Everyone in the Big 10 will once again be chasing Beanie Wells and OSU for the conference title.
After breaking down the SEC and Big 12, I now take a look at a conference that will be dominated by one team: The Big 10. Ohio State is clearly the cream of the crop in the Big 10 and a National Title contender once again. Here is my early breakdown of the Big 10, with power rankings in parentheses:
1. Ohio State Buckeyes (85) - Not surprisingly, the Buckeyes are my top rated team in the country heading into the season. I'm not saying they can beat an SEC team in the title game but on paper, they're loaded. Led by six players who could be selected in the first round of next year's NFL Draft, Ohio State scored an eight or higher in all but two categories. The offensive line and defense are among the best in CFB, while RB Beanie Wells is a strong Heisman candidate. And then there is freshman phenom, QB Terrelle Pryor, who will help make the Buckeyes offense less predictable than in years past. The schedule sets up nicely and if Ohio State gets by USC early in the year, they could run the table.
2. Penn State Nittany Lions (78) - Penn State isn't in the Buckeyes' class but this is a team I really like. First of all, they got rid of Anthony Morelli, who was one of the worst CFB quarterbacks of my lifetime. The Lions may be less experienced under center this year but they are going back to more of the spread offense they ran when Michael Robinson was in school. Besides quarterback, the rest of the team is strong. Penn State has an experienced offensive line, a deep stable of running backs and explosive receivers. The Lions three defensive positions earned a 23 out of a possible 30 and Penn State has great special teams. A tough schedule and question marks at quarterback are the Lions two biggest obstacles entering the season.
3. Wisconsin Badgers (74) - I think this year's Wisconsin team will be good but not great. However, I never underestimate the Badgers with Bret Bielema roaming the sidelines. In just two years at Wisky, Bielema has proven to be one of CFB's best coaches. As expected, the Wisconsin offense graded out high at running back and offensive line but low at quarterback. Their defense is also strong once again but special teams - usually a strength at Wisconsin - is unsettled this season. The schedule features a visit to Fresno State - a place no major conference team likes to play. Overall, this is a solid team that's pretty much a shoe-in for eight wins.
4. Michigan State Spartans (74) - I really like the direction Head Coach Mark Dantonio has the Spartans program headed. I gave them the same power ranking score as Wisconsin and I expect Michigan State to be even better in Dantonio's second season, despite replacing some key contributors from 2007. The Spartans ranked high at quarterback and running back thanks to the return of Brian Hoyer and Javon Ringer. Ringer is one of the top backs in the country and a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate. Michigan State has to replace big-time players at receiver and defensive end, while the secondary needs to show drastic improvement from a year ago. Overall, this is a team on the rise and I wouldn't be surprised to see them finish second in the conference if a couple of things break their way.
5. Illinois Fighting Illini (72) - After making the Rose Bowl last season, the Illini will likely take a minor step back in 2008. They are still a good team but the loss of RB Rashard Mendenhall early to the NFL Draft was a killer. I thought Mendenhall was one of the most important players in CFB last season and he'll be tough to replace. The Illini was fairly consistent in my scoring system, getting an eight in six of 10 categories. However, a tough schedule and major concerns at running back and on special teams hurt Illinois overall score. Also, I personally believe that backup quarterback Eddie McGee is better than Juice Williams, who I don't think will ever develop into a great passer.
6. Michigan Wolverines (71) - This was the toughest team for me to grade because they are making such a drastic switch in philosophy on the offensive side of the ball. The first thing that I want to mention about Michigan is they still have plenty of talent. I see some people talking about this team like they are Rice. While the offense is going to take some time adjusting to Rich Rodriguez's scheme, the defense is absolutely loaded. The Wolverines scored an eight in all three of my defensive categories and I expect them to have one of the best stop units in the Big 10 this season. Remember, the public is going to be fading Michigan big-time this year but in my opinion, they are going to be better than people think. My advice? Stay away from betting Michigan games early on in the season.
7. Purdue Boilermakers (65) - As you can see, there is a pretty big drop-off between Michigan Purdue, which means that's where I think we go from good teams to ones with a lot more question marks. Actually, the Boilermakers are the definition of average in my book. They graded out at a six in five of ten categories. QB Curtis Painter is a good one and he'll need to help Purdue outscore opponents because the Boilermakers defense is weak. Purdue is also deep at running back but none of that is going to matter if the offensive line doesn't get healthy in a hurry. This is a team that could win eight games and push for a New Year's Day bowl or win three games and fight with Minnesota for the Big 10 cellar. There are a lot of "ifs" when it comes to Purdue heading into 2008.
8. Iowa Hawkeyes (64) - I think either Purdue or Iowa will end up being better than my power ranking numbers suggest and if I had to pick one of those teams, I would go with the Hawkeyes. Why? Defense. Iowa should have a stout front seven led by one of the conference's top defensive lines. Mitch King and Matt Kroul are one of the top tackle tandems in CFB and will make the Hawkeyes extremely tough to run the football on. The offensive line looks solid but Iowa needs to find some more playmakers on offense. The defense will keep the Hawkeyes in games and if the offense can just be average, Iowa has a shot to make a minor bowl this season.
9. Northwestern Wildcats (62) - I like this Northwestern team but I think we are getting ahead of ourselves by making them a 12-point favorite in Week 1 against Syracuse. The Wildcats are an improving team but they still aren't good enough to be 12-point favorites over anyone. Northwestern should be a strong "over" team this season. They have a solid offense led by stud running back Tyrell Sutton and improving quarterback C.J. Bacher. The problem for Northwestern is its defense. The Wildcats defense scored a 17 out of a possible 30 in my rankings and they also field a terrible special teams unit. A lot of people like Northwestern to make a bowl game this year and while that's certainly possible, they'll need to score a lot of points to compensate for a weak defense if they want to go bowling.
10. Indiana Hoosiers (59) - Indiana got some good news when quarterback Kellen Lewis was cleared to play but he's going to have to win a lot of games on his own this season. The Hoosiers are average at receiver and weak at running back. The line is experienced but it underachieved last year. The defense isn't much better and overall, Indiana scored a six or lower in seven of my categories. Besides Lewis, Indiana has one of the nation's best special team units with placekicker Austin Starr and return man Marcus Thigpen. Unfortunately, there isn't much more to like about this team in 2008.
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers (50) - This was another team that was tough to rank because they are going to have so many new faces on the field in 2008. The Gophers return a lot of starters but after going just 1-11 last season, many of those players will become backups. The Gophers fielded one of the worst defenses in CFB history last season. This year, as many as seven freshmen and JC transfers could be starting on defense when the season kicks off. The offense was solid last year and should be even better this season now that quarterback Adam Weber has a year in Tim Brewster's spread offense. The offense will score some points but the defense has to improve significantly just to be average. And with so many new starters on the defensive side of the ball, Minnesota is one of my "stay away" teams early in the year.
I see too many people skipping over Penn State this year as they focus on OSU and then some "sleeper teams"...but i agree with you---Penn State has a great team and a solid program...if they get some fluke luck for just a single game (against OSU)...who knows what could happen for them this year!!!
Like I said Mr. Freeze, Minnesota is one of the toughest teams to call this year because they will be playing so many new guys. However, from what I've read, Brewster has that program moving in the right direction. It's not easy to win at Minnesota. They could be a team that if things go right, will be a good "bet on" squad by midseason, once the new players get comfortable. Plus, the lines will be really high.
When I read "Big Ten Breakdown" I thought the entire story would be about the Gophers. They seem to "break down" every week. Only Minnesota could rank #11 in the Big TEN, yet I'll still cheer for them and WANT them to win even if they go 0-12. At least the FINALLY got rid of Glen Mason, and on paper, it looks as though Brewster has done well recruiting. It will take time to see if the recruiting pays off.
Big Ten is my favorite conference to watch for NCAA Football.
I actually like Michigan State a lot, I just don't think they will be as good as they were last year. Give Dantoni a few years to develop his defense and they will be really solid as he's a great defensive coach (see Ohio State when they won the national championship against Miami in '01 and any of those Nick Saban teams at Michigan State). I usually like Wisconsin, but this year I'm a little annoyed with how much they're being hyped. I don't think their defense is that great and they are still lacking a quarterback. They will have to play ball control football every game and I don't think they'll be able to outscore people every game. I see them losing to a team they should beat like at Michigan State or at Indiana or Illinois at home.
It's a tough conference to call Art. Those teams you mentioned could finish anywhere between second and seventh, including Michigan State. I can't argue with any of the points you made, I just think the Spartans have some talent a good coach. The bottom line is it's Ohio State and everyone else in the Big 10. Where you rank the other teams is largely based on personal preference. Thanks for the feedback, it's always appreciated.
I think you are jumping on the Michigan State bandwagon a little prematurely. Brian Hartline isn't that good and their offense is going to depend on an injury prone running back who is going to get too many carries because of lack of depth at the position. They don't have any receivers for an already mediocre Hartline to throw to and they will struggle to get defensive pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Michigan State is more likely to finish around 6th or 7th. Michigan will probably be between 3 and 5 depending (obviously) on how fast and how well their offense plays together with Illinois and Wisconsin for the same reasoning. Michigan's offense should be worse than Wisconsin's, as bad or worse than Illinois, but probably has a better defense than both. Wisconsin's defense is overrated and is the worst of the three. Good call on the top two. I think Penn State has a shot to challenge OSU for the conference.
Matty, I think Benn was one of the most impressive freshman receivers I've seen. The problem with him is health. He's had shoulder problems in the past and missed spring ball while recovering from shoulder surgery. If he stays healthy and Juice can get him the ball consistently, I think Benn will be one of the most explosive players in the country.
Great stuff Tommy - I'm an Illinois fan but not a fan of Juice Williams. What do you think of Benn? I personally would rather see McGee in there because I feel he is the better overall QB.