Laced with prestige and procrastination, college's oldest Division 1 conference enters the modern era with the thick-knuckles and high-brow of Fitzgerald's last tycoon. Like a vintage port, the only conference to enjoy Association of American Universities membership status for all its institutions is thick-blooded, sweet, and slow to change.
Esteemed from the glory days, the retro-eleven boasts more national championships than any other Division 1 conference (in case you wondered, when factored using its present membership roll, the BCS collective ranks as follows: Big 10 - 27, SEC - 25, Big 12 - 19, ACC - 16 Pac 10 - 14, Big East 4. Source: College Football Data Warehouse).
That being said only 3 of its 27 championships occurred in the last thirty years. Compare that to the SEC's 8, and you begin to see the shift in parity that's substituted crisp autumn leaves and cool November snaps for sweat, julips, and electric September nights in the swamp.
Although the binding is dusty, the textbook-10 remains college football's classiest co-op. Still, marriage to rosy tradition won't help the smart league seem any less dull. To reinvent itself for the future, the north needs to re-capture its grit, consistency, and urgency from the bottom up.
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
Esquire Rating: 1/5
Is it 2009 yet?
Those who thought it could never rain in the Metrodome got drenched in 2007 when this outdated program was bludgeoned by Bowling Green, and Florida Atlantic -- and had to rely on a short-range botched field goal attempt to get into double overtime in their lone season win against Miami (Ohio). Despite ranking 48th in total offense, the Gophers abomination of a defense placed dead last (119th) nationally -- giving up a 518 yards a game (and 3,472 yards in the air).
Suffice it to say Tim Brewster enjoyed the kind of honeymoon traditionally reserved for people with chronic motion sickness who forget to pack Dramamine on a three-month cruise around Cape Horn.
Still, despite their torturing play, Brewster managed to put together a terrific recruiting class. Incoming speed, and a move back onto campus to a new outdoor stadium set for 2009 give the Gopher-faithful cause for future optimism. Still, this won't be the year -- at least in conference. Away matchups at Ohio State, Illinois, and Wisconsin will make Minnesota long for the piss-stained protection of their home dome.
Must Win: @ BOWLING GREEN (Sept. 6th). Showing up against the Falcons will do two things, 1. Prevent the Big Ten from embarrassing itself out of conference, and 2. Give Minnesota a shot at opening the season 4-0. It's all downhill from there.
Rivalry Comment: How do you fix one of the worst defenses in NCAA history? Hire, Ted Roof, the guy who just got fired for leading Duke to a 1-11 record, and three consecutive winless seasons in the ACC. Then again, 92nd in total defense is better than 119th. (And, in all honesty The Rivalry, Esq. respects what Roof did at Georgia Tech and thinks he'll be a good fit for the Golden Gophers)
Predicted Finish: 4-8 (1-7 conference)
Esquire Rating: 2/5
No huddle a la mode.
2007 was a pivotal and challenging year for the Hoosiers, bookended by the loss of Terry Hoeppner, and the emergence of a pulse in Bloomington. Hoeppner's final message to his team was simple and powerful: "Play 12" -- a reference to earning a bowl bid for the for the first time since 1993 (and a metaphysical challenge to live life to its fullest margin).
Inspired by Terry, the Hoosiers "defended the Rock," and earned a bid to the Insight Bowl. The Rivalry, Esq. supports the new generation of Indiana football.
In that spirit 2008 is somewhat of an encore. But this time around Bill Lynch will have to to establish spatial presence without record breaking wide receiver James Hardy. With quarterback Kellen Lewis on suspension -- it's not yet clear which IU squad we'll see -- the tight-knit family of 2007, or a new class, with balding offensive line play, week ground efforts, and uncertain leadership.
To siphon momentum and stretch opposing coverages, Lynch has installed a spread format no-huddle offense. Unlike Northwestern, which has undergone a similar transition, there's no guarantee he has the personnel to man the vogue attack. A light schedule, with no Ohio State or Michigan gives the Hoosiers every opportunity to repeat their 2007 success. But first, they need to settle the fundamentals.
Must Win: MICHIGAN STATE (Sept. 27th).
Rivalry Comment: Play 12.
Predicted Finish: 6-6 (2-6 conference)
Esquire Rating: 2/5
It's all right, it's okay, you can work for us someday.
The Wildcats went into 2007 with high (for Evanston) expectations. And why not -- they were set to paint the 7th easiest schedule in the FBS purple. A fair 6-6 record resulted, but 3 losses in the final 4 games kept the bowl eligible brainiacs home for Christmas.
Still, Northwestern finished 32nd in the country in total offense (2nd in the Big Ten) -- clawing out an impressive 427 average yards a game. That offense returns largely intact, with quarterback C.J. Bacher, and wide receiver duo Eric Peterman and Ross Lane. But, the Wildcats finished 10th in the conference in scoring -- something of a disparity. To finish what they start, incoming offensive coordinator Mick McCall spent the spring installing a no-huddle offense
Increased pace and purpose could put the Wildcats in position to make a bowl run.
Must Win: SYRACUSE (Aug. 30th). Handling this inaugural out of conference matchup gives Northwestern a chance to open the season 4-0.
Rivalry Comment: To encourage home attendance get rid of the lame Wildcat sound effects at Ryan Field.
Predicted Finish: 6-6 (3-5 conference)
Esquire Rating 2/5
When it doubt, go with pink.
The last time Iowa football seemed to mean something was on the eve of their October 2006 primetime matchup with the No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes. Gameday broadcast live from Iowa City and a golden sea of fans filled Kinnick stadium in hopes of an epic upset.
The Rivalry, Esq. watched from a sports bar in Charleston, WV, en route to take advantage of whitewater release season on the Gauley river. Leading 21-10 at halftime, the Buckeyes opened the second half with one of the greatest improvisational shows of athleticism of all time. Anthony Gonzalez took a pitch left at the Iowa 30-yard line, dug and pivoted with one fist in the grass, and reversed field for a touchdown sprint down the home team sidelines that buried the No. 13 Hawkeyes.
Since that night, Kirk Ferentz's squad hasn't been the same. A 2007 season littered with losses has demasculated an otherwise capable franchise. If 109th in total offense doesn't sound like the Iowa you remember, welcome to the club.
Count on 2008 to bring about better passing variances with the return of wideout Andy Brodell, and tight end Tony Moeaki -- both figures sat out 2007 with injuries. Defensive leadership, from the line back should make for a stingier squad that won't see the likes of Ohio State or Michigan.
Must Win: @ MICHIGAN STATE (Oct. 4th)
Rivalry Comment: It's always worth making special mention of one of the more flamboyant traditions in college football: Kinnick Stadium's pink visiting locker room.
The Rivalry, Esq. is entertained by this Freudian commentary on psychosexual development, and proposes that all teams go to ridiculous lengths to humble and harass opponents. For example, Penn State could concentrate Joe Paterno's flatulence and pipe it into the visiting lockers through the central air...
Predicted Finish: 7-5 (4-4 conference)
PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
Esquire Rating: 3/5
Will Paterno distract or deliver number 59?
A vanilla plain 2007 for the Nittany Lions was salvaged by 6-1 record at home, and a bowl win over Texas A&M. This year, they'll have to take to the highway, with away contests at Wisconsin and Ohio State. Eight returning starters on an offense that averaged 30.3 points a game, and finished 55th nationally last year, will help -- especially the soundness of the line, garnished by the highly anticipated addition of speedy Stephfon Green at running back.
Still, the quarterback position remains up for grabs, and a defense, weakened by the loss of Linebacker U's valedictorian Sean Lee, has a long road ahead of them. The program also continues to be overshadowed by the status of Joe Paterno, and rumors in the blogisphere that Greg Schiano will be tapped to take his place.
Must Win: ILLINOIS (Sept. 27th).
Rivalry Comment: Schiano should be in State College by the new year.
Predicted Finish: 8-4 (4-4 conference)
Esquire Rating: 3/5
Moustache madness continues in West Lafayette.
Joe Tiller's preparations to lead the Boilermakers through conference play a final time, should encourage reflection on the larger implications of the future of the Big 10. The beloved barons (Alverez, Carr) have relinquished their grip, leading to a new generation of young coaches more willing to play with fire and experiment with the fashions of the game. With Paterno primed to retire, and progressive principals already in-place in Ann Arbor, Evanston, Bloomington, Urbana, Minneapolis -- and soon to be West Lafayette, modernization in the Big Ten is inevitable.
So how will Tiller punctuate his final go round? First, by sustaining 07's rapid fire passing attack under quarterback Curtis Painter. Painter will miss his favorite target, Dorien Bryant who led last year's receptions with 936 yards -- but will have capable Greg Orton on the strong side. A load of tight end talent helps mitigate the dropoff in the wake of Dustin Keller.
Still, a young, injury prone line needs to develop, first to protect the pass, and second to promote a sound ground game. A damning schedule with a home matchup again Oregon, and visits to Notre Dame and Ohio State will test Tiller's capstone Boilermakers.
Must Win: OREGON (Sept. 13th).
Rivalry Comment: Is it just us or does Tiller's successor Danny Hope look a little like he might have strangled someone to death in the 1980s? The Rivalry, Esq. will have its friends over at the Bureau do a missing persons search in eastern Kentucky.
Predicted Finish: 7-5 (5-3 conference)
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Esquire Rating: 3/5
Can the diplomat develop the Spartan attack?
Anyone who watched Ohio State play defense in 2002 believes in Mark Dantonio. Like his mentor Jim Tressel, Dantonio is cool and Ambassador-like. He's not funny (although it's often amusing when he admits it), and the The Rivalry, Esq. suspects he's a briefs man (boxers are a little too loose for his blood).
What he's doing in East Lansing is somewhat more assertive. Dantonio's first-order defense finished 2007 a respectable 31st nationally, allowing only 2,800 yards in the air. With six starters back, including defensive end Trevor Anderson (who followed Dantonio from Cincinnati) expect coverage sets to continue to siphon routes.
The return of quarterback Bryan Hoyer and power back Javon Ringer (who rushed for 1,447 yards in 07), gives the offense identity. Up and coming receiver packages complete the set.
That being said, the Big 10 isn't getting any easier and State faces a suffocating schedule with out of conference matchups against California and Notre Dame, and Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin back-to-back-to-back.
Must Win: @ CALIFORNIA (Aug. 30th).
Rivalry Comment: This is the year to kick your big brother's ass.
Predicted Finish: 8-4 (5-3 conference)
Esquire Rating: 3/5
Riddler and the Riddle Factory
Like D.C. Comics supervillian The Riddler, Rich Rodriquez continues to mask the visage of the new Wolverines -- an elongated national question mark that's larger than any other in the leadup to 2008. Will his trademark option/spread stun the good ol' boy Big Ten, or will his players spoil the plot?
Yes and yes. Surprising backfield speed in the spring game (if you watched ESPN's coverage you didn't see it -- they edited a botched handoff and an interception together and called it a day) from Brandon Minor and Kevin Grady will be lethal in short yardage situations. Pure athletic instinct should damper their lack of sophistication -- but this corn-fed bunch still sticks out like a sore Northern thumb.
Expect Michigan to lose when they shouldn't, and win when it counts. A solid 2009 recruiting class is sure to help the hangover.
Must Win: WISCONSIN (Sept. 27th) their first conference match comes against a sure power. A win here might have the undesirable side effect of returning expectations to Ann Arbor prematurely.
Rivalry Comment: Welcome to the rivalry, Rich. Please sign on the dotted line.
Predicted Finish: 8-4 (5-3 conference)
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Esquire Rating: 4/5
All juice. No pulp.
2007 was a milestone year for Ron Zook and Illinois football. The Juice/Mendenhall tandem instituted ferocity into a previously complacent Illini, pulling a dramatic away upset of then No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus and barreling to the Rose Bowl when the Buckeyes were tapped to play in New Orleans. A 17-49 massacre at the doorstep of USC, exposed the squad's greatest weakness, a defense that allowed the Trojans to put up 633 total yards.
They won't happen again. 2008 welcomes a defensive front that Zook says "...has a chance to be the best I've been around in 15 years." Ends Doug Pilcher and Derek Walker will flank sack leader Will Davis to form a cohesive unit with size and mechanics. Middle linebacker Brit Miller is one the smartest in his position -- and will keep the belt tight.
That leaves the small problem of replacing Rashard Mendenhall -- that little guy with the 1,681 yard rushing season. Spring injuries stunted the growth of the incoming backs -- so its not yet clear whether Illinois will have a go to. If they can't find one, they'll be frighteningly one-dimensional in the face of Big 10 defenses more adjusted to their antics.
Their schedule is nicely spread out, giving them time to stay healthy and plan for the peaks.
Must Win: @ MISSOURI. In an unusual major power matchup this August 30th neutral site game begs to be the best of opening weekend. Both bordering rivals are Esquire 4s, and the winner will be on the way to a big season.
Rivalry Comment: If Ron Zook is looking for good bulletin board material here's a pin up: The Rivalry, Esq. thinks the Missouri Tigers want it more.
Predicted Finish: 9-3 (6-2 conference)
Esquire Rating: 4/5
Will the Badgers become the first Adidas-sponsored team to actually win?
Wisconsin is close to becoming the new Clemson when it comes to underachieving. The 2007 squad was much acclaimed, and started 5-0 before dropping to Illinois and getting pounded by an unranked Penn State. Injuries limited bruising back P.J. Hill to an underwhelming 1,212 yard season.
2008 will see 17 starters back, including Hill, Tight End Travis Beckum, and Linebacker Jonathan Casillas. Quarterback Tyler Donovan is missing -- his consistency will need to be re-established to diversify the Badger offense and keep defenses spread out.
While Bret Bielema appears to be set on defense with 9 returning, injuries have hampered growth in Madison. With 26 players missing some portion of spring ball due to injuries, a strong showing at camp is essential to get back to game speed. A wimpy out of conference schedule should give the Badgers something to chew on.
Must Win: OHIO STATE (Oct. 4th). The Buckeyes have historically struggled at Camp Randall. This is Bielema's chance to pick up his predecessor's momentum.
Rivalry Comment: The Rivalry, Esq. will be in Madison for the festivities and reminds Wisconsin fans not to act like douches when your team happens to score a field goal in the first quarter. It's going to be a long day.
Predicted Finish: 11-1 (7-1 conference)
OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
Esquire Rating: 5/5
The Yankees of college football are loathed and loaded.
Ohio State, of late, has cornered the market on seconds. Ask anyone south of the Mason-Dixon, and they'll tell you that slow-hi-o can't play with speed. They'll point to consecutive national championship losses and an 0-9 record against the SEC as affirmative proof.
But no one mentions how the Buckeyes entered 2007 with four returning starters, ranked 11th in the country, and expected to muster only a modest showing in a middle-tier bowl. Led by young talent and helped by historic late-season collapses, the Buckeyes fell backwards into the championship, where they lost to the preseason No. 1.
2008 couldn't be any different. 20 returning starters, including unofficial Heisman frontrunner Chris "Beanie" Wells who rushed for 1,609 yards last year on an injured ankle will lead a poisonous squad. (Ask former LSU safety Craig Steltz about Beanie's speed -- he saw a little when he failed to close in the open field on a 65 yard touchdown break).
A defense that loses first-round draft pick Vernon Gholston, takes comfort in the fact they return Lawrence Wilson -- the breakout defensive end who suffered a broken leg in last season's opener. Nine other defenders return to a squad that ranked first in the country statistically last year including James Laurinaitis, and Malcolm Jenkins.
Still, Quarterback Todd Boeckman displayed poor judgment late in the 2007 season -- coverage misreads led to multiple turnovers in losses to Illinois and LSU. Boeckman will have to mature to lead the Scarlet offense in 2008, a unit that ranked 62nd nationally in 07.
Must Win: @ USC (Sept. 13th). While it won't affect their bid to be the first team in the history of the Big Ten to win three consecutive outright championships, this early trip to La-la land is the one of the most anticipated games of 2008. With its national reputation on the line the Buckeyes need a Hollywood ending in the first meeting between the elites in 24 years.
Rivalry Comment: An interesting twist on the pro-form offense might develop with the selective incorporation of Scouts No. 1 overall recruit Terrelle Pryor. If the dual-threater from Jeannette, PA can shake up short yardage situations, the Leak/Tebow combo might have a new home in Columbus.
Predicted Finish: 12-0 (8-0 conference)