Big 10 Preview

 HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

BIG TEN POISED FOR
A FANTASTIC SEASON

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

Normally, we devote our summer preview of the Big Ten to a review of how overrated the conference is on a national scale. It seemed like YEAR AFTER YEAR Big Ten teams would schedule very soft in September...play boring games against each other in October and November...then get CRUSHED in bowl games when they had to step out and play real opposition.

The ultimate example of this was Ohio State's humiliating loss to Florida in the National Championship game. Ohio State was a TD favorite in that one because perceptions were so far out of line with reality. They didn't deserve to be on the same field. When Ohio State was outclassed the following year by LSU in the title tilt, the nation finally accepted that the Big Ten wasn't the conference that ESPN kept insisting it was during all of those early Saturday telecasts.

The Big Ten looks to have realized that themselves...and taken pains to upgrade. Last year the league had a very solid bowl campaign, highlighted by Ohio State's win over Pac 10 champion Oregon in the Rose Bowl, Iowa's win over ACC champion Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and Wisconsin's win over respected Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl. Penn State also beat LSU in the Capital One Bowl. Northwestern didn't embarrass itself in a New Year's Day bowl loss to Auburn either.

This year, things could get even better:

*There were no head coaching changes in the offseason, making the Big Ten the ONLY conference in the nation to maintain complete stability from 2009 to 2010 in terms of the head man.

*Many starting quarterbacks return, including the leaders of Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

*Michigan looks to be moving in the right direction under Rich Rodriguez, meaning the Wolverines could get back in the mix as well.

We're glad! We got tired of blasting the Big Ten week after week and year after year. Let's see how the season might play out...

OHIO STATE
Athlon Ranking: 2
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 68 on offense, 5 on defense
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 6 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Terrelle Pryor showed flashes of brilliance last year, though he's still not nearly as good as he thinks he is. Should the junior quarterback take another step forward...Ohio State could easily make a leap back to national superpower prominence. We're not ready to stick them at #2 in the country just yet. Athlon has a history of putting Big Ten teams many spots higher than they deserve (sometimes 40-50 spots higher!).

The Buckeyes did impress us in the Rose Bowl last year. And, they'll get a chance to do it again on September 11th in a dangerous home game against Miami of Florida. That will be the 'confirmation' game regarding the potential from the Oregon win. This is still a Buckeyes team that had to sweat Navy at home last year, and didn't impress in a home loss to a USC team that was destined to fall off the map.

For now, we're believers. We're very much looking forward to that Miami game.

IOWA
Athlon Ranking: 12
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 89 on offense, 10 on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 8 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: We lost track of how many times we described Kirk Frerentz as the most overrated coach in college football. We had to keep saying it because it was OBVIOUSLY TRUE at the time, and because nobody else was pointing it out. Frerentz did save his job with a big bounce back...one that was keyed by defense and a focus on the fundamentals. It's not pretty, but it gets the job done against erratic opposition.

Eight starters are back on defense, which means this will be a potent stop unit again. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi brings experience if not explosiveness to the offense. Iowa wants to beat you down, then leave with a victory. It's the kind of team that can play with anybody, but then swept somebody like Northern Iowa (17-16 win) or Arkansas State (24-21 win) when the juices aren't flowing. Seriously, would a coaching genius have to sweat Northern Iowa and Arkansas State at home?!

As handicappers...lose the notion that 'this coach is a genius,' but emphasize the notion that 'this team will hurt you.' That will help you find value taking or fading the Hawkeyes depending on the opponent and the Vegas spread.

WISCONSIN
Athlon Ranking: 16
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 30 on offense, 17 on defense
Returning Starters: 10 on offense, 5 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: It was hard to take Wisconsin seriously last year as a Big Ten threat. September was kind of ugly with tight wins over Northern Illinois and Fresno State. Early October saw losses to Ohio State and Iowa in consecutive weeks that took the Badgers out of the race early. To their credit, they got off the canvas and closed well. Their clear dominance at the point of attack against Miami of Florida in their bowl as an eye opener.

So, you can deduce to this point that we were STILL bashing the Big Ten as recently as last September! The powers didn't start well...but they sure closed with authority.

The Badgers return 10 starters to an offense that ranked 30th nationally. This is a team that runs up the score on patsies (Wofford and Hawaii to name two from last year), so the ranking might be a tad inflated. They will take the point of attack if you let them. We expect to see that as a regular theme all season.

Note that neither Iowa nor Wisconsin have huge challenge games in September. Iowa's toughest spot is at Arizona. Wisconsin's is a home game with Arizona State. Disappointing.

PENN STATE
Athlon Ranking: 23
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 37 on offense, 9 on defense
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 5 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Athlon is giving Penn State a lot of respect here, as are other national media outlets. We find it hard to love a team with a new quarterback, in a conference that returns a lot of quarterbacks. Throw in a September 11th road game at Alabama...and this is a team that may have trouble producing and building confidence in a challenging league.

Note that half the starters return on defense, which can be meaningful when so much experience is in opposition backfields. This is a team you just have to play it by ear with. The pedigree is there obviously in terms of a guaranteed level of play. Penn State is never horrible even in the worst of times. Are they ready to make the Big Ten a four-team race? Avoiding Wisconsin in the schedule rotation is a hidden help.

MICHIGAN STATE
Athlon Ranking: 31
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 38 on offense, 73 on defense
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 7 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: We have to say we're skeptical about this ranking from Athlon. If you average the offensive and defensive rankings, you get something in the mid 50's. It's not like the team is returning all of its starters. And, we're looking at a group that lost last year to Central Michigan, Notre Dame, and Minnesota...and had to go overtime to beat struggling Michigan. State almost started the season 1-4!

Kirk Cousins is a threat at quarterback, though he'll have to cut down on turnovers (State ranked 94th in turnover differential last year). This is a team that's certainly capable of taking out one of the powers when everything is clicking. We're not ready to put them in the top 32 of the country though, or as a true threat to the big three or four in terms of the standings.

An easy schedule will keep the Spartans knocking on the door of the polls, particularly if they beat Notre Dame on September 18th. Dodging Ohio State in the schedule rotation may keep this group overrated all the way to November.

MICHIGAN
Athlon Ranking: 48
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 59 on offense, 82 on defense
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 7 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Once again, Michigan is one of the most interesting teams in the nation if nothing else. Rich Rodriguez is a volatile mix of creativity, charisma, and potential catastrophe. He's had enough time now to get key elements of his approach into the bloodflow of the program...and he has a returning starter quarterback in Tate Forcier who is a handful to deal with when he has his legs. The little guy (relatively speaking) wore down after an energetic first half of the season...and the team stumbled to an 0-5 finish.

Michigan opens the season with Big East contender Connecticut, which is a nice challenge for both teams. A trip to South Bend to see Notre Dame comes the next week. We'll reserve judgment on the program until after seeing those games. This is a group that can 'arrive' with little notice...or one that could implode from program pressures from alumni who expect to compete for the Big Ten crown every year.

In 2009, Jim Hurley's college dogs bit the bookmakers to the tune fo 26-6-2! Get on board for our Blue Ribbon Football Club and be ready to hit your man hard off the ball in September!
 

NORTHWESTERN
Athlon Ranking: 49
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 40 on offense, 47 on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 6 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: You never know what you're going to get from the people in purple. This is a team that lost to horrible Syracuse and shaky Minnesota in September of last year, but who then beat Iowa and Wisconsin in November....weeks before those squads impressed in marquee bowls. How could anyone beat Iowa AND Wisconsin but lose to Syracuse?

Given the graduation of quarterback Mike Kafka, it's probably going to be more bad news than good news for the Wildcats this year. They'll still match up well brains-wise with the teams below them on the totem pole. They'll need flat efforts from the teams above them to compete.

PURDUE
Athlon Ranking: 55
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 53 on offense, 69 on defense
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 6 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Robert Marve, the guy who lost the quarterback war at Miami of Florida, has transferred in to lead the Boilermakers this year. That sets up some interesting potential if he's capable of moving the team forward. Last year's stat rankings, compared with this year's number of returning starters, sets the stage for a lackluster season. High impact quarterbacks can put a shine on something in a heartbeat.

Marve will be thrown to the wolves in a season opener at Notre Dame. Lesser lights follow on the September schedule, giving the team time to gel before league play begins. We always err on the side of pessimism...but we will keep an eye on this offense in the Notre Dame game.

ILLINOIS
Athlon Ranking: 71
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 47 on offense, 91 on defense
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 5 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: We're in an area of the Big Ten now where things get really ugly really fast. Illinois returns very little talent from a team that was a big disappointment last year. Juice Williams is gone at quarterback. A bad defense now becomes relatively inexperienced and bad. How does head coach Ron Zook keep his jobs?! For now, you have to expect another bad season, and a coaching change afterward.

INDIANA
Athlon Ranking: 73
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 72 on offense, 88 on defense
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 4 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: We currently have Indiana a shade higher than Illinois in our Power Ratings because Ben Chappell returns at quarterback, and the Hoosiers did rank 35th in passing last year even though their overall offense wasn't great. Quarterbacks make a difference. There are no tests until the conference opener with Michigan in early October (though it's possible to 'flunk' non-tests if you play horribly vs. Towson or Western Kentucky!). We'll be looking to bet Overs in league play given the fact that Indiana's bad, inexperienced defense (like Illinois) will be facing some good quarterbacks. Chappell should find the end zone enough to trigger some shootouts.

MINNESOTA
Athlon Ranking: 75
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 109 on offense, 63 on defense
Returning Starters: 9 on offense, 2 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Tough call with the Gophers. This is a bowl team from last year after all...but a bowl team that needed a three-point win over South Dakota State to stay eligible. The offense should improve given all the experience returning. Adam Weber is back for his senior year at quarterback. To us, the Gophers and Hoosiers enter the season better than Illinois. Maybe something interesting will happen September 18th at home against USC.

That wraps up our novel about the Big Ten! Next year we'll be splitting them up into two reports after Nebraska's addition creates a divisional format.

We'll take a day to catch up with Major League Baseball on Monday. Then, our BCS previews resume Tuesday with the Big 12 South. We'll study the Big 12 North on Wednesday, and finish off the BCS leagues Thursday with the Pac 10.

Football will be here before you know it. Call JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK right now at 1-800-323-4453 to take advantage of our early bird rates!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

22
Nov

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