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Off the Tracks Big Ten Preview

Everyone in the blogosphere wants to rank things before they even have anything to rank. This was absurd even before App State made the exercise even more ludicrous a year ago. I should have learned my own lesson when my pick to finish last in the Big Ten at 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the conference ended up beating us at home badly and playing in Orlando. Though I am a fast learner, this is an area where I remain slow.

What follows is my Big Ten preseason rankings and predicted order of finish for the 11 teams. This means absolutely nothing at the moment, but to save myself some face I am not going to bother predicting records or anything. Things can change so rapidly that predicting a preseason record is meaningless. I believe a 10 win season is possible for Purdue, but injuries or suspensions in key areas can limit that quickly. Even our talent, despite how good of a training camp Tiller said we had, can limit it. The same is true for the other 10 teams in the conference. What happens to Illinois if the Juice gets pulped? What about Indiana is Kellen Lewis gets suspended again? These rankings are just a guess, and can easily be proven wrong for almost everyone.

11. Iowa – Someone has to be at the bottom, and I am putting the Hawkeyes there because they seem to be the messiest team in the Big Ten at the moment. The offense was a wreck last year and doesn’t appear to be leaps and bounds better. The defense is okay, but that won’t cut it in the league. Even against one of the easiest schedules in the conference I think they will have a very tough time qualifying for a bowl. Six wins is not the guarantee it once was, so they had better get 7 if they want to feel safe.

Maine and Florida International to start is as easy as it gets, but Iowa State has always been tough for the Hawkeyes and a trip to Pittsburgh is not a guaranteed win. If they come into the conference 2-2 they can forget about the postseason. They have lost two straight to Indiana, and Illinois will have revenge on its mind in Champaign. Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Northwestern are all capable of winning in Iowa City. Minnesota will also certainly be fired up for their final game in the Metrodome when they end the season with Iowa .

10. Minnesota – Last year when I wrote about Illinois I still had the Illini low, but I said they would be better and shock at least one team in the conference. I never dreamed it would be #1 Ohio State in Columbus. I am not going out on a limb when I say Minnesota will be better. It is hard for them to be much worse when their defense was the worst in the country a year ago. Do you realize that in consecutive weeks we played the country’s worst defense (Minnesota) and the country’s worst offense (Notre Dame)? Thankfully these two did not play, saving the world from the worst display of college football in history.

Only a semi-difficult trip into MAC country at Bowling Green and a home date with feisty Florida Atlantic stands in the way of a 4-0 start before conference play. If the Gophers can do that they would need just 3 conference wins for a bowl game. I think it is possible, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The year will be a success if Minnesota can reach .500 and be poised for a breakout 2009 in the new stadium. All four road conference games look like losses and Iowa is probably the easiest home game.

9. Indiana – Indiana has the makings of a pretty good team, but I cannot understand why Bill Lynch is implementing an offense that will hinder its greatest weapon. Outside of Lewis there is no proven running game unless Marcus Thigpen is facing Purdue’s defense. Also, receivers need to develop and an answer needs to be found at cornerback. The lines are both going to be surprisingly good, however.

I’m also not buying into the belief that Indiana has four slam dunk wins outside of the Big Ten. Yes, Murray State and Western Kentucky will be wins, but you’re telling me a very good offensive team like Central Michigan has no chance? How about a pretty good Ball State team that has played Indiana fairly well the past couple seasons and went to a bowl last year? If Indiana gets past those four unscathed they will go to another bowl, but those predicting 9 or 10 wins are a little overzealous.

8. Michigan – This is the first bold pick here, but Michigan is facing the largest questions of everyone in the Big Ten. Rich Rodriguez hasn’t helped matters by alienating to most everyone in the country except Michigan fans. Personally, I’d love for him to become the most overrated coach in the country just because of his attitude, taking the title from Nick Saban. Michigan fans are naturally nervous about this year, while most of the teams that the Wolverines face are thinking this is their best shot, maybe for a long time.

Look, I know Michigan is Michigan. They have great athletes and great tradition. But after App State last year how are we expected to believe a team that will like take a step back offensively can compete for a championship? When teams like Utah and Miami of Ohio have legitimate shots at an upset in Ann Arbor how should we expect the rest of the season to unfold. Other than Toledo and probably the game against the Redhawks I don’t see a stone cold lock win on the schedule. Utah is a sneaky-tough team to open against, and since Notre Dame is returning to glory we must all be ready to bow.

7. Illinois – I am far from sold on the Illini. They haven’t had a sustained period of success since Red Grange played in Champaign. They followed their last BCS bowl with a 5-7 record after losing their best player (Kurt Kittner in that case). Rashad Mendenhall meant at least as much to Illinois’ offense last year, and the way they were rocked in the Rose Bowl leaves me little confidence. I don’t care that USC is that good. A top 20 team in 2008 would have put up more of a fight.

Eastern Illinois, Western Michigan, and Louisiana-Lafayette will give them three non-conference wins, but Missouri is a tough opener. All four Big Ten road trips are not easy either. A season ender at Northwestern will be more difficult than people realize. At least all four Big Ten home games except Ohio State will be pretty easy. I expect Illinois to make a bowl, but they will not be back in the BCS this season. Making it to a New Year’s Day bowl is a big if.

6. Northwestern – This is the most dangerous team in the Big Ten. No one ever takes them seriously, and that’s about the time they go on a four game winning streak in the conference where three of those teams are left shaking their heads and wondering what just happened. Because of where that games falls in the schedule, Purdue should be very worried about going to Evanston. We have a realistic shot of being 5-1 coming into this game, but will likely have just lost at Ohio State regardless. This is right in our "October swoon" wheelhouse.

There is absolutely zero excuse for the Wildcats not being 4-0 before Big Ten play starts. Ohio, Syracuse, Duke, and Southern Illinois is as easy as it can get when you face two BCS conference teams in non-conference play. That means Northwestern should go bowling with even moderate success in the Big Ten. They are good enough to win at least three conference games. Don’t be surprised if they win more.

5. Purdue – It seems like Purdue has lived in this spot since I started ranking the Big Ten two years ago. If we beat the teams we should and lose to those we should lose to we’ll be right in the middle again. No one is giving us much respect nationally, predicting the same thing. After the way we have performed since 2003, I don’t blame them. Even our dream season that wasn’t in 2004 wasn’t that great. We were a 7-5 team. Yes, we had no business losing five games, but we still did. Losses are losses. Call this the homer ranking, but as a Purdue blog I am required to be optimistic and this is as optimistic as I can get before the season.

I do have a strangely good feeling as we get closer to the season. I think it will be justified in the Oregon game when we pull a minor upset over the ranked Ducks. It is a game we still should lose, and I even predicted so in my preview. If we can get it though, I think it will change a lot of things for the 2008 season. It will give us a confidence we have been missing, and suddenly Notre Dame, Penn State, and Michigan aren’t so daunting. I am saying it now. If Purdue upsets Oregon we will win 9 games. If not, only expect 6 or 7 at best because we won’t be ready yet again. Anything between 4 and 10 wins would not surprise me with this team.

4. Penn State – I almost put the Nittany Lions as low as 7th. They must break in a new quarterback, they lost their best player for the season before it started, there are clearly discipline issues. The Paterno situation will continue to be a distraction until it is resolved. Of all the teams in the top half of the conference I can see Penn State falling the hardest if things break. They are Penn State, however, and last year they still managed to get it done for a pretty good year.

Coastal Carolina, Temple, and a trip to Syracuse should be easy wins, but Oregon State could be a tricky home game in the Big Ten/Pac-Ten challenge. The Purdue game is their third toughest in the conference on the road, and I feel we are capable of beating them at home. If the Nittany Lions can finally figure out Michigan I think they will hold serve at home, but road losses at Wisconsin and Ohio State will prevent a Big Ten title.

3. Michigan State – I am required, as a blogger and pseudo-journalist, to call the Spartans this season’s Illinois. Personally, I think they may be better. They had a successful year when few expected such last year. They have one of the better quarterback-running back tandems in the conference and a defensive minded coach that appears to have changed the entire attitude of the program. The way they won in Ross-Ade with ease a year ago surprised me.

If they can survive an opening road trip to California they very well could be undefeated facing Ohio State on October 18th. After the Spartans nearly beat them with defense alone a season ago who wouldn’t give them a chance against the Buckeyes? If Ohio State is also undefeated at the time, it will probably be their final major hurdle to the national title game.

2. Wisconsin – As a Purdue fan, I am hoping Wisconsin does not win at home over Ohio State on October 4th. That will be a very, very good game, perhaps the best in the conference this year. Should Wisconsin win, we will be facing a very angry Ohio State team the following week in Columbus. Though I think we’ll have a better than expected season, I would be absolutely shocked if we won in Columbus. If they lose to USC and Wisconsin before playing us I expect such an upset will be even more unlikely.

Thankfully, we don’t face the Badgers this year. They are the most complete team outside of Ohio State. If a quarterback emerges and does well I think they can compete for the national title. A trip to Fresno State is the only difficult non-conference game as Akron, Marshall, and Cal-Poly are very simple. The toughest Big Ten games aside from Michigan State are all at Camp Randall. They have the best combination of running backs as well, which is always handy.

1. Ohio State – This is not a surprise, but until someone goes into Columbus and rips the Big Ten title from Ohio State’s grasp they will be here. Unfortunately for Ohio State, teams may not have to go to Columbus to do it. They have the most talent rich roster in the conference by far. Their backup quarterback could probably start for the other 10 teams and have a very successful year. They have a running back that is Heisman-worthy, and a linebacker that needs to work on his signature so he can sign a massive NFL check in about 8 months. The other positions aren’t as lauded, but may be just as good.

The only hang-up is the schedule. Going to USC, Wisconsin, and Michigan State are by far the toughest three games the Buckeyes must face. They will face a hostile crowd in each no matter how much they take over the opposing venue. Many of these guys have played for the last two national championships, but can they come out successful in all three games? If the Buckeyes win all three (or maybe even two) of those games they will play for another national championship. Yeah, they’ve lost the last two, but unless you’re an Ohio State, LSU, or Florida fan you can’t even say you’ve played for the title in that time.