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

Michigan: Despite 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.

Wisconsin: The 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.

Upper Tier

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, Outback Bowl.

Mid Tier

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 Bowl.

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, Insight Bowl.

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 Bowl.

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 at 6-6.

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.

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

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