By Marc Lawrence
When you talk Big 10 Football these days you talk Ohio State.
The Buckeyes won at least a share of the last five Big Ten Championships and will look to match the conference record with a sixth straight crown in 2010, equaling the feat first accomplished by Ohio State from 1972-77. OSU became just the second team in conference history to win five straight conference championships after claiming the 2009 title, splitting the crown with Penn State in 2005 and 2008 and ending the 2006, 2007 and 2009 seasons alone in first place. The Buckeyes have compiled a Big Ten mark of 36-4 over the last five years. Ohio State became the first conference team in over 15 years to finish in first place in five straight seasons since Michigan won at least a share of five consecutive championships from 1988-92.
The 2009 Big Ten Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year return to their respective teams in 2010. Wisconsin RB John Clay and Michigan State LB Greg Jones enter the 2010 campaign as the respective winners last season. Clay becomes the first returning Offensive Player of the Year since 1999 when former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees returned to the Boilermakers after being honored as a sophomore in 1998. Jones becomes the first returning Defensive Player of the Year since 2008, when Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis came back to successfully defend his 2007 conference honor.
The Big Ten also welcomes back seven starting quarterbacks from the 2009 season, five of which led their teams to bowl appearances. Iowa senior Ricky Stanzi and Ohio State junior Terrelle Pryor each led their squads to BCS victories last January, Stanzi in the Orange Bowl and Pryor in the Rose Bowl. Wisconsin senior Scott Tolzien led the Badgers to a victory in the Champs Sports Bowl, while Minnesota senior Adam Weber guided the Gophers to the Insight Bowl. Michigan State junior Kirk Cousins guided the Spartans' in their 31-point effort in the Alamo Bowl. Also returning in 2010 is the conference's top statistical passer, Indiana senior Ben Chappell, and Michigan sophomore Tate Forcier, the only full-time freshman starting quarterback in the Big Ten last year.
And the there's Joe. Penn State's Joe Paterno picked up his 394th victory with a triumph over LSU in the Capital One Bowl and currently holds the all-time victory record among Football Bowl Subdivision coaches. Paterno has built a record of 394-129-3 in his 44 seasons leading the Nittany Lions. Paterno is the longest serving head coach at one school in major college football history.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On' and ‘Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
ILLINOIS - 5 / 7
TEAM THEME: OUT OF JUICE
Thanks to a disappointing offense and an even worse defense, the Illini could only squeeze out three wins in 2009. Six new assistant coaches arrive in Champaign to sort out the mess led by OC Paul Petrino (Bobby's brother) and DC Vic Koennig. Petrino's playbook won't include Juice Williams, whose once promising career soured out, or top WR Arrelious Benn, a 2nd round NFL draft pick. The plan may be to revert back to classic Big Ten football as four of the team's top five RB's return. In addition, four of the Illini's top five tacklers are back in the fray. With eight bowlers lining the 2010 schedule, including road trips to Penn State and Fresno State, ‘three yards' may be a bit optimistic. However, the cloud of dust is likely to hang over this program for at least one more season.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Fresno St (12/3)
INDIANA - *8 / 4
TEAM THEME: QUICK DRAW
The feeling here is the Hoosiers could be a real sleeper team in 2010. Four of their eight losses last year were by 3 points or less. A promising 3-1 start ended in a 0-5 disaster after IU blew a 25-point lead at Northwestern and followed up by choking away a two-TD lead at Iowa. The roster is loaded with upper classmen (19 seniors, 23 juniors) and efficient QB Ben Chappell is back to lead an offense that will add the ‘Pistol' to its repertoire. Chappell was the first QB in IU history to complete 60% of his passes in a single season. A favorable early schedule could find the Hoosiers off to a quick 5-1 start. However, they'll need to continue pulling the trigger late in the season to silence some conference opponents and prevent another November nightmare.
PLAY ON: vs. Purdue (11/27)
IOWA - *6 / 8
TEAM THEME: COMEBACK KIDS
Talk about stability. Since 1979 only two coaches have manned the Iowa City sidelines - Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz. Ferentz may have saved his best coaching job for 2009. Despite ranking 10th in the Big 10 in scoring, rushing and total offense, the 12-year veteran guided his team to a 6-2 conference record, an 11-2 overall mark and an Orange Bowl win over Georgia Tech. Did we mention that Iowa, amazingly, trailed in every contest last season until the regular-season ender versus Minnesota! The Hawkeyes 10th-ranked defense (277 YPG) constantly saved the day. Expect more of the same in 2010 as it welcomes back eight starters, including the entire front four. The return of injured QB Ricky Stanzi and RB Jewel Hampton should provide the ‘O' with a much-needed boost. Either way, the Kinnick Stadium crowd should be in for another ‘Kardiac Kampaign'.
PLAY ON: vs. Northwestern (11/13)
MICHIGAN - *7 / 8
TEAM THEME: FORCIER THE ISSUE
Pete Fiutak of College Football News.com put it best when he asked of Rich Rodriguez's playbook, "Is this thing ever going to work?" As disappointing as Michigan's spread offense has been, the defense has been worse - decaying 57 YPG since Rich Rod's arrival. Last season, the Wolves suffered through a 6-game Big Ten losing streak for the first time in 50 years. In fact, Rodriguez has 13 conference losses in just two seasons at Ann Arbor. FYI: It took Bo Schembechler 13 years to lose 13 Big Ten games! There was one bright spot in the Big House and that was the play of freshman QB Tate Forcier, who passed for over 2,000 yards and 13 TD's. The automakers repaid Obama five years early on their bailout loan. Rodriguez may have to do the same if he doesn't get it in gear this season.
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Notre Dame (9/11)
MICHIGAN STATE - *7 / 6
TEAM THEME: HELTER SKELTER
East Lansing saw the good, bad and ugly in 2009. On the good side, the Spartans beat Michigan for a second straight season - the first time that's happened since the Beatles were topping the charts in the mid ‘60's. From a mediocre standpoint, Mark Dantonio's bunch dropped six regular season games for the first time under his direction - though five of those losses were by a total of just 23 points. Now for the ugly: Thanks to a frat spat at the end of the regular season, a black cloud hangs over the heads of 11 players found guilty of brawling. The news also varies in 2010. Thanks to graduation losses and the fraternity chaos, the WR corps and D-line is severely short-handed entering the 2010 season. The good news is QB Kirk Cousins, who started all 13 games in 2009 and ranked No. 25 in the nation in pass efficiency, is back. Let's hope ugly stays home.
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Northwestern (10/23)
MINNESOTA - *9 / 2
TEAM THEME: SATURDAY IN THE DARK
To paraphrase a line from Dennis Green, "The Gophers are who we thought they were" - a middle of the pack Big 10 team. After a terrific turnaround in 2008, a big 2009 season could have made HC Tim Brewster millions. However, an uneventful 6-7 year capped off by a bowl loss to Iowa State has the Gophers' faithful feeling a little punky. With just two starters and no linemen back on defense, the Minneapolis natives may be best served to keep the TV off until Sunday. The biggest shoes to fill will be the loss of three LB's that were all NFL combine attendees. While point production dropped for the third straight year under Brewster, Minnesota's offense may suddenly be the strength of the team with nine starters back. Nine bowlers roll onto the 2010 slate but six visit the comfy confines of TCF Bank Stadium. Saturday looks like another yawner in the City of Lakes.
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Northern Illinois (9/25)
NORTHWESTERN - 8 / 6
TEAM THEME: CURIOUS ‘CATS
Savoring their most successful stretch of football in school history, the Wildcats finished the decade with a 61-60 record. The winning record may come as a bit of a surprise... as should this little piece of bar trivia: in the last 15 years, only Ohio State and Michigan have won or shared more Big Ten titles than Northwestern's three crowns. While HC Pat Fitzgerald won just five Big Ten contests in his first two years in Evanston, his Wildcats have posted five conference wins in each of the last two seasons. An offensive line that returns intact along with the entire linebacking crew should keep the ‘Cats prowling in 2010 - but career back-up Dan Persa will have to fill the void left by 2009 Big Ten passing leader Mike Kafka. Road trips to Penn State and Wisconsin may cost the ‘Cats a couple of lives, but another year without the Buckeyes on the slate could have this bunch feeling frisky.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Indiana (10/30)
OHIO STATE - *10 / 6
TEAM THEME: COVER UP
The combination of eight home games and a ferocious defense that ranks third nationally over the last six years (280 YPG), makes the Buckeyes serious title contenders in 2010. If he doesn't cave under the pressure of being our cover boy, QB Terrelle Pryor should be a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. After a mid-season loss at Purdue, Pryor took matters into his owns hands (and feet), leading the Buckeyes to a season-ending 6-game win streak, including a Rose Bowl win over Oregon. The junior has plenty of help on offense as nine starters return, including a backfield that HC Jim Tressel calls the deepest he's had in his 10 years at Columbus. Ohio State's biggest hurdles on its way to a BCS title tilt will be road games at Wisky and Iowa. Along, of course, with our aforementioned cover jinx. Just ask Big Ben, who graced - or should we say disgraced - last year's edition.
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Iowa (11/20)
PENN STATE - 7 / 5
TEAM THEME: AMAZING RACE
To those who contend Joe Pa is slipping, we say you need to tune into a reality show - real quick. Not only have the Lions posted back-to-back 11-win seasons, but the only team that they have failed to outgain over the last two regular seasons has been Ohio State, as Penn State is 22-2 ‘In The Stats' during that span. A tough schedule, laced with eight bowlers and road trips to Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State figure to test those numbers in 2010. Replacing QB Daryll Clark may also test Paterno's patience, though highly-recruited SO Kevin Newsome is poised to win the starting job. Linebacker U. returns only five starters on the defensive side of the ball but that unit is in its usual reloading, rather than rebuilding, phase. It's another race against time for the 83-year old Paterno. Our money is on Joe.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Alabama (9/11)
PURDUE - 6 / 6
TEAM THEME: SIMPLY MARVE-ELOUS
For the second straight year, the Boilermakers lose a starting QB to graduation. Joey Elliott did an admirable job replacing Curtis Painter and now it's Robert Marve's show. The transfer from Miami Fla, who lost his starting job to Jacory Harris, will be front and under center as the Boilermakers look to avoid a third straight losing season. Despite a seven-loss campaign, there is ‘Hope' in West Lafayette (read: Danny). Six of the seven losses in 2009 were to bowl teams and four were by seven or less points. The second-year head coach also saw his forces win four of their final six games, beating Ohio State and Michigan in the same season for only the third time in school history. A defense that lost its entire secondary will have to be addressed but with only three winning teams on this year's ticket, it could be a ‘marvelous' time to be a Boiler.
PLAY ON: vs. Minnesota (10/16)
WISCONSIN -*10 / 6
TEAM THEME: ALIVE AND KICKING
It could be argued that the majority of the Badgers wins last season came against teams that barely had a pulse. Thus it was strange to watch Wisconsin manhandle Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl last year. That's because the Badgers' three losses last year were to quality opposition. Ironically, they will face only three teams (two coming at home) in 2010 that enjoyed winning seasons last year - the same three that took them down in 2009. That leaves nine foes sporting losing ledgers and, behind 16 returning starters, Bret Bielema is obviously anxious to let the games begin. And kick this around, if you will... Bielema, who is 38-14 in his four seasons at Madison, has seen his team involved in 13 games that were decided by three or less points. He is 9-4 in those games, with wins in five of the last six. The holes are few and far between in Camp Randall Stadium.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Ohio State (10/16) - *KEY +6.5 pts or more