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Spring Preview 2009
The 20 Big Questions ... No. 15
17. Just how much does the Big Ten really suck?
The conference has been a punching bag when it comes to national perception, and rightly so. Unfortunately for Big Ten fans, it might be a case of things getting worse before they get better.
The main issue starts at the top with Ohio State losing big game after big game. When the lead dog doesn't represent itself well out of conference, it reflects poorly on the rest of the league. On the one hand, the 2008 Buckeyes might have underachieved considering it was a more experienced, arguably more talented team that went to the two straight national title games (there were at least ten starters who'll end up on an NFL roster next season). However, it's not like there have been any truly embarrassing losses.
It's not right to rip on any team for losing a national championship, and OSU got unfairly dumped on for losing to Florida and LSU. Okay, fine, so the Buckeyes were hardly prepared mentally or physically for the 2007 BCS Championship, but that was just one of a slew of high-end losses.
How's this for a fun stat? The last time Ohio State lost to a team that didn't go to the BCS was November 13th of 2004. Think about that for a moment … W had just been reelected. After that loss to Purdue, the program has gone 45-8 with all eight coming against teams that ended up on the big stage. While that proves Jim Tressel knows how to get his team up for the midrange games week after week, there's a failure when it comes to the spotlight moments. It all trickles down from there.
Penn State was a killer last year, but the program always needs a year or two to rev it back up to a BCS-caliber level after winning big with senior-laden teams. Even so, this will still be another good Nittany Lion team with just enough talent returning to challenge for the Big Ten title. Michigan State has a growing national rep, but it hasn't earned it by beating anyone major. And then there's … uh … um … uh-oh.
Michigan being awful is a huge PR hit for the conference. Wisconsin was supposed to be a major player in the BCS race last year, but poor quarterback play and a mystifying lack of tackling ended all of that. Iowa had a strong season and came on late, and now another good year is a must to prove that it wasn't a mirage. Illinois didn't go bowling last year and has to show it wasn't a one-year wonder, Northwestern is fine, but nothing special, and Minnesota went into the tank over the second half of the season. And then there's Purdue and Indiana trying to rebuild.
The Big Ten still has the big name, the big spotlight, the network and plenty of high-profile games, but to prove that the conference doesn't stink it has to come up with something impressive to show otherwise. That comes with non-conference wins, and that's the problem. Just take a look at the big out-of-conference losses last year (along with the good wins) …
Illinois – Last year: Lost to Missouri and Western Michigan
Indiana – Last year: Lost to Ball State and Central Michigan
Iowa – Last year: Lost to Pitt, beat Iowa State and South Carolina
Michigan – Last year: Lost to Utah, Notre Dame, and Toledo
Michigan State – Last year: Lost to California and Georgia, beat Notre Dame
Minnesota – Last year: Lost to Kansas
Northwestern – Last year: Lost to Missouri, beat Syracuse and Duke (fine, so these are reaches).
Ohio State – Last year: Lost to USC and Texas
Penn State – Last year: Lost to USC, beat Oregon State and Syracuse
Wisconsin – Last year: Lost to Florida State, beat Fresno State
That doesn't even take into account all the close calls against vastly inferior teams (like Wisconsin needing three missed extra points to beat Cal Poly and Ohio State surviving against Ohio). That means the league had 16 key losses against non-conference teams while the best wins were Penn State's home blasting of Oregon State and Iowa's bowl win over a mediocre South Carolina … zzzzzzzz.
Going into this season, there doesn't appear to be any hope of an appreciable boost across the board. Ohio State will be worse, Penn State won't be better, and while Michigan State is on the rise, it's got some reloading to do. In other words, Big Ten fans, keep a low profile and wait for the cycle to eventually swing back the league's way.
The Top 5 Players Who Need A Big Spring
1. Tate Forcier, QB Michigan
2. Dustin Sherer, QB Wisconsin
3. Jewel Hampton, RB Iowa
4. Chaz Powell, WR Penn State
5. Dan Herron, RB Ohio State
The Top 5 Position Concerns/Battles
1. Michigan quarterback
2. Penn State receivers
3. Ohio State offensive line
4. Michigan State quarterback
5. Purdue quarterback
The 5 Biggest Big Ten Spring Storylines
1. Michigan's offensive backfield. Will the talent be there to match the system and style?
2. The Ohio State talent factory … can the program simply replace all the key starters at running back, receiver, on the offensive line and in the defensive back seven?
3. Can Penn State repeat? The receiver and the offensive line will have the spotlight on.
4. Wisconsin looking to recapture the tough image. After last year's disaster, head coach Bret Bielema needs his team to come into the season rolling.
5. Can Michigan State take the next step despite needing to come up with major replacements in the offensive backfield?
The Spring Big Ten Team Rankings
1. Penn State
2. Ohio State
3. Michigan State
The Pre-Spring Call For Player Of The Year
1. Daryll Clark, QB Penn State
2. Terrelle Pryor, QB Ohio State
3. Juice Williams, QB Illinois
4. Navarro Bowman, LB Penn State
5. Greg Jones, LB Michigan State