Big Ten Media Poll
The same three teams that topped the conference last season - Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan - will lead the Big Ten title chase this year, and there is the distinct possibility of a three-way deadlock atop the league standings thanks to round-robin play between them. The chase is made even more entertaining by the fact that all of those games take place in the final three weeks of their respective seasons (Nov. 3-17).
Ohio State is favored over both Wisconsin and Michigan by less
than a point, but the Badgers would be the favorite to win the league if they had drawn a home date with Ohio State instead of a road trip. As it stands, the Buckeyes get the edge by just 0.44 in Columbus.
Michigan is expected to be in position to make a final push to the BCS title game with a 10-0 record before season-ending losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State derail the bid. The Badgers are whopping 8.61-point favorites over the Wolverines, but Michigan is a mere 0.06-point underdog when it hosts the Buckeyes in "The Big House".
Wisconsin made a run at the title last year in Bret Bielema's
first season as head coach, but Ohio State was absent from the schedule. As a result, Wisconsin finished the regular season a game behind Ohio State at 11-1 over-all and 7-1 in the conference with its lone loss coming at Michigan in the fourth game of the season. Everyone was left to wonder if a game between the Badgers and Buckeyes would have changed anything.
Thankfully, we won't be left to wonder this year - or will we?
After all, they're not the only teams that could compete for the conference crown.
Penn State is just a narrow underdog against all three of the
supposed conference leaders - at Michigan (+5.02), vs. Wisconsin (+4.63), and vs. Ohio State (+2.08).
Purdue doesn't get a shot at Wisconsin, but does battle the Wolverines, Buckeyes and Nittany Lions. The Boilermakers are slim underdogs at home to Ohio State (+1.82), and in road trips to Michigan (+4.76) and Penn State (+2.74).
Iowa, while forecasted to finish 9-3, enters the 2007 season
on a 4-game road losing streak. The schedule puts the Hawkeyes on the road for their three toughest conference games. As a result, all three projected losses - at Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue - are by more than 9 points. However, if the Hawkeyes get hot, their path to the title is considerably easier without Ohio State or Michigan both on the schedule.
Minnesota, even under first-year head coach Tim Brewster, is
expected to squeak into bowl eligibility with a 6-6 campaign. It's always difficult to gauge how a team will perform in its first season with a new head coach, and the spreads on several games are close enough to suggest anything between 9-3 and 3-9 is possible.
The computer's preseason forecast includes an unfathomable loss at FAU (+1.12) that the Vegas oddsmakers are bound to see differently. Projected losses at home to Purdue (+5.20) and at Iowa (+4.22) could also swing in favor of the Golden Gophers. If Minnesota wins just two of those games, and avoids being upset in expected tight wins at Indiana (-3.82) and Northwestern (-3.00), Brewster's first year would be a rousing success.
Brewster comes to the Golden Gophers from the NFL, where he was the tight ends coach for Denver the past two seasons. He held the same job with the San Diego Chargers for three years before that, and was an assistant in the college ranks under Mack Brown at North Carolina and Texas. Brewster takes over for Glen Mason who was fired after the Gophers blew a 38-7 third-quarter lead over Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl. The Red Raiders came back to win the game 44-41 in overtime for the largest comeback in 1-A bowl history. Mason was 64-57 in ten seasons with Minnesota and led the team to seven bowl games. The school had appeared
in just five bowl games in history before his arrival.
Michigan State also has new leadership, nabbing Mark Dantonio from Cincinnati to replace John L. Smith. Dantonio was 18-17 in three seasons with the Bearcats and led them to a 7-5 regular season last year before stepping down prior to their International Bowl win over Western Michigan. Dantonio knows the Big Ten having worked under Nick Saban at Michigan State and Jim Tressel at Ohio State.
According to the computer, there doesn't appear to be a realistic opportunity for Michigan State to make it to a bowl game. The forecast has all but one of their projected losses coming by at least 11.08 points. The home date with Pitt appears to be their best chance at picking up another victory as the computer favors the Panthers by just 4.83. However, forecasted wins over Northwestern (-2.14) and Indiana (-2.96) could swing in the opposite direction.
Tragically, Indiana will also be entering the 2007 campaign with a new head coach. Terry Hoeppner died of complications from a brain tumor on June 19. The school had announced the previous day that assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Bill Lynch was named acting head coach while Hoeppner continued a medical leave of absence. Hoeppner had been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments in the wake of two brain surgeries in the previous 18 months.
The non-conference Hoosier schedule is basically a honorary membership in the MAC with a road loss to Western Michigan and home wins over Akron and Ball State. A third win is the opener against 1-AA Indiana State. The only conference victory is at home against Illinois which the computer says would get Indiana off to a 3-1 start. The Hoosiers were on the cusp of bowl eligibility last year with a 4-5 record after upset wins over Iowa and Michigan State, but they stumbled to an 0-3 finish.
Hoeppner's death makes this the second consecutive season that
a Big Ten school has had to deal with such a tragedy just weeks before the season began. Last year, Northwestern head coach Randy Walker died of an apparent heart attack on June 29 at the age of 52. When Pat Fitzgerald was promoted from linebacker coach and recruiting coordinator, the former All-American Northwestern linebacker became the youngest head coach in Division I-A at the age of 31.
Fitzgerald's first season was a mixed bag of results that featured a home loss to 1-AA Maine and a road win over Iowa. On the surface, the forecast appears to call for no improvement. But when you dig a little deeper, you find that five of the projected Wildcat losses are by less than 5 points, including home games against Nevada, Minnesota and Iowa.
Ron Zook isn't getting much love from the computer in his third season at Illinois, though a 4-8 forecast doubles the win total from last year. The Fightin' Illini are underdogs by just 2.32 at Indiana, but the margin is also slim in three of their predicted wins - the road trip to Illinois (-2.68), and in home dates with Ball State (-4.91) and Northwestern (-2.85).
As a whole, Big Ten teams are projected to go 38-6 against out-of-conference opposition with all six losses coming at the expense of the bottom five teams.