After a summer that saw the Big Ten expand for the first time in two decades and introduce major changes for 2011 and beyond, the football season is just around the corner. The league everyone loves to hate quieted its critics with a very strong bowl performance in December and January and looks to take the next step and compete at the championship level again. With no shortage of elite teams, national award candidates and coaches facing big questions, the Big Ten should be anything but boring in 2010.
Here are five things to watch this fall:
1. Division alignment: It has been the single most popular topic among Big Ten fans for months and even years, as everyone has opinion on how the league should be split when Nebraska enters in 2011. League commissioner Jim Delany expects to announce the divisions and the 2011 schedule by mid September, and many fans are bracing for the worst. Momentum is building for archrivals Ohio State and Michigan to be split, which likely would move their annual game from its rightful place on the last Saturday of the regular season. According to Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, rivals Wisconsin and Iowa will head to opposite divisions, and more surprises could be forthcoming. Whatever the league decides, some folks won't be happy, and the debate should be very spirited.
2. Buckeyes in the crosshairs: Ohio State remains the gold standard in the Big Ten, and head coach Jim Tressel has the league's most complete team. Not surprisingly, Ohio State is pegged to win a school-record-tying sixth consecutive Big Ten title and contend for the national championship as well. But the Buckeyes will be challenged by Iowa and Wisconsin, two programs trying to make the jump from very good to elite. Ohio State must visit both Iowa City and Madison this fall, but Tressel's squad recently has been even more dominant on the road in the Big Ten than at the Horseshoe. A subplot here for Ohio State is junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who will be on the Heisman Trophy radar if he can build upon his brilliant performance in the 2010 Rose Bowl against Oregon.
3. RichRod's last stand? Not much has gone right for Rich Rodriguez in two years at Michigan. He owns an 8-16 record with just three Big Ten wins, and Michigan is awaiting word on penalties from the NCAA after admitting to major rules violations for the first time in its storied history. Although the NCAA situation doesn't help Rodriguez, his ultimate fate comes down to wins and losses. Michigan faces a challenging schedule this fall and must make significant upgrades on defense after finishing 77th and 84th nationally in points allowed the last two seasons. Rodriguez has a new boss (Dave Brandon) who has supported him to this point, but the coach almost certainly won't survive another bowl-less season. Rodriguez's season of reckoning has arrived, and while he's sick of all the drama in Ann Arbor, more likely will come this fall.
4. Paterno watch: An illness forced Joe Paterno to cancel several appearances late this spring, and the 83-year-old Penn State head coach looked and sounded different when he resurfaced at Big Ten media days earlier this month. Will the Lead Lion finally step aside after 45 seasons at the helm in Happy Valley? Not without a fight. Some feel the Penn State program is slipping because of Paterno's back-seat role, but the Lions own 22 wins in the past two seasons and signed the Big Ten's top recruiting class in February. Still, it's fair to ask how much more Paterno can take after he dealt with a hip problem throughout the 2008 season and then the illness in May and June. Whether or not this is Paterno's final season, it'll be special to watch him lead Penn State onto the field against Alabama on Sept. 11 in a matchup made for college football historians.
5. Defensive delight: Forget about the Heisman. The 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year race could be a lot more interesting. The league is loaded with defensive standouts, including Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Tyler Sash, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Ohio State's Cameron Heyward and Ross Homan, and Michigan State's Greg Jones, who earned preseason Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second straight year. Clayborn and Heyward are projected as first-round picks in the 2011 NFL draft, and Jones is looking to improve his stock and lead Michigan State to a league title. The Big Ten had three top-10 defenses and four units in the top 17 last year, and the league likely will be even better on that side of the ball this fall.