Big Ten: Zack Reckman

If you can't tell, our theme today is hot matchups for the 2010 season, the games that are already stoking the fires on college campuses around the country.

The Michigan-Michigan State game in Ann Arbor fits the description, and I'd rather be nowhere but the Big House on Oct 9. But there are other grudge matches in the league this fall, and colleague Mark Schlabach mentions three of them in his top 10 national rundown.

The Michigan-Purdue game on Nov. 13 at Ross-Ade Stadium comes in at No. 5.
The Big Ten matchup might seem like the most unlikely of rivalries, but there's plenty of bad blood boiling between the Boilermakers and Wolverines. Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller referred to Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez as a "guy in a wizard hat selling snake oil," and then new Boilermakers coach Danny Hope handed Rich Rod a 38-36 loss in the Big House in '09. The head coaches exchanged words at midfield after Purdue's first victory in Ann Arbor since 1966.

My take: The Tiller-Rodriguez and Hope-Rodriguez spats are totally unrelated, but it's interesting how this particular matchup has created some controversy between the coaches. After Purdue's historic win last year at Michigan, Hope met Rodriguez at midfield and motioned for offensive lineman Zach Reckman to join them. According to Rodriguez, Hope said, "Thanks, coach. Really appreciate what you did," referring to Rodriguez calling for the Big Ten to assess all potential unsportsmanlike incidents equally. Michigan had seen its starting linebacker Jonas Mouton suspended for throwing a punch against Notre Dame, and Rodriguez identified Reckman's late hit against Northern Illinois as another potential violation for the Big Ten to review. The league concurred and suspended Reckman for a game, a decision that didn't sit well with Hope. No one is going to place Purdue among Michigan's top rivals, but last year's incident might add some fuel to a mid-November matchup that could have huge implications for both teams and especially Rodriguez, whose job might be on the line.

Schlabach ranks the Miami-Ohio State game at No. 8.
The teams haven't played since the unforgettable 2003 Fiesta Bowl, which ended with the Buckeyes' winning their first national championship since 1968. Since Ohio State's 31-24 victory in double overtime, fans of both schools have tried to forget about former Buckeyes running back Maurice Clarett, who produced a game-changing strip of the ball and an embarrassing string of off-field incidents.

My take: I tend to think enough time has passed to turn down the heat on any potential Canes-Bucks rivalry, but maybe not. I still get plenty of e-mails about the pass interference call that helped Ohio State win the title. Ohio State seems to have more bad blood with the SEC in general, but it should get a little rowdy in The Shoe on Sept. 11. I look at this as a great matchup, but not really a heated one.

Schlabach lists the Iowa-Northwestern game at No. 9.
The Wildcats handed the Hawkeyes their first loss of the '09 season with a 17-10 upset in Iowa City. Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi missed most of the game with an ankle injury, and the Hawkeyes' 13-game winning streak -- and BCS national championship hopes -- came to a screeching halt.

My take: The more I think about it, Iowa-Northwestern easily could have been my pick for the Big Ten's hottest game in 2010. Iowa fans will never publicly list Northwestern among their top rivals, but they can't stand losing to the Wildcats. Injuries and turnovers certainly have played major roles in the recent matchups, but that's football. Both teams have developed strong reputations for player development in the last decade, taking average or overlooked recruits and transforming them into All-Big Ten players. There's a lot of bad blood between the fan bases, and I know from covering Northwestern that the players always felt Iowa was a rival. Iowa gets a chance to exact revenge this fall in Evanston, while Northwestern can continue to torture the Hawkeyes with a win.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 Tackle Alex Boone is one of four returning starters on the Buckeyes' offensive line.

All of the previous positions I ranked (quarterback, running back, wide receiver/tight end) matter little without sturdy offensive lines to block for them. And despite lingering questions about its speed, the Big Ten continues to churn out elite linemen. The league has had three offensive linemen selected in the top 5 of the NFL draft in the last two years, including former Michigan tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in April. Several elite players return this fall, including Ohio State tackle Alex Boone and Penn State center A.Q. Shipley, but offensive lines should always be graded as a group. Four teams look very solid up front. The rest of the league? Not so much.

Here's the rundown:

1. Ohio State -- Led by Boone, who passed up NFL bucks for another national title push, the Buckeyes bring back four of five starters up front. Sophomore Bryant Browning emerged at right tackle in spring ball and joins a group that helped Beanie Wells finish 11th nationally in rushing last season. If the first-team unit stays healthy, the offense will surge this fall.

2. Penn State -- All five starters return to a unit that mirrored Ohio State in both sacks allowed and rushing production last season. Shipley and guard Rich Ohrnberger solidify the interior line along with Stefen Wisniewski, who last year became the first true freshman offensive lineman to start at Penn State since 1999. Hopes are high for whip-smart left tackle Gerald Cadogan.

3. Wisconsin -- The Badgers lost no starters and feature All-Big Ten candidates throughout the line. So why isn't this unit rated higher? Wisconsin finished 91st nationally in sacks allowed with 33 last season, a number that must go down with a new starting quarterback. Four-year starter Kraig Urbik and Andy Kemp form the league's best guard tandem, and sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi held his own last fall after succeeding Joe Thomas.

4. Illinois -- If not for two vacancies, the Illini would be higher on the list. They allowed just 16 sacks last fall, the second fewest in the league, and had the Big Ten's top rushing attack. All-conference candidates Ryan McDonald and Xavier Fulton return. If Ryan Palmer solidifies the right tackle spot, this group will have a big season.

5. Michigan State -- Replacing all-conference left tackle Pete Clifford became a priority this spring, and Michigan State filled the gap with talented junior Rocco Cironi. If Cironi can effectively protect Brian Hoyer's blind side, the interior line should be solid with returning starters Roland Martin and Joel Nitchman. Depth is a concern, and several incoming freshmen could help.

6. Purdue -- Health is the biggest question for Purdue after mainstay Sean Sester, Zach Jones and Zack Reckman missed spring practice with injuries. Head-coach-in-waiting Danny Hope needs all three returning starters at full strength in camp. The all-important center spot could feature an intriguing competition, as freshman Andrew Brewer joins the mix with Cory Benton and Jared Zwilling.

7. Iowa -- A veteran group could definitely climb the list, but after hemorrhaging for 46 sacks last fall, significant improvement is needed. Guard Seth Olsen anchors the line in his third season as a starter. Though several other full-time or part-time starters return, Olsen's spot appears to be the only safe one entering preseason camp.

8. Michigan -- Strength coach Mike Barwis will try to work his magic with a group that returns only one starter, right tackle Stephen Schilling. A lot hinges on junior Mark Ortmann, who succeeds Long at left tackle. If Ortmann steps in smoothly and David Moosman locks up the center spot, the Wolverines might be fine. Coach Rich Rodriguez needs linemen who can fit in his system, and if need be, he'll look to incoming freshmen like Ricky Barnum.

9. Indiana -- The left side looks strong with Rodger Saffold and Pete Saxon, but there are questions elsewhere. A lot is riding on a talented group of sophomore linemen that includes potential starters Alex Perry and Mike Stark. Sacks were a problem at times last season, and the Hoosiers must generate a stronger rushing attack outside of quarterback Kellen Lewis.

10. Minnesota -- Of all the Gophers' problems last season, the offensive line wasn't one of them. Minnesota allowed a league-low 13 sacks and ranked third in pass offense. But the departures of left tackle Steve Shidell and center Tony Brinkhaus raise questions up front. Hopes are high for sophomore left tackle Dominic Alford, but a young group must build chemistry.

11. Northwestern -- The Wildcats lost mainstays at both center and left tackle, and right tackle Kurt Mattes is the only returning starter who secured his job. A lot is riding on three young players -- freshman left tackle Al Netter, sophomore left guard Keegan Grant and freshman center Ben Burkett. If those three step up, a veteran group of skill players will put up points.

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