***Northwestern (4-8 overall, 2-6 in the conference): While the big year is probably a season away, the Wildcats head into the 2007 campaign with a chance to certainly be bowling somewhere around the holiday season. The team played admirably in the wake of head coach Randy Walker's death last season, and return 40 letter winners ready to take the next step.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has a heck of player to build the offense around in junior running back Tyrell Sutton (1,000 yards, 5 TDs). The former Ohio Mr. Football rushed for 1,474 yards as a freshman, but found it much tougher to run this past fall with quarterback Brett Basanez graduating. That should change this year. Junior C.J. Bacher (1,172 yards, 6 TDs, 8 INTs) played well the second half the season after finally winning the starting duties. He won't have to compete for the job this year. Center Trevor Rees and tackle Dylan Thiry anchor the offensive line, and Ross Lane (401 yards, 2 TDs) should have much better numbers with Bacher at the helm full time.
For the first time in quite some time, Northwestern returns a defensive line that could be dominant. And they are all still young. Both defensive tackles, John Gill (40 tackles, 4 TFL) and Adam Hahn (28 tackles, 3.5 TFL) are back, and big sophomore Corey Wootton (51 tackles, 9 tackles for loss) will bring a dominant pass rush off the edge. Leading tackler Adam Kadela (80 tackles, 2 TFL) is back at linebacker, and second-leading tackler Brendan Smith (68 tackles, 3 INTs) returns at safety. Both of those guys are going to need some help from inexperienced guys at the same positions.
***Ohio State (12-1 overall, 8-0 in the conference): Don't expect this team to be down despite losing six starters on defense and a few studs on offense including Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. This year's version of the Buckeyes could look similar to the team that won the National Championship in 2003. The first eight games of the season, head coach Jim Tressel and company should roll, giving them the opportunity to work the kinks out and give all the new starters the opportunity to get all their bearings.
This team will be built around its defense, special teams and power running. The linebacker unit will be one of the nation's best led by last year's Nagurski Award winner (college football's best defensive player) James Laurinaitis (115 tackles, 8.5 TFL. 5 INTs) and Marcus Freeman (71 tackles, 2 INTs). Throw in probable first-year starter Larry Grant (18 tackles), and with those linebackers flying around, this defense will be tough to run against. Defensive end Vernon Gholston (49 tackles, 8.5 sacks) is the only starter returning to the defensive line, but with Lawrence Wilson (14 tackles, 3 sacks) joining the starting lineup, that will be quite a pass rush. Malcolm Jenkins (55 tackles, 4 INTs) leads a young secondary full of speed.
The offense won't be as spread out this fall with players like Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez and Antonio Pittman gone. The identity should change back to the year it was with Maurice Clarett as the featured back. Although this time, it's going to be the Chris Wells (587 yards, 7 TDs) show. With Pittman out of the picture, Wells could blossom into a Heisman candidate with a very talented offensive line paving the way. The tackle combination of Alex Boone and Kirk Barton rivals anybody in the country, and guard Steve Rehring is also back. Todd Boekman is the probable replacement to replace Smith. As long as he doesn't turn the ball over, the Buckeyes should be fine, and will still be in the National Title hunt when they travel to Michigan for the last game of the regular season.
***Penn State (9-4 overall, 5-3 in the conference): Coming off a solid rebuilding year, the Nittany Lions come into 2007 back in the conference title and BCS talks. Head coach Joe Paterno heads into his 42nd season on the Penn State sidelines trying to win his second Big Ten title in three years. With a lot of veterans on both sides of the ball and a favorable schedule, it could be a special year in Happy Valley.
Defensively, Penn State's back seven is as tough as any in the nation. Cornerback Justin King (30 tackles, 1 INT) is a potential All-American, and safety Anthony Scirrotto (58 tackles, 6 INTs) was first-team all-conference a year ago. Linebacker Dan Connor (113 tackles, 9 TFL) moves to inside linebacker, replacing former Butkus Award winner Paul Posluszny, giving the defense another potential All-American. Sean Lee (90 tackles, 8 TFL) was the team's third-leading tackler a year ago. The defensive line lost three starters, but Paterno and his staff has recruited well at this position and has several able bodies are ready to go.
Quarterback Anthony Morelli (2,424 yards, 11 TDs, 8 INTs) comes into his final season at Penn State protected by four returning offensive linemen and four of his top five receivers from a year ago. The receivers, small but talented, are led by Derrick Williams (440 yards, 1 TD), Deon Butler (637 yards, 2 TDs), and Jordan Norwood (472 yards, 2 TDs). Tight end Andrew Quarless (288 yards, 2 TDs), who moved into the starting lineup as a freshman last year, is poised for a big year. Center A.Q. Shipley is back to lead the offensive line that has to replace first-round draft choice Levi Brown, but has everyone else in place. Thin at running back, Paterno is looking for big things out of fifth-year senior Austin Scott.
Penn State opens the Big Ten season at Michigan, who they have lost to eight straight times. But other than that, they have a favorable conference slate with Wisconsin and Ohio State both coming to Happy Valley. Conference road games are against bottom feeders, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan State.
***Purdue (8-6 overall, 5-3 in the conference): Head coach Joe Tiller has given Purdue fans something to be proud of over the past 11 seasons including 10 trips to bowl game with one Rose Bowl appearance. But he raised the bar himself and people want more. The Boilermakers are experienced on both sides of the ball, although on defense that might not be a good thing, and if they can just find some consistency, could be a real sleeper in the conference.
Last year's offense ranked six nationally in passing, and first in the conference in total yardage. Curtis Painter (3,985 yards, 22 TDs, 19 INTs) could throw for over 4,000 yards this season with All-America caliber receivers Dorien Bryant (1,068 yards, 6 TDs) and Selwyn Lymon (580 yards, 3 TDs) on his side. Running backs Kory Sheets (780 yards, 11 TDs) and Jaycen Taylor (677 yards, 4 TDs) add to an attack that could be one of the most productive in the country. Back on the offensive line is tackle Sean Sester, guard Jordan Grimes and center Robbie Powell. This offense has to be better in the red zone. Several drives ended with a missed field goal or turnover a year ago.
If Purdue is going to win games, they are going to need a lot more from the defense. This unit gave up 27 points per game last season, and with the exception of Anthony Spencer, were pretty terrible in all facets.
Unfortunately for Purdue, Michigan and Ohio State return to an already tough schedule.
***Wisconsin (12-1 overall, 7-1 in the conference): A heck of an argument can be made about why it wasn't fair that the Badgers were left out of the BCS last year. Unfortunately for them, in head coach Bret Bielema's first season, a conference can only have two teams play in a BCS bowl and Ohio State and Michigan had such outstanding seasons leaving Wisconsin in the cold. With the Buckeyes back on the schedule, another talented Badgers team has a better opportunity to control their own BCS destiny this fall.
It's never easy to replace experienced talented players like offensive tackle Joe Thomas and quarterback John Stocco, but Wisconsin heads into the season with very little question marks. One thing yet to be straightened out is Stocco's replacement. Tyler Donovan (564 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs) and Kansas State transfer Allan Everidge will continue competing this fall. Running back P.J. Hill (1,569 yards, 15 TDs) is a potential conference player of the year candidate. Hill has another physical line to run behind. Thomas is gone, but Nick Hayden is back at the other tackle, and Kraig Urbik is returning at guard. Tight end Travis Beckum (903 yards, 5 TDs) is one of the best offensively at his position, and was Stocco's favorite receiver last season.
The defense only allowed 12.1 points per game last season, good for second nationally, and expect more of the same. The down four is very good led by defensive end Matt Shaughnessy (35 tackles, 8 TFL) and defensive tackle Nick Hayden (27 tackles, 4 TFL). A very talented pair of cornerbacks, Jack Ikegwuonu (41 tackles, 11 breakups) and Allen Langford (35 tackles, 3 INTs) could be the league's best duo. Linebacker Jonathan Casillas (83 tackles, 12.5 TFL) is the Badgers top returning tackler.
The early portion of the schedule is very manageable. A win at Penn State in October will prove this team is very legit, and sets the tone for November games at Ohio State and home to Michigan.