Big Ten Football Preview

August 5th, 2009

Buckeyes, Nittany Lions lead the way

By Raphielle Johnson


What the Big Ten has on the national level is a perception problem. The powers that be, most notably Ohio State, can’t seem to get over the hump when it comes to showdowns against the nation’s best, with the most recent blow being Penn State’s blowout loss to USC in the Rose Bowl. But for a composite schedule that lacks in terms of quantity when looking for big-game opportunities doesn’t lack in quality as the Buckeyes host those same Trojans on September 12th. Is it a must-win game for the league? With USC breaking in a new starting quarterback and replacing an entire stable of linebackers there may be no better opportunity for a big win.


As for where the teams will finish there’s no better place to start than Columbus, where the Buckeyes have won at least a share of the last four Big Ten crowns. Terrelle Pryor is firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback and a team leader, and it will be interesting to see how well their variation of Nevada’s “Pistol” offense works. Under Jim Tressel you know the Buckeyes will be a stout defensive team that won’t make many mistakes on offense. Who’s the most important defensive player? That could very well be senior linebacker Austin Spitler, who has had to wait his turn behind the great James Laurinaitis. This is a program that reloads, but replacing the leadership of guys such as Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman and Malcolm Jenkins will be a tough thing to do.


Penn State should be the biggest challenger to the Buckeyes this season, with the Nittany Lions playing the Buckeyes in Happy Valley. Quarterback Daryll Clark was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year a season ago, but a repeat will be tough due to the loss of some key playmakers at wide receiver. However, running back Evan Royster does return on the heels of a 1,236 rushing yard campaign and they’ll lean on him heavily in the early going. The defense lost seven starters but will be boosted by the return linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee. Lee missed 2008 with a torn ACL, and reports have him back at full strength.


After those two, expect a logjam in the race to become a part of the title hunt. Illinois needs to rebound after a disappointing 5-7 campaign riddled with poor chemistry in the locker room and inconsistent play on the field. Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn are back, giving Ron Zook’s team two big-play options. Eight starters are back on offense, and there’s also a capable backup quarterback in Eddie McGee should anything happen to Juice.


Michigan State has the Big Ten’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year in linebacker Greg Jones, and the increased toughness under Mark Dantonio is unmistakable. However, there is the matter of replacing Javon Ringer in the backfield, but with fifteen starters back expect the Spartans to be a threat in the Big Ten. Iowa needs to replace running back Shonn Greene and defensive tackle Mitch King, among others, and the fact that the Hawkeyes visit both Penn State and Ohio State won’t help matters either. Ricky Stanzi improved significantly under center as 2008 progressed, and the hope in Iowa City is that he and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos can continue their growth in the passing game.


Northwestern won nine games last season but they’ve got to replace six starters on offense including QB C.J. Bacher and RB Tyrell Sutton. The Wildcats have a manageable non-conference slate and they won’t have Ohio State on the schedule either. It may be too much to ask Pat Fitzgerald’s team to duplicate 2008, but another bowl trip is well within the realm of possibility.


As for Minnesota, it’s out with the old and in with the new. TCF Bank Stadium will be unveiled when Tim Brewster’s Golden Gophers host Air Force September 12th, and the home folks won’t be cheated when ponying up for season tickets. California, a likely challenger to USC in the Pac-10, invades the following weekend but Minnesota has to visit Penn State and Ohio State on consecutive weekends in late October.


How much better will Michigan be in Year Two under Rich Rodriguez? He’s had a track record of significant improvement following a bad first season, but there’s also the issue of the quarterback position. Freshman Tate Forcier is the guy that many around the program hope can perform well as the starter, and it’s slim picking at the position overall. There is a wealth of experience back at just about every other position on offense, so look for the Wolverines to lean heavily on players such as Brandon Minor as Forcier gets his “sea legs”.


Wisconsin had a tough go of it last season, still qualifying for a bowl game despite a mid-season four-game losing skid. Has Dustin Scherer matured at quarterback? John Clay will be first in line at running back, and look for the Badgers to go with their traditional formula of a tough rushing attack supplemented by a stout defense. But a lot of talent is gone from said defense, with six starters moving on. LB Jaevery McFadden and SS Jay Valai will need to lead the way if Wisconsin is to have a shot at a bowl game.


As for the two schools from the Hoosier State, it could be a tough season. Purdue replaces the retired Joe Tiller with Danny Hope, and four starters return from an offense that played nowhere near the level of Boilermaker offenses of the past. Seven defensive starters, including four of their top five tacklers, return to West Lafayette. As for Indiana, Bill Lynch booted the versatile Kellen Lewis from the team once and for all, sacrificing the team’s best playmaker for improved chemistry and team discipline. Ben Chappell, who saw playing time last season, gets the job full-time in 2009. However, nine starters are back on defense led by All-Big Ten selection Jammie Kirlew.


Storyline: How much can the Big Ten improve its national perception?


Players of the Year: QB Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State) and LB Greg Jones (Michigan State)


How they’ll finish:

  1. Ohio State
  2. Penn State
  3. Michigan State
  4. Illinois
  5. Iowa
  6. Michigan
  7. Northwestern
  8. Minnesota
  9. Wisconsin
  10. Purdue
  11. Indiana


Next: Big Ten Ultimate Schedule