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Big Ten race: Who finishes first?

first_imgIt’s been just days since the teams of the Big Ten put up428 points – an average of almost 39 points per squad – on the Austin Peays andEastern Michigans of the college football world.But come Saturday, there are higher stakes and tougheropponents to be had, as conference play begins. Will someone play thecome-out-of-nowhere dark horse like Illinois did in 2007? Or will a team fallflat on its face, like Wisconsin did in 2008?Herald Sports divided the teams of the Big Ten into threecategories: contenders, dark horses and the teams at the bottom of the barrel.We also collaborated with the football writers of the Big Ten’s student papersto get their predictions on how each team will fare in conference play.ContendersOhio State (4-0)In college football, where BCS formulas, strengths of schedules and computer rankings determine end-of-season opportunities, one loss can tarnish a season.By mid-September last year, an 18-15 loss at home to USC had spoiled Ohio State’s national title hopes. An October loss to Purdue was icing on the cake.But every offseason, each school is granted a clean slate, and OSU captured the No. 2 ranking in many preseason ballots.The Buckeyes escaped a meeting with Miami (Fla.) in Week 2. Now if they can breeze through the Big Ten and notch their sixth consecutive conference crown, they could be headed to Tempe, Ariz., for another shot at the BCS championship.But as Purdue showed OSU last year, a clean Big Ten slate is hard to come by.Road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa will be the biggest hurdles for the Buckeyes to clear. Coach Jim Tressel is just 3-2 in his career against the Badgers, his worst mark against any conference foe.-Zack Meisel, The Lantern Indiana (3-0)Indiana enters the Big Ten season undefeated for the second consecutive season.Last year, the Hoosiers won only one of their eight games and finished at the bottom of the conference standings. Many of their losses were close, notably Michigan (33-36), Northwestern (28-29) and Wisconsin (28-31).This season, IU is focused on finishing games. Doing so will be easier if the Hoosiers finish games with the football in their possession. The IU offense, powered by fifth-year senior quarterback Ben Chappell and a deep, talented receiving core, is clearly the strong point of the team.Chappell, who earned Big Ten offensive player of the week honors last week, has completed 72 percent of his passes for 890 yards and nine touchdowns through three games this season. He is one of four quarterbacks in the NCAA’s top 100 in pass efficiency who still has not thrown an interception.Finishing games could be incredibly difficult for the Hoosiers, however, if their opponent gets the last say. The IU defense is coming off a game in which they allowed Akron – a team with one of the least productive offenses in the FBS – to rush for 160 yards and score 20 points.-Justin Albers, The Indiana Daily StudentPurdue (2-2)The story of the season for the Purdue Boilermakers has been injuries.After losing leading rusher Ralph Bolden to an ACL tear in the spring, All-Big Ten wide receiver Keith Smith tore both his ACL and MCL in the game against Western Illinois, and quarterback Robert Marve suffered a potentially-disastrous knee injury Saturday against Toledo.Aside from the loss of the offense’s No. 1s, the Boilermakers have at times been without their next three options at running back due to various injuries, forcing a deep receiving corps to step up in the backfield.Adding insult to injuries, a healthy defense has proven to be inconsistent in limiting big plays and putting games out of reach for opponents.Coming out of the non-conference portion of the schedule, the Boilers sit at 2-2, which coach Danny Hope will say is an improvement from this time last season. However, with an unhealthy offense, once-clear hopes of reaching a bowl game have become blurred. Shoo-in wins aren’t so certain anymore.Unless a major turnaround happens, Purdue is looking at a two-win conference run.-Joanne Norell, The Purdue ExponentMinnesota (1-3)Heading into the Big Ten season, the Minnesota football team is far more deflated mentally than it’s been in recent memory.The Gophers followed a road win over Middle Tennessee State with a loss to an FCS opponent, South Dakota. They then played well in a loss to USC only to be crushed by Northern Illinois.The Gophers have enough firepower on offense with a strong running game led by junior Duane Bennett. They can also attack downfield with senior quarterback Adam Weber having a mismatch in 6-foot-4, 230-pound quarterback-turned-receiver MarQueis Gray.However, the defense is far too inexperienced to hold top Big Ten opponents to a surmountable margin. The Gophers could play spoiler as they host Penn State, Ohio State and Iowa at TCF Bank Stadium, but with most of the coaching speculation coming from the home fans during games, it could be a rough year for Minnesota.-Josh Katzenstein, The Minnesota Daily Wisconsin (4-0)The Badgers didn’t get many style points during their non-conference slate, eking out a victory over Arizona State, and looking less-than-convincing against San Jose State. But this might be Wisconsin’s best team in the Bret Bielema era, and with an experienced quarterback in Scott Tolzien and a veteran offensive line, the Badgers have their sights set high this season.Tolzien has his pick of weapons, including Heisman candidate John Clay, electric freshman James White and one of the nation’s best all-around tight ends, Lance Kendricks. On defense, the Badgers hope J.J. Watt and Mike Taylor can pick up the slack after linebacker Chris Borland was shelved for the season. The season’s success might hinge on Jay Valai, Aaron Henry and the unproven UW secondary, though.The offense should roll along just fine, and so long as the Badgers can continue to pass rush and limit big plays in the defensive backfield, this could be a special season in Madison.It might look like the season comes down to a visit from Ohio State and a trip to Iowa, but experienced UW fans know the Badgers need to finish strong on the back end of the schedule if they want a trip to a BCS bowl. Winning this Saturday wouldn’t hurt, either.-Adam Holt, The Badger HeraldIowa (3-1)Iowa was supposed to have three running backs. But somehow the team sits on the eve of the Big Ten season with only one proven tailback healthy.Jewel Hampton is out for the season (knee) and Brandon Wegher continues to be away from the team (personal reasons), leaving sophomore Adam Robinson as the Hawkeyes’ only viable option at tailback.This lack of depth is disconcerting as conference play approaches, but it’s not any reason to write Iowa off.For one, the defense features the nation’s best defensive line and the Big Ten’s best-kept secret, defensive tackle Mike Daniels. Allowing 227.5 yards per game, Iowa ranks No. 1 in total defense through four games – and that’s without preseason All-American Adrian Clayborn making much nose.With a stout defense and third-year starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi, the Hawkeyes will surely challenge Wisconsin for the Big Ten’s No. 2 slot – as long as the running game figures itself out.-Scott Miller, The Daily IowanDark HorsesPenn State (3-1)It’s already a historic season in Happy Valley. For the first time in the Joe Paterno era, a true freshman started the season at quarterback, and so far Rob Bolden hasn’t disappointed. He looked poised throughout the non-conference schedule, and led a 96-yard game-clinching touchdown drive against Temple last weekend, completing passes on 3rd-and-long like a veteran.Two more milestones will be reached soon, too. Joe Paterno is three wins from 400 and Evan Royster is 184 yards from the school’s all-time rushing mark. The significant accomplishments will likely overshadow what could be a Big Ten season with some struggles for the Nittany Lions, who are reshuffling their offensive line and have had problems tackling.Their schedule doesn’t make it any easier, with both Iowa and Ohio State on the road. Bolden will likely develop as the season goes on, but road games in tough environments could serve more as a learning experience for him than anything else, and a 5-3, fourth place finish could be in the cards for the Lions.-AJ Cassavell, The Daily CollegianMichigan (4-0)Before the season started, and before the country knew who Denard Robinson was, everyone thought Michigan would be an afterthought once again in the Big Ten. The Wolverines had, after all, won three conference games in head coach Rich Rodriguez’s first two seasons in Ann Arbor. But if Robinson can stay healthy, the offense will be hard to slow down, let alone, stop.On defense, it seems like preseason perception was just about right. The unit allowed 37 points to Massachusetts. In Big Ten play, Michigan could slide past Indiana, Illinois and Purdue based solely on Robinson and the Wolverines’ explosive offense. Home games against Iowa and Wisconsin seem more winnable now. And road games against Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State can’t be considered as absolute losses anymore either. Michigan could easily lose a winnable game, but the Wolverines could steal one, too. But one thing is for sure, they’ll top their three total Big Ten wins in RichRod’s tenure for sure.Expect Michigan to win four to five conference games. The defense isn’t good enough to win more than that. The Wolverines will finish at 9-3 (5-3 Big Ten) at best.-Ryan Kartje, The Michigan DailyMichigan State (4-0)Entering Big Ten play with head coach Mark Dantonio’s best team in his four years at Michigan State, the No. 24 MSU football team feels cautiously optimistic before Saturday’s conference opener.The Spartans have ridden their rushing attack to a 4-0 start and have shown improvements in their secondary and offensive line, both of which were considered question marks coming into the season.The Spartans’ case for a conference title is good, as conference favorite Ohio State, as well as Indiana, are noticeably missing on the Spartans’ schedule and sets up favorably for MSU.Nevertheless, MSU hasn’t won the Big Ten title since 1990 and is trying to forget last season’s 6-7 finish, in which it lost five games by eight points or fewer.The Spartans’ road gets off to a difficult start, with Saturday’s matchup against Wisconsin and an Oct. 9 game at Michigan.The Spartans have dealt with the range of emotions this season – faking a field goal in overtime to defeat Notre Dame 34-31, on Sept. 18, then finding out the following morning that Dantonio suffered a minor heart attack – but have thus far stayed level-headed as they prepare for Big Ten play.Dantonio is recovering, but it is unknown when he’ll be able to return to the sidelines. Whatever the case might be, expect the Spartans to be among the favorites this season.-Jeff Kanan, The State NewsNorthwestern (4-0)After a 4-0 start to the season, buzz is building around Northwestern. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald was even asked in a press conference of the possibility of a Big Ten championship.While the Wildcats taking their first conference title since 2000 remains unlikely, NU seems poised to make school history with a third consecutive bowl game appearance. Anything less that an 8-4 season would mean a disappointing loss against either Minnesota, Purdue, Indiana or Illinois.Perhaps the defining point of the season will be the Cats’ Oct. 23 matchup with Michigan State for NU’s homecoming. A win would likely mean a 5-3 Big Ten record, which would greatly boost NU in the Big Ten standings. And while trips to Penn State and Wisconsin and a home game against Iowa may be menacing, the Cats went 2-1 against those foes last season and led the Nittany Lions at halftime.-Colin Becht, The Daily NorthwesternForget about itIllinois (2-1)Before finishing 5-7, Illinois’ 2008 squad was supposed to be an improvement over the 2007-08 Rose Bowl team. Last year, the Illini had what appeared to be realistic hopes of making a bowl game.But beginning with a blowout loss to Missouri and ending with a bizarre last-second 53-52 loss against Fresno State, Illinois’ 3-9 campaign in 2009 was a complete disappointment that led to the complete reorganization of head coach Ron Zook’s staff.With the fresh start provided by Vic Koenning’s hard-hitting defense and Paul Patrino’s pro-style offense, Illinois has done something in 2010 that it failed to do several times last season: win games as the favorite.Illinois should continue to win the “winnable” games throughout Big Ten season, which should be enough for a bowl game.But the unexpectedly poor results of last season place a big question mark over the number of games, if any, the Illini can steal from the upper echelon of the Big Ten.Kevin Kaplan, The Daily Illinilast_img

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