The Ohio State Buckeyes have won or shared each of the last five Big Ten championships.
And here’s the bad news for the rest of the Big Ten: I am pretty certain the Buckeyes are about to win (or share) another one.
Coach Jim Tressel’s Buckeyes rebounded from a sluggish start in 2009 to reel off a string of impressive wins down the stretch, and by the time the Bucks rolled past Oregon in the Rose Bowl, they looked like one of the finest teams in the country.
They'll be exactly that again this year—which is they are my pick to win the Big Ten title in 2010.
How will the rest of the conference shake out? Find out here.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes (Prediction: 11-1)
This will be the year that Terrelle Pryor finally becomes the Terrelle Pryor we expected to see all along. Pryor was pretty close to awful early in 2009, but rebounded late and, by season’s end, was showing the kind of poise, confidence and on-the-field intelligence that separates good quarterbacks from great ones. That’s a good thing, too, because in 2010, Pryor is going to have to do some heavy lifting for his offense; he is the only superstar talent on the entire unit. Over on defense, though, the Bucks will be as nasty as ever. DT Cameron Heyward may the best in the nation, LB Brian Rolle is an assassin off the edge, and the defensive backs are excellent. The Bucks need to watch out for Miami on Sept. 11, though.
2. Iowa Hawkeyes (Prediction: 11-1)
The Hawkeyes never got the respect they deserved in 2009. Even after knocking off Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, pundits dismissed Iowa as slow, boring and, most unfairly, overrated. Well, the pundits didn’t know what they were talking about. The Hawks were a Top 5 squad in 2009 and will be again this year. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi is prone to his “Bad Ricky” moments (see: five INTs vs. Indiana last year) but also displays savvy in the clutch. He’ll lead a capable if not exactly high-powered Hawks attack. Of course, that offense won’t have to score many points. Not with DE Adrian Clayborn and ball-hawking FS Tyler Sash pacing what’s sure to be another ferocious Iowa defense.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions (Prediction: 9-3)
It’s all pretty simple for the Nittany Lions: If they can find a quarterback to replace the perennially underrated Daryll Clark, they may challenge for the Big Ten title. If they can’t? Well, they’ll enjoy New Year’s Day in Tampa. This team features tremendous talent at tailback (Evan Royster, Stephfon Green, Silas Redd), at wideout (Derek Moye, Graham Zug, Curtis Drake) and even on the rebuilt offensive line (Stefen Wisniewski). But all of that talent will go to waste if presumed signalcaller Kevin Newsome can’t run the show. The defense needs to replace a few superb talents but still has plenty of star power (DE Jack Crawford especially) and so should once again be among the league’s best.
4. Wisconsin Badgers (Prediction: 9-3)
TB John Clay will be great. The offensive line will be great. The defense will be solid. About the only thing standing between the Badgers and a Big Ten title run is, well, their passing game. Scott Tolzien had a surprisingly strong season in 2009 (2,705 yards, 16 touchdowns, 11 INTs) but still needs to prove that he’s ready to be a big-time college quarterback. If he can do that—if he can prop up a Badgers passing game that still lacks playmakers on the flank (though WR Nick Toon shows promise)—then the Badgers can challenge the Bucks and Hawks for conference supremacy. There are a lot of folks who are expecting big things out of Wisky this year. We’ll see if the Badgers (and coach Bret Bielema) can actually deliver.
5. Michigan State Spartans (Predictions: 8-4)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Even though I consider Mark Dantonio to be one of the best coaches in the conference, and even though the Spartans are consistently one of the league's most talented teams, I refuse to put any faith in them until they show me that they are ready to be a true Big Ten contender. This program has for years been characterized by massive meltdowns, big-game flops and the general inability to perform up to its potential. The Dantonio Era has hinted at better, less-schizophrenic things to come, but old habts die hard (see: early season loss to bad Notre Dame team last year). Will QB Kirk Cousins, super-talented LB Greg Jones and gang finally deliver on this program’s great promise? We shall see.
6. Michigan Wolverines (Prediction: 7-5)
I'm hardly alone in believing that Rich Rodriguez needs to win eight games this year to save his job. The folks up in Ann Arbor have been remarkably patient during Rodriguez’s mostly disastrous tenure (losses, transfers, losses, NCAA investigations, losses), but I’m betting that the powers-that-be in The Land of the Big Blue have drawn a line in the sand this season. With good reason, too. The roster is now pretty much made up of RichRod’s guys—guys like super-talented quarterback Denard Robinson, who appears ready to wrestle the job away from last year’s starter, Tate Forcier. Make no mistake, folks, this team can and will score points. But here’s the question: Does RichRod know anything about defense?
7. Northwestern Wildcats (Prediction: 7-5)
Yes, quarterback Mike Kafka is gone. But so what? Dan Persa is a more than capable replacement. And besides, Northwestern is one of those select few schools (Boston College is another) who manage to remain competitive, year-in and year-out, no matter how many players they’ve lost and no mater how poorly they’ve recruited (according to the “recruiting services,” that is). No, this roster is not stocked with NFL-caliber talent (though sophomore CB Jordan Mabin is pretty darn good). But you know what? That doesn’t matter. Northwestern is not only smarter than you think, and more talented than you think, but also coached by one of the best in the business—Pat Fitzgerald. The 'Cats will be what they always are: A tough out.
8. Illinois Fighting Illini (Prediction: 5-7)
The Juice Wiliams Era is over. So … now what? When Williams rolled into Champaign (along with wideout Aurellius Benn) back in 2007, it seemed that coach Ron Zook was finally going to wake up the sleeping giant that is Illinois football. And for one season, at least, the giant did awaken. But after the Rose Bowl run in 2007, things have pretty much fallen apart for Zook. His Illini were 3-9 in 2009 and this team doesn’t figure to do much better than that in 2010. QB Nathan Scheelhasse is talented, yes. But if the extraordinarily athletic Juice couldn’t win Champaign, why should we expect Scheelhasse to?
9. Indiana Hoosiers (Prediction: 5-7)
Only true college football nerds such as Yours Truly have noticed what’s been going on in Bloomington of late. Specifically: Something unprecedented. As of this writing, Bill Lynch had signed up 20 recruits—yes, 20!—for the class of 2011. That's a good sign, Hoosiers fans. Lynch had a rough and mostly disappointing year in 2009—the collapse against Iowa had to be emotionally crushing—but college football watchers know just how good of a coach Lynch is. If this guy can catch a break here or there, if he can keep this team believing through the hard times, and if he can keep the recruiting momentum rolling, well, this program could become a regular bowl contender. The key game this year? Oct. 30 at Northwestern. Win that, and 6-6 is doable.
10. Purdue Boilermakers (Prediction: 5-7)
Here’s what you need to know about Purdue in 2009: Robert Marve is the starting quarterback. He used to play at Miami. And now he is, by far, the single best player on the Boilermakers’ roster. Only WR Kevin Smith is the same league athletically. It seems like an awfully long time since this program’s glory days (see: Drew Brees Era). And it seems like it will be an awfully long time until the next round of glory days arrive. Not enough talent on offense. Not enough on defense, either. Hit that recruiting trail, Danny Hope. Restock that cupboard.
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers (Prediction: 4-8)
This doesn’t bode well for embattled Minnesota coach Tim Brewster: During his tenure in Minneapolis, he’s 0-9 in Big Ten “trophy games” (Floyd of Rosedale, etc.) and 0-8 against ranked opponents. After a promising early start to his tenure, Brewster’s recruiting efforts have fallen off, and despite the boost provided by the beautiful new TCF Bank Stadium, there doesn’t seem to be much momentum around this program right now. As for 2010? Well, if QB Adam Weber can get a little more consistent, and if the Gophers can find any sort of running game (like they used to have back in the Glenn Mason era), a bowl game isn’t entirely out the question. But it’s certainly not likely.