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College Football Preview: Big Ten Looks To Overcome Recent Struggles

Posted on September 04, 2009 by Dean Hybl

With a year of experience Terrelle Pryor could emerge as one of the top players in the Big Ten.

With a year of experience Terrelle Pryor could emerge as one of the top players in the Big Ten.

Overview: Once recognized annually as one of the strongest conference in college football, the Big Ten has taken a reputation hit in recent years with the poor showing of its top teams in bowl games. Last season the conference was 1-6 in bowl games with only Iowa pulling out a victory. Ohio State and Penn State start the season ranked in the top 10, but the conference must have some strong early non-conference victories if they hope to have a squad seriously considered for the BCS Championship Game.

Who’s Hot?: Iowa would seem to be the team within the Big Ten best poised for a breakout season. They return 16 starters from a squad that went 9-4 a year ago and dominated South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Junior quarterback Rocky Stanzi should be improved in his second season as the starting quarterback after showing signs a year ago that he can be a standout. The early exit of running back Shonn Greene hurts, but sophomore Jewel Hampton and freshman Jeff Brinson should fill the void. The defense was the fifth best scoring defense in the nation a year ago and returns eight starters, including their entire linebacker unit. Pat Angerer , A.J. Edds and Jeremiha Hunter give the Hawkeyes one of the better units in the nation. Michigan State is also a team on the upswing as they return 17 starters from a squad that was 9-4 a year ago. The Spartans must find a new starting quarterback and running back, but are solid at receiver and on the offensive line. Linebacker Greg Jones is the leader of a solid defense that returns eight starters.

Pat Angerer is the leader of a solid linebacker unit for the Hawkeyes.

Pat Angerer is the leader of a solid linebacker unit for the Hawkeyes.

Who Will Struggle?: Penn State is picked by many as a top 10 team, but with 12 starters from a year ago to replace, it will be a tough task. Fortunately for head coach Joe Paterno, two of his returning players are quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster. However, the offense must replace its top receivers from a year ago as well as three starters on the offensive line. The defense allowed the eighth fewest points per game in the nation, but returns only four starters. Defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu give the unit strength up front.  With a new head coach and only 13 returning starters, it could be a challenging year for Purdue. They lost just about all their skill position starters from a year ago, but do have three starters back on the offensive line. The good news for the defense is that they return seven starters. The bad news is that they ranked 64th in the nation allowing 25 points per game in 2008.

Team To Watch: After suffering their first losing season in more than 40 years in 2008, the eyes of the nation are on Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines. Recent controversy over how much time players are required to spend on football just adds to an already tough situation. Given the great expectations of the Michigan alumni, if the Wolverines do not turn things around in 2009 Rodriguez could be out the door before the season ends. They should beat Western Michigan in the season opener, but that game could be tougher than might be generally expected. They then host Notre Dame in a game that will be crucial to both programs.

Evan Royster rushed for 1,236 yards in 2008.

Evan Royster rushed for 1,236 yards in 2008.

Offensive Players To Watch: Ohio State sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor gets a lot of the publicity and has shown signs that he will indeed be a superstar, but the best quarterback in the conference could be Juice Williams from Illinois. Williams also has an advantage in that he is throwing the ball to a potential All-American receiver in Arrelious Benn. Daryll Clark had a breakout season a year ago for Penn State and when teamed with running back Evan Royster (1,236 yards rushing) gives the Nittany Lions an explosive offensive attack.

Defensive Players To Watch: Penn State linebacker Navorro Bowman could be the best defensive player in the conference and should benefit from the return of Sean Lee, who missed last season with a knee injury. Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham and Northwestern end Corey Wootton are also top defenders.

Key Games: As the Big Ten looks to regain some luster, every non-conference game against a BCS opponent is important. The biggest of those matchups will be the September 12 game in Columbus between Ohio State and USC. Michigan State’s game with Notre Dame and the battle between Iowa and Arizona are also key non-conference games. Among conference games, look for the November 7 contest in Happy Valley between Ohio State and Penn State to determine the conference championship.

Predictions: By default, it appears that Penn State and Ohio State will remain the top teams in the Big Ten. Michigan State and Iowa could contend with Illinois and Wisconsin as long shots to make a run at the championship. In the end, the Buckeyes will again prevail in the conference, but probably fall short of a spot in the BCS Championship Game.

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