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Posted: Tuesday August 18, 2009 12:58PM; Updated: Tuesday August 18, 2009 1:52PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Three sleeper teams who could challenge for the Big Ten crown

Story Highlights

OSU and PSU are top 10 teams because voters underrate the rest of the Big Ten

But they're both vulnerable, making this the year for a sleeper team to challenge

The sleepers: Iowa, Illinois, Michigan State; wild cards: Michigan, Northwestern

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Iowa tailback Jewel Hampton showed big-play ability as a true freshman in 2008, notching 1,000 all-purpose yards.
Iowa tailback Jewel Hampton showed big-play ability as a true freshman in 2008, compiling 1,000 all-purpose yards.
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After suffering the indignity of three straight losses in BCS bowls (two in the championship game), last season's embarrassing blowout at USC and the accompanying national backlash, this figured to be the year Ohio State took a much-needed break from the spotlight. Fielding a young team unlikely to garner the same lofty expectations, the Buckeyes would fly under the radar for a change.

Or so I thought. Apparently the coaches' poll voters felt differently.

Somehow the Buckeyes, who finished last season No. 11 after going 10-3, moved up five spots over the offseason to No. 6. Despite losing running back Beanie Wells, linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline and tackle Alex Boone -- all All-Big Ten performers and/or NFL draft picks -- the coaches seem to think Ohio State will be better this season.

The Buckeyes return one particularly bright star, sophomore QB Terrelle Pryor, and an experienced defensive line and secondary, but nearly every other unit is comprised of touted but unproven commodities. Cleveland Plain Dealer beat writer Doug Lesmerises recently identified the Buckeyes' top 20 players for this season. No. 2 behind Pryor was safety Kurt Coleman. Of the 25 All-Big Ten honorees from 2008 returning to the league this season, Coleman is the lone Buckeye -- and he was honorable mention.

The coaches are also high on Penn State, which they voted No. 8 -- the same spot where the 11-2 Nittany Lions finished last season. This, too, seems puzzling considering Penn State returns just eight -- repeat, eight -- starters. Mind you, that number does not include star LB Sean Lee, who missed last season to injury, but still, one would think JoePa's team has some rebuilding to do as well.
PREVIEW: SI breaks down the Big Ten race

So why do the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions continue to inspire such confidence? Probably because the voters feel even in a transition year for both, they'll still dominate the rest of the much-maligned Big Ten. Based on recent history, it's easy to see why.

In the course of winning or sharing the past four Big Ten titles, Ohio State has gone 29-3 in conference play, an astounding .906 winning percentage. Only one team, the WAC's Boise State (30-2), has been more dominant within its own conference over the same span. Penn State is responsible for two of those three losses, allowing the Nittany Lions to earn the league's automatic BCS berth in 2005 and '08.

"Obviously we're all chasing Ohio State right now," said Illinois coach Ron Zook.

This could be the perfect season for a sleeper team to win that chase. Ohio State and Penn State both seem vulnerable, and a whole bunch of other Big Ten teams, like Zook's, are quietly getting better.

"I wouldn't be shocked if someone not in the [preseason] top 10 could win our conference," said commissioner Jim Delany. "We have enough parity that a Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, Michigan State or Illinois could come up and surprise people."

The Big Ten has been a two-team league for much of its history, but even with the recent success of Ohio State and Michigan, eight different teams have won or shared the conference title over the past 10 seasons. Of late, though, the league has been lacking in depth, as its putrid 6-16 bowl record over the past three seasons shows. The Big Ten has been suffering through a down cycle not unlike what the Big 12 experienced a few years back. It seems hard to believe now, but just three years ago ('06), Oklahoma and Texas were the league's only representatives in that year's final AP poll -- and neither of them cracked the top 10.

But just as Missouri, Kansas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State have become factors in the Big 12, a similar surge from within the Big Ten is inevitable.

Start with Iowa. After suffering through consecutive six-win seasons in '06 and '07, the Hawkeyes jumped back to 9-4 last year, ending the season on a four-game winning streak that included a last-second upset of then 9-0 Penn State. Many are overlooking the Hawkeyes due to the departure of star running back Shonn Greene, but the folks in Iowa City don't seem overly concerned.

For one thing, Greene's replacement, Jewel Hampton, showed big-play ability as a true freshman last season, gaining 1,000 all-purpose yards. More importantly, Iowa returns eight starters from the nation's 12th-ranked defense and finally feels it has a dependable quarterback in Ricky Stanzi.

The Hawkeyes visit Penn State on Sept. 26 in both teams' Big Ten opener. For whatever reason, Iowa traditionally plays well in Happy Valley, where it's won four of the last five meetings. In fact, Iowa's surprise 2002 Orange Bowl team began its 8-0 Big Ten season with a victory there.

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