Big Ten Conference
1. Ohio State
4. Penn State
6. Michigan State
Stories to Watch in the Sun Belt
Ohio State's stranglehold on the league. The Buckeyes aren't loosening their grip on an upper-echelon spot in the conference this year. Not with junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor all set to come into his own. His eye-popping performance in the Rose Bowl could be just the beginning. Of course, it could also end up being eye-popping for different "Where the hell is that guy?" reasons. Pryor has been an enigma for the Buckeyes. When he's on, you get the Rose Bowl. When he's off, you get the five times last year where he hit half or fewer of his passes in games. No excuses here. Pryor is a great athlete -- he led the team in rushing last year -- and he has a slew of them around him. Running back Brandon Saine, receiver DeVier Posey, and receiver Dane Sanzenbacher are all top-notch players capable of making Pryor's life much easier. If he lets them. Jim Tressel's team fields another star-studded defense. Names like Cameron Heyward (end), Ross Homan (linebacker), and Devon Torrence (cornerback) will be quite familiar by season's end.
Who is the real Iowa? Last year, there is no question the Hawkeyes answered the bell for some big performances. The Hawkeyes stymied Wisconsin on the road after falling behind 10-0, won convincingly at Penn State, trounced rival Iowa State -- a bowl team -- on the road, and beat up Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Of course, the same Iowa team lost to Northwestern at home, had to rally to beat Arkansas State at home, and needed to block two late field goal attempts to beat Northern Iowa at home. It's maddening inconsistency, but it's also "finding ways to win." This year, a Murderer's Row of teams visit Iowa City, as Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State come calling in league play. There's also a non-league trip to Arizona. The Hawkeyes return eight starters on defense. End Adrian Clayborn is an early favorite for league honors. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi also returns, so there's reason to believe in this Iowa team, despite the occasional struggles last year.
Can Northwestern become a contender? Under Pat Fitzgerald, the culture has definitely changed in Evanston. Formerly a school seemingly content to have the occasional bowl appearance, the Wildcats have become a regular in the postseason. They've done it with smart quarterbacks, good athletes on offense, and competitive defenses. This year will be no exception. Junior Dan Persa takes over at quarterback for the graduated Mike Kafka, and he has all the attributes his predecessors have had, only his arm might be a bit better. The Wildcats have to use running back Arby Fields more effectively, as the run game was a disaster last year. The Wildcats have a pretty easy early schedule, so that should give Persa time to get to know his teammates and get in a rhythm in the offense. Penn State, Iowa, and Wisconsin are all on the docket after Nov. 1, so they need to be ready to run a gauntlet if they want to contend for the league title.
Michigan tries to save their coach. It's come down to this. If Michigan doesn't make a bowl game this year, marking a third straight postseason absence, Rodriguez is probably out of a job. He's probably going to need more than just a spot in the Alamo Bowl -- no disrespect to the Alamo Bowl. It would help him greatly if the game against Ohio State in November actually meant something to Michigan, something that hasn't happened in his tenure. But at least he didn't lose to Appalachian State. Take that, Lloyd. Rodriguez has athletes all over the place, but he has to make football players out of them. He has to find a running back to take the heat off Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson. Yes, it's the spread, but the Wolverines can't have their quarterbacks leading the way in rushing, which might happen if a back doesn't step up. The defense hasn't been very good under Rodriguez. Admittedly, it wasn't that good before he got there, either (outside of 2006). Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton need to step up and be big playmakers at linebacker. The schedule doesn't have a lot of gimmes on it, so if Rodriguez is going to right the ship, he's going to have to earn it.
Best of the rest
For Wisconsin, this is going to be an interesting year. More to come on the Badgers. ... Darryl Clark is gone, but Penn State is still tough. Word is that true freshman Robert Bolden will start Saturday against Youngstown State, which is an amazing development. He does have a lot of experience around him, including talented back Evan Royster. ... If Michigan State can find more consistency on defense (allowed at least 33 points in six games, gave up 15 or less in five games), they could have something going. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is a hidden gem, a player capable of some big numbers if the Spartans can replace leading receiver Blair White. ... Joke all you want about Rodriguez, but Illinois coach Ron Zook isn't exactly oozing job security at the moment. Back-to-back losing seasons left their Rose Bowl run of 2007 cast as a one-shot deal by a one-hit wonder. Zook has six new starters on offense, including replacing underachieving quarterback Juice Williams, likely with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase. It can't hurt. ... Danny Hope did well in his first year at Purdue. The Boilermakers won five games, upset Ohio State (costing them a BCS title game shot), and played Oregon very close in an early-season road game. What they need now is to continue growing a competitive defense. New starting quarterback Robert Marve couldn't cut it at Miami, but there is optimism that he will do well in the Midwest. Having Keith Smith to throw to certainly helps. ... There are things to like about this Indiana team. The Hoosiers were gamers last year, only losing in blowout fashion a handful of times. They have a quality offense, led by senior quarterback Ben Chappell. They just don't have enough pieces to climb the league ladder right now. It's fair to say this is still a work in progress for Bill Lynch. ... We'll have more on Minnesota, too. Needless to say, it doesn't look too good.
Preseason Big Ten Superlatives
Best QB: Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State
Best RB: John Clay, Wisconsin
Best WR: Keith Smith, Purdue
Best offense: Wisconsin
Best defense: Iowa
Best coach: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Coach in the most trouble: Rich Rodriguez, Michigan
Best non-conference game: Miami at Ohio State, Sept. 11
Worst non-conference game: Austin Peay at Wisconsin, Sept. 25