It's almost here! The media days have taken place, the first practices are about to begin and baseball is mired in yet another summer of steroid scandals and "why bother?" shrugs from small market fans as the playoff teams appear to, once again, be those with big market bucks. But don't reach for that clicker and turn to golf, cars going in circles or "extreme" skateboarders in a desperate search for sport-like programming … football season is here!
And with the oncoming kickoff of the greatest season of the year, it's time for another look at the Big Ten and who will edge ahead in that race for Pasadena (and no, it's not Boise State). The 2009 season may appear to be a flashback to older times for many fans as the league can once again be referred to as the "Big Two" – except that instead of Michigan, it is Penn State who has become a legitimate rival to Ohio State for the top spot.
But that characterization would also be a bit unfair to the programs "bubbling under" who are ready to breakout. A better comparison for 2009 Big Ten football might be the 2008-09 Big Ten basketball season. The league won't get much respect nationally because of a few years of postseason slump … like the hardcourt Big Ten, we'll get a small mention for a couple teams on top and there will be a clear cellar dweller (same team), but there will also be an underrated horde of quality and improving teams in the middle who won't get much notice during the season, but will show their strength in the postseason and be ready to usher in a resurgent era next year. But just like in basketball, most of the national media probably won't catch on until late in the year and then finally realize that losing a road game in this league (as long as it's not in the state of Indiana) is not an indictment against the team's bowl worthiness. I'll certainly put the Big Ten's middle tier against any other league in the country and it may look like massive mess of 4-4 league records at the end, but it will be much more than that.
So without further delay, to the Sit Big Ten predictions for 2009 …
1) PENN STATE (8-0 in Big Ten / 12-0 overall)
The Nittany Lions had two bad quarters last year – the fourth in Iowa City and the second in Pasadena – otherwise they were a fun team to watch and a dominant one on both sides of the ball. A bit of the speed is gone at wideout, but the Lions have the best backfield in the Big Ten with quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster. As an added bonus, the defense should be better with the return of linebacker and field general Sean Lee. The secondary could be a problem, but no one on the schedule will really test PSU vertically. The schedule is also favorable in that the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes both come to Happy Valley. The only thing keeping PSU from a 12-0 year is a mental block road slip up like the Iowa game last year. I hope it comes in Evanston as they look ahead to OSU, but it will more likely come in Champaign against the Illini. If they manage to avoid those Land O' Lincoln traps and beat the Buckeyes to go 11-0, they won't lose to Sporty for the finale.
* Key game: vs. Ohio State – There is simply no better atmosphere for football than Beaver Stadium under the lights for the Penn State White Out – nothing comes close. So when these two border rivals battle in November, it should be an incredible game with everything on the line. The Buckeyes are pretty much impossible to beat in consecutive years under Coach Jim Tressel, but if anyone can do it, it looks like PSU at home is the one.
* Bowl outlook: Rose Bowl vs. USC. Even if they go 12-0, perceived weakness/league bias will keep PSU headed to Pasadena and a rematch with the Trojans (probably bypassed by a 10-2 SEC team, no doubt) – this one will be close, but SC will be a much better team in January at home than the one we see in Columbus in September. Could be a classic, as Joe Paterno and company won't want to lose a second straight game to SC.
2) OHIO STATE (7-1 / 11-1)
After carrying the league banner for a few years and getting hammered unfairly by the national press (making two straight title games is a feat – the first one was a bad break injury wise and the second a road game), the Bucks will be tested early and late this year. A September showdown with USC will be built up as a do-or-die respect game for both OSU and the Big Ten and it should be a great game. SC will have loads of talent as usual, but it's as close as you'll ever get to a Pete Carroll team "rebuilding" – that's where Terrelle Pryor's experience has to kick in and the Buckeyes have to get that "big win" at home. Once they do that, it will be clear sailing through October, as any threats have to come to the Shoe. November is a different story, though, opening with a megamatch in Happy Valley and closing with The Rivalry Game at Michigan. They get the Wolverine game again (closer than expected, though), but fall short at PSU.
* Key game: vs. Southern Cal – The PSU game is more important for the league title, but this is more important for the league overall. Credit the Buckeyes for being one of the few teams who will schedule big games out of league play with the Texas series a couple years back and this USC home-and-home (are you listening, SEC???). The Trojans will be young but loaded as usual – and Pete always has them fired up for the big games in prime time, but something tells me Pryor makes the difference this time.
* Bowl outlook: Fiesta Bowl vs. Oklahoma. The Buckeyes are BCS bound unless they lose big to USC and PSU. They travel well and draw big ratings. And while they've taken heat for their BCS record in recent years, the Sooners have gotten almost a free pass for an even longer losing streak in the big one. This way someone has to win.
3) MICHIGAN STATE (6-2 / 10-2)
Sparty is on the verge again – they've been there before only to have a coach leave or suffer some big self-inflicted wound and fall back to the middle of the pack. I think Mark Dantonio is the coach who can finally wake this sleeping giant for good and take MSU to the next level … but it won't happen quite yet. On paper, it would look like a good year for MSU to make that breakthrough – Ohio State is off the schedule and PSU visits East Lansing. But I think Sparty drops a game before the Land Grant Trophy classic (perhaps at Illinois but more likely at Minnesota) and finishes 10-2 again. They showed a lot of guts in the bowl game last year, so another 10-win season and a bowl win would be a nice improvement. They just have to make sure they don't slip up early at Notre Dame or against Michigan and lose confidence before the big games arrive later in the year.
* Key game: @ Notre Dame – Michigan State is, by far, the best team on the Irish schedule not named USC. It's a rivalry and it's a nationally televised game that a lot of people will be watching. A narrow escape or loss by Sparty could be catastrophic, but a Green and White demolition of an overrated Notre Dame in South Bend not only would quash all that BCS talk for Notre Dame early, but it would give MSU a push for the top 25 and set up a big season.
* Bowl outlook: Citrus Bowl vs. Alabama. Sparty gets a return trip to Orlando and this time needs to come home with the win. The opponent could be Georgia again or perhaps Ole Miss, but more fans and viewers would want to see the Tide and former coach slick Nick Saban face MSU. Those big bad Wolverines won't be down for too much longer, so Sparty needs to get the big win and set up a breakthrough 2010 now.