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Monday, February 9, 2009
Big Ten pre-spring power rankings


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The recruiting classes are in, several underclassmen are out (preparing for the NFL draft) and coaching changes have been made. It's time to re-examine the Big Ten power rankings, which project forward to the 2009 season but take into consideration the way a team finished up 2008.

1. Ohio State -- The Buckeyes lost juniors Chris "Beanie" Wells, Brian Hartline and Donald Washington to the NFL draft and said goodbye to a large senior class, but they performed well in the Fiesta Bowl and brought in the league's best recruiting class. The youth movement has begun in Columbus, and Ohio State likely will surround Terrelle Pryor with more dynamic skill players on offense. There are some holes in the defensive two-deep, but Ohio State rarely misses a beat on that side of the ball.

2. Penn State -- The somewhat surprising early departures of defensive ends Aaron Maybin and Maurice Evans create questions in an area where Penn State dominated last season. Linebacker should be a major strength, but Penn State must replenish the secondary and find a stud pass rusher or two. Wide receiver should be the most interesting position to watch during the spring and summer, and if Penn State avoids a drop-off on the offensive line, it should be in good shape for another league title push. A large recruiting class will play a key role in the Lions' quest to repeat.

3. Iowa -- Shonn Greene surprised absolutely no one by declaring for the NFL draft, and the Doak Walker Award winner leaves a major void in production. But backup running back Jewel Hampton showed promise last year, and Iowa has fewer question marks on offense than most Big Ten teams. Arguably the bigger questions come at defensive tackle, where four-year starters Mitch King and Matt Kroul depart. Avoiding a major drop-off in the interior line is crucial, but Iowa returns most of its key players from a 9-4 team.

4. Michigan State -- Several key seniors depart, including running back Javon Ringer and safety Otis Wiley, but Michigan State brings back most of its key contributors and adds its best recruiting class in recent memory. The competition at both running back and quarterback will set the course for the 2009 season, but the Spartans should be deeper and better on defense.

5. Northwestern -- Much like Michigan State, Northwestern must replace its starting offensive backfield for the 2009 campaign. Mike Kafka steps in at quarterback after a solid junior season, but there will be plenty of competition at both running back and wide receiver. The offensive line should be much improved, and as long as star defensive end Corey Wootton recovers from knee surgery, the Wildcats will boast one of the Big Ten's best defenses.

6. Illinois -- As expected, cornerback Vontae Davis entered the NFL draft, leaving some questions in an Illini secondary that struggled at the safety spot in 2008. Improving the defense will be Illinois' top priority entering the fall, especially with so much talent back on the offensive side. Ron Zook's recruiting class drew mixed reviews after several committed prospects went elsewhere, but Illinois held onto wide receiver Terry Hawthorne and addressed several of its needs.

7. Minnesota -- The Gophers welcome two new coordinators (Jedd Fisch and Kevin Cosgrove) and a different offensive approach heading into spring practice, but they bring back most of the pieces from a 7-6 team. Tim Brewster continued to improve the defensive secondary with his recent recruiting haul, and both lines return virtually intact. If Minnesota can adjust to the changes in coaching and scheme, it should take another step forward in 2009.

8. Wisconsin -- Underappreciated running back P.J. Hill surprised some by declaring for the NFL draft, and Wisconsin also said goodbye to a large senior class. John Clay looks more than capable of becoming a featured back for the Badgers in 2009, but unless some significant progress is made at the quarterback position, it's hard to see improvement. A very solid recruiting class featuring quarterback Jon Budmayr and wide receiver Kraig Appleton could bolster the passing attack and move Wisconsin up the rankings.

9. Michigan -- Despite a 3-9 season, Michigan landed a top 10 recruiting class that features several players likely to contribute right away. Brandon Graham stayed for his senior year, giving the Wolverines a dominant pass rusher. The Wolverines very well could make a major move up this list, but they first must find a solution at the quarterback spot and fill holes on the defensive line and in the secondary. The recruiting class provides a major boost, but the program remains in a transition phase.

10. Purdue -- The Boilermakers are the Big Ten's mystery team, as they welcome a new head coach (Danny Hope) and most likely a different type of player. Hope landed 14 recruits from Florida in hopes of upgrading Purdue's speed and athleticism, and he also must replace starters at all the offensive skill positions (quarterback, running back, wide receiver). If the defense avoids a drop-off and Hope's recruits contribute immediately like he thinks they will, the Boilers will be a much-improved team.

11. Indiana -- Wide receiver Andrew Means declared for the NFL draft, but Indiana doesn't lose a whole lot from last year's team, which could be good or bad. Head coach Bill Lynch didn't make any staff changes, hoping that continuity and improved health will lead to better results in 2009. Indiana boasts two experienced quarterbacks (Kellen Lewis and Ben Chappell), two proven pass rushers (Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew) and some promising young players, but if the defense doesn't improve, it could be another long season.