Big Ten: BT predictions 09

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten predictions series wraps up with the Northwestern Wildcats.

1. Jeravin Matthews becomes the answer at running back -- One of only two true freshmen to see the field last fall, Matthews transitioned from wide receiver to running back and performed well this spring. With top-end speed and good hands, he fits what Northwestern wants in a running back for the spread offense. The Wildcats figure to audition several backs early on, but Matthews will emerge as the best of the bunch.

2. The passing game starts slow -- Mike Kafka has always been a run-first quarterback, and he'll stay that way early on. Northwestern will be breaking in a new receiving corps, and while Kafka worked on his passing throughout the offseason, it will take time for things to click. The Wildcats can win their first three games without many heroics from Kafka, but they'll need a receiver or two to emerge by the time Big Ten play rolls around.

3. Northwestern reaches consecutive bowl games for just the second time in team history -- The Wildcats have a lot of holes to fill on offense, but they return a very solid defense and play a very favorable schedule that doesn't include Ohio State. If the defense doesn't take a step back, Northwestern should notch at least six wins and as many as nine, which would match last year's victories total. That means another bowl appearance for Pat Fitzgerald's team.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

You'll have to wait a little longer for my pick on the USC game, but here are three predictions for Ohio State.

1. The Buckeyes finally go back to the Rose Bowl -- More than a decade has passed since Ohio State last played in Pasadena, but the drought ends this fall. To clarify, I'm not predicting Ohio State will reach the national title game (also played in Pasadena), but the Bucks will face a Pac-10 team on Jan. 1. Ohio State claims another Big Ten title behind Terrelle Pryor and could end a dominant decade with a Rose Bowl win.

2. Pryor blossoms in a more varied offense -- Pryor's continued development this fall will force Jim Tressel to open up the offense, especially as the line improves behind Justin Boren and company. Opposing defenses will force Pryor to beat them with his arm, but the sophomore is more fundamentally sound now and will have a solid group of wide receivers and tight ends at his disposal. Pryor's true breakout year might not come until 2010, but his consistency as a passer will be better this fall.

3. Thaddeus Gibson earns first-team All-Big Ten honors and flirts with the NFL -- I really liked what I saw from Gibson down the stretch last fall, and he figures to be a major pass-rushing force in 2009. Ohio State's line will be the strength of an always-tough defense, and the presence of Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Wilson will make it tough to consistently double-team Gibson. The junior records at least nine sacks this fall and weighs his stock in the NFL draft before deciding to come back to Columbus.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

1. Eric Decker will lead the Big Ten in receiving yards for the second straight year -- The Gophers senior will have more help around him this fall as junior college transfer Hayo Carpenter joins a mix that includes Brandon Green, Ben Kuznia, Da'Jon McKnight and Troy Stoudermire. Opposing defenses will have a hard time doubling Decker, and quarterback Adam Weber will consistently find his good friend for 8- to 12-yard completions. Decker will contend for the Biletnikoff Award and leave Minnesota as the most accomplished receiver in team history.

2. Minnesota will be a better team with about the same record -- The Gophers boast loads of experience on both offense and defense, but their schedule looks significantly tougher than it was a year ago. None of the first three nonconference games (Syracuse, Air Force, Cal) are guaranteed wins, and Minnesota's Big Ten road schedule is brutal (Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa). Add in a new system on offense and a new coordinator on defense, and the Gophers will be a better team with the same record as last year, or worse.

3. MarQueis Gray will challenge Weber for playing time -- I'm a huge fan of Weber's and so is head coach Tim Brewster, but it will be tempting to get Gray more touches this fall. If the freshman continues to build on a strong spring, he'll see the field early at either quarterback or wide receiver. Minnesota will employ a special package of plays for Gray, but if the offense struggles for long stretches, the talented 6-foot-4 quarterback will get the opportunity to play more.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Here's the forecast for Wisconsin in 2009.

1. Dustin Sherer and Curt Phillips both start games at quarterback this fall -- Sherer figures to get the first shot and could stay there throughout the fall, but Phillips' athleticism and youth will tempt the coaching staff. Wisconsin needs some continuity under center, and Phillips might be able to provide it if he continues to make progress after a late-spring push. The quarterback position will once again frustrate Badgers fans at times, but with three solid tight ends and an improved group of wide receivers, the passing game should be better.

2. The front four will be the strength of the Badgers' defense -- Sure, three multiyear starters are gone (Mike Newkirk, Jason Chapman and Matt Shaughnessy), but the line had an excellent offseason and boasts a nice mix of youth and experience. Senior end O'Brien Schofield is ready to lead, and Central Michigan transfer J.J. Watt will be one of the Big Ten's most valuable additions this fall. Young linemen Brendan Kelly and Louis Nzegwu also provide reasons for optimism up front.

3. Wisconsin capitalizes on a very favorable schedule -- This could easily be a six-win team that ends up 8-4, thanks to a beneficial slate. The Badgers open with four consecutive games at Camp Randall Stadium, where they remain extremely tough to beat. Their two toughest home games (Michigan State and Iowa) are both winnable, and aside from a trip to Ohio State, the road slate doesn't look too daunting. Head coach Bret Bielema will stop the slide after seeing his wins total drop in each of the past two seasons.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The presason predictions are jumping around, going in no particular order. We'll get to all 11 teams soon enough.

Michigan State is up next.

1. Kirk Cousins will eventually become Michigan State's starting quarterback -- It's very close between Cousins and fellow sophomore Keith Nichol for the top job, and both men will log significant snaps during September and the early part of Big Ten play. But Cousins' smart play and polished mechanics ultimately will push him into the top spot. I don't see Michigan State making dramatic changes to its offensive system, and Cousins ran things well last year behind Brian Hoyer. Nichol should be an asset for the Spartans, especially if Cousins gets hurt, but Cousins will be the starter.

2. A freshman will emerge as the Spartans' top running back -- None of the holdovers really took charge in the spring, though Caulton Ray made a nice push down the stretch. Still, I'd be surprised if heralded recruits Edwin Baker and Larry Caper don't separate themselves by the middle of the Big Ten slate. Baker and Caper both boast good size for freshmen, especially the 220-pound Caper, and they'll get a long look from the coaches in preseason practice.

3. Michigan State beats Michigan for the second straight year -- After ending a six-game slide to its top rival in 2008, Michigan State gets Michigan in Spartan Stadium on Oct. 3. Though the Wolverines will be an improved team, they likely will have a young starting quarterback making his first road collegiate start. The Spartans' improved defense will stifle a still-evolving Michigan offense and Mark Dantonio's team gets bragging rights for another year.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Three predictions for Penn State this fall:

1. Sean Lee shows everyone what they missed -- Torn ACLs can sidetrack a player's career, but Lee has taken every step toward a complete recovery. He'll regain the form he showed in 2007 and contend for the Butkus Award as the leader of Penn State's defense. Lee and Navorro Bowman will form arguably the nation's top linebacker tandem and the Nittany Lions will rank among the league leaders in run defense.

2. Evan Royster leads the Big Ten in rushing and then turns pro -- From talking with Royster in the spring, I get the sense he's ready to be The Man in Happy Valley. His consistency and seasoned running style will command more carries this year, and he'll take on as much of a featured role as afforded to him on an egalitarian team. Royster will exceed his carries, yards and touchdown totals from 2008 and then move on to the NFL.

3. Penn State will lose a road game -- We all know the schedule is favorable, but Penn State has four tricky Big Ten road games against Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State. The Lions fell the last time they visited Champaign and East Lansing, and they never win in Ann Arbor. Northwestern could be a trap game, sandwiched between Michigan and the Nov. 7 showdown with Ohio State. Penn State has great leadership, but it will stumble once away from Happy Valley.

Preseason predictions: Purdue

July, 23, 2009
7/23/09
5:01
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The blog has been a bit Michigan-MSU heavy today, so I'm going to shuffle around the predictions order and look at the Purdue Boilermakers.

1. The defense will be better than you think -- Purdue's defense was better than the numbers showed last year, and the unit brings back several key pieces. Safety Torri Williams leads one of the league's most experienced secondaries, and the line should be solid with end Ryan Kerrigan and tackle Mike Neal. The big questions come at linebacker and whether several young linemen (Kawann Short, Gerald Gooden, Nickardo Golding, Robert Maci) can grow up fast.

2. Caleb TerBush starts at least one game at quarterback -- Joey Elliott will enter the season as the starter, but he lacks experience in that role and comes off a serious shoulder injury. With a new-look receiving corps, Purdue figures to have some growing pains in the passing game. Offensive coordinator Gary Nord will take a look at TerBush, a strong-armed redshirt freshman. Elliott could keep the job all year long, but the odds say TerBush will get a chance at least one Saturday.

3. Purdue misses a bowl for the second straight year -- Danny Hope has his work cut out for him in Year 1, and the schedule does him no favors. Purdue must visit Oregon, play an improved Northern Illinois team and host Notre Dame, a preseason Top 25 squad. There are questions at quarterback and wide receiver, and the Boilers have two new coordinators. We'll definitely see some signs of progress, but not enough wins to reach a bowl game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Three predictions for the Wolverines this fall.

1. Brandon Minor rushes for at least 1,300 yards -- Michigan's run game should be its strength, and Minor leads a strong stable of backs. After playing last season with essentially one arm, Minor is 100 percent healthy and primed for an excellent senior season. He showed featured-back qualities at times last fall and will be running behind a more seasoned offensive line in Year 2 of Rich Rodriguez's offense.

2. At least two players will start games at quarterback -- True freshman Tate Forcier should get the first shot, but another signal caller will take snaps at some point, either because of performance or injury. Denard Robinson will get a chance to prove himself in preseason camp, and his elite speed shouldn't go to waste. And don't forget about Nick Sheridan, who was performing well in spring ball before breaking his leg. Sheridan likely isn't the long-term solution, but he'll be more comfortable running the system this fall after a difficult 2008.

3. Michigan makes it back to the postseason -- The Wolverines are at least a year away from contending for the Big Ten title, but 6-8 wins is certainly a reasonable expectation, given their schedule. Michigan will survive Week 1 for the first time since 2006 and could start 4-0 if things fall the right way. There will still be some growing pains with a young team, but Michigan should find its way to Orlando, Tempe or, at worst, Detroit.

Preseason predictions: Iowa

July, 22, 2009
7/22/09
10:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Three predictions for Iowa in 2009. 

1. The Hawkeyes split their Big Ten road schedule -- Most teams would gladly take a 2-2 split after having to travel to Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, and two wins probably will be the ceiling for Iowa. Things could change if the Hawkeyes upset Penn State in Happy Valley on Sept. 26, but they get no easy trips in league play. The rough road schedule keeps Iowa out of the Big Ten title race, but the Hawkeyes will remain in position for another New Year's Day bowl. 

2. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi earns All-Big Ten honors -- The run game figures to take a hit without Shonn Greene, especially if Jewel Hampton isn't 100 percent healthy, and Stanzi will be called upon to step up. Those around the league really like what they saw from the junior in 2008, and in many ways it was the perfect introduction to the spotlight. Stanzi endured growing pains last year but showed impressive resiliency after making some mistakes. He should be a more polished quarterback this fall.

3. Takeaways continue to surge, but run defense takes a step back -- Defensive coordinator Norm Parker couldn't pinpoint why Iowa had so many takeaways in 2008, but the trend will continue. Cornerback Amari Spievey and defensive end Adrian Clayborn should create more havoc this fall, and Iowa returns Big Ten interceptions leaders Pat Angerer and Tyler Sash. The Hawkeyes won't be as stout against the run after losing standout tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul.   

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

1. The Hoosiers rank among the league leaders in sacks but struggle against the run -- After producing an All-Big Ten defensive end in each of the past two seasons, Indiana gets production from both Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton this fall. Opposing quarterbacks will be under duress, at least until their coaches recognize the openings for the run game. Indiana is extremely thin at defensive tackle and despite a solid linebacking corps led by Matt Mayberry, there will be running room up the middle.

2. Darius Willis emerges as the featured running back -- It will be a committee system early on, but Willis eventually will show why he was such a coveted recruit for Indiana. After redshirting in 2008 and battling injuries this spring, Willis is 100 percent entering camp. He'll share carries with veterans Bryan Payton and Demetrius McCray in September, but should emerge as a workhorse during Big Ten play. Willis is the bigger back Indiana has waited for him to provide better balance in the offense, and he'll have a better line blocking in front of him.

3. Indiana can't get off of the Big Ten's bottom rung -- I hope I'm wrong because I like Bill Lynch and his staff, but it's hard to see Indiana making a major jump this fall. Kellen Lewis' departure will change the way teams defend the Hoosiers' offense, and the defense simply doesn't have a favorable track record to inspire confidence. A rough nonconference schedule won't help, and Indiana needs a road upset at Michigan or Virginia to generate some momentum. It's certainly possible, but I see the Hoosiers losing eight games and finishing 10th or 11th in the league.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Three predictions for each Big Ten team in 2009, starting with Illinois.

1. Arrelious Benn will double his career touchdown receptions total and then bolt for the NFL -- Benn's lack of touchdown receptions mystifies even him, but the odd trend will change this season. Illinois boasts the Big Ten's best receiving corps, and opponents will be unable to double-team Benn as much as they'd like. Jarred Fayson, Jeff Cumberland and others will open up more opportunities for Benn in the red zone. He'll catch 10-12 touchdown passes and then surprise no one by entering the NFL draft.

2. The Illini will finally beat Missouri -- After dropping four straight in the series, Illinois breaks through this fall behind a superior offense. Missouri's offense has lost key pieces like Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, while Illinois returns all of the key pieces around quarterback Juice Williams. Not surprisingly, the game will feature plenty of points, but the Illini prevail in the Edward Jones Dome.

3. Martez masters the middle, but the defense will take time to jell -- Martez Wilson's move to middle linebacker should be a catalyst to get consistent production out of the supremely talented junior. After a rough 2008 season both on and off the field, Wilson will show increased maturity and take a leadership role on defense. But without Brit Miller, Vontae Davis, Derek Walker, Will Davis and others, the unit will struggle early on, much like it did last season.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12