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Thorny road to the Roses

The Big Ten season kicks off this weekend with possibly the most depth it has had in years.

Five Big Ten teams are in The Associated Press Top 25 going into this week, with Wisconsin, Minnesota and Penn State receiving votes as well.

It looks entirely probable that this year’s national champion could come out of the Big Ten.

Here’s a look at who could come out of the Big Ten season as conference champions.

1. Ohio State
Last year: (8-4, 4-4)
The talk surrounding the Buckeyes heading into this season was about contending for a national title. And though they lost to Texas at home in week two, that’s still a viable possibility. Ohio State’s stout defense – allowing an average of 15 points per game – is led by senior All-American linebacker A.J. Hawk. Alongside Hawk are fellow senior linebackers Anthony Schlegel and Bobby Carpenter. On offense, junior quarterback Troy Smith is likely at the helm for the rest of the season after a one-game suspension and one game of splitting time with senior Justin Zwick. Smith has a deep receiving corps to throw in coach Jim Tressel’s newly minted spread offense. The receivers include junior Santonio Holmes, sophomore Anthony Gonzalez and electrifying, do-everything sophomore Ted Ginn Jr. The Buckeyes’ season will likely hinge on their final game, a showdown against Michigan at the Big House

2. Purdue
Last year: (7-5, 4-4)
The Boilermakers are 2-0 for the second straight year after opening at 5-0 last season, and are ranked 11th in The Associate Press poll heading into Saturday’s contest against Minnesota. Purdue’s defense – headlined by defensive end Ray Edwards – is ranked first in the country against the run, allowing only 16 yards per game. Junior Brandon Kirsch will attempt to fill the shoes of Kyle Orton, who started at quarterback in West Lafayette for the better part of four seasons. While Orton was the prototypical pocket-passer, Kirsch brings some athleticism to the quarterback position. Running back Jerod Void is averaging 104 rushing yards per game, which ranks fourth in the conference and is tied for 25th nationally. So far this season, he has been splitting carries with sophomore Kory Sheets. Purdue also benefits from its rotation in the league schedule. Coach Joe Tiller’s Boilermakers do not play Michigan and Ohio State this season, and play Iowa at home. Their toughest contest could be this weekend, playing a Gophers team on the road that matches their run defense with one of the best rushing offenses in the nation.

3. Michigan
Last year: (9-3, 7-1)
Last season the Wolverines rode their star freshman tandem of quarterback Chad Henne and running back Michael Hart to the Rose Bowl. This year they should easily build on that momentum and repeat as conference champions, right? Well, maybe not. Michigan dropped an early season game at Notre Dame 17-10, and did very little in the way of offense. The Wolverines are still trying to cope with the loss of All-American receiver Braylon Edwards. Even though they return Jason Avant and return-man-extraordinaire Steve Breaston at receiver, they still haven’t found the go-to guy Edwards was. Hart, meanwhile, went out in the first quarter against Notre Dame with a hamstring injury and has yet to return. All that said, this team is as talented as any in the conference. Still, Lloyd Carr has beaten Ohio State just once in Jim Tressel’s four years in Columbus. And once again, the Michigan-Ohio State game should decide the conference title.

4. Iowa
Last year: (10-2, 7-1)
2004 coach of the year Kirk Ferentz leads the Hawkeyes into the Big Ten season as one of the favorites to win the conference. The team was co-Big Ten champion with Michigan last season and has won the Outback Bowl and Alamo Bowl the past two seasons. The team returns first-team all-Big Ten quarterback Drew Tate and even has running backs, after going through 2004 decimated by injuries at the critical position. The biggest challenge to Iowa on defense is whether it can effectively replace all four defensive linemen and sustain productivity through the Big Ten schedule. That obstacle will clearly receive help from the Hawkeyes linebacking corps, which features two of the nation’s best in Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge. A nonconference loss to in-state rival Iowa State made many doubt Iowa’s chances, but this team is solid through and through.

5. Michigan State
Last year: (5-7, 4-4)
Sophomore quarterback Drew Stanton emerged as a legitimate superstar in the Spartans’ upset of then-No. 10 Notre Dame. Stanton threw for 327 yards and three touchdown passes against the Irish to go along with 48 rushing yards and a rushing score. He’s not the only talented back in coach John L. Smith’s spread offense, either. The two-headed running back tandem of Jason Teague and Jehuu Caulcrick is good enough to eat yardage. The one question mark with the Spartans could be the defense, which allowed 41 points against Notre Dame. Still, the schedule brings Michigan State Michigan in East Lansing. This could be the year Smith and the Spartans blast through the elite of the conference to a New Year’s Day bowl game.

6. Minnesota
Last year: (7-5, 3-5)
Minnesota is off to its fourth straight 3-0 start, drawing comparisons to last season’s 5-0 start, which saw the team lose its first game in week six, on the road against the Michigan. This season the Gophers travel to Ann Arbor again for week six, but first they must get through Purdue and Penn State (a combined 5-0 this year) to begin 5-0 again. Minnesota is the No. 1 rushing team in the country, averaging 335 yards per game. Heisman Trophy candidate Laurence Maroney ranks second in the nation with 160.3 rushing yards per game. The Gophers defense has allowed just 13.6 points per game, and has accumulated eight takeaways through three games. Their biggest test will come when they travel to Ann Arbor to take on the Wolverines. And to make this a statement season, Minnesota will have to have improvement from last year’s quarterback play and overall defensive effort.

7. Wisconsin
Last year: (9-3, 6-2)
Wisconsin has jumped out to a 3-0 start this season – coach Barry Alvarez’s last – for the third time in the past four years, after opening last season with nine consecutive wins. But gone from last year’s team are all All-Big Ten performers defensive end Erasmus James, safety Jim Leonhard, cornerback Scott Starks and running back Anthony Davis. Still, the Badgers rank among the top six nationally this year in both rushing offense (272.3 yards per game – sixth nationally, second in Big Ten) and rushing defense (39.7 yards per game – fourth nationally, second in Big Ten). Running back Brian Calhoun, a transfer from Colorado, is the top-scoring running back in the country with eight touchdowns, and ranks third in the nation with an average of 157 rushing yards per game. Wisconsin has a favorable schedule this year, with Michigan, Purdue and Iowa coming to Madison, and Ohio State nowhere to be found on the schedule.

8. Penn State
Last year: (4-7, 2-6)
Penn State is 3-0 for the first time since 2002 and is seeking its first 4-0 mark since starting the 1999 campaign with nine straight wins. After storming into the Big Ten in the 1990s, the Nittany Lions have started the new century with a thud, carding a winning record in just one of the past five seasons. Penn State’s offense is averaging 35 points per game so far this year, led by dual-threat quarterback Michael Robinson, who ranks third in the league and eighth in the country with a pass efficiency rating of 176.1. Penn State will be tested when it plays host to Ohio State on Oct. 8. Coach Joe Paterno said his team this season still needs more time to gel. “I think we’ve got a good football team, not a great one” Paterno said. “But we’ve got a chance to be a really good football team someday.”

9. Northwestern
Last year: (5-3, 6-6)
Senior quarterback Brett Basanez returns to Evanston for his fourth year as Northwestern’s starter. That means Basanez should be well-versed in the intricacies of coach Randy Walker’s spread offense. Running back Tyrell Sutton won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors after the Wildcats’ week two win over Northern Illinois when he scored four times and rushed for 214 yards. Northwestern went to the Motor City Bowl in 2003. And with conference upsets of Ohio State and Purdue last season, the Wildcats were a win away from a return engagement in a bowl game last season. This team may be more talented than those squads, but this season, the conference is deeper than in past years.

10. Illinois
Last year: (3-8, 1-7)
The Illini finished tied with Indiana for last place last season with a 3-8 record (1-7 Big Ten). They’ve won only four games total in the past two seasons, but new coach Ron Zook and his staff of nine new coaches are looking to return the team to respectability. Illinois returns seven starters on offense, including running backs Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey. A Big Ten honorable mention, Thomas was the Illini’s leading rusher last season with 893 yards and eight touchdowns and was voted the team’s most valuable player. Illinois also returns wide receiver Kendrick Jones, who led the team with 47 receptions for 687 yards and five touchdowns in 2004. The only returning assistant coach at Illinois is defensive coordinator Mike Mallory. Linebacker J. Leman was named to the Big Ten all-freshman team last year and typifies the way Illinois will spend this season rebuilding.

11. Indiana
Last year: (3-8, 1-7)
The Hoosiers had an identical record as Illinois’ last season, good for a last place tie. This season Indiana debuts its fourth coach in 10 seasons in Terry Hoeppner. The Hoosiers return only three starters on offense – all offensive linemen. The loss to two-year starting running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to Ole Miss is a huge blow. One of the biggest tests for Indiana this year will be to find a go-to wide receiver to replace all-time leading receiver Courtney Roby. With eight starters returning, defense is a much prettier picture, and will have to carry the Hoosiers. That’s quite the predicament considering the squad was the Big Ten’s worst in 2004. Down the line, the Hoosiers will be hoping to make their first bowl game since 1993, but that probably won’t happen this year.

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