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Friday, August 28, 2009
Five things to watch in the Big Ten this fall

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

We're less than a week away from the first game involving a Big Ten team (Eastern Kentucky at Indiana), so let's take a look at five things to keep an eye on this fall.


1. Quarterback play: The position backslid after Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy in 2006, and it's no coincidence that the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage during the same span. Fortunately, the top six rated passers from last season all return, and hopes are high for signal callers like Daryll Clark, Terrelle Pryor, Ricky Stanzi and Juice Williams. Quarterback shouldn't be a major weak point this fall, and if things turn around there, the Big Ten likely will end its BCS bowl losing streak.


2. Finding a third challenger: Right now, the Big Ten looks like a two-team league with defending champs Penn State and Ohio State battling for the title again. But football seasons have a funny way of not going as planned, and some other team likely will challenge the top two. It could be Illinois, which boasts the league's most dynamic offense, led by Williams and Arrelious Benn. It could be Iowa, Michigan State or Northwestern, three teams that won nine games a year ago and return a bunch of starters on defense. Maybe Michigan overcomes its youth and makes a run in Year 2 of the Rodriguez regime, or perhaps an experienced Minnesota team puts it all together despite some scheme changes.


3. Ohio State's quest to topple Troy: No team has symbolized Big Ten football this decade like Ohio State, and no team has done more damage to the Big Ten this decade than USC. The two squads meet Sept. 12 in Columbus for a game that will largely define how the Big Ten is seen nationally, at least until the bowl season. Big Ten teams have had no success against the Trojans out West, but Ohio State gets Pete Carroll's team on its home soil. There's no gray area for the Scarlet and Gray. A win puts Ohio State in position for a possible BCS title run. A loss reinforces the belief that the Buckeyes can't win big games anymore. This will be a defining game for Pryor one way or the other.


4. Michigan's youth movement: The common view states that Michigan will be better this fall after a season where little else could have possibly went wrong. But it's still tough to know what to make of the Wolverines, who could be starting a
true freshman at quarterback and several young players on defense. Rich Rodriguez has a history of producing much better results in Year 2, but he's still working with inexperience at the most important position. After losing back-to-back openers, Michigan needs a strong start and plays its first four games at home before the schedule gets substantially tougher.


5. Searching for respect in December and January: The Big Ten has taken heat for its recent bowl performance, especially in BCS games, but a chance to turn things around arrives this winter. Perhaps Ohio State returns to Pasadena for the first time since 1997 and ends the Big Ten's six-game slide in the Rose Bowl. Penn State likely will have to wait until January to earn national respect, but the Nittany Lions boast strong leadership and want to avenge their Rose Bowl loss to USC. The Big Ten should be deeper than it was a year ago, and if the bowl matchups fall right, the league could take a big step toward regaining national respect.