Commentary: 2009 Big Ten Preview
by Jonathan Hodges

With the analysis of Northwestern's units complete, time to move onto the bigger picture: first, a preview of the Big Ten for the 2009 season.

After a dismal 1-6 showing in the 2008-2009 Bowls and a weak showing over the past few years in national stage games (especially BCS bowls), the conference is looking for redemption in 2009.  A big deal has been made about the large number of "cupcake" games for the conference in nonconference play, and as a whole, the conference is not held in high regard and not anticipated to be a tough league in itself.  As any Big Ten fan knows, though, things are much tougher than they look from the outside - once the elements are in play come October and November, injuries begin to pile up, and the conference parity comes out - anything can and does happen.  While some of those nonconference games may be a little easier, most Big Ten teams take care of those early and spend the last third of the season duking it out with their conference-mates.

This season, the conference has some pretty clear top teams (Penn State and Ohio State) and some pretty clear basement-dwellers (Purdue and Indiana), with a huge question mark sitting in-between (everyone else).  This parity in the middle will make for some pretty interesting games down the stretch - and every game may make a difference in the bowl scramble at the end of the year.  Another interesting wrinkle is the lack of national respect that makes those nonconference games that much more important and may prevent the Big Ten from generating a second BCS Bowl berth (although the Big Ten leads all conferences in BCS Bowl berths since its inception - almost routinely getting a second team in as an at-large representative) - the SEC and Big XII are almost guaranteed a second slot given the wealth of powerful teams there, while there will very likely be a "BCS-buster" from a non-BCS conference (as there has been 4 times so far this decade, including the past 3 in a row).  This will leave the Big Ten to fight it out with the likes of Notre Dame, the ACC, and maybe even the Pac-10 for a coveted BCS spot.

National Contenders

1. Penn State:  The defending conference champions are in a good position for a return to the top with their QB & RB returning on offense along with a slew of defensive stars - particularly their linebacking corps.  Their nonconference slate is easily one of the easiest in the nation, and they get their toughest opponent, OSU, at home.  The question is can they replace some key components on both the OL and DL to return to last year's form, and can they prevent a slip-up on the road like they experienced in Iowa City last year.  If they can win some intriguing road games and get by OSU at home, they have a decent shot at going undefeated and making a case for a spot in the national championship games; otherwise they are expected to end up in a BCS bowl or, at worst, the Capital One Bowl.
     Do Not Play: Wisconsin, Purdue; Nonconference Opponents: Akron, Syracuse, Temple, Eastern Illinois (FCS); Likely Bowls: Rose Bowl/BCS Bowl

2. Ohio State:  OSU reloads again with a lot of talented defenders (despite sending off some quality talent to the NFL) and gets Terelle Pryor back at QB, who everyone knows is the key to their season.  Sure, they have other playmakers on offense and a solid OL, but he can make some great things happen - as seen in the second portion of last season as just a true freshman.  Their early bout with USC in Columbus will be watched carefully to see if the Big Ten can play with the rest of the nation's best, and their date in Happy Valley has been essentially ordained as the Big Ten championship game.  Other than that, OSU faces win-able games and should be in shape to contend for a BCS bowl or the conference crown if they can successfully challenge PSU as Pryor looks to make up for his costly fumble against the Nittany Lions last season.  IF they can somehow get by both USC and PSU, look out because they will be favored to get into the national title game for the 3rd time in 4 years.  Look for them to be in contention for a BCS Bowl or the Capital One bowl depending on what happens on the national scene.
     Do Not Play: Northwestern, Michigan State; Nonconference Opponents: Navy, Southern California, Toledo (in Cleveland), New Mexico State; Likely Bowls: BCS Bowl or Capital One Bowl

The Conference Pack

3. Iowa:  Almost everyone's "conference dark horse" for this season returns a lot of their offense - minus their star rusher Shonn Greene - but they do have some interesting options at RB that should be able to take up most of that load.  Look for their passing game to be improved behind second-year starter Ricky Stanzi, and their defense should be formidable, per usual.  Both of their toughest games (PSU and OSU) are on the road and there are other key games against conference opponents and a rival on the road (Iowa State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State), which will likely keep them from thinking about sneaking up to the top of the Big Ten.  They should be thinking about Florida come January 1st, though, even if Northwestern fans know they didn't deserve it last season.
     Do Not Play: Illinois, Purdue; Nonconference Opponents: Northern Iowa (FCS), @ Iowa State, Arizona, Arkansas State; Likely Bowls: Capital One Bowl or Outback Bowl

4. Michigan State:  Last year, MSU made a large step up with a 9-win season, but still had some slip-ups during the season.  Now they'll be looking to find themselves after relying on RB Javon Ringer throughout last season, along with the not-so-flashy, but reliable senior QB Brian Hoyer.  They don't have to face Ohio State and get Penn State at home to end the year, so the Spartans could make things interesting in the conference race; they have more to prove than the teams in front of them, though, and they also have to try and correct inconsistency against those other middle-of-the-pack teams in the Big Ten.  They should be challenging for a Florida bowl, which includes the Champs Sports Bowl which gets to pick ahead of the Alamo for this season (which looks to be the final season that the Big Ten is associated with both the Champs and Alamo Bowls).
     Do Not Play: Indiana, Ohio State; Nonconference Opponents: Montana State (FCS), Central Michigan, @ Notre Dame, Western Michigan; Likely Bowls: Outback Bowl or Champs Sports Bowl

5. Illinois:  The Illini had a high-flying offense last season (in terms of yards) but made way too many mistakes on the way to a losing record in a season where some looked for them to rise to the top of the conference after their appearance in the 2008 Rose Bowl.  This year, QB Juice Williams is a senior and they have tons of offensive weapons, including WR Arrelious Benn (one of the top receivers in the nation this year), and should be able to get back to a winning record.  They have one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the conference (if not the nation), facing Missouri in a neutral-site game, as well as last year's Big East champ Cincinnati and the always-pesky Fresno State (both of those games coming after Thanksgiving).  While this team has a lot of upside, they were also way too inconsistent last year to warrant putting them higher in the conference rankings.  Expect them to contend for a middle-tier bowl game, although they do have a shot at pulling off a random upset during the year (like they did against Ohio State in 2007) as well as losing a gimme too (like Western Michigan last year).
     Do Not Play: Iowa, Wisconsin; Nonconference Opponents: Missouri (in St. Louis), Illinois State (FCS), @ Cincinnati, Fresno State; Likely Bowls: Champs Sports Bowl or Alamo Bowl

6. Northwestern:  Yes, NU is returning its most formidable defense since the mid-90's back-to-back conference title run, but they have to replace way too many components on offense (i.e. all of the skill positions) to see them being legitimate contenders for the top of the conference.  The 'Cats should make some noise in the conference race, though, with a key October-November run of games featuring PSU, Iowa, and Illinois in a row.  The Wildcats are in a position to make a legitimate run at a second consecutive bowl appearance - which has only happened one other time in NU history (the aforementioned '95-'96 seasons), and this year they benefit with depth at some key positions as Fitz's higher-caliber recruits are beginning to make their push into the system.  NU also has a very easy nonconference slate, challenging PSU for the conference's easiest, and get to ease into the season with 6 win-able games to kick off the year.  Look for NU to likely end up in the Insight Bowl, although the Alamo or the Champs are possible and maybe dependent on who wins the new Land of Lincoln trophy bout with Illinois.  Much more analysis to come on the Wildcats' schedule later.
     Do Not Play: Ohio State, Michigan; Nonconference Opponents: Towson (FCS), Eastern Michigan, @ Syracuse, Miami (OH); Likely Bowls: Insight Bowl

7. Michigan:  Most are predicting the Wolverines will get back to bowl eligibility after breaking their 33 year streak last year in a 3-9 effort (their worst single season record ever), and there isn't a whole lot standing in their way.  One knows things can't get much worse for Michigan, and they get a lot of home games coupled with a relatively easy nonconference schedule (Notre Dame is the only bump in the road, and UM gets them in Ann Arbor).  The QB play should be improved which should help Rodriguez's spread offense get better by leaps and bounds and avoid such embarrassments as the Toledo loss last season.  Don't look for them to be the Michigan of old, but don't look for them to be in the conference basement, either.  The Alamo would love to snag them, although the rule forcing bowls to take teams with winning records could push a .500 Michigan team down to Detroit - who would actually love having a Big Ten representative from Michigan (which they've never had) more than anything.
     Do Not Play: Northwestern, Minnesota; Nonconference Opponents: Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, Delaware State (FCS); Likely Bowls: Alamo Bowl or Motor City Bowl

8. Minnesota:  After a breakthrough winning season last year (just one season after going 1-11 and 0-8 in the conference), the Gophers rebounded in a big way and this season get to open their brand new outdoor stadium.  They still have to rebound from a 5-game losing streak to end the year and find the right formula for success after changing their offensive scheme from the spread to more of a pro set with a running focus.  They get some key cogs of the offense back, though, including a very solid RB Duane Bennett who was out last season with an injury, as well as talented WR Eric Decker and QB Adam Weber.  And those talented recruits that coach Brewster always touts will finally take the field.  But, they face a tough road schedule (OSU, PSU, Iowa, and NU - I won't mention Syracuse as tough), and have a lot of questions after fading away at the end of last year.  They could be fighting for a bowl berth period by the end of the year.
     Do Not Play: Michigan, Indiana; Nonconference Opponents: @ Syracuse, Air Force, California, South Dakota State (FCS); Likely Bowls: Motor City Bowl, At-Large Bid, or No Bowl

9. Wisconsin:  Amazing to see the Badgers so far down on the list; especially after coach Bielema had such a great start a few seasons ago.  Things started to really go south last year, ending 7-6 with a big loss against Florida State, and there are a lot of questions going into this season.  Their defense hasn't been as strong as it was known under Alvarez, and their QB play has gone way downhill after so many reliable but under-the-radar guys earlier this decade.  They miss 2 top-half Big Ten teams, but also have to go on that hated trip to Hawaii.  This is one team with a lot of question marks that could end up much higher than this, but will likely be fighting it out for a bowl spot come the end of the year.
     Do Not Play: Illinois, Penn State; Nonconference Opponents: Northern Illinois, Fresno State, Wofford (FCS), @ Hawaii; Likely Bowls: At-Large Bid or No Bowl

Conference Basement

10. Indiana:
  Just a year after the amazing "play 13" run to their first bowl game in over a decade, the Hoosiers found themselves sitting in the conference basement again, thanks to just plain bad play on both sides of the ball throughout the year.  Although there is some talent on both sides of the ball, there isn't enough of it and/or the coaching staff hasn't been able to put it together well enough to get back to bowl eligibility, and it doesn't look like they will be able to do it in 2009, either.  In fact, their bout with Purdue will likely be to see who will stay out of last place in the conference as things don't look too good for Big Ten football whose home is in Indiana.  But, as NU found out last year, never count anyone out as even the lowest Big Ten teams can provide a challenge.
     Do Not Play: Michigan State, Minnesota; Nonconference Opponents: Eastern Kentucky (FCS), Western Michigan, @ Akron, @ Virginia; Likely Bowls: No Bowl

11. Purdue:  After a disappointment in Tiller's last year at the helm, things don't look too hopeful for new HC Danny Hope (sorry, couldn't resist).  They'll have some weapons on offense, but will be breaking in a new QB and will have to do so without the mastermind of "basketball on grass" at the helm.  Their defense should improve from last year, where it, well, wasn't so hot.  They face a very tough trip to Oregon and must also face Notre Dame in the nonconference schedule, although they do miss two upper-tier Big Ten teams.  It may take Hope more than this year to right the ship as a bowl trip just doesn't look to be in the cards for his first year.
     Do Not Play: Iowa, Penn State; Nonconference Opponents: Toledo, @ Oregon, Northern Illinois, Notre Dame; Likely Bowls: No Bowl

I admit that I'm not going out on too much of a limb with these predictions - which closely mirror last year's final rankings in the conference - and the season may very well prove me to be very wrong.  That's one thing that makes college football so great; things change significantly from one year to the next and any game can put a team onto an upwards slope or into a tailspin.  The middle of the pack is truly large this season and anyone that is ranked from 3 down to 9 could end up almost anywhere within those spots.  And, as NU found out last year, bowl placement is not always kind so even if the standings aren't too far from the truth, one never really knows where their favorite team will end up come December or January.

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.