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Monday, August 10, 2009
Big Ten preseason power rankings

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

All 11 Big Ten camps will open by the end of the day, and it's time for your latest installment of the power rankings. There have been a few key transfers since the last rundown in May, but not much to really shake things up.

I've made a few changes to the league's midsection and bottom, but the top four remain in place. The hardest section was undoubtedly Nos. 7-9. Those teams look fairly interchangeable.

1. Ohio State -- As long as quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the offensive line continue to build off of a very solid spring, Ohio State's offense will be fine after a difficult 2008 season. Defensive ends Thaddeus Gibson, Lawrence Wilson and Cameron Heyward lead the league's best line, which anchors a defense that has ranked among the top 15 nationally in five of the last six seasons.

2. Penn State -- This is the year for Penn State to truly establish itself as the third Big Ten powerhouse. To do so, the Lions must show they can reload at wide receiver, offensive line and defensive back. Penn State has the star players and a favorable schedule with both Iowa and Ohio State at home. Quarterback Daryll Clark could lead the Lions back to Pasadena.

3. Iowa -- It's a close call between Iowa and Michigan State for No. 3, but the Hawkeyes get the nod as they return their starting quarterback and the league's best offensive line. Most will eliminate Iowa from the Big Ten title race because of a treacherous conference road schedule, but Kirk Ferentz's team can make a major statement by winning Sept. 26 in Happy Valley.

4. Michigan State -- Michigan State reminds me a lot of Penn State in 2008. The more I look at the Spartans' depth chart, the more I like their chances this fall. Big Ten preseason Player of the Year Greg Jones leads a defense that looks stacked in the secondary but a bit shaky up front. The big questions here are obvious, and if Michigan State solidifies its offensive backfield, look out.

5. Northwestern -- Another close call here between Northwestern and Illinois. The Wildcats should have their best defense in recent memory and loads of questions at the skill positions on offense. The Illini bring back arguably the Big Ten's most electric offense but look shaky at best on defense. In the end, the better defense wins out as All-America candidate Corey Wootton tries to lead Northwestern to another bowl game.

6. Illinois -- There's a lot to like on the offensive side, from the league's most experienced quarterback (Juice Williams) to arguably the league's best wide receiver (Arrelious Benn). The addition of Florida transfer Jarred Fayson should only improve a dynamic pass attack. Illinois must address its pass rush and its pass coverage on defense, and this needs to be the year linebacker Martez Wilson becomes a star.

7. Wisconsin -- The quarterback position once again could drive Badgers fans nuts this fall, but teams with solid line play usually do well in the Big Ten. Wisconsin's offensive line will create room for bruising sophomore running back John Clay, and the defensive line, which adds Central Michigan transfer J.J. Watt, had a terrific offseason. There are still some uncertainties in Madison, but a favorable schedule leads me to believe the record will improve.

8. Minnesota -- Can the Big Ten's most experienced team adjust to a host of offseason changes? If so, Minnesota will climb up the list and possibly make a major statement in the Big Ten. But this could easily be a better team that finishes with a worse record because of another set of new systems and a tough schedule. You've got to like the passing combo of quarterback Adam Weber and wideout Eric Decker.

9. Michigan -- Before you send the hate mail, hear me out. Until I see Michigan in a game, showing tangible improvement on offense and especially at quarterback, I can't put the Wolverines any higher. This is still a team that likely will be playing a true freshman quarterback and returns only five starters to a defense that has its third coordinator in as many seasons. Michigan should improve, but let's wait and see.

10. Purdue -- It could be a rough first season for head coach Danny Hope, but Purdue moves up a spot based on a solid group of running backs and a defense poised to make improvement from 2008. The Boilers have the right idea to emphasize the run game on offense, and if quarterback Joey Elliott elevates his play, this could be a decent team. The linebacker position concerns me, and Purdue's young defensive linemen need to grow up fast alongside standouts Mike Neal and Ryan Kerrigan.

11. Indiana -- Head coach Bill Lynch has seen positive changes from a team that backslid in 2008, and he believes experience and improved depth will help overcome the loss of Kellen Lewis. Lynch's confidence in quarterback Ben Chappell is admirable, but I need to see more from the junior and Indiana's young wideouts. If the Hoosiers don't make strides on defense this year, it probably will never happen. The personnel is there for an upgrade, but Indiana has a very troubling track record on that side of the ball.