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December 14, 2007

Conference Previews: Big Ten

With the first season of the uniform start date approaching, the Big Ten feels like it has something to prove.

Just don't tell that to Michigan.

The Wolverines shocked the nation last season by eliminating top-seeded Vanderbilt from the postseason. However, that feat is a distant memory and they have their sights set on something better a June trip to Omaha, Neb.

While Michigan leads the charge, Penn State hopes to continue its improvement after finishing conference play with a 20-10 record last season. Meanwhile, Minnesota aims for another postseason berth after eliminating San Diego from the 2007 postseason.

Iowa and Ohio State could also be in the mix, while Purdue could be a pleasant surprise with hard-hitting Ryne White leading the way.

We preview the Big Ten.

Rivals.com's Big Ten Preview
Predicted order of finish Preseason all-conference

1. Michigan
2. Minnesota
3. Penn State
4. Iowa
5. Ohio State
6. Purdue
7. Illinois
8. Michigan State
9. Indiana
10. Northwestern
1B. Ryne White, Purdue
2B. Steve Gerstenberger, Michigan State
3B. Nate Hanson, Minnesota
SS. Jason Christian, Michigan
OF. Kevin Cislo, Michigan
OF. Matt Nohelty, Minnesota
OF. Derek VanBuskirk, Michigan
C. Joe Blackburn, Penn State
SP. Zach Putnam, Michigan
SP. Matt Bischoff, Purdue
SP. Mike Wilson, Michigan
RP. Drew O'Neil, Penn State
DH. Nate Recknagel, Michigan
Big Ten Conference breakdown
Team on the rise
Penn State
It has been a tough road, but Penn State coach Robbie Wine finally has the program headed the right direction. In his first season with the Nittany Lions, Wine guided the team to a 13-19 conference record. The Lions finished the 2006 season with an identical record. Hoping to turn the tide in 2007, the Lions surprised many by compiling an impressive 20-10 conference record. With a new ballpark, good coaching staff and improved talent, the program is taking a different direction. No longer do the Nittany Lions hope to stay out of the Big Ten cellar. Instead, they have their sights set on consistently reaching the NCAA tournament.
Coach on the rise
Rich Maloney
If you ask Michigan coach Rich Maloney, the Wolverines still have much more to accomplish. Sure, the Wolverines knocked top-seeded Vanderbilt out of the 2007 postseason but they were unable to get to Omaha - losing to eventual champion Oregon State in a Super Regional. Still, there's no shame in saying you lost to the mighty Beavers. In his five seasons at Michigan, Maloney has transformed the program into a national name. The Wolverines are now considered a legitimate national title contender. After leading the program to a conference title in 2006, Maloney did the same in 2007. With another talented team, a conference title and much more is on the line in 2008.
Best pitcher
Zach Putnam
Michigan is one of the nation's rising programs and the two-way star has helped make it possible. In his two seasons with the Wolverines, Putnam has placed himself among the nation's elite. As a hitter last season, Putnam batted .330 with eight homers and 59 RBIs. His pitching numbers were equally impressive. The talented right-hander went 8-5 with a 3.87 ERA in 102 1/3 innings of work. He has also struck out 87 and walked 38, while opponents hit him at a .248 clip. With Putnam and fellow weekend starter Mike Wilson back in the mix, the Wolverines again expect to have two dominant arms in the weekend rotation.
Best hitter
Ryne White
The Purdue first baseman used to be one of the nation's most underrated players. White has officially earned his stripes at least in our eyes. As a sophomore last season, White tallied amazing numbers. In 53 starts and 199 at bats, White batted .452 with eight homers and 47 RBIs. Perhaps even more impressive, he had a .663 slugging percentage and a .521 on-base percentage. He also had 16 doubles and 132 total bases. He might not be as well known as Brett Wallace or Justin Smoak, but that will likely change this season.
Kendall's analysis
Despite a less than impressive 15-15 conference mark last season, Ohio State managed to reach the NCAA tournament by winning the Big Ten Tournament title. As the 2008 season approaches, some teams view that occurrence as a ray of hope. Michigan isn't one of those teams. The Wolverines obviously hope to notch another postseason berth. However, they've got their sights set on something bigger and better the College World Series. With Zach Putnam and Mike Wilson leading the charge, the Wolverines have a good weekend rotation. They also have a productive offensive lineup with Nate Recknagel, Kevin Cislo and Jason Christian as the headliners. While Michigan aims for Omaha, Minnesota hopes to build on its 2007 postseason berth. Then there's Penn State, which continues to elevate its program with a beautiful new ballpark. Iowa and Ohio State should also be in the mix, while Purdue could be a surprise team. Beyond Michigan the Big Ten is a wide-open race.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at rogersk@yahoo-inc.com.