Michigan has won two straight Big Ten Championships. But repeating this year looks to be a bit more challenging. After years of being deemed ‘weak,’ the Big Ten is shaping up as one of the nation’s toughest conferences, with four teams in the top-15. Here’s The Daily’s look at the competition:

Ohio State

What everyone’s talking about: With his blazing speed and elusive style, Ted Ginn Jr. is a Heisman candidate. But redshirt junior Santonio Holmes and some of the other wideouts are the guys that will make the real difference. And everyone wants to know which quarterback will start against Texas. Troy Smith went 5-1 last year when he got an opportunity to play at the end of the season, but Justin Zwick (4-3) was the opening day signal-caller because of Smith’s suspension for illegally receiving money from a booster.

What they should be saying: The Buckeyes’ defense returns nine starters from last year. The squad is led by A.J. Hawk, who averaged 12 tackles per game in 2004. Hawk was voted preseason defensive player of the year in August.

Our thoughts: The real question with this squad has nothing to do with its talent. The Buckeyes don’t have an adequate running game, but the first three weeks of the season – when they have to play Texas and Iowa in back-to-back weeks – may be the biggest challenge. If Smith isn’t ready to go when he’s reinstated, Ohio State will fall out of the national picture.

Iowa

What everyone’s talking about: With a combined 229 tackles last year, senior linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway are the studs of the defense. But last year, the duo had four senior linemen in front of them. The question will be what they can do behind the Hawkeyes’ current front four.

What they should be saying: Last year, the Hawkeyes lost their top four running backs to injuries. Their 72.6 rushing yards per game ranked second-lowest in the nation last year. The last time anyone saw Iowa quarterback Drew Tate, he was throwing a 56-yard touchdown bomb to win the Capital One Bowl. This year, the media voted him preseason player of the year. Tate threw to a school record 19 different players last year, so he knows how to spread the ball around.

Our thoughts: We were always worried about what would happen when coach Kirk Ferentz got top recruiting classes to team up with his NFL-caliber coaching. This is the year he’s been waiting for, but he has to face both Ohio State and Purdue on the road.

Purdue

What everyone’s talking about: Because of the scheduling arrangements in the Big Ten, luck helped Purdue dodge both Michigan and Ohio State this year. And to make things even easier, the Boilermakers get Iowa at home. Their schedule makes it difficult to imagine them losing a game.

What they should be saying: Purdue returns 20 starters – all 11 on defense and nine on offense. Senior quarterback Brandon Kirsch has had to play behind Kyle Orton for three years, but he’s the new breed of quarterback, and he can beat you with both his arm and his legs. Last year, Kirsch threw for 711 yards and seven touchdowns as Orton’s backup.

Our thoughts: Purdue’s defense is the real deal. Defensive tackle Brandon Villarreal had 17.5 tackles for loss last season. Anthony Spencer had 7.5 sacks, and that wasn’t even tops on his team. The saying is that defense wins championships, and, with that schedule, we’re sold on Purdue as a threat.

Penn State

What everyone is talking about: A defense that gave up 21 points or fewer in every game last year. Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton called the Penn State defense the best he saw all last year. And of course they are also talking about Joe Paterno, who is now in his 40th year as head coach of the program.

What they should be saying: The defense will be the strong suit for the Nittany Lions, but Paterno has some actual talent this year – such as top recruits Justin King and Derrick Williams – to go along with his always hard-working team. Fifth-year senior quarterback Michael Robinson might be Paterno’s most athletic QB, but he is being pushed by sophomore Anthony Morelli. And they should be talking about Paterno – he’s been there for 40 years!

Our thoughts: For the first time in recent memory, Penn State will be a program to worry about. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, they have to play both Michigan and Michigan State on the road. And the Big Ten is just too deep. Didn’t pick the best year to get good, did you, Joe Pa?

Michigan State

What everyone is talking about: Drew Stanton, Drew Stanton, Drew Stanton. The Spartans’ star quarterback said that he spent the offseason listening to people tell him that if he had stayed healthy, they would have beaten Michigan. He knows the Spartans’ success rests in his hands.

What they should be saying: Drew Stanton, Drew Stanton, Drew Stanton. State will miss DeAndra Cobb at running back, leaving the 6-foot-3, 222-pound Stanton to do it all. Last year, he led the MSU offense to 460 yards per game, tops in the Big Ten.

Our thoughts: Last year in the Big House, we saw what he could do. He rushed for 80 yards and a TD and threw for 95 more yards before getting injured in the first half. It’s a lot of pressure on one guy, but he has the arm, and especially the legs, to do the job.

Minnesota

What everyone is talking about: The departure of Marion Barber III. Well, maybe not his absence in particular, but rather how it will affect the mileage Laurence Maroney will be able to rack up. Maroney ran for 1,348 yards last year while splitting time with Barber, so a run at 2,000 yards is possible.

What they should be saying: Minnesota has to play all four of the Big Ten’s powerhouse schools: Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Purdue. That’s a tough task for anybody.

Our thoughts: The Gophers started last season with five straight wins. Then, after losing to Michigan on Oct. 9, Minnesota went 1-4 over its next five games. The team will have to avoid the Michigan hangover this year if it wants a chance.

Wisconsin

What everyone is talking about: Barry Alvarez announced his upcoming retirement two months before the start of the season. If Wisconsin was good, people might be talking about the team. But everyone just wants to talk about its coach.

What everyone should be saying: Replacing Anthony Davis would seem to be a difficult endeavor. But Alvarez went out and grabbed Colorado transfer Brian Calhoun. Who knows if he’s as good as Alvarez thinks – or hopes.

Our thoughts: Last year the Badgers were poised to win the Big Ten title, and they stumbled to end the season. This year they have just nine starters returning. Missed your chance guys.

Northwestern

What everyone is talking about: Fifth-year senior Brett Basanez – a four-year starter in Evanston – is pretty much guaranteed to set Northwestern’s passing record. He is less than 200 yards shy of the mark.

What everyone should be saying: Basanez is great, but the team still has to score more points. The Wildcats scored just 24 touchdowns on 39 trips into the red zone.

Our thoughts: Who knows? Northwestern won three of four overtime games last year, including one at home against Ohio State. They could beat just about anybody, but they probably won’t.

Illinois

What everyone is talking about: Ron Zook will take over as head coach and won’t have to deal with www.fireronzook.com.

What everyone should be saying: Don’t really know. Zook doesn’t have the personnel to be able to win.

Our thoughts: Illinois has had just two winning seasons in the last decade. You do the math.

Indiana

What everyone is talking about: Why new head coach Terry Hoeppner would leave Miami (Ohio) for a team that will always play second fiddle to a basketball program.

What they should be saying: Hoeppner was one of the best MAC coaches, and, while there, he molded Ben Roethlisberger into one of the NFL’s best young QBs.

Our thoughts: It’s going to be interesting to see what Indiana will look like with a spread offense.

 

But wait, let us explain…

The football writers break down some of the nation’s top contenders outside the Big Ten

The favorite:

Southern Cal

Yeah, we know, everyone hates Southern Cal, but they are the obvious favorite for an unprecedented third straight title.  Let’s get something straight though:  Matt Leinart is overrated.  We’re not saying he’s not a good quarterback; he is in fact a very good one.  But we just don’t think he’s the straw that stirs the Trojans’ drink.  That distinction goes to dynamic running back Reggie Bush.  He is the player that coaches truly fear and know they have to gameplan for.  The mismatches he creates keep coordinators and players sleepless.  But despite him and the rest of the Souther Cal offense, there are question marks that make the team vulnerable.  We’re just not ready to discount them yet.

And the Rest of the Contenders:

Texas

It all starts with Vince Young. He has his faults and shortcomings – such as not being able to throw an accurate pass over five yards. But his speed, quickness and strength make him the most dangerous college quarterback since Michael Vick. If the Longhorns can decide on a running back and get some support from a few blue-chip receivers, there is the definite possibility of a repeat trip to the Rose Bowl. But most people are not ready to bet the house on coach Mack Brown just yet.

Virginia Tech

Marcus Vick probably has too much pressure just by virtue of his name. But then he went and smoked weed, had sex with an underage girl and got suspended last season. Now he’s back for his senior year and can redeem himself by acting as the catalyst for the Hokies’ national title run.

Louisiana State

Their stacked backfield has allowed the Tigers to lose starting tailback Alley Broussard for the season and not even blink. That’s what happens when your backup is Sugar Bowl MVP Justin Vincent. The real question will be who takes the snaps under center. JaMarcus Russell is the favorite after playing well off the bench in last year’s Capital One Bowl.

Tennessee

The Volunteers have struggled the past few seasons, but they have the right pieces to get to Pasadena: a great running game (Gerald Riggs), experience, a talented quarterback (Erik Ainge) and a stout defense.

Louisville

One of the newest members of the Big East, the Cardinals have weapons everywhere on offense. But will their weak schedule keep them from really making a huge impact on the national picture?

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