Aug. 13, 2009

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By Adam Caparell

This season might be about redemption for the Big Ten.

The conference has taken it on the chin the past few seasons and had its national image tarnished. The league has gone a disappointing 9-20 in bowl games over the past four seasons. During that time Ohio State has made two BCS Championship game appearances and lost both rather convincingly, helping stake the league to an 0-6 mark in BCS games over the past three seasons.

And on top of that, a Big Ten school has not won the Rose Bowl in 10 years.

But the league will put its hopes behind Ohio State and Penn State yet again as two of the conference's perennial powers take aim at not only the Rose Bowl, but the BCS Championship itself.

Redemption will be a key theme at Michigan as well where second year head coach Rich Rodriguez looks to wash away the bad taste left after last year's 3-9 season, the worst in the Wolverines' illustrious history.

2008 Record: 5-7 (3-5)
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: This looks to be the year where that Illinois offense really becomes a threat. Juice Williams is a seasoned veteran entering his fourth year under center and he's got junior WR Arrelious Benn who is coveted by every NFL G.M. The Illini led the Big Ten in passing last season and there's no reason why that shouldn't be the case again this season. Williams, who led the Big Ten in total offense, will take his place as one of the conference's top QBs this season, but for Illinois to get back to a bowl game he's going to need to continue to cut down on the mistakes that have plagued him throughout his career.
Defensive Keys: Three starters are gone from the defensive line and the Illini are thin at linebacker as well. But anchoring the defense is Martez Wilson, one of the nation's top talents at his position. The Illini are going to lean on him heavily this season as he transitions to the middle. The secondary returns its corners for a unit that was respectable against the pass last season.
Keep An Eye On: WR Jarred Fayson, DT Sirod Williams, DT Corey Liuget
All In The Numbers: 44-37, Williams' career TD-INT ratio.
Deciding Game: Oct. 31 vs. Michigan
Outlook: The Rose Bowl appearance two years ago seems like a distant memory after last year's 5-win campaign. But the Illini lost a lot of talent from that 2007 squad, especially on defense and that defense yet again has holes at many positions. The offense should be good and should improve upon the 26.7 points per game average. But if the defense struggles to make stops it could be a long season for the Illini. The schedule is not easy with road games against Ohio State and Cincinnati along with the season opener against Missouri in St. Louis.

2008 Record: 3-9 (1-7)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 9 defense
Offensive Keys: Ben Chappell just might be as close to a pure passer as you'll find in a conference that has rapidly embraced the spread offense. Chappell will throw it out of the shotgun mostly this season as the Hoosiers hope to move on from the Kellen Lewis era after the former QB was dismissed from the team. Chappell does have some capable wide outs to throw to and they're pretty big targets, as well. The rushing attack, a strong suit last year, should be just as good this year. 
Defensive Keys: With so many starters back, the numbers from last season are due to start heading south. After allowing 35.3 points and 432.2 yards per game, Indiana did not make it easy on itself. But injuries were an issue last season, including to one of the game's top pass rushers in Greg Middleton who two years ago led the nation with 16 sacks.
Keep An Eye On: RB Darius Willis, DE Jammie Kirlew, FS Nick Polk
All In The Numbers: 4, times Indiana allowed at least 45 points last season, all losses.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 vs. Purdue
Outlook: Head coach Bill Lynch has his work cut out for him yet again, but he should be buoyed by the fact that he has what appears to be his most experienced team in two years. Attaining .500 is feasible if the Hoosiers can pull off an upset or two.

2008 Record: 9-4 (5-3), Outback Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: The best news Iowa has gotten this off-season is that Jewel Hampton should be healthy enough to go for the season opener. The man with the unenviable task of replacing Shonn Green had been hampered by a knee injury suffered in July, but head coach Kirk Ferentz has been adamant that he'll be in the backfield for the first snap. Ricky Stanzi will be under center again where the Hawkeyes hope he makes better decisions. But more importantly than anything, especially at Iowa, the offensive line should be a decided strength. In fact, so believe the Hawkeyes will feature the conference's top front five.
Defensive Keys: The nation's 12th best defense - and Big Ten's second best - last year should once again be among the best with so many starters returning. There are two big holes at the tackle positions, but the Hawkeyes like what they have on the ends and should be very deep at linebacker. The secondary has three starters back for a unit that led the conference in interceptions last season with 23.
Keep An Eye On: WR Darrell Johnson-Koulianos, LB Pat Angerer, CB Amari Spievey
All In The Numbers: 1, Big Ten team to win a bowl game last year, Iowa.
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 at Ohio State
Outlook: While Penn State and Ohio State are going to garner nearly all the talk about winning the Big Ten, don't sleep on Iowa. While on paper the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes may seem like the more talented teams, the Hawkeyes are going to be old-school good. But the schedule is a bear. The Hawkeyes must visit Penn State in September, Wisconsin and Michigan State on back-to-back weekends in October, and Ohio State in the season's second-to-last game. 

2008 Record: 3-9 (2-8)
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: Year 1of the spread offense did not go over well in Ann Arbor. Consequently, neither did Rich Rodriguez's first season at the helm. But Rodriguez did not have the right personnel for his offense and this season the Wolverines should be better suited to run it. Tate Forcier may be a freshman, but he seems to have the skill set to run Rodriguez's offense after enrolling early. Brandon Minor is back at running back and has high expectations attached to him.
Defensive Keys: While the offense struggled, but it didn't get a ton of help from the defense. The Wolverines allowed 28.9 points per game. So Rich Rodriguez brought in former Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson to work his magic on the squad and Robinson has installed his special 4-3 scheme. The Michigan faithful hope it can create more big plays because Michigan found itself at the bottom of the league in turnovers gained last year.
Keep An Eye On: WR Greg Matthews, DE Brandon Graham, LB Obi Ezeh
All In The Numbers: 42, years between losing seasons for the Wolverines.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 vs. Ohio State
Outlook: For all the grief that Rodriguez has gotten, he has a pretty good track record. Remember, he went 3-8 in his first season at West Virginia and in year two the Mountaineers finished 9-4. It'd be hard to fathom Michigan winning only three games again, but simply rocketing back right into the Big Ten race seems a little premature at this point. With a young QB and an inexperienced offense still learning the ropes, the Wolverines continue to be a work in progress. But one that could very well find its way to a bowl game if things break right.


Michigan State
2008 Record
: 9-4 (6-2), Capital One Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: The Spartans' top two offensive players from last year aren't around anymore. Gone are QB Brian Hoyer and, more importantly, RB Javon Ringer. There are a number of candidates looking to "replace" Ringer, but replacing him will be too much to ask. After all, Ringer racked up over 1,600 yards and 22 TDs. The battle for QB could play out well into the season between athletic Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol while the right side of the line will be minus its starters.
Defensive Keys: All three linebackers return, including Greg Jones, and the front four should be very strong as well, meaning Michigan State will be among the conference's strongest units. Even the secondary has a lot of depth, meaning that the Spartans should really improve on last year's numbers. Michigan State finished seventh in the Big Ten in total defense. They should finish much higher this year.
Keep An Eye On: TE Charlie Gantt, DT Oren Wilson, LB Eric Gordon
All In The Numbers: 60, percent of Michigan State's TDs Ringer accounted for last season.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 vs. Penn State
Outlook: In Mark Dantonio's third season, Michigan State is clearly a program on the rise. Filling in those two gaping holes on offense will not be easy, but with the defense the Spartans figure to feature they're going to be a factor in the Big Ten race. And with the influx of young talent Dantonio is bringing to East Lansing, things are looking decidedly up for Michigan State.

2008 Record: 7-6 (3-5), Insight Bowl
Returning Starters: 10 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: The Gophers orchestrated a big turnaround from 2007 after going 1-11, and that was due in large part to the offense. Minnesota burst out of the gates with a 7-1 record last fall behind QB Adam Weber and WR Eric Decker. But struggles down the stretch led head coach Tim Brewster to emphasize the running game this year after the Gophers were 104th in the nation in rushing offense. And considering now that all their games will be played outside, instead of inside the Metrodome, it will serve the Gophers well to become a much heavier running team. It can get nasty up in the Twin Cities rather fast.
Defensive Keys: Last year's numbers aren't overly impressive, but the Gophers are bringing back a good group that should be improved this fall. If they were really good at one thing last year it was the big play. Minnesota forced 31 turnovers a year ago, second only to Iowa.
Keep An Eye On: RB DeLeon Eskridge, LB Lee Campbell, FS Kyle Theret
All In The Numbers: 16, fumbles recovered by Minnesota last year, tied for tops in the Big Ten.
Deciding Game: Oct. 31 vs. Michigan State
Outlook: The big news surrounding the program is the opening of TCF Bank Stadium, an outdoor facility. And with the stadium's opening comes Brewster's insistence that the offense become more balanced because throwing the ball in late October and November will not be easy. The Gophers will have a decided home field advantage now with over 50,000 fans right on campus. But will they be bowl bound again? How balanced the offense becomes could very well be the biggest key.

2008 Record: 9-4 (5-3), Alamo Bowl
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: The Wildcats will feature a new quarterback, but this one has some experience. Mike Kafka steps in to take over the duties under center. He'll run Northwestern's spread attack minus its top playmakers from last season. Thankfully for Kafka, who will run with it from time to time, he has an offensive line that returns four starters.
Defensive Keys: The Wildcats turned out to be a pretty stingy group last season, holding opponents to 20.2 points per game. This group will be anchored by DE Corey Wootton, one of the Big Ten's best pass rushers. Behind him is a secondary that many regard as the conference's best unit. All four starters return and all four are decorated. Safety Brad Phillips could be the best of them all.
Keep An Eye On: RB Stephen Simmons, RB Alex Daniel, FS Brendan Smith
All In The Numbers: 1.69, sacks allowed per game last year, second best in the Big Ten.
Deciding Game: Oct. 31 vs. Penn State
Outlook: It's the offense that has the Northwestern fans talking, but it's the defense that's really going to win the games for the Wildcats. Pat Fitzgerald knows better than anyone that a strong defense will get you near the top of the Big Ten. Now Northwestern isn't quite yet in the class of Penn State or Ohio State this season, but under Fitzgerald the Wildcats seem to have found a nice little niche where they're going to be very competitive year in and year out. Another bowl game could be in the cards for Fitzgerald's crew.

Ohio State
2008 Record
: 10-3 (7-1), Big Ten Co-Champions, Fiesta Bowl
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: The Terrelle Pryor hype continues to soar as the extremely talented quarterback enters his sophomore season already christened as the preseason Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He's the only skill position player returning for the Buckeyes, who lose Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline at wide out and Chris Wells in the backfield. Dan Herron - better known as "Boom" - will take over for Wells. He'll get plenty of carriers, but the offense will be all about Pryor and the Buckeyes are going to do their best to suit it to his skills. So look for plenty of short passes and quick routes, especially early in the season. But don't think that Pryor doesn't have the arm to go downfield.
Defensive Keys: The Buckeyes have some very big shoes to fill on defense without James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins. But with Ohio State they truly are never rebuilding, just reloading, and that's certainly the case this season. LB Austin Spitler is one name to watch in this group of guys who many will not be familiar with. The secondary should be very good, even without Malcolm Jenkins back there playing corner.
Keep An Eye On: WR DeVier Posey, DE Thaddeus Gibson, SS Kurt Coleman
All In The Numbers: 165, passing attempts for Pryor last season, 156 fewer than Penn State's Darryl Clark.
Deciding Game: Nov. 7 at Penn State
Outlook: Ohio State already finds itself at No. 6 in the preseason Coaches Poll and was once again picked by the media to win its fifth straight Big Ten title. If they win No. 5, it'll be with a young quarterback clearly on the rise and a determined defense. An early matchup with USC in the Horseshoe will be telling and the early November matchup with the Nittany Lions - just like last year's matchup - will probably determine who goes to the Rose Bowl.

Penn State
2008 Record
: 11-2 (7-1), Big Ten Co-Champions, Rose Bowl
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 4 defense
Offensive Keys: Daryll Clark will stake his claim to being the Big Ten's best quarterback this season after a stellar 2008. He just needs to avoid taking another big hit that would lead to a concussion. While Clark will be without three of the program's best receivers, he will have a pair of very good runners to hand off to in Evan Royster and Stephfon Green. The biggest concern is that offensive line. Three of the conference's top blockers from a season ago are gone leaving some big holes up front.
Defensive Keys: Not a ton of starters are back, but this being Linebacker U., the linebackers should be among the conference's best. Navarro Bowman and Sean Lee, after missing all of 2008, are the two big names targeting opposing running backs. Last year's excellent rush defense should be excellent again. The front four will be a bear to block.
Keep An Eye On: DT Jared Odrick, DE Jack Crawford, FS Drew Astorino
All In The Numbers: 7, different statistical categories Penn State finished atop the Big Ten in last year.
Deciding Game: Nov. 7 vs. Ohio State
Outlook: While the offensive line is cause for concern, there doesn't seem to be any reason why the Nittany Lions won't be fighting neck and neck for the Big Ten title again this year with Ohio State and that meeting at Beaver Stadium will be one of the biggest of the season. Clark is a premier QB and the defense will be among the best keeping the Nittany Lions in the BCS Championship discussion throughout the season. A slate that features eight home games and three non-conference contests against MAC opponents will certainly help that cause.

2008 Record: 4-8 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: Curtis Painter is no longer taking the snaps for the Boilermakers, but the man who was pushing him last year - until a shoulder injury held him back - will be taking over. Joey Elliott may not have a ton of game experience, but he's well-versed in the Purdue playbook as the Boilermakers embark on season No. 1 with Danny Hope. He takes over for the retired Joe Tiller and while the offense will still be spread based, expect there to be more focus on establishing the run. Especially without last year's top two receivers around.
Defensive Keys: The defense will probably be ahead of the offense early on in the season based on the number of starters returning. With such experience back, it's expected that Purdue will be a little more aggressive this season. The frequency of blitzes figures to increase. A strong passing defense will be just as strong this year since practically the entire secondary returns.
Keep An Eye On: WR Aaron Valentin, LB Joe Holland, CB David Pender
All In The Numbers: 183.3, yards passing per game Purdue allowed last year, best in the Big Ten.
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 vs. Michigan State
Outlook: Purdue has featured stronger teams, but with all the changes that have occurred since the end of last season how could one expect the Boilermakers to be among the Big Ten's best? A new coach, a new quarterback and new skill position players will make for an interesting fall for the offense. Fortunately, they'll be allowed a few extra mistakes because defensively Purdue should be pretty strong.

2008 Record: 7-6 (3-5), Champs Sports Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: No quarterback controversy? For a change that could be the case at Wisconsin. Dustin Sherer started the final seven games of last season and returns for his senior year and appears to be the Badgers' guy, for the time being. He needs to cut down on the mistakes and the offensive line also must do a better job of protecting him - or whoever eventually ends up under center. But Wisconsin's bread and butter is running the ball and that will be no different this season. P.J. Hill might not be around anymore, but the Badgers can rely on the duo of John Clay and Zach Brown. 
Defensive Keys: The defense was disappointing by Wisconsin standards last season and whether it was a depth issue or a tackling issue, the Badgers hope to have it fixed heading into 2009. Depth should not be an issue with plenty of bodies up front ready to pound in the trenches.
Keep An Eye On: RB Erik Smith, C John Moffitt, CB Aaron Henry
All In The Numbers: 16, wins the past two seasons, six less than 2005-06.
Deciding Game: Oct. 17 vs. Iowa
Outlook: There has been plenty of speculation that Bret Bielema is on the hot seat this year. But considering AD Barry Alvarez handpicked him to be his replacement on the sidelines, it's going to take a lot for Bielema not to return for another season. The Badgers should be respectable this year and the schedule isn't terribly taxing with three home games right off the bat. They avoid Penn State so that will help toward reaching an eighth straight bowl game.