Ohio State has several challengers

Call 2010 the year of the holding pattern for the Big Ten.

Ohio State has the potential to play for the national title, Iowa has the right schedule and overall experience to throw its hat into the ring, Michigan State is loaded and Wisconsin might have the best team of the bunch, but all the talk and all the hoopla is about 2011. Next year, the Big Ten world turns upside down when Nebraska joins the fun and a 12-team, two-division conference is created complete with a title game.

But before the league splits in two (with Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin likely to be in one division, and Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Purdue in the other), there’s still a conference season to play, and it should be a good one.

The basic assumption is Ohio State is the star, even though this isn’t one of Jim Tressel’s most talented teams, while Wisconsin and Iowa will battle it out for the No. 2 spot. All three teams won their bowl games, and all three have their starting quarterbacks back. It’s been easy for most to put these three at the head of the class, but of course it’s not going to be that simple.

Penn State can’t be dismissed with its tremendous defensive front, great backfield and good receiving corps. Because no one can name the starting quarterback (it’ll almost certainly be Kevin Newsome), the Nittany Lions are being pushed to the back of the preseason pack, even though they’ll be good enough to win the title.

Michigan State will bomb away while Greg Jones and the great linebacking corps will be special; Northwestern won’t be flashy, but it’ll win eight games and go to another bowl; and Purdue will be dangerous with Robert Marve at quarterback leading a strong offense and Ryan Kerrigan terrorizing passers on the other side.

Indiana has a fantastic passing game, Michigan is experienced and will be far better on defense and the Illinois running attack will be deadly. Minnesota might not be great, but it has a four-year starting quarterback in Adam Weber and good athletes across the board.

Enjoy the final year of an eight-game, no-conference-championship-game season, because next year it’ll all be blown up, mostly for the good. There will be an even bigger buzz about the conference, Nebraska will be the storyline of the season and the title game will be must-see TV. In the meantime, this could be one of the tightest Big Ten seasons in a long time with plenty of upsets, a few key twists and lots of star power to get excited about.

Team that’ll surprise

Michigan: It’s Year 3 of the Rich Rodriguez era, and while he’s just now getting most of the right pieces in place, the current players have a serious chip on their shoulders. There’s an attitude among them that enough is enough, and though that won’t overcome the lack of overall talent compared with Ohio State and Wisconsin, it should mean a more focused season. If Michigan can get by Connecticut in the opener and can beat Notre Dame in South Bend, it’ll be 5-0 before hosting Michigan State. With the Spartans, Iowa and Wisconsin coming to Ann Arbor, a winning season with a big victory or two is a must, and eight wins is a realistic goal.

Team that’ll disappoint

Iowa: And by disappoint, that might mean three losses. The Hawkeyes might have the best defense in the Big Ten and are loaded with veterans on offense after finishing 11-2 with an Orange Bowl victory over Georgia Tech. Now, the expectations will be sky high, helped by a great schedule with Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to Iowa City and the toughest Big Ten road game either at Michigan or Northwestern. However, there’s a tougher-than-it-looks nonconference date at Arizona to deal with the week after the rivalry game with Iowa State, and having the top conference games at home doesn’t guarantee wins. After so many close calls and so many games that could’ve gone either way over the past few years, it’s asking a lot to be on the right side of every tight battle.

Game of the Year

Ohio State at Wisconsin, Oct. 16: The Game of the Year will change weekly down the stretch, but this one will be the tone-setter that’ll be the gateway to the rest of the Big Ten season. The Buckeyes still have Penn State to play, along with a trip to Iowa, and there won’t be any margin for error if they lose in Madison. The same pressure is on for the Badgers with a road trip to Iowa the following week in what could be the national spotlight game. Both Ohio State and Wisconsin could be in the top five when they hook up.

5 big-time players who deserve a bigger spotlight

1. DE Ryan Kerrigan, Sr., Purdue
2. WR Keith Smith, Sr., Purdue
3. LB Quentin Davie, Jr., Northwestern
4. OT Gabe Carimi, Sr., Wisconsin
5. WR Roy Roundtree, Soph., Michigan

Coach on the hot seat

Tim Brewster, Minnesota: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that guy up in Ann Arbor is under vise-like pressure to produce, but he’ll likely survive another year. Brewster has to be fantastic with a team that has a ton of major issues, and even a 6-6 bowl season might not be enough. The program has to capitalize on the momentum of the sweet new stadium, and Brewster has one last shot to do it.

5 nonconference games the Big Ten had better take very, very seriously

1. Minnesota at Middle Tennessee, Sept. 2
2. Northern Illinois at Illinois, Sept. 18
3. Central Michigan at Northwestern, Sept. 25
4. Wisconsin at UNLV, Sept. 4
5. Toledo at Purdue, Sept. 25

Bold predictions: Penn State RB Evan Royster will make a run for the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. … Illinois LB Martez Wilson will make a run for the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. … Michigan State LB Greg Jones will win the Butkus. … Michigan will win two of the big home games against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa. … Purdue QB Robert Marve will come up with one monster game to ruin one of the big boys’ seasons (watch out, Wisconsin on Nov. 6). … Terrelle Pryor will be fine, but nowhere near Heisman worthy. … Indiana will either lead the Big Ten in passing or will finish a close second. … Wisconsin’s Scott Tolzien will be the league’s most efficient passer. … Michigan State former quarterback Keith Nichol will be an All-Big Ten receiver.

5 best pro prospects

1. DE Adrian Clayborn, Sr., Iowa
2. RB John Clay, Jr., Wisconsin
3. OG Stefen Wisniewski, Sr., Penn State
4. C Mike Brewster, Jr., Ohio State
5. DT Jerel Worthy, Soph., Michigan State

5 biggest shoes to fill

1. LB Jeff Tarpinian for Pat Angerer, Iowa
2. DE Ryan Van Bergen for Brandon Graham, Michigan
3. LB Nathan Stupar for Novarro Bowman, Penn State
4. DE Louis Nzegwu for O’Brien Schofield, Wisconsin
5. DT Devon Still for Jared Odrick, Penn State