August is here and another year is beckoning for Big Ten Country. This site is back for its regular updating on the football and men's basketball action in America's greatest conference. Through the hitting in the trenches to the squeaking of sneakers on the hardwood, from football openers in the hot August sun to basketball in Iowa City come midwinter. On through the BCS National Championship Game in Miami come January and ending right back in our home region in March when Detroit hosts the Final Four. Big Ten Country is excited to begin its fourth year of coverage.
For obvious reasons most fans are focused on football right now, and for equally obvious reasons that will be the focus here as team previews and predictions are about to be the main fare served. But for the opening post, I thought I would take a little broader view at the entire year ahead. What are the main storylines for each school as we prepare to make the journey from August to March? If you're a student on campus, what questions should you have about your teams as another academic year begins. Here are my thoughts:
Wisconsin: The Badgers arguably had the strongest combined year of any league program last year, winning the basketball title and going to a New Year's Day game in football. The big question for 2008-09 is whether the football team can take the next step into a BCS bowl game. UW hasn't competed on the biggest stage since the 1999 Rose Bowl. They've been successful and won a lot of big games, but can they reach the next level? We'll find out.
Ohio State: It's all about politics here. The Buckeyes have taken a lot of unfair heat for losing the past two BCS title games. Rather then being seen as the second-best team in the land for two straight years, and the best if you look at 2006-07 as one, their losses are seen not only as a mark against themselves, but against the entire league. They go to Southern Cal on September 13. Jim Tressel's team is the banner-carrier for this conference on the national stage and we'll see how they handle this test, and how the public reacts.
Michigan State: While football looks interesting, Tom Izzo's basketball program is where the hottest action is in East Lansing. With the Final Four a virtual home game for them, can the Spartans end the year by cutting down the nets in their own backyard?
Indiana: This one's easy. Tom Crean has been given the task of restoring a troubled tradition in IU basketball. Eric Gordon and D.J. White are gone. Can Crean get the foundation in place?
Purdue: Arguably the most interesting program in the conference. It's Joe Tiller's last year in football. But it's all about hoops in the state of Indiana, and after surprising everyone with a young team last year, can Matt Painter take this program back to the Keady-era of Big Ten championships?
Michigan: Another easy call. How will the football team adjust to Rich Rodriguez's spread offense? They could finish 10-2, or below .500 based on what the answer is.
Minnesota: While Tubby Smith's basketball team is the superior program, the more interesting question is whether the strong recruiting class of Rick Brewster can get the football team pointed back in the right direction after a disastrous 2007.
Iowa: Kirk Ferentz is good friends with UW athletic director Barry Alvarez and their careers have followed similar paths. A hot beginning with some big years that got them on short lists for better jobs all over the country and the NFL. Now, just as Barry did, Ferentz is having a dry spell in the middle. Can he respond the same way and get it turned back around? The betting here says he can. We'll find out.
Illinois: The program to watch isn't the one that just played in the Rose Bowl. Ron Zook will rebuild a little this year, but has the Illini on strong footing. The one to keep an eye is in hoops, where Bruce Weber has fallen from grace since the glory days of 2005. If he doesn't return his team to March this year, he might be running out of chances.
Northwestern: The Wildcats just missed a bowl game last year. Can Pat Fitzgerald return them to the postseason this time around? If he can, NU is coming close to developing what can actually be a modest tradition of success on the gridiron. From Gary Barnett to Randy Walker and now to Fitzgerald. That's if an experienced team can finish the job this season.
Penn State: And last, but certainly not least is the story of the year in college football. Is this the swan song for Joe Paterno? And are he and Penn State headed for a messy finish? Paterno has refused to agree to a succession plan. The school has so far refused to extend his contract. If Paterno wins 9-10 games, as this team is capable of, it probably settles things in his favor. But what if they go a so-so 8-4? Joe Pa shows no hints of stepping aside. Does the school push him out or give in? Ted Thompson up in Green Bay might want to give thanks he's got an easier job on his plate then trying to handle this potential time bomb.
There are so many other questions that remain unanswered in America's greatest region. Will there be a Windy City Series? Which NFC North team (if any) will Brett Favre suit up for? Will Big Ten Country produce its first president since Harding? We don't have the answers to all. But what's above is what will set the tone for the college sports community in this neck of the woods.