Cus Words: Post-Spring Big Ten Musings

There will be plenty of time to dig deeper into the story of each Big Ten football team this spring and summer, but for now BSB staffer takes a quick look around the league at what Buckeye fans might expect to face as their team defends another Big Ten title.

These are my post-spring thoughts on the Big Ten, which Ohio State should be able to win without breaking a sweat more than once or twice:

I have a pretty hard time figuring out what reason Iowa fans have to be optimistic about this fall. A terrible offense will probably be worse given that there is still not a proven quarterback - at least not a proven good one - and now two at least decent running backs have moved on (Damian Sims and Albert Young) and taken 97 percent of the rushing yards with them. What's left? A walk-on topped the running back depth chart at the close of spring.

Jake Christensen, the first-year starter last season, maintains his status as No. 1 for now but he might not be able to hold off native Ohioan Ricky Stanzi this fall. At least Andy Brodell is expected back after most of the promising wide receiver's junior season of 2007 was wiped out by injury.

Defensively, Matt Kroul and Mitch King are nice foundation pieces but are they difference-makers? I'm not so sure. Simply starting for a couple of years in a row does not a star make.

I have a hard time fearing the talent in the back seven, either.

Each of the past two seasons (6-7 in 2006 and 6-6 with no bowl game last year), Iowa has paid head coach Kirk Ferentz about $500,000 per win. Look for that rate to approach $1 million this year.

Call me crazy, but I think Northwestern could have a pretty nice year.

When the Wildcats have a senior quarterback – such as C.J. Bacher this season – they \ tend to be dangerous. Plus, tailback Tyrell Sutton is a dangerous weapon when he is healthy. His backup, Omar Conteh, isn't bad either, and three of the top four receivers return.

On top of that, Bacher will be running a new up-tempo, no-huddle offense that could be a tough matchup for any team.

The line will need some work, though.

Defensively, there is a new style as well, plus seven starters back. The top two tacklers are gone, but the best corner (Sherrick McManis) is back and the plan is to craft a more aggressive attack.

No way will the 'Cats have a formidable defense, but a middle-of-the-road unit, especially one that can be opportunistic and cause some turnovers, could be enough.

I'm not saying NU is a threat to win the league, but eight wins are not out of the question.

I can't figure out Penn State.

The Nittany Lions were one of those teams you looked at in 2007 and thought, "Well, they've got a lot of young players. Give them a year." Then they had a myriad of off-field problems, All-Big Ten corner Justin King foolishly went pro early and All-Big Ten linebacker Sean Lee blew out his knee in the spring.

Even with a new quarterback, they can't get much less production than they got from Anthony Morelli the last two seasons. Perhaps a new guy could turn out to be even better. Recall that the best season Paterno has coaxed out of his overrated program in the past 10 years revolved around a dynamic, out-of-the-ordinary quarterback in Michael Robinson. Could that be Daryll Clark this year? He's billed as a threat to run as Robinson was, but Paterno speaks reverently about Robinson's leadership skills, and I have no idea if Clark would fit that mold. I won't discount the potential of Pat Devlin until I see him play, either. Maybe he will be a revelation. He was a big-time recruit, but then, so was Morelli.

An offensive line that was much improved last season is back intact, and the backfield looks good with shifty Evan Royster (6.3 yards per carry last season) returning for a bigger role and a couple of young guys with potential in redshirt freshman Stephfon Green and true frosh Brandon Beachum.

There is less reason to be optimistic about the defense. Linebacker is a question mark, as is at least half the secondary. Both defensive tackles will be new as well.

I expect Purdue to keep on being Purdue.

Painter will throw the ball around - and do it well most of the time - but they probably will win a game or two they shouldn't and lose just as many they should win. Painter must find some new weapons, too, after Dorien Bryant and Dustin Keller moved on to the NFL.

With Cliff Avril and Stanford Keglar gone from the defense, there are some holes, although Dan Werner and Kevin Green made positive headlines for their linebacker play this spring.

Pencil them in around .500 for Joe Tiller's final year.

Wisconsin? Another interesting team. When the Buckeyes and Badgers get together under the lights of Camp Randall Stadium Oct. 4, there will be a bunch of talented running backs and a pair of very good offensive lines in the same place.

The Badgers also have playmakers at wide receiver (Kyle Jefferson) and most especially at tight end (the nation's best in Travis Beckum) but who will get them the ball? What they got from Tyler Donovon was a plus last season and there is not really any reason to think lightning will strike twice with whatever retread they pick this year.

Wisconsin is a classic candidate for being overrated, too, because nine starters are back on defense. Count on many preseason prognosticators looking at that and penciling in the Badgers higher than they probably should, because, guess what – few of those experienced guys are actually any good.

At first I was downplaying the odds Illinois could put together another campaign with nine or more wins. However, after looking again I'm not so sure. Juice Williams must get significantly better at quarterback, though, because no running back was found during the spring. Reviews were mixed during the spring on Williams. He'll look better when Arrelious Benn returns from shoulder surgery, though.

The offensive line needs a couple of new starters, which will be important, too.

But the defense should be pretty good again. Don't discount the losses of veterans J. Leman and Chris Norwell, but the defensive line remains very talented and relatively experienced anyway. Will Davis, Derek Walker and Doug Pilcher could form one of the best end trios in the nation, and one of the two new linebackers is likely to be playmaking sophomore Martez Wilson. Vontae Davis is a good corner and the safeties will be new but the players they are replacing were nothing special.

Indiana is a major question mark because of quarterback Kellen Lewis, who might be the best quarterback in the conference if he can overcome whatever troubles have caused head coach Bill Lynch to suspend him for spring practice and indefinitely into the summer. Lewis is the catalyst for the offense, which still lacks a proven runner, will have three new starting offensive linemen and lost NFL draftee James Hardy at wide receiver.

On defense, the Hoosiers have some good pieces back in the front seven but lost two good corners. The replacements at corner got good reviews during the spring, though.

Michigan is an impending disaster, unless the goofiness of the offense can mask a porous offensive line. I say that because while there is no running threat at quarterback, the one position where Michigan might have a few good players is running back. Kevin Grady and Brandon Minor could made a formidable one-two punch, and lining them up in the same backfield could make them all the more dangerous.

The defense could be decent, although again this is hard to project given that the unit will be in a new alignment. Terrence Taylor, Brandon Graham and Tim Jamison are good players on the defensive line, Obi Ezeh is a capable linebacker and corners Morgan Trent and Donovan Warren aren't bad. The safeties will be new but they can't possibly be worse than the players they are replacing.

We'll find out about Michigan State right away because the Spartans travel to California to open the season in Berkley.

Brian Hoyer reportedly had a good spring, and they will need him to improve a lot be make noise at the top of the conference. They will also need some new guys to step up at wide receive. That did happen in the spring game, but then again that could have been aided by the fact they were facing the unproven cornerbacks who suit up in Green and White. The offense still has a difference-maker in running back Javon Ringer, but he won't be enough on his own, and the left side of the offensive line must be rebuilt.

Defensively, Justin Kershaw is the lone returning starter up front but he's a pretty good one to build around, and sophomore linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon are talented as well.

Minnesota was completely awful last season. Will the Golden Gophers be better this year? Probably, but I'm not sure that will win them anymore games. Adam Weber is a solid quarterback, but I don't see him developing into a threat. His numbers look nice but I believe they are a product of the system.

The atrocious defense has six starters back and a new coordinator but only new blood can save that group. The best defensive player - Dom Barber - is gone.

No matter what, the Gophers will have to be much better in the turnover department.

In conclusion…

The first-ever post-spring edition of Cus Words Big Ten Power Rankings is going to be a bit unorthodox because there are a few teams I can't differentiate between yet.

Give me some time to do some more research, to look more closely at the new people filling in at various positions and the reports from across the country – and the Network – that followed spring ball and perhaps some clearer answers will emerge. For now, I'll drop the Big Ten teams into six categories.

1. Ohio State
2. Illinois
Average 3. Wisconsin
Could make a move
4. Penn State
5. Michigan State
Blah 6-9. Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan
10. Minnesota
11. Iowa

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