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Big Ten Week: Binding Predictions

A more detailed update on the methodology of these picks will follow, but probably not until the wee hours...
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Update [2007-8-13 6:28:15 by SMQ]:
The process here is important, so, as promised, a box has been added to each team's section. Here's what's up with the numbers, which take Athlon's classification of wins, losses and toss-ups to its extreme:

9: Likely blowout win; no conceivable defeat
8: Comfortable win; chance of competitive game
7: Competitive win; minor upset threat
6: Close win; major upset threat
5: Toss-up win (likely, but not specifically, awarded to the home team)
4: Toss-up loss
3: Close loss; major upset threat
2: Competitive loss; minor upset threat
1: Big loss; chance of competitive game
0: Blowout loss; no conceivable victory
At the conference level, there's no need to inject strength of schedule measures, though you'll see this later when we get into the top 25, etc. Each number is completely arbitrary based on my reading of that specific game, and inevitably more thought was put into, say, Wisconsin-Ohio State than into Northwestern-Minnesota, but hopefully this idea injects an adequate level of nuance into the process, rather than just assigning 'win' or 'loss' with no regard to the widley varying degrees or probabilities.

1. Michigan
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By Game
6 Penn State
8 at Northwestern
7 Purdue
7 at Illinois
8 Minnesota
8 at Michigan State
5 at Wisconsin
6 Ohio State
6.88 Total
Offensively, the Wolverines are bringing back the best quarterback, best running back, best receiver and (based on hype and scouting reports) the best individual offensive lineman in the conference, and would surpass LSU as the second mythical championship favorite if anyone of the caliber of Alan Branch, Lamar Woodley, Dave Harris or Leon Hall returned on the other side. For all the very legitimate concern about finding consistent, first rate defensive playmakers in the vein of the dearly departed - and especially over the vulnerability of the secondary - none of the three primary in-conference challengers is in a position to put the defense on its heels the way Ohio State and USC did in the passing game at the end of last year (unless the reader happens to be one of the believers re: Anthony Morelli, which I am not yet). PSU, OSU and Wisconsin are all aiming to do what they always do, which is pound, pound, pound, be smart about risk-taking and play punishing defense, but even if one of that trio does manage to control the ball through its running game as consistently and effectively as Michigan is going to with a healthy Mike Hart, it's far less likely to match the Henne-Manningham combination for keeping safeties honest (i.e., out of the box). Whether or not it deigns to open things up enough to score 35 or 40 points a game on the whole, I don't think there's another offense that matches this one for efficiency or the sum of its parts.

Everyone loves a good redemption/ultimate hurdle narrative. These kids are gonna be big!
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Michigan hasn't finished undefeated in the Big Ten since the 1997 championship team, but it should be favored in every game as long as its stars are healthy and the corners keep everything in front of them. The theme will be to finish: UM is 0-6 against Ohio State and in bowl games the last three years, which is really all Henne and Hart - maybe post-Tressel Lloyd Carr, too - have left to accomplish before vanishing into the proverbial cornfield.

2. Ohio State
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By Game
8 Northwestern
7 at Minnesota
7 at Purdue
8 Michigan State
4 at Penn State
5 Wisconsin
7 Illinois
3 at Michigan
6.13 TOTAL
OSU's best possible scenario for offensive overhaul is 2002, the embodiment of Tresselball's plodding, thick-backed ideal and a perfect template for breaking in a limited, veteran quarterback prized as much for his saavy as his arm. The worst case is 2004, when OSU faced the same scenario but struggled to run (Lydell Ross eventually  led the team with 475) and started 0-3 in-conference before a future Heisman winner was discovered on the bench.

As I've suggested before, the answer is ultimately whether Todd Boeckman turns out to be Craig Krenzel or Justin Zwick, though there are a couple indicators - the Clarett-like talents of Beanie Wells, sans the insatiable appetite for self-destruction, and the friendliest possible schedule for a young team in search of an identity, one that delays the first real challenge until late October if all goes according to plan - pointing in the direction of optimism. The reality, as is so often the case, is probably somewhere between the extremes: the offensive makeup after a couple years of aggressive balance is now tailor-made to run 70 percent of the time, and the crucial interior of the defensive line falls to a couple very green sophomores charged with keeping bodies off James Laurinitis, who is very active but not particularly elusive when blockers get a hand on him. Even a team like this that loses its shirt offensively to the draft has a great chance to break double digit wins again by turning every game into a mud-caked street fight, the kind regularly won by the turnover margin and 230-pound running back. One way or another, OSU should go into Michigan with a chance to win the conference.

3. Wisconsin
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By Game
6 Iowa
7 Michigan State
7 at Illinois
5 at Penn State
8 Indiana
4 at Ohio State
4 Michigan
7 Minnesota
6.0 Total
I'm skeptical of Wisconsin's ability to repeat as an eleven-game winner, but still I consider it more or less "2a" of the three-way bottleneck behind Michigan because, on paper, the only immediate cause for skepticism is quarterback. Tyler Donovan's a senior who's been around and has underrated receivers, especially mismatch-relishing tight end Travis Beckum, but Donovan's new and therefore a question mark. Ditto K-State transfer Allan Evridge, who's challenging for the job (wariness is automatic about anyone who couldn't beat out an interception-prone true freshman at Kansas State).

Beyond the suspicion over the quarterback and the generosity of last year's schedule, though, I also doubt the Badgers can be anywhere near as good again against the pass, which they defended better than any team in the country last season, and that the addition of Ohio State and improved teams from Penn State and Iowa won't result in at least one more loss here.

There is no doubt, though, about Wiscon's ability to run over just about anybody with P.J. Hill behind its massive line, and to hold up against the run with a smallish but veteran and productive front seven. UW's improved its win total from seven to nine to ten to eleven in successive seasons, and if the corners can hold up man-to-man as well as they did last year, this will be a tough team to beat again in the absence of turnovers by the offense.

4. Penn State
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By Game
3 at Michigan
6 at Illinois
5 Iowa
4 Wisconsin
8 at Indiana
5 Ohio State
7 Purdue
7 at Michigan State
4.38 Total
PSU is nominally a BCS contender because it seems to be completely out of its early decade, Zakc Mills era funk and, it can play defense: even when they were losing games with scores like 6-4 back in 2004, the Lions had a top ten defense and have sustained that level the last two years as the offense improved enough to get the team back into the polls. But still there are more questions than any of the frontrunners ahead of Penn State, none of them relating to still-pending felony charges: can PSU still run against non-stiff defenses minus Tony Hunt, at least enough to open up the passing game a little? Can the offensive line keep Morelli upright? Can Morelli keep himself upright, or his receivers in their efforts to bring in his underthrows? What's up with the new defensive linemen - chips off the dominant block of the last two-three years, or harbingers of generosity? How does it affect the outstanding linebackers if the line's a net liability against strong, run-oriented teams like OSU, Michigan and Wisconsin?

I'm not convinced the Lions' biggest liability still isn't Morelli and his inability to stretch a defense despite a fleet cadre of would-be deep threats, though I am willing to give him some benefit of the doubt as one of the conference's very few returning senior starters (it's him and Henne), or returning starters of any class at the position, actually. The decisive games for the Lions are the same as last year: vs. Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. This is Morelli's line in those four games:

Comp. % Yds./Game Yds./Att. TD:INT Avg. Rating Record
60.3 162.0 5.3 1:5 100.7 0-4

Penn State's fate rests on Anthony Morelli keeping his head. Easier said than done.
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That 100.7 rating would be fantastic in the NFL, but would have barely cracked the NCAA's top 100 across an entire season; Morelli was 85th nationally in passer rating in all games, and that with a very solid running game whose key components have moved on. At least he was fairly accurate on the short stuff, and yes, it's encouraging he had his best game in the bowl, indicating some progress. It has to carry over, though, because the rest of the team can't churn out anything better than another Outback Bowl without a little firepower.

5. Iowa
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By Game
3 at Wisconsin
6 Indiana
4 at Penn State
5 Illinois
5 at Purdue
6 Michigan State
6 at Northwestern
7 Minnesota
5.25 Total
The Hawkeyes are in a position to make a move if they can run the ball to alleviate pressure on the new quarterback and get a better performance from the front seven, which endured some injury problems last year and a significant dropoff from the run-stuffing fronts that put Iowa up around the conference elite from 2002-04. The offense really missed Albert Young, even when he was gimping his way through a dismal stretch, and can only be better with their best weapon at full strength.

But Jake Christensen is a new quarterback, and therefore automatically treated with maximum skepticism, and the Purdue Rule is in full effect: if the best thing I can think to say about Iowa's chances of making a January bowl is that it doesn't play Ohio State and Michigan, those chances aren't as good as they mighy appear. But they're certainly not nonexistent. You can make a reasonable argument for the Hawkeyes' darkhorse status, if you're inclined, but exercise extreme caution in the process.

6. Purdue
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By Game
6 at Minnesota
2 Ohio State
2 at Michigan
4 Iowa
7 Northwestern
2 at Penn State
6 Michigan State
6 at Indiana
4.38 Total
Purdue is such a perfect team to hold the center: undefeated against losing teams, winless against winning teams. Mediocrity, thy name is Boilermaker.

It's a given Curtis Painter is going to put up some credulity-straining numbers - mark him down now as the league's leading passer in yards and probably touchdowns, as well, and definitely in interceptions - but whatever that amounts to on the scoreboard against the top half of the league hasn't been enough lately and likely won't be again unless the defense suddenly reverses the crippling slide it's been on the last two years, and somehow manages that without the essential disruptive presence of pass rusher Anthony Spencer. Come back to me, Boilers, when y'all beat somebody worth a damn. It's been a long time.

7. Illinois
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By Game
6 at Indiana
3 Penn State
2 Wisconsin
4 at Iowa
2 Michigan
6 at Minnesota
2 at Ohio State
6 Northwestern
3.88 Total
My inital thoughts on the Illini were a little higher than this, and if there's any team down here worth taking a gamble on, it's this one. But Illinois catches no breaks in the schedule; the best team it misses is Purdue, so even with the universally expected leap in the standings, just breaking even within the league will require not only taking care of business against Minnesota, Northwestern and Indiana - all of which have finished ahead of Illinois three years running - but also an unlikely upset of either Iowa, Penn State, Ohio State, Wisconsin or Michigan. Even the most orange-eyed optimist wouldn't go out on that limb for a team that's won two Big Ten games in the last four years. In that light, a forecast of 3-5 is quite a leap.

8. Northwestern
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By Game
1 at Ohio State
1 Michigan
4 at Michigan State
5 Minnesota
2 at Purdue
3 Iowa
5 Indiana
3 at Illinois
3.0 Total
It wound up blowing the game in unbelievable fashion, but Northwestern at least settled its quarterback position through the remainder of the Bush Administration in the loss to Michigan State, and C.J. Bacher has a shot at being one of the conference's more productive passers if he cuts down on the picks (eight in four games before a big-mistake-free finale against Illinois). To be fair, his starts between MSU and Illinois were against Iowa, Michigan and Ohio State, a murderer's row for a new quarterback, but Bacher topped 200 yards in every game without an astronomical number of attempts, and still has Tyrell Sutton serving as a potential focal point. I say `potential' because Sutton's carries were down last year, despite his hitting 1,000 yards even and bringing in 40 passes for the second straight year, and his touchdowns plummeted from 18 as a freshman to seven, just five of them rushing. The defense had and will continue to have a lot of long days, and Sutton is the guy best able to hold up his end of a shootout, if he can get his hands on the ball closer to 20 times every week.

9. Indiana
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By Game
3 Illinois
4 at Iowa
4 Minnesota
4 at Michigan State
1 Penn State
1 at Wisconsin
4 at Northwestern
3 Purdue
2.88 Total
Another team that benefits from missing Ohio State or Michigan at the same time. The final numbers don't reflect this reality at all, but there was a brief period following the Hoosiers' upset of Iowa in October that they were a dangerous team with a few hot young athletes in skill positions and on the verge of ending IU's 13-year bowl drought. All of those players, return, namely Kellen Lewis and attractively lanky receiver James Hardy, but so, unfortunately, does a lot of the defense, which was irredeemably terrible - Big Ten offenses scored 38.5 a game on it, only Michigan State (21) and Iowa (28) failing short of 30, and often a lot more. A unit that slightly improves from that point is still well within the range of `bad.'

Halloween hero Kellen Lewis, moments before being buried alive by the Hoosier defense.
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IU will be going through the same kind of turmoil Northwestern endured last year after the death of the head coach, but it doesn't have any more talent and isn't likely to have any more success. Any bowl game would be a substantial moral victory.

10. Michigan State
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By Game
2 at Wisconsin
5 Northwestern
5 Indiana
1 at Ohio State
3 at Iowa
1 Michigan
3 at Purdue
2 Penn State
2.75 Total
I like new coaches, and figure MSU can't possibly be any more unstable than it consistently was under John L. Smith. No, the problem here is just that there's so little to like on the field. Drew Stanton is a substantial loss, despite the confidence coaches had in Brian Hoyer to allow a first-time starter to throw an amazing 111 passes in two games to close the year. That probably didn't say as much about Hoyer's skill as it did about the sorry state of the running game, which may be back to a decent level if Javon Ringer stays healthy for a change; the offense was on a nice roll before he went down against Illinois, and in a season-long hole after. The defense was basically an automatic 360 yards, regardless the offense. This is another case where improvement still only means two or three conference wins.

11. Minnesota
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By Game
3 Purdue
2 Ohio State
5 at Indiana
4 at Northwestern
1 at Michigan
3 Illinois
2 at Iowa
2 Wisconsin
2.75 Total
Again, I hesitate to dismiss a new coach, especially on a team I can envision succeeding; looking at how to rate the Gophers every game, I kept imagining Mike Dunbar's old Northwestern offenses, and Amir Pinnix in the Damien Anderson role, racking up record yards against flailing, out of position defenders. But happy visions of the zone read only got the Gophers into the `competitive' category of most games, at best, because the they're trotting out a noob quarterback and probably the most consistently awful defense in the league, one that allowed an amazing 456 yards per conference game last year and another 1,100 total in losses to Cal (where Dunbar was coordinator) early and Texas Tech in the wild bowl comeback. It took a lot of turnovers to overcome that kind of futility week in and week out, more turnovers than anyone could possibly expect to bounce the same way again. If the offense hits on all cylinders - again, possibly starting a freshman quarterback, that's on the far, far side of `optimistic' - its production will have to be consistently good enough for somewhere in the neighborhood of five touchdowns against any competent opponent to overcome the defense. No potential bowl team can live like that.