The Big Ten has been relatively one-dimensional for the past three years with everyone looking up at Ohio State, and many indications show that 2008 will keep the trend going. In a transition year for perennial power Michigan, the opportunity arises for rising programs like Wisconsin and Illinois to shine. Some coaches (JoePa, Kirk Ferentz) appear to be on their way out, while newer guys (Tim Brewster and Pat Fitzgerald) are really starting to build their dynasties. This may be a positioning year for many programs, as the top spot will certainly be open for the taking in 2009. Still, no team has won three outright Big Ten titles in decades and so one could expect the road being tougher than it looks for the Buckeyes. Let's see what 2008 has in store for the pride of the Midwest.
1. The first key will be whether anybody can stop the Buckeyes. After three conference titles and two outright, teams like Wisconsin, Penn State, and Purdue need to step up and do something to stop the freight train.
2. The second key is how Michigan running the spread changes the league. This is only year one of the Rich Rodriguez era, but he took over the Big East. The spread is sweeping the nation, and this may force teams like Wisconsin to the cream of the crop as a different breed, hard to prepare for.
3. Can the Big Ten overcome big non-conference games and their bowl woes? The Big Ten has been overall decent in bowl games, but trips down south and out west have been rough. This season, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Ohio State take on the best of the west and that will show how good the conference really is.
OFFENSE: The offense did the unthinkable in the Big Ten and carried the Illini from cellar-dweller to the Rose Bowl. QB Juice Williams will continue his dual-threat role as the centerpiece of the offense as the Illini look to replace league MVP RB Rashard Mendenhall. The only team even sniffing Ohio State's recruiting the past 4 years has been Ron Zook, and most of Zook's talent is on offense. Things look good for the offense.
DEFENSE: The Illini struggled against the pass last season, and this remains the weakness of the unit as all the safeties and corners are young. MLB Brit Miller will need to fill some big shoes left by J Leman, but the defensive front seven should be strong enough again to force teams to not just run it right at the Illini.
SPECIAL TEAMS: WR Arrelious Benn is a speedster who may be on of the best returners in the conference. P Anthony Santella has distanced himself from any competition for the punting duties and should be better as a sophomore. The kicking game is up in the air for now.
COACHING: Ron Zook came to Champaign as the "savior" of the program three seasons ago, and he has turned around a group that had six conference wins in five seasons into a Rose Bowl team in 2007. The Illini have always been tough at home, but last year Zook finally proved he could win a big one on the road in Columbus (something nobody had done since Texas in early 2005). Maybe no BCS this season, but the program is back to relevant.
SCHEDULE: Now here's the problem if the Illini want to repeat the success of last season. Road games at Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin will be very tough. The biggest chance for a season-defining win comes against the Buckeyes again, this time in Champaign in November.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... WR Arrelious Benn only had 2 touchdowns last season receiving, but he was still enough of an impact player to be named freshman of the year. Expect Benn to break out as the primary returner and receiving threat this season as Juice Williams and company need to carry the offense.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... It will be mighty tough to win at Happy Valley and Madison, but the Illini could conceivably upset Michigan, Ohio State, and Missouri this season. If everything breaks right, Illinois could be in BCS contention with a 10-2 finish.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... It is never easy to replace the league MVP on offense and arguably one of the best 3 linebackers in the conference and maintain success. Illinois could have a rough go on the road and end up a disappointing 6-6.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key will be learning how to play on the road and quickly. Illinois's past two road games were a monster upset of Ohio State and a slaughter by USC. If the Illini steal a win or two on the road in September, the confidence might be there for another good season.
OFFENSE: The only really important holes to fill are on the O-line. QB Kellen Lewis will light up defensive secondaries as long as he has enough time to deliver the ball. RB Marcus Thigpen and Lewis should again give defenses a couple of running threats to plan for. The offense should be as good, if not better, especially if the new linemen are solid.
DEFENSE: Seven starters return, and the only real weakness will be breaking in two new cornerbacks. The Hoosiers got into some shootouts last season and may be in trouble if that happens again. Look for LB Will Patterson to lead the unit.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Austin Starr hit 21/23 field goal attempts last season, including the dramatic game-ender against Purdue to end the Hoosier bowl-drought. He will come in handy again in 2008, as a new punter needs to be broken in and returner James Hardy is now gone as well.
COACHING: Bill Lynch took over last season in the worst of circumstances after Coach Hoeppner's death. He should have it a little easier this season, although the Hoosiers will not be able to live on emotion like last season. Should be another good year by Indiana standards.
SCHEDULE: It's always good to miss Michigan and Ohio State, even when one of them may have a down year. Still, Indiana has a rough road schedule including Illinois, Penn State, and Purdue. If Indiana is not bowl-eligible after October, the final four will be very tough to find any wins.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... QB Kellen Lewis led the Hoosiers in passing and rushing last season. Behind a mostly new line the going may be tougher, but that will only highlight Lewis more if he does the same in 2008.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The Hoosiers could steal a win at Illinois and end up 9-0 if everything is going perfect. The back three are pretty much unwinnable, but maybe the Hoosiers could end up 10-2.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The Hoosiers could drop back to the bottom tier of the conference and could really end up down at 4-8. The road could be very tough past September.
MAKE OR BREAK: With only 4 road games all season and 2 in the first 10 games, the key will be taking advantage of all that home-field advantage early in the season. All the weapons are there for another bowl season, but the rubber must hit the road early.
OFFENSE: The problem last season was no time from the offensive line, but expect the play up front to be much better this season. QB Jake Christensen had a pretty good first year at the helm all things considered, but now he should have more time and even better receivers such as Andy Brodell. RB Shonn Green may be a boost in the running game after being ineligible last season.
DEFENSE: The defense has a lot of holes to fill from a unit that kept the Hawkeyes in a lot of games. LB A.J. Edds and linemen Mitch King and Matt Kroul are the leaders who will anchor the run defense. If Iowa can get good pass russ through the middle, the defense will stay strong.
SPECIAL TEAMS: P Ryan Donahue had plenty of chances to excel last season with the offensive struggles, so he will be back. K Daniel Murray should keep his job as well, but the return game may be in limbo for the first few weeks of the season.
COACHING: It seems like yesterday that Iowa was in the BCS, winning conference titles, and being as good as top dogs Michigan and Ohio State. After a few disappointing mediocre years and missing a bowl last season, Ferentz may be at the end of his rope. Kirk is a good coach, but he needs to turn things back around or risk losing his players.
SCHEDULE: After a couple easy home openers, the Cyclones come to town and then a roadtrip to Pitt will be tough. The conference schedule is not that bad, with only one really rough road game at Illinois.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... QB Jake Christensen has a chance with an experienced line to really be the superstar now. As the top two running backs need to be replaced, Christensen is due for a huge year or a huge disappointment. Chances are, the former.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The offense finds a new rushing leader and gets the wheels going enough to keep the defense off the field for long periods of time. If this happens, Iowa may jump up all the way to 8-4.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... If the offense sputters again, the defense will go through a second-straight rough season and the Hawkeyes could drop all the way to 4-8.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key will be if the offense gets rolling, and it all starts up front. Most of the line is returning, but they have to learn from a rough 2007 experience and get a good push on every play from scrimmage. If that doesn't happen, everything else will unravel.
OFFENSE: It is hard to tell whether only bringing back 3 starters will be a blessing so Rich Rodriguez can input guys who fit his system quickly or a curse. The Wolverines have some guys who can run a spread offense, but the O-line will struggle mightily this season.
DEFENSE: Fortunately while the offense gets going, the defense brings back a talented 8 starters including the entire line of Terrance Taylor, Will Johnson, Tim Jamison, and Brandon Graham. The burden is on this unit, and they should flourish.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker K.C. Lopata enters his final season coming off a good first year as starter, and Zoltan Mesko will get plenty of work as a returning punter. Rodriguez will find someone to fill the gaps in the return game.
COACHING: After only having two head coaches in four decades, Lloyd Carr is out and Rich Rodriguez has defected from WVU, which he made into a perennial powerhouse in the Big East and nationally. Rodriguez runs a tight ship and should fit right in at Michigan, updating the offense to the current century.
SCHEDULE: The home opener is rough again this year, this time against Utah. Wisconsin and Illinois are the Big Ten openers at home, but each may be rather tough because Rodriguez might not get the wheels turning on the spread until late in the season. Two roadtrips to Happy Valley and Columbus will be tough, but the Wolverines could thrive.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... If only Terrell Pryor had come to Michigan, but alas...so the breakout player(s) will be the entire defensive line. These guys are all returning starters, all seniors and juniors, and will determine how far the Wolverines go in 2008.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... As tough as some of the non-conference games are, they are sweepable. If Michigan gets rolling quickly, they could be 9-3.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... If the defense gets too tired from carrying the team in September, it could be rough if home games in September go poorly. Michigan is definitely at risk of missing a bowl game in the first time in ages, and 3-9 is possible.
MAKE OR BREAK: How quickly will Rich Rodriguez be able to get the spread going in "three yards and a cloud of dust" Michigan? It's hard to imagine much first-year success, but he's such a good coach there might be a narrow game in Columbus come November 22 that would make the Wolverines' season.
OFFENSE: QB Brian Hoyer will learn from his many mistakes last season and will be helped out by top RB Javon Ringer. The offensive line needs to fill a couple of holes, but look for this unit to move the ball pretty easily in 2008.
DEFENSE: The defense is where it all starts for Mark Dantonio, and he is slowly recruiting enough talent on that side of the ball to compete for conference titles again. Not many starters return, but two to watch are sophomore linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Those two will shore up any weaknesses new starters bring.
SPECIAL TEAMS: While K Brett Swenson and P Aaron Bates are both returning, each needs to improve from the nearly worst-numbers in the conference last season. Mark Dell will lead the return game again and should be as good as last year.
COACHING: Mark Dantonio left Cincinnati and led the Spartans to a respectable 7 wins last season. While the program is headed in the right direction, a lot more recruiting needs to take place before MSU is consistent enough to compete seriously.
SCHEDULE: The schedule is pretty rough, with an opener at California and a finishing stretch including Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Purdue at home and Michigan and Penn State on the road.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... RB Javon Ringer may be one of the top 5 running backs in the country, but he will be overshadowed even locally by Beanie Wells in Columbus. Still, this could be a banner year and Ringer would lead the way.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Michigan State almost won nine games last year and while the schedule is tougher, MSU could scrape out a 8-4 season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... If the offense is not as good as advertised, it will put too much pressur eon the fragile special teams unit. This could lose some games and MSU could backstep to 4-8.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key will be having everyone on the same page and clicking by October 18, when Ohio State comes to town. Dantonio has intimate knowledge of Tressel's system and could be the upset of the season just like another super talented Buckeye team from 1998 whose only loss was to the Spartans. That's the make or break with four tough games after that.
OFFENSE: At least most of the starters return, but all of them need to improve drastically if Minnesota wants to win conference games. Replacing three linemen will be the toughest chore, and QB Adam Webber will need to drop back and pass more than run this season.
DEFENSE: About half the starters come back from a unit that let in far too many points and only had 4 sacks all of last season. LB Deon Hightower is the best of the bunch, and his leadership will be needed sorely in the all important second-year of the Brewster era.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Joel Monroe only had nine chances at field goals last season and may have another season of light duty. P Justin Kucek was not the best in the conference in 2007, but he was serviceable on a team that needed all the help it could get from a punting unit.
COACHING: Tim Brewster could see massive improvement in his second season, but this group of kids just does not look like the competitive bunch from the past few years in Minnesota. A new field on campus should help bring in student-athletes, but the Golden Gophers have one more year in the dome to suffer through.
SCHEDULE: It really never looks good when you're at the bottom, no matter where the roadtrips are. Unfortunately, Minnesota has the most brutal four road games in the conference at Columbus, Champaign, West Lafayette, and Madison. The good news is home games are winnable.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... WR Eric Decker had 9 touchdowns and almost 1000 yards last season, and the connection between him and QB Adam Weber is even stronger now. Look for even better numbers this year.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... As mentioned, all the home games except for maybe Michigan are winnable. This team could reach 5-7 if everything comes together quicker than expected.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Minnesota will not slip up against D-IAA Montana State, but every other game is losable. 1-11 is possible.
MAKE OR BREAK: This is going to be a long year, and the Golden Gophers will not like going on the road at all. Nevertheless, the home schedule is so easy that even the Gophers might win a couple games. They need to not be demoralized on the road and that's the key.
OFFENSE: This unit brings back every skill player, but three linemen need replaced. This could mean trouble as QB C.J. Bacher made a lot of mistakes last season with a good line. With less time, it will be interesting to see if Bacher and RB Tyrell Sutton can keep it going.
DEFENSE: Seven starters return from a unit that did not get enough stops last season to win that seventh game. DT John Gill had four sacks last season, but he needs to be a better run stopper this season so the new linebacking crew can have a chance to jell.
SPECIAL TEAMS: P Stefan Demos needs to improve on a 40.1 average last season, and he is the key to this unit. K Amado Villarreal only hit 12/18 field goals last season, but he's looked a lot better in the spring.
COACHING: Pat Fitzgerald almost got Northwestern into a bowl last season at 6-6, and has a real chance of putting this program in contention for the first time in over a decade. Northwestern can recruit athletes with the Chicago location, so it's just a matter of time under Fitzgerald.
SCHEDULE: Barring another letdown against Duke, the entire non-conference schedule is winnable. Then the Big Ten schedule is kind of rough with the better teams coming at home. Northwestern could parlay that into some surprise wins, or this might be a setup for failure.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... RB Tyrell Sutton may find the sledding more tough this season behind a young line, but the offense needs him to step up and improve on his 4.8 average last season. He should be the focus and could break 1000 yards if he stays healthy.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The Wildcats could run the table for the first month of the season and then steal up to four wins in conference. 8-4 and a bowl berth would make the Wildcat faithful thrilled.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The Wildcats could stumble out of the gate and lose games against teams like Ohio University. If that happens, Northwestern could actually go winless in conference and drop to 2-10.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key will be how quickly the offensive line comes together, as all the other weapons are there and good enough to score over 30 points per game. The defense might not be great, but anything is possible in shootouts.
OFFENSE: The Buckeyes bring back virtually every starter on an offense that was more than good enough to win 11 games in 2007. QB Todd Boeckman will start again, but look for freshman phenom QB Terrell Pryor to get some secondary looks. The real workhorses are the linemen and RB Chris "Beanie" Wells, an early Heisman favorite.
DEFENSE: The Silver Bullet defense is what makes Tressel's teams kick, but the defenses have been shown up in two straight BCS championship games. The secondary, led by the best CB in the nation Malcolm Jenkins, will be looking to change that. LB James Laurinaitis will again lead a strong front seven. Look for the line to succeed with Lawrence Wilson back from injury to replace the only departed starter Vernon Gholston.
SPECIAL TEAMS: If there's one weakness to the Buckeyes, it may be replacing both long snappers in special teams. Not kickers, but long snappers. P A.J. Trepasso and K Ryan Pretorius are both solid locks and WR Brian Hartline handles the returns.
COACHING: What more can you say about Mr. Sweater Vest? Tressel has led the Buckeyes to 5 BCS appearances, 3 in championship games, and 4 conference titles including the last three. This could be Tressel's most talented team ever, which bodes well as far as BCS hopes go.
SCHEDULE: While road games at Michigan State and Illinois and home battles against Penn State and Michigan would look tough, don't be fooled. The Buckeyes have nine automatic wins basically, leaving only the early USC roadtrip, the October trip to Wisconsin, and the closer against Michigan as the only games to worry about. If the Buckeyes win at USC, anything less than 12-0 will be disappointing.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Wow it is really hard to pick just one, but let's face it: Beanie Wells wants the Heisman, and OSU loves Heisman-caliber tailbacks. As long as Wells is healthy all season, this will be the story of the season.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... 12-0 is not where this story ends. No, no, no. If things go well, the Buckeyes will blow away Mark Richt and the "SEC is unbeatable" darlings the Georgia Bulldogs in the BCS Championship Game. Anything less is just par for the course.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... If things really get haywire, OSU goes 9-3 and perhaps misses the BCS in a shocker.
MAKE OR BREAK: As far as BCS hopes go, the USC game is important. Nevertheless, the make or break game is at Wisconsin. The Badgers have had OSU's number this decade and the Buckeyes need to get over the hump in Madison to win a league title.
OFFENSE: After what seems like six seasons, QB Anthony Morelli moves on and Daryll Clark takes over. Clark looked good in the Alamo Bowl, and RB Evan Royster will take off a bit of the load. The offensive line is perhaps the best in the conference as all five starters return.
DEFENSE: The defense again has a strong line, which may keep things running this season as two new linebackers step up. The middle of the defense is a question mark, which is a rarity in Happy Valley. It would only figure the next linebacker superstar will emerge this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The return game is sharp, with Derrick Williams and A.J. Wallace back for another season. P Jeremy Boone and K Kevin Kelly are also back to make a solidly experienced unit.
COACHING: He's outlasted the long-tenured Glen Mason, Lloyd Carr, John Cooper, Barry Alvarez, and just about everybody else. Joe Paterno may step down at any point, but his love for teaching young men and the game continues and Penn State remains respectable in his latter years.
SCHEDULE: The only tricky non-conference game is hosting Oregon State, but the real meat of the schedule is the four weeks of October: at Purdue, at Wisconsin, vs. Michigan, at Ohio State. Ouch. Splitting those would be a success.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... CB A.J. Wallace is now the lock-down guy and could become one of the best in the country, as well as racking up the yards on kick returns this season.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Penn State could walk through every bit of their schedule and hit October and do the unthinkable...win three out of four and end up tied or one game out of the conference lead. 11-1 is possible.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The Nittany Lions could struggle against Oregon State, get swept in October, and drop some other random game to go 6-6 with a team that should be in a January bowl.
MAKE OR BREAK: Can the new leaders of the offense get into the mix enough by October to handle the worst stretch of any competing team in the conference? If so, expect Penn State to have a successful season and maybe go back to the BCS.
OFFENSE: QB Curtis Painter has thrived like many others in the Joe Tiller system, and this will be a banner final year for him. The offensive line is the concern here, as Painter needs time to throw and lots of injuries happened in the spring practices.
DEFENSE: Defensive linemen Alex Magee and Ryan Baker lead a solid front four, which is the strongest part of the defense. Look for LB Anthony Heygood to shine as others fill in gaps around him at that level.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Look for Desmond Tardy to take over the return game roles after subbing in 8 times in 2007. As for kicking, a new punter is required but K Chris Summers is back for a third year.
COACHING: Joe Tiller has made Purdue from one of the worst programs in conference history to a solid bowl-eligible team year in and year out. Purdue is more consistent than 60% of the league, and this could be another good year under Tiller's wide open offense.
SCHEDULE: Purdue gets to miss Illinois and Wisconsin, which should be enough to propel them into the conference race. After facing Oregon, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Ohio State in the first six weeks, things get really easy after that. Look for the Boilermakers to be on a roll going into bowl season.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... QB Curtis Painter could have the best numbers in the conference at the end of the season just because he fits so well in Joe Tiller's system. Kyle Orton and Drew Brees are starting pro quarterbacks, and this is the year Painter has to break out to prove he can cut it at the next level.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... A win in Columbus is probably too much to ask, but everything else is winnable if the skill players develop quickly. 11-1 could happen.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Purdue could also easily be 2-4 or 1-5 going into the back half of the schedule, and could drop all the way to 6-6.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key will be how well the defense pulls together, as Oregon, Central Michigan, and Ohio State will really test them early. If the defense stands strong, look for a highly successful season.
OFFENSE: The offense brings back the important pieces from last year: all five linemen and RB P.J. Hill. QB Allan Evridge probably will be taking over the reins now and should have lots of time to develop with all the talent around him. That's the only weakness in this offense.
DEFENSE: The defensive line is the biggest question mark facing the Badgers. LB DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas should step it up this season, and the backfield is still talented despite losing CB Jack Ikegwuonu.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Things always turn over every 3-4 years, and this is a transitional year for the Badger special teams. K Phillip Welch and P Brad Nortman will have an interesting freshman year, being an important cog in the conference-title hopes.
COACHING: Bret Bielema was hand-picked by Barry Alvarez to be a successor, and he's the rare exception to the rule that those hirings never work. Bielema could finally break the BCS bubble this year, as he's been solidly in the January bowl picture for two seasons.
SCHEDULE: The interesting non-conference game is a roadtrip to Fresno State on September 13. Following that are the three most important league games: at Michigan, hosting Ohio State, and hosting Penn State. If Wisconsin pulls the Buckeye upset, Wisconsin should cruise to a BCS berth and conference title.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... RB P.J. Hill could have a monster year with his whole line back from a successful 2007. Hill may be outshadowed in this loaded conference, but he can hold his own with Javon ringer and Chris Wells.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Best case scenario is clearly 12-0 and a BCS Championship game appearance, which would be unprecedented in Madison.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... If the Fresno State game goes badly, Wisconsin could limp through the toughest three-game Big Ten stretch and then drop another unexpected game. 7-5 is the bottom range here.
MAKE OR BREAK: The defense has some real questions, especially on the line. wisconsin has enough talent to play for a national championship, but they need to step up early in the season to prove that. If anything stops the Badgers, it will be a lack of defense.
Illinois proved anything is possible last season, jumping into the BCS out of nowhere. While no big surprises should happen this season, look for teams like Wisconsin and Michigan State to seriously compete for some BCS experience. The Buckeyes are the prohbitive favorite, but there's something about 2008 that makes you think someone else is at least going to join them at the top. We'll see come August 30 and beyond!