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Wednesday, August 19, 2009
The Big Ten's wild cards: Illinois and Minnesota

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

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:

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.