As it is football season I want to offer some brief thoughts about the Big Ten this upcoming year. First off, I think this is a very important season for Northwestern. It is a chance to post a second consecutive winning season and get to a bowl game for the second year in a row. Considering that hasn’t happened in more than a decade, I think that is pretty significant. I also think Northwestern should be able to do that with relative ease. I know that doesn’t sound typical for a Northwestern fan, but when you play Towson, Eastern Michigan, Syracuse and Miami Ohio in non-conference games you should finish the non-Big Ten season 4-0. The only one of those games which worries me is Syracuse. Going to New York could be much tougher than hosting the Orange at home. However, I think it’s a lot to ask for Coach Doug Marrone to turn that program around in his first season. Especially if his quarterback turns out to be a guy who was shooting jump shots at Duke less than six months ago. NU’s other non-conference opponents also have new coaches and personnel in key spots and the ‘Cats should be 3-0 before the Big Ten and 4-0 in non-Big Ten regular season games.
Despite the usual rips in the national media, the Big Ten might be a little tougher this year than last. NU misses Michigan which, funny as it sounds, is a major disadvantage in the Big Ten race. The Maize and Blue might be a little better in year two under Rich Rod, but they aren’t going go from three wins to nine or ten. NU also misses Ohio State which is obviously a plus. NU hasn’t played well against the Buckeyes since upsetting them in 2004. Therefore, it is probably just as well that NU avoids them in this critical year. Obviously the best team in the Big Ten is Penn State. They have Darryl Clark back at QB and Evan Royster back at running back. At least NU gets them at home. Other teams people are considering for the top of the Big Ten include Iowa and Michigan State. Personally, I think Iowa and Michigan State have talent similar to Northwestern. Why MSU gets lots of preseason pup when they also have to replace their starting QB and RB is beyond me. Heck, NU actually has a QB and RB stepping in who have started games. MSU doesn’t even know who their QB is right now. Iowa’s positive hype comes from the QB position as Ricky Stanzi earned the job and is expected to do big things. To do so, though, he’ll need running back Jewel Hampton to have a year similar to departed back Shon Green. If Northwestern is going to beat MSU and Iowa, which are both road games, it’ll be because NU has a better defense than those squads. Iowa losses two all-world defensive tackles while NU returns with one of the top D-Lines in the Big Ten. Michigan State is a team who has good defensive players, but other than perhaps linebacker, I think NU is stronger on that side of the ball. NU’s secondary has been rightly ranked at the top of the league by most publications.
As far as the rest of the Big Ten, I think Indiana and Purdue need some work. Indiana is probably better because they have a decent defense, but they’ll need a big year from QB Ben Chappell if they want to finish higher than ninth. Two other teams which NU needs to be ready for are Illinois and Minnesota. Both have a ton of offensive weapons, but both underachieved last year. Minnesota turned a 7-1 start into a 7-6 finish and Illinois went from 9 wins and the Rose Bowl to 5 wins and no bowl. What’ll happen to those teams this year? I think Illinois will turn things around somewhat. I expect to at least see the Illini in a bowl. Minnesota I think is probably about as good as they were last year. Whether they make a bowl (or what type of bowl) will depend on their games against the teams in the middle to upper-middle tier of the Big Ten. Northwestern is one of those teams and I know Minnesota wants revenge for the past two years.
The only Big Ten team I haven’t at least mentioned briefly is Wisconsin. With do respect to the Badgers, I’m a little disappointed to see them at the end of our schedule instead of Illinois. NU football doesn’t have any trophy games except Illinois and I liked that it was played the last week of the season for the past decade. That said, Wisconsin and NU have played some great games with each side winning their share of nail bitters in the years since Gary Barnett took over NU in 1992 (remember that ’92 game, Badger fans). So what can we expect for the NU-Wisconsin game this year. Well, like NU Wisconsin is a team which is somewhat in transition. Again, though, NU seems more stable. Wisconsin has a wide open QB situation and their defense didn’t exactly dominate in last year’s 7-6 season. Still they do have RB John Clay and he’s got to be good enough for 3 or 4 wins alone. How many more can the Badger get? Well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see both them and the Wildcats with around 7 total victories and battling each other for an upper-level bowl when the teams meet in Evanston this November.