2009 Big Ten Football Preview
2009 was an up and down season for the Big Ten Conference. Powerhouse Ohio State was its usual dominant self, finishing 7-1 in conference play and tying for the conference title. However, the Buckeyes were blown out early against USC and spent all season trying to regain their national standing. Another big development was the arrival of Penn State as a National Championship caliber team. The Nittany Lions began the year 9-0 and only a last second loss to Iowa kept them out of the title game!
There were other strong developments around the league as well. Iowa rebounded from a two year run of mediocrity to finish 9-4 and the Michigan tate Spartans won nine games and finished 3rd in the conference standings. Both teams finished ranked in the final polls. There were other bright spots as well as Northwestern also surprised a lot of observers by finishing 9-4 and Minnesota improved to 7-6 after finishing 1-11 in 2007!
Unfortunately, there were also some high-profile failures. Conference titan Michigan endured the worst season in school history and new coach Rich Rodriguez’s team bumbled to a 3-9 finish. When Michigan has such a poor year, the national perception of the league is going to suffer. On top of that, 2007’s surprise team, Illinois, also regressed and actually finished completely out of the bowl picture! There was no team in the entire country that disappointed more than the Fighting Illini last year. The third major failure was Wisconsin, who rose all the way to #9 in the rankings before struggling to a 7-6 finish. Even the top teams in the conference disappointed, losing both BCS bowl games and the conference’s bowl record was a putrid 1-6 overall.
Things look much brighter this fall as there is a lot of experience returning across the league. Furthermore, recent coaching changes and facility upgrades have led to stronger recruiting and there are a lot of very talented teams in the Big Ten. The two obvious favorites are Ohio State and Penn State after both finished the season last year ranked in the top 10. While both teams have some holes to fill due to graduation losses, there is no question that they’re the two major contenders to win the Big Ten this season. Ohio State has been the standard-bearer for the conference in recent years but people overlook Penn State far too often: The Nittany Lions are 40-11 over the past four years, boast a 3-1 bowl record, have won two conference titles and have finished in the final rankings in each season. Have the Nittany Lions finally become the conference’s third powerhouse?
But the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions aren’t the only teams that will have a major say in the championship race. Iowa’s four losses last year came by a combined total of twelve points and they return 15 starters from a year ago. Michigan State brings back the majority of one of the conference’s best defenses and has significantly upgraded their talent level. Northwestern and Minnesota are also both veteran teams that should provide great depth and don’t forget Wisconsin and Michigan, who are both very talented despite last year’s struggles.
However, the biggest threat to the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions atop the conference is undoubtedly Illinois. Two years ago, the Fighting Illini earned a Rose Bowl berth with a very young team and many observers felt that Ron Zook’s tireless recruiting was on the verge of creating a perennial contender. Unfortunately the Illini read their press clippings last fall and they underachieved worse than anyone in the country. However, this season returns a very hungry team with an absolutely stacked offense and a favorable schedule. I expect Illinois to come back with a vengeance this fall and make a huge impact on the conference title race.
There is a lot of intrigue with nine teams having a legitimate shot at postseason play, 2009 should be an outstanding year in the Big Ten and I think that this is the year that the conference begins to rebuild its sagging national reputation.
EXPECTED ORDER OF FINISH
The Buckeyes finished 2008 tied for the Big Ten title with a 7-1 conference record and earned their 6th BCS bowl berth in seven seasons. To give you an idea of how successful OSU has been in recent years, their three losses last fall were the most since 2004! Despite the most returning starters in the country in 2008 coming off of back to back appearances in the BCS Championship Game, the Buckeyes fell short early at USC and installed somewhat of a youth movement thanks to a poor offensive line. That movement began with true freshman quarterback prodigy Terrelle Pryor, who had an 8-1 record as the starter and was the Big Ten’s highest rated passer in 2008. With recent high-profile failures fresh in the nation’s mind, OSU might actually have earned a moral victory and respect by losing to Texas 24-21 on a last-gasp touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl. Can the Buckeyes continue regaining respect and realize their enormous potential this fall and win their 5th consecutive conference crown?
The Buckeye offense completely revolves around sophomore phenom Terrelle Pryor. Pryor passed for 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns against only 4 picks while rushing for over 600 yards and 5 scores as a true freshman! Described by some Buckeye fans as ‘LeBron in cleats’, Pryor showcased his athleticism by adding a touchdown catch to his resume against Texas! After an exceptional performance in the spring, Pryor appears poised to become one of the most dangerous players in the country in 2009.
But what about his supporting cast? Ohio State must replace 1st round tailback Beanie Wells and two draft picks at wide receiver. However, sophomore Boom Herron averaged 5 yards per carry last fall and scored 6 touchdowns, including the go-ahead score against Texas, and is expected to anchor a solid rushing attack this fall. Pryor’s top returning receiver is junior Dane Sanzenbacher but he’s more of a slot receiver and the trifecta of sophomore DeVier Posey, junior Taurian Washington and senior Ray Small are expected to all contribute in a large way. I expect Ohio State’s passing game to be much more productive this fall despite all of the losses at wideout because the Buckeyes will allow Pryor to throw the ball much more often.
However, perhaps the biggest improvement for the Buckeyes will come along the offensive line. After massively underperforming last fall, Ohio State rebuilt their line and appears to have a solid unit in place entering 2009. Sophomore center Mike Brewster might be the Big Ten’s best at his position and Michigan transfer Justin Boren should add some much-needed fire. If the Buckeyes can settle on a left tackle then this should be a much better unit. Overall, Ohio State only scored 28 points per game last fall and spent much of the season relying on Wells to pound opposing defenses into submission. Expect a much more diverse attack now that Pryor is more familiar with the system and this should be one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous offenses in 2009.
The Buckeye defense is nowhere near as inexperienced despite losing four NFL draft picks from last year’s squad, which allowed only 14 points per game. Ohio State will be extremely strong up front, where all but one player returns in the two deep. Junior ends Cameron Heyward and Thad Gibson will be extremely disruptive this fall and Ohio State has their best set of defensive tackles since 2006. This is definitely the conference’s best defensive line.
At linebacker, the Buckeyes will miss James Laurinaitis, one of the most decorated players in school history. While it will be tough to replace a player who enters 2009 as the St. Louis Rams’ starting middle linebacker as a rookie, Ohio State has a ton of highly rated talent at linebacker that has waited their turn. Junior Ross Homan should have another strong year as the only returning starter and he is very tough against the run. The biggest development in the offseason was the explosion of junior Brian Rolle, who will start at middle linebacker after spending the last two years as a special team demon. While Laurinaitis will be missed, this is Linebacker U and I expect another strong year from Ohio State.
The Buckeyes also have a very good secondary. Three starters return, led by the Big Ten’s best tandem of safeties in seniors Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell. Losing 1st team All-American Malcolm Jenkins is definitely a loss, the Buckeyes have a very solid group of cornerbacks on hand, led by junior Chimdi Chekwa. This is probably the best secondary in the Big Ten. Overall, Ohio State has a great defensive line, solid linebackers and a very good secondary. Furthermore, the Buckeyes always have a very solid defense and I expect nothing less this fall. This is one of the country’s best defenses.
Ohio State has eight home games this fall! Their season opens with an intriguing matchup against Navy before the biggest game of the season in week two against USC highlights the non-conference portion. The conference schedule is also fairly tough as the Buckeyes must travel to Michigan and Penn State. However, they miss Michigan State and Northwestern in the rotation and host Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. While this is a fairly tough schedule, especially in November, it is very heavy on home games.
Ohio State has as much talent as any team in the country. The Buckeyes field a strong defense and have one of the most exciting young players in college football as their starting quarterback. On the other hand, the Buckeyes are a very young team that has to replace a lot of very talented starters, so a lot will depend on how quickly the new talent, especially on offense, is ready to perform. It is not a stretch to say that OSU’s matchup with USC is an absolutely enormous game for both the Buckeyes and the Big Ten. If Ohio State can beat the Trojans, the criticism of the league will abate rather quickly and the Buckeyes could set themselves up for a run to the BCS Championship game. However, if USC comes into the Horseshoe and beats OSU, then the criticism of the Big Ten will continue in earnest and you have to wonder how a young team will react to the 4th loss against a top opponent in two seasons. At this point, there is no doubt that the Buckeyes are a major contender for the Big Ten title and Pryor is rapidly becoming one of the biggest stars in college football. As always, Ohio State is a contender for the National Championship and this is definitely one of the best teams in the country.
Big Games: Sept. 12th vs. USC, Sept. 26th vs. Illinois, Oct. 10th vs. Wisconsin, Oct. 24th vs. Minnesota, Nov. 7th @ PSU, Nov. 14th vs. Iowa, Nov. 21st @ Michigan
Am I crazy picking a team that went 5-7 last year to finish 2nd in the Big Ten? Well, perhaps but remember that this is also a team that went 9-4 and played in the Rose Bowl two years ago. The only way to try and explain Illinois’ shocking year last fall was that the players expected things to come easy to them and they never recovered when they didn’t. This year, there’s a new attitude at camp and the Illini appear hungry to prove that last year was a fluke. Furthermore, Ron Zook has really recruited well and there is a myriad of talent on both sides of the ball. Was 2007’s Rose Bowl run a flash in the pan or will the Illini prove that they have staying power this fall?
On offense, there is so much to like about Illinois. Starting at quarterback, senior Juice Williams enters his 4th season and he has improved his passing numbers noticeably in each of the previous three years. Williams threw for nearly 3,200 yards and 22 touchdowns last fall while rushing for over 700 yards and 5 scores, though he did throw 16 picks. Expect him to cut down on mistakes and have an enormous season. The Illini also have the league’s best backup quarterback in junior Eddie McGee, who has played well when called upon in the past two seasons.
Another reason to be very optimistic about Illinois this fall is their exceptional group of receivers, highlighted by junior Rejus Benn. Benn caught 67 passes for 1,050 yards last year and 3 touchdowns and is widely considered one of the best receivers in the country and a future 1st round pick. He will be joined by Florida transfer Jarred Fayson, who is finally eligible after impressing everyone since his arrival last year, and senior Jeff Cumberland, who led the team in touchdown receptions last fall and is an enormous target at 6’6”. Furthermore, senior tight end Mike Hoomanawanui had 25 catches last fall and is one of the conference’s tight ends. Overall, I think that the Fightin’ Illini have a receiving corps to match up with any in the country and there should be an air raid attack every time they play this season.
The good news doesn’t just sit with the passing game. There are three solid tailbacks that have a lot of playing time and should provide good balance for the offense. Sophomore Jason Ford scored 8 touchdowns in 2008 and fellow soph Mikel LeShoure was excellent in camp. I haven’t even mentioned senior Daniel Dufrene, who ran for over 600 yards last fall and caught 30 passes! The offensive line also looks solid with three returning starters after performing well last season. Overall, I believe that this is the best offense in the entire conference. Opponents have to account for four legitimate threats through the air on every play while defending a solid run game on top of the very real threat of Williams running. With so many ways to beat teams, Illinois is one of the most dangerous offenses in America.
On the other hand, I’m admittedly a little concerned about their defense after giving up 26 points per game last fall and losing three of their top four tacklers. Their big problem in allowing 26 points per game was that turnovers put them in bad position and they also had trouble against the run. This fall, their defensive line looks somewhat improved to me because I think they’ll have a much better set of defensive tackles. While I don’t expect much of a pass rush, the Illini are definitely deeper up the middle and should improve on the ground.
I also like their run defense to be better for one other big reason: Junior linebacker Martez Wilson, who is a beast. Wilson will be flanked by a pair of talented but inexperienced young players as he moves to middle linebacker and I expect him to have a huge year. The secondary also appears to be quite solid despite losing 1st round pick Vontae Davis a year early to the NFL draft. Three upperclassmen starters return to a very deep group that should actually be improved over 2009 because despite Davis’ high draft status, he had a tough year. I think that Illinois’ biggest question on defense is going to be their pass rush and I expect improved results this fall.
The Illini have to be given a lot of credit for their schedule, which features Missouri, Fresno State and a visit to defending Big East champ Cincinnati. Zook appears to have bought into the theory that Big Ten teams have struggled in bowl games due to a long layoff and the Fresno State and Cincy games will take place after the end of the Big Ten season. That makes the Illini one of only two conference teams to finish their regular season in December. Before that, their conference run is not going to be easy as they open up at Ohio State before hosting Penn State and Michigan State in back to back weeks! The Illini also host Michigan and rival Northwestern this fall and avoid Iowa and Wisconsin thanks to the rotating schedule. Illinois’ schedule is tough but manageable.
The best word to describe this team is potential. Illinois came tantalizingly close to realizing their potential in 2007 with a Rose Bowl run and an upset of a #1 team for the first time in school history. After a disappointing 2008, I firmly believe that the time is now for Zook to move the Illini into the conference’s upper echelon in his 5th season. Illinois’ offense is going to bury some teams this year with a 4th year mobile starter at quarterback, the league’s best wide receivers and an improved rushing attack. While their defense is at best going to be average to good, I expect Juice and company to simply outscore some teams this year. Illinois is going to look a lot like a top tier Big XII team from last season and could ride their exceptional offense all the way to a BCS bowl. Needless to say, I expect very big things from the Fighting Illini in 2009 and if they can emerge from their opening conference stretch with a 2-1 mark then a major bowl berth is all but assured.
Big Games: Sept. 5th vs. Missouri( St. Louis), Sept. 26th @ OSU, Oct. 3rd vs. PSU, Oct. 10th vs. MSU, Oct. 31st vs. Michigan, Nov. 7th @ Minnesota, Nov. 14th vs. Northwestern, Nov. 27th @ Cincinnati
Penn State re-entered the national consciousness with a bang last fall, beginning the year 9-0! Penn State thrashed Oregon State early and beat Ohio State in Columbus before falling on a last second field goal at Iowa to ruin their dream of playing for all the marbles. The Nittany Lions won their 2nd league title in four seasons and improved their record during that time period to 40-11. While they disappointed against USC in the Rose Bowl and have a lot of holes to fill, Penn State is loaded with talent and should be on course for another great year. Will ageless wonder Joe Paterno guide his team to another BCS bowl this fall?
Everything begins on offense with senior quarterback Darryl Clark, who threw for 2,600 yards and 19 touchdowns last fall against only 6 interceptions while rushing for 10 scores! Clark was a very deserving 1st team All-Big Ten selection and should be one of the best quarterbacks in the country this fall. He’ll be joined in the backfield by two excellent tailbacks: Junior Evan Royster and sophomore Stephfon Green. Royster ran for 1,240 yards last fall and 12 touchdowns while Green is an extremely explosive change of pace back. Expect another strong season from both players.
However, the experience ends about right there on offense. Penn State has to replace all three starting receivers and three 1st team All-Big Ten linemen, all of whom are now on NFL rosters. The good news is that junior Stefen Wisniewski should be an anchor on the line after moving from guard to center in the spring and the Nittany Lions appear to have found a solid line rotation. Thus, I expect another strong year up front because PSU has recruited well at the position. On the other hand, the wide receivers are a big concern and no one has any experience. However, with a veteran like Clark distributing the ball and a lot of talented young players on hand, I think that there should still be a strong passing attack. Just don’t expect the fleet of exceptional options that PSU showcased last fall. Overall, I think that Penn State has reloaded the offensive line very well and should have a strong running game with such talented tailbacks and a mobile quarterback like Clark. The passing attack might take a little longer to get on track but I think that this is still going to be a very strong offense and shouldn’t fall too far off of last year’s excellent production.
The defense also has to replace a ton of talent. However, the front seven appears to be in good shape. Up front, the Nittany Lions have a ton of depth at tackle and senior Jared Odrick was a 1st team All-Big Ten selection last fall. While losing two former All-Big Ten defensive ends will be tough, Penn State recruits well and line coach Larry Johnson always seems to have another stud ready to go. Keep an eye on sophomore Jack Crawford, who the staff has been raving about. At linebacker, Penn State is as deep as any team in the country. Junior Navarro Bowman was a 1st team All-Big Ten choice last fall after making 105 tackles and senior Josh Hull was also impressive with 75 stops. However, Hull is moving positions this year as senior Sean Lee returns after missing the 2008 season with a knee injury. Lee was a projected 1 st round pick before his injury last offseason and was such a consummate teammate that he helped coach during his rehab! Penn State is going to be very tough up front once more and will have one of the country’s best sets of linebackers this fall.
The secondary paints a much different picture. All four starters from last season are gone and their most experienced returnee, senior corner AJ Wallace, has been in Paterno’s doghouse during camp. To make matters worse, their top defensive back recruit couldn’t make the grade and has since left the team. Penn State fielded their best pass defense in five years last fall, so there is going to be some regression with so little experience. However, Paterno sounded pleased with the performance of sophomore safety Drew Astorino, who made 39 tackles in 2008 and the safety position is expected to be solid going into the year. Overall, I think that Penn State should be excellent against the run and I think that their secondary will come together before Big Ten play begins. Expect another year of excellent defense in State College.
Another reason for optimism is the Lions’ unfortunately light schedule. Their biggest non-conference game is against weakling Syracuse and their first three games are going to be very easy as their out of conference slate is one of the country’s worst. That will definitely give them plenty of time to figure things out at receiver and cornerback. Big Ten play kicks off with a visit from Iowa, who has won six of the last seven meetings and the Nittany Lions also host Minnesota and Indiana. Oh, I almost forgot: They also host Ohio State in what is rapidly becoming a very hard-fought rivalry and that game could easily determine the Big Ten Championship. PSU also has to travel to Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State, so there are some tough games ahead for Paterno’s crew.
For a team replacing as many key contributors as the Nittany Lions, they could not ask for a better opening schedule. Penn State has three games to figure out all of their problems and I expect to see a well-oiled machine when Iowa comes to town to open Big Ten play. Furthermore, there is more talent in Happy Valley than almost anywhere else in the entire league and this is a team that knows nothing but winning. I expect the Nittany Lions to breeze through their non-conference schedule and then make another run at the Big Ten Championship. With a great running game, a talented senior quarterback and a great defense, they’re a top contender. Furthermore, if the ball bounces their way in a few big games, I would not be shocked if Penn State had a chance to play for the National Title. While I’m not predicting such major success, there is definitely no question that this is one of the nation’s best teams in 2009.
Big Games: Sept. 26th vs. Iowa, Oct. 3rd @ Illinois, Oct. 24th @ Michigan, Oct. 31st @ Northwestern, Nov. 7th vs. OSU, Nov. 21st @ MSU
2008 was a breakout year for the Spartans and their 9-4 record was the school’s best finish in a decade. Head coach Mark Dantonio has really upgraded the defense and the Spartans’ 6-2 conference finish established them as the Big Ten’s clear #3 team last fall. Michigan State finished the season ranked in the top 25 for the first time in recent memory despite a hard fought loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. With 15 starters back and an elite recruiting class coming in, can Dantonio continue to build the Spartans into a consistent winner in 2009?
Offensively, MSU suffered two major losses. The first is quarterback Brian Hoyer. His loss is major because I felt all season that he held back the Spartan offense and I believe that backup Kirk Cousins was a better option as he impressed every time he got in the game. Cousins was named a captain this fall and is locked in a dead heat with fellow sophomore Keith Nichol for the starting role heading into the fall because both have been so impressive in spring and in camp. Don’t expect the Spartans to settle on a starter until the 3rd game of the year but either player will be a significant upgrade from Hoyer.
The other major loss is tailback Javon Ringer, who was a finalist for the Doak Walker award after rushing for over 1,600 yards and 22 touchdowns last year. Ringer was the focus of the offense and he led the country in carries last fall, meaning that the diminutive star leaves very big shoes to fill. The good news is that Dantonio brought in two excellent freshmen in his most recent recruiting class and both are expected to play a lot this fall. While I don’t expect the overall production that the Spartans received from Ringer, there is no question that MSU will be able to run the football well. I like the Spartan O-Line as well and sophomore guard Joel Foreman is a budding star after being named a 1st team Freshman All-American last fall. Finally, Michigan State returns a deep set of receivers for the young quarterbacks to target that should make a lot of plays. Overall, I really have been impressed with both quarterbacks and I think that Michigan State’s passing game will be significantly stronger and should more than make up for Ringer’s lost production. I expect a big jump on offense from Michigan State.
Defensively, Michigan State was very impressive in 2008. That is, they were impressive as long as they didn’t play Ohio State or Penn State, against whom they allowed a combined total of 94 points! The good news is that the Spartans shut down an extremely talented Georgia offense in the Capital One Bowl and definitely played well enough to win. With eight starters back, I expect an even better defense this fall.
Up front, senior end Trevor Anderson is the star of the group. After following Dantonio from Cincinnati, Anderson made a splash in his first year in East Lansing as he racked up 8 sacks. I expect him to anchor a solid defensive line that has exceeded expectations in camp. Behind them, Michigan State boasts one of the league’s most talented groups of linebackers. Middle linebacker Greg Jones was a 1st team All-Big Ten choice after making 127 tackles last year and fellow junior Eric Gordon is also very talented but often gets overlooked because of Jones’ excellence. The strength at linebacker leads me to expect an improved performance against the run this fall. Finally, Michigan State’s secondary is quite solid despite losing star safety Otis Wiley. Junior Chris Rucker is one of the best cornerbacks in the league and there is a ton of depth on hand so I expect a strong performance from the secondary this fall. Overall, Michigan State’s defense is one of the best units in the Big Ten and should play a big part in their success in 2009.
The schedule is intriguing. Out of conference, MSU faces MAC favorite Central Michigan and then travels to rival Notre Dame, where the Spartans have won seven consecutive games! Sparty also has a fairly favorable schedule in conference as they host Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern and archrival Michigan and avoid Ohio State in the schedule rotation! This is about as friendly as the Spartans could hope for.
Overall, Michigan State is clearly a program moving towards the top of the conference. Their only league losses last fall came at the hands of Ohio State and Penn State and Dantonio turned that momentum into a top 20 recruiting class in February. This fall, I expect Michigan State to have a serious upgrade at the quarterback position while still fielding a solid rushing attack. Furthermore, I really think that their defense will be even more improved this season thanks to a healthy dose of experience and depth. I think last year was the start of a sustained run of success in East Lansing and I expect that momentum to continue. I will be disappointed if Michigan State doesn’t win eight or nine games this fall.
Big Games: Sept. 19th @ Notre Dame, Sept. 26th @ Wisconsin, Oct. 3rd vs. Michigan, Oct. 10th @ Illinois, Oct. 24th vs. Iowa, Nov. 21st vs. PSU
Minnesota engineered the biggest turnaround in the country last fall, jumping from a pathetic 1-11 season to a solid 7-6 finish. Head coach Tim Brewster is one of the country’s most enthusiastic recruiters and last season established his credentials as a solid coach as well. Minnesota returns the most starters in the entire conference and opens up their beautiful brand new outdoor campus facility, TCF Bank Stadium. There is serious momentum with the Golden Gophers and another winning season would continue moving the program toward serious contention for the Big Ten Championship. Will returning football to Minnesota’s campus for the first time in three decades spark a big year?
The Gophers made a big change on offense during the spring, bringing in new offensive coordinator Jedd Finch from the Denver Broncos and installing a pro style offense. Luckily, the Gophers’ starting quarterback is junior Adam Weber, who enters his third season under center. Weber and the rest of the offense’s experience should allow them to make an easier transition to the new system. Weber also has a very solid set of receivers, led by senior Eric Decker, who had 84 catches for 1,075 yards and 7 touchdowns last year. He’ll be joined by the country’s top junior college receiver, junior Hayo Carpenter, who should have a big impact this fall. Also watch out for freshman quarterback MarQueis Gray, who Brewster said was too good not to see the field as a change of pace player and I expect to see some trick plays almost every game.
The rushing attack should also be significantly stronger than last year. Sophomores Duane Bennett (who was the starter until missing most of the year with an injury) and DeLeon Eskridge give the Gophers two very solid options to run the football in their new scheme. They’ll run behind what appears to be a very good offensive line that should be significantly improved from last year, when Brewster actually fired the O-Line coach during the season. Junior Notre Dame transfer Matt Carufel should make an especially big impact at guard now that he’s eligible. Overall, I think that the Gophers should definitely improve upon last year’s paltry production of 23 points per game and this could be one of the conference’s stronger units.
Defensively, the Golden Gophers were significantly improved last year and allowed 12 points per game less than in 2007. However, they still finished 8 th in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 25 points per game. With six of their top eight tacklers back and a new coordinator, I expect to see further improvement. The obvious strength of the defense is in the secondary, where everyone of note is back. The expected starters are all upperclassmen and senior cornerback Traye Simmons is one of the best in the Big Ten, having earned 2nd team All-Big Ten selections last fall while snagging four picks. A recent poll of Big Ten players named him the league’s top cover corner! There was very little experience on hand entering last season so I expect a strong step forward from one of the conference’s best defensive backfields.
The D-line is much more of a concern for me. While the Gophers return three senior starters, they lose 1st team All-Big Ten end Willie VanDeSteeg, who had 10.5 sacks last fall. The worry about creating a pass rush is so acute that the Gophers are actually playing true freshman Ra’Shede Hageman on both sides of the ball at defensive end and tight end! However, while I don’t expect much in terms of rushing the quarterback, this group should at least be adequate slowing down the run. A solid group of linebackers should also help in that regard, led by senior Lee Campbell, who was the team’s leading tackler last fall. Along with fellow senior Simoni Lawrence, I think that Minnesota’s linebackers are going to provide a mobile deterrent to opposing teams on the ground. Overall, my major concern about this defense is that they’re going to have to blitz if they hope to get much pressure on the opposing quarterback. Despite that big question mark, I still think that the Golden Gophers are going to have a solid year defensively and should be improved.
Minnesota has a very commendable schedule this fall. Their opening three weeks begin by visiting Syracuse before welcoming Air Force and Cal to TCF Bank Stadium. This is one of the conference’s best lineups outside of Big Ten play and Brewster has done a lot of work in upgrading Minnesota’s future schedules. Their conference lineup is equally tough as they don’t play Michigan or Indiana this fall, which is unfortunate as neither team is expected to compete for the conference title. Instead, they have to travel to Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa and Northwestern! Minnesota also has the toughest 2nd half of any Big Ten team: at OSU and PSU, playing MSU, Illinois and South Dakota State at home and finishing up at rival Iowa. Brewster’s squad plays one of the country’s toughest schedules.
Overall, I think Minnesota will be a better team than last year. Weber has more experience in the system, Decker is still one of the best wide receivers in the country and they’ll benefit from a much improved run game. The defense is going to be very solid through the air and I think a lot of teams will struggle in their new outdoor home stadium. That said, Minnesota plays the hardest schedule of any Big Ten team and that will cost them some wins. Though the Gophers are a better team than last year, I don’t expect them to do any better than match last year’s 7-5 regular season record.
Big Games: Sept. 12th vs. Air Force, Sept. 19th vs. Cal, Sept. 26th @ Northwestern, Oct. 3rd vs. Wisconsin, Oct. 17th @ PSU, Oct. 24th @ OSU, Oct. 31st vs. MSU, Nov. 7th vs. Illinois, Nov. 21st @ Iowa
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Iowa surprised a ton of observers last fall as the Hawkeyes rebounded from a bowl-less 2007 season to finish with a strong 9-4 record, including an Outback Bowl victory over South Carolina. Even more impressive was that the Hawkeyes’ four losses were by a combined total of twelve points and their spoiling of Penn State’s national title hopes was the highlight of the season. Kirk Ferentz’s team returns many talented starters but there are some very important holes to fill. Can the Hawkeyes produce another strong season?
Offensively, there is one major question: Tailback. 2008 Doak Walker Award winning tailback Shonn Greene left early for the NFL after rushing for 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns and expected starter Jewel Hampton has had some knee problems and won’t be fully healthy all year. That leaves a gaping hole at tailback that is currently filled by former walk-on junior Paki O’Meara. Needless to say, there will be a significant drop off this fall in the running game.
However, there is a lot of good news everywhere else for Iowa. Junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi had a solid debut season last fall, throwing for nearly 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns. I expect Stanzi to take another step forward in his development and should be one of the conference’s better quarterbacks. His wide receivers are a solid group as returning junior Darrell Johnson-Koulianos led the team last fall with 44 catches. However, he’s spent much of camp in the doghouse and sophomore Marvin McNutt has impressed. Also watch out for senior tight end Tony Moeaki, who has the potential to be one of the Big Ten’s best if he can stay healthy for the whole year.
Finally, Iowa always seems to have a great line and 2009 should be no different. Junior tackle Brian Bulaga is one of the best in the country and should anchor a very solid group. While the dearth of experience at tailback is a major concern, running behind one of the league’s absolute best lines definitely gives me a lot more confidence that the Hawkeyes will at least produce a serviceable rushing attack. Overall, I don’t know if the Hawkeyes will score 30 points per game like they did last fall but I expect a solid passing game to pick up some of the lost production from Greene. Expect Iowa’s offense to be good enough to give them a chance to win every week and if Hampton can come back healthy at some point then this will be a dangerous offense.
Defensively, Iowa is really impressive. They return eight starters from a unit which allowed opponents to only score 13 points per game in 2008! Up front, the Hawkeyes have to replace the Big Ten’s best pair of defensive tackles as the extremely disruptive tandem of Mitch King and Matt Kroul graduated. Junior Karl Klug appears to be a very solid replacement in one of their spots but there is no doubt that Iowa will take a step back up the middle. However, there are two very solid defensive ends on hand and I think that the Hawkeyes might generate a better pass rush this fall.
The linebackers are the strength of the defense. Seniors AJ Edds and Pat Angerer team up with junior Jeremiha Hunter to form one of the Big Ten’s top groups and they should be stalwarts against both the pass (Angerer had 5 picks in 2008) and run (All three combined for 246 tackles last fall). The secondary is also excellent, led by junior cornerback Amari Spievey, who is one of the conference’s top cover corners. Iowa’s safety tandem of sophomore Tyler Sash, a 3rd team Freshman All-American in 2008, and junior Brett Greenwood is also one of the league’s best. Overall, if the Hawkeyes can adequately replace King and Kroul then this should be one the Big Ten’s best defenses in 2009.
Outside of the tailback situation, Iowa’s biggest concern this fall is their schedule. The Hawkeyes play two BCS teams during the non-conference portion of the season as they host Arizona and travel to rival Iowa State. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, Iowa has the league’s most difficult road schedule as they have to travel to Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin! The only good news is that they avoid Illinois in the schedule rotation but this is a brutal run.
Iowa is a very deep and talented team on both sides of the football and their lines are two of the Big Ten’s strongest. However, there is a big question mark at tailback after losing America’s best running back. To make matters worse, their very capable replacement is expected to struggle with a nagging knee injury all fall, leaving their depth very thin. If you can’t run the football in the Big Ten, you’re going to struggle. To make matters worse, Iowa plays an incredibly tough road schedule and should consider themselves fortunate to earn a 2-2 mark. Simply put, this is a very talented team with an experienced quarterback and a great defense but I’m afraid that the league’s toughest road schedule and an extremely questionable running game will prevent them from becoming a true competitor for the conference title. Because of these concerns, I just can’t see this team winning more than eight games this fall.
Big Games: Sept. 12th @ Iowa State, Sept. 19th vs. Arizona, Sept. 26th @ PSU, Oct. 10th vs. Michigan, Oct. 17th @ Wisconsin, Oct. 24th @ MSU, Nov. 7th vs. Northwestern, Nov. 14th @ OSU, Nov. 21st vs. Minnesota
Brett Bielema’s first season was an incredible success. The Badgers went 12-1 and finished 2006 ranked 7th in the country! His next season was not quite as fantastic but the Badgers still had a strong year, finishing 9-4 and ranked in the top 25. Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s downward trend continued last fall as the Badgers took their 3-0 start and #9 ranking and threw them away as they blew a 19-0 halftime lead against Michigan in the most inexplicable game I have ever seen. Michigan literally couldn’t move the football in the first half as they had negative yardage but they somehow won the game! The rest of the season was a struggle and Wisconsin finished with a massively disappointing 7-6 record. To say that Bielema is not popular at the moment in Madison is an understatement of epic proportions. The sentiment is that he hasn’t been able to recruit well enough to keep the team at the highest level and his early success was the byproduct of legend Barry Alvarez’s players. Simply put, Bielema needs a strong year to calm the angry masses that are gathering in one of the Big Ten’s most passionate fan bases. Will the Badgers rebound this fall?
One of Wisconsin’s biggest issues in the past two seasons was that they couldn’t find an adequate quarterback. There was also little development as both of their last two starters were caretaker 5th year seniors. That changes this fall as junior Scott Tolzien and freshman Curt Phillips are deadlocked in a battle to win the starting job. Whoever emerges will surely be stronger than last year’s ineffective options, which includes current 3rd stringer Dustin Sherer. The receiving corps should be a strong upgrade from last season as well. Senior tight end Garrett Graham was a 1st team All-Big Ten selection last fall and Wisconsin loves to feature the tight end, so expect another all-conference year from him. Junior David Gilreath should also be a strong contributor after accounting for over 500 yards last season and sophomore Nick Toon, son of Badger great Al Toon, stepped up his game in a major way during the spring and appears primed for a big year. The Badgers should definitely be a much greater threat to throw the football in 2009.
However, Wisconsin’s offensive identity will always be smashmouth as long as Bielema is in charge. The school that produced Ron Dayne embraces the running game like few other places and I think they’ll pleased with their tailbacks this fall. Junior Zach Brown had a great camp and should split carries with sophomore superstar John Clay, who ran for nearly 900 yards and 9 touchdowns last fall. Brown and Clay should produce a dominating 1-2 punch. The Badgers have some work to do rebuilding their offensive line after losing three 3 year starters, but junior tackle Gabe Carimi is one of the conference’s best. I expect Wisconsin to field a strong rushing attack much like they have in each of the past few years. The difference this fall is that I expect the passing game to be an integral part of their arsenal and that means improvement on offense.
Where the Badgers have really fallen off since Bielema’s debut is on defense. His first season produced a unit which held the opposition to 12 points per game but regressed all the way down to 27 points per game last year! Wisconsin was also dead last in the conference in red zone defense in 2008! Unfortunately, I think that their defense might be troublesome once more this fall. The front seven is extremely inexperienced and only five starters are back across the entire unit. Up front, senior end O’Brien Scofield is the lone returning starter after leading the team in sacks last year with five. He’s a good building block but there are a lot of upperclassmen stepping in at defensive tackle who haven’t played much in their careers and I think they’re going to struggle to stop the run. Sophomore JJ Watt has turned heads in camp with his ability rush the passer, giving the Badgers a nice edge presence, but I don’t think this line will be especially successful shutting down the run.
The linebackers are also a big concern despite returning senior Jaevery McFadden, who led the team in tackles last fall. The concern is that most reports out of camp have voiced serious concerns about the athleticism of the other linebackers around him. Throw all of the news about the front seven together and you get a gloomy outlook against the run. There is some good news however; the Badgers have a very strong secondary that returns three upperclassman starters. Junior safety Jay Valai was a 2 nd team All-Big Ten choice and junior cornerback Niles Brinkley led the team with four picks while the unit held opponents to less than 200 yards passing per game. They’ll only be stronger this fall with the return of sophomore cornerback Aaron Henry, who missed last season due to injury but appears ready to claim the open spot opposite Brinkley. Henry was a star two years ago and could be one of the best in the conference if he’s fully healthy. Overall, the Badgers should be very strong against the pass but you can bet that a lot of teams are going to try and run the ball down their throats. Hopefully practicing against their offense’s excellent running game will toughen them up because I’m not optimistic about their ability to stop the run with any consistently.
The good news is that the schedule is about as friendly as Wisconsin could hope for. Their biggest non-conference games come against Fresno State and Hawai’i! On top of their light schedule outside the Big Ten comes a favorable conference run that avoids both Penn State and Illinois! The Badgers’ four conference road games come against Minnesota, Northwestern, Indiana and Ohio State, so most of their difficult games will take place at Camp Randall, an 82,000 seat snake pit for visiting teams.
Overall, I was extremely disappointed in Wisconsin last season. They were done in by poor quarterbacking and the league’s 3rd worst scoring defense. I think that the quarterback solution will be solved somewhat with an improved receiving corps and multiple capable arms ready to go but I’m afraid that their run defense is a major concern. Wisconsin is extremely fortunate to have such a light schedule and though I don’t think that this team is more talented than last year, I think they’ll have a better record. If they can field an average run defense, the Badgers have a chance to exceed my expectations. However, I think Wisconsin is looking at an eight win regular season and they need to win a bowl game to relieve some of the pressure on Coach Bielema.
Big Games: Sept. 12th vs. Fresno State, Sept. 26th vs. MSU, Oct. 3rd @ Minnesota, Oct. 10th @ OSU, Oct. 17th vs. Iowa, Nov. 14th vs. Michigan, Nov. 21st @ Northwestern, Dec. 5th @ Hawai’i
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald is on the complete opposite trajectory from Bielema. He was the youngest coach in the country when his first team went 4-8 in 2006. However, 2007 showed improvement and a 6-6 record was the result. Last fall, Fitzgerald produced the school’s first nine win season since he was an All-American linebacker in 1996. While no one realistically expects Fitzgerald to improve the Wildcats’ win total once more this fall, there is no question that the 34 year old coach is looking at a long and bright future coaching at his alma mater. Northwestern has some work to do rebuilding their offense this fall but the Wildcats should continue to be a very tough team defensively. Can Fitzgerald lead his team to back to back bowl games for the first time since 1996?
The offense struggled moving the ball through the air last fall due to injuries at the quarterback position and they ended up only averaging 24 points per game. This year, there are only five starters back but the good news is that four of those starters are on the offensive line! Expect senior quarterback Mike Kafka to have plenty of time to make decisions this fall. Kafka played well during spurts in 2008 and showed great mobility, setting the Big Ten record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game against Minnesota when he ran for 217 yards! Kafka still has some work to do developing as a passer but I think he’ll have a good year.
Pass catching is also a big question mark as the top three wide receivers from last season have departed. However, Fitzgerald felt optimistic about the state of his wideouts and senior Andrew Brewer is particularly physical. The tailbacks also should be better than expected after losing four year star Tyrell Sutton. Junior Stephen Simmons appears to be the top option heading into the season, though true freshman Arby Fields has impressed greatly during camp. Expect a bit of a different offense this fall because of Kafka’s rushing ability but I think that the Wildcats should do some damage this year.
On the other side of the ball, there is no question that the defense is the strength of the team. After finishing 4th in the Big Ten in scoring defense last year, the Cats should continue to field a very tough defense with eight starters back. The best player on the team is senior defensive end Corey Wootton, who racked up 10 sacks last fall and was a 1st team All-Big Ten selection. Wootton hurt his knee in the final moments of Northwestern’s overtime loss to Missouri in the Alamo Bowl but is expected to be fully healthy to start the year and is expected to be a high 1st round NFL draft pick in April. He’ll be the best player on what I believe is a highly underrated line. Remember the name Vince Browne: The sophomore end is ready for a huge year opposite Wootton after impressing in limited action last fall.
The linebackers are also a solid unit with two returning junior starters. While they’ll miss Prince Kwateng, who made 106 tackles last year, Nate Williams and Quentin Davis are very solid players who should contribute towards an effective run defense. The secondary is probably the strongest part of the defense as all four starters are back. Senior safeties Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith were the team’s 1st and 3rd leading tacklers, respectively, combining for 191 stops and 5 interceptions. Expect a very strong year from both. The cornerbacks are also solid, highlighted by sophomore Jordan Mabin, whose 52 tackles, 3 interceptions and solid play earned him 1st team Freshman All-American honors last year. Along with talented senior Sherrick McManis, Mabin forms one of the league’s strongest cornerback tandems. Honestly, people continually underrate Northwestern but no one had better overlook this defense in 2009 because they are very good. Expect another strong performance from the Cats.
The schedule is rather light. The non-conference schedule is even easier than last year’s weak undertaking and the only BCS conference opponent comes during an early trip to Syracuse. I will be very disappointed if the Wildcats don’t finish 4-0 outside of the conference. In Big Ten play, they avoid Ohio State and Michigan but must travel to burgeoning rival Iowa, talented Michigan State and archrival Illinois. There are no major impediments for the Cats here but their final four games will be pretty tough as they host Penn State before traveling to Iowa and Illinois in back to back weeks before closing out at home against Wisconsin.
Overall, Northwestern is perpetually underrated. The Wildcats are always picked towards the bottom of the standings and they usually overachieve. In Fitzgerald’s three seasons, his teams have taken on his distinct personality of focus and hard-nosed play, attributes that made him a two time All-American during his playing days. All reports indicate that Northwestern has been competing their hearts out in camp and are hungry to field another excellent team. While I don’t expect the Wildcats to win as many games as last year, part of me feels like I’m not giving them enough credit in predicting a seven win season. In short, I fully expect Northwestern to earn another bowl berth this fall and wouldn’t be remotely surprised if they finished better than 3-5 in Big Ten play. Pat Fitzgerald is the perfect coach for the Wildcats and I can’t ever imagine him leaving his alma mater, so the future looks very bright on the North Side of Chicago.
Big Games: Sept. 19th @ Syracuse, Sept. 26th vs. Minnesota, Oct. 17th @ MSU, Oct. 31st vs. PSU, Nov. 7th @ Iowa, Nov. 14th @ Illinois, Nov. 21st vs. Wisconsin
2008 was the worst year in the history of Michigan football. After hiring Rich Rodriguez away from West Virginia, I was one of many people who openly questioned the decision to move away from the school’s traditions and embrace a coach from outside the Michigan coaching tree. As it turned out, the first year of the Rodriguez era was an unmitigated disaster as the Wolverines didn’t have the personnel to run his offense and the defense performed well below expectations. After another year of excessive turnover, including hiring a new defensive coordinator, can Rodriguez calm the waters in Ann Arbor and return Michigan to the postseason?
The offense brings back nearly everyone of note, with one major exception: quarterback. After no one ran the offense with any consistency last fall, Rodriguez claims that he plans on using as many as three quarterbacks! In all reality, true freshman Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are going to get the majority of the snaps and that means another year of learning pains under center, though both are much better fits in Rodriguez’s spread system.
As for returning help, Michigan brings back their entire offensive line this season. That’s huge because there were a lot of mental errors last fall and I think another year of development will bring about a much steadier performance. The tailbacks are also solid, led by senior Brandon Minor, who scored 9 touchdowns last year. I think that Minor is a strong tailback but I have to disagree with a lot of assessments that claim he’s one of the conference’s best. Still, Michigan should definitely field an improved running game. At wide receiver, senior Greg Mathews and sophomore Martavious Odoms are the top two returning options from last year and I would expect an increase in productivity from both this fall considering the expected upgrade at quarterback. However, despite the presence of two quarterbacks who are much better fits for the spread, people still have to remember that both are true freshman throwing to a group of wideouts comprised primarily of sophomores. Michigan should have more luck running the football and I don’t think that their offense will be the comedy of errors that it played out to be as last fall but Michigan is still at least a year away from fielding an offense that can seriously be considered dangerous.
Defensively, Michigan was a big disappointment in 2008, allowing 29 points per game, good enough for 10 th in the conference! Many observers, including myself, expected the defense to carry the team to at least a 6-6 record last fall and it fell woefully short. With former Syracuse coach Greg Robinson on board as the new defensive coordinator and a host of young players expected to play a big role, 2009 could be another down season.
Michigan’s most talented player is senior defensive end Brandon Graham, who had 10 sacks last fall. Graham’s numbers will probably decrease this season because Michigan switched to a 3-4 defense in the spring but he will still be a major impact player and NFL prospect. The rest of the line is very young, though sophomore tackle Mike Martin was a freshman All-American last fall and has a lot of potential. I would expect a somewhat improved unit after 2008’s underwhelming showing.
The linebackers also look much better this fall. Juniors Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton were the team’s top two tacklers last year and combined for 174 stops. Along with senior Stevie Brown, who finished 4 th on the team in tackles at safety last fall and has since moved to linebacker, there is a lot of experience and speed and I expect a much improved showing. The secondary is by far the biggest concern on defense as only junior cornerback Donovan Warren returns. Expect a lot of underclassmen to see the field this fall. Michigan’s secondary will be talented but they will be very green. Overall, I expect the defense to show moderate improvement this season but the overwhelming youth is a big concern.
The schedule is a bit lighter than last season. Their annual rivalry with Notre Dame shifts to the Big House this year and the other non-conference games are against regional MAC teams instead of Utah. However, Michigan did lose to Toledo last fall so they had better every single opponent seriously this year. The Wolverines have eight home games overall. In Big Ten play, Minnesota and Northwestern rotate off the schedule. However, the Wolverines have a very tough road schedule which includes trips to MSU, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. Throw in home matchups with Penn State and hated rival Ohio State and it is fair to say that Michigan has a tough road ahead.
Overall, I don’t expect 2009 to remotely approach the disastrous level that the Wolverines attained last fall. Michigan’s players have bought into the system much more than they did in 2008 and the lessons of a full year in the spread should help a lot. I think the Wolverines will be stronger on both lines and an improved rushing attack and rush defense appears to be in the cards. However, I have some serious questions about Michigan’s passing attack. Look, I know that Forcier and Robinson are talented young quarterbacks who fit Rodriguez’s system perfectly. However, they’re true freshmen and very few true freshmen can achieve the level of success that arch nemesis Terrelle Pryor did down the road in Columbus last year. Furthermore, Michigan looks vulnerable in the secondary and that could cost them some games. Finally, Michigan plays one of the conference’s toughest road schedules and travels to some of the toughest venues. That just makes life harder for their freshman quarterbacks.
The combination of a difficult schedule and a large dose of youth leads me to believe that Michigan is still at least a year away from fielding a truly competitive team. On top of that, I still think Rodriguez was the wrong fit in Ann Arbor and I have trouble believing that he’ll ever truly win over the fans unless he wins very quickly after last season’s disaster. That said, I expect Michigan to look and act much more like a real football team this season and at least achieve bowl eligibility. However, 6-6 or 7-5 is about the best possible outcome I can see from That School Up North and if Rodriguez fails to at least reach a bowl game or beat the Buckeyes this season then he will enter 2010 in serious jeopardy of losing his job. I’m afraid he used up all of his excuses last fall and the all time winningest program in college football history won’t settle for mediocrity for long. This is an enormous season for the Wolverines in more ways than one.
Big Games: Sept. 12th vs. Notre Dame, Oct. 3rd @ MSU, Oct. 10th @ Iowa, Oct. 24th vs. PSU, Oct. 31st @ Illinois, Nov. 14th @ Wisconsin, Nov. 21st vs. OSU
Continuing the trend of disappointment, we arrive with the Purdue Boilermakers. 2008 was longtime coach Joe Tiller’s final season and there were high hopes in West Lafayette entering the year. However, Purdue’s high-powered offense inexplicably shut down despite the presence of star quarterback Curtis Painter, who is now the Colts’ backup quarterback. Despite a tough 4-8 season, Tiller was sent out in style with a season-ending blowout of rival Indiana. This fall, new head coach Danny Hope embarks upon a rebuilding project that might not take as long as most people believe. Hope has great ties to the state of Florida and brought in 14 recruits in his first class from the Sunshine state! Can Hope exceed expectations despite a tough schedule?
On offense, the Boilermakers will miss Painter’s talent despite the offense’s struggles last year. Senior Joey Elliott is expected to be the man under center this fall and he is very inexperienced. There is also a dearth of experience at wide receiver behind junior Keith Smith, who made 49 catches last fall. Purdue passed the ball for 250 yards per game in 2008 and if they reach that number this season I will be surprised.
Things are equally questionable at the tailback position, where no returning player had more than 40 yards rushing last fall! Sophomore Ralph Bolden was the star of spring practice and will share time with senior Jaycen Taylor and true freshman Al-Terek McBurse. I expect Hope to run the football much more often this fall than in Tiller’s ‘basketball on grass’ system and having a group of talented tailbacks is a great start. They’ll run behind an improved offensive line which returns four starters. However, it looks like three starters will be underclassmen and that could lead to some growing pains. Overall, Purdue has a lot of inexperienced players who will be taking key roles in the offense this fall. That means that there will probably be plenty of mistakes but I think that the potential for a solid offense by the end of the year is definitely there.
As surprising as Purdue’s offensive implosion was last season, the play of their defense was perhaps even more shocking. Purdue actually fielded a very competitive defense, holding Oregon, Penn State, Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa to 22 points or less in regulation! The Boilermakers were quite stout against the pass, allowing only 185 yards per game. This fall, eight of their top ten tacklers return and Purdue will be looking to produce another strong defensive performance. Things will need to improve up front, where senior tackle Mike Neal is the team’s strongest returning lineman. Neal is a force in the middle and racked up 5.5 sacks last fall. Junior end Ryan Kerrigan is also a strong contributor and made 7 sacks in 2008. Purdue usually has a lot of talent on the defensive line and I think that they’ll have a much stronger D-Line this season.
The linebackers also look solid despite losing leading tackler Anthony Heygood. Sophomores Joe Holland and Chris Carlino should benefit from last season’s experience and I expect both to play a big part in an improved run defense. The secondary also brings back a lot of experience and should start four seniors. Expect another strong year defending the pass and overall Purdue has a much stronger defense than most observers realize.
The schedule is a definite mixed bag. The Boilermakers travel to Oregon (against whom they blew a 20-6 4th quarter lead last season) while welcoming rival Notre Dame to Ross-Ade Stadium. That’s a pretty tough non-conference portion. In Big Ten play, Purdue avoids both Iowa and Penn State and hosts Northwestern, OSU, Illinois and Michigan State. With seven home games, Purdue is in position to surprise a lot of people.
Overall, Purdue is nowhere near as bad as I thought when I originally started researching this preview. Their offense is going to look different and rely a lot more on the run so they’re not going to be one of the league’s more explosive units. However, they should score enough points to allow their solid defense to make some games interesting. I think Purdue could surprise some teams this year and I wouldn’t be shocked to see them pull a few upsets. However, despite avoiding PSU and Iowa, this is still a pretty tough schedule and the Boilermakers play one of the Big Ten’s best non-conference schedules. Despite their solid defense, I think that the Boilermakers will be hard-pressed to earn bowl eligibility and I think they’re in line for another 4-8 season. That said, whenever you have a good defense then you have the potential to win some games that you shouldn’t and Big Ten teams need to be careful not to overlook Purdue.
Big Games: Sept. 12th @ Oregon, Sept. 26th vs. Notre Dame, Oct. 3rd vs. Northwestern, Oct. 17th vs. OSU, Oct. 24th vs. Illinois, Oct. 31st @ Wisconsin, Nov. 7th vs. Michigan, Nov. 14th vs. MSU, Nov. 21st @ Indiana
2008 was a very disappointing season in Bloomington after the success of 2007. Indiana followed up their first bowl season in 15 years with a 3-9 clunker and only won one conference game. To make matters worse, former star quarterback Kellen Lewis ran into troubles on and off the field and won’t be with the team this season. Furthermore, the Hoosiers’ season ending loss to archrival Purdue was a 62-10 beat down, capping off a bad year. Head coach Bill Lynch has rebounded well from such adversity and has a solid recruiting class lined up going into the fall. A lot of people believe he’s on the hot seat but I honestly don’t expect Indiana to make a coaching change even if the Hoosiers have another tough year. Can Lynch make his team competitive this fall?
Offensively, The Hoosiers regressed terribly in 2008, scoring 11 points per game less than in 2007. To make matters worse, Indiana loses every single statistical leader at the skill positions. Losing Lewis is especially troublesome as he was the team’s sole difference-maker on offense. Junior Ben Chappell threw for 1,000 yards and 4 touchdowns last fall and will be the unquestioned starter this season but he’s not surrounded by very much talent. His top returning receiver will be sophomore Damario Belcher after senior Ray Fischer and his 42 catches and 5 touchdowns were moved to defense in the spring. Chappell doesn’t have the escapability that Lewis did in the pocket and also doesn’t have a single receiver that I believe would start at any other Big Ten school. I expect a very poor passing attack this fall.
The tailback situation is also pretty thin. Senior Bryan Payton is the top returning rusher but he only ran for 340 yards and 2 scores last season. Freshman Darius Willis could be the top option. The line is probably the brightest spot on the entire offense as four starters return. Expect a decent running game but there isn’t a difference-maker in the backfield. Overall, Indiana was not a dangerous offense at all last season and they don’t have any playmakers this fall. I hate to say it but this is going to be the Big Ten’s worst offense.
The defensive outlook is a little bit more positive. Indiana has one of the conference’s best defensive end tandems in seniors Jamie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, both of whom have earned 1st team All-Big Ten honors in their careers. Expect a strong pass rush off the edges this fall and both are future NFL draft picks. The defensive tackles are also solid and I think that the Hoosiers should be in line for improvement against the run this season. The linebackers also look fairly solid. Senior Matt Mayberry led the team in tackles last year with 89 and tacked on 5 sacks, making him one of the league’s most productive players. He will be flanked by senior Will Patterson, who was 4th on the team in tackles last fall, and junior Tyler Replogle, who made 20 tackles in the season finale! I expect a solid run defense in Bloomington.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about their pass defense. Lynch was so concerned about defending against the aerial assault that he moved his top returning reciever to cornerback in the spring after the Hoosiers were by far the league’s worst pass defense. Senior safeties Nick Polk and Austin Thomas made a lot of tackles last year and a lot of injuries slowed down the rest of the secondary but I expect teams to try to throw the ball early and often this fall, especially with the strength of the front seven. Overall, Indiana allowed a touchdown more per game than any other team in the Big Ten last fall and I don’t expect such ineptitude in 2009 thanks to their solid front. In the end, the Hoosiers were by far the conference’s worst defense last season and despite their improvement I expect them to finish once more in the bottom of the league standings.
The schedule is a toss-up. Indiana only has six home games but their only non-conference BCS opponent is ACC weakling Virginia. In Big Ten play, the Hoosiers avoid Michigan State and Northwestern in the conference’s schedule rotation but they have to travel to Penn State, Iowa and Michigan, three of the league’s toughest venues for opposing teams. This should be a daunting slate for Indiana.
Overall, I hate to pick a team to finish 0-8 in the league standings but there simply isn’t a single opponent on the schedule that I think the Hoosiers are capable of beating. The only other team in the league that appears to be near their talent level is archrival Purdue, who beat Indiana 62-10 last fall and has won 10 of the last 12 games in the series! Indiana’s offense doesn’t have anyone who will remotely scare opposing defensive coordinators without Lewis and they could have a lot of trouble scoring points this fall. While I think Indiana has a strong defensive front, their secondary is a concern and even if the Hoosiers allowed a touchdown less per game this year, they’d still be one of the league’s worst defenses. I’m afraid Lynch is going to need time to bring in more talent and if Indiana matches last year’s three win total then I will be surprised.
Big Games: Sept. 19th @ Akron, Sept. 26th @ Michigan, Oct. 3rd vs. OSU, Oct. 10th @ Virginia, Oct. 24th @ Northwestern, Oct. 31st @ Iowa, Nov. 7th vs. Wisconsin, Nov. 21st vs. Purdue
THE BOTTOM LINE
I really think that the Big Ten is going to have a strong season in 2009. There are no less than five teams which enter the season with a legitimate shot at the conference title and there is a lot of depth throughout the conference.
There are also a ton of storylines worth watching. How will Danny Hope’s first season go at Purdue? Can Bill Lynch keep his job at Indiana? Will Michigan take a big step forward in Rich Rodriguez’s second season? Can Northwestern sustain their success? How will Brett Bielema handle the pressure in Madison? Will Minnesota contend with a veteran team in a new stadium? How will Iowa react to their lack of depth at tailback?
But the biggest storylines will undoubtedly surround the race for the conference crown. Can Michigan State’s offense step up without Javon Ringer? Will Illinois’ defense perform well enough to compete for Big Ten? Can Penn State overcome the most turnovers in the entire league to win their 2nd consecutive title? Is this the year that the Buckeyes finally break through on the big stage?
Here’s how I see things playing out. There is a lot of parity in the middle of the conference but Indiana is clearly the league’s worst team. Purdue is young but is dangerous enough to pull of an upset or two. Northwestern will struggle to repeat their success from last fall but should still earn a bowl berth. Iowa and Minnesota will be slowed by difficult schedules but will be very dangerous opponents in bowl games. Michigan will be improved but the Wolverines are still a year away from competing with the conference’s elite and Wisconsin fans will amplify their discontent because the Badgers aren’t better than an eight win team.
That leaves the conference race in the hands of Michigan State, Illinois, Penn State and Ohio State. While Michigan State has a very solid team, they have to travel to Illinois and deal with the pressure of expectation and I think that they’ll fall to 4th place. I think Illinois has a great chance to upset Penn State early at home but their opening run is just too tough and they finish the year 10-2 with both losses in conference. That leaves the title chase up to the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions and I think that Ohio State’s result against USC will really define their season. If they beat USC, I think Ohio State will probably be 9-0 going into Happy Valley. On the other hand, Penn State has only has to overcome two early tests before November and this could be a battle of unbeatens. While I think both teams are prime contenders on the national level, I think that Ohio State’s excellent defense and Terrelle Pryor’s individual brilliance will be the difference and I’m picking Ohio State to win the 2009 Big Ten Championship.
Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s football writer. Keep an eye out all fall for his multiple weekly articles discussing everything college football. If you want to get in touch with him, email him at Matt.Baxendell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MattBaxendell
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