As stated here before, the real judging of the Big Ten this season will come from the seven or eight teams that will be playing bowl games. The out of conference schedules, thanks to an epically bad Notre Dame team, lacked any teeth other than Illinois vs. Missouri and Michigan vs. Oregon. Minnesota and Iowa embarrassed the conference with their pitiful showings out of conference, and Northwestern has to absolutely be kicking itself over the Duke loss right now. With favorable matchups, especially two against the SEC, the conference can take a step out of this shadow. Because of some poor performances in conference though by teams like Purdue, Penn State, and Iowa there may be some truth to these lies.
What follows is the final edition of the Power Rankings before heading into the bowl season. What will also be reflected is my original position in my pre-season preview as well as projected record. It's not enough for me to be wrong here, but I want to see just how wrong I was! I'll also try to project whether each team will be better, worse, or about the same going into next season as well as what they need to improve most based on this year's performance.
1. (3) Ohio State (11-1, 7-1) Original prediction: 10-2, 6-2 and the Capitol One Bowl
The weekend couldn't have been better for Ohio State as they crushed the dreams of their rival, ruined the retirement party of Lloyd Carr and senior day, and now have the Rose Bowl as a nice fall back in case they don't back into the national title game. Three of the teams they needed to lose to get there also lost, meaning the door is now open a little wider. I honestly felt Ohio State would take a bit of a step back this year, but other than the Illinois game the defense was stifling and prevented anyone from doing anything.
Ohio State exceeded expectations, and unless they lose a ton of that defensive talent early to the NFL they should be really good next year. The offense needs to work on not turning the ball over, as Todd Boeckman struggled with interceptions in a few key games this year. Chris Wells had the kind of game against Michigan that served notice to the rest of the league he will be a force next year. It's an old routine, but Ohio State will be a national title contender again next season.
2. (10) Illinois (9-3, 6-2) Original prediction: 4-8, 1-7 and no bowl game.
Well, at least I got their non-conference prediction dead on. You could argue that Illinois is an Eddie McGee interception away from being in the Rose Bowl, as if he closes out the late drive against Iowa for a touchdown Illinois is headed to Pasadena. The Michigan loss was also due to a turnover, as a muffed punt return set up the winning Wolverine score. Take away either of those and Illinois probably wins those games. Take away both, and Illinois could be playing for an unexpected national title. They calmly took Northwestern apart this week, and will at least be going to Florida on New Year's Day. If things get really crazy the last few weeks they still could go to the BCS.
The scary thing is that because of the youth of the team they will only get better. If Rashard Mendenhall returns they should aim for nothing less than a Big Ten championship, as the turnover problems and struggles in the passing game started to go away by the end of the season. I certainly don't expect Illinois to be a one-year wonder like it was in 2001, and 2008 won't be a fall off to 5-7. With as much talent coming back as they have this team could end up being among the best in the country, so thank God we don't play them.
3. (4) Wisconsin (9-3, 5-3) Original prediction (10-2, 6-2) and the Outback Bowl
The above two teams and probably Michigan State were the only teams that truly exceeded expectations this year. Everyone else either met them or fell short, and that includes Wisconsin here at the number three spot. They survived a game effort from an improving Minnesota team to finish the season, but they have to be regretting the losses to Penn State and Illinois on the road. Wisconsin was the only team in the conference to defend its home turf, posting a 7-0 record at Camp Randall this year. Even them more was expected from the Badgers.
I honestly don't know a ton about the Badgers for next season. Since Illinois has been the hot team recently I know much about them even though Purdue doesn't play them, but I virtually ignored Wisconsin most of the season because of the two year hiatus from the Boilers. They also are not represented in the Big Ten bloggers' network, meaning I hear less about them. They've positioned themselves as a solid #3 team year in and year out in this conference, so if they can overcome the injuries they had this year there's little reason to think they won't be back.
4. (1) Michigan (8-4, 6-2) Original prediction (11-1, 7-1) and the Rose Bowl
The only loss I predicted was at Wisconsin and I was dead on there. Outside of that, Michigan's season was certainly lost by a baffling slow start and a ton of injuries to their stars at the end. In retrospect Michigan was very lucky it did not finish at 6-6 or worse, as it escaped with wins at Michigan State and Illinois, and any kind of an offensive performance by Penn State would have meant yet another loss in Ann Arbor. For a team with as many seniors as it had and eight home games three losses at the Big House is inexcusable.
Michigan has the pieces in place to simply re-load talent-wise, but it must settle the coaching situation first. It will be the talk of the Big Ten offseason until it is resolved, and I am sure the Wolverines would like to have their man in place by the time their bowl game comes around. Ryan Mallett gained valuable experience this season and will be a great leader for the next three years. Losing as much as they do Michigan should be a little worse, but don't expect a slide to the basement. That doesn't happen at Michigan.
5. (2) Penn State (8-4, 4-4) Original prediction (11-1, 7-1) and a BCS bowl
Penn State could have won the title of most disappointing team in the conference if not for Purdue's stumble at the end and Iowa's horrible year. Penn State had its toughest games, outside of Michigan, at home and did well there except for the Ohio State game. Its main struggles came on the road, as a last minute win against Indiana was its only conference triumph away from Happy Valley. They probably frittered away a sure New Year's Day bowl with the loss at Michigan State, and they certainly threw a wrench in Purdue's post-season plans by first not living up to expectations by getting a second BCS bid, then by blowing the Michigan State game and putting the Spartans in a bowl. Thanks guys!
In my discussion with Mike of Black Shoe Diaries he mentioned that 2008 could be the farewell tour for JoePa since he is in the final year of his contract. If it is he will being doing it with a new quarterback as, for better or worse, Anthony Morelli is gone. The running game wasn't fantastic this year, and Dan Connor will be gone. There are 31 juniors this year, but the offense simply has to get better to match the defense. The defense also cannot collapse like it did against Michigan State.
6. (11) Michigan State (7-5, 3-5) Original prediction (2-10, 0-8) and no bowl game
This is another team I was drastically wrong on, and I really should extend my apologies to our newest member of the network; SpartyMSU. I had the poor Spartans losing to Notre Dame, a fate that no one wants this year. I also had them at 0-8 in the conference, which before the Purdue game was pretty close. While I was wrong on Illinois, but felt they had the talent to at least make a bowl game, I was totally surprised by Michigan State this year. Not only did they get off to their traditional hot start, they showed a stunning amount of heart in recovering to win these last two games and salvage a bowl bid.
Because of that finish Michigan State is my pick to be the biggest surprise of 2008. Mark Dantonio has changed he culture in East Lansing, as the days of collapsing and limping to the finish appear to be over. Brian Hoyer played a great ballgame each of the past two weeks, and could emerge as the best passer in the conference next season. All Michigan State needs to do is learn how to win close games. Illinois was in the exact same position last year and look how that turned out.
7. (7) Indiana (7-5, 3-5) Original prediction (7-5, 3-5) and the Insight Bowl
Assuming the Hoosiers go to Phoenix like many are predicting I absolutely nailed this one. I guess one out of 11 isn't too bad. I felt they would beat Illinois and Michigan State rather than Iowa and Purdue, but other than that things went exactly as expected. In reality, Indiana performed exactly to expectations, and as mentioned in the review of Saturday's bucket game, rode a ton of emotion to a bowl bid. I was amazed that they didn't give too much into emotion on Saturday, as they used it to fuel their performance as opposed to getting too jacked up for it.
I wouldn't exactly book reservations for Pasadena in January 2009 just yet, but Indiana is a team that is improving. A huge key to their success will be if James Hardy returns for his senior season. It's amazing to see that of two very talented receivers from Ft. Wayne in the same class, Hardy may head to the NFL a year early while Selwyn Lymon's career is over. Indiana needs to improve its running game away from Kellen Lewis and get its defense to be stronger later in ballgames. The defense cost them the Penn State and Northwestern games late, and therefore must improve. Kellen Lewis always gives them a shot.
8. (5) Purdue (7-5, 3-5) Original prediction (9-3, 5-3) and the Alamo Bowl
I could have lived with a 9-3 season. Even after the close call at Penn State I could have lived with beating Michigan State and Indiana in games we could and probably should have won. I could have even accepted the Indiana loss under the circumstances because I honestly feel good for the Hoosiers right now and I want them to be good so the Bucket game can matter outside of Indiana. The Michigan State loss and the deer-in-the-headlights performance against Michigan ruined it for me though. It has indeed been a rough week to be a Boilermaker, and my colleagues at Boiled Sports summed up the Tiller and Lymon situations the best. If we get invited to a bowl we had better play like an angry football team and win it, because I won't tolerate another uninspired performance.
2008 will be a huge year for Purdue, and the degree of difficulty will certainly be there with the schedule. We must get better offensive line play and we must get a new defensive coordinator. I am tired of having a team that simply refuses to make any defensive adjustments throughout a game. In three of our five losses we could have handled the struggling offense had we simply adjusted, but Brock Spack wouldn't do it. We also must commit to a running game where we will have two good, experienced backs to make up for a green receiving corps.
9. (8) Northwestern (6-6, 3-5) Original prediction (6-6, 2-6) and the Motor City Bowl
If only they had beaten Duke. If only they hadn't fallen apart against Iowa. If only they hadn't had so many turnovers against Michigan. If only they had played the fourth quarter against Purdue. Northwestern is a team that probably hurt itself the most, as it was genuinely only out of the Ohio State and Illinois games. This seems to be the trademark of this team, as they always have surprising losses to go with the surprising wins to even things out. They are team enigma, and you never know if you're going to beat them easily or have them score 50 on you.
Lake the Posts seems to think 2008 will be the next cycle year where Northwestern makes a run at the top, and with a healthy Tyrell Sutton there is reason to believe they can. Illinois and Ohio State have to come to Evanston, but Northwestern must get over being so erratic and settle into games. The Wildcats also need to beat the teams it has to beat at home, as both Iowa and Duke were set up to be easy home wins at the time.
10. (6) Iowa (6-6, 4-4) Original prediction (9-3, 5-3) and the Champs Sports Bowl
I was wary on Iowa before the season after getting burned by them last year. Still, they had the easiest schedule in the Big Ten except for maybe Indiana with more overall talent to boot. This team should have finished 9-3 in their sleep, as the only predicted losses I had were to Purdue, Wisconsin, and Penn State. It's amazing Iowa got to six wins this year, as the Illinois and Michigan State wins were obvious flukes. They struggled to beat Minnesota, they lost to bad Western Michigan and Iowa State teams, and struggled against a bad Northern Illinois team.
Injuries and suspensions decimated this roster, but they need to develop more offense especially with Albert Young leaving. Much like the other black and gold team in the conference, 2008 will be a huge year for the Hawkeyes. They must take advantage of another year of missing Ohio State and Michigan, meaning they could have a big turnaround. A nice bonus from this season is that many young receivers got plenty of game experience they normally wouldn't have gotten.
11. (9) Minnesota (1-11, 0-8) Original prediction (5-7, 1-7) and no bowl game
I have ripped on Minnesota all season, but they really weren't that far from being 7-5. All three of their non-conference losses were close game or in overtime, meaning the Gophers were right there against some teams they should have beaten regardless. Once they got to the conference they played hard fought, close games against Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Iowa. This shows me they really aren't that far off.
Certainly 2008 won't be another 1-11 campaign, as Adam Weber is developing into a very nice quarterback for them. All they need is a defense, any defense, and a lot of those close losses could have been wins this past year. Don't expect a ton of sentiment over the final season in the Metrodome, but this team is obviously building toward a big 2009 when TCF Bank Stadium will return Gopher football to campus.