Commentary: 2010 Big Ten Preview
by Jonathan Hodges

With Northwestern thoroughly previewed, it's time to turn our attention to the Big Ten conference as a whole, and not just how the divisional alignment will shake out for next season.

The 2009 season went a long way towards rehabilitating the Big Ten's image nationally, particularly in the 2009-10 bowl season where the conference went 4-3, including two wins in BCS bowls thanks to Ohio State and Iowa and another in the Capital One Bowl by Penn State.  And the three losses were by a combined 14 points, and that includes NU's thrilling 3 point overtime loss in the Outback Bowl.  This has been reflected in the 2010 preseason rankings where the conference has four teams ranked, including two teams in the top 10 of both major polls (Ohio State as consensus No. 2 and Iowa as No. 9 in the AP and No. 10 in the Coaches).  Wisconsin and Penn State are also in the top 20.

Ohio State is very much in the national picture, sitting at the aforementioned No. 2 spot, with Iowa and Wisconsin in the mix as well.  Any of those teams could very reasonably end up in a BCS bowl, if not the national title game.  Penn State is in a bit of a rebuilding year, having to replace their talented linebacking corps from last season as well as multiple components of the offense, but they have the talent to be near the top of the conference this year.

Beyond the top four, one gets into the heart of the Big Ten pack that could be difficult to sort out.  Northwestern looks to be in good position to continue its recent success and seems to be a consensus pick to head to a third straight bowl game.  Michigan State looks to attain a winning record after dealing with many off-field issues a season ago.  Purdue is definitely looking up after two bowl-less seasons.  And Michigan has sufficiently rebuilt the talent level in order to compete and should reach a bowl after two rather dismal seasons.

The expected bottom three aren't that bad and should be able to compete for a spot in the middle of the pack and maybe even a bowl berth.  Minnesota has a completely revamped defense after losing nine starters and will be breaking in their third offensive coordinator in three seasons while also facing one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, but they have enough weapons to be dangerous in any single game.  Indiana has experienced players and a solid foundation and will be looking to return to their 2007 bowl form.  Finally, Illinois has talented players and will be pressured to get results on the field.

Expect the title race to go down to the wire with key November matchups including Ohio State-Penn State, Iowa-Ohio State, and, of course, Ohio State-Michigan likely helping decide the league champion.  Now for the preseason rankings.

National Contenders

1. Ohio State: OSU, fresh off a Rose Bowl victory over a respected Oregon team, comes in loaded and ready for action in 2010, headed by QB Terelle Pryor.  They return starters at most positions while reloading at others and have an overall talent level that puts them in contention for a trip to the national title game.  It is highly probably that their current five year run of consecutive Big Ten titles/co-titles will continue, and if they can take care of business at home (where three of their toughest games, against Miami (FL), Iowa, and Penn State will be played), a trip to the title game is very possible.  Note that they have a key early season nonconference date against a rising Miami (FL) team in Columbus.
Do Not Play: Northwestern, Michigan State; Nonconference opponents: Marshall, Miami (FL), Ohio, Eastern Michigan; Likely Bowls: National Championship/BCS/Rose.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers return a slew of starters from last year's nine win squad, including many from a very efficient offense, including QB Scott Tolzien and RB John Clay.  The defense is expected to be stout, as usual.  And they get their toughest opponent, Ohio State, at home, while missing Penn State completely.  Expect them to be very tough this season and to make some noise nationally, especially leading up to the mid-October run where they face OSU and Iowa in back-to-back weeks.  They will definitely be in contention for a BCS bowl as they have the experience and talent to play with anyone in the conference.
Do Not Play: Illinois, Penn State; Nonconference opponents: @ UNLV, San Jose State, Arizona State, Austin Peay (FCS); Likely Bowls: BCS/Capital One.

3. Iowa: Iowa looks to build upon their 11 win season that included a BCS victory over ACC champion Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl last season.  They return a handful of offensive positions as well as key components of a stout defense, particularly DE Adrian Clayborn.  They play disciplined football and are generally solid in all three phases of the game, which help them when they get a wave of talent and experience like we saw last year and should continue through this season.  They have a challenging nonconference trip to play Arizona and must also travel to play Penn State and Wisconsin, but do get Ohio State at home.  Fortunately all of those tough games are well spaced out on their schedule, allowing them to recover during a grueling year.
Do Not Play: Illinois, Purdue; Nonconference opponents: Eastern Illinois (FCS), Iowa State, @ Arizona, Ball State; Likely Bowls: Capital One/Outback.

4. Penn State: Yes, PSU loses many key components on offense and some talented defenders, particularly all three of their top flight linebackers, but they have the talent to reload and continue on a roll.  It all starts up front and they continue to produce solid offensive linemen, which should help senior RB Evan Royster rack up the yards on the ground.  PSU's biggest problem is likely their schedule, which features a trip to reigning national champion and preseason No. 1 Alabama in September.  They must also travel to Iowa and OSU later in the season.  For those counting at home, that makes three road games against preseason top 10 teams, which will make the rest of the games essential in order for PSU to play on or near New Year's Day.
Do Not Play: Wisconsin, Purdue; Nonconference opponents: Youngstown State (FCS), @ Alabama, Kent State, Temple; Likely Bowls: Outback/Gator.

The Conference Pack

5. Northwestern: Yeah, I'm going to pick the 'Cats to finish this high.  Hey, they did it last year, right?  The nonconference schedule is easy, they miss Ohio State, they return a good amount of starters on both sides of the ball, and the defensive front looks solid.  QB Dan Persa looks ready to lead the offense to a productive season even if he was a backup last year (remember that 2009's Big Ten passing yards leader, NU QB Mike Kafka, was in the same position the prior year).  Coach Fitz is establishing his legacy now and the Wildcats have an opportunity to make their mark on yet another Big Ten season.
Do Not Play: Ohio State, Michigan; Nonconference opponents: @ Vanderbilt, Illinois State (FCS), @ Rice, Central Michigan; Likely Bowls: Texas/Insight.

6. Michigan State: MSU returns some potent offensive weapons and looks to have recovered from a rash of off-the-field incidents that damaged their roster just before the Alamo Bowl (a game that they kept relatively close despite those losses).  Many people like QB Kirk Cousins and on the other side of the ball LB Greg Jones is a tackling machine and is the preseason pick for conference defensive player of the year.  Their offense put on quite a show last season despite lacking experience, so they'll head into this season with confidence.  Their schedule is also manageable, with tough trips to Iowa and Penn State spaced out over the latter half of the year, while Wisconsin must visit East Lansing (they have eight home games total).
Do Not Play: Ohio State, Indiana; Nonconference opponents: Western Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Notre Dame, Northern Colorado; Likely Bowls: Insight/Texas.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines will be fighting for Coach Rich Rodriguez's job throughout the year, oh, and also to return to a bowl game for the first time in his tenure there.  They have restocked the tanks on offense and should be in much better position this year.  There are questions about depth and if they can find anyone to play defensive back, but they will look much better than the prior two seasons.  They have a couple of nonconference challenges and must play the top four conference contenders, so otherwise they'll likely have to run a clean slate to have a successful season.  This will definitely be an interesting team to watch and could play in some shootouts as the year goes on.
Do Not Play: Northwestern, Minnesota; Nonconference opponents: Connecticut, @ Notre Dame, Massachusetts (FCS), Bowling Green; Likely Bowls: Gator/Dallas Football Classic.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers will come a long way from where they've been the past couple of seasons and may very well finish higher up depending on how that progress goes.  Miami (FL) transfer QB Robert Marve will hopefully help the offense that will feature WR Keith Smith who caught a ton of balls last year.  The defense should be legitimate with DE Ryan Kerrigan at the helm.  Like some other teams, they have a very manageable schedule and should be in bowl contention by the end of the season.
Do Not Play: Iowa, Penn State; Nonconference opponents: @ Notre Dame, Western Illinois (FCS), Ball State, Toledo; Likely Bowls: Dallas Football Classic/Little Caesar's Pizza.

The Basement

9. Minnesota: Many prognosticators have picked the Gophers to finish relatively low, and that is thanks to losing many key players to graduation (particularly on defense) as well as playing a very tough schedule.  Senior QB Adam Weber will try to keep the offense afloat, while the defense will be almost completely retooled.  Although they made a bowl last season, their offense performed rather poorly, particularly down the stretch after losing WR Eric Decker to an injury (he was a senior last year).  Not only do they play the Big Ten top four, but they also travel to play Sun Belt front-runner Middle Tennessee State and must also face USC at home, who will be strong in spite of NCAA sanctions.
Do Not Play: Michigan, Indiana; Nonconference opponents: @ Middle Tennessee State, South Dakota (FCS), USC, Northern Illinois; Likely Bowls: none.

10. Illinois: Another program that will be playing to save the coach's job, this time Ron Zook whose teams have been relatively bad in all but one of his years at the helm.  Once again, they will have talented players thanks to his solid recruiting efforts, but the question is can he put together the pieces on the field.  They will have a huge question mark at quarterback, where redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase will be forced to take the reigns.  The defense won't be too bad, especially with LB Martez Wilson returning from injury.  Their schedule is alright (they miss Iowa and Wisconsin), but they'll be living life on the edge this fall, or, at least Zook will.
Do Not Play: Iowa, Wisconsin; Nonconference opponents: Missouri (at St. Louis), Southern Illinois (FCS), Northern Illinois, @ Fresno State; Likely Bowls: none.

11. Indiana: Despite reaching a bowl in 2007 and bringing in more talented players, things aren't looking up for the Hoosiers.  Yes, there's the cupcake nonconference slate, but the question is if they will continue the recent trend and fall off the map once they reach Big Ten play.  QB Ben Chappell now has plenty of experience under his belt and will have some playmakers around him, but the question is if he and the offense can score enough to overcome a defense that hasn't clicked despite the aforementioned talent upgrade.  They will be hard pressed to get a sniff of bowl contention in 2010.
Do Not Play: Michigan State, Minnesota; Nonconference opponents: Towson (FCS), @ Western Kentucky, Akron, Arkansas State; Likely Bowls: none.

Like I mentioned last season, I'm not going too far out there on these conference rankings as they look similar to last year's final standings.  With significant changes from year to year, the fact that almost any of these teams could beat almost any other on any given Saturday, and the wide variety in strengths of schedule it is really tough to predict what happens in college football.  I anticipate that these general groupings of Big Ten teams will be close to correct, but you'll see that last season I under-valued Wisconsin and Northwestern while over-valuing Penn State and Illinois.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.