With media day in the books, it’s about time to take a stab at ranking the Big Ten teams. Here is my best guess at how the standings will look at the end of the season:
- PENN STATE — It seems like every contender has some big holes to fill, and the Nittany Lions are no exception. They lost their top three wideouts and defensive ends from last season, three starting offensive linemen, and their entire starting secondary. However, I still think they’ll come out on top for a few reasons: First, quarterback Darryl Clark and tailback Evan Royster return, giving Penn State the best offensive backfield in the conference. Second, they have the best linebacking corps in the Big Ten, anchored by Navarro Bowman and Sean Lee, which should help cover for the rest of the defense’s inexperience in the early going. Third, they get Iowa and Ohio State in Happy Valley, arguably the toughest road environment in the Big Ten. I think a PSU victory over the Buckeyes on Nov. 7 ultimately decides the conference title.
- OHIO STATE — The Buckeyes have a lot to replace as well, losing Beanie Wells, best known for running through my nightmares, as well as stud linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, unanimous All-Big Ten first teamer Malcolm Jenkins, and mammoth tackle Alex Boone. They also have Terrelle Pryor, which should work out well for them. However, I think Pryor will still experience some growing pains as he is forced to pass more, and having an entirely new receiving corps doesn’t help matters with the departures of Brian Robiske and Brian Hartline. Like Penn State, OSU has a favorable conference schedule, getting Illinois and Iowa at home and missing Michigan State and Northwestern completely, but that game at Beaver Stadium looms large.
- ILLINOIS — At this point, all the choices start getting very flawed, and when teams are flawed, I start looking for players who can win games on their own. Wideout Arrelious Benn is the best player in the conference, and Michigan fans are certainly aware of what quarterback Juice Williams can accomplish with both his feet and his arm. If Williams cuts down on the interceptions (16 in 2008, though he did throw for 3,173 yards and 22 touchdowns) the Illini could be a very dangerous team in 2009.
- IOWA — The Hawkeyes seem to be the trendy pick for Big Ten sleeper by just about everybody, but I just don’t see it. Ricky Stanzi will have to be a lot better for me to start fearing their passing game, and they lose tailback Shonn Greene, who was basically Iowa’s 2008 offense. Yes, they have a tough defense, and that upset of Penn State on the road was a tremendous victory, but I don’t see this team putting together the 6 or 7 conference victories it will take to crack the top of the standings.
- MICHIGAN — There. I said it. It’s out there. Call me a homer, but I think with a much-improved offensive line, a viable option at quarterback, and a year of experience in Rich Rodriguez’s system, Michigan pushes into back into the top half of the Big Ten standings. Remember, the Wolverines return every starter on offense except Steven Threet, who probably would’ve ceded the quarterback job to Tate Forcier at some point in 2009 anyway. The defense is a huge question mark, but Greg Robinson has a very strong track record as a defensive coordinator, and they can’t be worse than they were last year, can they?
- MICHIGAN STATE — The Spartans are another team where the hype doesn’t seem to fit when you take a closer look. Javon Ringer put the offense on his back at times last year, and he’s gone. The lack of a proven running back hurts twofold when you’re also replacing a quarterback, which Michigan State will this season with the graduation of Brian Hoyer, who wasn’t tremendous but could manage a game. Add in the fact that we’re talking about Michigan State, and they always seem to disappoint when they raise expectations, and I’m not willing to put them in the top five.
- MINNESOTA — Don’t laugh … the Gophers look poised to be a true sleeper in the Big Ten this year. They return 10 starters on offense and eight on defense from a team that went 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten). This is a squad that one year earlier went 1-11 (0-8), including losses to Florida Atlantic and I-AA North Dakota State. Tim Brewster is doing an incredible job of turning this program around, and he has a solid quarterback-receiver tandem in Adam Weber and Eric Decker. The main reason I don’t have them above Michigan State is their schedule: road games against Penn State, Ohio State, and Iowa will be uphill battles, to say the least. However, if any of those teams take the Gophers lightly, we could see a season-changing upset on par with Iowa-Penn State 2008.
- WISCONSIN — The Badgers might be able to sneak up on some teams a year after falling from the top ten to a 7-6, unranked finish. Missing Penn State and Illinois on the schedule will certainly help their chances of rebounding from a disastrous 2008, but they’ll need a huge season from highly-touted running back John Clay to do much better in the standings. I’m waiting for Bret Bielema to prove that he deserved to replace Barry Alvarez as Wisconsin’s head coach; so far, it’s been all downhill since a 12-1 debut season in 2006.
- NORTHWESTERN — No Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule is a huge break for Northwestern, but they still have to replace quarterback C.J. Bacher, do-everything tailback Tyrell Sutton, and their entire receiving corps. Mike Kafka should be a decent dual-threat quarterback, and he did get some experience last season, but who is going to contribute around him? Better hope that defense, led by a secondary that returns all four starters, holds strong while the offense finds its footing.
- INDIANA — Indiana’s hopes of being a Big Ten sleeper left with quarterback/receiver Kellen Lewis, who was booted from the team this spring for violating team rules. They do return nine starters on defense, but that defense gave up points in droves last season (34 or more in 8 of 12 games, including 62 against Purdue). They would be the clear, choice to finish last, except for…
- PURDUE — Michigan fans complaining about Lloyd Carr leaving the cupboard bare may want to look at the scraps Joe Tiller left new head coach Danny Hope in West Lafayette. Four offensive players, all linemen, return for a team that went 4-8 (2-6 Big Ten) in 2008. I don’t even have to look at the defense to know that this is a hopeless cause for this season. Feel bad for Danny Hope.