Friday, August 14, 2009

2009 Big Ten Season Preview & Predictions

College Football Insider John Sears provides his outlook on the Big Ten with his fearless forecasts for the 2009 season.

Due to the weather patterns in the Windy City, we joke (or not) that in Chicago there are two seasons – winter and construction. By June, we’re clinging to the low ‘70s, hoping the afternoon “London Fog” burns off before it blocks the sun, sort of like a volcanic or meteor-strike ashen blanket that throws the globe in to a 10,000 year ice age. On the bright side, we have been inundated with previews of the 2009 season as early as the time Chicago has decided to begin its summer thaw. TV talking heads, magazines, blogs, podcasts, and a plethora of other online multimedia services have weighed in, but I know you have all been holding out through the dog days of summer to get my perspective on the season. All five of you (including my parents, my in-laws and my wife). So I present to you my taste of the 2009 Big Ten outlook with a sense of humility. This word may also be the best descriptor of how all teams planning on contending this year in the Big Ten should approach their season. Why? No team escapes roster evaluation without a noticeable fatal flaw in one (or more) of their units, which may inevitably stunt their chance at contending for the conference title. Those teams that play to their strengths or mask their weaknesses best may escape the Big Ten ice age and take a step towards the warming effects of national and BCS respect.

Below is a digest version of what’s to come this year in our beloved Midwestern conference. But stayed tuned for further analysis of all eleven teams such as the predicted outcome grid for every Big Ten team, the most influential units on the season’s outcome, key weeks and key early matchups and swing games that will set up how the conference will shake out.

Conference Champ: Penn State. Despite most slotting The perennial power Ohio State atop the league, Penn State possesses enough talent, experience, and most of all, leadership to secure the conference crown over the Buckeyes. Will they be packing for Pasadena? Yes. Will they be packing for a January 7th game (the National Title game) or the January 1st Rose Bowl? I am not handing everything over to Penn State before a game played, and I feel Illinois will give them a run finishing a close second. In fact, I see the Nittany Lions losing their only game to the Illini on October 3rd. One loss in the SEC or Big12 can give you some bargaining chips for a case of National Championship representation, but Penn State will lose the BCS beauty contest, with a number 1 or 2 ranking just out of their fingertips. Why? Penn State has serious gaps to fill in passing and defending the pass. Daryll Clark will likely have a stellar season statistically leading Penn State with his arms or legs. But replacing the magnificent, record-setting receiving trio of Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood will be close to impossible. If the Nittany Lions can ride the legs of Evan Royster, Stephon Green and Clark, perhaps there will be less pressure to gain chunks of yards through the air. On the other side of the ball, the front seven looks solid, despite key losses on the edges of Aaron Maybin, Maurice Evans and Josh Gaines. A healthy Sean Lee coupled with last year’s standout at Linebaacker U, Navorro Bowman, can be a deadly linebacker combination. However, zero starters return in the secondary. In 2006, their defense survived under similar circumstances; thus it goes without saying (than why am I saying it?) that some true freshman or newcomers need to step up big to round out the D. If so, watch out for Penn State to make a run for national considerations.

Contenders: Illinois, Ohio State. For Illinois, it’s somewhat simple – ride your offensive star power (WR Arrelious Benn, WR Jeff Cumberland, WR Jarred FAyson, RB Daniel Dufrene, RB Jason Ford, etc.); and you see that quarterback Juice Williams must be salivating for opening day to come as soon as possible. Can they average 40/game? Perhaps. Maybe they will need to until their defense shows the chemistry it needs to perform week in and week out. In terms of scheduling, the Illini season will most likely be dictated early with a stretch starting 9/26 at Ohio State (Illinois conveniently has a bye the week preceding this doozey), home against Penn State and home against Michigan State. If they take two of three here, which is certainly plausible, it may be clear sailing the rest of the way – their toughest hurdles then being at Minnesota November 7th and Northwestern the following week. Expect a double-digit win season, riding solely on where Williams takes them. For Ohio State, I’m a little more skeptical. Funny how skeptical for the Buckeyes still puts them in the top three of the conference and possibly another 10+ win season. But losing running back Beanie Wells and top receiving targets Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie on offense while losing the captain of the defense, linebacker James Laurinaitis, lockdown corner Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker Marcus Freeman are just one too many holes to fill, even for the Buckeyes. I know I know, Ohio State reloads every year, but reloading with a quarterback who is still mastering the PASS at the collegiate level (yes, he runs like a dear) may be a cause for some hiccups. An early season rematch with USC looms over the Columbus faithful and a victory here could set the stage for conference play. Their schedule is not life-threatening overall, but still need to man up against Illinois 9/26, Wisconsin 10/10 and Iowa 11/14 albeit at home, and the only tough road tester just happens to be in Happy Valley 11/7.

Sleeper: Iowa -- Make no mistake, year-in and year-out, the Big Ten crown is up for grabs usually with strong defensive teams (notwithstanding Illinois’ chances this year). Iowa has the potential to be real stingy. If they can sew up the interior of the line, a return of the entire linebacking squad (Pat Angerer included) sitting underneath CB Amari Spievey (tied 2nd in the conference in INTs with four) and conference-leader in INTs SS Tyler Sash could be tough for any offense to move the ball. If youngster running back Jewel Hampton can give half the effort (~900 yards, 10 touchdowns) put forth by Shonn Greene last year, Iowa will be the prickly thorns in the favorites’ sides.

Victims of scheduling: Minnesota – the word on the street is a new-look, pro style offense with a twist (QB MarQueis Gray) and defense may improve, but not enough to accommodate a brutal schedule [Cal (9/19), @Northwestern (9/26), a four-game stretch of @ Penn State (10/17), @ Ohio State (10/24), Michigan State (10/31), Illinois (11/7), and finish @ Iowa (11/21)]. Iowa could make some serious noise if not for conference road games: @ Penn State (9/26), @ Wisconsin (10/17), @ Michigan State (10/24) and @ Ohio State (11/14).

Offensive Player of the Year: Juice Williams, QB, Illinois. Did you know that Williams needs just 4,238 total yards this year to break the all-time Big Ten career yardage record held by Drew Brees? Williams has not been known for being tremendously accurate (2008 career high of 57.5% completion), but still finds ways to get the ball down field for scores. With 3,173 yards through the air last year, Williams almost doubled his passing output from his sophomore campaign (1,743 yards). What else? How about the fact that the quarterback also lead his team in rushing last year with 923 yards and five touchdowns. With a stable of competent running backs in the backfield with Williams, I suspect his rushing totals will diminish. I also expect, however, that Williams will continue to improve his touchdown/interception ratio (22/16 2008, 12/13 2007, 9/9 2006) with an elite receiving crop now augmented by Florida transfer Jarred Fayson. This may be a record, decorated year for the senior gunslinger in his final campaign.
Honorable Mention: Erick Decker, WR, Minnesota

Defensive Player of the Year: Greg Jones, linebacker, Michigan State.
Last year, Jones anchored the linebacking corps with a team-leading 127 tackles and 12 tackles-for-loss. The defense looks primed to be as strong as or stronger than last year, particularly against the run. The Spartans’ schedule is loaded with run-first offenses (Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Penn State), so don’t expect a drop-off in the number of ball carriers Jones mops up. Further, Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern, and Purdue (on the schedule) will be walking out quarterbacks of little or no experience, so Jones may find his way in to the backfield more often.
Honorable Mention: Pat Angerer, linebacker, Iowa.

Breakout Seasons: John Clay (RB, Wisconsin), Terrelle Pryor (QB, Ohio State)
Who needs to grow up fast: Tate Forcier (QB, Michigan), Jewel Hampton (RB, Iowa), Edwin Baker (RB, Michigan State)
Unexpected game-changers: Marquis Gray (QB, Minnesota), Garrett Graham (TE, Wisconsin), Jarred Fayson (WR, Illinois)
Best Pro Prospects: Arrelious Benn (WR, Illinois), Brandon Graham (DE, Michigan), Corey Wootton (DE, Northwestern)