2010 Big Ten College Football Preview: Ohio State back on top

COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: Quarterback Terrelle Pryor #2 of the Ohio State Buckeyes hands off to running back Brandon Saine #3 of the Buckeyes during a game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Ohio Stadium on September 26, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Here’s a quick and dirty look at how I see things playing out in the Big Eleven this season:

#1 Ohio State
Some believe the Buckeyes’ offense might be close to catching up to their defense in terms of dominance, which is saying something with the way OSU’s D played a year ago. The Buckeyes return all three leading rushers from 2009 in Brandon Saine, Dan Herron and quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who some believe has become a more committed teammate over the offseason. The key to OSU becoming a national title threat is Pryor, or more specifically, whether or not he’ll make opponents respect his passing game. The good thing for him and the Buckeyes on a whole is that they return four starters to a veteran offensive line that will open up plenty of holes for a deep and talented group of running backs. Defensively, OSU was a top five unit last season and could be once again this year assuming they can generate a pass-rush and the safeties can hold up in coverage. Cameron Heyward is one of the nation’s best defensive ends and Ross Homan is a playmaker at the outside linebacker spot. The secondary isn’t flashy, but cornerbacks Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence are solid. From a schedule standpoint, if they can beat Miami in Columbus in the second week of the season, they should be 6-0 heading into Madison on October 16. From there, they’ll be tested by Wisconsin, Penn State and Iowa, but this is your clear favorite to win the Big Ten.

#2 Iowa
The Hawkeyes lost a couple of studs from their offensive line in tackles Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, as well as guard Dace Richardson and center Rafael Eubanks. But with players like Riley Reiff ready to step in, Iowa should repopulate their O-line and not miss a beat this season. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi took plenty of heat last year for his spotty play, but the bottom line is the guy won. Assuming they don’t choke early in the season against an inferior opponent (which almost happened on multiple occasions last season), the Hawkeyes should challenge the Buckeyes for a conference title. It helps that they play Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin at home this year. That November 20th battle in Iowa City against the Buckeyes could determine the Big Ten champion.

#3 Wisconsin
John Clay, Montee Bell and Zach Brown – talk about an elite group of runners. That trio could potentially give the Badgers the best rushing game in the nation by season’s end and will only serve to help quarterback Scott Tolzien and the passing game. While the defensive tackle and secondary positions are question marks heading into the season, there’s no reason to think that Wisconsin couldn’t challenge Ohio State and Iowa for the conference title. They certainly have enough talent to do so, although they have a grueling two-game stretch at the end of October to worry about. The back-to-back games against Ohio State (home) and Iowa (away) will determine how good this Wisconsin team is and don’t discount the trip to West Lafayette either. If the Badgers were able to knock off the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes, the game against Purdue in early November has letdown written all over it.

#4 Penn State
I don’t blame you if you hate Penn State’s chances this year. After all, they have to replace their starting quarterback, plus all three linebackers and also have to play Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State on the road. But toss out the ‘Bama game for a second and realize that if they beat either Iowa or OSU, then the Nittany Lions could challenge for the Big Ten title. If they lose both, however, they’re likely done because two losses (especially against the top 2 teams in the conference) probably won’t cut it this year. Evan Royster is an absolute stud, but the fear is that PSU will become too one-dimensional unless quarterbacks Kevin Newsome or Matt McGloin step up. That’s not a good sign considering the front sevens that Ohio State and Iowa have, which is why I have the Lions ranked where I do. That said, this team can still contend with the teams listed above. I’m just not that crazy about them doing so.

#5 Michigan
It’s now or never for Rich Rodriguez. Another disastrous season could cost him his job and actually, another bowl-less season could just as easily lead to him getting the boot in Ann Arbor. He needs to decide between Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson and then the winner of said quarterback competition needs to be more consistent this season than they were in 2009. Even though the Wolverines lost both of their leading rushers from a season ago, the interior of the offensive line looks strong with guard Stephen Schilling and center David Molk returning. The defense has some talented playmakers and the 3-3-5 alignment plays well for the depth that UM has in its secondary. The key is how this team plays in the second half, with home meetings with Iowa and Wisconsin, as well as road tests against Penn State and Ohio State. A fast start and a bad finish will do nothing to help Rich Rod keep his job.

#6 Michigan State
The Spartans have a slew of playmakers and plenty of depth on both sides of the ball, but like most years, the concern is that they’ll drop a game or two that they shouldn’t have. They luck out by not having to face Ohio State this year, but losses against Wisconsin, Iowa or Penn State will push them out of contention and games against Michigan, Northwestern and Purdue are gimmies. Sparty has plenty of offensive firepower thanks to Larry Caper, Edwin Baker, Keith Nicol and Mark Dell, but the key is whether or not this team can replace three starters on an offensive line that allowed only 14 sacks last season. Defensively, linebacker Greg Jones might be the best defender in the nation, but the secondary remains the unit’s weak link.

#7 Northwestern
It’s easy to get excited about the Wildcats this season. Quarterback Dan Persa is a dual threat from under center, the linebacker trio of Quentin Davie, Vince Browne and Nate Williams is solid and Kevin Watt is a talented pass-rusher. That said, this is a team that struggled to run the football last year and if the offensive line can’t open up holes for the slew of running backs that are expected to get carries this season, then Persa could get eaten alive. Also, the defense gave up too many big plays last season and that’s a concern considering they have to replace three of the four starters in the secondary. The Wildcats should be fun to watch again this year, but it’s hard envisioning them knocking off one of the top teams in the conference like they did last year in Iowa City.

#8 Purdue
The Boilermakers will rest their hopes on former Miami Hurricane quarterback Robert Marve, who has impressed the coaching staff this year with the way he can both pass and run. That said, Caleb TerBush could see snaps if Marve struggles early, so Purdue has options. Whoever is under center this year will benefit from the ultra-productive Keith Smith, who finished with 1,100 receiving yards and six touchdowns last season. Running back Al-Terek McBurse is also very talented, although the offensive line returns just two starters and will be inexperienced as a whole. The defense has a solid front seven, but the secondary is highly inexperienced and the run defense wasn’t very good last season. This team won’t have to play Iowa or Penn State this year, so they could wind up making some noise. But I can’t see them beating either Wisconsin or Ohio State in order to emerge as a true sleeper.

#9 Illinois
The Illini lost their top two playmakers from a season ago in receiver Arrelious Benn and quarterback Juice Williams, but they should be able to run the ball effectively with Mike LeShore, Jason Ford and dual-threat quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The defense will likely be more aggressive than it was a year ago, but if the unit can’t force more turnovers then it’ll likely struggle again. This is an intriguing team to keep an eye on, but there’s just too much unproven talent at key positions to think U of I will make any noise this year.

#10 Indiana
Thanks to quarterback Ben Chappell, running back Darius Willis, and receivers Tandon Doss, Damarlo Belcher and Terrance Turner, the Hoosiers will score plenty of points in 2010. It’s just a matter of if they’ll stop anybody. The defense only returns four starters from last year and there are plenty of question marks surrounding the seven new replacements. That said, with Towson, Western Kentucky, Akron and Arkansas State on their non-conference schedule this year, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Indiana will snag two conference wins and head to a bowl game this year, which would be a nice accomplishment.

#11 Minnesota
Too many questions surround the Gophers this year to ignore. They have potential issues at every level of their defense and if they can’t run the ball more effectively than they did in 2009, then talented quarterback Adam Weber and the rest of the passing game will suffer. Considering they have a solid group of freshman coming in this year, there’s reason for hope in Minnesota but chances are this team will sink to the bottom of the conference.

Check out other 2010 College Football Conference Previews: SEC | Big Ten | Big 12

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