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Big Ten Auditing: Crystal Ball, Revisited

One obstacle to assessing the final verdicts on the Big Ten: a lot of ties. Ties are a total cop-out in the prediction racket but often skew everything in the end. From the preseason consensus of 18 publications at Stassen.com, from most underrated to most overrated:

Big Ten Preseason Consensus vs. Eventual Reality
Preseason Actual Finish +/- Rightest Wrongest
Illinois 7th T-2nd (6-2) + 5 USA Today (5th) S&S, J. Feist (11th)
Indiana 11th T-7th (3-5) + 4 Athlon (7th) Five 11th Place Picks
N'western 10th T-7th (3-5) + 3 Eight 8th Place Picks Three 11th Place Picks
Mich. State 9th T-7th (3-5) + 2 Street&Smith (7th) Three 11th Place Picks
Ohio State 3rd 1st (7-1) + 2 CPA, BlueRibbon (2nd) Jim Feist (5th)
Iowa 5th T-5th (4-4) - Eight 5th Place Picks GamePlan (7th)
Michigan 1st T-2nd (6-2) -1 Six 2nd Place Picks Twelve 1st Place Picks
Penn State 4th T-5th (4-4) -1 Four 5th Place Picks Phil Steele (T-1st)
Purdue 6th T-7th (3-5) -1 Lindys, USAT (7th) Six 5th Place Picks
Wisconsin 2nd 4th (5-3) -2 SureFire (4th) Seven 1st Place Picks
Minnesota 8th 11th (0-8) -3 Four 11th Place Picks Seven 7th Place Picks

Be wary of the "underrated" nature of Indiana, Michigan State and Northwestern up there, each of which I have listed as tied for seventh place but which also, by definition, tied for eighth, ninth and tenth place, too. The true bolt from the blue - besides mythical championship finalist Ohio State, which not one single outlet predicted would win the conference with an entirely rebuilt set of offensive skill players - was Illinois, previous winner of two conference games in three years, a leap a certain someone saw coming way back in June:

The seven league losses last year [in 2006] were by an average of 8.5 points, including a two-point loss to Indiana, touchdown losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin and close games with Purdue, Penn State and Northwestern that got away late. They ran the ball very well and were solidly in the middle of the pack defensively. Steele points out in bold print that the Illini actually outgained foes on the year by an average of 346-310!! as evidence that, down for down, Illinois held up just fine with the average teams in the conference, and a few of the really good ones. It's getting really familiar around here for Florida fans justifiably skeptical of all things Zook, but this fall is about being competent enough with experience to clean up those two or three plays that make the difference in last place and .500 with a spot in the Insight Bowl. If this team can't at least threaten that kind of improvement with every conceivable wind of momentum at its back, Zook should be banished from the profession.
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Does the early adopter approach to the Illini bandwagon get me off the hook for only picking them seventh in the conference in August? Yes, partially, because even then I pointed out: "...if there's any team down here worth taking a gamble on, it's this one." A Rose Bowl prediction in the summer would have been beyond silly, but so were the number of outlets that refused to see the writing on the wall by holding a clearly improving outfit down at tenth or eleventh.

Fortunately for him, Tim Brewster's complete Big Ten predictions never reached publication.
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A few teams with a reasonable degree of optimism based on the reason past were predictably mediocre: Penn State did not challenge for the conference championship, Wisconsin defied most everyone's expectations by failing to reach a BCS bowl, Purdue's long streak of futility against ultimately winning teams outside of the MAC (based on final record) reached 16 games and Iowa's persistent failures on offense allowed me to bask again in the "Purdue Rule," which holds that any team whose greatest asset is the teams it doesn't play - in Iowa's case, as in touted-but-disappointing Purdue's in 2005, that meant missing Ohio State and Michigan - is a team to be regarded with maximum cynicism. The Hawkeyes were fortunate to finish 4-4 in-conference, preventing Illinois from a conference championship in what now looks like a great upset and winning a game against Michigan State in which Iowa's Jake Christensen completed three passes for fewer than 30 yards in regulation.

No team, though, fell harder than Minnesota, which began the Time Brewster Era by parading turf from the Rose Bowl around the Minnesota practice facility, immediately lost two of its first three games to Bowling Green and Florida Atlantic, later was rolled for 394 yards rushing by I-AA North Dakota State en route to fielding by far the worst statistical defense in the nation and counting an overtime comeback against the Ohio-based Miami as its only win. Maybe more surprising, given the Gophers' success through the early and middle years of the decade prior to Glen Mason's firing, is that so many pundits saw the Gophers' fall coming a mile away:

Steele is especially obsessive about the "turnover=turnaround" thing, on which Minnesota thrived completely - 6-0 in the regular season when coming out on the right side of the giveaways, including a 10-9 thriller over North Dakota State in a game the Gophers were outgained by 130 yards but wound up plus-two in turnovers -marking them as an every-down failure destined to reap the just karmic desserts that accompany being physically handled again by the rest of the conference; in that regard, according to another of Steele's obsessive indicators, they had the worst yardage deficit in the Big Ten, by 92 yards per league game. I.E., Minnesota already played like a last place team most of last year, especially on defense, and its record with a new quarterback in a more competitive environment, minus the fortune of a soaring takeaway margin, is likely to reflect that now.
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It was only for lack of other options that I reluctantly joined the Gopher-hating chorus, but at least I was prescient about the historically putrid defense:
...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.
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The turnover margin this year flopped from a national-best plus-18 in 2006 to a conference-worst minus-15 in '07, and the wins plummeted accordingly.

The buzzkill, obviously, was Michigan, which very few prognosticators saw failing to win the conference and none saw dropping below Ohio State; if any team was going to knock the Wolverines from the frontrunner's seat, it was supposed to be Wisconsin. But then, all predictions re: Michigan were burned after the first Saturday of the season, so who's counting?