By almost any measure, the Big Ten has been a defense-oriented league the past few seasons, and the trend likely will continue in 2010.
If I had to list the league's strongest overall position groups, defensive line would be No. 1 and linebacker wouldn't be too far behind. But Big Ten offenses shouldn't be overlooked, and the wide receiver position is the biggest reason.
Phil Steele underscored my point earlier this week with his preseason All-Big Ten teams, but the conference appears loaded at wide receiver for 2010. Seven of the league's top 10 receivers return this fall, and most teams should have improved depth at receiver. Teams like Michigan State lost their top receivers from 2009 but should be even stronger as a group this season. Teams like Indiana, Iowa and Ohio State boast receiver tandems that should keep defensive coordinators busy. There's at least one receiver on every team who I really like.
Here's a rundown of the top returning receivers ...
Purdue's Keith Smith: Smith quietly led the Big Ten with 1,100 receiving yards in 2009, continuing Purdue's tradition of producing extremely productive receivers. He'll provide a lot of help to a new starting quarterback -- Robert Marve or Caleb TerBush -- in an offense that has never shied away from passing the ball.
Indiana's Tandon Doss: Never heard of him? Remember the name, folks. Doss has all the skills to become one of the nation's elite wide receivers. He had 77 receptions for 962 receiving yards last fall, and should be a bigger factor near the goal line as Indiana tries to upgrade its red zone offense.
Ohio State's DeVier Posey: Being close friends with the starting quarterback (Terrelle Pryor) helps, but Posey is primed for a big season this fall. He hauled in eight touchdowns and recorded 828 receiving yards in 2009, finishing with a big performance in the Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin's Nick Toon: I've been a Toon fan ever since I saw him in spring ball back in 2008. He established himself as Wisconsin's No. 1 wideout last fall and could be ready to explode in 2010. Wisconsin has other weapons defenses must account for, leaving room for Toon to make plays down the field.
Iowa's Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt: I just couldn't separate these two, especially after they helped Iowa become a more vertical offense last fall. Iowa isn't afraid to throw the ball downfield, and both DJK and McNutt are capable of stretching the field. They combined for 1,424 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last year.
Derek Moye, Penn State: Moye provides a very big target (6-foot-5, 198) for Penn State's new starting quarterback. He averaged a league-best 16.4 yards a catch last fall and should see his receptions total rise as he moves into a truly featured role.
Damarlo Belcher, Indiana: Like Doss, Belcher flew under the radar last fall but turned in a very impressive sophomore season, recording 61 receptions for 770 yards and five touchdowns. Belcher's 6-5, 215-pound frame really helps him create space to receive passes.
Here are some other names to watch, in no particular order:
Keith Nichol, Michigan State
Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
Da'Jon McKnight, Minnesota
A.J. Jenkins, Illinois
Roy Roundtree, Michigan
Jeremy Ebert, Northwestern
Justin Siller, Purdue
Keshawn Martin, Michigan State
Isaac Anderson, Wisconsin
Graham Zug, Penn State
As you can see, there's a lot to like.