Athlon Sports Big Ten Predictions

What happens to a team that wins a national title a year before it was expected to compete for one? It enters this season carrying the weight of high expectations with virtually no margin for error. The only way Ohio State could improve on last year's incredible 14–0 season would be to win the national title game without having to go into overtime. It could happen, considering the abundance of talent on this year's roster.

Projected Finish

1. Ohio State
2. Michigan
3. Wisconsin
4. Purdue
5. Penn State
6. Minnesota
7. Iowa
8. Illinois
9. Michigan State
10. Indiana
11. Northwestern

Sophomore running back Maurice Clarett has center stage, but his supporting cast is deep and experienced. Senior quarterback Craig Krenzel does nothing exceptional but win. Receiver Michael Jenkins is a big-play waiting to happen. Junior cornerback/receiver Chris Gamble is on the verge of stardom and Ohio State's defensive line is the best in the Big Ten and perhaps the country.

Combine that with one of the best kickers in the country and a roster stocked with former high school All-Americans, and the Buckeyes appear ready to rumble once again under third-year coach Jim Tressel.

And while Clarett's health will be paramount to Ohio State's success, the two guys behind him on the depth chart — Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall — could start for a lot of Big Ten teams. If Krenzel picks up where he left off last season and the secondary develops a swagger without Mike Doss calling — and delivering — the shots, Ohio State will be a force.

Staying Put — For Now

Nobody has to remind NFL executives about the job Kirk Ferentz is doing as Iowa's head coach. Ferentz interviewed for the head coaching position with the Jacksonville Jaguars shortly after the 2002 season. He eventually withdrew his name from consideration and was given an eight percent pay raise at Iowa, where he is entering his fifth season as head coach.

"My heart continues to lie with the University of Iowa, and I will remain as the coach of the Hawkeye football team," Ferentz said.

Ferentz has padded his resume since replacing Hayden Fry as head coach in December 1998. His popularity and name recognition soared during last year's 11–2 season. But there is a price to pay for success. Iowa fans pay it by living with the never-ending fear that Ferentz might leave for greener pastures in the NFL, where he spent six years as an assistant coach from 1993-98.

Beutjer's Return

If Illinois quarterback Jon Beutjer doesn't have Nov. 1 marked on his calendar, Iowa fans probably do. Beutjer will make his much-anticipated return to Kinnick Stadium on that day to compete for the first time against his former Iowa teammates. Beutjer started four games for Iowa as a freshman in 2000. He was thought to be Iowa's quarterback of the future before an off-the-field incident changed everything. Beutjer was attacked by a former Iowa teammate in July 2001 in a dispute over a cable bill. He felt the Iowa coaches betrayed him by not punishing the player severely enough.

However, Beutjer lost credibility with some Iowa fans by announcing his decision to leave on the same day that Kyle McCann was named the starting quarterback for the 2001 season opener. Hawkeye fans now might feel that Beutjer did them a favor by leaving because it paved the way for Brad Banks to become Iowa's starting quarterback last season.

Gopher Rush

Terry Jackson II ran for 1,318 yards last fall, becoming the third different running back at Minnesota since 1999 to rush for at least 1,000 yards in a season. Tellis Redmon accomplished that feat in both 2000 and 2001, while Thomas Hamner did it 1999.

On Second Thought

Verbal commitments mean less and less these days because recruits seem to be changing their minds more than ever. Here are just a few examples of de-commitments involving Big Ten teams:

Tight end Marcel Frost committed to Iowa but eventually signed with Ohio State…Running back Albert Young committed to Wisconsin but signed with Iowa…Defensive back Brandon Owens committed to Iowa State but signed with Minnesota…Tight end Louis Irizarry committed to Ohio State, then changed his mind and committed to Miami before ultimately signing with the Buckeyes…Running back A.J. Johnson committed to Illinois but signed with Iowa…Quarterback Drew Tate committed to Texas A&M but signed with Iowa…Quarterback Sam Keller committed to Michigan but signed with Arizona State…Tight end Garrett Bushong committed to Michigan State but signed with Purdue.