Commentary: 2007 Preseason Big Ten Predictions
by Jonathan Hodges
As Northwestern's preseason camp kicks off, it's time to start
evaluating the 'Cats' opponents for the coming season - and that means
what the Big Ten landscape will look like coming into the 2007
campaign. The media is up to its normal tricks, putting the likes
of Michigan and OSU at the top of the conference and calling the
conference weak this year. While I do not completely disagree
with the assessment by the media, here is what I expect to see out of
this season in the Big Ten and approximately where teams will end up in
the postseason. For each team I will list their nonconference
opponents (NC), who they miss in Big Ten play (DNP), and rate their
schedule. (* denotes I-AA opponent).
Conference Title Contenders
losing key players on last year's brick wall of a defense, they return
probably the best and, at least, most proven offensive unit in the
conference. Henne, Hart, Long - you've seen and heard from these
guys and they will be a formidable opponent. They aren't without
vulnerability, though, as the defense is looking to prove that it can
still be a force without many key components from last year. NC
Opponents: Appalachian State*, Oregon, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan. DNP: Iowa, Indiana.
Schedule: tough (featuring the current two time I-AA national champion,
Notre Dame, and a solid BCS oponent). Outlook: 11-1, BCS Bowl.
Badgers seemingly overachieved last year (although some can be
attributed to a soft schedule) and now will be a team to beat.
The key showdown against Michigan comes near the end of the year.
They return many key starters and look to keep the ball rolling.
NC Opponents: Washington State, UNLV, Citadel*, Northern Illinois. DNP: Northwestern, Purdue.
Schedule: middle-of-the-road (definitely easier than last year; will
have to face OSU and Michigan, plus an actual BCS opponent).
Outlook: 10-2, BCS Bowl.
Ohio State: The
media has OSU in the top 10, but I don't see them staying that high
after losing so many key players from last season's run to the
championship game. The offense will be looking at completely new
playmakers and it may take some time to get in sync. They are
still formidable, though, as there is always talent waiting in the
wings. NC Opponents: Youngstown State*, Akron, Washington, Kent State. DNP: Iowa, Indiana. Schedule: mid to easy (includes tough possible trap road game at Washington). Outlook: 10-2, Capital One Bowl.
Penn State: They
return key offensive playmakers and look to improve some on last year's
performance. They will provide some good competition for the top
of the conference, but are probably not on the same level as the
rest. NC Opponents: Florida International, Notre Dame, Buffalo, Temple. DNP: Northwestern, Minnesota.
Schedule: mid to easy (one decent NC opponent and 3 cupcakes, although
they face all of the Big Ten heavy hitters). Outlook: 9-3,
Purdue: They should have a fantastic offense who can put up a ton of
points, but will once again have a suspect defense. They will
provide a good level of competition for opponents but are not expected
to break into the upper tier. NC Opponents: Toledo, Eastern
Illinois*, Central Michigan, Notre Dame. DNP: Wisconsin,
Illinois. Schedule: middle of the road (trap game at Toledo,
Notre Dame, and miss one Big Ten toughie). Outlook: 8-4, Alamo
Iowa: Had a tough 2007 and looks to bounce back with some upcoming
talent, but it will be tough going. Will have to fight to stay
out of the bottom of the pack. NC Opponents: Northern Illinois,
Syracuse, Iowa State, Western Michigan. DNP: Ohio State,
Michigan. Schedule: easy (although there are tough games against
NIU, Syracuse, and ISU, the Big Ten slate does not include OSU or
Michigan). Outlook: 8-4, Champs Sports Bowl.
The Rest of The Pack
Northwestern: You've heard my preview. I think the 'Cats will be
right here on the verge of the mid tier with 7 wins. If they can
up the ante and pull the win total to 8 or even 9 that could
drastically increase their finishing position. NC Opponents:
Northeastern*, Nevada, Duke, Eastern Michigan. DNP: Wisconsin,
Penn State. Schedule: very easy (only one challenging NC
opponent, and miss two Big Ten top tier teams). Outlook: 7-5,
Illinois: I think they'll improve - there are ups and downs in every
program and this one has been down and now has too much talent to stay
that way, despite the fact that many of us 'Cats fans would like to see
it stay that way. NC Opponents: Missouri, Western Illinois*,
Syracuse, Ball State. DNP: Purdue, Michigan State.
Schedule: mid to easy (not a lot of threats in the NC schedule, but
have to face the Big Ten heavy hitters). Outlook: 6-6, Motor City
Minnesota: They have a shot at making it to a bowl, although they'll
have to get that new offensive scheme going quickly. They've been
thriving on lower tier NC competition in recent years to make it to a
bowl, but now they'll have to compete with other Big Ten teams that are
in the same boat. NC Opponents: Bowling Green, Miami (OH),
Florida Atlantic, North Dakota State*. DNP: Penn State, Michigan
State. Schedule: easy (once again, no NC threats, but have to
face the usual Big Ten threats). Outlook: 6-6, no bowl (possible
at-large invite to another bowl if the cards shake out).
Indiana: They have some talented skill players on offense, but
absolutely nothing on defense to speak about. That doesn't count
out the good chance of them pulling off an upset, though, so be
careful. Will be an emotional season after the unfortunate loss
of their Head Coach in the offseason. NC Opponents: Indiana
State*, Western Michigan, Akron, Ball State. DNP: Michigan, Ohio
State. Schedule: very easy (piece-of-cake NC schedule AND miss
OSU and Michigan - but do they have the team to take advantage?).
Outlook: 4-8, no bowl.
Michigan State: While they have some talent, the question is if they
will be able to avoid a repeat of last year - especially with a large
transition in coaches and coaching styles. Many predict them to
be at the bottom and in a year of transition it is difficult to think
otherwise. NC Opponents: UAB, Bowling Green, Pittsburgh, Notre
Dame. DNP: Minnesota, Illinois. Schedule: middle of the
road (couple of challenging but not difficult NC opponents, but have
all of the top Big Ten teams). Outlook: 4-8, no bowl.
While the conference may not be able to provide a national title
contender (seeing at least one good roadblock in each team's way), the
Big Ten does have a very good shot at sending 2 representatives to the
BCS once again thanks to the strength of Michigan, OSU, and Wisconsin -
coupled with relatively easy non-conference schedules to go
around. What could hamper that effort would be upsets within
conference play that knock down the records of the upper tier teams,
although that makes the season more exciting for us fans.
I see the top 4 teams being able to control the conference among
themselves, although that mid tier may be able to pull off an
upset. In terms of the lower tier, those last 1 or 2 bowl bids
are basically up for grabs - and most teams should come out of NC play
with 3-4 wins thanks to easy scheduling (virtually no high profile NC
matchups outside of the Notre Dame games). I see Illinois,
Northwestern, Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan State all with the
ability to jump into either the Insight or Motor City Bowl if those
teams can take care of business in the NC schedule and beat a minimum
of 3 teams in that same lower tier. The bowl selection process
could get messy (e.g. political), though, if there is a pack of teams
It is also interesting to note that all of the teams with new coaches
in 2007 are leading up the rear, but that is understandable given the
turmoil and/or transition in each of those programs. Answering
those questions in NC play will go a long way.
How does Northwestern shake out in all of this? Beating Illinois,
Minnesota, Michigan State, and Indiana (or at least 3 of those
opponents) becomes key to securing a bowl bid. PLUS, Northwestern
MUST take care of business in NC play. Going undefeated would
help prop NU up in the bowl pecking order. Pulling off an upset
over someone in a higher tier would go even further. But getting
into a bowl is well within the realm of possibilities for NU.
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