CHICAGO – For the third straight season, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa occupy the top three spots in the Big Ten preseason poll.

Morgan Morel
Lloyd Carr is among the majority of Big Ten coaches who agree with the rule changes. (DAVID TUMAN/Daily)
Morgan Morel
Troy Smith and the Buckeyes were ranked preseason No. 1 by the Big Ten coaches. (File Photo)

The only difference this year is which team is No. 1.

For the first time since 2003, Ohio State will start the season as the favorite to capture the conference crown, thanks in large part to last year’s 10-2 record and the big-play ability of quarterback Troy Smith and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. Smith was named Preseason Offensive Player of the Year after a break-out 2005 campaign in which he threw for 2,282 yards and 16 touchdowns.

The Buckeyes’ biggest question mark will be their defense, which returns just two starters from last season’s unit. Even so, Ohio State’s offensive firepower was enough to ensure its spot at the top.

“I think it’s encouraging to all the people that care about Ohio State that people think highly of us,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. “And granted, we do have to replace a lot of good folks. . How legitimate is it? I don’t know if we know the answer to that. We will find out by the end of November. But it’s always nice to be mentioned.”

After starting back-to-back seasons as the preseason favorite, Michigan finished second in the preseason poll this year. The Wolverines notched a disappointing 7-5 record in 2005, but return 18 starters from last season’s underachieving squad, the second-highest total among Big Ten teams.

Iowa came in at No. 3 for the third straight year. Just the top three teams in the Big Ten preseason poll were announced.

The other individual honor went to Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny, who was named Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Posluszny recorded 116 tackles last season en route to winning the Butkus and Bednarik awards, which honor the nation’s best linebacker and defensive player, respectively.

Rules they are a’changing: The NCAA announced in June a list of rule changes designed to decrease the amount of time it takes to complete a college football game. More than a month later, one of these rule changes became a major point of discussion among coaches at Big Ten Media Day.

The new rule states that the clock will start when the ball is marked ready for play on a first down. Based on results of surveys conducted by several Division-IA conferences, the NCAA estimates that the change could shorten games by about five minutes.

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr has advocated for measures to decrease the length of games in the past. At his weekly press conference following last season’s win over Michigan State, Carr said he supported speeding up games because it would help protect players from injury.

It was no surprise last week to find Carr among the majority of Big Ten coaches who backed the rule change.

“When you look at the length of some of the games, it’s important to try to do some things to try to speed the game up,” Carr said. “That’s the intent of the rule committee, so we’ll have to see.”

The loudest opponent of the rule change was Purdue coach Joe Tiller, who began his opening remarks at Tuesday’s press conference with an impassioned attack on the new rule. Tiller criticized the change as a misguided attempt on the part of the NCAA to make college football more like its NFL counterpart. Tiller also claimed that college games are not on average significantly longer than NFL games.

Although Carr supported the new rule, he indicated that it is just one of many changes that need to be made to speed up the game in a significant way.

“I think you’re talking about seconds right now with regard to the most recent rule change,” Carr said.

Notes: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany confirmed Tuesday that the Big Ten network should be up and running in August 2007. The network will feature 2,000 hours of original programming each year, including 35 football games, and will initially be available via DirecTV . The Big Ten will partner with the Champs Sports and Insight Bowls for the first time following the 2006 season. The conference cut ties with the Sun Bowl . The first ESPN/USA Today Coaches’ Poll was released Friday and featured four Big Ten teams in the Top 25: No. 1 Ohio State, No. 15 Michigan, No. 17 Iowa and No. 19 Penn State.

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