A quick, early look at the Big Ten

Lots of people have been wondering who the best in the Big Ten will be this year. I don't know if I have the answer or not, but I have a guess...

The Big Ten seems to be the conference everyone across the nation loves to hate.  Every year, we hear that the Big Ten is overrated, too slow, boring, etc.  Well, despite what they say, we love our Big Ten football up here, and this year, it should be an exciting year because it is yet another year that anyone can win it.  Chances are there won't be a team that competes for the national title (which will cause more "Big Ten being overrated" criticisms), but this is going to be one of those years where anyone can beat anyone else and it should be topsy-turvy.

Today, I'm going to take a shot (in the dark) at ranking the teams.  This is an early guess and it could change as the summer rolls along.  But here it is for now...

1. Ohio State (Returning Starters - 5 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams): Since this is an Ohio State site, it's easy to accuse us of Ohio State bias (any accusations would actually be somewhat correct since after all, we are OSU fans here, right?).  But I look at things like this from a neutral perspective, and quite frankly, I don't see any team in the Big Ten with more overall returning talent than Ohio State.  Sure, the Buckeyes have their question marks (we all know what they are... I won't go into them here).  But if those can be addressed, I definitely don't see anyone better.  The defense will be very good as the line will be one of the best in America (maybe only Miami's is better) and the safeties are as good as you'll find.  The offense has the skill players to score points if everything comes together.  On paper, the Buckeyes are #1.  But games aren't played on paper...

2. Illinois (Returning Starters - 7 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams): First off, before I go further, let me say that once you get to this point, you're looking at a bunch of teams that are close to even.  These rankings could go in many different ways. 

There will be a lot of Illinois doubters out there.  Jerry said on the radio that he thinks that Kurt Kittner being gone will be tough for Illinois to overcome.  That could definitely be true.  But I'm gambling that there are enough key players back from last year's Big Ten champ to have another successful season, and that the QB situation might not be that bad.  Whoever is the QB (Dustin Ward or Iowa transfer Jon Beutjer) will have some weapons at his disposal as WRs Brandon Lloyd and Walter Young are back, as is RB Antoineo Harris (I needed to do a double-take, but yes, believe it -- Rocky Harvey has moved on after what seemed like 8 seasons in an Illini uniform).  A couple of players are gone from the OL, but three starters are back and they should be OK.  The defense, once again, will not be dominant, but some key players return there as well, including LB Jerry Schumacher and a fine CB tandem in Eugene Wilson and Christian Morton.  Four other starters return.

If the quarterback position does not become a problem, I think Illinois has the potential to be right up there once again.  I know that putting Illinois here could be a reach, but I think there are enough key players coming back to give this team a chance to go to a New Year's Day bowl again.

3. Michigan State (Returning Starters - 8 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams):   Keep an eye on Sparty.  Why?  They have arguably the league's top returning QB in Jeff Smoker, and arguably the league's top overall player in WR Charles Rogers.  With those guys and an experienced offensive line returning, the offense could make things happen, especially if a solid replacement fills in at RB for TJ Duckett and if a second WR can be found.  Dawan Moss appears to be the man at RB, and he's got big shoes to fill.  On defense, the Spartans may have a couple of questions in the front seven, but the secondary could be tough.  The front seven is a bit young though, so they may have some problems up there at first.  But this team, with Rogers and Smoker on offense, has a chance to be potent.

4. Michigan (Returning Starters - 7 offense, 8 defense): There's a lot of hype surrounding the UM defense this year.  The Wolverines return most of their defense from last year (Larry Foote could be missed though), and I've seen people comparing them to the 1997 Wolverine defense.  I'm guessing that they could be very good, but that they won't be dominant, which will make things tougher because on paper, this could be the worst Michigan offense in years. 

Maybe a UM fan could convince me otherwise, but they weren't too good offensively last year, and now that their big playmaker Marquise Walker is gone, they may have some real problems.  You look at the offense on paper and no one scares you.  John Navarre, Spencer Brinton, Ronald Bellamy, Tyrece Butler, B.J. Askew, Chris Perry... there's no superstars there.  The OL might be solid, but I have a wait and see attitude with this team before I rate them higher.  And might I add that in the last game this team played - the Citrus Bowl - their defense got rolled by Tennessee, so maybe we should hesitate to hype the D as well.

5. Purdue (Returning Starters - 9 offense, 8 defense): Purdue found themselves struggling a bunch last year without Drew Brees.  But in the Sun Bowl, they showed some promise with Kyle Orton at QB.  He will return along with familiar faces Montrell Lowe, Joey Harris, John Standeford, Taylor Stubblefield, Seth Morales, and four starters on the OL.  This is an offense that should be improved from the one that we saw when OSU beat them up last year.  On defense, eight starters are back, led by fine safety Stuart Schweigert.  This is a team that could surprise some people this year, mostly because I think that the offense has a chance to be really improved over last year.

6. Penn State (Returning Starters - 7 offense, 7 defense): I am not sure what to think about Penn State.  They looked like a different team with Zack Mills at QB, and this year, Mills will be the man.  With fine WR Bryant Johnson returning, an experienced OL, and some stability at RB with Larry Johnson, most think this offense has a chance to be pretty good.  On defense there is talent, led by the fine DT Jimmy Kennedy, a projected NFL first-rounder.  But after the losing seasons, I am not sure I am quite ready to put them higher than this in the preseason.  

7. Wisconsin (Returning Starters - 8 offense, 3 defense, 2 special teams): I'm a bit surprised I wound up putting Wisconsin this low because I think this team has potential, especially if Lee Evans returns healthy (which is not a sure thing by any means).  I think that Wisconsin is probably a top 35 team despite being down here.  Brooks Bollinger and Jim Sorgi are back at QB, 1000-yd rusher Anthony Davis is back at RB as is Jerone Pettus, and five starters return on the offensive line.  Defense is a problem though.  Wendell Bryant is gone, and this defense is expected by some to struggle.  There are no seniors in the starting lineup and only three returning starters.  The defense's progress will play a big role in Wisconsin's success this year.

8. Iowa (Returning Starters - Offense 6, Defense 7, Special Teams 2): Things are looking up in Iowa.  After some rough times where the Hawkeyes were a league doormat, there's no question that this program is moving in the right direction.  Not only did they get back to a bowl last year, but they won that bowl as they took out Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl.  So this year, expectations are that the Hawkeyes will be b

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