Big Ten, big question

With Preseason favorite Michigan on the ropes and no true front-runner, the Big Ten Title is up for grabs.

Brian Deutsch

It’s been a trying first three weeks of the regular season for the Big Ten. Skeptics are plentiful in a Big Ten conference with no true leader and a lot of unanswered questions. With that in mind, it won’t be easy to count any team out of the running for the Rose Bowl and nearly impossible to pick a conference champion in September.

TOP FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

1. CURTIS PAINTER – QUARTERBACK, PURDUE
Painter has the Boilermakers offense rolling and leads the Big Ten with 952 passing yards. But can Purdue’s high-flying offense hold up to the conference’s best defenses?

2. AMIR PINNIX – RUNNING BACK, MINNESOTA
Pinnix will need to have some big games this season to take the load off of the on-again-off-again Minnesota offense. The senior’s dual threats on the ground and in the air make him one of the conference’s most dangerous backs.

3. P.J. HILL – RUNNING BACK, WISCONSIN
Hill leads all conference running backs with seven total touchdowns. But will he be able to find the end zone against defensive powerhouses like Penn State and Ohio State?

4. MIKE HART – RUNNING BACK, MICHIGAN
As of Sunday, Hart is the Big Ten’s leading rusher with 502 yards and five touchdowns.

He’ll need to continue to blow by defenses if Michigan is going to turn its season around.

5. JAMES LAURINAITIS – LINEBACKER, OHIO STATE
The preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year is one reason why Ohio State has only given up 591 yards in three games. If the Buckeyes can keep the trend up, they’ll be smelling roses in January.

1 PENN STATE, No. 10

THIS SEASON (3-0 overall 0-0 Big Ten)
LAST SEASON (9-4 overall, 5-3 Big Ten)
HEAD COACH Joe Paterno, 42nd Year

The Nittany Lions get Wisconsin and Ohio State at home this year, while its road schedule is one of the easiest in the conference. Its biggest test will come this weekend at Michigan, where Penn State will try to beat the Wolverines for the first time since 1996. A sweep against those three will likely bring the Nittany Lions their first Big Ten title since 2005, but a single loss could seal their fate in a close race for the conference. But the odds are in Penn State’s favor. In a conference dominated by running backs, the Nittany Lions’ defense will need to continue to stop the run, which is what they do best. Their run defense is the best in the conference presently – surrendering just 53 yards in its first three games. Meanwhile on the other side of the ball, senior quarterback Anthony Morelli has thrown eight touchdowns to lead the Nittany Lions’ offense.

2 WISCONSIN, No. 7

THIS SEASON (3-0 overall, 0-0 Big Ten)
LAST SEASON (12-1 overall, 7-1 Big Ten)
HEAD COACH Bret Bielema, Second Year

The Badgers have the longest current winning streak in the nation at 12 games, going back to last season. Wisconsin’s last loss came in their first Big Ten game of 2006, against the then-No. 6 team in the nation, the Michigan Wolverines. Wisconsin brings back one of the best running games in the Big Ten this year, even after losing Outland Trophy Award Winner offensive tackle Joe Thomas to the No. 3 pick in the NFL. The Badgers do bring back 2006 All-Big Ten running back P.J. Hill, who gained 1,618 yards on the ground last season. Wisconsin is always very solid at home, obtaining an 18-1 record at Camp Randall Stadium the past three seasons. The Badgers also have the most wins in the Big Ten over the past three years at 31. Wisconsin will have its biggest tests on Oct. 13 at Penn State and Nov. 3 at Ohio State.

3 OHIO STATE, No. 8

THIS SEASON (3-0 overall, 0-0 Big Ten)
LAST SEASON (12-1 overall, 8-0 Big Ten)
HEAD COACH Jim Tressel, Seventh Year

After Michigan’s spiral out of the polls, Ohio State is considered by some to be the team to win the conference. But the target on its back is bigger than ever as everyone in the Big Ten will try to keep the Buckeyes out of their second consecutive BCS title game. After three non-conference wins this season, junior quarterback Todd Boeckman’s 574 passing yards and six touchdowns have given the Buckeyes a suitable replacement for last year’s Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. Junior linebacker James Laurinaitis leads a defensive unit that has only given up a pair of touchdowns this season, leaving Ohio State primed to win its second straight conference championship. But back-to-back games against Penn State and Wisconsin will put the Buckeyes’ hopes of repeating last season’s undefeated record in conference matchups to the test.

4 PURDUE

THIS SEASON (3-0 overall, 0-0 Big Ten)
LAST SEASON (8-6 overall, 5-3 Big Ten)
HEAD COACH Joe Tiller, 11th Year

Purdue brings in the highest-scoring offense of any Big Ten team, at nearly 50 points (49.7) a game. The Boilermakers’ offense is led by quarterback Curtis Painter, who gives Purdue the Big Ten’s most potent passing attack. Painter leads the Big Ten in completions with 82, completion percentage at 66.7, and yards per game through the air averaging 319.7 per game. Painter’s favorite target in past years has been senior Biletnikoff Award watch list (nation’s outstanding receiver) wide out Dorien Bryant. Bryant has been climbing the all time receiving records at Purdue this year, and also has been one of the best kick returners in school history. The Boilermakers have a favorable schedule this year, with their only tough road test being at Penn State on Nov. 3 and also not having to face a dangerous Wisconsin team. Purdue will host Ohio State on Oct. 6 in a game that will tell a lot about how strong this team really is.

5 MICHIGAN

THIS SEASON (1-2 overall, 0-0 Big Ten)
LAST SEASON (11-2 overall, 7-1 Big Ten)
HEAD COACH Lloyd Carr, 13th Year

After losing their first two games of the season in dramatic style, the Wolverines got back on track in a big way last week with a 38-0 win over Notre Dame. Coming off an 11-2 season and a Rose Bowl appearance, Michigan was primed to have another solid year. Although their BCS Championship hopes are now down the drain with a 1-2 record, the Wolverines still have a chance to grab the Big Ten title. Michigan is led on offense by senior running back and Heisman Trophy candidate Mike Hart, who has been the starter at tailback for the Wolverines the past three seasons. Fellow senior Heisman Trophy candidate Chad Henne was injured in week two’s game versus Oregon and in week three, true freshman quarterback Ryan Mallet replaced Henne to lead the Wolverines to their first victory of the year with three touchdown passes. The biggest test for Michigan will be in their last two games when they travel to Wisconsin on Nov. 10 and then host rival Ohio State on Nov. 17.

6 IOWA

THIS SEASON (2-1 overall, 0-0 Big Ten)
LAST SEASON (6-7 overall, 2-6 Big Ten)
HEAD COACH Kirk Ferentz, Ninth Year

After giving up just three points in its first two games, Iowa suffered a setback last weekend in a 15-13 loss to in-state rival Iowa State. Things won’t get any easier for the team as the Hawkeyes will be put to the test early in conference play by traveling to both Wisconsin and Penn State in the first three weeks of the Big Ten action. Iowa will need to carry its strong defensive play into non-conference games – where the unit gave up just 18 points in three games, 15 of those coming last week in the loss to the Cyclones. Offensively, the Hawkeyes are averaging just 21 points a game and sophomore quarterback Jake Christensen hasn’t had a great year – throwing for just 529 yards with five touchdowns and one pick. One bright spot is junior tight end Tony Moeaki, whose three touchdown grabs are second most by a tight- end in the Big Ten.

7 ILLINOIS

THIS SEASON (2-1 overall, 0-0 Big Ten)
LAST SEASON (2-10 overall, 1-7 BigTen)
HEAD COACH Ron Zook, Third Year

Already equaling their total number of wins from last season, the 2007 Illini football team is much improved in just one year. Ron Zook’s team features a talented running game with junior Rashard Mendenhall and sophomore quarterback Isiah “Juice” Williams. Last season Illinois ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten and 11th in the nation in rushing offense. Williams has big play ability with his legs and also his arm, setting a school record with seven touchdown passes over 30 yards and three over 60 yards. Twenty-three of his carries on the ground were of 20 yards or more. The Illini’s first three games in the Big Ten may be their toughest, as they host Penn State and Wisconsin and then travel to Iowa, who is always hard to beat at home. Illinois also goes out to Columbus for a battle with Ohio State on Nov. 10.

8 INDIANA

THIS SEASON (3-0 overall, 0-0 Big Ten)
LAST SEASON (5-7 overall, 3-5 Big Ten)
HEAD COACH Bill Lynch, First Year

New head coach Bill Lynch joined the staff after the passing of 59-year-old former coach Terry Hoeppner. Hoeppner helped instill a new passion for Hoosier football, increasing student ticket sales by 110 percent in his tenure at Indiana. Lynch picks up an up-and-rising Indiana football team that has gotten off to a great start at 3-0. Sophomore Kellen Lewis entered this season as one of the premier quarterbacks in the Big Ten after having one of the best freshman seasons in Indiana history. Lewis racked up 2,221 passing yards in 2006 with 19 total touchdowns. The Hoosiers deepest position by far is wide receiver, with five wide outs returning that caught 20 or more passes for 200 yards or more in 2006. Junior wide receiver James Hardy has posted consecutive All-Big Ten seasons while grabbing 20 career touchdowns which puts him second on the list all time at Indiana. The Hoosiers face a tough road in the middle of conference play, having to travel to Michigan State on Oct. 13, come back to face Penn State on the Oct. 20, and go to Wisconsin on Oct. 27.

9 MICHIGAN STATE

THIS SEASON (3-0 overall, 0-0 Big Ten)
LAST SEASON (4-8 overall, 3-7 Big Ten)
HEAD COACH Mark Dantanio, First Year

Not much can be said about the Spartans, although they are still sitting pretty at 3-0. They’re a middle-of- the-pack type team that has the toughest schedule in the conference. This weekend they catch a break when State takes on a winless Notre Dame team. Unfortunately, the Spartans will have to travel to Wisconsin the following weekend and then to Columbus to take on Ohio State on Oct. 20. Finally, the Spartans close out the season against Penn State at home. The offensive line has already given up eight sacks this season, and things have to improve if the Spartans want to be considered contenders. Michigan State is led by senior running back Jehuu Cualcrick and junior wide out Devin Thomas. Cualcrick’s six rushing touchdowns, including four against Alabama-Birmingham, are second most in the conference while Thomas’ 315 receiving yards is good enough for third place in the Big Ten.

10 MINNESOTA

THIS SEASON (1-2 overall, 0-0 Big Ten)
LAST SEASON (6-7 overall, 3-5 Big Ten)
HEAD COACH Tim Brewster, First Year

Brewster and the Gophers have had a rough go of it so far this season, losing two of their three non-conference games by a total margin of four points. Opposing offenses have been able to tear up the understaffed Minnesota defense and things won’t get any easier when conference games start up next weekend against Purdue. Redshirt freshman quarterback Adam Weber and senior running back Amir Pinnix lead Minnesota’s spread coast offense, which managing to average 37 points and almost 500 yards of total offense a game. But 12 turnovers this season has already severely hindered Minnesota’s chances of making it to its’ eighth bowl game in nine years. The departures of quarterback Bryan Cupito and tight end Matt Spaeth, both school-record holders at their positions, hasn’t helped either.

11 NORTHWESTERN

THIS SEASON (2-1 overall, 0-0 Big Ten)
LAST SEASON (4-8 overall, 2-6 Big Ten)
HEAD COACH Pat Fitzgerald, Second Year

Last week, the Wildcats helped Duke end its 22-game losing streak with a 20-14 loss, ruining Northwestern’s hopes of its best start since 2001 when the Wildcats began the season 3-0. Now, they open up Big Ten play at Ohio State this weekend against arguably the best defense in the conference. Junior quarterback C.J. Bacher has passed for 838 yards and four touchdowns and the Wildcats are averaging 283 passing yards a game – the second most in the Big Ten behind Purdue, but those numbers will likely dwindle against conference foes. In addition, the Wildcats have struggled to find the end zone already this season, recording just 77 points. Only Iowa has scored fewer with 64. Northwestern will need a miracle if it hopes to capture their first Big Ten title since 1996.