The Big Ten's wild cards: Illinois and Minnesota

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

When I'm asked to size up the Big Ten heading into the fall, part of the process is easy.

Ohio State and Penn State are the consensus picks to challenge for the league title, while Purdue and Indiana are slotted for the basement. Three nine-win teams from a year ago -- Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern -- all return a lot on defense but must replace key contributors in the offensive backfield. Michigan once again has questions, but the Wolverines will be better. Wisconsin is Wisconsin, boasting a formidable run game but questions at quarterback.

Then we get to Illinois and Minnesota, the Big Ten's wild cards. As far as unpredictability entering the season, these two squads share the crown. You can make a good case for either team being the surprise of the Big Ten and reaching a January bowl game. Both squads could also crash and burn.

The similarities are intriguing:

  • Both teams return veteran quarterbacks in Juice Williams (Illinois) and Adam Weber (Minnesota) who have put up impressive numbers but also struggled with turnovers at times.

  • Minnesota's Eric Decker and Illinois' Arrelious Benn are far and away the league's top wide receivers, and two of the best in the nation.

  • Both teams have head coaches (Ron Zook and Tim Brewster) who shine on the recruiting trail but still must prove themselves on game day. The talent is there, but can Zook and Brewster take advantage? Throw in the fact that Brewster played for Illinois and went to a Rose Bowl in 1983, and you've got another link.

  • Both teams will challenge themselves in nonleague play. Illinois faces Missouri in St. Louis and must travel to Cincinnati before hosting always-dangerous Fresno State. Minnesota starts the season against Greg Paulus and Syracuse before opening the new TCF Bank Stadium against Air Force and Cal.

  • Both teams need to replenish their pass rush. Minnesota tied for the league lead in sacks last fall but loses end Willie VanDeSteeg (10.5 sacks). Illinois will be without its top four sacks leaders from 2008, including defensive ends Derek Walker and Will Davis.

  • Both teams are breaking in new offensive coordinators who want to spark the rushing attack in Illinois' Mike Schultz and Minnesota's Jedd Fisch.

Looking around the league, it's hard to find a more explosive offense than Illinois, but there are plenty of questions on defense. Minnesota returns more starters (18) than any Big Ten team, but has gone through more changes than any league squad other than Purdue.

It makes my head hurt to go through all the possible outcomes for the Illini and Gophers, but they should provide some good theater come September.