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August 4, 2005

Big Ten boasts four title contenders

As one of the premier conferences in college football, the Big Ten has one or two teams mentioned as national title contenders every year.

But in an exceptionally strong year for the conference, critics have named four teams from the Big Ten which have legitimate shots at the making it to the Rose Bowl in January. Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue all have enough firepower to run the table in the regular season.

Even so, each of those programs has big questions to answer coming into the season. Will Iowa be able to replace its entire starting defensive line from last season? Will Michigan be able to tighten up its defense despite losing two players in the secondary? Will Jim Tressel open up the offense as promised to fit the skills of his receivers? And will Purdue quarterback Brandon Kirsch be able to fill Kyle Orton's shoes?

The Big Ten teams that find themselves in the second tier this year have the potential to play spoiler should any of the previous four teams stumble. Minnesota's Laurence Maroney will be a stud, and Ron Zook will soon have the Illini on the upswing.

The closest thing to a given this year in the Big Ten is that after losing its top quarterback and leading rusher, Indiana will have a tough time breaking out of the conference cellar.

THE FAVORITE: Ohio State
In what promises to be one of the closest Big Ten races in recent memory, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue all have legitimate shots at the championship. Though each team has potential weaknesses, Ohio State seems to have the most answers with 18 returning starters. Should Tressel open up the offense as promised, opponents will be hard-pressed to stop Holmes, Ginn and Co. - with or without a dominant running back. Most important to the Buckeyes will be their defense. The linebacking corps, which is among the best in the nation, will carry the unit.

All that being said, it's tough to vote against Drew Tate and the Hawkeyes, and Michigan may have one of the best offenses in the nation this year.

THE SLEEPER: Purdue
It may be a bit of a stretch to call Purdue a true sleeper. But with the talent at the top of the league, the Boilermakers aren't considered by many to be favorites.

Should Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa all beat up on each other, though, don't be surprised to see Purdue come away with the Big Ten title. The Boilermakers don't have to play Michigan or Ohio State, and they get the Hawkeyes at home. Though quarterback Brandon Kirsch has yet to prove that he has chemistry with Kyle Ingraham, his scrambling ability will keep opposing defenses honest. The Purdue defense - which returns all 11 starters - will be the backbone of the team.

PROGRAM ON THE RISE: Penn State
Penn State returns nine starters to a defense that was nationally ranked in the top 10 in pass defense, total defense and points allowed last season.

The Nittany Lions will also have the nation's No. 1 incoming freshman, wide receiver Derrick Williams - not to mention five-star prospect Justin King. They still have a questionable offense, but seven home games, an easy non-conference schedule and a powerful defense will help right coach Joe Paterno's ship.

PROGRAM ON THE SLIDE: Northwestern
Don't expect Northwestern to repeat its top-four Big Ten finish from last year. Keep in mind that though the Wildcats won five conference games in 2004, three of those wins were squeaked out in overtime.

The Wildcats' backfield will be tough, but with Iowa, Penn State, Purdue, Michigan and Ohio State all on the schedule, look for the Wildcats to join Indiana and Illinois at the bottom of the Big Ten.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Minnesota
Sure, Ohio State plays host to Texas and travels to the Big House this year to face Michigan, but the Golden Gophers have the toughest conference schedule of any Big Ten team. They, too, have to travel to Michigan - and Penn State, and Iowa.

Minnesota has Ohio State and Purdue at home. Indiana won't be a cupcake game, either: The Golden Gophers have lost seven in a row in Bloomington. Minnesota also misses Illinois on the schedule this season. Sure, Minnesota's non-conference schedule should be a breeze, but the gauntlet of a Big Ten schedule more than makes up for it.

MARK YOUR CALENDARS: Ohio State at Michigan
Arguably the best rivalry in college football, the game is always hyped -- no matter the teams' records coming in. But if the top of the standings are as tight as they promise to be in November this year, this game will hold a vaulted importance.

Should Iowa and Purdue be within striking distance (or tied) in the standings, they'll have a vested interest in the Nov. 19 matchup, as well. There's a great chance that, one way or the other, the Michigan-Ohio State game will determine the 2005 Big Ten champion.

That being said, keep an eye out for Oct. 8, when Iowa visits Purdue. The Hawkeyes pose the biggest threat on the Boilermakers' schedule, but Purdue will be out to avenge last season's 21-23 loss.

UPSET SPECIAL: Purdue at Penn State
Look for the Nittany Lions to end the Boilermakers' run at an unbeaten Big Ten season in this game in Happy Valley. Purdue's first Big Ten test will come at home against Iowa.

If they get past the Hawkeyes, though, Penn State is the only thing standing between them and a conference title. If Paterno's crew can muster a little offensive production, they'll do some serious damage to the Boilermakers' conference title hopes.

REMEMBER THIS NAME: Albert Young, Iowa
After a nightmare in the backfield last season, the Hawkeyes are praying for healthy running backs in 2005. Coming out of high school as the No. 5 all-purpose back in the nation, redshirt sophomore Albert Young is the man whom Iowa fans have been waiting to see. He showed promise in last season's opener against Kent State when he rushed for 87 yards and a touchdown, but Young lost the season to a torn ACL in the second game.

Drew Tate will need a steady running game to relieve some pressure in the pocket in 2005, and if Young stays healthy, he'll be able to do more than just that. With a powerful build and breakaway speed, Young is ripe for a breakout season.

Also watch for: Illinois WR Derrick McPhearson

INSTANT IMPACT: Derrick Williams, Penn State; Brian Calhoun, Wisconsin
Williams enters Happy Valley as the No. 1 player in his recruiting class. He racked up more than 3,000 all-purpose yards as a senior, and may be the spark Penn State needs to pick the offense up off the turf. Williams enrolled in the spring semester, so he has a head-start on the traditional freshmen. And his 4.31-second 40-yard dash speed will be tough to keep off the field, experienced or not.

Brian Calhoun looks to continue the tradition of strong Badger running backs in his first year of eligibility at Wisconsin. Calhoun sat out all of last season after transferring from Colorado. As a freshman in Boulder, Calhoun logged 810 rushing yards, including more than 100 in a single quarter against Nebraska. He has great hands, a quick burst and the ability to make tacklers miss.

Also watch for: Michigan RB Kevin Grady

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Ohio State
2. Iowa
3. Michigan
4. Purdue
5. Penn State
6. Minnesota
7. Michigan State
8. Wisconsin
9. Northwestern
10. Illinois
11. Indiana


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