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
The Buckeyes return one particularly bright star, sophomore QB
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
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
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
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,
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
For one thing, Greene's replacement,
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
"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.)
Then there's Michigan State, which got considerably tougher in its first two seasons under
Michigan and Northwestern are two potential wild-cards. The Wolverines are coming off a disastrous 3-9 season in coach
"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
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.