Previewing the Big Ten

Aug. 21, 2006

By Brian Hardy



Brian is an assistant editor for and contributes on a regular basis.
E-mail here!

Ohio State


The stars on the Buckeyes' offense return this season, led by Heisman candidate quarterback Troy Smith, who really stepped up play the second half of last season en route to Ohio State's Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame. Smith's dual-threat game baffled opposing defenses in '05. Not only was he the Big Ten passing efficiency leader, completing 62.9 percent of his throws for 2,282 yards and 16 touchdowns, but he also ran for 611 yards and 11 touchdowns, becoming the first quarterback in Buckeye history to pass for more than 2,000 yards and rush for over 500 yards.


The question for Ohio State is on defense, where just two starters return from last season. Six players from the defensive unit were drafted, with three going in the first-round: linebacker A.J. Hawk, Donte Whitner, and Bobby Carpenter. The two returning starters both line up at tackle for OSU in seniors Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson. Otherwise, Ohio State is looking at a whole new starting defensive unit, which faces the task of trying to replace a defense which ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten last season in sacks and gave up an average of just 73.4 rushing yards per game - the fewest in the nation.


If the defense can get it together, though, this team may just have a good enough offense to carry OSU to a second straight conference title and perhaps even a national crown.


The Buckeyes will get tested early, though. A Week Two matchup in Austin with the defending champion Longhorns looms and, despite Vince Young being out of the picture, the Longhorns return the bulk of their team from last season and are still expected to be contenders. Ohio State fell to UT in Columbus last season, so you know the Buckeyes will be geared up for this one. The question is, will their inexperienced defense be ready for such a big game so early on in the season? This game clearly has national title implications written all over it.


2006 Ohio State Schedule


Penn State


If not for a Chad Henne touchdown pass with one second remaining last year in Ann Arbor, we could very well be talking about a Penn State team that went undefeated last season. Nonetheless, the Nittany Lions posted one of the biggest turnarounds in all of college football last season, sporting an 11-1 record and a win in the Orange Bowl over Florida State just one season after finishing with a 4-7 mark.


Gone is starting quarterback and Big Ten Offensive MVP Michael Robinson and in comes junior Anthony Morelli. He'll have some big shoes to fill in trying to replace Robinson's 3,156 yards of offense and 28 touchdowns last season.


The good news for Morelli is he'll have a slew of talented sophomore receivers coming back to throw to. Deon Butler returns after leading the Lions with 37 catches for 691 yards and nine touchdowns in his freshman year. Jordan Norwood also comes back after recording 32 receptions for 422 yards. Other wideouts returning include Derrick Williams, Justin King, and Mark Rubin.


While the Nittany Lions will miss the rushing abilities of Robinson in 2006, they'll still have Tony Hunt in the backfield. The senior ran for over 1,000 yards last season, averaging a whopping 6.0 yards per carry.


Just like the Buckeyes, Penn State is dealing with significant losses on defense this season, as just four starters return on a squad that ranked No. 2 in the Big Ten last season. One of those returnees happens to star linebacker Paul Posluszny - the winner of the Butkus and Bednarik awards last season. Posluszny heads into the '06 season as the conference's leading returning tackler, recording 116 stops, three sacks, and 11 tackles for a loss in 2005. Last year was also the second straight season the senior posted 100-plus tackles.


The Nittany Lions face an early tough test in Week Two of the season, as PSU heads to South Bend for a meeting with the Irish. Then, in Week Four, the Lions pay a visit to Columbus to meet the Buckeyes, who will be looking to avenge last season's 17-10 loss in Happy Valley.


2006 Penn State Schedule




If Ohio State or Penn State happens to slip up in 2006, don't be surprised if the Hawkeyes sneak up and grab the Big Ten title. Iowa's seven wins last season marked the first time since 2001 that the Hawkeyes failed to reach the 10-win mark, but Iowa still earned a trip to the Outback Bowl, maintaining its streak of being one of just four teams in the nation to have played in a January bowl game the last four years.


The chances of Iowa making it to a fifth straight January bowl appear to be very good, as an offense that averaged 30 points per game last season returns its leader: senior quarterback Drew Tate. The All-America candidate finished fourth in the conference in passing efficiency last season, completing over 62 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,828 yards and 22 touchdowns.


Behind Tate returns junior tailback Albert Young, another All-America candidate who finished fourth in the Big Ten last year with 1,334 rushing yards, while also scoring eight touchdowns and catching 24 passes for 244 yards. The junior also set a school record in 2005 by rushing for 100 yards or more in seven consecutive games.


While returning seven defensive starters from last season, the Hawkeyes will miss the services of the league's top two tacklers from a year ago as linebackers Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge were first and third-round NFL draft picks, respectively.


The Hawkeyes have seven home games this season, and get Ohio State and Big 12 contender Iowa State at home. The only game on the road that should give the Hawkeyes trouble is their Oct. 21 meeting with the Wolverines - a team that they lost to in overtime last year. If the Hawkeyes can somehow pull out a win at home over Ohio State on Sept. 30, look out, Big Ten. This may be the Hawkeyes' year.


2006 Iowa Schedule




Things didn't go as usual last season for the Wolverines. Their 7-5 record marked their lowest win total since 1984, and a berth in the Alamo Bowl broke their streak of eight straight January bowl games. Michigan failed to finish the year in the Top 25 for the first time in 21 years, after beginning the season ranked No. 4. Needless to say, last season left many fans in Ann Arbor wondering what went wrong and hoping that Michigan can return to form in 2006.


Junior Chad Henne returns behind center for the Wolverines after starting all 24 games the past two seasons for UM. The 6-2, 223-pound quarterback already ranks third in school history in completions and fourth in touchdown passes. Henne's 48 touchdown throws are more than any other Michigan quarterback has thrown in a two-year span. The question in 2006 will be whether Henne can go out and find ways to win games, something that is expected from a veteran quarterback.


Running back Mike Hart returns in the backfield, and after a 2005 season that saw him miss four games due to hamstring and ankle problems, the junior is ready to go this year. While his numbers slipped last year, due in large part to the injuries, Hart hopes to stay healthy and have a season more like his freshman year, when he rushed for 1,455 yards and nine touchdowns as opposed to his 662-yard total last season. Hart did show periods of brilliance last year as well, when he was healthy, rushing for 218, 109, and 108 yards in a string of three games against Michigan State, Minnesota, and Penn State.


The Wolverines will get a real test to see just where they stand and how improved they are from last year when they travel to South Bend for a meeting with Notre Dame during the third week of the season. The Irish scored a 17-10 victory over Michigan last year.


2006 Michigan Schedule


Michigan State


After two straight five-win seasons, the pressure is on Michigan State and head coach John L. Smith to put together a winning season in East Lansing. Smith enters his fourth season as coach of the Spartans, and after winning eight games in his first season, the past two seasons have been disappointments.


If the Spartans are going to turn it around in '06, their hopes appear to center around senior quarterback Drew Stanton and whether or not he can stay healthy. If he can, then Michigan State may just post a winning record this season. Stanton put up some big numbers last season, as he completed 67 percent of his passes for over 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. Stanton is also a threat outside of the pocket, as the senior rushed for 338 yards and four touchdowns last season.


Besides returning Stanton to the offense, MSU also brings back its two leading rushers from a year ago as well as a talented group of receivers. Sophomore tailback Javon Ringer averaged a conference best 6. 7 yards per carry last season, while junior Jehuu Caulcrick ran for 478 yards and and seven scores.


Stanton's protection up front will see some new faces, as three starters must be replaced from last year. Meanwhile, last year's leading tackler and team MVP, Eric Smith, will be missed in the secondary, but look for some others to fill the void, including SirDarean Adams, who was fourth on the team in tackles last year, as well as Demond Williams and Greg Cooper, who has moved to cornerback after playing safety last season.


Michigan State benefits from a schedule that features seven home games in 2006. The Spartans host Notre Dame in one of those, a rematch from last year's thrilling 44-41 MSU overtime victory.


2006 Michigan State Schedule




For the first time in 17 years, there will be someone other than Barry Alvarez roaming the sidelines as the Badgers' head coach, and that man happens to be former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Bret Bielema, who comes into the job at the young age of 36. Bielema has some big shoes to fill, as Alvarez recorded 118 wins, three Big Ten titles, and three Rose Bowl victories during his 16-year tenure in Madison.


The Badgers come into 2006 facing some big losses on offense. Most notable is the loss of running back Brian Calhoun, who leaves Wisconsin after just one season in Madison where he recorded 1,636 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. That kind of offensive contribution will be difficult to replace, as will Brandon Williams' numbers as a receiver and return specialist. Williams led the team last year with 59 catches for 1,095 yards and averaged a league-best 18.6 yards per catch.


A big bright spot for the Badgers and Bielema is the return of quarterback John Stocco, although he may not be ready for the start of the season due to knee surgery on August 11. The senior set school season records in passing yards (2,920) and touchdowns (21) en route to leading UW to a 10-3 record, not to mention a victory over Auburn in the Capital One Bowl to send Alvarez out with a win.


Look for the defense to be a strong point for the Badgers as well: the unit returns eight starters from last season. Senior Mark Zalewski, a third-year starter, will anchor the linebacking unit for the Badgers. Zalewski led UW for tackles for a loss last season with 12.5. Meanwhile, senior Joe Stellmacher, the team's leading returning tackler from last year with 90, along with fellow senior Roderick Rogers should provide strong play at the safety positions.


The Badgers open up the season with Bowling Green for their season opener before hosting Division I-AA Western Illinois in Week Two. While the Badgers will be favored in both of these games, we've seen in the past that teams from the MAC - like the Falcons - cannot be overlooked.


2006 Wisconsin Schedule




After the tragic passing of Randy Walker this summer, Pat Fitzgerald, a two-time National Defensive Player of the Year for Northwestern and an assistant on the staff since 2001, assumes the coaching duties for the Wildcats. At the age of just 31, Fitzgerald is the youngest head coach in Division I-A football.


The Wildcats face a big question at the quarterback position, where they lost four-year starter Brett Basanez. In his time at Northwestern, Basanez broke 30 school records and set a Big Ten record for participating in 1,975 total offensive plays in his career - a credit to his durability. Basanez was the conference's Offensive Player of the Year last season, leading the league in passing yards with 3,622 and recording 21 touchdown passes while completing 63.2 percent of his passes. So it's safe to say that his presence will be missed.


Another player whom the Wildcats will miss sorely in '06 will be linebacker Tim McGarigle, who finished his career as NCAA's all-time leading tackler, recording 548 tackles in his Northwestern career as a four-year starter.


Meanwhile, the Wildcats look to be in great shape at tailback, as sophomore Tyrell Sutton returns after a tremendous freshman season in which he rushed for 1,474 yards and 16 touchdowns en route to being named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Look for Sutton to get more touches this season with a new starting quarterback being in the mix.


The Wildcats may enter their Big Ten opener on Sept. 30 at Penn State with a 4-0 record, but the conference part of the schedule will be extremely challenging, as Northwestern plays road games at Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa.


2006 Northwestern Schedule




The Golden Gophers recorded their fourth straight season with seven or more wins last year, finishing with a 7-5 mark and a loss to Virginia in the Music City Bowl.


Minnesota faces big questions at running back, where both Laurence Maroney - the conference's top rusher last season with 1,464 yards and 10 touchdowns - and Gary Russell, who ran for 1,130 yards and 18 touchdowns, are gone. While Maroney went on to be a first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots, Russell was declared academically ineligible during the offseason. Look for junior Amir Pinnix to try to pick up the duties at tailback. He ran for 206 yards on 32 carries last season against Michigan State when Maroney was down with an injury last season.


Senior quarterback Bryan Cupito returns for the Gophers. Cupito threw for 2,530 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, and will look to improve those numbers in '06, throwing to a talented group of returning  receivers consisting of wideouts Ernie Wheelwright and Logan Payne and tight end Mark Spaeth, who was a first-team All Big Ten pick last season after recording 26 receptions.


If the Gophers want to have a better 2006 season, their defensive line, where three new starters will emerge, needs to get better. Minnesota finished ninth in the conference last year with just 15 sacks in 12 games.


The Gophers will get an early test, as they head out to California for a showdown with the Bears, who look to be a strong contender for the Pac-10 title, in Week Two.


2006 Minnesota Schedule




The Hoosiers are still trying to break through in the Big Ten and capture a winning season. It didn't happen last year, as IU went 4-7 overall and just got one conference win - a 36-13 victory over Illinois.


Head coach Terry Hoeppner heads into his second season at IU and will look to improve a team that was last in the league in total offense last season, averaging just 350.8 yards per game in 2005.


Junior quarterback Blake Powers will have to play better this year if Indiana has any shot of improving. The junior was ninth in the league in passing efficiency last year and threw a conference-high 16 interceptions.


A good thing for the Hoosiers is five winnable contests to start the season. A good start will be vital to an Indiana team that's trying to build a winning program. Home attendance was way up last year, and if the Hoosiers start off strong, they can expect more and more interest in Indiana football as Hoeppner tries to build a foundation and a winning program at Indiana.


2006 Indiana Schedule




The Boilermakers are coming off a disappointing 5-6 campaign, where Purdue dropped six straight games after a 2-0 start to finish with a losing record - head coach Joe Tiller's first in his nine-year tenure at the helm.


What happened to Purdue last season? Well, play was just not there on either side of the ball. The Boilermakers ranked last in the league in pass defense and red-zone defense, ranked last in passing efficiency, and were 10th in time of possession and penalty yards. The fact that 11 starters are gone from last year's team won't make things any easier.


Tops on the "To Do" list in West Lafayette will be finding someone to replace tailback Jerod Void - the team's top rusher last season. Look for sophomore Kory Sheets to step into the starting role, as he backed up Void last season. Anthony Heygood and Jaycen Taylor may also challenge for playing time at tailback.


Sophomore Curtis Painter returns at quarterback after stepping in midseason last year to replace Brandon Kirsch. With a season of experience under his belt, Painter will look to improve upon his completion percentage from last season of 52.4.


On the defense, the Boilermakers will miss strong safety Bernard Pollard, who was a second-round draft choice this past April. Pollard was the team's leading tackler with 92 stops and interceptions with three. Purdue does return its pair of linebackers in senior George Hall and junior Stanford Keglar.


Purdue's first three games are all at home and not against Top 25 teams - a good thing for a program that will be trying to get back on track this season.


2006 Purdue Schedule




Ron Zook enters Year Two in Champaign, and it would be hard for his second year to be any worse than his first, as the Illini went just 2-9 last year and were winless in the Big Ten.


Senior quarterback Tim Brasic will lead the Illini offense once again in 2006, and he'll be looking to improve after ranking tenth in the league in passing efficiency last season. Meanwhile, seniors Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey will be in the backfield. The duo teamed up last season to rush for 1,013 yards rushing as well as 66 catches.


The offensive line returns everyone from last year, and just like most areas on the team, the O-line will have to improve: The Illini offense was last in the Big Ten in scoring in 2005, averaging just 17.0 points per game.


The defense brings back a lot of familiar faces as well, returning 10 starters from 2005. The defensive unit will be looking to improve as well after ranking last in the league in points allowed per game (39.5 ppg), while also ranking last in rushing defense.


The Illini have seven home games this year, including home contests with Purdue and Indiana - two games where Illinois has a shot at getting a conference victory.


2006 Illinois Schedule



Football Home