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Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Updated: August 17, 1:59 PM ET
5 predictions for the Big Ten season

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

After peering into the crystal ball, here are my five predictions for the 2006 Big Ten season.

1. The best quarterback in the conference will be Drew Tate of Iowa. Troy Smith of Ohio State is the hot run-pass prototype, and Drew Stanton of Michigan State has the arm NFL scouts appreciate. But I like the career path Tate has carved. He won as a sophomore, then learned some hard lessons as a junior. With tailback Albert Young behind Tate, defenses will have to be honest. Advantage, Hawkeyes.

2. The Michigan defense will rebound. The Wolverines will rediscover pressure on the quarterback and shine under new coordinator Ron English. The best thing going for the Michigan D the past few seasons has been English's secondary.

3. Of the two 30-something head coaches, Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern will have an easier first year than Bret Bielema of Wisconsin. True, Bielema has had 12 months to prepare to take over and Fitzgerald has had six weeks. But I think the death of Randy Walker has brought the Northwestern team and the entire university community behind Fitzgerald. There will be a lot less transition there than in Madison, where Bielema made some coaching changes and has a lot of rebuilding to do on the offense.

4. There is long-term optimism at Illinois after Ron Zook brought in the first recruiting class that truly belonged to him and his staff. If Zook plays a lot of those freshmen this season, however, the key word in that first sentence is long-term.

5. This is a critical year for Purdue. Joe Tiller shook up his staff, and he says there is great chemistry among the new coaches. If the Boilermakers don't respond, however, I wouldn't be surprised if Tiller took his fly rod and went home.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.