Buckeyes on top of Big Ten preseason

BY RYAN YOUNG | JULY 28, 2009 7:07 AM

CHICAGO — Illinois head football coach Ron Zook remembers when the Big Ten used to be considered a two-team conference.

Growing up in Loudonville, Ohio, he saw the birth of a dual dynasty. And for nearly three decades, he watched Michigan and Ohio State collectively run the Big Ten tables.

Then, equality struck, and such teams as Wisconsin, Illinois, and Northwestern earned the chance to bask in what once was a reserved limelight.

Now, with Ohio State named the preseason favorite to win a fifth-straight Big Ten championship and sophomore quarterback sensation and preseason Offensive Player of the Year Terrelle Pryor heading a prolific offense, history may be close to coming full circle.

“Obviously, we’re all chasing Ohio State right now,” Zook said. “I don’t think there’s any question. You can’t argue with the success that Ohio State has had.”

But while the Buckeyes may have dominated the Big Ten title race since 2005, the former Florida coach isn’t insinuating the conference crown can’t be claimed by anyone flying under the radar.

He knows the Fighting Illini came close to overtaking the throne in 2007, when his team beat Ohio State, 28-21, in Columbus after losing to Iowa and Michigan by a combined 14 points.

Plus, Penn State, Michigan State, and Iowa each finished in the rankings at season’s end in 2008.

In the upcoming campaign, the Nittany Lions are predicted to come in as a close second to the Buckeyes, while the Spartans and Hawkeyes are tabbed to come in third.

“I think anybody in this league can win the conference,” Zook said. “If we can win our conference, and we can win bowl games and so forth, then I think you’re going to see the conference come back to where it was in the past.”

However, parity may not be the only factor in the Big Ten.

“The one thing that college football is great about is that in the off-season, you see teams getting together all the time, and sharing ideas, and sharing thoughts,” Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said. “It’s a little bit unusual that that’s the way it is with all the sharing of information, but that’s how we all get better.”

For better or worse, though, Tressel’s coaching peers acknowledge they haven’t put up the best fight.

They know the only way to show the conference’s uniformity is to prove it on the gridiron.

“Where the rest of the league is, I can’t answer that question,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I think we’re all competing and trying to find ways to improve our programs. At the end of the day, you have to go out and make it happen on the field.”

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