If we are going to call the Big 12 the Big 12-2 I suppose we can start referring to the Big Ten as the Big 11+1. Does it matter? I personally feel like the Big Ten is in a highly interesting battle between perception and reality heading into 2010.
The realignment mania that the conference instigated when they began openly shopping for a 12th team would have you think they have the recent on field track record of the SEC, but we all know that is not the case.
As far as I am concerned the Big Ten was struggling in non-conference play heading into 2009, especially during the post season. They had gone 6-16 in bowl games from 2006-2008 to include an 0-6 mark in BCS bowl games. I was beginning to wonder how they kept getting two bids. Then the stars lined up and the Big Ten finished with a winning bowl record (4-3) for the first time since 2002 to include big BCS wins in the Orange and Rose Bowls. All was right in Big Ten country.
Buoyed by the highly successful Big Ten network and a splash of on field success the league quickly snapped back into kingpin mode and started actively shopping for a 12th team. Chances are that if you are reading this you know what happened from there. So here we are. The Big Ten Network will be airing Nebraska games this fall and I will most likely still be thinking they just capitalized on a perfect set of circumstances to Jedi mind trick everybody into buying into their long term viability.
There are many things at play here as history and tradition battle a southern migration of the population. The talent base attached to that population is moving with it. Each year I put together a National Talent Analysis that averages out the rivals recruiting rankings for the last 5 years. Argue all you want, but at the end of the day the Big Ten is a distant 5th behind the SEC, Big 12, Pac 10 and ACC. Peruse the numbers and see for yourself.
We could debate all day about what that means but as far as I am concerned the Big Ten faces a slew of challenges in the coming years. It is what it is and while predicting the long term viability of a conference is slippery talking about its prospects in 2010 is not quite so daunting. So is the Big Ten "back" or was 2009 a freak occurrence? Let’s take a look at what the Big Ten has under the hood heading into 2010 and see if we can figure it out.
Ohio State- The Buckeyes have become the Big Ten flagship station under Jim Tressel. They have the most talented roster in the conference and have been a fixture in the National Title race for the last several years winning it all in 2002 and losing in 2006 and 2007. Regardless that is three appearances in six seasons and the Bucks will again control their own destiny at a title shot in 2010. Take a look.
The Bucks return 9 starters on an offense that managed 29.0 pts/gm in 2009 and 6 starters on a defense that only gave up 12.5 pts/gm. Terrell Pryor will be back under center and has the tools to be a major player this year. That said I have yet to see the competitiveness/ killer instinct/ whatever you want to call it out of Pryor that many of the greats he is often compared to demonstrated in their playing days. Perhaps I will see that this fall but I remain skeptical.
Pryor’s supporting cast is solid and the Bucks should continue to put up adequate points even if Pryor continues to play without fire. The defense is really the star of the Ohio State program but will be breaking in three new starters on the line of scrimmage and return 6 total starters. Despite that they will likely maintain a sub 20.0 pts/gm average providing sufficient room for the offense to win games.
The Bucks have three patsies and Miami on their September non conference slate but face Penn State, Iowa and Michigan in successive weeks to cap their season in November. The Miami game is a coin flip but I expect that the Bucks will roll into November either 9-0 or 8-1 before dropping one of those final three games. I see the end result as another Rose Bowl trip for Tressel and the Bucks.
Wisconsin- The Badgers had a nice little turnaround last year and posted 10 victories. Bret Bielema now heads into his 5th season with a little momentum. Wiscy returns 10 on an offense that put up 31.8 pts/gm last season so they should remain formidable. Team Cheese also returns 6 starters on a pretty solid defense that only gave up 21.9 pts/gm in 2009.
They play a shameless non-conference sked that will produce a 4-0 start in September and Penn State is not on the conference schedule. They have a rough patch in October @ Michigan State, Minn, Ohio State and @ Iowa. I think they will end up dropping 2 of those before racking up another 4 wins in November for another 10 win season.
Penn State- Joe Pa is still kicking and from the look of it the Nittany Lions will be too. Their formula is very similar to that of Ohio State. They have a respectable offense that averaged 28.8 pts/gm in 2009 and returns 8 starters. Unlike tOSU they will be breaking in a new QB. Expect to see heavy doses of Evan Royster early while Kevin Newsome gets snapped in as the signal caller.
Penn State returns 5 starters from a great defensive unit that held its opponents to 12.2 pts/gm last season. Tip of the hat to the Nittany Lions for scheduling one high quality non-conference game as they travel to Alabama in week two. That is stacking up to be a HUGE weekend for the conference with tOSU hosting Miami and Michigan traveling to ND that same day.
The Penn State vs. Bama contest could very well be a 6-3 thriller that sets a new world record for handoffs. I don’t see Penn State winning that game on the road but they do have three other patsies lined up in September to make sure they are 3-1 heading into conference play. Once there trips to Iowa and Ohio State will provide stiff tests and they don’t play Wisconsin. Michigan State and Michigan could also be tricky but PSU gets both of them in Beaver Stadium. I expect 9-10 wins and a solid bowl bid as the end result.
Iowa- On paper the Hawkeyes look like a pretty good football team but I am always hesitant to put too much stock in them early. For all the love Ferentz gets his winning percentage after 11 seasons at Iowa is only 59%. That always gives me pause when the Hawkeyes come up.
That said the outlook is pseudo similar to Ohio State & Penn State but with a less formidable offense. On offense they have 6 returning starters from a unit that put up 23.2 pts/gm in 2009 which is not great. I heard one of the ESPN talking heads say the other day that QB Ricky Stanzi would put them over the top this year. I was wondering if they were talking about the same kid that threw 15 picks and 17 TDs last season.
The Hawkeyes do have 8 returning starters on a defense that only allowed 15.4 pts/gm last year so that will continue to be their strength. September non conference games against Iowa State and Arizona will tell us a lot. I don’t see either of those as a gimme for the Hawkeyes. I’m thinking 8-9 wins depending on how those two go.
Michigan State- Mark Dantonio does a great job coaching this team up. In many ways they are starting to remind me of Boston College. The Sparty roster isn’t riddled with superstars but at the same time they seem to trade punches with whoever they play every week. Sparty has 7 returning starters on offense to include QB Kirk Cousins. They managed 29.7 pts/gm last year and should be in the same ball park again in 2010.
The defense remains a bit of a question mark as they return 6 on a unit that gave up 26.3 pts/game in 2009. ND is their only potentially tough non conference foe and they don’t play Ohio State. Sparty also has good spacing between ND, Wisconsin, @Michigan, @Iowa and @Penn State on the sked which should make it slightly more manageable. With a little defensive improvement Sparty should get back up to 8 wins. If they can pull a couple of upsets they could have a really nice season.
Michigan- It has to get better right? At this point the biggest obstacle is Dick Rod himself. While I still think that in theory his system could be very effective in the Big Ten the black cloud hanging over his tenure is an undeniable distraction at this point. It isn’t easy to just come out and play when your Head Coach is on the chopping block. After living through the last couple of Weis years I am more than happy to hand off the WWL hotseat watch to the Wolverines this fall.
I could easily get side tracked here and start rambling about all the factors that ultimately painted Rodriguez into a corner but I will try and restrain myself. In short I think as the Head Coach of any major program you have to first embrace the stewardship that comes with the position. A public recognition that you are simply the caretaker of something much bigger and more important than yourself is required. From there you embrace the culture, become part of it, and implement your way of doing business within the existing framework. As far as I’m concerned that is where Rodriguez went off the rails early. Think Callahan at Nebraska. Same thing.
With that here is what the Wolverines will be working with this fall. They averaged 29.5 pts/gm on offense and return 7 starters to include the self proclaimed "QB Force." That said Rodriguez has hinted that Denard Robinson and freshman Devin Gardner might also be in the mix. Having 3 QBs means you have no QBs and that isn’t good. The defense returns 8 on a unit that wasn’t stellar in allowing 27.5 pts/gm in 2009. Greg Robinson took over as DC last year but it didn’t help matters much. The Wolverines shifted to a 3-4 in 2009 but were playing with the old Rodriguez standby 3-3-5 in the spring which doesn’t bode well either.
The Wolverines open with UCONN and a trip to South Bend so an 0-2 start isn’t inconceivable. Those two games are vital to Michigan which will make the ND game that much more fun. If they drop both of them Rodriguez will already be marking time when the Wolverines start conference play. With Michigan State, Iowa, @ Penn State, Wisconsin and @ Ohio State all on the sked a .500 season is a distinct possibility. They do have the 2nd most talented roster in the conference and that could be the one thing that pulls 2010 out of the fire and gets Rodriguez over the hump. I think they will ultimately manage to win 7 with a few flashes of positivity making the decision on keeping Rodriguez as muddy as possible.
Northwestern- Pat Fizgerald put together 17 wins in the last two seasons and the Wildcats return 13 total starters. Their offensive and defensive production was almost even last year at 25.9 pts/gm and 24.5 pts/gm respectively. They tend to play to the level of their competition and end up in a lot of close games. They play a weak non conference sked and don’t have Ohio State or Michigan on the slate in 2010 so another 7-8 wins with a bunch of smart kids you never heard of is a very likely scenario.
Purdue- The Boilers are a tough call in 2010. Last year Danny Hope took over and went 5-7 with two new coordinators. Gary Nord remains OC and has 5 returning starters to work with but picks up QB Robert Marve who sat out last year after he transferred from Miami. Marve is a legit athlete that could get the Boilers back above 30 pts/gm. A suspect defense returns 6 starters from a unit that gave up 29.1 pts/gm in 2009 and will remain the linchpin in any potential success. The Boilers open at ND then play 3 patsies and don’t have Iowa or Penn State on the schedule. As a result 7 wins is possible.
Illinois- The Zooker lives. After 9 wins and a Rose Bowl in 2007 the Illini have only won 8 games in the last two seasons combined. I don’t see any miracle turnarounds in the works for 2010. I don’t expect Illinois will see the upside of .500 and Zooker will likely go back to being an assistant somewhere after the season.
Minnesota- The Gophers return 9 starters from a below average offense and 2 starters from a mediocre defense. They open with Middle Tennessee and Dwight Dasher might hang 50 on them. They have USC in week 3 which could get ugly then roll into a conference slate where they will likely be underdogs in every game. It doesn’t look good for the Gophers this fall.
Indiana- Like Minnesota the Hoosiers have 9 returning starters on a below average offense and 4 returning starters on a bad defense. This team will continue to struggle in 2009.
Big Ten Wrap Up- This is really Ohio State’s conference to lose. Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa will be nipping at their heels and I also expect that Michigan State will make some noise. This is a big year for the Big Ten and it will be well worth keeping a close eye on the conference as a whole. They appear poised for another good showing that could go a long way towards helping them maintain their momentum as they transition to a 12 team format in 2011.