The Big Ten's wild cards: Illinois and Minnesota
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
When I'm asked to size up the Big Ten heading into the fall, part of the process is easy.
Ohio State and Penn State are the consensus picks to challenge for the league title, while Purdue and Indiana are slotted for the basement. Three nine-win teams from a year ago -- Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern -- all return a lot on defense but must replace key contributors in the offensive backfield. Michigan once again has questions, but the Wolverines will be better. Wisconsin is Wisconsin, boasting a formidable run game but questions at quarterback.
Then we get to Illinois and Minnesota, the Big Ten's wild cards. As far as unpredictability entering the season, these two squads share the crown. You can make a good case for either team being the surprise of the Big Ten and reaching a January bowl game. Both squads could also crash and burn.
The similarities are intriguing:
- Both teams return veteran quarterbacks in Juice Williams (Illinois) and Adam Weber (Minnesota) who have put up impressive numbers but also struggled with turnovers at times.
- Minnesota's Eric Decker and Illinois' Arrelious Benn are far and away the league's top wide receivers, and two of the best in the nation.
- Both teams have head coaches (Ron Zook and Tim Brewster) who shine on the recruiting trail but still must prove themselves on game day. The talent is there, but can Zook and Brewster take advantage? Throw in the fact that Brewster played for Illinois and went to a Rose Bowl in 1983, and you've got another link.
- Both teams will challenge themselves in nonleague play. Illinois faces Missouri in St. Louis and must travel to Cincinnati before hosting always-dangerous Fresno State. Minnesota starts the season against Greg Paulus and Syracuse before opening the new TCF Bank Stadium against Air Force and Cal.
- Both teams need to replenish their pass rush. Minnesota tied for the league lead in sacks last fall but loses end Willie VanDeSteeg (10.5 sacks). Illinois will be without its top four sacks leaders from 2008, including defensive ends Derek Walker and Will Davis.
- Both teams are breaking in new offensive coordinators who want to spark the rushing attack in Illinois' Mike Schultz and Minnesota's Jedd Fisch.
Looking around the league, it's hard to find a more explosive offense than Illinois, but there are plenty of questions on defense. Minnesota returns more starters (18) than any Big Ten team, but has gone through more changes than any league squad other than Purdue.
It makes my head hurt to go through all the possible outcomes for the Illini and Gophers, but they should provide some good theater come September.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Cincinnati 17 Virginia Tech 33 Final 15 Arizona State 36 Duke 31 Final Miami (FL) 21 South Carolina 24 Final/OT Boston College 30 Penn State 31 Final Nebraska 42 24 USC 45
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
Final Marshall 52 Northern Illinois 23 Final Navy 17 San Diego State 16
Final Central Michigan 48 Western Kentucky 49 Final Fresno State 6 Rice 30
Final Illinois 18 Louisiana Tech 35 Final Rutgers 40 North Carolina 21 Final North Carolina State 34 UCF 27
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State