Ohio St. is the gem of the Big Ten. Ranked No. 2 in preseason polls, they are essentially guaranteed a trip to the national championship game if they stay undefeated. However, getting past Miami, Wisconsin, Penn St., and Iowa is not an easy task. The latter three teams will challenge the Buckeyes for the Big Ten title in what should be a competitive conference once again.
Penn St. Nittany Lions
“We are…Penn St.!” The Nittany Lions (No. 19 AP, No. 14 USA Today) had a successful 2009 season with a victory over LSU in the Capital One Bowl to finish 11-2 on the year. Hall of Fame head coach Joe Paterno leads the Nittany Lions with his NCAA IA record-topping 394 victories to go along with two national titles (1982, 1986).
Penn St. returns senior leading rusher, Evan Royster (1,169 yards, 6 TDs), and six of the top seven receivers, including junior Derek Moye (785 yards, 6 TDs) and senior Graham Zug (600 yards, 7 TDs). The biggest loss from last season is quarterback Daryll Clark. True freshman Robert Bolden was just named Clark’s heir. Bolden will have plenty of talented playmakers around him, which should help ease him into the starting role.
Penn St.’s biggest difficulty in 2010 will be having to face three top ten teams on the road that won BCS bowls in 2009: Alabama (9/11), Iowa (10/2), and Ohio St. (11/13). The tough road schedule along with the inexperience at quarterback means that JoePa will have a hard time vying for a third straight 10+ win season in 2010.
Ohio St. Buckeyes
The Ohio St. (No. 2 AP, No. 2 USA Today) enters 2010 off the heels of a strong 2009 season in which they went 11-2, including a victory over Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Jim Tressel is in his 10th season at the helm and has compiled a 94-21 overall record with a national championship in 2002 (all while wearing his trademark sweater vests).
Junior QB Terrelle Pryor (2,094 passing yards, 18 TDs, 11 INTs; 779 rushing yards, 7 TDs) leads the attack and is flanked by senior RB Brandon Saine (739 yards, 4 TDs) and junior RB Dan Herron (600 yards, 7 TDs). Pryor will have his top four receivers back with junior DeVier Posey (828 yards, 8 TDs) and senior Dane Sanzenbacher (570 yards, 6 TDs) as main targets.
On the other side of the ball, senior linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle anchor a tough defense that will play a major role in the Buckeyes’ national title run.
OSU has eight home games but must go on the road to face Wisconsin (10/16) and Iowa (11/20). The Buckeyes should not only win the Big Ten, but also play for the national title in Arizona.
The Iowa Hawkeyes (No. 9 AP, No. 10 USA Today) also open 2010 with high expectations. Like Ohio St., they finished 2009 on a high note after beating Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl to finish 11-2 on the year. Iowa is led by head coach Kirk Ferentz, who is 81-55 overall and 52-19 at home. Ferentz recently signed a contract extension that will keep him at Iowa through the 2020 season.
The Hawkeyes return their top quarterback in senior Ricky Stanzi (2,417 yards, 17 TDs, 15 INTs), top rusher in sophomore Adam Robinson (834 yards, 5 TDs), and top receivers, senior Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (750 yards, 2 TDs) and junior Marvin McNutt (674 yards, 8 TDs).
Iowa also features solid defensive players in senior DE Adrian Clayborn, senior LB Jeremiha Hunter, and junior S Tyler Sash.
Their biggest game will be the showdown against Ohio St. on Nov. 20. Last year, the Hawkeyes were forced to face the Buckeyes without Stanzi in a 27-24 overtime loss, so this could very well be a revenge game.
Rich Rodriguez’s first two years in Ann Arbor did not go exactly as planned. The Maize and Blue compiled an 8-16 record in that time, but things should turn around quickly for them in 2010.
The Wolverines have 15 returning starters (seven on offense), including sophomore QB Tate Forcier (2,050 yards, 13 TDs, 10 INTs). Rodriguez should also benefit from the talent that he has brought in for his system as he has had three straight solid recruiting classes.
Michigan has a manageable schedule early in the year as they get Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Bowling Green at home. However, if they cannot win early, they will have a tough time becoming bowl eligible as they face Michigan St. (10/9), Iowa (10/16), at Penn St. (10/30), Wisconsin (11/20), and at Ohio State (11/27) all in the second half of the year.
Michigan St. Spartans
Mark Dantonio is set to begin his fourth year in East Lansing, and has led the Spartans to bowl games in each of his first three years.
There are high expectations for junior quarterback Kirk Cousins (2,680 yards, 19 TDs, 9 INTs) this season. Although Cousins loses his top receiver from 2009, he still has the rest of his receiving corps intact, led by junior B.J. Cunningham (641 yards, 4 TDs).
On the other side of the ball, senior LB Greg Jones is a tackling machine who recorded 154 total tackles and nine sacks in 2009. Jones, a First Team All-American, will continue to terrorize Big Ten running backs this year.
Although the Spartans have a high octane offense and are fortunate to not have to play Ohio St. in 2010, it is unlikely that they will contend for the Big Ten crown. Like past Michigan St. teams, they will have a successful first two months of the season before their usual slide later in the year. However, this year’s team is solid with enough talent to win 10 total games, which would be Dantonio’s most in East Lansing.
The Badgers have 16 returning starters, including 10 on offense. They bring back last year’s leading rusher and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, junior John Clay (1,517 yards, 18 TDs). Clay had nine games of 100 rushing yards or more in 2009, including six straight games to end the year.
In addition, senior quarterback Scott Tolzien (2,705 yards, 16 TDs, 11 INTs) returns along with his top receiver, junior Nick Toon (805 yards, 4 TDs).
Head Coach Bret Bielema should have his team in contention for the conference title. October will be the most important month as they play Ohio St. (10/16) at home and then play at Iowa (10/23) one week later. Although Wisconsin probably won’t win the conference, they have an excellent shot at winning 10 games.
Pat Fitzgerald’s past two seasons (9-4 in 2008, 8-5 in 2009) have been his best since taking over for the late Randy Walker.
The Wildcats have to replace last year’s starting QB, Mike Kafka (3,430 yds, 16 TDs, 12 INTs), and it appears that junior Dan Persa will have the first crack at the job.
Northwestern doesn’t have to play Ohio St. this season, and has a good shot to open the year 5-0. Persa’s development will be crucial to how the season progresses though the two years he spent as Kafka’s understudy will most certainly help him. The Wildcats will make it three straight years of going to a bowl game and will look to win their first postseason game under Fitzgerald.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Ron Zook enters his sixth year at Illinois with only one winning season under his belt. 2009 was a major disappointment as the Fighting Illini fell to 3-9 in a season where they should have at least been able to finish at .500.
This year, they return leading rusher, junior Mikel Leshoure (765 yards, 5 TDs), but must also start a new quarterback and find new top receivers. Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase gets the call to replace Juice Williams, which means that the Illini will depend heavily on Leshoure’s legs.
Illinois has some talent, but given Zook’s history and lack of proven playmakers, it is doubtful that they will become bowl eligible in 2010.
Junior QB Robert Marve will finally make his Purdue debut after transferring from Miami. Marve is mobile with a strong arm, which will help him find senior WR Keith Smith (1,100 yards, 6 TDs), the Boilermakers’ top receiving threat in 2009.
Purdue doesn’t have to play Iowa or Penn St. in 2010, but tough road games against Northwestern (10/9), Ohio St. (10/23), and Michigan St. (11/20) will make getting to a bowl game difficult. But, if Marve learns the offense quickly and the Boilermakers can develop a reliable running game, Purdue could end a two-year bowl game drought.
Hoosiers Head Coach Bill Lynch should thank his athletic director for their 2010 schedule. The Hoosiers non-conference slate features Towson, Western Kentucky, Akron, and Arkansas St. Although Indiana only hosts three conference games at home, they have 13 starters returning, including nine on offense.
The main returnees are senior QB Ben Chappell (2,941 yards, 17 TDs, 15 INTs) and top sophomore RB, Darius Willis (607 yards, 6 TDs). The top six receivers are also back, led by juniors Tandon Doss (962 yards, 5 TDs) and Damario Belcher (770 yards, 5 TDs).
The Hoosiers ought to be able to win all four non-conference games, and will have a good chance to play in their second bowl game in over 15 years.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Head Coach Tim Brewster enters his fourth year with the Golden Gophers, and will need some help to make it to a bowl game.
Minnesota returns 11 starters from last year’s team, including nine on offense. Senior QB Adam Weber (2,582 yards, 13 TDS, 15 INTs) will lead the team along with junior RB Duane Bennett (376 yards, 6 TDs). The Golden Gophers lost talented WR Eric Decker to the NFL (Denver Broncos), and no returning receiver caught more than 26 passes in 2009.
The defense will have a tough time in 2010 as they only have two starters returning for a unit that struggled to stop their opponents at times last season.
Minnesota also has a brutal schedule that includes a five-game stretch against solid conference teams: at Wisconsin (10/9), at Purdue (10/16), Penn St. (10/23), Ohio St. (10/30), and at Michigan St. (11/6). The Golden Gophers will need to pull an upset or two during that stretch to become bowl eligible, so 2010 looks like it will be a rough year.
Ohio St. is the obvious favorite to take home the Big Ten title, but they will have stiff competition from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Penn St. If OSU finishes the year undefeated or even with one loss, they will be right in the mix for the opportunity to play for a national title.
Follow Yoshito Tsuji on Twitter @YoshitoTsuji.