1. Penn State
2. Ohio State
6. Michigan State
Fab Four: Top Storylines in Big Ten
Michigan's resurgence. 3-9 just doesn't work for this program. For Rich Rodriguez, it was an embarrassing start to his tenure, but there is reason for hope. Despite news that the NCAA should be sniffing around the program soon, the Wolverines should still be significantly improved. Either Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson will take over at quarterback, and both should be more than adequate once they get used to the speed of the college game. The true freshmen have a background in the spread offense, unlike incumbent starter Nick Sheridan. Receivers Martavious Odoms, Greg Mathews, and Darryl Stonum all return, as does senior running back Brandon Minor. The line is back intact, and the whole group is motivated to significantly improve after averaging just 20 points per game last year. The usual run of highly-touted prospects will try to fill six vacated starting spots on defense, and former Syracuse coach Greg Robinson now serves as the coordinator. Looks for a big season out of senior end Brandon Graham. The schedule is friendly, with four straight home games to start things off, and only the Penn State and Ohio State home games appear to be out of reach at this point.
The Gophers head to the Bank. It may have been a pipe dream for many of his predecessors, but it's a reality for Tim Brewster. TCF Bank Stadium opens for business Sept. 12, when the Gophers host Air Force. The first Big Ten game in the shiny 50,000-seat stadium is Oct. 3, when Wisconsin visits. For Minnesota, getting out of the Metrodome is going to help in many ways. It is tough to compete in recruiting against schools that have glistening on-campus facilities or great traditions that surround the concept of on-campus football. Now, Brewster doesn't have to show recruits pictures, conceptuals, and floor plans. He has the real thing. Don't expect another six-win surge out of this team, which went from 1-11 in 2007 to a 7-1 start that had the college football world talking about the latest coaching superstar. Five straight losses, capped by a 42-21 thrashing by Kansas in the Insight Bowl, left Brewster with much work to do. Former Wisconsin and Nebraska defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove and Ronnie Lee will work together to replace Ted Roof on defense, where the Gophers dropped 12 points per game off the 2007 average. Unfortunately, a guy with Cosgrove's pedigree is sometimes only available because of failures, and his last two coordinating stops have not ended well. On offense, Adam Weber will be pushed every day by true freshman MarQueis Gray, who could be starting by mid-season if Weber isn't careful. Expect both guys to be a factor in the offense, which should get better thanks to a healthy Duane Bennett, back from a blown-out knee.
Can Iowa break up the two-horse race? As of now, it's hard to imagine anyone winning the league except for Penn State and Ohio State. The best chance for a surprise may come in the form of Iowa. The Hawkeyes have to deal with health issues surrounding sophomore back Jewel Hampton, but they have all the other necessary pieces in place, including a schedule that gives them no major non-conference challenges (Arizona Sept. 19 notwithstanding). What was an unbelieveable defense last year returns eight starters, and should be really good again. Linebackers Pat Angerer and Jeremiha Hunter, along with safety Brett Greenwood and junior lineman Adrian Clayborn will lead the way. Junior Ricky Stanzi is now established as the starter, and if there's any negative with this Iowa team, it's that they won't sneak up on anyone. They didn't rally emphatically from a 3-3 start by accident last year, and the late win over Penn State turned a lot of heads.
Big expectations for Terrelle Pryor's sophomore year. Coach Jim Tressel didn't ask too much of the highly-touted freshman last year, and Pryor did exactly what should have been expected. He showed great athleticism, flashed some indecision at times in the pocket, and leaned on his experienced star running back and receivers as much as possible. Pryor is only going to get better from here, and this was a very good start for him. tOSU is always good at reloading, and they have to again, being that Beanie Wells, Brian Robiskie, and Brian Hartline are all gone. Senior Ray Small and junior Dane Sanzenbacher will carry the passing game, while Pryor and Brandon Saine will get the job done with their feet. There's no reason to think a defense that was really good last year, and now returns seven starters, won't be good again. James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman are huge losses, but nothing the Buckeyes haven't dealt with before. Plus, when you have Thaddeus Gibson and Cameron Heyward as your ends, you can take time to develop the right linebackers.
Best of the rest
At Penn State, the quarterback is in place, and so is the running game. Defense hasn't been an issue in years, no matter the personnel lost, so all appears to be just fine for Joe Paterno. Look for middle linebacker Sean Lee, an ACL casualty last year, to have a huge season. ... You just never know about Illinois, but they look to be a solid pick as a surprise team this season. Juice Williams' swan song should feature fewer throws into the turf or to the wrong team, and more to Arrelious Benn and Jeff Cumberland, along with the wonderfully-named Mike Hoomanawaunui. ... Nine wins and a Capital One Bowl berth were nice for Michigan State last season. They could take a bit of a tumble this year, thanks to the loss of quarterback Brian Hoyer and running back Javon Ringer, who scored 22 touchdowns one year after Jehuu Caulcrick had 21. ... What should you expect from Wisconsin this year? You'll have to wait and see. Look for that in the next couple days. ... Northwestern picked up nine wins last year. Look for senior quarterback Mike Kafka, who filled in nicely when C.J. Bacher was hurt last year, to step right in to the spread. The Wildcats, who were more than competitive on defense last year, may have the league's best secondary this season. ... Purdue only went 4-8 in Joe Tiller's final year, and Danny Hope has some work to do. The Boilermakers lost a lot of offensive talent, and the defense was torched far too often last year. That defense may have to lead the way early, as Purdue breaks in a new quarterback and new running back. ... It was back to normal for Indiana last year, after the program's first bowl bid in 14 years. The Hoosiers went 1-7 in Big Ten play, and were blown out by 20 or more points six times. Kellen Lewis was kicked off the team, leaving the quarterback duties to Ben Chappell. Look for redshirt freshman Darius Willis to surprise at running back.
Preseason Big Ten Honors and Notables
Offensive Player of the Year: Terrelle Pryor, QB, Ohio State
Defensive Player of the Year: Sean Lee, LB, Penn State
Coach of the Year: Rich Rodriguez, Michigan
Coach on the Hot Seat: Bret Bielema, Wisconsin
Best non-conference game: USC at Ohio State, September 12
Worst non-conference game: Eastern Illinois at Penn State, October 10