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2007 Preview continued (Search your feelings you KNOW it be true!)

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Thing are shaping up on the recruiting front for us, with a fairly decent JUCO defensive end potentially coming out way. Still, I don't often pay too much attention to recruiting, because we've had more success with the more lightly regarded guys than with higher profile recruits. When it comes to recruiting, Notre Dame's big name in Jimmy Clausen is more likely to turn out like Ron Pawlus than Joe Montana. Hopefully he'll be as good of a football player as Ron Jeremy.

In the mean time, I promised the second half of a look ahead to 2007, and I will not disappoint. 2007 marks the next schedule rotation in the Big Ten, so for all 11 teams they have to get ready to see someone they haven't seen in two years. We have five teams to look at, and a few other thoughts to get through before moving on.

Minnesota: The Gophers were very young this year and closed the season on a nice little winning streak to get into a bowl game. We also need to write them a big Christmas card for destroying Indiana and letting us finish off their invitation to stay at home for the holidays and watch basketball (which isn't even that great for them this year, even better!). The bad news is that the one position where you need leadership, quarterback, will be brand new for them starting next year. Tony Mortenson is their most experienced returning quarterback, and he has all of 34 passing attempts in his career with one touchdown against three picks. When it was the passing game that saved the Gophers late in the year, that's not a good sign.

There's the potential that Gary Russell will return for them on the ground much like we expect Kyle Ingraham back, but will Minnesota be able to get its ground game going again after being conspicuously absent this year. Amir Pinnix had a good year, but that was about it for them after the first few games against Kent State and Temple.

Minnesota has always been known to play a weak non-conference schedule, but bucked the trend this year by traveling to California to face the Golden Bears. They still have an open non-conference date as of right now, but they host Miami (OH) and North Dakota State before a strange road game at Florida Atlantic. Of all the teams in the Big Ten, Minnesota seems to be the only one who regularly schedules road games against non-BCS opponents. They have recently traveled to Kent State and Tulsa as an example. They get two of the easier road trips in the Big Ten with Northwestern and Indiana, but Michigan and Iowa are their other two road games. Not playing Penn State or Michigan State is neither good nor bad.

Look for Minnesota to be in the middle to bottom of the Big Ten again. It's never good to break in a new quarterback in a conference like ours, as almost every team seems to struggle.

Northwestern: For as bad as Northwestern's season was, they still almost made a bowl game. They lost to a 1-AA team and a WAC team, but were actually playing quite well at the end of the season to handle Iowa and Illinois. Had they held on against Michigan State and gotten on against Nevada or New Hampshire, the Cats would still be playing.

What's important is that a lot of young players got plenty of playing experience, and they could form the nucleus of a typical Northwestern team that has a down year or two, then breaks out to finish in the top three of the conference because they have played together for so long. The offense finally found a little bit of a punch at the end of last year, and they certainly were playing better at the start of the season than at the end of it. As I have said before, with the new 12 games schedule it's even easier to get to the six wins you need for a bowl bid. You schedule four winnable non-conference games, then hope you can pull of just two conference wins. It's so easy even IU can figure it out (oops!).

Northwestern appears to be doing just that, with their most difficult non-conference game coming at home against Nevada. They have a mid-season trip to play Eastern Michigan in Detroit that I am sure will break all Ford Field attendance records, while getting 1-AA Northeastern as a season opener and an academic bowl at Duke. I should make light of a Duke-Northwestern football game, because win or lose, those people will be our bosses very soon.

In the conference there isn't a real scary road trip other than Ohio State, as they go to Purdue, Michigan State, and Illinois. Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, and Indiana all come to Evanston. They certainly get a break in not playing Wisconsin and Penn State.

With a non-conference slate like they have and an improving team, look for Northwestern to get the six wins they need from somewhere to get to a bowl. The Wildcats always seem to be good for one big upset, and if they win their non-conference games and get that upset they only need a win over Indiana, Michigan State, Illinois, Minnesota, or Purdue just to get to a bowl.

Ohio State: They have the reigning Heisman trophy winner and they are the best team in the country right now. There's a strong chance that they will be the defending national champion next year. Simply put, 2006 has been very good to Ohio State (I refuse to call them THE Ohio State University, it's too pretentious). They also lead the Big Ten in rioting and general loutish behavior by fans. I guess they do take pride in being number 1.

Still, with many of the top players on the offense either graduating or likely headed to the NFL early, it will be next to impossible for them to run the table again next year. Yes, a team like Ohio State always has solid recruits ready to step in to the starting lineup. It still takes them time to gel though, and when they have to break in a brand new quarterback because they lose both their starter and number one backup something is bound to go wrong in at least one game. The top three receiving threats will also likely be gone, as well as the leading rusher should Pittman declare for the draft early. That's too much to replace and expect perfection for even a team like Ohio State.

Ohio State always lets in state teams come in and play at the 'shoe every few years, and 2007 is no different with Youngstown State, Akron, and Kent State all coming to take a beating and receive a check. Youngstown State even gets the distinction of losing to its former head coach. The only non-conference road game for the Buckeyes is a trip to Washington, which could be very interesting if they aren't quite ready and the Huskies continue to improve. Of course, we're waiting for the 2010 season in my house where the Buckeyes play both Purdue and Miami at home. Ohio State has to consider themselves lucky they dodge Indiana next year, as it means they won't have to hunt long and far for tickets for the game in Bloomington. They also miss Iowa. Road games at Purdue, Minnesota, Penn State, and Michigan are all pretty good tests, while the Big Ten home slate of Illinois, Northwestern, Michigan State, and Wisconsin is a joke aside from the Badgers.

The bottom line is this is still Ohio State. They very rarely have a bad year, and even with replacing so many key parts next season you can still expect at least 8-9 wins. Unless the rest of the Big ten significantly improves, I don't see them falling out of the top four.

Penn State: Penn State is a team that I think could be right back in the thick of the conference title chase next year. They always have a solid defense, and if the offense can get in gear they will have a solid team. They are almost the diametric opposite of Purdue in that the defense has to carry a questionable offense. Losing Tony Hunt will hurt, but they have some good receivers coming back and Anthony Morelli will have another year under his belt. They lose some talent on defense but they always reload.

They also have a factor that very few other teams have, and that is 100,000+ fans in the stands every Saturday. That's quite a significant advantage that I know is intimidating to anyone who comes in there short of Ohio State and Michigan, whoa re used to it. I am looking at making this game my Big Ten Road Trip of 2007 (Indiana doesn't count) because we have some friends who are Penn State fans, and I hear it is a wonderful experience all around.

Penn State will start 2007 with two wins already in the bank thanks to games against Florida International and at Temple. Pencil in a third win against Buffalo and you're left with only a visit from Notre Dame on the non-conference schedule. Aside from going to Michigan the Big Ten road schedule is Charmin soft in going to Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan State. Purdue, Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin provide a nice home slate. There is no Minnesota or Northwestern.

Looking at all that, it's hard to see Penn State missing a bowl game. I don't think they'll be quite there for the conference title, but they'll be in the running for a top four finish and a New Year's Day game. The real question is will Florida State continue to suck and allow JoePa to catch Bobby Bowden. Also, does JoePa get credit for the wins over Temple and Michigan State to end the season?

Wisconsin: Thank God we don't play the Badgers next season! Still, they will be one of four teams in the conference starting a new quarterback. The other three won't have the benefit of a 1500 rusher coming back to take the heat off like Tyler Donovan does in P.J. Hill. Donovan isn't exactly a stiff either, getting a start against Iowa late in the season and against Buffalo. That's two full games of experience, one against a Big Ten opponent, in which he did just fine. Only Michigan State's Brian Hoyer has that much experience of the new QB's next year.

The defense appears to be solid as well, and the most it gave up this year was 27 points to Michigan, who might just be the second best team in the country. Still, outside of that Michigan game the rest of the schedule was as lousy as the rest of the Big Ten was this year.

The non-conference schedule for the Badgers is very interesting next year. They have an open date, which will likely be filled with Sisters of the Poor and Blind or some equivalent. They have home games against The Citadel and Washington State, with the Cougars being an interesting test. The other non-conference game is a trip to UNLV for some hookers and gaming… I mean football.

In the conference the Badgers avoid us and Northwestern, which aren't great losses. They get Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan State at home, while traveling to Ohio State, Illinois, Penn State, and Minnesota. This should be one of the strongest teams in the conference, and the game against Michigan at the end of the year could have national title implications.

Having looked at everyone, here are my predictions for next year's big Ten standings, and whether a team will make a bowl game or not:

1. Michigan – Most definitely in a bowl, possibly in the title game.
2. Wisconsin – In a bowl, possibly in the BCS as they shouldn't get screwed again.
3. Ohio State – I am kind of shaky with this pick, but they always find a way here. Probably in a New Year's day bowl
4. Penn State – Could be in the top two when all is said and done because of the big games at home. Probably also in a New Year's day bowl.
5. Purdue – And I think this may be high for us. We should still get to a bowl at least, but don't be surprised if we don't We may just be the best of a bad rest of the league.
6. Indiana – I honestly looked at the screen for about 5 minutes talking myself into and against every team remaining. So I picked the Hoosiers. If they don't go to a bowl in 2007 they never will.
7. Northwestern – They'll get to a bowl, but that is about it.
8. Minnesota – The schedule is enough to get bowl eligible, but like every team below Penn State they have a major flaw
9. Iowa – They have a tough non-conference slate that will leave little room for error in the conference. It looks like a 5-7 rebuilding year.
10. Illinois – This will be different if they can hold on to the ball, but no bowl.
11. Michigan State – Look for everyone to tee off on t hem, as they are truly going to stink.

NEXT UP: A more in depth look at our schedule for 2007 with picks!