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Big Ten Preview (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday August 16, 2005 11:14AM; Updated: Tuesday August 16, 2005 3:19PM

By Stewart Mandel, SI.com

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   Stewart Mandel's Projected Standings
   (Overall record in parentheses; ties are broken by projected head-to-head outcome)
1   Ohio State
If the running game improves as expected, this team will have it all. Ginn is one of the game's most dangerous weapons and Santonio Holmes is an elite receiver. The defensive line is not without questions, but A.J. Hawk anchors a premier linebacking corps and CB Ashton Youboty leads a deep secondary. Perhaps the biggest question is whether kicker Josh Huston can live up to Mike Nugent's considerable legacy.
2   Iowa
Replacing four starters on the defensive line is the biggest challenge facing Kirk Ferentz this season, but he's managed bigger miracles before. QB Tate is the real deal, and he brings back an experienced O-line and receiving corps. The backfield, which was devastated by injuries last year, needs to be more productive. Star LBs Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge are big-time playmakers, and the cornerbacks are both proven.
3   Michigan
The sky is the limit for Henne and Hart, though it remains to be seen how Henne will fare without All-America WR Braylon Edwards. Special teams standout Steve Breaston should play a bigger role in the passing game, and the arrival of freshman RB Kevin Grady will ease Hart's workload. The defense is a huge question mark, though, particularly after losing secondary stalwarts Marlin Jackson and Ernest Shazor.
4   Purdue
While the Boilers lucked out in their conference schedule, a potential trap looms in their second game: a road trip to improving Arizona. Joe Tiller is an offensive guy, but this team will win with its defense, which returns all 11 starters, including stud DE Ray Edwards. Experienced QB Brandon Kirsch inherits Kyle Orton's old job, and Tiller has tweaked his spread offense to allow Kirsch more running opportunities, a la Alex Smith at Utah last year.
5   Penn State
Joe Paterno fielded a championship-caliber defense last season, but the offense was so atrocious it was held to 13 points or less seven times. With nine starters back, the defense, led by LBs Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny, should only get better. Freshman WR Derrick Williams is viewed as the offense's savior, but while he can make plays, QB Michael Robinson and the running game remain serious question marks.
6   Minnesota
The Gophers were a colossal disappointment last season, when they lost five of their last seven games to finish 7-5. They do, however, return 15 starters, including 1,348-yard rusher Laurence Maroney, who will get more carries, and the bulk of a dominant O-line. QB Bryan Cupito needs to improve considerably as a passer, and the defense, under new coordinator David Lockwood, needs to finally shore itself up.
7   Michigan State
QB Drew Stanton, when healthy, is one of the nation's best-kept secrets, a threat with both his arm and his feet. A veteran line led by center Chris Morris should help boost the running game, though there isn't exactly a breakaway threat in the MSU backfield. Coach John L. Smith is counting on DE Clifton Ryan to boost a defense that put little pressure on quarterbacks last season and will be rebuilding in the secondary.
8   Wisconsin
Barry Alvarez's last season as head coach could be a tough one -- 13 starters have departed and the Badgers face a tough non-conference schedule that includes Bowling Green and North Carolina. Colorado-transfer Brian Calhoun showed this spring he will be another elite Wisconsin RB, but its passing game is still iffy. The D-line, so integral to the Badgers' 9-0 start last season, will suffer without Erasmus James and Anttaj Hawthorne.
9   Northwestern
Talent-wise, the 'Cats have been good enough to go 9-7 in the Big Ten the past two seasons, but a brutal schedule has them visiting Arizona State, Purdue and Ohio State while hosting Michigan and Iowa. Fourth-year QB Brett Basanez should lead a powerful passing game, but for the first time in a while there's no proven tailback. Though its front seven is strong, the secondary continues to be NU's thorn.
10   Illinois
Ron Zook inherits a massive rebuilding job in Champaign, where the Illini have won four games the past two seasons. Zook wants to run a wide-open offense like he did at Florida, but the only strong spot is at running back, with Pierre Thomas, E.B. Halsey and freshman Rashard Mendenhall. The defense was atrocious last year, notching just 12 sacks and loses leading tackler Matt Sinclair and top cornerback Kelvin Hayden.
11   Indiana
Any momentum the Hoosiers started to gain under former coach Gerry DiNardo evaporated when all-time receiver Courtney Roby graduated and leading rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis transferred to Ole Miss. Former Miami of Ohio coach Terry Hoeppner will begin rebuilding around sophomore QB Blake Powers and return-man extraordinaire Lance Bennett, but the defense is still light years away from respectability.