With 15 starters returning from last year and a favorable schedule, the Wildcats may well prove him right.
On offense, Northwestern will be led by senior C.J. Bacher, who threw for 3,600 yards and 19 TDs last fall. However, Bacher threw 19 interceptions as well, a number that he absolutely has to cut down this year. Bacher will be joined in the backfield by senior Tyrell Sutton, who was the team’s leading rusher last fall despite missing five games due to injury. If Sutton can stay healthy, he could be even more productive than he was as a true freshman, when he ran for over 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns! Senior Omar Conteh should also see plenty of carries, giving the Wildcats two solid tailbacks. Another positive for Bacher is the receiving corps, which features seniors Eric Peterman (66 catches, 3 TDs in 2007) and Ross Lane (650 yards, 7 TDs), who should be one of the stronger tandems in the conference. Expect the experience at receiver to translate into a big year passing the ball. The only question for the Wildcats is on the offensive line, where only two starters return from last year. The talent moving up is a question mark and some true freshman might have a chance to play this fall, never a good sign. Depending on the play of the offensive line, Northwestern could have an explosive offense. If Sutton and Conteh can find room to run, Northwestern could improve significantly upon last year’s 26 points per game average.
Northwestern’s defense was pretty porous last fall, allowing 31 points per game. However, this year’s squad could be stronger and it all begins along the defensive line. Senior DT John Gill is a force in the middle and he should improve upon his 4 sacks from last fall once he returns from a suspension in week two. Returning alongside Gill is the rest of last year’s starters and all are now upperclassmen, a good sign for an improvement against the run. At linebacker, the Wildcats will have to deal with the graduation of leading tackler Adam Kadela, but seniors Malcolm Arrington and Prince Kwateng should be good enough to help offset the loss of his 125 tackles. Northwestern should be pretty solid at linebacker this fall. In the secondary, only two starters are back from last year’s team but they will also be bolstered by the return of junior safety Brendan Smith, who was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection two years ago and missed most of last year due to injury. Still, Northwestern’s pass defense was pretty poor last fall and they can only improve. Overall, Northwestern should be fairly solid in the front seven, but their secondary leaves a lot to be desired. This is one of the Big Ten’s weaker defenses.
The conference schedule is a dream for the Wildcats, as they manage to avoid both Penn State and Wisconsin! Furthermore, they host Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State, and Illinois, so their only daunting road game will be late in the year against a down Michigan team! If the Wildcats can upset one or more of their home opponents, they could have a very successful fall. Further aiding their schedule is the non-conference slate, which features 2 BCS opponents. Normally, that sounds pretty tough, but when you’re playing Syracuse and traveling to Duke, it is not so impressive and it will be a disappointment if Northwestern doesn’t begin the year 4-0. Overall, Northwestern has a very good offense that could be downright dangerous if their offensive line improves. However, the Wildcat defense doesn’t look to be much of an improvement from last year’s poor showing, so expect a lot of high scoring games. A lot of pundits have picked Northwestern to win eight or more games this fall, but I just don’t see it. I think a more realistic expectation of the Wildcats would be a solid but unspectacular 7-5 finish, though I feel 6-6 is much more likely.
Big Games: Aug. 30th vs. Syracuse, Oct. 11th vs. MSU, Oct. 18th vs. Purdue, Nov. 8th vs. OSU, Nov. 15th @ Michigan, Nov. 22nd vs. Illinois
Minnesota (Predicted Conference Record: (2-6)
2007 was a catastrophically bad season for Minnesota, finishing with a 1-11 record in new coach Tim Brewster’s first season. After firing former coach Glen Mason for not getting the Gophers over the hump to the top of the conference, Minnesota went 0-8 in Big Ten play and lost in embarrassing fashion to Florida Atlantic, Bowling Green, and D-1AA North Dakota State! However, Brewster has an infectious personality and is proving to be a great recruiter; He brought in one of the nation’s 20 best classes this spring. Expect 15 starters and a year of experience for both the players and their head coach to translate into a much stronger season this fall.
Minnesota will be led by sophomore quarterback Adam Weber, who threw for nearly 2,900 yards and 24 TDs last fall and proved to be a bright spot in such a rough season. Weber is also a dual threat, accounting for over 600 yards and 5 TDs on the ground to lead the team in rushing in 2007. Sophomore Duane Bennett is expected to carry the load in the backfield this fall after gaining over 400 yards in 2007 in limited duty. The wide receivers will be led by junior Eric Decker, who had over 900 yards receiving and 9 touchdowns last fall. The offensive line will be young and only returns three starters from last season. They will definitely go through some growing pains, but a year under their belts in the new system should breed some improvement. Overall, Minnesota is capable of scoring a fair amount of points this fall but they are still far behind the top of the conference in terms of talent.
On defense, Minnesota was terrible last fall, allowing nearly 37 points per game! Especially galling was the 230 rush yards per game allowed, nearly 70 more than in Mason’s final year. The defensive line was young and suffered a lot of injuries last year, so they should be improved this fall. Expect senior Willie VanDeSteeg to be much improved after being injured last fall. VanDeSteeg was a 2 nd team All-Big Ten selection in 2006 and should be an impact player this year. The D-Line should be much improved against the run this fall. The linebackers should also be stronger, featuring seniors Deon Hightower and Steve Davis. Assuming that they don’t get hit with the rash of injuries that hurt the team last year, the linebackers should also be improved. The secondary is a big question mark and will feature a lot of underclassmen and junior college transfers. Sophomore Kyle Threet could be a star after snaring three picks last fall and should be a solid contributor. However, the secondary is a pretty big concern a year after allowing nearly 300 yards per game through the air. Minnesota should feature a much improved defense this fall, but they’re still one of the worst units in the conference.
Minnesota gets a good break in the schedule, avoiding Penn State and Michigan State this fall. Unfortunately, they have a really tough road schedule, traveling to Ohio State, Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin. If they win one of those games, it will be a surprise. The non-conference schedule is relatively light, but Minnesota’s record was 1-3 against 4 non- BCS opponents in the non-conference slate last year so none of the games are easy. Overall, Minnesota should have a good offense this fall but their defense won’t be significantly better than last fall. A successful season would be Minnesota avoiding upsets against their non-conference opposition and at least playing their Big Ten opponents close. If Minnesota wins 6 games, I will be pleasantly surprised.
Big Games: Sept. 6th @ Bowling Green, Sept. 20th vs. FAU, Oct. 11th @ Illinois, Nov. 8th vs. Michigan, Nov. 15th @ Wisconsin, Nov. 22nd vs. Iowa
Indiana (Predicted Conference Record: (1-7)
2007 was a very successful year for the Indiana Hoosiers, winning 7 games in the regular season and making the program’s first bowl in fourteen years! Last season was an emotional one, as the bowl berth was dedicated to recently deceased coach Terry Hoeppner, who had changed the climate around the program during his two years at Indiana. This fall, Hoeppner’s successor, Bill Lynch, has been made the permanent coach and he has thirteen starters back as the Hoosiers try to reach a bowl game in back to back years for the first time in nearly two decades.
Indiana ’s offense is expected to be led by junior Kellen Lewis, who threw for 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns and ran for over 700 yards and 9 touchdowns. I say ‘expected’ because Lewis was suspended for all of spring practice for a violation of team rules and Lynch has still refused to name a starter. Assuming Lewis starts, he is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Unfortunately for Lewis, his top target from last season, wideout James Hardy (79 catches, 1125 yards, 16 TD grabs), left early for the NFL and junior Ray Fisher is the top returning receiver with 480 yards and 4 TDs in 2007. Joining Lewis in the backfield will be senior Marcus Thigpen, who ran for over 500 yards last fall. Expect his numbers to improve as Indiana will try and balance the offense. On the O-Line, the Hoosiers return only two starters and will probably start two or three sophomores who saw limited action last fall. It may be a few games before the Indiana O-Line gels. Overall, Indiana will have to have a stronger rushing attack with the loss of James Hardy. Expect Indiana to take a step back on offense, but Lewis remains enough of an individual game changer that he could steal a game or two for the Hoosiers this fall.
Indiana ’s defense improved last year, a significant reason for the Hoosiers’ successful 2007. Indiana allowed over four points less per game and was tougher against the run. This fall, the Hoosiers will have a solid defensive line, led by last year’s NCAA sack leader, junior Greg Middleton, who finished with 16 sacks! While improving that number is quite unlikely, Middleton will draw a lot of double teams and should allow the rest of the line to perform at a higher level. Another factor working in their favor is the return of two other starters on the line, meaning that the Hoosiers could be in for an improvement against the run. At linebacker, junior Will Patterson is one of two returning starters and he finished 2007 with over a hundred tackles! Expect Patterson to be the leader of what should be a pretty solid linebacking corps. In the secondary, junior safeties Nick Polk and Austin Thomas return but the Hoosiers will have to find a new pair of starting cornerbacks after Tracy Porter was a 2 nd round choice in the NFL draft. Expect Indiana to take a step back with the loss of one of the Big Ten’s best in the secondary. Overall, Indiana’s defense should be about on par with last year’s unit, but the pass defense could be an issue. Expect the Hoosiers to finish towards the bottom of the Big Ten rankings in overall defense.
The schedule is pretty kind to Indiana, as the Hoosiers avoid Ohio State and Michigan. Furthermore, the Hoosiers welcome Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, and Northwestern to Bloomington. If they can win a few of those games, they could exceed my expectations. The non-conference schedule is pretty light, featuring two of the MAC’s best in Ball State and Central Michigan and no BCS conference opposition. If the Hoosiers don’t win all their non-conference games, they could be in for a season similar to Minnesota’s 2007 campaign. Overall, Indiana has a very good quarterback who is surrounded by a group of average players and Lewis will significantly miss Hardy’s big play ability. Furthermore, the defense won’t be any better than last year and the rest of the conference has improved significantly. I expect this fall to be a return to form for Indiana football, with a finish in the conference basement. If the Hoosiers become bowl eligible, I will be quite surprised as four or five wins is a much more likely finish.
Big Games: Sept. 20th vs. Ball State, Sept. 27th vs. MSU, Oct. 25th vs. Northwestern, Nov. 22nd @ Purdue
The Bottom Line for the Big Ten in 2008
The Big Ten had a rough year in 2007 but this fall should be a much better year. Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, Purdue, Northwestern, and Minnesota should all be better than their 2007 versions and Illinois should still be a strong team in spite of taking a step back. Furthermore, Michigan may struggle this fall, but they remain a dangerous team that could beat many of their conference opponents on any given Saturday. However, this fall will be about four teams in the Big Ten race: Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. Expect Michigan State to be a very solid contender this fall and serve notice that they will be a major player for future Big Ten Championships. Meanwhile, Penn State and Wisconsin should prove to be tough competition for Ohio State and both are legitimate top ten caliber teams in their own right. I fully expect the winner of their Oct. 11th matchup to qualify for a BCS at-large bid and both should go into the bowl season with 10 or more wins. Expect 2008’s conference theme to be redemption on a national level.
However, when I said that this fall was about four teams in the Big Ten race, well, I lied. The 2008 Big Ten race is all about Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the conference’s best team by far and are also one of the country’s elite teams. Ohio State simply has far too much talent and experience to lose a game in Big Ten play this fall and I expect them to win their third consecutive outright Big Ten Title. Furthermore, I expect them to defeat a dangerous but retooling USC squad in September. That means, America, Ohio State will end up playing in their third consecutive National Title Bowl Game this January and perhaps the third time will finally be the Buckeyes’ charm.
Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s newest staff writer. If you’d like to join his college football therapy group, email him at matt.baxendell @ gmail.com with all your questions, comments, and anything else you would like to share.