John Mitchell: Welcome back to the Tailgater as we continue to roll through the conference previews. We hope you’ve been able to check out the team’s thoughts on the SEC, Big XII, and Pac-10. It’s time now to head back to the Heartland for a look at the Big Ten. As always, I join my fellow analysts Zach Bigalke and Matt Strobl.
Zach Bigalke: Nice to be back once again. After we looked at my current locality last time, it’s time to head back to that region that gave rise to my nascent college football fanaticism.
Matt Strobl: I’ll always consider the Big Ten my home conference, so to speak. I’m looking forward to a season that’s full of potential success stories.
Let’s get right into it. This is the last time we’ll see an 11-team Big Ten. But what’s in a name? Give me your take on the league overall.
Bigalke: It finally earned back a modicum of the respect the conference had lost in recent years with the overall postseason performance of its teams last season. The top four teams come off big bowl victories and return just as strong for 2010. It is going to be a legitimate battle for top honors this yearn and whichever team ends up as champion will be a worthy BCS representative.
2010 Tailgater Previews
Strobl: I think the Big Ten acquitted itself very well last season. Ohio State had a couple of stumbles but was more than solid in the big Rose Bowl victory over Oregon. And we saw Iowa handle Georgia Tech and its vaunted ground game with relative ease. Penn State bested the SEC by beating LSU and Wisconsin topped a much-improved Miami team. Overall, I think the Big Ten showed that its best can compete with more or less any program in the nation. That momentum should carry over for the teams at the top. The Buckeyes, Hawkeyes, and Badgers should all be solid contenders this season, and if Penn State can adjust to the loss of Darryl Clark, then the conference might have four teams vying for double-digit wins.
Mitchell: I think the Big Ten has three, maybe four teams if Penn State can find stability at QB with Darryl Clark gone, that can win the conference. Ohio State is the favorite as usual, and they should be this season with 16 returning starters. They are the team to beat, but don’t expect it be a cakewalk for the Buckeyes with Wisconsin and Iowa both having something to say about who wins this conference. I think the Big Ten is a deep conference this year. While I believe there are four teams that are head and shoulders better than the others, they also have five other teams that should compete for a bowl berth. It should be a fun race to watch this year.
Taking more in-depth look, where else can we start but Columbus? Will 2010 mark yet another title for Ohio State?
Strobl: The Buckeyes have to be considered a prohibitive favorite. They’ve got more talent than last’s year’s Rose Bowl-winning team, and if quarterback Terrelle Pryor takes the step forward that many expect he will, we could see the Heisman Trophy return to Ohio. Few teams have dominated their leagues in the past few seasons like the Buckeyes have. With a 36-4 record since the start of the 2007 campaign, they’ve established themselves as one of the nation’s perennial contenders. It’s easy for critics to point to the two lost titles games of 2006 and 2007 and argue that OSU simply enjoys an easier path to the BCS, but as last year showed, the Big Ten is far deeper than just one team. This season, the Bucks should have their usual stifling defense, led by All-American candidate Cam Heyward. And Pryor was named the conference’s pre-season Offensive Player of the Year. Around him he has a deep running game led by Dan Herron but now bolstered by uber-recruit Jaamal Berry. The receiving corps, which was young and relatively green last year, should put on quite a show in 2010. Not only should the Buckeyes take the conference, but with a couple of good breaks, they have a shot at returning to the BCS title game.
Mitchell: Like Matt said, if Terrelle Pryor can take another step forward in his junior season than the stiff-arm trophy might find its way back to Columbus. But, along with that, Ohio State very well could be playing for a National Championship. Ohio State is the favorite to win the Big Ten and they should be. I don’t expect them to go undefeated with road games against Wisconsin and Iowa to deal with, but even a loss to one of those teams shouldn’t prevent them from winning the conference and being in the thick of the National Title race. Pryor has the luxury of having many skill position players back on offense and four starters returning on the offensive line. The Buckeyes return seven starters on defense and may have the best defensive player in the conference in Cameron Heyward. Anything less than a sixth consecutive Big Ten Title and playing for a National Championship for the third time in five years will be considered failure this year. The expectations are that this team has what it takes to at least play for the Title.
Bigalke: The road is surely not going to be easy for Ohio State, given the improved depth of competitive balance in the conference. But with nine starters back on offense and seven on the defensive side the Buckeyes certainly have the experience to return to championship form. After seeing what Jim Tressel’s team was capable of doing on the football field last January in Pasadena, it is going to be hard to stop this team when it is running on all cylinders. It is also pretty amazing to think about just how far Terrelle Pryor has progressed as a quarterback… and even more amazing to think about how many pundits (myself included) wrote him off as an athletic kid out of his element before last year’s Rose Bowl against the Ducks. (Were people really calling for this guy to be a wide receiver less than nine months ago?!) For me it alll comes down to that game in Ames against the Hawkeyes; call me a skeptic, but I have a feeling that ends up being OSU’s sole stumbling point of 2010.
Kirk Ferentz impressed last year by taking Iowa to an 11-2 season and an Orange Bowl win. However the team did have a couple of close calls along the way. Can the Hawkeyes continue their success and possibly put some pressure on OSU?
Mitchell: Iowa got lucky on occasions last year, especially in the season opener against Northern Iowa where they needed two blocked field goals just to upend their FCS foe. They had way too many close calls last season. It didn’t seem to matter who they played, the game was going to be close. Even when they beat Indiana 42-24, that game was lead by Indiana going into the fourth quarter. The magical undefeated run ended for the Hawkeyes when they lost Ricky Stanzi and were defeated by Northwestern and Ohio State in consecutive weeks which kept them from winning the Big Ten Title. They still made it to the Orange Bowl and looked good in beating Georgia Tech. Iowa’s schedule is going to help them a lot. They play Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State at home. Their toughest road game within the conference is probably an October 16th game against Michigan which comes right after their bye week. Iowa can’t expect to play so many close games this season and come out on the winning end each and every time. Iowa has a good enough team to win the Big Ten and they certainly will give Ohio State all they can handle.
Bigalke: I have a really good feeling about Iowa’s chances to prevail over the Buckeyes at home. But as we saw last year, the Hawkeyes have no problem getting fired up for the big games on their schedule. It seemed to be the hallmark of Ferentz’s 2009 team that they were either pulled up or pulled down to the level of their competition. Just look at their effort against Northern Iowa last season for the proof. Iowa has just four returning starters on offense, though the players stepping into starting roles are not lacking in experience. QB Ricky Stanzi needs to get over his tendency to scramble as much as he does, but he still gives the team a veteran presence under center. Where the Hawkeyes’ greatest strength lies, though, is on defense. That top-shelf unit is going to be the reason why Ferentz’s crew will push the Badgers and Buckeyes all the way to December.
Strobl: Iowa is in a good position this year because Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State must all travel to Iowa City. Having your three toughest rivals on your home turf is an edge that teams don’t often enjoy. And as a result, there’s a spreading sentiment that the Hawkeyes, not the Buckeyes, are in fact the team to beat coming into the season. While it’s true that Iowa gave Ohio State all it could handle last season in Columbus — with a backup QB no less — supporters tend to forget that the Hawkeyes were within moments of losing to Northern Iowa, Michigan, and Michigan State. Only luck, timing, and perhaps a favorable call or two kept the season from ending in a far different way. And now there are some major questions on the offensive line as the pre-season continues. That being said, Iowa does have most of its weapons back. Ricky Stanzi will be back under center and he has his two excellent wideouts, Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos. The running game is deep, of not spectacular, and the defense will be the team’s true strength. While Michigan State’s Greg Jones earned conference pre-season DPOY honors, Iowa’s defensive end Adrian Clayborn is probably the best end in the country and anchors what should be a stellar unit. In 2010, the conference will boil down to which team performs better in big games. If that team is Iowa, the Hawkeyes might pull the upset and grab the Big Ten title.
Penn State will have a new quarterback under center and a very young defense that returns only five starters. Can the Nittany Lions avoid a backslide?
Bigalke: This team is probably too green compared to the other contenders to really push for the conference this year, so in that way it’ll be a backslide. After all, the Nittany Lions have been in the thick of the picture the past two seasons, and even with all their losses from last year’s team they still should be in a decent bowl game and in the Top 25 come 2011. For me the biggest question isn’t even on the field. I hate to say it, but Joe Paterno is looking rough lately. With Bobby Bowden now out in Tallahassee, the stopwatch is now started in Happy Valley. Hopefully Paterno will make it to the end of this year in good health… but will it be his last?
Strobl: Fans won’t want to hear it, but even with senior tailback Evan Royster returning, this has to be considered a rebuilding year in Happy Valley. The defense only has two seniors, and that lack of experience is going to hurt as the season wears on. Royster might be the conference’s best running back, but he’ll also be bearing the load as the Lions try to determine who their next signal-caller will be. Although PSU misses Wisconsin this year, they have to travel to Columbus and Iowa City, and worst of all, get Alabama in a Week 2 non-conference game. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team lose four games. It’s going to be a trying year for JoePa. On the other hand, lowered expectations might result in less pressure; if a few of the youngsters can step up, then it’s not impossible that Penn State might have an outside shot at ten wins.
Mitchell: We will find out all we need to know about Penn State when they travel to Tuscaloosa on September 11th to face the defending National Champions, Alabama. I do think the Nittany Lions are due for a backslide in 2010 with uncertainty at the QB position since Darryl Clark graduated. Penn State will be good enough this season to not face too major of a slide, but I do expect them to fall back to 4th in the conference. If a rebuilding year for this team can yield 8 or 9 wins, then I can’t see how the fans would complain. The season hinges on who emerges as the starting QB and what kind of impact they will make next season. I expect Kevin Newsome to be the starter and I believe he has potential, but we won’t know that until he lines up under center in his first start against Youngstown State in the season opener, and even then we might not figure out what he can do until he faces a ferocious Alabama defense the next weekend.