Let's stow the snide remarks, the rips, the comments.
The Big Ten has not dropped to Division I-AA. It has great players, great coaches. The Big Ten can even win a national championship. Laugh, if you must. Just don't forget about the teams inhabiting the Rust Belt footprint.
Unfortunately, the league has been dismissed before a ball is kicked. In the flurry of three straight titles by the SEC (two of those won over Ohio State), the Big Ten has been marginalized. Worse, ignored by the pundits who are running off at the keyboard this time of year.
That's not fair and it's not wise. This is the league of Terrelle Pryor, Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn and Joe Paterno. It has Hall of Famers working the sidelines (Paterno and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, who was inducted as a player). Jim Tressel is headed toward the Hall of Fame. A snapshot of postseason failings (9-20 in bowls since 2005) ignores the big picture: The Big Ten has played in more BCS bowl games (19) than any conference.
I, for one, am tired of following the pack (for now). Paterno is doing more at 82 than most coaches are at 42. Iowa thinks it has a Jewel (Hampton). Michigan State is this year's flavor of the month. Michigan can't continue to be that bad. Can it?
The more you look at the league, the more you have to like it.• Big Ten: Conference | All-Decade Team | SB Nation | B/R
• Don't forget, the second-biggest game of the season might be taking place in Columbus in Week 2 (Oklahoma-Texas is No. 1). The Bloodied -- whoops, make that Scarlet -- and Gray have USC right where they want them after that stinker last year in the Coliseum. Beat USC and Ohio State could roll to an undefeated season.
The outlook got a little "brighter" for Ohio State when preseason All-Pac-10 center Kristofer O'Dowd dislocated his knee on Tuesday. One of the anchors of USC's line could miss the Ohio State game. USC quarterback Aaron Corp might be back by Sept. 12. If not, he will be replaced by a true freshman Matt Barkley.
|Preseason All-Big Ten|
|QB||Daryll Clark||Sr.||Penn State|
|RB||Evan Royster||Jr.||Penn State|
|OL||Stefen Wisniewski||Jr.||Penn State|
|OL||Joel Foreman||Soph.||Michigan State|
|OL||Justin Boren||Sr.||Ohio State|
|OL||Dennis Landholt||Sr.||Penn State|
|DL||Cameron Heyward||Jr.||Ohio State|
|LB||Sean Lee||Sr.||Penn State|
|LB||Navorro Bowman||Jr.||Penn State|
|LB||Greg Jones||Jr.||Michigan State|
|DB||Kurt Coleman||Sr.||Ohio State|
|K||Brett Swenson||Sr.||Michigan State|
|Ret||Ray Small||Sr.||Ohio State|
Is anyone else sensing an ambush? To assume a Trojans victory is to ignore the natural progression of Pryor. Yeah, that guy. If he follows that upward trend, he should become more well-rounded, more accurate, less turnover prone. Sept. 12 will help define him. Pryor doesn't want the memory of his fumble and interception against Penn State to linger.
In short, don't undersell Ohio State's ability -- Tressel has won a national championship with a molecular biology major (Craig Krenzel) and gotten to the game with a Heisman Trophy winner (Troy Smith).
• Paterno just won't go away. That is meant is the best possible way. A lot of us have figured that JoePa would hang them up at some point for the last 15 years. But depending on who you read, the Nittany Lions will go to a second consecutive Rose Bowl.
The larger point is that most polls have the Big Ten with two top 10 teams going in. Someone is believing. "I don't really think that one player, even one team in one year changes a lot," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "I guess if you go out and win a national championship, it does."
Bingo. Both Ohio State and Penn State have the schedule to do it.
Elsewhere, Minnesota is opening a new stadium. Michigan has a quarterback, it thinks, to run Rich Rodriguez's spread. Wisconsin will pound you. Northwestern is coming off a nine-win season. The Williams-Benn duo at Illinois will be one of the best pass-catch combinations in the country. Danny Hope is putting his stamp on Purdue. Indiana tied for the eighth-most starts lost last season due to injury. With 15 returning starters, don't count out the Hoosiers.
There, that wasn't that hard -- 700 words spent saying something nice about every program in the Big Ten. Now the league has to justify my love.
Offensive Player of the Year
Daryll Clark , QB, Penn State: With Beanie Wells gone, Juice Williams inconsistent and Terrelle Pryor still finding himself, Clark is the league's best offensive force. Clark outplayed Pryor head-to-head last year and became the All-Big Ten quarterback in leading the Nittany Lions to the Rose Bowl. The same thing could happen this year when the Buckeyes visit Happy Valley on Nov. 7.
Defensive Player of the Year
Greg Jones , LB, Michigan State: A midseason move from outside to middle linebacker allowed Jones to be around the action even more. His two best games were against Ohio State (13 tackles) and Penn State (12). This year, he is showing up on some preseason All-America teams. With another monster season, Jones won't make it to his senior year in '10.
Predicted order of finish
1. Ohio State: How do you lose Wells, Malcolm Jenkins and James Laurinaitis and get better? You don't. But there is enough left for the Bucks to win the Big Ten again. They have captured at least a share of the four previous titles. Everyone seems to be jumping on the Pryor bandwagon this season. I'm still not convinced he's going to make that quantum leap in '09. There will be more pressure on him to carry the offense with his legs if Dan Herron can't become the big dog at tailback. Much will be learned on Sept. 12 when USC visits. Give Jim Tressel a running game, a punter and 105,000 homers and he will field-position you to death. If Tres can't pull it off in September, there might be a rematch waiting in Pasadena. Must-see game: Are you kidding? After Texas-Oklahoma, USC-Ohio State is the biggest game of the season. Another Buckeyes loss to a national power and it's going to start looking like I Love Lucy reruns -- boring.
2. Penn State: Amazing. With an 82-year-old coach leading them, the Nittany Lions are Rose Bowl contenders for the foreseeable future. The defense keeps its snarl with the return of linebacker Sean Lee. The unit did finish in the top 10 in total defense last season; how much will it miss defensive ends Aaron Maybin and Maurice Evans? This race might end up like it did in 2008, with Ohio State and Penn State sharing the title. They are that close talent-wise. Must-see game: Nov. 7 vs. Ohio State. It's pretty simple. The winner goes to the Rose Bowl.
3. Michigan State: Coach Mark Dantonio has averaged eight wins in his first two seasons in East Lansing and the program ready to take off. Even with the loss of his two best players -- quarterback Brian Hoyer and tailback Javon Ringer -- there is plenty of young talent waiting offstage. Michigan State might have the best linebackers in the league starting with Jones, a consensus preseason All-Big Ten pick. Dantonio has the two best leg men in the league in kicker Brett Swenson and punter Aaron Bates. Iowa, Penn State and Michigan come to East Lansing. Ohio State is off the schedule. Must-see game: Sept. 19 at Notre Dame. Every Irish game is a mini-drama. The Spartans removed all suspense last year, winning 23-7.
4. Iowa: If only Shonn Greene had returned, we might be talking about the Hawkeyes giving Ohio State and Penn State a run. With quarterback Ricky Stanzi having a year of experience and three offensive line starters returning, Iowa will be productive but in a different way. Stanzi likely will have to make more plays himself (hint: scramble) unless sophomore Jewel Hampton or freshman Jeff Brinson replace those Greene yards. Hampton tweaked his knee on Saturday and status for the opener is up in the air. Must-see game: Sept. 26 at Penn State. The Hawkeyes' one-point win last year in Iowa City was Penn State's only Big Ten loss.
5. Illinois: What's your legacy going to be, Juice? Two years ago, Illinois' quarterback guided a stunning upset at Columbus. Last season, Williams and the Illini slumped. In his senior season, Juice could go out as one of Illinois' quarterback greats. Even though he led the Big Ten in passing yards, Williams threw too many interceptions (16). He will hook up often with the incredible Arrelious Benn. New offensive coordinator Mike Schultz -- who oversaw a similar offense at TCU -- will try to squeeze some of the old Juice out of his new quarterback. We'll know about the Illini before Oct. 1 -- they play Missouri in St. Louis and Ohio State in Columbus in September. Must-see game: Sept. 5 vs. Missouri in St. Louis. The Illini are so used to getting beat by the Tigers (four in a row) they've decided to end the series after the 2010 game.
Who will win the Big Ten?
Total Votes: 22,242
6. Northwestern: The Big Ten's annually pesky Wildcats figure to be that way again. After Tressel, Pat Fitzgerald might be the league's best coach. His team started 5-0 and came within an overtime loss to Missouri in the Alamo Bowl of winning 10 last season. There are too many holes this season to expect Northwestern to finish in the top half of the league, but somebody's going to get punked by the purple in the parity-filled Big Ten. Must-see game: Nov. 14 at Illinois. What rivalry? The 'Cats have won five of the last six.
7. Wisconsin: Is it time to panic yet? Bret Bielema started 21-5 in his first two seasons, then slumped to 7-6 last year. But it was the way it happened: Bielema still hasn't been able to find a serviceable quarterback. The Badgers looked lost on defense and the prospects aren't good for this season. The formula to beat Wisconsin hasn't changed: Let the tailbacks get their yards, smack the quarterback in the mouth, wait for the turnovers and control the ball against a poor-tackling defense. Must-see game: Sept. 26 vs. Michigan State. Up by 11 with 9:19 left in last season's meeting, the Badgers melted down. Bielema got a misconduct penalty that fueled one drive. Michigan State kicked the game-winning field goal with seven seconds to win 25-24. It would be nice to stop blowing games like that.
8. Michigan: Rich Rod better hope the early-enrolling Tate Forcier is the answer at quarterback. There isn't much behind him unless you expect another freshman, Denard Robinson, to take the job. A defense that held on by its fingertips should improve. A bowl is a possibility but will a 5-7 season be considered progress? Must-see game: Sept. 12 vs. Notre Dame. In the middle of a four-game homestand to start the season, the Wolverines face their future. They must win this one after turning it over six times vs. ND last season.
|2009 Conference Previews|
9. Minnesota: Third-year coach Tim Brewster has a new state-of-the art stadium. That won't distract fans from asking if the five-game, season-ending losing streak is the beginning of a trend or just a nit in Goldy's fur. Watch the combination of quarterback Adam Weber and receiver Eric Decker. Must-see game: Sept. 12 vs. Air Force. Home opener in new TCF Bank Stadium.
10. Purdue: There are spider webs in the cupboard, left over from Joe Tiller's era. That's another way of saying Danny Hope needs hope. Only two starters return on offense. The most experienced quarterback is fifth-year senior Joey Elliott, who has played in 10 games in three seasons. Hope is looking at an 0-5 start if he can't beat Northern Illinois and Toledo early. Must-see game: Oct. 10 at Minnesota. The loser might finish in the Big Ten basement. Purdue has won nine of the last 11 matchups.
11. Indiana: Kellen Lewis wasn't going to play quarterback anyway. Still, his dismissal from the team in April all but assures another down year in Bloomington. Lewis, the program's career leader in touchdown passes and the team's best athlete, had been moved to receiver to make room for junior Ben Chappell. Without Lewis, there aren't many playmakers or much hope. Coach Bill Lynch might be on the hot seat. Must-see game: Sept. 12 vs. Western Michigan. The Broncos might apply for Big Ten membership if they kick off the season by beating Michigan and Indiana. The Hoosiers lost to both Mid-American Conference opponents last year. It can't afford back-to-back losses to the Broncos and then to Akron on Sept. 19.