I know they're not playing football, but this pic rocks.
Here's what I know: OSU and PSU will be the top 2 and Indiana and Purdue will be the bottom 2. Northwestern will not match last season's success and Iowa will find a way to finish in the middle of the pack, despite their talent. Michigan will be MUCH improved, but not quite ready to contend while Minnesota returns so much experience, it's a shame their schedule gets so rough through late October and early November. Now, what all that means and who it'll shake out was harder to predict, but I did my best. Enjoy.
The Big Ten Champion will be...Ohio State. Despite their recent failures in big games, this is still a big-time program in cfb. Tressel has won a national title already and will be competing for a 5th straight league championship in '09. The Bucks recruit well from a talent-rich area and things are in place for a successful brace of seasons. I've already called for an undefeated season for the Buckeyes, so their spot here should be no surprise. Terrelle Pryor will be in complete control this season, and if Tressel opens up the book a bit, we could see some big offense in Columbus. While there's only 4 other starters back on O, one's a reliable WR and the others are all linemen; a pretty good combo for a young, athletic QB. Defensively, the Bucks return 7 to the league's best unit in '08 and should only be better this season. Good enough, I'm predicitng to get a little revenge on Penn State on 11/7 to set up running the table and clinching the conference.
2. Penn State - Like Rutgers, Penn State plays a shameful schedule and could realistically be undefeated at season's end. They do travel to Illinois early and SParty late, but should be able to win both of those. The real test will be hosting Ohio State on 11/7 and the nits better hope that the ease of their season to this point has not dulled them too much. Offensively, Penn State will be the most explosive team in the B10, with both Clark and Royster returning, but other than that, there's not much else in the way of returning experience. Defensively, the LB's will be heading up a solid unit, but I don't see a top-2 statistical finish for them this year. Look for 7-1 in the conference and a BCS bowl.
3. Michigan State - I know this sounds crazy, but everything looks perfect for Sparty to have a much improved conference run in 2009. Dantonio is an underrated coach who is quietly building a good team here in Lansing. It helps that in-state rival Michigan is down, but State might have enough f a foothold to keep building as a long as Dantonio stays. They return 15 starters, and I think they'll have a surprising defense that will carry them through tough games. There's no Ohio State on the schedule and the worst road game is at Illinois. Even with a loss there and in the season-ender with PSU, MSU would still have a 6-2 conference mark, which would be good enough for 3rd place. But, I think I'll call for a win to spoil the Zookers' homecoming and a return to New Year's Day football.
4. Illinois - There's a lot of noise surrounding the Illini this year, but I'm hesitant to have them even this high in the standings. What I like about Illinois: Offense, baby. The juice is loose for his senior year, Benn's back at wideout, all other skills starters are experienced and the line returns 3 (though only 40 starts, experience-wise). This will be a fun team to watch, no doubt, but offense might not be enough to win the tough games I see on their slate, including a b-2-b-2-b run at OSU, PSU, and Michigan State. The Illini D finished near the bottom of the pack statistically last year, and only return 5 starters in '09. That could spell trouble and should keep them from achieving anything major or surprising anyone en route to a 5-3 record.
5. Minnesota - Now you're really thinking I'm nuts. But here's what I see when I look at Minnesota for '09: 17 returning starters, a coach who took them from 1 win in '07 to 7 in '08, general excitement for a new stadium and a surging program and, most important, the most returning experience in the nation, including 102 along the O-line! Last season, both the offense and defense underachieved, but I'm hoping the experience and the energy will give them the boost they need to increase statistical output and keep them in close games. I'm not completely nuts, though, and see the Gophers' limitations. They suffer the same three-game run that Illinois does with OSU, PSU and MSU, but add Illinois and Iowa late. It'll be hard, but they'll win 2 of those for a 4-4 record.
6. Iowa - It's not crazy to think that the Hawkeyes could have the best defense in this conference next season. They return 8 to a unit that was top-3 last season and the LB corp and DB's are top notch. This could help Iowa control big games and keep some of the faster, more explosive teams in check and allow the offense to take over behind their stellar O-line (99 starts). The Hawkeyes will be playing traditional B10 football all year, and while they have the talent to be competitive, it won't be enough to challenge for the title. The big games are spread out enough for comfort, but I just don't see this team getting back to 9 wins...or even 5 in league.
7. Michigan - Talk about hard times. Michigan, the preeminent powerhouse, was a lowly 2-6 in the Big Ten last season while Rich Rod implemented his new systems. The good news? Well, we're a season in and the offense return a ZOMG 10 starters. 10 guys who know the new system now and are ready to compete and get Big Blue back where they belong. The Bad News? one of those 10 is NOT a QB. Remember Pat White at WVU? Pretty important, huh? The entire system revolves around the QB and not only will Michigan be breaking in a new one, he's a true freshman. Ouch. So, while Michigan will be much improved and winning early, the back half run with PSU, at Ill., and tOSU will be too much this soon. But look out next year...
8. Wisconsin - Everything about Wisky this season screams "middle of the pack." The offense and defense both finished their in '08 and the 11 starters returning pretty much mean they'll be there again at season's end. Offensively, they return a solid QB and his best targets, but the run game's iffy with unproven backs and questionable depth on the line. Injuries were a major problem last year, so if the Badgers stay healthy, they could easily climb up a few spots, but with the league's parity through the middle, I'd say they need to get used that 3-5 record.
9. Northwestern - There's no Ohio State on the schedule and 8 starters back on a very surprising D. It'll be enough to go bowling, but not enough to reach 9 wins again. The offense will be Kafka-esque...not really, but the QB's name is Mike Kafka and that's the most interesting thing there is to say about this team. Moving on.
And, for the bottom of the barrel - The Hoosier State Ho-down! I'll take Indiana (10) over Purdue (11) and and these two teams will share 3 wins between themselves. Against who I don't know, but it always seems to go that way.