Sunday, August 30, 2009

Familiar Faces at the Top: Predicting the Big Ten in 2009

During the latter half of this decade, only two teams have been able to call themselves Big Ten Champions on the gridiron...and we here at F&BT don't think that will be changing this year. Penn State and Ohio State have claimed either outright or shared titles every year since 2005. Despite some high profile losses for both teams, WildHawks and I think that they will be sitting at the top of the Big Televen again this year. Here's how we're predicting the Big Ten will look at the end of the season:

1) Ohio State - Lots of high profile, face-of-the-franchise type players are missing from last year's team...but the highest profile player is back in Terrelle Pryor. All the accounts from the off-season have Pryor taking a bigger leadership role on the team, and improving his passing as well. If the Buckeyes can find some offensive playmakers from the unproven RB's and WR's to compliment Pryor, their offense will be tough to stop. On defense, the LB's will be green, but the DL should be good enough to protect them and keep opposing O-lines from getting to the second level. Look for the Buckeyes to be representing the Big Ten in another BCS game this year.

2) Penn State - Daryll Clark and Evan Royster help give the Nittany Lions the best offensive backfield in the BT this year, but their top 3 wideouts from last year are gone. None the less, we still think this will be one of the better offenses in the league this year. On the defensive side, Linebacker U continues to churn out future Sunday players at the linebacker position, as PSU will feature two of the best Big Ten LB's in Navorro Bowman and a healthy Sean Lee this year. The DL lost their two best pashrushers to the NFL, but the Lions typically churn out great pass-rushers every year, and they will need it to be an elite defense again this year.

3) Illinois - The Illini should have the most prolific offense in the Big Ten this year...but the key word there is should. Something makes us think that the words "Juice...Rejus...Touchdown Illini!" will be said quite often this year. And with Florida transfer Jarrod Fayson added to the receiver mix this year, defenses won't be able to focus solely on Rejus Benn. On the defensive side, my sources say that the team is flying around to the ball and seem much more intent on gang-tackling this year. We'll see if that continues when the season starts, but for the Illini to do anything truly special again, the team chemistry will need to improve.

4) Iowa - Picking the Hawkeyes this high is looking shakier and shakier as long as Jewel Hampton stays out of the depth chart. I'm not quite sold on Iowa without him, as they used solid defense and Shonn Greene to a solid 9-win season in 2008. Ricky Stanzi will continue to be one of the better BT quarterbacks, but the offense requires a good run game to function. The defense should be solid, although the anchors of the defense the past few years are gone with the graduation of Mitch King and Matt Kroul. If they can't find suitable replacements, look for their outstanding LB core to take on more blocks in the running game.

5) Wisconsin - Color me an optimist, but this Badger team will come to exemplify the term "addition by subtraction" this year. Gone are several multi-year starters that no doubt provided valuable service to the UW, but seemed to get a little casual and more concerned with their future as their careers came to a close. Filling the void are young, hungry and talented players looking to turn around a dismal 2008 season, especially on defense. The QB play should be better, because it can't really be any worse. Look for the Badgers to reverse the trend of declining victory totals in the Bielema era.

6) Michigan State - It continues to confound me how all the experts can predict that Michigan State could make a move in the Big Ten this year, while completely dismissing the fact that they are losing almost all of their offensive production from 2008. Gone are workhorse Javon Ringer and multi-year starter Brian Hoyer at RB and QB respectively. Yet because Mark Dantonio has a serious manner and gives a stable interview...Sparty has turned a corner. It is ridiculous to me. While Dantonio will do good things eventually, I haven't seen anything to think that Sparty has turned the corner from their letdown ways. It took Wisconsin pulling an even worse letdown and the worst season in Michigan history for the Spartans to avoid losing 5 out of their last 6 games last year. Go ahead and think they've turned the corner...I'll wait until they actually do prove it.

7) Northwestern - While both WildHawks and I love what Pat Fitzgerald is doing at NU, this just isn't going to be a repeat of 2008 for the Wildcats. The bottom line is that Mike Kafka is no CJ Bacher...and a CJ Bacher type player is required to run that offense. While Kafka performed admirably filling in for Bacher last year, it was clear that the offense wasn't the same without the passing of Bacher. While the defense will keep NU in many of their games, I don't see Kafka being able to pass well enough to put a lot of points on the board.

8) Minnesota - Recruit all you want Timmay!, but at some point you are going to have to do something with those recruits. 2009 will not be that year. Despite finally getting out of that abominable Metrodome and moving into the outdoor TCF Bank Stadium this year, Minnesota has made a few mistakes this off-season which will hamper them. First, they went from a spread offense that was beginning to show results for them and highlighted their proven QB/WR combo of Adam Weber and Eric Decker. Second, they replaced Ted Roof, the D-coordinator who left for the same job at Auburn, with Kevin Cosgrove. You may recall Cosgrove from his days getting shown the door at Wisconsin and giving up ridiculous amounts of points at Nebraska. It baffles me how he keeps getting DC jobs at major universities.

9) Michigan - Rich Rod won more in his second year at every school he has coached. Thus it would be easy to expect that his second year at Michigan would see a large increase in victories as well. But nothing has really gone according to plan since RR took over the helm in Ann Arbor, and we don't think this year will go to plan either. First there was the Justin Boren "family values" comments as he transferred to OSU, followed by the worst season in school history, RR's plan to play 3 QB's this year, and just this weekend allegations that Michigan coaches are violating NCAA rules for practice time per week. Not just allegations, but player allegations. Can anyone say disaster?

10) Purdue - Hope waits...until next year at least. I don't see much going well for Purdue in Coach Danny Hope's first year. Same offense, but new QB, RB and WR's will spell trouble for the Boilermakers. And defense...well, that never really has been their thing.

11) Indiana - While they could also fall under the same "addition by subtraction" category as Wisconsin does by getting rid of athletic but troubled Kellen Lewis, we still don't see Indiana doing anything this season. Biggest questions for IU this season are 1) how many more future conference home games will the AD sell to the highest bidder? and 2) who is going to be the next head coach when Bill Lynch gets fired after this season?

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