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Big Ten preview: Trying to regain national credibility

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Pete Fiutak

Pete Fiutak writes previews, predictions and prognostications for CollegeFootballNews.com.

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The Big Ten is fine. Really, it's fine. Penn State and Ohio State have reloaded in a hurry and should be players on a national stage once again. Iowa and Michigan State should improve even more after resurgent seasons. Illinois should be closer to its 2007 form than the 2008 version. Michigan should take another step forward (but the program still needs another year). Northwestern will be as strong as it's been in over a decade, and even Indiana and Purdue, likely the bottom feeders, have some major strong points (like the Hoosier D line and the Boilermaker secondary).
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But none of the positives matter if the conference can't make a bigger splash on a national scale. Perception is reality, and while the Big Ten has suffered a bad rap for having problems with USC (hardly an exclusive club), major gaffes like Michigan losing to Toledo, Illinois losing to Western Michigan, Indiana losing to Ball State and Central Michigan and Wisconsin needing a miracle to beat Cal Poly (before getting destroyed by Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl) didn't help the cause. There have been some excellent moments for the conference, but they've been overshadowed by Ohio State's national title losses, the Rose Bowl problems and the lack of enough flash to overcome the negativity. And now it's a problem. There aren't enough big non-conference games to change the minds of SEC and Big 12 fans tired of the publicity and the benefits of the doubt the Big Ten gets, and that means Ohio State has to beat USC in Columbus on September 12 and Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue have to combine to go 2-1, at the very least, against Notre Dame. If that doesn't happen, it'll be tough when it comes to the BCS discussion. Oh sure, the BCS bowls are always going to want Ohio State over Boise State like last year, but when it comes to the national title discussion, it'll be tough to get into the title game unless everything works out perfectly. College football avoided the big discussion last season when Iowa beat Penn State. Would an unbeaten Nittany Lion team have gotten into the BCS Championship over Florida or Oklahoma? Maybe, but it would've been a fight. Will an unbeaten Big Ten team, if there's an unbeaten Big Ten team, get enough respect to play for the national title over a one-loss SEC champion or a one-loss USC? When it comes to getting a second team in the BCS, will the bowls be so ready to jump? Considering how light Penn State's schedule is and how Ohio State could generate a buzz if it can come up with a win over the Trojans, there's a chance the Big Ten could have two teams with records worthy of a trip to Pasadena. The league is improving, really, and it has the potential to come up with a very entertaining, very strong season no matter what happens in non-conference play. The Big Ten fans will be happy in 2009, but the rest of the college football world wants to see more.

Team that'll surprise

Northwestern: The defense will be up to Pat Fitzgerald's high standards, the offensive line should be among the Big Ten's best, and the backfield will crank out rushing yards in chunks. Missing Ohio State is a major plus, and not getting Michigan, even in its mediocre rebuilding phase, isn't a bad thing. The record should be excellent, at least early on, before dealing with a tough finishing kick.

Team that'll disappoint

Wisconsin: The running game will be fantastic as always, the defense will be better and there will be another trip to a bowl. But it's not going to be the major bounce-back season Badger fans are hoping for. The quarterback play needs to be far better, while the defensive front has to prove it can handle good running games along with the spread. It won't be an awful campaign, but it won't be special, either.

Game of the year

Ohio State at Penn State, Nov. 7: Last year's battle was a classic. It wasn't aesthetically pleasing, but the Nittany Lions' 13-6 win defined the Big Ten season. This year's showdown could do the same. Michigan State and Iowa will throw their hats into the ring, but the winner in Happy Valley will likely end up in the Rose Bowl.

One bold prediction

Terrelle Pryor will look every bit the superstar prospect everyone's been waiting for. He was terrific last season despite being handcuffed by a vanilla passing game (put in to limit the true freshman's mistakes), but now he has improved his passing and his effectiveness enough (at least in practices) to start pushing the ball down the field more. He could be the type of player who puts the entire team on his back. Can he pull off a win over USC? If he does, the Heisman talk will kick in full force.

Five big-time players who deserve a bigger spotlight

1. LB Greg Jones, Michigan State
2. OT Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
3. TE Garrett Graham, Wisconsin
4. LB Martez Wilson, Illinois
5. LB Pat Angerer, Iowa

Coach on the hot seat

Bret Bielema, Wisconsin: Rich Rodriguez has to have Michigan pointed in the right direction, but he'd likely be able to survive another bad season if there appears to be hope for 2010. Bielema is the Big Ten coach who has to win right now or else. The expectations were sky high going into last year, but a bad collapse against Michigan, a heart-ripping, last-minute defeat to Ohio State and horrific performances against Iowa and Florida State got the fan base grumbling. Hand picked by Barry Alvarez and considered to be one of the hot coaching prospects when he was locked up a few years ago, Bielema has to come through with a big year and his team has to stop the slide into mediocrity.

Five non-conference games the Big Ten had better take very seriously

1. Northern Illinois at Wisconsin, Sept. 5
2. Central Michigan at Michigan State, Sept. 12
3. Arkansas State at Iowa, Oct. 3
4. Indiana at Akron, Sept. 19
5. South Dakota State at Minnesota, Nov. 14

Five best pro prospects

1. WR Arrelious Benn, Illinois
2. QB Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State (not eligible until 2010)
3. RB Evan Royster, Penn State
4. DE Brandon Graham, Michigan
5. LB Navorro Bowman, Penn State

Five biggest shoes to fill

1. Jewel Hampton for RB Shonn Greene, Iowa
2. Andre Anderson for RB Javon Ringer, Michigan State
3. Karl Klug for DT Mitch King, Michigan State
4. Dan Herron for RB Beanie Wells, Ohio State
5. Jack Crawford for DE Aaron Maybin, Penn State ———
To take a deeper look into the Big Ten's recent struggles, read State of the Big Ten
Tagged: Florida State, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan State, Indiana, Boise State, Arkansas State, Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Ball State, Ohio, USC, Florida, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma

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