BIG TEN CONFERENCE
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
It’s spineless, I know.
It takes no guts to pick a team considered by many to be the preseason #1 to win their league.
But I have to do it.
(Please note, because of an attempt to keep this content reasonably focused and less snarky than most college football content will be this season, the coach normally referred to as “Cheatypants Sweatervest” or “SweaterTressel” will instead be called “Jim Tressel” or “Tressel”. The “tOSU” moniker remains in play.)
The Buckeyes have to rebuild their defense because pretty much all their 2005 starters were picked in the first round of the NFL Draft. However, the offense caught fire last season, and tOSU ended up surpassing 30 points per game for the first time since 1998. Many of the key pieces return, and it’s not like the defense is going to fall off the face of the Earth with the new starters. tOSU is the best shot the Big Ten has at winning a national title.
In good shape: Quarterback. Wouldn’t have guessed one year ago that I would be saying this. As recently as the Penn State game last year, Troy Smith was shaky (13-25 for 139 yards and a pick). The Buckeyes’ signal-caller was in a different league after that, averaging 256 passing yards per game and compiling an impressive 13-2 TD-INT ratio. With Ted Ginn back, along with Anthony Gonzalez and Roy Hall, the passing game is in good shape.
Needs work: Pick a defensive unit. I’ll go with linebacker. tOSU lost A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, and Anthony Schlegel to the NFL. Hawk and Carpenter were gone by the 20th overall pick. Those three starting linebackers combined for 252 tackles and 19.5 sacks, and the leadership that they got from Hawk will be very tough to replace. Of the new starters, I really like the new middle linebacker, John Kerr. He’s going to be a steady hand in the middle of that defense.
Overview: With a suddenly lethal offense, the sky is the limit for tOSU. Despite the heavy personnel losses, you almost assume that the defense is going to be really good by midseason, and the Buckeyes have to hope it isn’t bad enough to cost them games early in the season. Smith can throw, Ginn can score from anywhere on the field, and Antonio Pittman can run. If Tressel can get anything whatsoever out of this defense, they’ll find a way to get by Texas and cruise into the game at Iowa, a game that will then decide tOSU’s national title hopes.
2. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan fans are going to hate me for this. I really like this team.
The Wolverines were dangerously close to a sub-.500 season a year ago, when they needed overtime wins over Michigan State and Iowa to qualify for a bowl game. The Wolverines were uncharacteristically sloppy in many areas, as turnovers and dropped passes hurt them appreciably in losses to Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl (no mention of Sun Belt refs necessary, because none of us have forgotten).
The running game was spotty, thanks in large part to Mike Hart and the offensive line being unable to stay healthy. Chad Henne “only” hit 58 percent of his throws, but was victimized by a large number of drops. And Michigan lost their first road game of the season for the sixth consecutive year. To make matters worse, Michigan lost three home games (they had a 16-game home win streak before the Notre Dame loss), and they went to a December bowl game for the first time since 1995.
So, yeah, the heat is on good ol’ Lloyd, but I think he can handle it.
In good shape: Running back. The one positive that came out of the Hart injury issues was that Lloyd Carr and his staff were forced to use other backs, including youngster Kevin Grady, who posted 483 yards rushing in spot duty. Assuming reasonable health on the offensive line (which really didn’t happen last year), and reasonable health among the top two backs, Michigan should be able to run the ball practically at will.
Needs work: Defensive line. It didn’t seem like the Wolverines ever got consistent play up front last year. Now, they have to deal with the loss of massive DT Gabe Watson and three-year starting DE Pat Massey. The interior of the line just won’t be the same without Watson’s talent, even though Watson didn’t always keep himself in good shape. At wide receiver, Michigan must get over the loss of leading pass-catcher Jason Avant, which means that someone among the group of Mario Manningham and Steve Breaston must step up and be the leader at that position.
Overview: Michigan wasn’t Michigan last year. In response, Carr didn’t stand in the way when defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann took a job in the NFL, and he also let offensive coordinator Terry Malone move on. The staff changes might cause a bit of uncertainty as fall camp starts, but the personnel is in place for a strong rebound season in Ann Arbor. Chad Henne is developing into a star, and he has some talented athletes to throw to. The offensive line has to be healthier this year, and the defense looks pretty good if they can adjust to the new coordinator. The Wolverines were incredibly unlucky at times, and they dug their own grave in other situations. It’s hard to imagine Michigan having the same issues two years in a row. The road schedule is tough, but you should remember that Michigan only lost one true road game a year ago. That was really the least of their problems.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes
Remember last year? Purdue had the “OMG EASIEST SCHEDULE IN THE LAND!”. Rebuilding Notre Dame at home. Iowa at home. No Michigan or Ohio State.
What happened? 5-6.
Why am I bringing this Purdue story up in a bit about Iowa?
Because Iowa is this year’s “Overhyped Big Ten Team”. Congratulations, guys.
Now I’m not saying that Iowa is on the way to a 5-7 or 6-6 season. But I am saying that it won’t be as easy as everyone is assuming. The Hawkeyes have a chance to be a very good team this year, but they are going to have to get better in a few areas before they’ll be a legitimate national title contender.
In good shape: Offensive backfield. Just a scant two years ago, Iowa had one of the worst rushing attacks in major college football, averaging just 73 yards per game and 2.0 yards per carry. Thanks to Albert Young, the running game wasn’t a problem last year, and it shouldn’t be this year. Young ran for over 1,300 yards a year ago, and Iowa improved their rushing yards per game by 152. Meanwhile, the passing game is in equally good hands, with senior Drew Tate at the controls. Tate improved his completion percentage, passing yards (they were slight improvements, but improvements nonetheless), and his TD-INT ratio. The undersized signal-caller is a quality leader who understands his role and understands the offense.
Needs work: Wide receiver. Tate is great (Ha!), but the receivers aren’t as proven. Clinton Solomon and Ed Hinkel have moved on, taking 86 receptions and 14 touchdowns with them. That leaves juniors Herb Grigsby and Eric McCollum, and redshirt freshman Trey Stross to pick up the slack on the outside. Iowa has a solid tight end in Scott Chandler to help ease the transition, but Tate had better hope his new receivers pick things up quickly.
Overview: Iowa thrived off quick starts last year. They outscored their opponents 119-37 in first quarters last year. They were incredibly disciplined, too, only committing 4.3 penalties per game (HT: Blue Ribbon). The Hawkeyes will be well-coached as long as Kirk Ferentz is around. And it appears that they have set themselves up for a run at the Big Ten title. Iowa has Ohio State and Wisconsin at home, and Michigan on the road. They don’t play Penn State, and they also don’t have to deal with Michigan State. However, Iowa still needs to do a better job closing games (they had chances to put away games against Michigan and Northwestern last year but failed), and they have to turn around the -1 turnover ratio they posted last year. I really like this Iowa team, but I like Michigan and Ohio State a little more at this point. If Iowa can beat Ohio State at home in October, they should be in the final mix for a BCS bowl berth.
4. Penn State Nittany Lions
After a run of four losing seasons in five years, it looked like Joe Paterno was writing a very sad script for the end of his coaching career.
Then along came Michael Robinson.
Penn State went from a team that couldn’t run the ball to a team that couldn’t be stopped on the ground. They went from a team that couldn’t score (17.7 PPG in 2004) to a team that couldn’t be stopped (34.4 PPG in 2005!). And the defense was a normal Penn State defense, meaning it was good.
With Robinson gone, the Nittany Lions have to rebuild the offense to a certain extent. If they can do that, they have a shot at another double-digit win total.
In good shape: Linebacker. As usual. It helps to have a guy like Paul Posluszny back. Posluszny was set to turn pro before he injured his knee in the Orange Bowl. Penn State will benefit from his return, as he posted 116 tackles and was first team All-American a year ago. Senior Tim Shaw will man the middle,and junior Dan Connor is back after starting the last seven games at the other outside linebacker spot. It’s a quick unit with great tackling ability, and these guys are no slouches when asked to go back into pass coverage.
Needs work: Secondary. Penn State hasn’t allowed more than 225 pass yards per game since 2001, and they’re probably not going to again this year, but it won’t be easy. Sophomore Justin King mans one corner spot. Fellow sophomore Tony Davis is slotted as the other starter, and both are exceptionally quick and athletic (King filled in a bit at wide receiver last year). Senior strong safety Donnie Johnson is the most experienced player Penn State has back, but he’s a converted corner who lacks experience. Can Penn State make up for lost experience with better athletes?
Overview: It’s hard to imagine Penn State being a top team in the Big Ten again, because Robinson was so valuable to the offense. The coaches are optimistic that Anthony Morelli will do well at quarterback, but he’s not the athlete Robinson was. That will put the burden of the running game on senior Tony Hunt, who topped 1,000 yards last year, but benefited from having Robinson in the backfield with him. I really like sophomore receiver Derrick Williams, and his healthy return will help Morelli’s development. I think Penn State will be good enough to win nine or ten games, and they should contend for a spot in a New Year’s Day bowl.
5. Wisconsin Badgers
Bucky surprised many a year ago when they rode the emotion of Barry Alvarez’ final season to a 5-0 start and a ten-win season. There were many reasons for this, but running back Brian Calhoun’s season was a big part of it (2,200+ total yards). Calhoun turned pro, and new coach Bret Bielema’s most difficult job as a rookie will be trying to replace that production.
The Badgers have a favorable schedule, a senior quarterback coming off a strong season, and a loaded defensive front seven. There is still a strong chance that Wisconsin could manage another ten-win season.
In good shape: Defensive line. This unit was beset by injuries last year, and they now have incredible depth across the line because of all the young guys forced to play last year. Likely to start are sophomore DE Jason Chapman, senior DE Joe Monty, and junior DTs Nick Hayden and Justin Ostrowski. Sophomore DE Matt Shaughnessy impressed before suffering a knee injury, and junior DE Jamaal Cooper is coming off a torn ACL. That said, the line is deep and talented, and should be the team’s strength this year after being a relative weakness last year.
Needs work: Running back. Who starts? Will it be junior Jamil Walker, who has been inconsistent but has the most experience of anyone at the position? Or will it be redshirt freshman P.J. Hill, who came out of spring drills as the starter? Either way, how can it be expected that they will come anywhere near what Calhoun did? The final question is the most important: What effect will the decrease in production at this position have on John Stocco (Stocco threw 21 TDs and upped his completion percentage over 60 percent last year)?
Overview: There’s talent for Stocco to throw to. Paul Hubbard, Marcus Randle El (if he keeps his nose clean), Jarmal Ruffin, and Jarvis Minton all have a chance to start at wide receiver, and one of them has to emerge quickly as a reliable target for Stocco. The beatdown of Auburn in the Capital One Bowl perked up some ears around the country, and now it’s up to Bielema to lead this team. He has been well-taught over his career as an assistant, having worked for Hayden Fry, Bill Snyder, Kirk Ferentz, and Alvarez over the course of his coaching career. Wisconsin’s defense should be stout once again after an off year, and the Badgers should finish with around eight wins in Bielema’s first season.
6. Purdue Boilermakers
As mentioned in the Iowa preview, last season had so much promise, but it went “SPLAT” in a hurry.
The Boilermakers started 2-0, but then lost a gut-busting OT game to Minnesota. They came home and were blown out by Notre Dame, then lost the remaining two games on their three-game homestand to Iowa and Northwestern. They didn’t win a Big Ten game until they were already assured of being home for the bowl season, and they ended up finishing 5-6 in a season where national title hopes were openly discussed in the summer.
Well, this could be a turnaround year for Joe Tiller’s crew. Purdue has an astounding 30 seniors on the roster, and the experience could go a long way toward getting them back in the bowl picture.
In good shape: Offensive line. Despite the poor record, Purdue’s offensive line was a success story in 2005. The Boilermakers posted an impressive 4.9 rush yards per carry, and the line only allowed nine quarterback sacks in eleven games (six of those nine came in the final three games). Four starters are back, including All-Big Ten RG Jordan Grimes and LT Mike Otto. The line should be very good again, and with the improvement expected out of the quarterback position, Purdue has a dangerous offense in the works.
Needs work: Linebacker. Frankly, the whole defense underperformed last year, and the linebackers were no exception. In order for Purdue’s defense to make more than a marginal improvement, they’ll need a bigger contribution out of the linebackers. Plenty of starting experience returns, but can the coaches get this group to play better? Sophomore outside linebacker Jason Werner is undersized, but very talented, and while he’s not listed as a starter right now, he probably will be one by midseason. Middle linebacker George Hall is the only senior in this group.
Overview: Sophomore QB Curtis Painter is a good athlete who ran the option well late last year, but he still has to improve as a passer. Kory Sheets has great quickness at RB, and 6-9 Kyle Ingraham has one more chance to improve his pass-catching consistency. Junior Dorien Bryant is the best player in that group. Overall, Purdue has the experience and the talent to win eight games or more, provided that Painter gives them more stability under center.
7. Michigan State Spartans
What a long, strange trip it’s been for Drew Stanton. Stanton took over the starting QB duties from the troubled Jeff Smoker, and when Stanton has been healthy, he’s been virtually unstoppable.
Problem…he hasn’t been healthy much.
Stanton struggled with a shoulder injury in 2004, but was able to post over 2,300 total yards. Stanton came off the bench to lead Sparty past Wisconsin in a late-season upset in East Lansing. Last year, it was more of the same. When Stanton was healthy, he was in a different league, posting a 15-3 TD-INT ratio. Then Stanton suffered a hand injury that hampered him the rest of the way. He finished with nine picks in Sparty’s last five games, and Michigan State lost three straight when all they needed was one win to qualify for a bowl game.
At some point, the Spartans will need to improve their consistency, especially on defense, and they need to keep Stanton upright. Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin really wants to run Stanton more, but I have to wonder if that’s a good move, considering how fragile he’s proven to be.
In good shape: Running back. Not only is Stanton a great running threat, but the Spartans are loaded with running backs, and John L. Smith and Baldwin know how to use them. True freshman Javon Ringer led the team in rushing last year. He’s joined by Jehuu Caulcrick and redshirt freshman A.J. Jimmerson. Did I mention that Stanton can run, too?
Needs work: Defense. 232 rush yards to Michigan. 533 total yards to Northwestern. 221 rush yards to Purdue. 327 rush yards to Minnesota. Only 19 turnovers forced. Six games allowing 30 or more points (all losses). Hope springs eternal in East Lansing, as the Spartans will start seniors at both defensive tackle positions, both cornerback positions, and at one linebacker position. There’s more experience and depth, but still a host of players who have to prove themselves at this level.
Overview: This is the story of two football teams. Well, three, really. There’s the unstoppable Michigan State Spartans, led by a healthy Drew Stanton and a motivated, playmaking defense. There’s the eminently vulnerable Michigan State Spartans, led by someone other than Drew Stanton and backed by a skiddish defense that can’t stop anyone or anything. And there’s the in-between team, which either has a healthy Stanton or a defense that is flying around the field. If they can get more of the healthy version of Stanton, Sparty can climb up the Big Ten standings. If they don’t, or if the defense does its usual disappearing act, they’ll be lucky to be bowl-eligible.
8. Minnesota Golden Gophers
One of the big storylines for this Gopher team is how they’ll respond to a brand new running back, something they haven’t had since Terry Jackson (remember him?), Marion Barber III, and then Laurence Maroney burst onto the scene. Barber left after the 2004 season, and Maroney followed him out the door after 2005. Also gone is Gary Russell, who led the Gophers with 18 touchdowns in 2005 and joined Maroney over the 1,000 yard mark, marking the third straight year that the Gophers put two backs over 1,000 yards (first time in NCAA history).
Russell is gone because of academic issues, leaving the Gophers with Amir Pinnix (467 yards a year ago) and JUCO transfer Brylee Callender, who led the way in the spring game with 110 yards.
Should be interesting to see how the Gophers operate with a retooled backfield.
In good shape: The passing game, believe it or not. Bryan Cupito wasn’t outstanding as a junior, but he was better. He kicked his completion percentage up close to the 60s, and he had a good 19-9 TD-INT ratio. He put together strong performances in wins over Tulsa, Purdue, and Indiana, and he was good in losses to Ohio State and Virginia. He has plenty of experienced targets, including the Shaq of Big Ten football, Ernie Wheelwright. There might not be a better jump-ball receiver in the league than the 6-5 Wheelwright, who needs to work on his hands and his speed to be a more consistent threat. Senior Logan Payne and tight end Matt Spaeth both return, so Cupito’s numbers might improve again.
Needs work: Defensive line. Ouch. The coaches just can’t get a handle on this whole “run defense” thing. New defensive coordinator David Lockwood was able to make marginal improvements in the secondary, but the front four was still painful to watch at times, and the loss of their best player, DT Anthony Montgomery, won’t help matters much. The Gophers need better play up the middle against the run, or they’re not ever going to get out of the Big Ten’s low-rent bowl district.
Overview: Can the Gophers run the ball like they have? They lose three great linemen up front, and both 1,000-yard rushers. Could Minnesota take to the air to be successful this year? Will it matter if they don’t start stopping opposing offenses? It’s going to be an interesting year for Glen Mason, because there’s a good chance he’ll have to venture from what has been his comfort zone at Minnesota (running the ball) in order to score points. That could lead to some entertaining offensive shootouts involving the Gophers this year, but it probably won’t lead to more than six or seven wins and a minor bowl bid.
9. Indiana Hoosiers
Like Illinois, Indiana has struggled mightily in recent years. Unlike Illinois, who won the Big Ten title in 2001, Indiana has struggled mightily for many years. The Hoosiers haven’t been to a bowl game since 1993’s Independence Bowl loss to Virginia Tech, and their last Rose Bowl appearance came in 1967. Terry Hoeppner took over the program last year, and he was able to energize the fan base and take some steps toward removing the stigma of losing from the program.
For Indiana to continue moving forward and end their bowl drought, they’re going to have to find a way to protect the football better while also stopping the run more consistently.
In good shape: Passing attack. Junior Blake Powers is coming off a season where he set a school record with 22 touchdown passes, and he did a great job adjusting to the more wide-open attack. Powers is only going to become more accurate and more dangerous as he grows into the position, and his future is definitely bright. With the improved talent surrounding him (6-7 WR James Hardy had some offseason legal issues but will hopefully be ready to go, and he is an elite player), Indiana could be on the way to a breakthrough season offensively.
Needs work: Run offense/defense. QB Powers is the team’s leading returning rusher. Unless Indiana switched to the wishbone without telling anyone, that’s a bad thing. Marcus Thigpen moves from receiver to running back, and redshirt freshmen Justin Carrington and Demetrius McCray could push for playing time. The run defense, meanwhile, was horrid a year ago, allowing over 200 yards per game and five yards per carry. The Hoosiers yielded more than 225 yards rushing four times, including a ghastly 408 against I-AA Nicholls State. It might be a good thing that IU loses three starters and gets a chance to start over on the defensive line.
Overview: Powers and Hardy should connect at least 60 times, and now they just have to find a running game to complement the dangerous passing attack. It wouldn’t hurt for Indiana to make a few more plays on defense (they weren’t as bad at this as Illinois was, which you’ll read about in a moment, but IU forced just 17 turnovers and recorded 19 QB sacks last year). Hoeppner still has his work cut out for him, but he catches a break with the schedule this year. The Hoosiers play four of their first five at home, and all four non-conference games are winnable. Indiana stands a decent chance at posting six wins and breaking the bowl drought, but that breakthrough might have to wait until 2007.
10. Illinois Fighting Illini
What a difference a recruiter makes. Ron Zook has restored some pride to the Illinois program, thanks to a crazy infusion of talent over the last couple years. Unlike at Florida, where every decision Zook made during games was scrutinized and beaten to death by the culprits of fireronzook.com, Illini fans seem to have embraced their new leader.
Now, Zook has to find a way to improve the results. The Illini were just 2-9 a year ago after a 2-0 start that included a win over a bowl team in Rutgers. The defense allowed nearly 40 points per game, and Illinois was outscored by an average of 44-12 in their eight Big Ten conference losses. There’s no way to go but up, as the old saying reminds us.
In good shape: Running backs. Zook has running backs coming out of his ears. Luckily, there is plenty of room for talented running backs in the spread offense (though Illinois’ offense is officially listed as “multiple”, there are plenty of variations of the spread to be had). Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey are experienced starters, while sophomore Rashard Mendenhall has a chance to steal the spotlight. There will be plenty of chances for all three to shine and earn touches.
Needs work: Um…how about the defense. They were equally bad in all areas a year ago. They allowed 234 yards per game rushing at a 5.5 yards per carry clip (San Jose State was the only team that failed to meet or exceed 175 yards rushing, and Illinois allowed more than 290 yards rushing FOUR TIMES). Opponents completed a nauseating 67 percent of passes for 235 yards per game (only three opponents failed to pass for more than 200 yards). They allowd 23 first downs per game. They recorded just 11 sacks in 11 games. They forced eight turnovers all season, and failed to force a turnover in a staggering six of 11 games. Seriously, what more needs to be said?
Overview: There is a feeling that super-freshman Isiah Williams might take over the starting QB job at some point. However, senior Tim Brasic is a good athlete (he rushed for 691 yards last year, a school record for QBs), and he got better as a passer last season, hitting 61 percent of his throws for nearly 2,000 yards. The coaches want him to take better care of the ball and make some more big plays, but he’s a steady hand. The offensive line is better, Zook has recruited some high-level receivers (Chris James will make a huge impact at that position, though maybe not so much this year), and there’s no way the defense is that bad again. Illinois won’t threaten to make a bowl game, but they’ll make some good steps toward respectability.
11. Northwestern Wildcats
My heart still aches for the Northwestern football family, as well as the family of Randy Walker. The coach died suddenly in late June, leaving behind a wife and family of his own, as well as a heartsick football program in Evanston.
Selfishly, I will miss Walker, because I knew that Northwestern had a winner in him. His coaching acumen and ability to mold young men meant that Northwestern, despite the academic standards that have been a thorn in the side of so many coaches in the program’s past, was going to field competitive teams on a regular basis. Walker was the first Big Ten coach to jump on the spread offense, and boy did he make it work. Now, almost every team in the league has at least some parts of the spread in their playbooks.
31-year-old Northwestern football legend Pat Fitzgerald takes over as head coach, but can he keep the team focused amid the heartache?
In good shape: Running back. Two words: Tyrell Sutton. When Jason Wright and then Noah Herron moved on, no one knew who would take over at running back. So why not try a true freshman? Sutton burst on the scene with 104 yards in the opener, and he ended up with over 1,450 yards and 16 scores. He topped 200 yards three times, and while he was held under 100 yards six times, he never averaged less than 3.8 yards per carry in a game. So, yeah, it looks like Fitzgerald has a pretty good running back in place.
Needs work: Quarterback. Brett Basanez broke 30 school records and set a league record by taking part in 1,975 plays during his career (HT: Blue Ribbon). In four years, he consistently got better and was able to put it all together in his senior season, when he led the league in passing yards. Now, Fitzgerald has virtually no experience to call upon. Sophomore C.J. Bacher threw 15 passes last year, and he is joined on the depth chart by freshmen Andrew Brewer and Mike Kafka. Not a good way to break in a new head coach.
Overview: I don’t want to pick these guys to finish last, but I would have been tempted to even before their world got turned upside down on a Thursday night in June. The defense was just awful a year ago, and they suffered heavy losses in All-Big Ten DT Barry Cofield and LB Tim McGarigle. Even with those guys on board, the Wildcats yielded over 200 rush yards per game and almost 34 points per game…hardly signs of promise for the future. With Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa (all road), Ohio State, and Michigan State (home) all on the schedule, it’s very hard to imagine even an inspired Northwestern team winning enough games to escape the bottom of the league, much less qualify for a bowl.