August 6, 2008

Ohio State stands out in Big Ten race

MORE: 2008 Big Ten Unit Rankings

If you're looking for drama, keep looking. This is Ohio State's league to win again. The Buckeyes are gunning for their fourth title in a row and third outright in succession. No school has won three consecutive outright titles, so history beckons.

Intrigue will come from two storylines: the race for second place and the Michigan makeover.

The consensus is that Wisconsin, Illinois and Penn State are primed to push Ohio State. The Fighting Illini are the only team in that group with a veteran quarterback (Juice Williams). And Illinois may have more talent than Wisconsin and Penn State. But will the Illini stay hungry after last season's breakthrough? Illinois' schedule is more difficult, with games at Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State.

The Badgers and Nittany Lions feature superb defenses, but each must answer questions at quarterback. Give Wisconsin the edge over Illinois and Penn State in the schedule department because Ohio State, Penn State and Illinois visit Madison.

Penn State is a team in a bit of turmoil following a rocky offseason that saw myriad ugly off-field headlines. But cantankerous Joe Paterno is out to prove he still has it, and this looks to be his best team since the 2005 edition won a share of the Big Ten title.

As for Michigan, the Wolverines still have the second-best collection of talent in the Big Ten. The defense will be especially good. But the X-factor will be how quickly Rich Rodriguez can implement his power spread offense. There are no veteran quarterbacks and a shaky line, and this may be a four-loss team.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Ohio State tailback Chris Wells. He may be the premier running back in the nation. He ambled for 1,609 yards last year and he wasn't 100 percent healthy. Wells is gunning for 2,000 yards this fall, and he'll be the workhorse of a strong attack.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis. He is the reigning Butkus Award winner and claimed the Bednarik Award in 2006. Had he gone pro after last season, Laurinaitis would have been a first-round NFL pick. Enough said.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Michigan quarterback Steven Threet. He lacks the athletic skills to be the ideal trigger man for Rodriguez's offense, but Threet is the guy - for now. He didn't ask for this, having transferred to Michigan from Georgia Tech while Lloyd Carr was Wolverines coach. This could make for a fascinating story.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Penn State linebacker Chris Colasanti. When star linebacker Sean Lee suffered a season-ending knee injury in the spring, Penn State lost a great talent and spiritual leader. The staff will look to Colasanti to be the Nittany Lions' next great linebacker. He got his feet wet as a true freshman last season. Now, he has to be a star in the middle of what should be a strong defense.

PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Illinois tailback Daniel Dufrene . He's the Illinois running back who will get first crack at replacing NFL first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall. But Dufrene figures to have help in what could become a tailback-by-committee approach.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Michigan State wide receiver Mark Dell . He should emerge as the go-to man at Michigan State with Devin Thomas off early to the NFL. Dell flashed potential last year, displaying the needed speed and athletic ability to be a deep threat.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Ohio State end Lawrence Wilson . He was primed for big things last season before suffering a season-ending injury in the first game. With 2007 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Vernon Gholston gone, Wilson is primed to take over his role on the conference's best defense.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor . Pryor, the nation's No. 1 prospect, chose the Buckeyes over Penn State and Michigan. Now, we get to see the wunderkind in action at Ohio State. Pryor figures to be worked into what likely will be a spread scheme to take advantage of his Vince Young-like skills.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Michigan State tackle Trevor Anderson. He caused a stir on the scout team while sitting out last season after his transfer from Cincinnati. Now, the powerful and quick Anderson gets unleashed on the rest of the Big Ten. He's a big reason the Spartans finally are developing a strong defense under rising star coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. Actually, no one's fanny is flaming, but there's a sense of urgency for Ferentz. He has seen his star fall in recent years, suffering the ultimate double-whammy of on-field struggles and off-field foibles. Ferentz has built up enough goodwill to keep the wolves at bay for now, but things could get hot in 2009 if Iowa struggles this season.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Ohio State. It all begins with Jim Tressel, who is one of the best in the nation. Brother Dick, the running back coach, is a good sounding board. Co-defensive coordinator Jim Heacock is underrated, while offensive coordinator Jim Bollman and passing game coordinator Joe Daniels are astute strategist and good teachers. Co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is one of the nation's best young minds, while assistant head coach Darrell Hazell is on the fast track, too.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Wisconsin'Wisconsin's Paul Chryst. He is a brilliant mind who has taken the Badgers' offense to new levels. Yes, Wisconsin still is a ground-pounding attack, but Chryst has introduced myriad formations and schemes that have resulted in the Badgers averaging 31 points over the past three seasons - the highest three-year average in school history.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Penn State's Tom Bradley. He has been at Paterno's side since 1979. And know this: Bradley's defenses have been the backbone of JoePa's remarkable run of success. The former Nittany Lions defensive back deserves the chance to follow JoePa.

ASSISTANT WITH THE BEST CHANCE TO BE A HEAD COACH THIS TIME NEXT YEAR: Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. He is on the precipice of big things. He has had chances to leave for non-"Big Six" coaching jobs like Central Michigan but "Locks" has stayed put, waiting for a prime position. Locksley is the perfect combination of tactician and recruiter who is ready for the big office.

THE GAMES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Ohio State at USC, Sept. 13. This is without question the top non-conference matchup of the season. And it may end up being the biggest game of them all. Each team figures to be ranked in the top five, if not higher. And the winner may ride on top of the polls all the way to the BCS title game.

Illinois vs. Missouri in St. Louis, Aug. 30
Ohio State at USC, Sept. 13
Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 13
Wisconsin at Fresno State, Sept. 13
Illinois at Penn State, Sept. 27
Ohio State at Wisconsin, Oct. 4
Penn State at Wisconsin, Oct. 11
Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 25
Ohio State at Illinois, Nov. 15
Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 22
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Michigan State. The Spartans have lots of heavy lifting, beginning with a season-opening visit to California. There also are visits from pesky Florida Atlantic and improving Notre Dame. And the Spartans also play the four best teams in the Big Ten: Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan. At least there's no Illinois but there's also no Minnesota.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Indiana. Someone get the Hoosiers some punch to drink with this cake schedule. The Hoosiers are the only team in the Big Ten with eight home games and the first four are in Bloomington. Want more? All four non-conference games are at home vs. non-"Big Six" schools, and Ohio State and Michigan aren't on the schedule. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you guarantee your team a bowl bid.

WEAKEST NON-CONFERENCE GAME: Cal-Poly at Wisconsin, Nov. 22. Coastal Carolina's season-opening visit to Penn State is laughable. But the Cal Poly season-ending visit to Wisconsin is more curious. The odd pairing is the result of the Badgers wiggling out of a home game with Virginia Tech that would have fallen on Sept. 20, the week after a tough visit to Fresno State and before a murderous three-game skein that includes Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. I guess we'll let Wisconsin off the hook.

BIGGEST MISMATCH: Youngstown State at Ohio State, Aug. 30. It's nice of Tressel to throw a bone to his old I-AA employer in Ohio State's season opener. But pity the poor Penguins. The question begs: Do the Buckeyes' starters even make it to the second half? And will they have to shower after the game?

THE PROGRAMS

PROGRAMS ON THE RISE: Michigan State. The talent always is there in East Lansing. Now there's the coaching to match. Kudos to Mark Dantonio, who has introduced discipline and toughness into a Spartans program that was running on empty in each department before he arrived.

PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE: Purdue. Joe Tiller may ride out with his 11th bowl in 12 seasons, but coach-in-waiting Danny Hope will be left with a broom and dustpan to clean up a program that has slipped in recruiting circles the past few years.

IN THREE YEARS, ILLINOIS WILL BE THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE: There's no denying the super talent that maniacal recruiter Ron Zook is reeling in for the Fighting Illini. Couple that with improving facilities and a top-notch staff, and you have the makings of a looming power filled with mojo.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QB Curtis Painter, Purdue, Sr.
RB Chris Wells, Ohio State, Jr.
RB Javon Ringer, Michigan State, Sr.
WR Arrelious Benn, Illinois, Soph.
WR Brian Robiskie, Ohio State, Sr.
TE Travis Beckum, Wisconsin, Sr.
T Alex Boone, Ohio State, Sr.
G Kraig Urbik, Wisconsin, Sr.
C A.Q. Shipley, Penn State, Sr.
G Steve Rehring, Ohio State, Sr.
T Stephen Schilling, Michigan, Soph.
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
E Greg Middleton, Indiana, Jr.
T Terrance Taylor, Michigan, Sr.
T Mitch King, Iowa, Sr.
E Maurice Evans, Penn State, Jr.
LB Jonathan Casillas, Wisconsin, Sr.
LB Greg Jones, Michigan State, Soph.
LB James Laurinaitis, Ohio State, Sr.
CB Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State, Sr.
CB Vontae Davis, Illinois, Jr.
FS Anthony Scirrotto, Penn State, Sr.
SS Kurt Coleman, Ohio State, Jr.
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
K Austin Starr, Indiana, Sr.
P A.J. Trapasso, Ohio State, Sr.
KR Derrick Williams, Penn State, Sr.

MORE: 2008 Big Ten Unit Rankings

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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