4) ILLINOIS (8-4 / 4-4)
There is no greater wild card in the Big Ten race than Ron Zook's team. They're the type of team that can win in Columbus one week and slip up against Purdue the next. For years, the recruiting magazines have been telling us that Zook has the best recruiting classes this side of South Bend, so unless the Illini want to earn that reputation Notre Dame has of being a place where great recruits go out to pasture, it's put up or shut up time for the blue and orange. Can the Illini do it? Absolutely. Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn are the league's best passing combo and the Illini can score in bunches. But the defense took some hits, even from an underachieving group last year. So the best bet is to expect another wild ride for Illinois fans this year – they are the most likely team to beat Penn State this year, but they could also drop a home game to Michigan or (hopefully) Northwestern. A fast start is essential, as the Illini schedule is front loaded this year with Mizzou, OSU, PSU and MSU being four of the first five games. A good start and it could be Roses, a bad start and they'll quit on Zook, an even split and, well, welcome to Illinois football.
* Key game: vs. Michigan State – I think the Illini will get either PSU or MSU at home this year, but the Spartan game is the one they really need to focus on as a must-win if they want to have January 1 bowl hopes, as losses in Columbus and to the Nittany Lions will be excusable. A loss to Sparty could start a collapse of confidence.
* Bowl outlook: Champs Bowl vs. Clemson – A win over PSU would give the Illini some national attention again and they would make a push for Tampa, but they just don't bring as many people to fill the seats as Iowa and Wisconsin … hence it's a trip to Orlando's second-tier bowl and an obscene amount of orange in the stands with Clemson.
4) IOWA (8-4 / 4-4)
The Hawkeyes seem to be everyone's darkhorse based solely on being the one Big Ten team to win a bowl game last year – but any of those teams in the running for Tampa probably would have won the Outback Bowl last year, so Iowa just got a lucky draw to avoid facing Mizzou in San Antonio. As for the 2009 team, I just don't see much hope for a big run. For starters, Shonn Greene (foolishly) bolted early for the NFL, so it's tough to see who will pick up the slack and actually move the chains for Iowa. The defense will be solid but not spectacular. And then there's the schedule. Iowa faces road games in Happy Valley, Columbus, East Lansing and Madison. Ouch! Throw in a road game at in-state nemesis Iowa State and you can see it's going to be tough to break into title contention even if they do sweep their home games. Kirk Ferentz' teams are usually better in November than September, but all of those road games except OSU come early.
* Key game: @ Wisconsin – No one has a tougher road than the Hawkeyes this year, so that leaves the Badgers and a visit to Camp Randall as the "easy" one. Unless they can break through here, they can't get more than 8 wins and that still assumes holding on at home against Minnesota and Northwestern.
* Bowl outlook: Alamo Bowl vs. Nebraska – After overreaching last year and heading to Tampa when they should have been in San Antonio, the Hawkeyes head to the Alamo this year for a game that should be a non-conference series every year. The Corn Bowl!
4) NORTHWESTERN (8-4 / 4-4)
Coach Pat Fitzgerald has quietly made improvements in the win column every year in Evanston, but unless another "Purple to Pasadena" type of season comes around, that streak ends this year. Still, Northwestern has shown that they're not going away – 15 years after the Rose Bowl run, they're bowl contenders every year. This year's team will be a bit unusual for NU fans in that it will rely on its defense, especially early. The Wildcats must replace virtually every skill position player on offense, but do have some talent waiting in the wings. But while they start to get a rhythm, it's up to the Cats' defense, which should be their best since 1995's Fitzgerald-led crew. If Corey Wootton can come back from injury close to what he was last year, he should be one of the league's top pass rushers, and the secondary may be the best in the league. The schedule is favorable for NU, with the first major road test coming in the middle of October, but they can't afford many slip ups early as the slate is backloaded with trips to Iowa and Illinois sandwiched between visits from PSU and Wisconsin in the final four games. If the offense has clicked by then, it could be another 9-win season or better, but more likely the Cats will lose a game or two they should win to go along with an upset and finish right in the middle of that massive 4-4 pack.
* Key game: vs. Minnesota – the Cats must defend home turf and win the ones they should win to get to 8 wins this year, that means beating the Gophers. The good news is that they get Minny early (they'll be a much better team by November), but it's going to be tough. Lose this and you have to make up a win at Iowa or Illinois in November.
* Bowl outlook: Insight Bowl vs. Colorado – Northwestern has actually had six or more wins 5 of the past 6 years – but they can't get much love from bowls, being left at home twice and getting bypassed in the pecking order the other three years. NU gets the short straw again here (though Phoenix in December is perfect!) with a "Barnett Bowl" against the Buffs to rouse up some interest – the biggest thing is that the Cats need to finally get that bowl W to change the pecking order a bit.
4) WISCONSIN (8-4 / 4-4)
No seat is hotter these days in the Big Ten than the one of Brett Bielema in Madison. He's pretty much done the reverse of his youthful counterpart Fitzgerald in that UW's win total has decreased by 2 or 3 each season as fewer of Barry Alvarez' recruits remain. The coach may stop some of that bleeding this year, but it's tough to see Bucky breaking through into league title contention. The roster is solid in most places, but there just don't appear to be many playmakers on offense or defense. John Clay is the hope at running back, but he needs to prove he can be a workhorse in the Wisconsin tradition. Overall, the schedule is favorable. Ohio State is on the road (though Wisky is one of the few teams not intimidated by The Shoe), but key games with Iowa and MSU are at home and Illinois is off the schedule.Tomorrow - the Top 3!
* Key game: vs. Iowa – The Badgers must beat the Hawks at home to move into that upper tier of bowls for the Big Ten. Beating Sparty in Madison would be nice, too, but the Hawkeyes are more likely to be competing with Bucky for that final January 1 bowl bid.
* Bowl outlook: Outback Bowl vs. Georgia – Despite a lackluster finish to the year, no one brings fans to bowl sites like the Badgers and Tampa would love to have a red-on-red matchup with Georgia here.