Since I've spent large hunks of the offseason previewing the Big Ten, I am going to stick to that conference exclusively.
First: do not rank Wisconsin. They're looking at 6-5 at best, but somehow slid into the #30 spot in the Coaches Poll. Flagrant. (Sorry, Bruce.) I could see you giving votes at the tail end of your poll to Penn State or Michigan State, if you believe the hypotrophied units of the Nittany Lions or Spartans will perk up.
#22 Minnesota: Minnesota is one of a group of three Big Ten teams that figure to have one standout unit and one mediocre-to-bad one. Penn State and Michigan State are the other two. All three have claims to be ranked but Minnesota is the pick a few reasons:
- Minnesota's pounding ground game is not going away. They have three linemen who will challenge for All Big Ten honors and C Greg Eslinger is probably the favorite for the Rimington. Lawrence Maroney is explosive, a really fantastic runner. Minnesota has consistently proven that the ground game is no joke.
- Minnesota's passing game figures to take a step forward. TE Matt Spaeth and WRs Jared Ellerson and Ernest Wheelwright all return, as does QB Brian Cupito. Cupito only completed 47% of his passes last year but led the conference in yards per catch and yards per attempt; most of his throws were bombs. Wheelwright is huge and fast, another Braylon Edwards in the making--complete with inopportune drops as a youngster.
- There's a foundation for about half a defense. NT Anthony Montgomery is a solid run stuffer in the middle and the linebackers, uh, could be all right. Minnesota's run defense... might be okay. Pass defense? Disastrous. But we're talking #22 here.
If you need more convincing, there's always my Gopher season preview. Print it out and beat a moose to death!
#14 Iowa: I am torn about the Hawkeyes, but ultimately I believe that it's too much to ask an entirely new defensive line to stand up to the rigors of the Big Ten season without a loss or three along the way. Add in the fact that the Hawkeyes are dangerously thin at tackle and there's no established running back and the top-ten pub Iowa is getting is a bit much. There's a lot to like: Drew Tate, Hinkel & Solomon, the back seven on defense, Kirk Ferentz, and did I mention Kirk Ferentz? But Iowa looks to have a team that will have a tough time both running and stopping the run.
Yes, I fear this pick.
#10 Ohio State: I'm baffled by the high expectations some have for Ohio State this year. Troy Smith is not Michael Vick. His explosion of a game against Michigan was more on Jim Herrmann and the inept linebackers and safeties than anything he did on his own. He cannot read defenses. He does not have an accurate arm. The Ohio State quarterback situation is still a mess. There is no running back. Eric Haw and Antonio Pittman did nothing last year despite having autistic ducks in front of them on the depth chart. So, yeah, Ted Ginn is really good, but given Tressel's historic inability to coach offense and the huge question marks in the backfield, how are the Buckeyes regarded a national contender? Not to mention the fact that they have exactly one cornerback and security blanket Ted Nugent is freakin' finally in the NFL.
So why are they #10? Well, that Ginn guy is pretty good. And the safeties and linebackers are as well. Smith will get better and his running talents will probably be better utilized. They aren't going to roll over and die, but I don't think they'll beat Texas or Michigan.
Take this for what it's worth. I acknowledge that it's basically impossible for me to approach Ohio State with anything resembling objectivity.
#7 Purdue: Yes, Purdue. No, this isn't a pick based on the schedule. I discussed this at length in the Purdue season preview, but I believe that Brandon Kirsch has the run/pass ability to make Purdue's offense effective against all sorts of defenses, not just the ones who are shaky against the pass. Dorien Bryant is going to be better than Taylor Stubblefield was. Kory Sheets should improve the running back situation. All eleven starters on defense return, including five great defensive linemen. Ray Edwards is going to be a load for Big Ten left tackles. Purdue led the Big Ten in sacks last year and was second to Iowa in opponent's YPC.
There are issues at cornerback and kicker Ben Jones absolutely must rebound from a 2004 wherein he cost the Boilers three games. Yes, Purdue has issues playing close games... I but don't think there will be many of them this year.
#4 Michigan: What about the defense? Well, that defense was the worst Michigan defense relative to its opponents in the Bo-Mo-Llo era of Michigan football, which stretches back to 1969. IBFC wrote it up, see, and you should listen to him because he's smart. Michigan is no more likely to repeat its performance from last year than the 1998 defense was to repeat What Woodson Wrought. There's an actual defensive line coach and he's got some very large angry men to work with. Gabe Watson and Lamarr Woodley are good. The linebackers are all new but I think they'll be better than last year's crew, because it would be impossible for them not to. The secondary won't be particularly good. Leon Hall is an All Big Ten-level guy but the rest of the starters... eh, not so good. The defense will rebound.
The offense you probably know about. Henne, Hart, 4/5 offensive linemen return, the top two tight ends. Let me dispel some things you may have heard about the WRs: there will not be a significant drop off from Braylon. The offense will have to operate differently, yes, but Jason Avant is the best possession receiver in the country, Steve Breaston is supposed to be healthy (and if you need reminding what healthy Steve Breaston looks like, check it out here), and there 4 top-100 recruits behind them. Michigan's WRs are still very good.
Michigan's probably a 10-1 team in what looks to be an excellent Big Ten this year. So here they go.