SjT: Big 10/Top 20 Preview

It's that most wonderful time of the year again ... I can hear the bands marching, tailgates sizzling and crisp autumn Saturdays of pigskin perfection are just around the corner! First we get the annual Big Ten preview and pre-season SjTop 25 rankings. Enjoy!

He's a Purple Reign regular - Stephen J. Truog returns for the 2007 season with his game insights and wrapups of college football each week. Welcome back Steve.



* Projected finish: 12-0 (8-0) / BCS Title Game vs.USC

* Why they'll win it: An offense that is arguably the league's best at every skill position, along with sentiment that it may be Lloyd Carr's swan song and the sting of last year's final two games providing motivation for a resurgence of Maize and Blue.

* Why they won't: A rebuilt defense and O-line … plus a September trio of games (Oregon, ND, PSU) where Carr has stumbled in the past and a final triple play of visits to MSU and Madison along with a visit from that team to the South that has beaten Michigan 4 of the last 5 games.

* Outlook: Michigan seems to be set up to be the Ohio State of last year, with Hesiman candidates galore on offense, the host spot in that annual rivalry game and some sting from just missing the BCS title game last year. Add to that a push by a focused coaching staff (possibly a final push for Carr?) and it could be a rematch with the Trojans in New Orleans.


* Projected finish: 11-1 (7-1) / Rose Bowl vs.California

* Why they'll win it: One of the two Big Ten teams to beat the SEC in last year's bowl games, PSU is hoping that Tampa was Anthony Morelli's coming out party – with a lot of talent on offense and a favorable schedule, it could be another "roar restored" year for JoePa in Happy Valley.

* Why they won't: The off-field problems could be distracting, though JoePa's solution actually could be one that brings the team closer together. There's also some key losses on defense to contend with and that gigantic mental road block in Maize and Blue that has tripped up PSU for a decade now.

* Outlook: If PSU can beat Michigan, look out! But even if they don't, that game's in September and there are plenty of marquee contests with Notre Dame, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin at home. That Badger game could be for a second BCS berth from the league. Beat the Badgers and an 11-1 team on an 8-game winning streak could mean a return to Roses for Nittany fans.


* Projected finish: 10-2 (6-2) / Citrus Bowl vs. Georgia

* Why they'll win it: After last year's surprising campaign, the Badgers are a fashionable sleeper pick for the title game, with loads of offensive talent returning and a favorable schedule that could have Bucky 10-0 with Michigan coming in to Camp Randall for a huge November showdown.

* Why they won't: A new quarterback will be rough, and Coach Bielema won't be surprising anyone this year.

Plus, the road isn't exactly a cakewalk with visits to OSU and PSU.

* Outlook: Bucky's tough, and probably more of a threat to win the league than PSU because they don't fear Michigan as much – but I still see them third in a close race at the top because the PSU game is in Happy Valley. That's their biggest obstacle to a perfect season, not Michigan in Madison.


* Projected finish: 9-3 (5-3) / Outback Bowl vs.Auburn

* Why they'll finish higher: There are a lot of shoes to fill with the talented departures on offense … but at least the Bucks will have some time to break in the new starters. No early game with Texas here, so OSU can rely on defense until late October and the D should be solid. Plus, last year's puzzling title game gaffes aside, Tressel's still the top coach in the league.

* Why they won't: No Smith. No Ginn. No Pittman (that one really hurts). No Gonzalez. Yes, the D is solid like it was a few years ago, but OSU also relied big-time on special teams to eke out those games with the D, and Aaron Pettrey is no Mike Nugent. They could slip up early while the newbies on offense make mistakes.

* Outlook: The Buckeyes were probably the best team in the nation last year and just were rusty and ill-prepared for their final game – they simply lost too much talent to win the league this year. But they'll definitely have a say in who takes home the trophy, as they play PSU, Wisconsin and Michigan in their final four games. If they can build  confidence and avoid big mistakes early, they could be 8-0 heading into Happy Valley and pull an upset or two to spoil one of the Big Three's chances.


* Projected finish: 9-3 (5-3) / Champs Bowl vs. Miami (FL)

* Why they'll finish higher: No Michigan. No Ohio State. The schedule is kind and the Hawkeyes have a lot returning on D and also have a lot to prove after a couple of disappointing seasons that have taken the glow off of Kirk Ferentz' halo.

* Why they won't: A new quarterback, O-line and big questions on special teams hurt. So does road games in Madison, Happy Valley and West Lafayette.

* Outlook: The Hawks' record will be inflated a big this year thanks to the schedule and they could go10-2 if they can upset Wisky, PSU or Purdue on the road. They could slip up elsewhere early, but the schedule is made for a strong finish and Iowa could use that big close and solid record to lock up a strong second-tier bowl berth.


* Projected finish: 9-3 (5-3) / Alamo Bowl vs. Texas A&M

* Why they'll finish higher: The Boilers will be a dangerous team that will score plenty of points this year. They also have something to prove after a couple of disappointing years.

* Why they won't: The defense has most starters back, but is that a good thing? Plus a six-game stretch in the middle of the season that includes visits from Notre Dame, OSU and Iowa along with trips to Michigan and PSU will be brutal.

* Outlook: I like the Boilers as a spoiler surprise this year to win one game they shouldn't, but also to lose one game they should win in un Tiller like fashion. They'll score a lot and if the D can hold up just a bit better than last year, this will be a dangerous squad that's fun to watch that will be in every game.


* Projected finish: 7-5 (3-5) / Insight Bowl vs.Kansas State

* Why they'll finish higher: The Cats have their quarterback in C.J. Bacher and should once again be explosive on offense. Plus, a host of returning starters should help toughen a defense that is starting to get some speed in the secondary.

* Why they won't: Some O-line and D-line questions loom large, and depth questions, as usual, are a concern (see Bacher's injury last year that likely cost them a bowl berth).

* Outlook: Last year was already a rebuilding one before the tragedy of Coach Walker's death and Coach Fitz did an admirable job of holding the ship together, with solid improvement at the end of the season. If they stay healthy, the Cats should build on that and return to the bowl scene. Winning all of the four non-conference games is crucial to that, however, along with defending home turf with Minnesota and Indiana. That's six wins … meaning road games at MSU, Purdue and Illinois, along with a home date with Iowa will likely hold the key to a bowl berth.


* Projected finish: 6-6 (2-6) / Motor City Bowl vs.Miami (OH)

* Why they'll win it: Glen Mason didn't exactly leave the cupboard bare for new coach Tim Brewster and the schedule is set up nicely with four creampuffs for the nonconference and some key Big Ten games at home.

* Why they won't: A new coach and a new quarterback usually spells trouble, not to mention the off-season off-field troubles in the program this year. Plus the defense has some holes.

* Outlook: Like Northwestern, Minnesota needs a 4-0 mark outside of the Big Ten to have a reasonable bowl chance … then the key games become home dates with Purdue, Illinois, OSU (early in the year – a plus) and road games at Indiana and Northwestern. Get three of those and you're in, two and you're sweating it out, hoping for two BCS bids for the league. Things may get better for the Gophers with a strong recruiter like Brewster in the future, but this year's going to be a tough transition and Mason may not look that bad by November.


* Projected finish: 5-7 (1-7)

* Why they'll finish higher: Ron Zook has assembled a lot of talent in Champaign, raised the excitement level and has a load of starters returning, including playmaker Juice Williams.

* Why they won't: Despite all the hype and fashionable bowl pick status, the Illini may still be a year away.

They haven't shown they know how to win the close games yet, and with a schedule that includes OSU, Michigan, PSU, Wisconsin, Iowa and early games vs.Missouri and at Syracuse, they need to win those close ones.

* Outlook: Memorial Stadium and any home field edge the Illini can muster may hold the key to a bowl berth this season. PSU, Wisconsin, Michigan and rival Northwestern visit Champaign along with Ball State and Western Illinois, and Illinois likely needs four of those to guarantee a bowl berth. Otherwise, it may come down to hoping the Big Ten gets two BCS teams and beating NU on the final day of the season … and even that might not cut it. But next year, this is a breakout team.


* Projected finish: 5-7 (1-7)

* Why they'll finish higher: There's a lot of talent returning in Bloomington and the Hoosiers have become a mentally tough team in recent years and were poised for a breakout in 2007.

* Why they won't: The tragic death of Coach Hoeppner meant that for the second straight year, an improving Big Ten program with a former Miami of Ohio head coach will be under tremendous emotional stress after losing their leader and, even more, an all-around good guy who was a father figure for many. Indiana is a bit more prepared than Northwestern was because of Coach Hoeppner's illness last year and missing practices, but that doesn't make the loss any easier.

* Outlook: Indiana, like NU last year, will be playing this year on pure emotion as a tribute to their beloved coach. That means an upset or two is likely, but also that the strain and burnout will come quicker. Everyone will be cheering for IU to get those six wins and a bowl, but like the Cats in 2006, I see them coming up just short.


* Projected finish: 4-8 (1-7)

* Why they'll finish higher: Javon Ringer is a talented running back and the defense returns a lot of starters for new coach Mark Dantonio. Plus, a change in attitude on the coaching staff has to help.

* Why they won't: New coach. New quarterback. A tough schedule that includes visits to South Bend, Madison, Columbus, Iowa City and West Lafayette … in addition to home dates with Michigan and Penn State.

* Outlook: Sparty may pull an upset or two, but if they stumble early to UAB or Pitt … or get down after games at ND and Wisky and slip up against Northwestern, it could be a long season full of Spartan fans' usual chorus of boos and ugly scores during a brutal home stretch. A new coach may ultimately wake this sleeping giant of a program, but they have to dig out of a pretty big hole first.

And now for the poll ...


1     SOUTHERN CAL – Trojans loaded and ready to get back to top

2     MICHIGAN – Offense is loaded, but schedule is full of traps

3     LSU – Toughies at home, but new QB and SEC make 12-0tough

4     WEST VIRGINIA – Again, Big Least sked tailor made for 12-0

5     TEXAS – Horns talented … could be MNC darkhorse if beat OU

6     FLORIDA – Defending champs lost a lot, but still loaded

7     WISCONSIN – Win at PSU and could be 10-0 for Michigan visit

8     VIRGINIA TECH – Upset at LSU would restore some ACC cred

9     GEORGIA – Lightest schedule of SEC contenders = darkhorse?

10    CALIFORNIA – Vols and SC visit Berkeley – put up or shut up

11    PENN STATE – Biggies at home, but still have Michigan block
12    AUBURN – Dangerous, but have murderous SEC roadgames
13    UCLA – Still not a believer, but SC win last year a start
14    OKLAHOMA – Sooners still only real threat to Horns in Big XII
15    LOUISVILLE – New coach, but same QB and weak  conference
16    FLORIDA STATE – As always, talent's there … but in a slump
17    OHIO STATE – Young, but have time to learn before big games
18    ARKANSAS – In turmoil, but still have best back in nation
19    NEBRASKA – Order restored? We'll find out when SC visits
20    HAWAII – Will be favored in every game, and win most big
21    TENNESSEE – Another Cal drubbing would improve Vols status
22    ARIZONA STATE – Have schedule, cocky coach for big  year
23    IOWA – No Michigan? No OSU? Thank you, schedulemaker!
24    TCU – Probably best non-BCS team, but visit Texas …  ugh!
25    RUTGERS – Will win 9 or 10, but can they beat WV or UL? 
XX    BOISE STATE – Cinderella's back, but must visit Hawaii
XX    SOUTH CAROLINA – Spurrier makes them dangerous
XX    BOSTON COLLEGE – Could be surprise in so-so ACC race
XX    OREGON – Ducks still tough at home and Pac 10 darkhorse
XX    CLEMSON – Are Tigers ready to step up to ACC elite?
XX    TEXAS A&M – Coach Fran needs a big year to survive
XX    PURDUE – Will score plenty, but will the D hold up?
XX    TEXAS TECH – See Purdue
XX    ALABAMA – Saban will have Tide back soon

Good to have football back!



Stephen J. Truog, former NU Marching Band member and now educator in Arizona, comments on the Wildcats from both the sidelines and his couch He has his own NU oriented Web Site - Visit SjTonline

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