SjT View From: 20 Questions Big 10 Style

Can't wait for football season? Summer Saturdays of cars going around in circles, juiced up baseballs and counting sheep, er golf balls, just not enough to tide you over? Well, join the club! America's true passion and crisp autumn afternoons filled with tailgating and marching bands is just around the corner … and it's never too early to speculate on what the coming year has in store.

The 2009 season should be an interesting one for the Big Ten. The league has taken its share of jabs – some deserved and some from clueless ABC studio hosts who like to kick the league while down and still haven't found out how to escape Dick Schapp's shadow. Will this be the year we bounce back? Probably not – I see that coming in 2010, but I do think we'll be better than most of the experts believe. Do we need a championship game? No – it would be fun for fans, but has no effect on whether or not we win bowl games after six weeks off while playing on our opponent's home turf. And can anyone beat the Buckeyes? More on that later.

But questions, like numbers, can be broken down by team – what do we know about this year's senior class? Looking at the numbers a few things stand out on league hierarchy …
Ohio State's seniors have dominated the league like few other classes, going 22-2 (both losses, interestingly enough, coming at home) and winning two league titles outright (sharing a third). Losing to Texas and Florida and falling at USC and LSU shouldn't tarnish a truly remarkable run for Jim Tressel's team.
Penn State has emerged as OSU's true rival, as Joe Paterno's Lions are the only other league team to never drop out of the top half of standings during the three-year span and earning one championship by beating the Bucks in the Shoe last year.

Wisconsin and Michigan are a notch below the Lions, coming in third and fourth in overall records and average finish. However, both of them enjoyed their best season in that stretch three years ago under their former coaches. Uh oh.

• The final spot in the "upper half" of the league was a dogfight and a bit of a surprise – Iowa was number five in terms of wins and Northwestern in terms of average finish in the standings. And in mirror opposites to the Badgers and Wolverines, both Iowa and NU had their best year in our survey last year and have shown improvement each of the last three years in record and league finish.

Minnesota and Indiana were the clear cellar dwellers and only two teams that failed to notch double-digit league wins in the three years or crack the upper half of the league in the final standings.

Purdue, Illinois and Michigan State made up the rest of the bottom five of the league, with each enjoying only one season in the top half during the past three years – the Boilers in 2006, Illini in 2007 and Sparty in 2008.
As we know, things can change quickly in Big Ten football, but the numbers do give us a clue to the overall direction of the programs and how the schools' senior classes are looking to fare in 2009. So without further delay, to the teams and questions!

ILLINOIS
Senior class record: 10-14 in league play / 16-21 overall Average Big Ten finish: 7.0 Burning question: When will the Ron Zook recruits pay off?
And perhaps more importantly, will it happen before the text messaging bills arrive for Zooker's account?

The Rose Bowl season was a nice surprise for Illini fans, but they didn't have much time to enjoy it on the roller coaster ride that has been Illinois football. The up/down trend would seem to indicate good news in 2009, but it all depends on all that talent melding into a team. No one doubts that Juice Williams is a playmaker, but he didn't look like a leader last year without Rashard Mendenhall and J Lehman to step up in the fourth quarter.

The schedule is rough early, with OSU, PSU and MSU to start off league play – but two of those are at home and it's all downhill from there. Ron Zook has been hailed as a master recruiter, but with all those top-rated classes now in camp, he has to either start translating all that talent into Ws like they do in Columbus, or Illinois is in danger of becoming "Notre Dame South," where great recruiting classes go to die.

INDIANA
Record: 7-17 / 15-22
Average finish: 9.0
Burning question: Are they running on fumes?
Emotion has carried the Hoosiers the past three years, from coming so close in 2006 to the "Play 13" for Coach Hep season in 2007 to the emotional wall they ran into last year. No one doubts that these kids and the entire IU community have been through a lot and have performed admirably … but now that we can reassess the program after a trying time, is there really anything to suggest that Indiana football is on the rise besides a few stadium improvements and sudden interest from a student body who no longer has basketball fever to occupy them in the fall?

The schedule isn't kind, with Michigan and OSU opening the league slate, followed by trips to Evanston, Iowa City and Happy Valley.


IOWA
Record: 11-13 / 21-17
Average finish: 6.7
Burning question: Who can move the chains?
A lot of people seem to like the Hawkeyes as darkhorses this year, and Kirk Ferentz has certainly done more with less, but the biggest question entering the season is who will replace Shonn Greene – who had three times as many trips to the end zone than the second highest scorer on the Hawkeyes last year.

This guy wasn't just part of Iowa's offense last year, he WAS Iowa's offense.

Defense will carry the Hawkeyes far, but not all the way – especially with road trips to PSU, MSU, OSU and Wisconsin. It's tough to see them cracking the Rose Bowl race unless they find someone who can consistently push the ball forward.


MICHIGAN
Record: 15-9 / 23-15
Average finish: 4.7
Burning question: Are we there yet?
Maize and Blue fans did an admirable job biting their tongues last year – boo birds would have been far more prevalent in Columbus or East Lansing – but patience is running thin.

I am certain that Rich Rodriguez can make Michigan into a national power within five years, but I am far less sure that he will get five years from Wolverine boosters. A lot of programs have had their falls from grace recently, but only Nebraska really tried to completely change their program's identity during that down span, and that didn't work out too well in Lincoln.

Another season with fewer than 8 wins and no real answer on who the quarterback of the future will be could mean an end to the RichRod era. Clear improvement is a must for 2009, especially since they only have to leave the state three times for games this year (who do they think they are, Texas?).


MICHIGAN STATE
Record: 10-14 / 20-18
Average finish: 7.3
Burning question: Is this sleeping giant finally awake?
After Barry Alvarez arrived in Madison and molded an enormous cheese curd into grade-A gouda, no Big Ten program has been as glaring as an untapped gold mine as the one in East Lansing.

There's a storied tradition, rabid fans, perfect football stadium, etc. Nick the Slick Saban came close, but (of course) bolted. And that long-standing inferiority complex with that school down the road in Ann Arbor hasn't helped either. But after a successful 2008, is Sparty ready to move beyond all that and finally become a consistent top-25 power?

Physically the answer is yes. Mentally … hmm. The good news for MSU is that the Buckeyes are off the schedule and the Wolverines, Wildcats, Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions all visit East Lansing. So this might be the start of something big for Sparty.


MINNESOTA

Record: 6-18
Average finish: 8.0
Burning question: Did someone pack the mittens and thermal underwear?
The new stadium looks beautiful … in the sunshine. The true test of Minnesota's new era of post-Humpdome football will come the first time the flakes fall (late September?).

Coach Tim Brewster did an interesting thing in last year's bowl game – he pretty much threw out trying to win the game and instead used the extra practices to install a new ground-oriented attack that wears well in all types of weather. They could have growing pains, but it certainly looks to be a wise move for the long haul. The schedule is set up for a quick start before a brutal two-week road trip in October to play in the Horseshoe and Happy Valley … but after that the new home field will be put to the test with three of the final four at the new stadium in late autumn.

A little home cooking and it could make up for last year's slide.


NORTHWESTERN
Record: 10-14 / 19-18
Average finish: 6.3
Burning question: Do we remember how to win games with defense?
One man on the sidelines sure does, but the purple Pasadena-bound punishers of Pat Fitzgerald's 1995 team have given way over the years to some pretty pitiful defenders.

NU has had some good linebackers over the years, but everyone in Evanston knows that it's the offensive innovations that have led to the renaissance of Wildcat football in the last decade. But now with a new quarterback, running back and receiving corps, the Cats will have to rely on … what's that word again? … deeee-fense?!

Fortunately, for the first time since the Ron Vanderlinden days, NU has a standout defensive coordinator (thanks, Wisconsin!) and some serious talent on that side of the ball. For the Cats to repeat last year's fourth-place finish, the defense can't just be good, they have to be outstanding and make plays to help the offense win. On the plus side for NU fans, the schedule is kind for the first half of the season, and Ohio State is off the slate, but the offense better be ready in the second half to make a serious postseason push.


OHIO STATE
Record: 22-2 / 33-6
Average finish: 1.3
Burning question: How good is Terrelle Pryor?
And perhaps more importantly, will we get to see him?

Ohio State played it conservative last year in unveiling their multi-talented weapon in the backfield. And why wouldn't you when you have Beanie Wells and a defense full of first-round NFL draft picks. But most of those faces are gone and the 2009 Buckeyes are as inexperienced as you'll likely see in the football factory era of Cooper and Tressel. Which puts the pressure on Pryor.

If he is the second coming of Vince Young, it could be another year of OSU in the national title picture, especially since USC (in what they would call "rebuilding" as well) is early on the schedule and at home.

But if the coaches try and fit him into the traditional Buckeye offense peg, there could be a loss or two even before a colossal November trip to State College and what's sure to be a wild white-out atmosphere in Beaver Stadium.


PENN STATE
Record: 16-8 / 29-10
Average finish: 3.3
Burning question: Why aren't these guys the league favorites for 2009?
I realize PSU lost a few of their speedy receivers and they had that major letdown game in Iowa City last year, but these guys should be the team to beat in Big Ten play in 2009.

They have the offensive backfield back, a senior quarterback who's proven his toughness again and again, and the defense should be better with Sean Lee back from injury. They also have a legendary coach and a dream schedule. All of PSU's September games are in Beaver Stadium, culminated by a revenge date with the Hawkeyes. October's a bit tougher, with road trips to Illinois, Northwestern and mental-block Michigan. But should PSU survive that, Ohio State visits Happy Valley on Nov. 7 in a game that should be for all the marbles, and only the season finale at MSU looms after that.


PURDUE
Record: 10-14 / 20-19
Average finish: 8.0
Burning question: Is there Hope for life after Tiller?
Joe Tiller will go down as a revolutionary coach in Big Ten history – not just for resurrecting the Purdue program, but for changing how the game was played with "basketball on grass."

But for all the accolades, Purdue has been stuck in the middle of the pack since Drew Brees graduated and a coaching change isn't exactly a great remedy in a league where most of the programs (aside from Old Oaken Bucket rival IU and possibly Wisconsin) are looking better and on the rise in 2009. The schedule skips Penn State, and aside from a trip to Oregon early on there's not too tough of a road slate, but that just means that Purdue's got a rough stretch of home games – and Ross-Ade Stadium is not one of the big home-field advantages in league play.

A couple missteps by new coach Danny Hope in rough games at home and the boo birds could come out with fans asking "is it basketball season yet?"


WISCONSIN

Record: 15-9 / 28-11
Average finish: 4.3
Burning question: How hot is that seat, Mr. Bielema?
Barry Alvarez didn't exactly leave the cupboard bare in Madison when he retired to that luxury box in the sky to watch over his Badger program (no pressure!), so Brett Bielema's initial campaign and 12-1 record don't help him much after the two sub par seasons in 2007 and 2008.

The buzz of Barry's Rose Bowl and other postseason triumphs is wearing off, and the hangover could be painful unless Bucky can find a way to return to Wisconsin football – or at least have a decent defense and a solid ground game. The schedule is favorable, with no Penn State and Iowa and MSU in Madison … but OSU and nemesis Northwestern are on the road – plus there's a season-ending trip to Hawaii that can be a trap game for a team caught up in coaching rumors.

With Bill Snyder coming back to Kansas State this year, another mediocre season in Madison could turn the cries of "Bring Back Barry!" into a deafening roar by season's end.

GO CATS!!!

-SjT



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