The Big Ten has a three-year old PR problem. The perception is that the conference isn’t capable of competing with the best other leagues have to offer. True, the perception is built exclusively around performances against the SEC champ and USC—hardly a fair cross-section for any one—but no matter. In a world where the media judges conferences by national championships and Big Ten teams by how they do in the Rose Bowl, the venerable league is struggling and until something decisive happens to reverse that, it’s going to hurt Jim Delaney’s conference in BCS voting this year.
Both the problems and possibilities for the Big Ten on the national stage start with Ohio State. For five years running the Buckeyes have either won the league outright or shared first place. And while the defense must replace luminaries like James Laurinatis and Malcolm Jenkins, and the offense has to come up with a new running back in place of Chris Wells, this team is again going to be at least in the top two. Sophomore quarterback Terrell Pryor is potentially sensational and has almost a full year of starting experience under his belt. The offensive lines in Columbus are always strong, and while Wells was explosive, he was also injury-prone. Daniel Herron is going to be a good replacement. The defensive front and secondary will be very tough. The only thing holding them back is a possible dearth at receiver. That won’t prevent them from returning to a major bowl game, but it may keep them out of the Big Ten and national titles that are this program’s ultimate goal. In the short-term, OSU can solve the problems of perception when Southern Cal comes to town on September 13.
Penn State was USC’s whipping boy last year in Pasadena and the Lions are highly regarded in most preseason polls again this year. But I don’t see it happening in Happy Valley. The offensive line and secondary are young, both heavy on new sophomore starters. Daryl Clark’s return at quarterback and Evan Royster coming back as the top runner are creating expectations that the team overall isn’t ready to live up to. This is a middle-of-the-pack team in 2009.
The challenges to Ohio State are going to come out of Iowa City and East Lansing. Michigan State jumped up and won nine games a year ago, earning a Capital One Bowl bid on New Year’s Day as a result. While there’s some re-tooling to do at the skill positions, the offensive line is in reasonably good shape and the defense is going to be tough. Disciplinarian Mark Dantonio runs the show with an iron fist here, and the days of the flaky Spartans who couldn’t be counted on to show up are over. Going with a sophomore quarterback in Kirk Cousins makes them a risky bet to win the conference, but they have a shot at returning to the New Year’s stage and even at sneaking into the BCS as an at-large.
Iowa returned to a January 1 bowl last year, after the first dry spell of Kirk Ferentz’s tenure, and this is another fundamentally-sound coach with all the pieces in place for a title run. The defense returns most of its starters. They do need to replace Shonn Greene in the backfield, but coaching the offensive front is Ferentz’s specialty, and I see no reason to think he won’t have a quality running game. Junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi returns and will have a good supporting cast around him.
It’s typical for four Big Ten teams to earn New Year’s Day/BCS bowl bids. After the league champion, the second-place team usually gets an at-large and then the January 1 Outback and Capital One Bowls are Big Ten vs. SEC. So the race for third and fourth place is always hot. This year, the middle of the pack is being defined by two higher-profile programs that are being closely watched. Michigan caught everyone’s attention last year for all the wrong reasons, as the program collapsed after Lloyd Carr was run out of town and Rich Rodriguez was brought in. The Wolverines couldn’t handle R-Rod’s spread offense. Expectations are low in Ann Arbor, albeit not low enough to handle a repeat of last season’s 3-9 disaster. With a veteran offensive line and armed with the reality that Rodriguez can coach—he did after all, lead West Virginia close to the top—I expect UM to return to a bowl game this year and give them a decent shot at slipping into a January 1 game.
Illinois also has a head coach with some heat on him. Ron Zook was the toast of the town after leading his team to a BCS game in 2007, but the Illini fell to 5-7 last year. The offense won’t be a problem this year, with Juice Williams leading what should be an explosive unit. But this is a very vulnerable defense and Illinois fans should not aspire to much more than just getting back into any kind of bowl game. That won’t get off the heat off Zook though, particularly given his rival upstate is on the move. Northwestern won nine games last year and gave Missouri a spirited run in the Alamo Bowl. This year Pat Fitzgerald has a veteran quarterback, offensive line, secondary and linebacking corps. The Wildcats are very capable of getting into the league’s top four and I expect them to do just that, edging out the more heralded Penn State, Michigan and Illinois triumvirate for a New Year’s date.
It seems strange to have a discussion about January 1 football and not at least be mentioning Wisconsin. But the Badgers are in dangerous times right now, in the fourth year post-Barry Alvarez. They have declined each year under Bret Bielama. While that can be misleading—Bielama took over an experienced team that went 12-1 in 2006 and decline was going to happen whether he, Alvarez or Bill Belichick was calling the shots. But it doesn’t change the fact that 2008 saw UW have high expectations and low results. The heat is on Bielama and beyond the immensely talented John Clay at running back, he’s got little to really compete with. A losing season is very much a possibility here, and this Wisconsin-born writer who still loves the team, would reluctantly predict it.
Minnesota, Purdue and Indiana round out the discussion. All have some individual strengths, enough to envision a winning season, but nothing to think they would climb any higher than fifth or sixth, even if all broke right. Minny has a very talented quarterback in Adam Weber, but a completely revamped offensive line. Purdue’s secondary will be strong, but the front seven is porous. Indiana looks pretty decent, but after only one bowl appearance in fifteen years, is it really strong enough to start a bandwagon? Maybe if they beat Michigan on October 3.
Final prediction? Look for the much-maligned Big Ten to get two BCS bowl bids again, with those going to Ohio State and Iowa, while Michigan State clocks in a close third. And I’ll cut against the grain and take the Hawkeyes to win the conference championship.
Up next: SEC on Saturday