Big Ten Preseason Media Poll, Player Honors
Preseason prognosticators seem to agree that it will be an off-year for Michigan as Rich Rodriguez overhauls the offensive system; Ohio State is the overwhelming favorite to win the conference title; and Minnesota still isn't ready to move up the food chain.
Ohio State has been to the BCS title game in three of the last six seasons. But after winning the championship in 2002, the Buckeyes have been outmatched by SEC members Florida (2006) and LSU (2007) in their last two efforts.
On a national level, Ohio State's talent appears to put it in select company with maybe a half-dozen teams. The computer (about the computer) puts the Buckeyes at the top of the list and expects them to claim the 2008 championship with a victory over Georgia on January 8 in Miami.
If Ohio State makes the final cut, be prepared to hear a lot about how the Buckeyes will be at a disadvantage because of a 47-day lapse between their final regular season game on November 22 and the title game. All of the other projected top teams - USC, West Virginia, and any representative from a conference that stages its own championship game (including Georgia) - would have a 33-day wait.
You could also question Ohio State's scheduling at the start of the year which provides it with two weak opponents - Youngstown State and Ohio - before it travels to the Los Angeles Coliseum for an all-too-important intersectional showdown with USC on September 13. Conversely, the Trojans will have two weeks to prepare for the Buckeyes after opening on the other side of the country at Virginia. As the forecasted 12-0 record indicates, the computer favors Ohio State over USC, but only by 1.03 points. By the time the Buckeyes arrive in California, they may not even be the computer's choice to win the game.
Outside of the west coast trip, Ohio State's closest computer spread is 8.43 points over projected Big Ten runner-up Wisconsin. The Buckeyes are favored by double digits in their other 10 games, and by 20 points or more on seven occasions.
Wisconsin has been phenomenal under Bret Bielema who has guided the Badgers to a 21-5 record in his first two seasons, removing the angst that came with Barry Alvarez's retirement from coaching. After slipping to a 9-4 finish in 2007, Wisconsin is projected to equal its 11-1 regular season campaign of 2006.
Penn State lurks within a mere 1.33 power points of the Badgers, but the difference maker is that the Nittany Lions must travel to Madison. Penn State fans should also be wary of the visit to West Lafayette where their team gets the advantage over Purdue by just 4.34 points.
The Boilermakers are one of four teams that are predicted to duke it out for 4th-place in the conference, along with Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State. Only 2.16 power points separate that group.
Of that group, Purdue gets the nod from the computer. However, four of its conference wins (Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana) have margins of less than 7 points. The spreads on forecasted losses to Penn State and Michigan State are under 6 points. A predicted 5.52-point win over Notre Dame would be the Boilermakers' second consecutive over the Irish, and third in the last five meetings between the state rivals.
The computer does not agree with a lot of the preseason hype that places Illinois in the top two or three teams in the conference. Instead, it places the Fighting Illini in a three-way tie for fifth place with the Wolverines and Spartans.
Illinois produced last year's biggest turnaround with a 9-4 season that was seven wins better than its 2006 mark of 2-10, and five wins more than the school had as a total in Ron Zook's first two seasons in Champaign. But the Illini face a brutal road slate in 2008 that sends them to Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. They won't have a chance to state their case against Purdue or Michigan State as both are absent from the schedule.
The Michigan State forecast has it jumping to a 6-1 start with the lone loss coming at Cal in the season opener. The back stretch sees four losses in the final five games when road trips take the Spartans to Michigan and Penn State, and home games pit them against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Purdue.
Michigan has a new coach with a different system, but the Wolverines will still be very competitive in their first season under the stewardship of Rich Rodriguez. In fact, closer examination of the computer's 7-5 forecast reveals a realistic chance for 9 or 10 wins. For example, Michigan hosts Utah on opening day as the underdog by less than a point (+0.70). Additionally, the margins on two of the projected conference losses are under four points - at home to Wisconsin (+3.53), and on the road to Purdue (+4.86). Keep in mind that the Badgers haven't won in Ann Arbor since 1994, and the Wolverines have taken five straight from the Boilermakers. Furthermore, there are only two close calls on victory projections - Illinois (-4.42) and Michigan State (-2.97) - and both of those games are at home.
Rodriguez was 3-8 in his first campaign at West Virginia, which was also his first as a head coach anywhere at the FBS level. He then produced winning seasons the rest of his stay, and the Mountaineers won 11 games in each of his final three years in Morgantown.
The computer projects Indiana to be the eighth and final team out of the Big Ten to become bowl eligible with a 7-5 (3-5 Big Ten) regular season that is identical to last year's finish. Seven of the Hoosiers' final ten games have preseason spreads under 7 points, including four wins and three losses.
Kirk Ferentz' days at Iowa may be numbered if the computer's forecast of a 5-7 season is accurate. The Hawkeyes captured a share of the conference title in 2002 and 2004, but have been sliding backwards since then with final records of 7-5 (2005), 6-7 (2006), and 6-6 (2007). The Hawkeyes failed to go bowling last year for the first time since 2000. Swing games include the projected conference wins at home against Northwestern (-4.52), and on the road at Minnesota (-5.57). However, two of the losses are also by slim margins when Iowa visits Indiana (+5.33) and hosts Purdue (+2.53).
Northwestern will have lots of opportunities to improve upon its 5-7 forecast that includes five conference losses by fewer than 7 points. The Wildcats need to take advantage of the notable absence of Wisconsin and Penn State from their schedule.
Minnesota draws the unenviable last-place finish in the computer's Big Ten analysis. A power rating of 55.91 trails 10th-place Northwestern by 7.06 points, and 1st-place Ohio State by 34.21. The Golden Gophers went 1-11 last year while surrendering 440 points on defense, an average of 36.7 points per game. On the positive side, they lost five games by a touchdown or less.Unfortunately, this year's forecast only gives them two losses by less than a touchdown.
Keep an eye on the conference's early season battles with west coast teams. On the same day Ohio State plays at USC, Wisconsin also heads to California to battle Fresno State as a very modest 0.15-point favorite. A week earlier, Penn State is a mere 2.72-point home favorite over Oregon State, and Purdue is a 7.93-point home dog to Oregon. On opening weekend, Michigan State is a 2.23-point underdog at Cal>
NOTE: Joe Tiller announced in January that this would be his last season at Purdue, and former assistant Danny Hope was hired away from Eastern Kentucky to become his successor. Tiller is 83-54 in 12 seasons at Purdue, and is 122-84-1 when you include his 6 seasons at Wyoming from 1991-1996.