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Big 10 Football Preview

   by Matt Fargo - 09/01/2009

Many say that the Big Ten was in a down year in 2008 considering only five teams finished the season ranked in the top 50 in the national power ratings. Sure that is an argument but the rebuttal to that is that it was a very balanced conference full of parity. Five teams did finish with nine wins and no team registered fewer than three so that is a valid point. I feel it was a little bit in-between as the parity was there but it was definitely a down year. We should see more parity this season but the overall strength of the conference, which was ranked last among the BCS conferences last year, should increase. However, with only three teams that are part of the AP Preseason poll, it could be a wait and see season once again.

Penn St. Nittany Lions 11-2 SU, 7-4-1 ATS, 8-4 O/U

Summary: It is hard to go against a team that has eight home games including one that is against its biggest competition in the conference. The Nittany Lions return to glory is finally back after some very depressing years and they will once again contend for the Big Ten title as well as make a push for the BCS Championship. Penn St. lost just one regular season game last year, a one-point setback at Iowa before getting blown out in the Rose Bowl against USC three games later. It was still a successful season and definitely one that can be carried over into 2009. The Nittany Lions have only nine starters back overall which is surely a low number but there is a lot of experience and depth. The offensive line is probably the biggest question mark along with the need for a new receiving corps.

Schedule: As mentioned, the Nittany Lions have eight home games and just four on the road. Those road games are far from devastating as they are all in conference action at Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan St. They are by no means easy but they could be a lot worse. The Nittany Lions miss Purdue and Wisconsin which is unfortunate at they are both in the lower half of the conference.

Bottom Line: Quarterback Daryll Clark enters his senior season and second as the starter following a big season last year. He has a great running game behind him but it will come down to the revamped offensive line to continue that potent rushing attack as well as to protect Clark when needed. The defense will be stout with the secondary showing the biggest signs of weakness. The Nittany Lions will contend again.

Betting Forecast: Penn St. is 10-3 ATS in non-conference games the last three seasons. The first three games all fit that and all will be big numbers.

Ohio St. Buckeyes 10-3 SU, 6-6 ATS, 5-7 O/U

Summary: Ohio St. made it to its fourth straight BCS Bowl game last season but it also suffered its third straight loss so the seasons have ended not like it would have hoped. Still, it showed once again that the Buckeyes are a perennial national contender and that will be the case again this season. There is depth everywhere on this team and if the Buckeyes can find legitimate playmakers to take the place of Chris Wells at running back and fill the void at receiver, it could easily be five straight BCS appearances. Terrelle Pryor is the real deal at quarterback as he was sensational as a freshman and he will only get better. The defense also lost some key players but there are eight returning starters and all of the projected starters are upperclassmen. This unit could be better than the 2007 team that allowed a mere 233 ypg.

Schedule: I consider the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions to be neck-and-neck but the meeting at Penn St. is the reason for placing Ohio St second along with the fact that it hosts USC in the second week of the season following its home opener against Navy. The Buckeyes also only have four true road games with the other three being at Indiana, Purdue and rival Michigan.

Bottom Line: The road team has won the Penn St./Ohio St. series the last two years so there is certainly no guarantee the Buckeyes lose in State College. The Buckeyes could be in trouble against the Trojans prior to that but facing a freshman quarterback and rebuilt defense gives Ohio St. the edge right now. There is enough talent and depth to make another big run.

Betting Forecast: The Buckeyes are a solid 14-3 ATS the last four years as a road favorite. They will be a road chalk three times this year so don’t count them out.

Illinois Fighting Illini 5-7 SU, 4-7 ATS, 5-5-1 O/U

Summary: After making a trip to the Rose Bowl in 2007, the Illini had a very disappointing follow up last year with a losing record and that is not what was envisioned. A bounce back this season can definitely be expected but making a run at the Big Ten title may be a little aggressive. The offense will go as far as quarterback Juice Williams takes them and after leading the Big Ten in passing while also rushing for 719 yards, he has the potential to take them far. He has a solid group of receivers, a large number of quality running backs and a healthy offensive line at his disposal so the Illini should improve upon their ranking of 19th in total offense from last season. The defense is a different story as only six starters are back and it will need to come together quickly for Illinois to have an outside shot at the title.

Schedule: Illinois opens the season in St. Louis against Missouri and then hosts Illinois St. before a bye week and before the real fun begins. Following the week off, Illinois goes to Ohio St. then hosts Penn St. and Michigan St. in successive weeks. The remainder of the schedule will seem like a cakewalk after that and it truly is not that difficult. The final two games of the year are non-conference tilts.

Bottom Line: The fifth year of head coach Ron Zook means all of his players are finally in place. Following a 2006 season where the Illini went 1-7 in the conference and 2-10 overall, they rebounded the following season and went to the Rose Bowl. Can we expect a similar turnaround this season? It is definitely feasible if the defense can gel quickly and they can get past that early season trio of trouble.

Betting Forecast: Illinois is 1-9 ATS the last three seasons in non-conference games. The opener is one to watch as are the final two games of the season.

Michigan St. Spartans 9-4 SU, 6-7 ATS, 6-7 O/U

Summary: After three straight losing seasons, lame duck head coach John L. Smith was shown the door and Mark Dantonio has come in and led the Spartans to winning records and bowl appearances in his two seasons. We will see a third in 2009 despite some tough losses on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback Brian Hoyer and running back Javon Ringer accounted for over 4,000 yards of total offense so replacing that backfield duo is going to be hard to do. The good news is that the Spartans have nearly everyone else back on offense and they will have a solid defense that can shoulder the load for the start of the season at least. The offense will show some different looks, namely the option, and if successful, the new style could surprise.

Schedule: The reason the defense can hold down the fort early is because of a soft schedule to start the season. The Spartans open the year with Montana St. and Central Michigan at home followed by trips to Notre Dame and Wisconsin. It is then back home to go against Michigan before the slate gets a little more difficult. Michigan St. gets to host Penn St. and misses Ohio St. altogether.

Bottom Line: For Michigan St., 15 starters in total are back as well as the best kicker in the country in Brett Swenson and a solid kicker can make a huge difference in the close games. Following an opening loss at Cal last year, the Spartans went 9-0 during the regular season against teams not named Penn St. or Ohio St. The potential is there for another New Year’s Day bowl.

Betting Forecast: The Spartans are 1-4-2 ATS as a home underdog the last four seasons and it will likely be in that role in the final game of the year against Penn St.

Iowa Hawkeyes 9-4 SU, 8-4 ATS, 4-7-1 O/U

Summary: Name the only Big Ten team that won a bowl game last season. Seeing that this is the Iowa analysis, it was a pretty easy guess. After missing its first bowl game in 2007 for the first time in seven years, the Hawkeyes were able to put together a great season and one that could have been even better. They finished 9-4 that included a win over undefeated Penn St. and the four losses came by a total of 12 points. It will be tougher to repeat the same success but a lot of the same pieces are back on offense sans running back Shonn Green and his 1,850 rushing yards. If the unit can improve from its 53rd ranking in total offense from a season ago, the defense will hold its own. The unit ranked 12th overall and 5th in scoring and brings back eight starters from last season. The interior line will be the biggest challenge to replace.

Schedule: You would figure with a team that looks so good on paper, why are they ranked so low? The schedule is absolutely brutal. The non-conference slate is not too tough with games against Arizona and Iowa St. being the toughest but it is the conference schedule that will be tough to crack. Iowa has to travel to Ohio St., Penn St., Wisconsin and Michigan St. and those are four extremely tough games and venues.

Bottom Line: Many think that Iowa overachieved last season and I cannot completely disagree with that. While there are a lot of pieces in place for a repeat, the schedule is not on its side like it was last year. The Hawkeyes have not had a winning season on the road since 2004 so even a split of those four Big Ten road games could be a stretch. Win three however and Iowa is right in the mix.

Betting Forecast: After a 22-5 ATS run as a home chalk from 2001-2005, Iowa is 4-9 ATS in that role the last three years. I can see those covering struggles continuing.

Michigan Wolverines 3-9 SU, 2-10 ATS, 8-4 O/U

Summary: The story to open the 2009 college football season for Michigan is not the hope for a rebound from last season’s horror show but the possible infractions that have taken place over the last couple seasons. Whether the Wolverines are guilty or not means little here as they are focused on starting the season strong after going 3-9 last year, the worst record in the history of the program. This is not a team on the decline but one that is changing and in the Big Ten, changing for the good. The Rich Rodriguez spread offense never got going last season as Michigan finished 109th in the country in total offense. The system needs time and the right players to become successful and with nine starters back on offense along with a quarterback who looks as though he can run the offense, things will be much better. Defensively, Rodriguez brought in recently fired Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson to run the unit.

Schedule: The Wolverines open the season with four straight home games with Notre Dame being the toughest of the bunch. Michigan then faces tough tests on the road as it travels to Michigan St. and Iowa in consecutive weeks before closing the season with four home games in its final six. The Big Ten slate is far from easy as Michigan misses Northwestern and Minnesota but it does get Ohio St. and Penn St. at home.

Bottom Line: It is unlikely that Michigan will jump all way back to the top in the Big Ten but there will be significant improvement. A second year under the offensive system will help as will a new coordinator on defense. The allegations taking place should not be a distraction as Rodriguez will have his team focused on getting back to a bowl which was missed last season for the first time in 33 years.

Betting Forecast: After posting a dreadful 2-10 ATS record last season, the Wolverines will have much better results at the window in 2009.

Wisconsin Badgers 7-6 SU, 5-7 ATS, 8-4 O/U

Summary: Despite going just 3-5 in the weak Big Ten last season, Wisconsin was awarded another bowl game because of its 7-5 overall record that included a win against Cal Poly in overtime in the final week of the regular season. The Badgers were spanked pretty good against Florida St. in the Champs Sports Bowl so they enter 2009 on a big of a negative. It was just three years ago that Wisconsin won 12 games but it has been an uphill climb ever since and it won’t be easier this season although a bowl invite is a good possibility. The offense and defense both finished 37th in the country last season and while the offense should be better, the defense may take another step back. Only 11 starters are back in total and a lot of the two-deep spots are going to be held by underclassmen so experience is lacking.

Schedule: Wisconsin does not play on the road until October as it opens the season with four straight home games including its Big Ten opener against Michigan St. following three straight non-conference games. The Big Ten schedule is manageable as three of the four road games are against teams ranked further down the standings. The Badgers miss Penn St. and Illinois but do have a tough game in Hawaii to close the year.

Bottom Line: Wisconsin has dropped further in the Big Ten Standing in each of the last three years but that should come to a halt this season. While the Badgers are not expected to improve too much, they should get back to a .500 record in the Big Ten at the very least. Head coach Bret Bielema in just 11-10 in his last 21 games after starting his Wisconsin career 17-1 in his first 18 games.

Betting Forecast: Wisconsin is just 1-5 ATS as a road dog under Bielema but it should improve upon that this season with a bunch of games that are actually winnable.

Northwestern Wildcats 9-5 SU, 7-5 ATS, 4-8 O/U

Summary: Northwestern registered its most victories since 1996 as it won nine games last season, the third straight season under head coach Pat Fitzgerald that the wins have increased. That streak will be broken this season but the Wildcats have a good shot at making it to another bowl game. The goal is to actually win a bowl game however as Northwestern has not won in the postseason since 1948, a span of seven games. The offense loses its top two playmakers as quarterback C.J. Bacher and running back Tyrell Sutton have moved on as have the top four receivers. The offense has been the strength but now it will be up to the defense to carry the Wildcats. They finished 26th in scoring defense a season ago and bring back eight starters for a third straight season so it in fact should be in great shape.

Schedule: Northwestern went 4-0 in its non-conference schedule last season and could do so again with games against Towson, Eastern Michigan, Syracuse and Miami, Ohio. The Big Ten schedule is quite manageable despite tough road games at Iowa, Illinois and Michigan St. The home portion includes Minnesota, Indiana and Wisconsin and while Penn St. is part of the mix, Ohio St. and Michigan are not.

Bottom Line: Northwestern is no longer a pushover in the Big Ten as it is just three games under .500 overall and only six games under .500 in conference action this decade. To put that into perspective, it is five games better than Michigan St. and just six games worse than Penn St. We will see a step back this season but not a big one with another trip to the postseason a very good possibility.

Betting Forecast: Northwestern is only 7-21-1 ATS following a win since 2004 so it has been tough to be consistent. This is a trend to definitely keep an eye on.

Minnesota Golden Gophers 7-6 SU, 7-5 ATS, 6-6 O/U

Summary: A lot should be said for head coach Tim Brewster who posted a 1-11 record in his first season at Minnesota but led the Gophers to a 7-5 regular season last year and a bowl invite. They were defeated rather handily against Kansas in the Insight Bowl but just making it to the postseason was a huge accomplishment. With 17 starters back in 2009, which are the most in the conference, expectations are definitely higher but in all likelihood, things will not be as good. The offense finished 91st overall while the defense came in at 80th as it was a favorable turnover margin that helped get them over the top. Both units have the potential to improve but that does not necessarily mean it will equate to additional wins.

Schedule: The reason the wins will be tougher to come by is because of a tough schedule. Three of the four Big Ten road games are at Ohio St., Penn St. and Iowa while the fourth at Northwestern is no easy game either. Three of the four conference home games are against teams ranked ahead of them so the whole conference schedule is a challenge. The Gophers also host Air Force and California in non-conference action.

Bottom Line: Brewster deserves a lot of credit for bringing his team back from a dreadful 2007. He will definitely need to put together an even better coaching effort to get the Gophers back to a bowl game as the schedule is one of the toughest in the conference. It is hard to believe it took this long but Minnesota will finally get to play its home games at a new on-campus stadium.

Betting Forecast: Minnesota went 4-0 ATS as a road dog last season after compiling a 7-17 ATS mark the prior eight years. Expect a downturn in 2009.

Purdue Boilermakers 4-8 SU, 5-5-1 ATS, 4-6-1 O/U

Summary: Head coach Joe Tiller is gone after 12 years and 126 wins. He announced his intentions to leave prior to last season so the 4-8 record that Purdue produced has nothing to do with his departure. Danny Hope takes over in what should be a seamless transition as he has been with the program for five seasons at two different times. Obviously his goal is to get the Boilermakers back to the postseason as they missed their second bowl game in four years. It is not going to be easy. Purdue lost four-year starting quarterback Curtis Painter, 1,000-yard rusher Kory Sheets as well as its top two receivers. It will be up to the defense, which finished 61st overall last season, to carry the load early on. The unit does bring back seven starters so there is hope for a big improvement.

Schedule: The Boilermakers play at home in four of their first five game but that one road game is a challenging one at Oregon. The other three non-conference games are at home against Toledo, Northern Illinois and Notre Dame. The Big Ten schedule has Ohio St., Illinois and Michigan St. at home while missing Penn St. and Iowa so that is very favorable. All four conference road games are swing games.

Bottom Line: Looking at the schedule and you see one that is far from difficult so a trip back to a bowl game is definitely doable. That is if Purdue can find a way to move the ball on offense. Joey Elliott takes over at quarterback and while he is a senior, he has never started a game. His progress will determine how far Purdue goes but it still may not be enough to get it back to bowl eligibility.

Betting Forecast: Purdue is only 2-5 ATS as a home underdog the last three seasons and it will be in that role more than once this season. Stay away.

Indiana Hoosiers 3-9 SU, 2-8-1 ATS, 7-4 O/U

Summary: Indiana has had losing seasons in 14 of its last 15 years so putting them in the preseason basement is a safe bet. The Hoosiers thought that a repeat of 2007 was possible this season when it went to its first bowl game since 1993. That could have gone out the window following the dismissal of Kellen Lewis during the spring as he was easily the best athlete on the team. The offense will be starting from scratch with a new quarterback, running back and two receivers as well as the implementation of a new ‘Pistol’ offense, similar to the one run at Nevada. Four offensive linemen return from last season which is a big advantage. Defensively, Indiana finished 108th in scoring and 107th overall but nine starters are back so things should improve.

Schedule: Indiana opens against Eastern Kentucky before facing two MAC opponents prior to the conference opener. The Big Ten schedule is extremely tough as the first three games are against Michigan, Ohio St. and Illinois with the latter two taking place in Bloomington. The final non-conference game is at Virginia. The Hoosiers close the year with three of five on the road including games at Iowa and Penn St.

Bottom Line: The departure of Lewis is a tough one to swallow but it could be a blessing as it may force the Hoosiers to play more as a team. Lewis was going to play a big role in the new offense but there is plenty of talent to take over. If not for a brutal schedule, the Hoosiers may have had a shot at getting back to the postseason but it seems too far out of reach at this point.

Betting Forecast: Indiana is a dreadful 13-29 ATS as a road dog this decade which is no surprise having only eight outright road wins. The road struggles will go on.

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