Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


BIG TEN PREVIEW: Who’s Number One?

With Big Ten conference action kicking off this weekend, Herald Sports decided to contact the sports editors from every other Big Ten school campus newspaper and get their take on the Big Ten’s pecking order.

Due to middling success in the conference the past few years, predictions tended to be positive as the top four spots are achievable for almost any team.

Here is a list of the Herald’s predicted conference standings, along with commentary and predictions from the school’s respective football writers.


No. 11 — Purdue (1-2)

Purdue Exponent prediction — Sixth place. “Call me delusional, but Purdue isn’t nearly as bad as everyone expected they would be this year. Sophomore running back Ralph Bolden is the nation’s No. 2 rusher right now, though I expect that will change once teams start catching on.

I predict Purdue will finish somewhere between fifth and seventh in the Big Ten this season. Indiana will be last, and Penn State and Ohio State will be the top two, but everyone in between has looked shaky at times this season.

Don’t get me wrong — Purdue has plenty of things it needs to improve on from their first three games, but the Boilers will surprise at least one Big Ten team this season and be competitive in the majority of their games. In order to do that, however, the defense has to start tackling. In each of their first three games fans saw ball carriers bounce off defenders so much it looked like pinball at times. Another thing that is slowing the Boilers’ progress is mistakes offensively. First-year starter Joey Elliott has shown glimpses of how good a quarterback he can be, but has also made a lot of dumb mistakes.

One problem Purdue has shown so far this season is inconsistency. Purdue opened the Danny Hope era with a good win against a Toledo team that dominated Colorado a week later. The Boilers followed that up with a two-point loss at Oregon in a game that started at 10:23 p.m. in West Lafayette, Ind. That game, though a loss, had the team in high spirits with its potential.

Last week those spirits were crushed when Purdue was manhandled by Northern Illinois in Ross-Ade Stadium. With Notre Dame coming to town this weekend, it will be interesting to see how Hope’s team responds in its final test before Big Ten play begins.”

— Zach Langdon

No. 10 — Indiana (3-0)

Indiana Daily Student prediction — 10th place. “After only one Big Ten victory last season, the Indiana Hoosiers were predicted to sit in the conference’s cellar again in 2009.

With three wins in as many games, IU is already exceeding expectations.

Led by junior quarterback Ben Chappell, whose 68.5 completion percentage paces the team’s offense, the Hoosiers enter the Big Ten season ninth in points scored per game, sixth in third-down conversions and tied for first in wins.

IU goes with a multi-back rushing attack, but the leader of the group is senior Demetrius McCray with 235 yards for a 5.4 yards per carry average.

Chappell has had a problem creating big plays, though, as the Hoosiers average just 228.7 yards passing per game.

Defensively, the Hoosiers return nine starters, and All-Big Ten senior defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton lead the team. Together, the tandem has combined for 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

The Hoosiers are young at defensive tackle, but it hasn’t prevented them from stopping the run. This year, opponents are averaging only 76 yards rushing per game and 2.5 yards per carry.

Heading into the Big Ten season, history is working against IU. The school has not brought home a Big Ten championship since 1967, and games at Michigan and Penn State and against Ohio State don’t make 2009 an easy year to snap the drought.

Only one bowl game appearance in 16 years doesn’t leave much hope for that, either, but before Big Ten games start, the Hoosiers are halfway to bowl-eligible status.”

— Sean Morrison

No. 9 — Illinois (1-1)

The Daily Illini prediction — Sixth place. “The 2009 Illinois football team already appears to be primed for a letdown of a season. A season-opening blowout loss to Missouri and an unimpressive win against Illinois State have done little to back up the high expectations this season’s team had coming into the year. While the Illini’s hopes aren’t completely destroyed, the road to a great season won’t be easy the rest of the way.

At best, Illinois will finish 4-4 in the Big Ten and end up in the middle of the pack in the conference standings. The Illini’s surefire wins should be in back-to-back road contests at Indiana and Purdue, while home games against Michigan State and Northwestern could add a couple wins to Illinois’ record.

Illinois’ defense was suspect when the year began, and it has only gone downhill from there. Safety Donsay Hardeman can’t tackle or cover anyone, and cornerback Miami Thomas and linebacker Martez Wilson are both out for the season. Thomas was supposed to be a starting cornerback, and Wilson was the anchor of the defense at middle linebacker in the team’s first two games. Wilson’s injury is the most significant setback the Illini have seen so far, but minor injuries to junior wide receiver Arrelious Benn and senior quarterback Juice Williams have also provided speed bumps for the Orange and Blue.

For the Illini to turn this season around, they will need to learn to play pass defense and utilize one of the top-ranked offensive attacks in the country. Otherwise, this year could end up as a repeat of 2008’s 5-7 debacle.”

— Alex Iniguez

No. 8 — Minnesota (2-1)

The Minnesota Daily prediction — Third place. “After a 2008 season which saw Minnesota lose its last six games, the Gophers are looking to improve on a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten.

Behind junior quarterback Adam Weber and senior wide receiver Eric Decker, the Gophers have the talent to play with every team in the Big Ten.

With Minnesota’s high-powered passing offense as well as one of the strongest linebacker corps in the nation, I think the Gophers will finish third in the Big Ten behind Penn State and Ohio State. I originally thought the Gophers would end the season in fifth with Michigan State and Iowa ahead of them, but after seeing the Gophers play a tough Cal team all the way into the fourth quarter, it’s clear the Gophers’ tough competition will benefit them in conference play.

Minnesota may not post any impressive wins in the Big Ten, but for as much talent and experience as the team has, it’s hard to imagine the team cannot improve on a 7-6 season from a year ago.

The Gophers have changed their offensive look as they try to run the ball more and take snaps under center, which is something that could have helped them win some close games last year. As long as the Gophers play solid defense, develop a run game and find Decker down the field, this team will be among the top of the conference come season’s end.”

Josh Katzenstein

No. 7 — Northwestern (2-1)

The Daily Northwestern prediction — Fifth place. “If there’s one thing to take from the first three weeks of the season, it’s clear Northwestern is going to play to its level of competition. That has become a staple of Pat Fitzgerald’s hard-nosed pump-the-team-up mentality and coaching style. The Wildcats have the talent to play with almost anyone in the country, as they proved against Missouri in last year’s Alamo Bowl. They’re also capable of struggling to put opponents away, as they did this year against Eastern Michigan.

Senior quarterback Mike Kafka is a true dual-threat quarterback, but he isn’t surrounded by many offensive playmakers. The team graduated its top three wide receivers and top two running backs from a year ago. And this team’s strength was supposed to be its defense, which graduated just three starters from last year’s stout unit. That hasn’t been the case so far, as NU has struggled to generate a pass rush off the edge, and the secondary doesn’t seem to be able to tackle anything that moves. Although pundits and prognosticators often think of Northwestern as the perennial doormat of the Big Ten, that hasn’t been the case since NU went to the Rose Bowl in 1996. In fact, the Cats have the sixth-best composite conference record (24-24) over the last six seasons, just ahead of Purdue and Michigan State. And since the Purple went to Pasadena, only four Big Ten programs have winning records against NU. For those reasons, Northwestern is going to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.”

— Matt Forman

No. 6 — Wisconsin (3-0)

I have never been less certain about a team than I am with the Badgers this season. It is easy in some ways to envision their success, but two fourth quarter/overtime scares keep popping into my mind.

One the one hand, Scott Tolzien has looked accurate and poised, but three games a season does not make. Those two interceptions against Northern Illinois will also be hard to overcome against Big Ten competition.

The running game has yet to really click, a concern for anyone who has watched the Badgers play since 1990. John Clay and Zach Brown certainly have the talent, but a combination of factors has stopped them from really breaking out.

On defense you know big plays will come from defensive end O’Brien Schofield and safety Chris Maragos, but after that questions remain in the secondary and the ability of the defensive line to pressure the quarterback. A relatively easy schedule could pave the way for a big finish by the Badgers, but nothing should surprise fans anymore.

— Michael Bleach

No. 5 — Michigan State (1-2)

The State News prediction — Fourth place. “Despite a rocky start in their nonconference schedule, a top-four finish is not out of the realm of possibility for Michigan State.

While the defense has struggled against spread attacks from Central Michigan and Notre Dame, the offense has been stellar, averaging 33.7 points per game. Sophomore Kirk Cousins has emerged as the team’s leader on and off the field. Against teams that don’t run a spread offense, the Spartans should fare well. With a good set of linebackers, including preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones, Michigan State has shown the ability to stop the run, but the secondary has struggled against the

pass and tackling has been an issue. Offensively, Cousins has possibly the most talented set of receivers in the Big Ten, led by senior Blair White, a former walk-on who has

114 yards per game and has four touchdowns. Junior Mark Dell picked up 121 yards in his first game of the season against Notre Dame and sophomore B.J. Cunningham could be the most talented of the bunch. At running back, freshman Larry Caper is emerging as the go-to guy among a crop of young backs. Special teams remains a strong point for the team as senior Brett Swenson has connected on 5-of-6 field goals and junior punter Aaron Bates has averaged 47.7 yards on 10 punts. Each game on MSU’s league schedule in largely winnable except for the season finale against Penn State, where the Spartans should be heavy underdogs.”

Matt Bishop

No. 4 Michigan (3-0)

The Michigan Daily prediction — Third place. “At the beginning of the season, I probably would have told you Michigan would easily fall to the bottom half of the Big Ten, especially with a freshman quarterback, plenty of questions of defense and a coach under severe scrutiny after a series of allegations about NCAA practice-time violations.

Oh, how things can change in three short weeks. Behind a surprisingly strong offensive line, the Wolverines have racked up more than 800 rushing yards, the third most in the nation. With running backs Carlos Brown, Brandon Minor, Michael Shaw and shifty quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, no one has even come close to slowly down the potent Michigan ground game.

And, as the myriad ESPN clips have shown time and time again, Forcier is playing like a veteran and shows an uncanny ability to improvise and make things happen. I’d like to see him play in a hostile environment before I crown him as the savior of the Rich Rodriguez era, but he definitely proved he can play under pressure when he led the Wolverines down the field to beat Notre Dame in the final minute.

Add the fact that most supposed top-half Big Ten teams — Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin — have all looked weak against inferior nonconference opponents, this might be the year Michigan can reassert itself in the conference race.”

Andy Reid

No. 3 — Iowa (3-0)

The Daily Iowan prediction — Third place. “Iowa’s taxing Big Ten road schedule has been well-documented. With games at Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State, many preseason prognosticators have been justifiably cautious when hawking the Hawkeyes as potential conference title contenders. But with a 3-0 overall record heading into Saturday’s Big Ten-opener against the Nittany Lions and ample talent flanking every side of the ball, Iowa should finish as the third-best team in the league. But the Hawkeyes have more than a snowman’s chance of winning its first conference championship since 2004. Iowa may not have an all-American running back in the backfield or a game-tested, fan-approved sophomore backup. But freshmen Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher aren’t a pair of ramshackle wannabes. Plus, the Hawkeyes’ receiving corps runs as deep as the Iowa River with six athletic wide outs — five without junior Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who led Iowa receivers in 2008 with 638 yards on 44 catches. But better still, junior Ricky Stanzi is the Hawkeyes’ starting quarterback. No more intra-squad bickering. No more spectator speculation. No more game-day switches. Stanzi is Iowa’s man under center this season — a luxury Hawkeye Nation hasn’t enjoyed since the glory years of Drew Tate, the fiery Texan who won the 2005 Capital One Bowl with one legendary heave. On defense, there is even more to chirp about. Even without graduated leaders Mitch King and Matt Kroul along the defensive line, juniors Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard have helped limit opponents to 422 rushing yards through three games. And defensive backs Amari Spievey, Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood, in addition to linebackers Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds, make up a frightening backfield — scarier than ‘Sorority Row’ and ‘Jennifer’s Body’ combined.

Seriously, Iowa is a team to tweet home about.”

Ryan Young

No. 2 — Ohio State (2-1)

The Lantern prediction — First place. “Ohio State’s trek toward a fifth consecutive Big Ten title contains very few roadblocks. The reemergence of Michigan makes the annual season finale against the Wolverines less of a given. But OSU has knocked off its rivals from up north in five straight meetings. The real test for the Buckeyes comes Nov. 7 at Penn State. The Nittany Lions escaped The Horseshoe with a 13-6 victory last year, and OSU will likely need revenge in State College to capture a fifth-straight conference championship. The progression of dual-threat quarterback Terrelle Pryor will determine how the team fares. He suffered through the proverbial sophomore slump at the start of the year, struggling mightily in the letdown against Southern Cal. If he improves his decision-making and coach Jim Tressel loosens his sweater vest and opens up the offense, another Big Ten championship could be in the Buckeyes’ plans in ’09.”

Zack Meisel

No. 1 — Penn State (3-0)

The Daily Collegian prediction — Second place. “Penn State has more star power than any other team in the Big Ten. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, two of those stars, outside linebackers Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman, could not escape nonconference play unscathed and their statuses for the first Big Ten game remain up in the air. Playing three pitiful opponents to open the season makes it difficult to gauge Penn State’s progress thus far, leaving uncertainties surrounding its two preseason question marks: the offensive line and the secondary. Most great Big Ten teams have relied on strong play up front, and with no proven backup behind returning first team All-Big Ten quarterback Daryll Clark, the Nittany Lions need their line to step up and protect their signal-caller. The general line of thinking is a team can get by with a mediocre secondary in this run-heavy conference, so that could alleviate the burden on Penn State’s four new starters in the defensive backfield. But this team does have many of its leaders back from last year’s Big Ten championship team. Clark is the best quarterback in the league and Evan Royster is the best returning running back in the league. On top of that, Jared Odrick might just be the best defensive tackle in the league and, when healthy, Linebacker U is, well, Linebacker U. It’s that veteran leadership that will keep this team with many holes from falling out of the Big Ten’s elite. Those question marks, however, will prevent Penn State from repeating as Big Ten champs.”

Matt Fortuna

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