OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
(11-2, first in the Big Ten)
Key returnees: QB Todd Boeckman, CB Malcolm Jenkins, RB Chris “Beanie” Wells, LB James Laurinaitis.
Player to watch: Even with all the returning superstars, this isn’t hard: freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit summed up the Pryor-mania perfectly when he said at Big Ten Media Day, “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen in the history of mankind the hype that Terrelle Pryor received, ever in my life. And I almost feel bad for the guy because, can he live up to it? He has to win like three national titles and two Heismans to live up to it.” Regardless of how Boeckman and Pryor split time, Pryor will be the center of attention.
Reason for optimism: The Buckeyes lost few key players, meaning the learning curve will be slight. They know what it feels like to play in a national championship game.
Reason for pessimism: The Ohio State-Southern Cal game will be great television, but it could leave the Buckeyes 2-1, with their national championship hopes in jeopardy. If Ohio State loses, it’ll have to tread carefully the rest of the year if it wants to reach a third straight championship game.
Bottom line: It’s obvious the Buckeyes will be great, and with a win on September 13, they should be able to win it all. But history in big games just doesn’t seem to be on their side. 12-1.
(9-4, third in the Big Ten)
Key returnees: RB P.J. Hill, LB DeAndre Levy
Player to watch: Hill. He notched over 1,200 rushing yards as a sophomore and can only get better.
Reason for optimism: Yes, sticking to a traditional offense could be considered obsolete — but with most teams preparing to face the spread, Wisconsin might find they actually have an edge. “From a physical standpoint, it’s definitely an advantage,” Levy said at Big Ten Media Day. “We have an offense that can pound.”
Reason for pessimism: Like Michigan, Wisconsin is also a little shaky at quarterback. With Tyler Donovan’s graduation, two relatively inexperienced quarterbacks are competing for the job. Evridge, who had just 12 pass attempts last season, did respectably against Akron — but how much that means isn’t yet clear.
Bottom line: Wisconsin has reached a January bowl each of the past four years. Expect this year to be no different. 10-3.
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
(9-4, T-second in the Big Ten)
Key returnees: QB Juice Williams, WR Aurelious Benn, LB Brit Miller
Player to watch: Williams. After his stellar play in the Illini upset of Ohio State last year, it looks like this could be his breakout season. Though Illinois lost Saturday, Williams had career-high totals in yardage, completions and touchdown passes.
Reason for optimism: The offense as a whole should be impressive. With Williams’ arm and the speed of the wide receivers, the Illini should be able to rack up points on most opponents.
Reason for pessimism: Illinois’ defense was lauded going into the season, but it looked less than impressive Saturday against Missouri. The Illini also lost a strong graduating class that included J Leman, meaning leadership is a question mark this early in the season.
Bottom line: The Illini will be better than last year, but their record after the rest of its cupcake nonconference schedule (Eastern Illinois, Louisiana-Lafayette and Western Michigan) might take a hit after a few tough Big Ten games. 10-3.
PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
(9-4, T-fourth in the Big Ten)
Key returnees: DE Maurice Evans, CB Tony Davis, WR Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood
Player to watch: C A.Q. Shipley. He’s coming off a first-team All-Big Ten year and will be surrounded by returning players.
Reason for optimism: The Nittany Lions are returning eight starters on both offense and defense, meaning the core of the team should be consistently good.
Reason for pessimism: The off-the-field disciplinary problems are perennial distractions. It’s obvious Paterno is sick of talking about it — when asked at Big Ten Media Day how he’d deal with a problem player, Paterno impatiently said, “What are you going to do, crucify him?” But the problems have continued this season after police found marijuana in an apartment shared by four players (including Evans) Tuesday night. The Nittany Lions need to stay out of trouble or they’ll find themselves scrambling to fill spots.
Bottom line: The football team will be respectable, Paterno will continue deflecting retirement questions and Penn State will keep thinking it can beat Michigan. Same old, same old in Happy Valley. 9-4.
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
(7-6, T-seventh in the Big Ten)
Key returnees: RB Javon Ringer, QB Brian Hoyer
Player to watch: Ringer. When Hoyer was asked about Ringer’s level of talent at Big Ten Media Day, all Hoyer could say was, “The guy’s a freak. I saw him squat 520 pounds 5 times.” And with co-phenom running back Jehuu Caulcrick now with the New York Jets, Ringer will get all the glory at his position this year.
Reason for optimism: It’s not Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio’s first year in East Lansing anymore, so many of the kinks should be worked out. At Big Ten Media Day, the Spartans were pegged as the conference’s surprise team — the “next Illinois” — this season.
Reason for pessimism: No matter how good the Spartans are supposed to be, they never seem to finish the job. If they’re ahead, they choke. If they’re behind, they can’t figure out how to get that final touchdown. And their defense still can’t stop anything.
Bottom line: Even with the surprise team label, it feels like the Spartans will again be borderline mediocre. Ringer will be great, Hoyer will be inconsistent and Michigan State will go to a forgettable bowl game. 8-5.
(6-6, T-seventh in the Big Ten)
Key returnees: QB C.J. Bacher, RB Tyrell Sutton
Player to Watch: RB Omar Conteh saw a lot of time last season while Sutton was out with an injury. Conteh was especially strong against Michigan, rushing for 119 yards on 15 carries, including a 49-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
Reason for optimism: The Wildcats have a lot of experience at skill positions on offense, and Mick McCall, the new offensive coordinator, brings a slightly different spread scheme.
Reason for pessimism: Ohio State, Michigan and Illinois close out the schedule.
Bottom line: There’s a lot of experience on the field in Evanston, but the talent is still a question mark. A bowl game bid isn’t out of the question. 7-5
(6-6, T-fifth in the Big Ten)
Key returnees: DT Mitch King, DT Matt Kroul
Player to watch: QB Jake Christensen returns as the Hawkeyes starter after a solid sophomore season. Christensen threw 17 touchdowns to just six interceptions. His play should benefit from having six other returning starters on offense.
Reasons for optimism: Ohio State and Michigan are off the schedule for a second straight season.
Reasons for pessimism: Could coach Kirk Ferentz’s legal troubles be a distraction?
Bottom line: The Hawkeyes have tough nonconference games with Iowa State and Pittsburgh coming up, which likely put them in a hole early in the season. They’ll finish at or near .500. 6-6
(7-6, T-seventh in the Big Ten)
Key returnees: QB Kellen Lewis, DE Greg Middleton
Player to watch: RB Marcus Thigpen rushed for just 556 yards last season, but he’s one of the fastest tailbacks in the conference. His success will depend on the strength of a relatively inexperienced offensive line. As with most teams, the key is in the trenches.
Reason for optimism: The Hoosiers start the season with four winnable games at home, with a bye week in the middle.
Reason for pessimism: Will there be a letdown a season after Indiana lived up to the dream of its late coach Terry Hoeppner and reached a bowl game?
Bottom line: Road games at Penn State and Purdue will be the difference between a winning and losing season. 5-7
(8-5, T-seventh in the Big Ten)
Key returnees: RB Kory Sheets, LT Sean Sester
Player to watch: QB Curtis Painter has thrown for over 8,000 yards in three years at Purdue. He comes back as a senior with a big weapon in Sheets, but lost his best deep threat, Dorien Bryant, to graduation.
Reason for optimism: Joe Tiller’s last season as head coach could inspire the team to a level not seen in recent years.
Reason for pessimism: Joe Tiller is still a cranky old man with outdated techniques.
Bottom line: Look forward to a victory lap of mediocrity for Tiller and the Boilermakers. 5-7
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
(1-11, 11th in the Big Ten)
Key returnees: QB Adam Weber, SS Kyle Theret
Player to watch: WR Eric Decker had more than 900 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns for an abysmal Minnesota team last year. Catching the ball from a more experienced Weber should only improve the junior’s numbers.
Reasons for optimism: Minnesota has already equaled its win total from last season, thanks to a non-conference win over Northern Illinois last Saturday.
Reasons for pessimism: The Golden Gophers still have to play in the Metrodome this season.
Bottom line: It won’t be as bad as last season. But it won’t be much better. 3-9