|ESPN.com: NCF Nation||[Print without images]|
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Spring practice provided more clues about the Big Ten in 2009, but not enough to cause a major shake-up of the power rankings. The league should improve at the quarterback spot, reload at running back and boast several top 50 defenses, but few position battles were definitively settled and a handful of teams lost key personnel.
|AP Photo/Seth Perlman|
|Quarterback Terrelle Pryor showed signs of improvement during Ohio State's spring practices.|
You won't see many changes from my last set of power rankings, though I do see more defined tiers developing in the league. I feel confident about Nos. 1-4 and the bottom two teams, while the middle remains muddled.
1. Ohio State -- Terrelle Pryor's emergence and the addition of Michigan transfer Justin Boren on the offensive line highlighted a successful spring that ended before more than 95,000 fans at Ohio Stadium. Pryor showed improved footwork and passing mechanics, and running backs Dan Herron and Brandon Saine both emerged as viable options. Add in one of the better defensive lines around, and the Buckeyes enter the summer in good shape. Several Big Ten squads lose sizable senior classes, but no one in the league reloads like the Buckeyes.
2. Penn State -- There's not much separating the Nittany Lions from Ohio State, but Penn State lost just a little bit more and seemed to struggle this spring in the secondary and along the offensive line. Penn State has more national award candidates than any Big Ten team, and if it fills a few gaps, it should be right back in the league title mix. The defensive front seven will be ferocious -- as long as linebacker Navorro Bowman doesn't face major penalties -- and the home schedule favors Joe Paterno's team.
3. Iowa -- It was a fairly quiet spring for the Hawkeyes, though quarterback Ricky Stanzi looks ready to take the next step in his development. Injuries prevented Iowa from settling on a successor to Shonn Greene, but Jewel Hampton remains the frontrunner. A defense led by linebacker Pat Angerer, cornerback Amari Spievey and end Adrian Clayborn should be among the nation's best, as long as the defensive tackle spots are filled.
4. Michigan State -- The Spartans are a much more solid No. 4 than they were at the beginning of the spring. Quarterback candidates Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol both came along nicely in practice, and Michigan State likely would be fine with either one taking snaps Sept. 5. There are still some questions at running back and offensive line, but linebacker Greg Jones leads a defense that should be the team's strength this fall.
5. Illinois -- The Illini move up a spot thanks in large part to a dynamic offense that seems to be getting better. Quarterback Juice Williams will have the Big Ten's best receiving corps at his disposal, as Florida transfer Jarred Fayson joins a group led by All-America candidate Arrelious Benn. More importantly, the Illini should have better run-pass balance as sophomore backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both improved physically in their first full offseason. It's a dangerous bet to buy into Illinois' talent after last year, but this should be an improved team in 2009.
6. Northwestern -- Uneventful best describes Northwestern's spring, as the team practiced without its two best defenders (Corey Wootton and Brad Phillips) and remains unsettled at some of the skill positions. Projected starting quarterback Mike Kafka was so-so this spring and needs to prove himself more as a passer this summer. There were bright spots like running back Jeravin Matthews, linebacker Ben Johnson and an improved offensive line, but it was tough to get a great read on the Wildcats.
7. Minnesota -- Tim Brewster wanted more playmakers on offense and he found them this spring. Quarterback MarQueis Gray looks like the real deal and will earn some time behind Adam Weber, while Troy Stoudermire distinguished himself in the spring game. But there still are a lot of questions about the offensive line and the new offensive system, and Minnesota's secondary has a few question marks. This is a talented team that many see as a sleeper.
8. Wisconsin -- There were no answers at quarterback as Dustin Sherer and Curt Phillips will compete into the summer, but whoever takes snaps should have better weapons around him. Wide receiver Nick Toon had a stellar spring and provides a legitimate target alongside Mackey Award candidate Garrett Graham. There are questions with all three areas on defense, particularly linebacker. The competition in the secondary should be interesting to watch in preseason camp.
9. Michigan -- I'm tempted to move up the Wolverines after what appeared to be a solid spring, but until the games begin there are simply too many question marks. Can quarterback Tate Forcier maintain the composure he showed this spring in a game situation? How much has the offensive line improved? Will the defense settle in immediately with Greg Robinson's vision? The potential is certainly there to climb up the rankings, but there needs to be more evidence.
10. Indiana -- The post-spring departure of Kellen Lewis certainly stings, but I liked what I saw and heard from the Hoosiers this spring. Linebacker Matt Mayberry and defensive ends Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew seem to have brought a better attitude to a bottom-feeding defense, and Ben Chappell no longer has to look over his shoulder at quarterback. There are problems, without a doubt, namely trying to replace Lewis' playmaking ability. But Indiana might stay out of the cellar.
11. Purdue -- The Boilers had their bright spot
s in spring ball, more specifically the emergence of running back Ralph Bolden and improved play on both lines. But you can't underestimate Justin Siller's departure at quarterback. Purdue needed someone to really push Joey Elliott, and while Caleb TerBush might become that guy this summer, he's still learning the college game. There are too many unknowns right now to see Purdue reaching the middle of the league in Danny Hope's first season.