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Monday, August 30, 2010
Big Ten season predictions

By Adam Rittenberg

After a historic summer in the Big Ten, it's finally time to get down to business. The season kicks off in 82 hours as Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio State all hit the field Thursday for their openers. On the heels of an outstanding bowl performance, the Big Ten is looking to take the next step.

It's prediction time, and while I'm certain most of these will look terrible by mid October, here we go ...

Conference champion: Ohio State

It's not just the history of winning or sharing the last five league championships. Ohio State simply has fewer holes than Iowa and Wisconsin. Yes, the Buckeyes must travel to Madison and Iowa City, but they've been flat-out dominant on the road in conference play, winning 16 straight Big Ten road contests before the loss to Purdue last season.

Offensive MVP: Wisconsin running back John Clay

Someone needs to stand up for Clay. He's being completely overlooked in the Heisman Trophy race, and he was snubbed for Big Ten preseason Offensive Player of the Year in favor of Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor. In case you forgot, Clay is the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and he'll play behind the nation's best offensive line this fall. He should be more durable following offseason ankle surgeries. I expect big things from big No. 32 this fall.

Defensive MVP: Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn

This might be one of the nation's most competitive award races, as Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, Ohio State defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan also are in the mix. But Clayborn makes more impact plays than any defender in the Big Ten, and he'll continue to have opportunities because of the overall strength of Iowa's defensive line.

Surprise team: Purdue

The Boilermakers' injury situation leaves me a bit concerned about this selection, but I still really like the potential in West Lafayette. Robert Marve is a perfect fit for the spread offense, and will distribute the ball to a talented group of receivers. Kerrigan leads a veteran defensive front seven that should be better against the run. And the schedule is back-loaded, allowing Purdue to find its identity in the first six games before things get really tough. Indiana and Michigan are also possibilities here.

Team most likely to disappoint: Penn State

There isn't an obvious choice here, but preseason No. 19 Penn State enters the fall with two major obstacles: virtually no experience at quarterback, and arguably the nation's toughest road schedule. Trips to Tuscaloosa, Iowa City and Columbus look daunting, and while Tom Bradley's defense should be solid once again, it won't be easy for this team to win 11 games for the third straight season. Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan also are possibilities here.

Surprise player: Michigan State receiver Keshawn Martin

We could see a Devin Thomas redux this fall, which would bring smiles to Spartans fans. Martin seemed to be hitting his stride toward the end of last season, and after averaging 18.1 yards per touch in 2009, he'll get the ball a lot more this season. Other potential surprise players include Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa, Ohio State defensive lineman John Simon and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.

Newcomer of the year: Purdue quarterback Robert Marve

Talent has never been the problem for Marve, and he's finally in the right situation to become a star. The Miami transfer owns a big-time arm in an offense that will feature it, and he has grown up a lot since his time at Miami. If Purdue's new-look offensive line can protect Marve, the offense will put up big numbers. Three junior college transfers in the secondary -- Indiana's Andre Kates, Minnesota's Christyn Lewis and Illinois safety Trulon Henry -- are also newcomers to watch.

Freshman of the Year: Penn State quarterback Robert Bolden

He might not start the opener against Youngstown State, but I expect Bolden to enter the mix in a big way for the Nittany Lions. He has impressive size and arm strength, and his ability to quickly pick up the offense and remain in the race throughout preseason camp tells a lot about his potential. Other candidates include Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and Michigan State defenders Max Bullough and William Gholston.

Coach of the Year: Ohio State's Jim Tressel

It's time. Tressel has dominated the league like few coaches in history, and yet he has never won the Coach of the Year Award. The odds are once again against Tressel because of Ohio State's status as Big Ten preseason favorite, but I have a feeling he finally gets what he deserves. Other potential winners include Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Purdue's Danny Hope and, yes, Michigan's Rich Rodriguez.

Can't-miss game: Ohio State at Iowa, Nov. 20

For the second consecutive year, this game likely will decide the Big Ten championship, as both teams enter the fall in the top 10. Iowa gave Ohio State all it could handle in 2009 despite playing without starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Ohio State has dominated the series with Iowa, but this game could be special. Other can't-miss contests include Ohio State at Wisconsin (Oct. 16), Wisconsin at Iowa (Oct. 23) and whenever Penn State's Joe Paterno goes for win No. 400.