The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 20, 2010

2010 Big Ten Conference Preview

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2010 Big Ten Conference Preview

The Big Ten started all this realignment mess, but all they did in the end was add Nebraska.  While we wouldn’t be shocked to see Commissioner Jim Delany add two or even four more teams before the year is up, nothing will be more surprising than the Big Ten race this season—at least in our opinions.

We are not about to shock anybody and pick Indiana and Minnesota to split the title.  No, we believe, like most other pundits, that Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin are the main contenders, and Penn State and Michigan State are right behind.  We do throw in one surprise team that could contend this year.  Our big surprise is that we feel like the league has become as balanced as the Pac-10.  We actually expect that there is a possibility that four teams could go 6-2 and split the title multiple ways.  Every contender has a strength that can be used to exploit one of the other contenders’ weaknesses.  Thus, every contender also has an exploitable weakness.  It should be an interesting season, as the Big Ten sends its champion to the Rose Bowl (no BCS Championship Game again this year) to face a Pac-10 champion, just like the good ole days.

Note: The PiRate Ratings are not meant to be used to predict the outcome of future games.  They are usable only as a basis for the current week’s games.  We do not use these ratings to make our selections.  They are only a starting point.  The predictions given below, as for every college conference and NFL division, are not taken from the ratings themselves.

Predictions

Pos Team B10 W-L
1 Wisconsin 7-1 11-1
2 Iowa 6-2 9-3
3 Ohio State 6-2 10-2
4 Michigan 5-3 8-4
5 Michigan State 5-3 9-3
6 Penn State 5-3 8-4
7 Northwestern 3-5 7-5
8 Purdue 3-5 6-6
9 Illinois 2-6 4-8
10 Indiana 1-7 5-7
11 Minnesota 1-7 3-9

 

BCS (Rose) Bowl: Wisconsin

Capital One Bowl: Ohio State

Outback Bowl: Iowa

Gator Bowl: Michigan

Insight Bowl: Penn State

Texas Bowl: Michigan State

Dallas Football Classic: Purdue

Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl: Northwestern

 

 

Team By Team Breakdown

Team Illinois Fighting Illini
               
Head Coach Ron Zook
               
Colors Orange and Blue
               
City Champaign-Urbana, IL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 2-6
Overall 3-9
               
PiRate Rating 98.3
               
National Rating 63
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 2-6
Overall 4-8
               
Strengths: Running Back, Linebacker, Cornerback
               
Weaknesses: Wide Receiver, Safety, Special Teams
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Missouri (N), Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, @ Fresno State
   
Key Games: Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern (@ Wrigley Field)
   
Offense Pred. 22-26 points & 350-375 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

Ron Zook almost lost his job last year, and he will lose it this year if the Illini don’t return to a bowl.  He hired new offensive and defensive coordinators, but that may not be enough to turn the tide in Champaign-Urbana. 

 

Illinois will have a decent running game again this year, but we do not see the Illini averaging 200 yards a game like last year.  Quarterback Nate Scheelhaase does not have the wheels former QB Juice Williams had.  He will pass for more yards possibly.

 

At running back, the Illini will rely on a good tandem.  Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford could combined for 1,500 yards, but their average per gain will drop some without a mobile QB threat.

 

Scheelhaase will struggle against better secondaries, because his receivers are not that talented.  Jarred Fayson is the leading returnee after catching just 16 passes for 218 yards.

 

The offensive line is average at best, and they will give up considerably more sacks with a less-mobile QB.

 

Illinois stunk on this side of the ball last year, and things won’t be much better this season.  Illinois switches to the 3-4 defense this year, and the three-man line will struggle some.  Only one starter, Clay Nurse, returns to this unit.  He will see a lot of double team blocks, as the rest of the line will not pick up a lot of sacks.

 

Linebacker is the strength of this side of the ball, as three with starting experience return. 

 

The Illini are set at the corners, but safety is a concern.  Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne combined for 12 batted passes but intercepted just two.  Illinois finished #120 (dead last) in the nation in intercepted passes, so there is only one way to go in this category.

 

We do not believe the Illini have enough to get over the hump.  They had a lot better talent last year and won just three games.  Zook is headed back to the assistant coaches ranks after this season. 

Team Indiana Hoosiers
               
Head Coach Bill Lynch
               
Colors Cream and Crimson
               
City Bloomington, IN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 4-8
               
PiRate Rating 92.5
               
National Rating 82
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-7
Overall 5-7
               
Strengths: Wide Receiver
               
Weaknesses: Running Back, Offensive Line, Linebacker, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Towson, @ Western Kentucky, Akron, Arkansas State
   
Key Games: Michigan, @ Illinois, Northwestern, @ Purdue
   
Offense Pred. 24-28 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 31-34 points & 400-425 yards
               
Outlook

Three close losses were the difference in a 7-5 season and the 4-8 season in Hoosierland in 2009.  Indiana has a lot of talent on the offensive side and a lot of questions on the defensive side of the ball this year.  It looks like another year of close, high-scoring games with IU on the losing side.

 

Quarterback Ben Chappell returns for his senior year after completing 62.6% of his passes for 2,941 yards and 17 touchdowns.  His 15 interceptions have a lot to do with an offensive line that did not do its job.  He had to heave the ball in desperation too many times.

 

Chappell has some excellent receivers, and when IU plays teams with weaker pass rushes, the Hoosiers will generate a lot of passing yards.  Tandon Doss, Damario Belcher, and Terrance Turner teamed for 183 receptions and 2,175 yards last year, and they should top that contribution this season.

 

Indiana will pass the ball more this year, because their running game is still a problem.  Their offensive line does not block well for the run, and we don’t see the Hoosiers getting much more than 100 yards on the ground this year.  If they do, it will be because they fatten their stats against the non-conference opponents.

 

The Hoosiers were less than mediocre on the defensive side of the ball last year, and the news gets worse this year.  Seven of the top eight tacklers are gone, including the only two quality pass rushers.  IU has a decent tandem at defensive tackle, and Adam Replogle and Larry Black will stop up the middle running plays.  Replogle is the only pass rushing monster returning.

 

Only one starter returns at linebacker and in the secondary, and with a weaker pass rush, the Hoosiers will be quite generous through the air.  Look for IU to give up more than 250 passing yards per game in a conference noted for heavy running attacks.

 

A very easy non-conference slate will give Indiana four wins.  They will only need two conference victories to become bowl eligible, but getting one win will be tough.

Team Iowa Hawkeyes
               
Head Coach Kirk Ferentz
               
Colors Black and Gold
               
City Iowa City, IA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 6-2
Overall 11-2
               
PiRate Rating 119.8
               
National Rating 15
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: Defensive Line ***, Receiver, Defensive Back, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Linebacker
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Eastern Illinois, Iowa State, @ Arizona, Ball State
   
Key Games: Penn State, @ Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State
   
Offense Pred. 26-30 points & 360-380 yards
               
Defense Pred. 13-17 points & 275-300 points
               
Outlook

Iowa was a losing team last year if you look at their scores through three quarters.  They came from behind numerous times and barely earned victories over Northern Iowa and Arkansas State.  Of course, if you look at their bowl game against Georgia Tech, they looked like a top five team.

 

The Hawkeyes are the trendy pick to win the Big Ten this year because they host Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.  We won’t bash the Hawkeyes, but we see just enough exploitable areas to select them to come up a game short in the league standings.

 

Quarterback Ricky Stanzi completed just 56.3% of his passes last year and tossed 15 interceptions.  He forced passes at times, and he shut cut down on those this year.  On the other hand, some of those forced passes resulted in spectacular plays that helped Iowa move the ball in the fourth quarter. 

 

Stanzi will have two excellent weapons at his disposal.  Wideouts Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt combined for 79 receptions and 1,424 yards (18.0 per catch).  Their ability to break loose for long gains opened the running lanes for the backs.

 

Speaking of backs, Coach Kirk Ferentz welcomes the return of two fine runners in Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher.  Look for the two to team for 1,500 or more yards this year.

 

The one weakness on this side of the ball is in the offensive line, as three starters departed.  Iowa usually has excellent line play, but only tackle Riley Reiff qualifies for all-conference material.  Stanzi could receive a tougher pass rush this year, and if he reverts to his old ways…

 

Iowa won with defense last year, and they will probably rely on defense to win again this year.  Eight starters return on this side of the ball, but the Hawkeyes lost three excellent players who heard their names called in the NFL Draft.

 

The overwhelming strongest unit on this side of the ball is possibly the top in the nation!  All four defensive line starters return, and with North Carolina’s defensive line possibly missing the best player in the nation, we give the nod to Iowa.  In fact, we would not be surprised if all four starters (Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard, Karl Klug, and Broderick Binns) ended up on the 1st or 2nd Team All-Big Ten list.  Clayborn made 20 total stops behind the line last year.  The other three combined for 32 for an incredible 52 plays where the other team lost yardage!

 

The second line of defense is the vulnerable unit on this side of the ball.  Expect teams to use a lot of play-action passes and short passes into the seams of the underneath zones to try to exploit the youth in the linebacking corps.

 

The secondary is almost as tough as the defensive line, even with the loss of Amari Spievey to the NFL.  Safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood combined to defend 22 passes last year.  Sash proved to be very valuable in run support as well.

 

Most pundits believe the Big Ten race could come down to the two big games the Hawkeyes host at Kinnick Stadium—October 23 with Wisconsin and November 20 with Ohio State.  We believe they will win one and lose one.  We actually believe the race will be decided on October 16, when Iowa plays at Michigan.  We think the Wolverines might upset the Hawkeyes in that game, forcing Iowa to sweep the other two teams.  At 6-2, they may fall one game short.     

Team Michigan Wolverines
               
Head Coach Rich Rodriguez
               
Colors Maize and Blue
               
City Ann Arbor, MI
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 5-7
               
PiRate Rating 106.3
               
National Rating 43
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-4
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Linebacker, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Connecticut, @ Notre Dame, UMass, Bowling Green
   
Key Games: Michigan State, Iowa, @ Penn State, Wisconsin, @ Ohio State
   
Offense Pred. 30-34 points & 400-425 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 360-380 yards
               
Outlook

Coach Rich Rodriguez’s seat is just as hot as Ron Zook’s, but we believe he will right the ship in Ann Arbor this season.

 

Michigan will unveil a new quarterback that will remind folks of Pat White.  Denard Robinson has apparently beaten out last year’s starter Tate Forcier, and Robinson could easily rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 2,000 this year.  The Wolverines increased their offensive production from 20 to 30 points per game last year, and if Robinson is as good as advertised, they could top that number in 2010.

 

With Robinson set to get a lot of rushing attempts, look for running backs Vincent Smith and Fitzgerald Toussaint to benefit from the linebackers having to freeze to make sure they pursue the right player.  Toussaint has the potential to be an every down back in the Big Ten, as he combines power and speed.

 

Receiver Roy Roundtree may be the only deep ball threat for the Wolverines this year, but he will require double coverage by many opponents, and that will open up the zone read to explode.  If opponents put an extra man in the box to stop the run, Roundtree will burn them with a breakaway play.

 

The offensive line is the key to the offense moving from really good to outstanding.  The healthy return of center David Molk should give this line a chance to shine.  They will give up fewer sacks with Robinson taking the snaps.

 

The key to a possible surprise move into title contention is the progress of the defense.  UM has suffered through two dreadful seasons on this side under the Rodriguez tenure.  The Wolverines are switching to a 3-3-5 alignment this season, which is a gutsy move when you have to face Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State’s ground games.

 

Michigan still had a decent pass rush last year, but the man responsible for that, Brandon Graham, is now getting paid to play in the City of Brotherly Love.  End Ryan Van Bergen will be the new sack specialist after recording five a year ago, but the key to the front line will be nose tackle William Campbell.  If he can hold his own in the trenches, the linebackers can move and make plays.

 

Linebacker is the key to this defense; can the Wolverines find enough talent to make the 3-3-5 work?  Former end Craig Roh has the tools to play linebacker in the Big Ten.  Jonas Mouton has not lived up to his press clippings, but this new defense may suit him better.

 

The back line must improve by leaps and bounds for UM to have a chance at winning the Big Ten.  Losing Troy Woolfork to injury will make that impossible, but the Wolverines will improve just enough on this side of the ball to win two or three more times.

 

We believe Michigan can win eight games this year.  That would save Rodriguez’s job.  It would be funny if he won big this year and then went shopping for a possible vacant position if an opening popped up in the SEC (LSU, Georgia, South Carolina???). 

Team Michigan State Spartans
               
Head Coach Mark Dantonio
               
Colors Green and White
               
City East Lansing, MI
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 6-7
               
PiRate Rating 107.4
               
National Rating 42
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Receiver, Linebacker
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: W. Michigan, Fla. Atlantic (@ Detroit), Notre Dame, N. Colorado
   
Key Games: Wisconsin, @ Michigan,  @ Northwestern, @ Iowa, @ Penn State
   
Offense Pred. 31-34 points & 420-440 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 360-380 yards
               
Outlook

Here is a team that is not far from being ready to challenge for a conference championship.  The Spartans have a first-rate passing attack that rivals those of the great West Coast teams.  Unfortunately, a below-average secondary will allow opponents to pass like they are a West Coast passing team.

 

Quarterback Kurt Cousins returns to pilot the MSU offense after taking most of the snaps last year.  He tossed for 2,680 yards and 19 touchdowns to just nine interceptions.  Keith Nichol, last year’s backup threw for 764 yards, but he is now a starting wideout.  Cousins could easily approach 300 passing yards per game this year.

 

Besides Nichol, Cousins will have two excellent wideouts and a talented tight end to pass to.  B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin give Cousins two different types of receivers to aim for.  Cunningham is a possession receiver who can take a lick and hold onto the ball.  Martin can get open deep quickly and pick up a long gain.  He scored five times on just 18 catches last year.

 

With the passing game ready to excel, the running game may not produce a lot of yards, but the yards per attempt may go up.  Larry Caper is a bull who can get the tough yards inside, while Edwin Baker can get around the perimeter quickly.

 

The offensive line may be a small liability this year, as just two starters return.  Due to a lot of injuries last year, several players saw action.  So, this year’s starters are not totally raw.

 

The Spartans will use both the 4-3 and 3-4 defense this year.  The defensive line welcomes back two starters including tackle Jerel Worthy, who registered nine tackles for loss.

 

Middle linebacker Greg Jones is the real stud of this defense.  He led the Big Ten last year with 154 tackles and had nine sacks and 14 total tackles for loss.  Eric Gordon returns at Sam linebacker after finishing runner-up on the team with 92 stops.

 

The secondary is the big question mark on this team.  Even with an exemplary pass rush last year, MSU gave up 268 passing yards per game.  Two defensive back starters graduated, one to the NFL.  Chris Rucker is a Big Ten-caliber defensive back, but two or three more quality player must emerge for this team to compete with the elite.

 

Michigan State games will be shootouts this year, as the offense appears to be dominant and the defense is pedestrian.  It will keep MSU from winning the title, but they could play spoiler.  Expect at least eight wins and maybe nine.

Team Minnesota Golden Gophers
               
Head Coach Tim Brewster
               
Colors Maroon and Gold
               
City Minneapolis, MN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 6-7
               
PiRate Rating 100.7
               
National Rating 57
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-7
Overall 3-9
               
Strengths: Offensive Line, Safety
               
Weaknesses: Receiver, Running Back, Defensive Line, Linebacker, Cornerback
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ Middle Tennessee, South Dakota, Southern Cal, N. Illinois
   
Key Games: Northwestern, @ Purdue, @ Illinois, Iowa
   
Offense Pred. 23-27 points & 325-350 yards
               
Defense Pred. 30-34 points & 400-425 yards
               
Outlook

Minnesota fired Glen Mason after the 2006 season because they were fed up with seven, eight, nine, and 10-win seasons and no conference championships.  In the three years since, the Gophers have won one, seven, and six games.  With a major rebuilding job facing Coach Tim Brewster’s defense, Minnesota’s win total could drop 50% this season.

 

The Gophers return most of their offense from last year, but that offense was not all that good.  The best player, receiver Eric Decker, is now in the NFL.  

 

Quarterback Adam Weber returns for his final season after having a subpar junior season.  He threw 15 interceptions and completed just 52% of his passes. 

 

With Decker gone, the Gophers have few downfield weapons.  The leading returnee in reception yardage is Da’Jon McKnight.  He had 311 yards on 17 catches, most of them after Decker went down to injury.

 

The running game, which was always stellar during Mason’s tenure, has fallen to the bottom of the league.  The Gophers rushed for just 99 yards per game last year, but the offensive line gave up 41 sacks to skew that number a little.

 

All five starters return to the offensive line, so there should be some improvement both in pass protection and in opening holes for the run.  Guard Matt Carufel is the best of the five.

 

The defense could be the weakest stop unit in the Big Ten since the Minnesota defense of 2007.  Just safeties Kyle Threet and Kim Royston return to the starting lineup this season, and Royston has leg issues. 

 

Linebacker Keanon Cooper played quite a bit last year, and he is the only other experienced player on the roster.

 

In the defensive line, end Anthony Jacobs is the closest thing to an experienced player.  He registered 19 tackles in a backup role last year.  His career start total is three games, which is three more than the rest of the d-line.

 

To make matters worse, Minnesota must play Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, and Penn State, and they don’t play Indiana.  It is going to be a long year in Minneapolis, but at least the Gophers have a really beautiful stadium now.  Just how many people decide to come to TCF Bank Stadium in November when it is 25 degrees and windy…

Team Northwestern Wildcats
               
Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald
               
Colors Purple and White
               
City Evanston, IL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 95.7
               
National Rating 69
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 3-5
Overall 7-5
               
Strengths: Offensive Line, Linebackers
               
Weaknesses: Receiver, Running Back, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ Vanderbilt, Illinois State, @ Rice, Central Michigan
   
Key Games: @ Minn., Purdue, Mich. St., @ Indiana, Illinois (@ Wrigley Field)
   
Offense Pred. 24-28 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

The Wildcats may take a small step back this year but not enough to keep them from going to their third consecutive bowl.  Northwestern lost their starting quarterback and top two receivers on offense, and five starters on defense, so we expect NU to be a couple points weaker.  Thanks to a soft non-conference slate of opponents, they should win seven games and earn another bowl trip.

 

The new quarterback is Dan Persa.  He saw limited action last year, completing 59% of his 34 pass attempts.  Persa is a sneaky runner, so expect more rushing yards from this position than last year.

 

No NU backs rushed the ball with any competency last year; Arby Fields led with 302 yards.  Expect a big improvement, because Persa can run the zone-read quite well.

 

The running game has to improve, because the passing game will take a step backward.  NU lost 148 receptions and 1,783 yards when their top two receivers graduated.  The replacements are not as talented.  Nobody on this roster is a consistent deep threat; Drake Dunsmore is the closest thing to that, and he averaged just 11.1 yards per catch last year.

 

Helping make the running game improve this year is an experienced offensive line with four returning starters.  Tackle Al Netter was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten player last year.

 

The Wildcat defense is above average in the line, really good at linebacker, and below average in the defensive backfield.  End Vincent Browne tied for the NU lead with five sacks and had three other tackles for loss. 

 

The other co-leading sack man is linebacker Quentin Davie.  To Davie’s five sacks, he added 6 ½ other tackles for loss.  Fellow linebackers Nate Williams and Ben Johnson return to make this a solid unit.

 

Opponents with good quarterbacks (Ricky Stanzi, Kirk Cousins, Scott Tolzien, Robert Marve, Ben Chappell) will torch the NU secondary this year.  Jordan Mabin is the only returning starter, and he was more of a run-stopper than pass defender in 2009.

 

Look for the Wildcats to win all four of their non-conference games.  They will only need two conference wins to gain bowl eligibility, and there are four conference opponents that they can beat.  We’ll say they win three of those games and post another winning season.  Maybe, this is the year they draw an easier bowl opponent and finally win a bowl.

Team Ohio State Buckeyes
               
Head Coach Jim Tressel
               
Colors Scarlet and Gray
               
City Columbus, OH
               
2009 Record              
Conference 7-1
Overall 11-2
               
PiRate Rating 124.3
               
National Rating 5
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 10-2
               
Strengths: Quarterback,  Receiver, Offensive Line, Linebacker
               
Weaknesses: Not many, maybe slightly at Defensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Marshall, Miami (FL), Ohio U, Eastern Michigan
   
Key Games: @ Wisconsin, Penn State, @ Iowa, Michigan
   
Offense Pred. 30-34 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 13-17 points & 275-300 yards
               
Outlook

We could be far off base here, but we actually believe that Ohio State will not win the Big Ten and will not play in the National Championship Game this year.  The Buckeyes have an incredible offense returning, but it is not as good as Wisconsin’s or Michigan State’s offense, and is no better than Purdue or Michigan’s offense.  They have a very good defense, but it is not as good as Iowa’s or Penn State’s defense.  Thus, we believe they will fall twice in conference play and watch a rival lost just once.

 

Quarterback Terrelle Pryor is a Heisman Trophy contender.  He must be considered one of the top five preseason choices.  He ended the season on a roll with a dynamic Rose Bowl performance, but he was almost a non-factor passing in November.  He threw for less than 300 yards in the last three regular season games combined.  He also threw 11 interceptions (3.73%) and finished 8th in passing efficiency.  His ability to run made him a lot more dangerous than other QBs, but we believe Coach Jim Tressel will try to limit his runs this season and increase his passing attempts.

 

OSU is still a run first team, but Pryor has a plethora of good receivers to toss the ball.  DeVier Posey is a classic possession receiver, and his 60 receptions led the Buckeyes last season.  Dane Sanzenbacher is more of a deep threat.  Tight end Jake Stoneburner will be a new star for the Buckeyes this season.  He provides a large target with a good pair of hands.

 

The running game benefits from the return of Brandon Saine and Dan Herron.  The two combined for 1,339 yards and 11 touchdowns.  Saine is a weapon coming out of the backfield as a pass receiver as well.

 

The offensive line returns four starters, and all four are all-conference talents.  This is a one of the nations’ top five lines, but it is just number two in the Big Ten.

 

The defense will not crumble even though it lost five great players.  Tressel’s last four teams yielded just 12.5, 13.9, 12.8, and 12.8 points per game.

 

The defensive line is a minor strength, even with the loss of three starters.  Tressel rotated fresh players in every week, so the three new starters saw extensive playing time in big games.  End Cameron Heyward is ready to become the next great lineman to play at the Giant Horseshoe.  He registered 10 total tackles for loss, but he was not an every down player last year. 

 

Two players return to the second line of defense.  Brian Rolle earned 2nd Team All-Big Ten accolades after making 95 tackles.  Ross Homan was a 1st Team all-conference selection and led OSU with 108 stops.  He also recorded 10 passes defended with a team-leading five interceptions.

 

The back line of defense will be a team strength with three starters returning.  Cornerbacks Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence are among the best in the league.

 

The Buckeyes must travel to both Wisconsin and Iowa.  Home games with Penn State and Michigan will be toughies.  A September home game with Miami will be very interesting.  We think Ohio State will beat the Hurricanes, but the two road games in Big Ten play will be a bit too much.  Call it a second place finish.

 

Team Penn State Nittany Lions
               
Head Coach Joe Paterno
               
Colors Dark Blue and White
               
City State College, PA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 6-2
Overall 11-2
               
PiRate Rating 109.6
               
National Rating 38
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-4
               
Strengths: Running Back, Receiver, Defensive Line, Defensive Back
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Linebacker
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Youngstown State, @ Alabama, Kent State, Temple
   
Key Games: @ Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, @ Ohio St., Michigan St.
   
Offense Pred. 22-26 points & 350-375 yards
               
Defense Pred. 17-21 points & 300-325 yards
               
Outlook

Penn State will have to break in a new quarterback this year, and we don’t have much faith in the possible replacements for Daryll Clark.  Two sophomores and two freshmen will battle it out, but we believe sophomore Kevin Newsome will get first crack at the job.  Expect a major decline in passing yardage and more interceptions.  With just an average offensive line, we wouldn’t be surprised if the number of sacks rose as well.

 

The Nittany Lions will try to get the job done with a strong ground attack.  Running back Evan Royster is a great stone to build that running foundation.  Royster rushed for 1,169 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry.  Backup Stephfon Green added 319 yards.  Expect the two to combine for close to 2,000 rushing yards this year.

 

The Lion receiving corps has talent, so if a quarterback can emerge that can consistently deliver the ball on target, Penn State can still enjoy a decent passing attack.  Derek Moye and Graham Zug return after teaming for 94 receptions and 1,385 yards.  Expected starter Curtis Drake will miss at least half the season with a broken leg.

 

Penn State gave up just 12.2 points per game last year, the sixth consecutive season they held teams under 20 points per game.  Six starters are gone, but PSU had to replace seven starters last year.

 

The two returning starters to the defensive line are end Jack Crawford and tackle Ollie Ogbu.  Crawford recorded 5 ½ sacks and nine other tackles for loss, while Ogbu recorded eight total tackles for loss.  The two new starters are on par with those two, so Penn State should once again be dominating up front.

 

Ironically, the weakness on this defense is the one position football fans think about when they think about Penn State. “Linebacker U” will have an off season.  All three starters must be replaced.  Middle linebacker Michael Mauti missed last year with an ACL injury, and if he can return to his 2008 form, he will be the leader of this group.

 

The strength of the back line is at safety.  Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino are tough against the pass and the run. 

 

Not many teams contend for championships with poor quarterback play these days.  That’s why we cannot pick Penn State to contend for the Big Ten title.  They will be good with their defense and running game, but they will lose two or three times in conference play.

Team Purdue Boilermakers
               
Head Coach Danny Hope
               
Colors Black and Gold
               
City West Lafayette, IN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 5-7
               
PiRate Rating 99.4
               
National Rating 61
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 3-5
Overall 6-6
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Defensive Line
               
Weaknesses: Running Back, Offensive Line, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ Notre Dame, Western Illinois, Ball State, Toledo
   
Key Games: @ Northwestern, Minnesota, @ Illinois, Indiana
   
Offense Pred. 27-31 points & 400-425 yards
               
Defense Pred. 25-29 points & 375-400 yards
               
Outlook

After enjoying many years among the elite of the Big Ten, Purdue has fallen back among the also-rans.  The Boilermakers have endured losing seasons three times in the last five years, including back-to-back sub-.500 years.

 

Coach Danny Hope could guide the Boilermakers back into a bowl in his second season in West Lafayette.  The offense has to replace almost all of its running game and lost some quality receivers, but with former Miami of Florida starting quarterback Robert Marve becoming eligible this year, we believe Purdue will have a first class passing game again. 

 

Marve has a rifle arm, so he will tend to throw longer passes.  This could lead to a lower completion percentage but higher yardage per completions.

 

With Keith Smith returning after grabbing 91 passes for 1,100 yards, the Boilermakers have a potential 1st Team All-Big Ten pick.  Marve needs a game-breaking deep threat to emerge so he can air it out a couple times per game.

 

The running game has to start from scratch this year.  Sophomore Al-Terek McBurse had four carries for 10 yards, and he will open up as the new starter. 

 

The offensive line is going to be young as well.  Guard Ken Plue could contend for all-conference honors, but three new starters will line up in the trenches.

 

The defense gave up close to 30 points per game last year, and it will not be much better this season.  The defensive line will be much improved, but the secondary will be a major liability.

 

The front line features a great pass rusher in Ryan Kerrigan.  He registered 13 sacks last year.

 

All three starters return to the second line of defense.  Joe Holland, Jason Werner, and Chris Carlino finished second, third, and fourth in tackles.  Werner recorded 14 ½ stops for loss.

 

The secondary must replace all four starters, and only free safety Albert Evans saw any real game action last year.  Purdue gave up 203 passing yards per game last year with a really good pass rush.  They could give up 250+ yards this year.

 

Like Michigan State, expect Purdue games to be fast-paced and high scoring.  We believe they will just squeak by with six wins and garner a bowl bid for the first time in three years. 

Team Wisconsin Badgers
               
Head Coach Bret Bielema
               
Colors Cardinal and White
               
City Madison, WI
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 10-3
               
PiRate Rating 117.0
               
National Rating 20
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 7-1
Overall 11-1
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Running Back, Receiver, Offensive Line ***
               
Weaknesses: Defensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ UNLV, San Jose State, Arizona State, Austin Peay
   
Key Games: @ Michigan State, Ohio State, @ Iowa, @ Michigan
   
Offense Pred. 33-37 points & 425-450 yards
               
Defense Pred. 20-24 points & 310-330 yards
               
Outlook

The Badgers have quietly become the next most consistent Big Ten program after Ohio State.  They have been to eight consecutive bowl games and have won double digit games three of the last five seasons.  With 10 offensive starters returning from a fantastic offense a year ago, UW may have an unstoppable attack this year.

 

Coach Brett Bielema’s offense averaged more than 200 yards rushing and passing last year, and both phases will be even better in 2010.  Quarterback Scott Tolzien returns after passing for 2,705 at a 64.3% rate.  The Badgers have built a solid offense the last several years even though they have had to break in a new starter at quarterback the last three seasons.  Expect Tolzien to top 65% completions and 3,000 passing yards.

 

With Tolzien throwing the pigskin, the running game will have more holes available.  The Badgers have three running backs that they can unleash on opponents, and all three can rush for 100 yards in a game.  John Clay may not get much respect outside the league, but in our opinion, he is the near equal of Mark Ingram and LaMichael James.  Clay rushed for 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns last year.  Backups Montee Ball and Zach Brown may get more carries this year at Clay’s expense.  The duo combined for 670 yards last year.

 

The receiving corps is not far from being as talented as the running backs.  Nick Toon has exceptional strength and good hands, while Isaac Anderson has the quickness to turn a five yard catch into a 50-yard touchdown sprint.  UW has made a tradition out of developing all-conference tight ends, and Lance Kendricks should be the next one.  He comes off a season in which he caught 29 passes in a secondary role.

 

We saved the best for last.  The offensive line is not just the best in the league, we believe it is the very best in college football.  All five starters return including 1st Team All-Big Ten studs at center (John Moffitt) and tackle (Gabe Carmi). 

 

The defense will not be as dominating as the offense, but we don’t expect the Badgers to give up a lot of points this year.  If an adequate pass rush can be molded out of a rebuilt defensive line, the Badgers are going to grab their first Big Ten title since the days of Ron Dayne.

 

J.J. Watt is the lone returnee up front.  He earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors after recording 15 ½ total tackles for loss and batting down five passes.  Two of the new starters saw a lot of playing time, but this unit will be a little weaker than last year’s front four.

 

The second line of defense returns two talented starters.  Culmer St. Jean and Chris Borland are equally effective against the run and the pass.

 

The secondary is the real strength on this side of the ball.  With three competent starters back and with the new starter having past starting experience, teams will not burn UW for a lot of passing yards.

 

Throw in a great punter and placekicker, and this team looks primed to win the conference championship. 

Coming Tomorrow: The Southeastern Conference continues to produce national champion after national champion.  Can anybody challenge Alabama and Florida in the divisional races? 

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September 2, 2009

2009 Big 10 Preview

2009 Big 10 Conference Preview

A PiRate Look

We’ve saved the best for last.  Okay, it’s the best for us, because four of us are Big 10 guys.  Let us take care of something before we go on.  Two of us are University of Wisconsin alums.  One of us is University of Minnesota alum, and our founder is an adopted Wisconsinite married to a former resident of Madison (and Minneapolis).  He’s also a life-long follower of Ohio State, partially because of legendary sports talk show host Pete Franklin, who mentored him during his time in sports radio, and partially because his grade school PE touch football team called itself Ohio State (read how the PiRates started for an explanation).

While the Big 10 is no better than the fourth or fifth best league in college football this year, it could very well be first in excitement.  No team, not even the Buckeyes, is dominant enough to run away with the conference title.  Five teams have a legitimate shot at contending for the Rose Bowl bid.  Four other teams could become bowl eligible.  Even the last place team should be exciting to watch thanks to a change in offensive philosophy. 

Here are the preseason PiRate ratings for the league.  The ratings have been rounded to the nearest whole number even though we calculate them to two decimal places.  Thus, when you see multiple teams with the same rating, they are not actually exactly even.  To understand what the rating means, it is set so that 100 is average.  Thus, a rating of 90 means the team is 10 points weaker than the average team in the FBS.  The average of all 120 FBS teams should round to 100 if the math has been successfully calculated.

For those who have not followed the PiRate Ratings before and wonder about the home field advantage, we do not assign set in stone advantages.  These are assigned on a game-by-game basis.  For instance, if Indiana was 0-4 and hosting a 4-0 Kentucky team, it would be expected that those devoted Blue Mist fans would pack Memorial Stadium and make it a home game for the Wildcats.  UK might actually receive a point advantage.  Now, if that same Indiana team instead is 4-0 and hosting San Diego State a week after SDSU played at Hawaii and lost in four overtimes, IU would get as much as 10 points in home field advantage.  The PiRates think it’s ridiculous to issue a blank home field advantage for all teams or even assign a range of set home field advantages.

 

Big 10 Conference Preseason PiRate Ratings

   

 

Prediction *

  Team

PiRate

Big 10

Overall

  Penn State

116

6-2

10-2

  Iowa

114

5-3

9-3

  Ohio State

113

7-1

11-1

  Illinois

106

6-2

10-2

  Michigan State

103

6-2

9-3

  Michigan

102

2-6

5-7

  Wisconsin

101

3-5

7-5

  Minnesota

101

4-4

7-5

  Purdue

99

2-6

4-8

  Northwestern

97

3-5

7-5

  Indiana

89

0-8

2-10

   

 

 

 

 

*  Predictions not based on PiRate Rating but

 

on expected changes to rating during the year

 

This preview will be a little different than the rest.  We will list each team’s strengths and weaknesses as we see them

Penn State

Strengths:

Running Back—Evan Royster rushed for 1,236 yards (6.5 avg) and 12 TDs; backup Staphfon Green has sub 4.3 40 speed

Quarterback—Daryll Clark is the perfect fit for this offense.  He passed for 2,592 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushed for 10 TDs as well.

Linebacker—Duh, this is Linebacker U.  Navorro Bowman led with 106 tackles, 16 ½ behind the line, and broke up five passes.  Sean Lee returns after missing 2008.  In 2007, he had 138 tackles.

Weaknesses:

Receiver—Gone are the top three receivers from 2008 (132 receptions 1,932 yds/17 TDs), representing 59% of the catches, 61% of the yards, and 71% of the touchdowns.

Offensive Line—Three new starters must have it down pat by game four, when PSU takes on Iowa.  Guard Lou Eliades and tackle DeOn’tae Pannell both have the potential to be stars, so this unit could prove to be okay.  Tackle Dennis Landolt is already a star.

Secondary—The Nittany Lions were wiped out by graduation here.  Four new starters make it the weakest unit on the team. 

Outlook—An easy out-of-conference slate guarantees four wins.  Penn State hosts Ohio State, but the visiting team has won the last two years.  A season finale at Michigan State could have the Rose Bowl trip on the line.  We think they have a few too many holes to fill but enough talent to finish in the top four in the conference.

Iowa

Strengths:

Defense—The entire defensive side, with the exception of tackle, will be tough.  The Hawkeyes gave up 13 points and 291 yards per game last year, and there’s no reason to think they won’t repeat that performance this year.  The back seven has no peer in the Big 10.  The Hawkeyes could intercept 25 passes.  Safety Tyler Sash and linebacker Pat Angerer both intercepted five passes in 2008, and Amari Spievey picked off four. 

Quarterback—Ricky Stanzi isn’t going to make the All-Big 10 Team, but he flies just under the radar.  He should top 2,000 yards passing and toss 15-20 touchdown passes.

Weaknesses:

Offensive Line—This isn’t a weakness per se; it’s a total shuffling of the roster.  Only tackle Bryan Bulaga started last year and will start this year.  The depth chart here has been scrambled, with two former starters losing their jobs.  If former starter Dace Richardson, who missed most of the last two seasons, can return to form, this will actually become a fairly good unit.

Running Back—The Hawkeyes cannot replace Shone Greene (1,850 yards/6.0 avg/20 TDs).  New starter Paki O’Meara ran the ball 21 times for 67 yards last year.

Defensive Tackle—Karl Klug could develop into a fine player, and Christian Ballard is capable of playing anywhere on the line, but neither of them is close in talent to departed stars Matt Kroul and Mitch King.

Outlook—Iowa can stop just about any offense in the league, and they should hold their four non-conference opponents (Northern Iowa, Iowa State, Arizona, and Arkansas State) to about 35 total points.  Inside the Big 10, tough games at Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State will prevent them from winning the title.  Nine wins and a eighth bowl bid in the last nine years is very reachable.

Ohio State

Strengths:

Quarterback—Terrelle Pryor is just a sophomore, but he’s the co-number one QB in this league.  Look for him to pass for 2,250-2,500 yards and rush for close to 1,000, accounting for 25 touchdowns.

Defensive Line—Three starters return from a unit that surrendered 110 rushing yards per game and provided a strong pass rush.  End Thaddeus Gibson recorded five sacks and four other TFLs.

Safety—Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell form the best safety tandem in the league.  Both are NFL prospects.

Weaknesses:

Cornerback—Malcolm Jenkins will give quarterbacks in the NFC South headaches this year, and he cannot be replaced.  Teams refused to pass the ball in his direction as much as possible, yet he still intercepted three passes and broke up nine others.

Receiver—The Buckeyes lost the two Brians, Robiskie and Hartline, both of whom were drafted.  The replacements will eventually be quite proficient, but it will take a few games.  The Southern Cal game comes up in week two.

Running Back—Beanie Wells and his 1,197 yards rushing are gone.  Pryor will lead the Buckeyes in rushing this year, but he needs somebody to take the heat off him occasionally.  Sophomore Dan Herron could subsidize the running of Pryor and allow OSU to rush for the same amount of yards this year (192 per game in ’08).

Linebacker—Ohio State lost James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, and the replacements are lightly experienced.  Lone returnee Ross Homan could make the All-Big 10 1st Team.

Outlook—Ohio State’s backups from one year usually become starters the next year and perform admirably, so weaknesses for them are not the same as weaknesses for other teams.  The key to the season comes in week two.  If they beat Southern Cal, it will be a shot in the arm, and the Buckeyes could run the table.  If they lose this game, they will have a hard time playing their best all season, knowing they have little chance of going to the second Pasadena bowl.  We think they have a better than 50-50 shot of winning. The game at Penn State may not go their way, and the Buckeyes may have to settle for the first Pasadena bowl.

Illinois

Strengths:

Quarterback—Juice Williams is the other co-number one QB in the league.  He won’t be confused for Tebow, Bradford, or McCoy, but he will make Illinois go.  He passed for 3,173 yards and 22 touchdowns last year, but he needs to cut back on interceptions.  He also led the Illini with 719 rushing, and he is capable of topping 1,000.  Backup Eddie McGee has talent and can move the team as well.

Receiver—It starts with Arrelious Benn, who finished second in the league with 67 receptions and 1,055 yards.  Tight end Mike Hoomanawanui is a nightmare on enemy safeties at 6’5 and 270.  Look for him to catch 30-40 passes and plough his way for a few extra yards after every catch except for the diving receptions.  Jeff Cumberland is a serious threat to go all the way with every catch he makes.

Running Back—The offensive skill positions are the best in the Big 10 thanks to the able running abilities of Daniel Dufrene, Jason Ford, and Mikel Leshoure.  The trio will split reps and rush for about 1,200 yards this year.  All three are threats as receivers as well.

Weaknesses:

The Defensive Front Seven—The Illini gave up 153 yards rushing and 4.0 yards per rush.  Only two of the front seven starters return this year, and this will be a big liability.  Expected starting end Jerry Brown was declared academically ineligible and won’t play this year.

Outlook—The lack of stars on the defensive side will necessitate the Illini holding onto the ball longer this season.  New offensive coordinator Mike Schulz was noted for putting together TCU offenses that held onto the ball for long, time consuming drives. 

What Schulz cannot change is the schedule.  After having an off week September 19, the Illini must play at Ohio State, at home against Penn State and at home against Michigan State.  That is a tough three game stretch, and very few teams other than the top four in the nation can beat these three powers back-to-back-to-back.  Illinois should enjoy a return to a New Year’s Day Bowl, and if  more than one team can beat Ohio State, Coach Ron Zook could gain a share of the Big 10 title.

Michigan State

Strengths:

Receiver—All the receivers who caught more than five passes return this year.  Mark Dell, Charlie Gantt, and Blair White may not catch 50 passes each, but if they continue to average an aggregate 17 yards per catch, they are going to make things difficult for defenses, as the running game gets more room to operate.

Defensive Front Seven—The linebacker trio is up there with Penn State and Iowa, and the front four is above average.  End Trevor Anderson is a QB’s nightmare.  He could post double digit sacks after recording eight a year ago.  Offenses will not be able to key on him, because linebackers Eric Gordon, Greg Jones, and Brandon Denson can shoot through and drop a passer or take a running back down for a loss.

Weaknesses:

Quarterback—The loss of Brian Hoyer is harder to overcome than first thought.  None of the possible replacements has distinguished himself, and the Spartans will open the season with a possible platoon of Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol, two sophomores with limited experience.  Look for Coach Mark Dantonio to run more, pass less, and pass deeper when the Spartans do throw it.

Running Back—Javon Ringer was one of the most underrated running backs in the NCAA.  He led the Big 10 with 1,637 yards and 22 touchdowns last year.  Caulton Ray, a redshirt freshman will get first crack at filling those shoes.  Larry Caper and Edwin Baker will see plenty of action.  The three will get 400 carries and hope to replace the lost yardage as a trio.

Outlook—The Spartans had a chance at the end of the year to get a piece of the Big 10 title, but Penn State thrashed them 49-18.  MSU doesn’t have enough offensive talent to score enough points to beat the better offensive teams, and their defense won’t be strong enough to hold those teams’ score down low enough to win 17-14.  The Spartans play at Notre Dame, and that could be an extra loss on their schedule.  We expect them to get their revenge on Penn State this year and prevent the Lions from winning the Big 10.  As for the MSU record, even with the offensive woes, we think they will win as many as last year.

Michigan

Strengths:

Running Back—Brandon Minor is still around, and when healthy, he is capable of piling up good yardage.  A big year could move him onto the draft boards of some teams.  Quarterback Tate Forcier will be a much better runner than Steven Threet was last year.  Nick Sheridan is another option, but Coach Rich Rodriguez would love Forcier to take the reins and not give them up.

Offensive Line—All five starters return, and with a year of experience in this offense, the rushing numbers should jump by as much as 100 yards.  Guard Stephen Schilling has all-conference potential.

Defensive Front Seven—Linebackers Obi Ezeh, Jonas Mouton, and Stevie Brown make this yet another excellent group in this league.  End Brandon Graham is the best at his position in the Big 10 (10 sacks and 10 more TFLs!)

Punter—Zoltan Mesko is a Ray Guy Award contender.  He averaged 43 yards per punt with a net of 39.3.  His punts have great hang time, and he can place them inside the 20 any time he’s punting from beyond his 35 yard line.

Weaknesses:

Secondary—Three 2008 starters are gone, and the new starters didn’t see much playing time last year.  Expect major problems when the Wolverines play Notre Dame, Iowa, Penn State, Illinois, and Ohio State.

Team Morale—We were ready to pick Michigan as a surprise contender for eight wins and a bowl until the news came out about players going to the Detroit Free Press to accuse Rodriguez of making them practice more hours than the NCAA allows.  We think there is a concerted effort from within the booster community to send Rodriguez on his way, and we expect more bad news to emerge this year.

Outlook—It looks like two years could be all for Rich Rodriguez.  He cannot coach with this lack of respect coming from within the ranks.  Rodriguez will get another chance somewhere else if this is his final year in Ann Arbor.  We say 5-7 is the best this team can do.

Wisconsin

Strengths:

Running Back—P. J. Hill is gone, but Zach Brown and John Clay are back.  The Badger running game should continue to grind out 200-225 yards per game.

Tight  End—Wisconsin usually uses two tight ends, and Mickey Turner and Garrett Graham are big and sure-handed.  Graham led the Badgers with 40 receptions and 540 yards.  He could top 50 this year, while Turner should match graduated starter Travis Beckham yard-for-yard.

Secondary—Three starters return to a unit that gave up just 52.5% completions and 196 yards per game.  Cornerback Niles Brinkley intercepted four passes and knocked away nine more, and yet he was beaten out in August practice. 

Weaknesses:

Quarterback—Allan Evridge and Dustin Sherer didn’t remind anybody of Aaron Rodgers, as they combined for just 54% completions and a TD/INT ratio of 11/10.  Neither had much running ability, and they were sacked 29 times.  Scott Tolzein has beaten out Sherer (Evridge graduated), and he’s a little more mobile. 

Defensive Front Seven—Wisconsin has usually been strong up front on defense.  This year, only two of the seven starters return, and the new starters have little game experience.  Look for opponents to rush for 150-180 yards per game against the rebuilt run defense, and look for quarterbacks to have more time to pass.  UW will give up 28-33 points per game.

Outlook– Coach Bret Bielema could be on the hot seat if Wisconsin continues to slide the wrong way.  Since taking over for Barry Alvarez, UW has won 12, nine, and seven games.  That number better move the other way this year.  An easy non-conference slate should produce four wins, but we see the Badgers repeating their 3-5 league record for a repeat of 2008.  That will place Bielema on a very hot seat for the 2010 season.

Minnesota

Strengths:

Receiver—Yes, we are talking about Minnesota being strong at the wide out position.  Eric Decker is the best receiver ever to wear the Big M.  Last year, he led the Big 10 with 84 receptions and 1,074 yards, scoring seven times.  He missed some time with injuries, or else he might have caught 100 passes.  Brandon Green and tight end Nick Tow-Arnett give UM three dangerous weapon.  Tow-Arnett grabbed just 10 passes last year, but he averaged 21.1 yards per catch.

Quarterback—Adam Weber had a Bryan Cupito-like season last year.  He passed for 2,761 yards and 15 touchdowns at a 62.2% completion rate.  He showed an ability to run when called on to do so.  If he improves as much this year as last, he could top 3,000 yards.

Offensive Line—A combination of four returning starters plus a new star-in-the-making mean the Gophers are going to be strong in the trenches.  Coach Tim Brewster would like to bring back the power running game enjoyed just four years ago in the Lawrence Maroney days.

Weaknesses:

Running Back—Duane Bennett, DeLeon Easkridge, and a host of others combined to run for just 104 yards per game (34 sacks skewed those numbers a bit).  Bennett showed the most promise for turning into a consistent runner, and he has become the starter.

Defensive Back—Minnesota is not ready to challenge for conference honors because their pass defense isn’t strong enough.  After surrendering 240 yards per game, there should be some improvement this year.  It would have been better had safety Tramaine Brock been able to remain academically eligible.  Kyle Theret  and Marcus Sherels make up half of a good secondary, but they cannot cover two zones at once.

Outlook—The most exciting thing about Minnesota football in 2009 is their brand new outdoor, on-campus stadium.  We’ve watched its construction adjacent to Williams Arena, and it is one beautiful work of architecture.  It’s light years better than old Memorial Stadium (The Brick House), and much more student friendly and personable than the Metrodome.  If you get a chance to see TCF Bank Stadium, don’t pass it up.

As for the Gophers, a better running game to compliment an outstanding passing game should allow UM to score 28 to 33 points per game and gain around 400 yards per game.  Unfortunately, the Gophers will give up 28 points per game as well.  The schedule has one tough non-conference game (Cal) and one semi-touch non-conference game (Air Force).  The Gophers should match last year’s seven-win total.

Purdue

Strengths:

Defensive Back Seven—Five of seven starters return to these two units, led by free safety Torri Williams (83 tackles, 2 int., 6 PBU) and cornerback David Pender (12 PBU).  Linebackers Chris Carlino and Joe Holland have all-conference potential

Weaknesses:

Quarterback—Is it true that this is a weakness at Purdue?  With the loss of Curtis Painter and backup Justin Siller’s dismissal, it leaves inexperienced senior Joey Elliott to take control of the offense.  There will be a major drop-off for first year coach Danny Hope.  The Boilermakers averaged 183 yards per game through the air last year, which was the lowest this century.  It will be the second lowest after this season concludes.

Running Back—1,131-yard rusher Kory Sheets and his 16 touchdowns scored are history.  Replacement Ralph Bolden rushed for 28 yards on 16 attempts.  Expect a minor decrease only, because PU just rushed for 125 yards per game last year.

Receiver—To complete the troika of skill positions, the Boilermakers suffered heavy losses at receiver.  The top two pass catchers, Desmond Tardy and Greg Orton, are gone after grabbing 136 passes for 1,546 yards and 10 TDs.  This year’s starters combined for 60 receptions and 710 yards.

Outlook—Purdue opens the season playing Toledo at home and Oregon on the road.   The next two games are at home against Northern Illinois and at Notre Dame.  If they don’t win two of those four games, they may lose double digit games for the first time since 1993.  If they split those first four, then they could win two or three more times.  We’ll call it a repeat of last year—4-8.

Northwestern

Strengths:

Defensive Line—Coach Pat Fitzgerald has slowly started to turn Northwestern into a defense before offense team, much like the way NU played when he was starring for Coach Gary Barnett.  He’s built a strong front four with end Corey Wootton leading the way.  Wootton had 10 sacks and six other tackles behind the line and made 1st Team All-Big 10.  Starting at the other end, Vince Browne recorded four sacks off the bench last year.  Tackle Corbin Bryant proved to be a reliable run stopper.

Defensive Backs—All four starters return from last year, and all of them could make one of the all-conference teams.  Safety Brad Phillips led NU with 109 tackles with six going for losses; he picked off three passes and knocked away six others.  His counterpart at the other safety, Brendan Smith, finished third on the team with 82 tackles.  Cornerbacks Sherrick McManis and Jordan Mabin teamed for five interceptions and 17 passed knocked away.  Northwestern gave up 214 passing yards per game, and that number could go down.

Weaknesses:

Quarterback—C. J. Bacher has graduated, and senior Mike Kafka takes over.  Kafka is a much better runner than Bacher, but he isn’t as competent passing the ball. 

Running Back—Tyrell Sutton rushed for 890 yards in eight games of action, and backup Stephen Simmons started in his place.  NU averaged just 80 rushing yards per game in Simmons’ starts, and more than 175 yards per game when Sutton played.  Simmons takes over the position full time this year after gaining just 2.9 yards per carry.  Expect the Wildcats to rely more on Kafka than any of the running backs.

Wide Receiver—Another reason Northwestern’s offense will stagnate this year is a weak receiving unit.  The top three receivers (top four when you count Sutton’s passes caught from his RB spot) have graduated, leaving a roster that combined for 57 catches and 480 yards. 

Outlook—Northwestern won all their non-league games last year for the first time since 1963, and it’s a good bet it will happen again in 2009.  They will only need two Big 10 wins to become bowl eligible, and with both Purdue and Indiana on the schedule, they have a great shot.  Throw in one upset along the way when the defense dominates in inclement weather, and you have the Wildcats’ first back-to-back winning seasons since 1995 and 1996, when Fitzgerald was the star linebacker.

Indiana

Strengths:

Defensive End—Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton give the Hoosiers one of the best set of terminals in the league.  Kirley is the leading returning sack master in the league after recording 10 ½ last year.  He added nine trappings of backs for losses to that total.  Middleton was a 1st Team All-Big 10 selection two years ago, but he spent most of last year in the doghouse following an early season suspension.

Linebacker—Middle linebacker Matt Mayberry led IU with 89 tackles last year, while Will Patterson added 55 and had 8 ½ total tackles for loss.

Weaknesses:

The entire offense—Indiana will struggle to score points, even with the switch to the pistol offense.  Quarterback Ben Chappell has the potential to be a 200-yard per game passer, but he just doesn’t have much support.  His receivers are not overly fast nor great hands people.  There are no potential stars at running back, and the offensive line is below average.  Look for the Hoosiers to average less than 20 points and 325 yards per game this year.

Outlook—It’s going to be a long year in Bloomington.  Indiana has to get some new blood into the moribund offense.  The defense will give the Hoosiers a couple opportunities to win a game or two, but that’s about all that can be expected.  This is, or at least was, a basketball school.  1967 was 42 years ago, and that’s the last time IU won the Big 10.

Next up: We begin regular season coverage with the PiRate and Mean spreads for the opening week of the college season.  Look for our initial NFL ratings the first of next week.

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