The Big Ten, America's favorite punch-line conference, took a much-needed first step toward regaining respectability with a pair of BCS bowl wins and a 4-3 bowl record in 2009. Most impressively, all four wins came against top 15 opponents (Ohio State over Oregon, Iowa over Georgia Tech, Penn State over LSU and Wisconsin over Miami).
But one year alone won't burnish from existence all the prevailing stereotypes that much of the nation holds toward the men of the Midwest. The next step will be to produce a couple of elite teams that beat a staple program nationally in a meaningful game. (Read: Not the Capital One Bowl.) The Big Ten will have a couple of early opportunities when Penn State visits Alabama and Ohio State hosts Miami. But in the league's dream scenario, a representative heads to the BCS title game and beats an SEC or Big 12 foe. With veteran teams returning in Columbus, Iowa City and Madison, they can dare to dream.
After keeping training wheels on their once-celebrated recruit for nearly two years, Ohio State's coaches let their 6-foot-5 QB air it out against Oregon in the Rose Bowl, and Pryor did not disappoint. He set career records for completions (23), attempts (37) and passing yards (266) while running for 72 yards on 20 carries to lift the Buckeyes to a 26-17 victory over the Ducks. While it's clear at this point that Jim Tresel and Co. have no plans to turn Pryor into a Vince Young/Pat White-type triggerman who runs as much as he passes, that doesn't mean the rising junior can't continue evolving as a thrower while using his feet to escape pressure and turn broken plays into gains.
It remains to be seen how much work Pryor will be able to do during the spring after undergoing knee surgery in February that proved more complicated than expected. During a procedure to help heal a partially torn PCL he suffered midway through last season, the operating doctor found "there were a lot of things wrong with [the knee]," Pryor told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. However, according to a Columbus Dispatch reporter, Pryor "appeared to go full speed" in a team workout last week that involved plenty of running.
Ohio State has the pieces in place to produce its most explosive offense since the Troy Smith-led 2006 team. The Buckeyes return the running back tandem of Brandon Saine and Boom Herron, both of whom had their most productive games late in the season, and much-hyped redshirt freshman Jaamal Berry figures to get plenty of looks in the spring. Pryor's top receivers, Devier Posey and Dane Sazenbacher, both return as well, as do four starting offensive lineman. Assuming the Buckeyes will produce their usual stingy defense, the opportunity is there to return to the BCS Championship Game for the third time in five years, but it will all depend on Pryor's continued development.
With Charlie Weis back in the NFL, the title of "Coach Whose Job Status Will Be a Subject of Weekly Debate" falls to Michigan's Rodriguez in 2010. The fact that it's even a possibility in just his third season tells you just how miserable the past two years have been for the Wolverines, who lost five straight to end last season. (Those pending NCAA sanctions don't help, either.) Originally, Rodriguez's biggest challenge was finding a quarterback to run his style of spread offense, but then-freshmen Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson both looked plenty capable last season. His problems now lie primarily on the other side of the ball.
Last season's Wolverines defense was just plain awful. Michigan finished 82nd nationally in total defense, 90th in rushing defense and 77th in scoring defense. A combination of recruiting missteps by predecessor Lloyd Carr and mass roster attrition following Rodriguez's arrival left Michigan barren with talent in its junior and senior classes, as evidenced most vividly by the fact that a walk-on freshman safety, Jordan Kovacs, wound up earning a starting job. Making matters worse, last year's lone standouts, All-America defensive end Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren, are off to the NFL.
Obviously, second-year defensive coordinator Greg Robinson is under the gun to turn out a better product, but there may be only so much he can do. Michigan is still probably a recruiting class away from shoring up its weak spots. More realistically, Michigan is going to have to outscore people to win consistently in the Big Ten, which means Rodriguez desperately needs Forcier and/or Robinson to cut down on mistakes and become consistent playmakers. He'll also need any of several recently recruited running backs to fill the void left by standout Brandon Minor. Mostly, he needs to win. Soon.
Iowa's teams have long fit a certain blue-collar mold under Ferentz, with the one constant being the position he once coached under Hayden Fry: offensive line. An assembly line of NFL-caliber blockers -- many of whom started their careers with no acclaim -- have at times helped compensate for deficiencies at the skill positions, allowing Iowa to maintain a functional, albeit hardly glamorous offense.
On paper, then, the 2010 Hawkeyes are a bit of a reversal. They return quarterback Ricky Stanzi and a host of capable running backs (Adam Robinson, Brandon Wegher) and receivers (Marvin McNutt, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos) but must replace four starting offensive linemen, including likely NFL picks Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway. Their top returnee is a sophomore, likely left tackle Riley Reiff, a projected all-conference performer, but beside senior guard Julian Vandervelde, the rest of the lineup may be younger than a usual Ferentz line.
It seems fairly certain Iowa's defense, so dominant throughout last year's 11-win season and Orange Bowl victory over Georgia Tech, will be a strong point again. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn, safety Tyler Sash and linebacker Jeremiha Hunter are among the best in the country at their positions. And the underrated Stanzi is poised for a big senior year. With Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State all coming to Iowa City, Hawkeyes fans rightfully have their sights set on Pasadena, but for once they can't take the guys in the trenches for granted. They need that group to develop to achieve a championship offense.
Penn State has quietly produced back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time since 1985-86, and has won at least nine for five straight years. The one constant: coordinator Bradley's perennially elite defenses, which seem immune to personnel turnover. From Tamba Hali to Paul Posluszny to Dan Connor to Aaron Maybin, the Nittany Lions lose at least one big name every year and immediately produce another.
This year, however, Bradley must replace a particularly large group of standout veterans -- defensive tackle Jared Odrick and linebackers Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull. Starting cornerbacks A.J. Wallace and Knowledge Timmons and defensive end Jerome Hayes are gone as well. This year's anchors figure to be senior defensive end Jack Crawford and junior safeties Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, but that still leaves a lot of holes to fill, most notably at linebacker. Surely "Linebacker U" has another set of promising candidates.
You have to figure if Joe Paterno has his way, this year's squad will be an old-school edition that relies on its running game (led by potential All-America Evan Royster and an experienced offensive line) and defense while breaking in a new quarterback, true sophomore Kevin Newsome. Paterno hasn't had a full-time starting quarterback that young since the Zack Mills era. Fortunately he's got his ace in the hole, Bradley, who's produced six straight top 20 defenses. He can't afford to let up now.
All three of these gentlemen figure to be coaching for their jobs in 2010. In the case of Illinois' Zook and Minnesota's Brewster, a good number of their teams' fans can't believe they made it past '09. Zook was retained for a sixth season despite a miserable 3-9 year that saw the Illini's offense completely implode despite the presence of a four-year quarterback (Juice Williams) and NFL-caliber receiver (Regis Benn). Rather than cut Zook loose, ever-unconventional AD Ron Guenther essentially ordered him to overhaul his staff, bringing in established offensive (Paul Petrino) and defensive (Vic Koenning) coordinators and four other new assistants. Desperate times ... well, you know.
Brewster's stock, meanwhile, seemed to plummet seemingly overnight. After earning raves for bringing a rare top 20 recruiting class to Minnesota in 2008 and following it with a six-win improvement, the third-year coach garnered heavy criticism for the Gophers' return to mediocrity (6-7), especially on offense, where quarterback Adam Weber struggled mightily down the stretch. (Losing star receiver Eric Decker to injury certainly didn't help.) There's still talent there, but now Brewster faces the challenge of replacing nearly his entire starting defense. And he has to win over an athletic director, Joel Maturi, with whom his relationship reportedly soured long ago.
As for Indiana's Lynch, he endured one of the most hard-luck seasons in the country last year. The Hoosiers took Michigan to the wire before losing on a controversial interception (who could forget Lynch's infamous gum-toss?), blew a 28-3 lead against Northwestern, watched a 24-21 fourth-quarter lead against Iowa deteriorate into a 42-24 defeat (again, with no small help from the Big Ten replay officials). Lynch, who took Indiana to its first bowl game in 13 years upon succeeding the late Terry Hoeppner in 2007, has built a more competitive team than the school has seen in years, but has only two Big Ten wins over the past two years to show for it. He, like Rodriguez, Zook and Brewster, needs more, and quickly.
MORE BURNING QUESTIONSPac-10: Can Lane Kiffin maintain USC's dominance?ACC: Will a nationally elite team emerge?Big East: Can Pitt dethrone Cincinnati?Big 12: Is it finally Nebraska's year?Big Ten: Can Pryor pick up where he left off?SEC: What's happening at Florida?THE REST: Can Boise break the glass ceiling?