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Three sleeper teams who could challenge for the Big Ten crown

After suffering the indignity of three straight losses in BCS bowls (two in the championship game), last season's embarrassing blowout at USC and the accompanying national backlash, this figured to be the year Ohio State took a much-needed break from the spotlight. Fielding a young team unlikely to garner the same lofty expectations, the Buckeyes would fly under the radar for a change.

Or so I thought. Apparently the coaches' poll voters felt differently.

Somehow the Buckeyes, who finished last season No. 11 after going 10-3, moved up five spots over the offseason to No. 6. Despite losing running back Beanie Wells, linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline and tackle Alex Boone -- all All-Big Ten performers and/or NFL draft picks -- the coaches seem to think Ohio State will be better this season.

The Buckeyes return one particularly bright star, sophomore QB Terrelle Pryor, and an experienced defensive line and secondary, but nearly every other unit is comprised of touted but unproven commodities. Cleveland Plain Dealer beat writer Doug Lesmerises recently identified the Buckeyes' top 20 players for this season. No. 2 behind Pryor was safety Kurt Coleman. Of the 25 All-Big Ten honorees from 2008 returning to the league this season, Coleman is the lone Buckeye -- and he was honorable mention.

The coaches are also high on Penn State, which they voted No. 8 -- the same spot where the 11-2 Nittany Lions finished last season. This, too, seems puzzling considering Penn State returns just eight -- repeat, eight -- starters. Mind you, that number does not include star LB Sean Lee, who missed last season to injury, but still, one would think JoePa's team has some rebuilding to do as well.PREVIEW: SI breaks down the Big Ten race

So why do the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions continue to inspire such confidence? Probably because the voters feel even in a transition year for both, they'll still dominate the rest of the much-maligned Big Ten. Based on recent history, it's easy to see why.

In the course of winning or sharing the past four Big Ten titles, Ohio State has gone 29-3 in conference play, an astounding .906 winning percentage. Only one team, the WAC's Boise State (30-2), has been more dominant within its own conference over the same span. Penn State is responsible for two of those three losses, allowing the Nittany Lions to earn the league's automatic BCS berth in 2005 and '08.

"Obviously we're all chasing Ohio State right now," said Illinois coach Ron Zook.

This could be the perfect season for a sleeper team to win that chase. Ohio State and Penn State both seem vulnerable, and a whole bunch of other Big Ten teams, like Zook's, are quietly getting better.

"I wouldn't be shocked if someone not in the [preseason] top 10 could win our conference," said commissioner Jim Delany. "We have enough parity that a Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, Michigan State or Illinois could come up and surprise people."

The Big Ten has been a two-team league for much of its history, but even with the recent success of Ohio State and Michigan, eight different teams have won or shared the conference title over the past 10 seasons. Of late, though, the league has been lacking in depth, as its putrid 6-16 bowl record over the past three seasons shows. The Big Ten has been suffering through a down cycle not unlike what the Big 12 experienced a few years back. It seems hard to believe now, but just three years ago ('06), Oklahoma and Texas were the league's only representatives in that year's final AP poll -- and neither of them cracked the top 10.

But just as Missouri, Kansas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State have become factors in the Big 12, a similar surge from within the Big Ten is inevitable.

Start with Iowa. After suffering through consecutive six-win seasons in '06 and '07, the Hawkeyes jumped back to 9-4 last year, ending the season on a four-game winning streak that included a last-second upset of then 9-0 Penn State. Many are overlooking the Hawkeyes due to the departure of star running back Shonn Greene, but the folks in Iowa City don't seem overly concerned.

For one thing, Greene's replacement, Jewel Hampton, showed big-play ability as a true freshman last season, gaining 1,000 all-purpose yards. More importantly, Iowa returns eight starters from the nation's 12th-ranked defense and finally feels it has a dependable quarterback in Ricky Stanzi.

The Hawkeyes visit Penn State on Sept. 26 in both teams' Big Ten opener. For whatever reason, Iowa traditionally plays well in Happy Valley, where it's won four of the last five meetings. In fact, Iowa's surprise 2002 Orange Bowl team began its 8-0 Big Ten season with a victory there.

Also that weekend, Illinois visits Columbus, site of its stunning upset over the Buckeyes two years ago. While that win lifted the Illini to a 9-4 season and at-large berth to the Rose Bowl, they killed themselves with costly turnovers last season and slipped back to 5-7 despite outgaining opponents by nearly 90 yards per game.

Illinois already boasted a top 20 offense last season and should be even more potent with the return of fourth-year QB Juice Williams (3,892 yards of total offense in '08) and explosive WR Arrelious Benn, plus the addition of Florida transfer Jarred Fayson. If the Illini can get more productivity from their running backs, they could certainly return to their '07 level.GALLERY: Benn among Big Ten's top 10 players

"We want to defend coach Zook, and let everyone know that it wasn't a fluke when we went to the Rose Bowl two years ago,'' Williams told the Danville (Ill.) Commercial News.

Then there's Michigan State, which got considerably tougher in its first two seasons under Mark Dantonio, finishing 6-2 in the league last season (though the two defeats were lopsided affairs against the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions). The Spartans don't seem quite as promising as Iowa or Illinois, seeing as they have to replace QB Brian Hoyer and workhorse RB Javon Ringer; however, their schedule sets up nicely. They don't face Ohio State, and they get Penn State at home the last week of the season.

Michigan and Northwestern are two potential wild-cards. The Wolverines are coming off a disastrous 3-9 season in coach Rich Rodriguez's debut. However, freshman QB Tate Forcier has already demonstrated in practices he's a much better fit for Rodriguez's spread offense, and it's reasonable to expect significant improvement this season (West Virginia went from 3-8 to 9-4 in Rodriguez's first two seasons there). The Wolverines won't contend for a title just yet, but they could pull off a couple of upsets.

"I think we're on that track," said Rodriguez. "I don't want to make any predictions ... but I do expect us to be a lot better."

The Wildcats, coming off a surprising 9-4 season that ended with a heartbreaking Alamo Bowl loss to Missouri, figure to field their best defense since head coach Pat Fitzgerald was a player in the mid-90s. Eight starters return from a unit that finished second in the conference with 34 sacks, including potential NFL first-round DE Corey Wootton. The Wildcats don't face Ohio State, either -- as was the case during their '95, '96 and 2000 conference title seasons -- and get Penn State at home.

Expectations are low for the other four teams; however, Minnesota showed considerable improvement by starting 7-1 last season before losing its last five, and though Wisconsin always seems to sneak up when you least expect it, the Badgers have been heading in the wrong direction. Neither Indiana or Purdue will be a factor.

It's no secret the Big Ten's reputation took a huge hit the past three seasons, and it will likely take a couple of big nonconference wins (like Ohio State over USC) and/or BCS bowl upsets to change that perception. A more revealing indicator of conference strength, however, would be for the league to produce some much-needed parity.

"The perfect case," said Delany, "is where you have the really elite programs that are capable of performing on the national level, but you also have enough quality teams that the games are interesting and competitive."

The perception in August is the conference has two top 10 teams (Ohio State, Penn State) and one low-end top 25 squad (Iowa). Come January, don't be surprised to see one less team at the top but three or four others sprinkled throughout the poll.

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