Is the Big Ten still an elite conference? Many say not like it used to be anyway and for the most part you can't argue it. When you look at what the conference did last year at the top in bowl games, its embarrassing. On New Years Day Michigan was still claiming they should be playing Ohio State in the National Title and in the process were run off the field by Southern Cal. A week later Ohio State who held the number one ranking all season couldn't even celebrate a touchdown the right way as Florida looked like world beaters in a 41-14 drubbing.
Good but not great is how I see the Big Ten this year. A few very talented teams but how they compete on the national level instead of just in conference will be a test once again this year. It seems that Wisconsin and Michigan both could be title game contenders, but can they play with the SECs and USCs of the world? Only time will tell.
Players to Watch:
Offensively everywhere you look people will tell you how great Mike Hart, Chad Henne, and Mario Manningham are as well as anything to ever wear the Maize and Blue. Don't get me wrong, all three are exceptional players but my preseason Big Ten Offensive MVP is P.J. Hill of Wisconsin...
As a freshman last year he went over 1500 yards while averaging 5 yards a carry and scoring 15 times on the ground. Oh, and 0 fumbles in over 320 touches.
This year Hill will come back with four of his five offensive linemen in front of him. Grant it the third overall pick in the NFL Draft, Joe Thomas is gone, but the core of a solid offensive line is still there. Couple that with a new quarterback and expect Hill's numbers to only go up. After Wisconsin defeats Michigan in Camp Randall, Hill will clinch a trip to New York City as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
Other than the Michigan boys and Mr. Hill things are a blur at best offensively in the Big Ten this year. Remember the names Dorien Bryant (Purdue) and James Hardy (Indiana) as both will have huge years catching the football.
On the defensive side of the ball is where the Big Ten makes up some ground against the rest of the nation. Wisconsin brings a team that is loaded on defense into the conference this year with much back from a squad that surrendered just 12.1 points a game last fall. DeAndre Levy, and Jonathan Casillas will anchor the outside linebacker roles but a lot will be asked of Elijah Hodge as he will be the Mac-backer for the Badgers. The secondary will be a little younger but expect big things from them as the season wears on, also the defensive line for Wisconsin will be amongst the best in all of football.
Defensive MVP you ask? None other than James Laurinaitis of The Ohio State University. The man's an animal, we can leave it at that. 115 tackles last season as a sophomore, Laurinaitis gives Columbus reason for hope this coming year. He will be asked to do a lot for a team that losses most of its star power, but behind Laurinaitis you will see the Buckeye D mature quickly during the year and make a New Years Day bowl game.
How They'll Fall:
1. Wisconsin - Loaded D and a great run game make things much easier on a new quarterback.
2. Ohio State - Supposed to be a down year but the defense has time to mature in the first half before showdowns at Penn State, against Wisconsin, and in the Big House three of the last four weeks of the season.
3. Michigan - Lloyd Carr is still coach, therefore expect disappointment. Until he wins a meaningful game (Notre Dame last year can be argued, however he followed it up with losses to OSU and USC) I can't consider the Wolverines a true Big Ten title contender.
4. Penn State - A team I was very high on at the end of last year just keeps impressing me less and less. Some off the field issues this off season didn't do Joe Pa any favors and a tough schedule could leave the Nittany Lions with four regular season losses.
5. Iowa - All the highly touted recruits from Kirk Ferentz have to kick in eventually...don't they?
6. Purdue - Offense will put up points but can they stop anything?
7. Illinois - Very young but very talented. The team will improve much as the year goes on but a bowl berth may finish just out of reach.
8. Indiana - Sad story with coach Terry Hoeppner this offseason, not only a great coach but even a better guy from everything you hear. A program headed in the right direction has just too much to overcome this year.
9. Northwestern - Not much to work with gives the Cats another losing season.
10. Michigan State - Team headed in a downward spiral and not much veteran experience on top of it.
11. Minnesota - If football were a contest determined by off the field issues then Minnesota has a legit case at being your preseason number 1. Its not and the Gophers will not win a conference game.
There is how it will go. Other predictions I might include would be Michigan losing to Wisconsin and Ohio State as well as their bowl game and Lloyd Carr getting axed. I also don't expect the Big Ten BCS luck to change this year, a few good teams won't be enough to beat a SEC or Pac 10 Champ.