What keys will unlock Big Ten success in '09?
September, 2, 2009
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Every team in the Big Ten has one essential issue that will determine success or failure this fall. Let's take a look.
Illinois: The talent is there in Champaign, but the Illini can't afford the chemistry issues that doomed them last season. They need leadership from veterans Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn on offense and, more important, players like linebacker Martez Wilson on a questionable defense.
Indiana: Whether or not the pistol offense guns down opponents or blows up in smoke, Indiana's season hinges on its defense, a unit that has finished no better than 71st nationally this decade. If the Hoosiers' D can't get it done with players like Matt Mayberry, Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, they never will.
Iowa: Few teams in America have a tougher conference road schedule than the Hawkeyes, who visit Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Iowa's performance away from Kinnick Stadium will determine whether it plays in another January bowl game or ends up fighting just to make the postseason.
Michigan: Recent events have created a few more distractions for the Wolverines this fall, but their biggest key remains the quarterback position. Michigan should be much improved everywhere else on offense, but Rich Rodriguez needs consistency, intelligence and play-making ability from Tate Forcier, Nick Sheridan or Denard Robinson.
Michigan State: Mark Dantonio has mentioned it many times, and I'll echo the head coach: The Spartans must show they can handle expectations. Recent history suggests otherwise, but the program appears to be on a different course under Dantonio and needs to take another step forward with a favorable schedule this fall.
Minnesota: The offensive line will be in the spotlight as Minnesota emloys a significantly different scheme after two years of the spread. With only one player (center Jeff Tow-Arnett) returning to the position where he started in 2008, the Gophers' front five has some major question marks entering the fall.
Northwestern: The Wildcats need to prove they can actually survive the losses of multiyear starters at both quarterback and running back. Few outsiders think they can. Defense should once again carry this team in 2009, but Northwestern needs playmakers on offense after losing almost all of its featured skill players.
Ohio State: This is Terrelle Pryor's team now, a much younger and potentially more explosive squad that needs to restore Ohio State's national reputation in big games. Pryor has to be the catalyst on offense and prove that he's a complete and consistent quarterback. If so, opposing defenses will be in big trouble.
Penn State: I've been asking the same question throughout the offseason -- can Penn State reload? The Lions have more stars at key positions than any team in the Big Ten, but they need to replenish the offensive line, identify several capable wide receivers for Daryll Clark and get a lot better in the secondary.
Purdue: A glance at Purdue's Week 1 depth chart shows that first-year coach Danny Hope will be relying on lots of young players this fall. For the Boilermakers to rebound, they need their freshmen and sophomores to make an immediate impact with minimal growing pains.
Wisconsin: The Badgers simply don't have the margin error to survive the disorganization and lack of discipline that plagued them last season. From the quarterback position on down, Wisconsin needs to be mentally sound for 60 minutes and limit dumb mistakes that led to too many losses in 2008.