Big Ten Preview
Wisconsin, Michigan figure to battle it out for conference crown
By Adam Caparell
CSTV's Big Ten News & Notes
Adam is CSTV.com's football editor and national football writer.
Critics have panned the conference for its lack of speed and even more so for its poor record in bowl games last season (2-5).
Sure, the conference has seen better days, but it's still one of the top leagues in the sport, one that features as many as three top 10 teams, depending on which poll you subscribe to, entering the season (Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State) and another in the top 20 (Penn State).
And then there are the individuals - Heisman Trophy - caliber players - like Chad Henne, Mike Hart and P.J. Hill - and some of the most ferocious linebackers in the nation - like J. Leman, Dan Connor and James Laurinaitis.
The Big Ten hasn't lost a step. Not by a long shot. Sure, the Gators looked to be running on a different motor that January night in
"In my mind there isn't any difference,"
Priority No. 1 in Madison, where hopes are riding very high heading into Year No. 2 of the Bret Bielema era, is to find John Stocco's replacement at quarterback. But that's no easy task, considering the former Badgers signal caller was 29-7 as a starter.
The race heading into camp was technically between Tyler Donovan and Allan Evridge, a transfer from
"It's very hard for me as a head coach to envision him not being the guy," Bielema said. "He has a lot of advantages over Allan Evridge."
Donovan saw action in seven games last season, racked up some nice stats and knows the
Fortunately for Donovan and the Badgers, he's got a great supporting cast, starting with running back P.J. Hill, an underrated receiving corps and yet another deep, big and physical offensive line that
Aside from Stocco, all-world tackle Joe Thomas is the glaring departure on offense, but the rest of the line is full of big bodies ready to clear a path for Hill, who ran for 1,569 yards last season, and give Donovan time to throw to his senior-laden receiving corps. And don't forget about Travis Beckum, one of the best tight ends in the game.
There are a few more losses defensively for the Badgers than on offense, and they can't be expected to top what they did last year, finishing as the No. 2 scoring defense, the No. 2 passing defense and No. 5 overall defense in the country. But they certainly won't be without talent and should still be one of the better units in the Big Ten.
Seven starters are back, including a pair of highly regarded linebackers in Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy and both tackles, meaning the Badgers should be stout up the middle. Matt Shaughnessy will rush from the outside and look to improve on his four-sack performance last year.
This is a team loaded with players, many of whom are just juniors that are coming off of great sophomore seasons, like Beckum and Shaughnessy.
The big knock on
And as for all that sudden success for a first-time coach? It could be a blessing or a curse. Buoyed by the outstanding play of the defense and Hill running the ball, Bielema was an easy choice for Big Ten Coach of the Year last fall. Now, anything less than a conference championship will be viewed as a disappointment.
"We did too good our first year, so you set yourself up for high expectations. I do know this, just like our season and like P.J., it's better to have high expectations than low expectations," Bielema said.
Regular Season Prediction: 11-1 Overall, 7-1 Big Ten
Without a doubt, the Wolverines will feature one of the best offensive units in the Big Ten, if not the country. Led by seniors Chad Henne, Mike Hart and Jake Long,
Henne returns for his fourth year under center, where he'll have Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington at his disposal to throw to all day long. But the offense really starts in the backfield with Hart. Last year's second-best rushing attack in the conference is predicated on Hart's ability to carry the load for the Wolverines. He's added some size and speed in the off-season and coach Lloyd Carr can't wait to see what he has in store this fall.
"What should help Mike Hart is the fact that we have a lot of weapons surrounding him," Carr said. "He has concentrated on building his strength. He's a great football player and has been a real dream to coach."
Long's decision to come back to campus is the reason why Hart and Henne also came back, and the fact that he's considered one of the best tackles in the country is a big reason why so much will be expected from this offense.
Unlike the offense, the defense has major holes to fill.
Gone are the likes of Alan Branch, LaMarr Woodley and Leon Hall and in will have to step Shawn Crable to anchor what will be a unit light on returning starters - only four are back.
It's going to be very hard to produce the same numbers as last season - 16 points per game, 43 yards rushing per game - but defensive coordinator Ron English has proven himself to be the right man for the job after he was promoted before last season.
The biggest question seems to be whether the Wolverines will feature the same aggressive defense English implemented in 2006. The linebacking unit is void of known commodities and the secondary, which struggled against the pass, must improve. The defense was especially bad in the final two games of the season. The Wolverines will be fine against the likes of Appalachian State and Eastern Michigan, but how will they fair against
The pressure is on all around. It's on Carr to win in what could very well be his final season. It's on Henne, Hart and Long, who have high expectations as an offense, and have yet to beat
The Wolverines will welcome
Regular Season Prediction: 10-2, 6-2
Gone are two stud wide receivers, a 1,000-yard rusher and the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner. Suffice to say Jim Tressel has a few holes to fill on offense this fall.
"I think you'll probably see a different looking team," Tressel said. "You'll see a team that's trying to evolve with the talent that we have. I don't know that it will look just the same as it has, but there will be an evolution."
It would be impossible for the offense to look the same as it did last year when it lit up scoreboards to the tune of 34 points per game. But with only a handful of starters back, the Buckeyes figure to hark back to the days of Woody Hayes and pound out the majority of their yards on the ground.
Fortunately, Tressel has two very capable and talented running backs that his quarterback - which figures to be Todd Boeckman when the season rolls around - can hand the ball off to early and often. The differing styles of Maurice Wells and Chris Wells - no relation - should compliment each other nicely.
There are losses on the offensive line that need to be addressed, with only three starters returning. But there is experience coming back on the line, and of course, they'll be in charge of protecting Boeckman, the logical choice to be the opening-day starter, since he's been with the Buckeyes longer than the other two candidates - Rob Schoenhoft and Antonio Henton. Boeckman isn't the ideal choice - each candidate brings something different to the table - but he's the one Tressel probably has the best feel for right now, although don't be surprised to see the quarterback situation remain fluid throughout the fall. No one has really distinguished himself as of yet.
Brian Robiskie will be the go-to wide out after emerging as the Buckeyes' No. 3 receiver last year behind Anthony Gonzalez and Ted Ginn.
Just as many starters are back on defense for the Buckeye as there are on offense, which happens to be a paltry five.
There are losses up front, including two NFL Draft picks, and Vernon Gholston will take his spot as the premier pass rusher for the Buckeyes. The defense will again be anchored by James Laurinaitis, last year's winner of the Nagurski Award, annually given to the nation's top defensive player. He'll be flanked by Marcus Freeman, who can fly to the ball.
With an experienced and gifted secondary, namely cornerbacks Malcolm Jenkins and Donald Washington, there seems to be a consensus that
After a phenomenal 2006 regular season, the Buckeyes bombed in the national title game, looking overwhelmed by
"I think all our people, coaches, players - everyone that was a part of preparing for and then coming up short in a big opportunity - we'll use that often," Tressel said. "It's a great reminder when you don't do as well as you can."
Fortunately for Buckeyes fans, their team shouldn't take much of a step backward this fall, despite the many losses. The defense should be strong, the non-conference schedule is very favorable and there are players who can step up. Another run at the Big Ten title is a distinct possibility, but the questions at quarterback means the Buckeyes will have to wait another season to be players on the national scene.
Regular Season Prediction: 10-2, 6-2 Big Ten
After four seasons, Drew Tate is no longer under center for the Hawkeyes, leaving a big void for coach Kirk Ferentz to fill. In should step Jake Christensen, a sophomore who has only about three dozen passes in his career. His relative inexperience fits very well with the overall theme of the Hawkeyes this season as just about every position will feature youth.
The only position where youth isn't present is at running back where seniors Albert Young and Damian Sims are carrying the load. Young was banged up all of 2006, but should return to the 1,000-yard plateau and renew his status as one of the better pass-catching backs in the country.
The only problem with that is that three starters are gone from the offensive line. A young line and a young quarterback don't usually equate to lot of success, but if there's any school that can get the most from its offensive line, it's
Up front for the Hawkeyes, Ferentz doesn't have to worry about the four returning starters, but he would like to see them get to the quarterback more often.
Tackling machine Mike Klinkenborg is back to anchor the linebacking unit, which should be strong, meaning Ferentz has only one position to really worry about on defense.
"Obviously our area of concern would be our safety position, graduating two seniors there," Ferentz said.
Miguel Merrick and Marcus Paschal are gone and in must step junior Harold Dalton at strong safety and redshirt freshman Brett Greenwood at free safety. Both corners are back from a unit that wasn't spectacular against the pass.
The Hawkeyes have the easiest schedule in the Big Ten and that makes them a threat to unexpectedly come away with the conference if things really break right. They avoid
Ferentz can't have a repeat performance of last year where his team started out 4-0, then nosedived to a 2-7 finish and the program's first losing season in six years. Losing to Indiana and Northwestern, like the Hawkeyes did last year, won't be tolerated this year. Since they played so poorly down the stretch last year, many seem to think Iowa is coming in under the radar after not being picked to finish in the top three of the Big Ten for the first time since 2003.
"We've done better traditionally flying low and I think that's where we're at this year," Ferentz said.
Regular Season Prediction: 9-3 Overall, 5-3 Big Ten
Penn State - 2006: 9-4 Overall, 5-3 Big Ten
Anthony Morelli enters his senior season with lot of expectations on his shoulders. For one, it will be expected that he improves on some of the record- breaking numbers he produced last year, his first under center for
And two, he'll be expected to push the Nittany Lions over the nine-win mark by the rabid fan base that might need to scale back its expectations of the offense, and the team for that matter, especially considering there are some big holes to fill on the offensive line.
Levi Brown's departure to the NFL leaves the left tackle position a question mark and left guard will also feature a new starter. Fortunately for Morelli, he'll be throwing to two experienced wide outs in Derrick Williams and Deon Butler, the latter one of the Big Ten's better receivers.
Making matters worse is the loss of Tony Hunt, probably the most unheralded back in the Big Ten last season. Hunt actually finished as the No. 2 rusher in
"We've got a great corps of running backs who have great talent," Morelli said. "I think it's going to work because of the talent we have."
Up the front,
"It's a big hole to fill and it's something I have to think about doing, being a vocal guy and a leader on the field, doesn't come naturally," Connor said. "I've been trying to work on it during the spring and I think I'll be able to help the guys come fall."
With three returning starters back, on paper, the secondary should be settled. But it's still a question mark since safety Anthony Scirrotto's standing on the team is unknown considering he has a trial date that should begin in October stemming from that off-campus brawl he and six other teammates were involved with in April. He's practicing with the first-team for the time being and hoping his legal situation can be resolved.
Sure, 15 starters are back, but the Nittany Lions are lacking in some very key areas, most notably on the offensive and defensive lines. With Joe Paterno, set for his 42nd-straight season as
The Nittany Lions get plenty of the big boys at home with Notre Dame,
Regular Season Prediction: 9-3 Overall, 5-3 Big Ten
Purdue - 2006: 8-6 Overall, 5-3 Big Ten
The pass-first, spread attack employed by head coach Joe Tiller won't be shying away from throwing it again. Not with Curtis Painter back under center.
Painter threw for nearly 4,000 yards last season and 22 TDs, but the big knock on him was his inability to protect the ball, throwing 19 interceptions. Tiller and his team expect the junior to take off and potentially develop into one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten. It certainly helps that he can throw to Dorien Bryant, one of the top wide outs in the Big Ten, and the two should make up one of the better tandems in the country.
"I truly think Bryant is the most talented of all of the receivers we have had in my 10 years at Purdue and Curtis is starting to come into his own," Tiller said. "As he continues to grow and mature, he will approach an efficiency level where these guys can make some hay."
The Boilermakers, despite their penchant for the pass, should have a fairly balanced attack with backs Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor. They're not big guys by any stretch of the imagination, but they're fast and productive. Jordan Grimes anchors the offensive line that returns the entire right side.
Nine starters are back on the unit, but Anthony Spencer is not one of them, and this wasn't a defense that was particularly good, allowing 26.7 points and more than 432 yards per game last season.
Purdue hopes its middle linebacker position will be settled by moving Dan Bick to the spot, and the secondary is stacked with all four starters back. But not having Spencer and his 10.5 sacks back will mean significantly less pressure on opposing offensive lines and most likely somewhat similar results this season.
Tiller should be concerned about kicker Chris Summers, who was just 8-of-20 last year on field goals, and his status as the starter could be liquid.
So add some special teams worries onto the concerns over the defense and it doesn't equate to a lot of success for the Boilermakers. But Purdue, like just about every other Big Ten school, doesn't have a particularly tough non-conference schedule. Notre Dame is on the docket, but that game comes at home along with league contests against
"We have a challenging schedule ahead of us, but I think our team is up to it," Tiller said. "I think one thing that's changed at Purdue is that our players have rededicated themselves to improving their strength and their size. I also think there is a sense of urgency amongst our players so I'm anxious for us to get underway."
Will that translate into a Big Ten title? Absolutely not. Bowl game? Surely.
Regular Season Prediction: 7-5 Overall, 4-4 Big Ten
The talent level is improving considerably at
But Zook is committed to Williams and hopes the likes of wideout Arrelious Benn, the prized recruit Zook landed for his offense last February, can really help Williams emerge as a better passer.
"A strength of Juice was his continued improvement," Zook said. "We expect that same improvement. We need to get our passing game to the level of our rushing attack."
Zook and company are expecting bigger things from running back Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed for 640 yards last season, and helped the Illini rush for 188 yards per game, good for 10th in the nation. The offensive line should welcome back four starters, who need to do a better job of protecting Williams.
Zook wants the ball to be in his most talented players' hands as often as possible and that's why Mendehall and Benn figure to get the pigskin as much as anyone.
Playing considerably better toward the end of last season compared to the beginning,
Leman is a tackling machine and with two other returnees flanking him, the linebacker corps should be the strongest unit of the defense. The big freshman signing was Martez Wilson, who should make an impact immediately at linebacker. He's another one of Zook's highly touted recruits.
The secondary features a nice corps of talent, lead by Vontae Davis. Two seniors are back at safety and be on the lookout for Bo Flowers, a former baseball farmhand with the Cubs and Tigers, who is joining the Illini as a 23-year old freshman. The Illini were pretty good against the pass last year and figure to be just the same this season.
Up front, the defensive line should be solid and Derek Walker is a name to keep in mind. His coaches and teammates think very highly of the junior who can get into the backfield in a hurry.
Things haven't looked this good for
Now that's not to say the Illini are going to completely turn things around flip their 2-10 record into a 10-2 mark. They're not nearly that good. But they've shown improvement, have the best talent they've had in years and there were a few games last season that could have just as easily gone the other way if turnovers hadn't been such an albatross.
"We could have very easily won three more games just by taking care of the football," Zook said.
Regular Season Prediction: 5-7 Overall, 2-6 Big Ten
In comes new coach Tim Brewster, but don't expect to see his son, Clint, playing quarterback Sept. 1.
While many would just assume the younger Brewster would get the early nod, two others will battle it out for the right to take the snaps. Tony Mortensen and Adam Weber are considered the front-runners to eventually land the job, with Mortensen having the only game experience of the three candidates. The Gophers want to spread the ball around and Mortensen seems to be the best of the bunch right now who can do it. Plus, he's capable of running with the ball if need be.
Amir Pinnix is back for his senior season and poised to run for another 1,000-plus yards with an experienced group of three returning starters on the offensive line.
There are two key losses the Gophers must address and that's at wide out and tight end. Logan Payne and Matt Spaeth are gone and in must step Ernie Wheelwright to fill Payne's shoes and Jack Simmons to fill Spaeth's spot, no easy task considering Spaeth was one of the best tight ends in the country last season.
One of the biggest reasons
Getting some more pressure from the defensive line would be nice, and new defensive coordinator Everett Withers is hoping Willie VanDeSteeg can top his total of 10 sacks last season.
The good news for the secondary is that three starters return. But the bad news is that the Gophers have a depth issue at cornerback that could inhibit their ability to seriously improve on the 268 yards per game they allowed through the air, third worst in the nation.
A relatively unspectacular and unheralded linebacking corps will be led by Mike Sherels.
Brewster has brought a new fire to a program that hasn't exactly fallen on hard times. They've been to five straight bowl games and could very easily make it six. The other thing Brewster has brought with him is a highly regarded recruiting class, one that's going to considerably raise expectations in the coming years, but Brewster already has his sights set high.
It's not going to happen this season, or possibly in any of the next few, but Brewster is planning on making a run for it when TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers' new on-campus home, opens Sept. 12, 2009. That might be ambitious, but he's thinking big.
There's been a lot of turnover on staff, but an easy non-conference schedule will help them to creep right onto the edge of bowl eligibility.
Regular Season Prediction: 6-6 Overall, 3-5 Big Ten
Change is on the menu at
All of that will be predicated on Drew Stanton's successor, Brian Hoyer, who served as the backup and should be more than capable of taking on the increasing load.
He'll be handing the ball off to Javon Ringer, who
It's widely assumed that the Spartans' passing attack will feature far more downfield plays than in years past. Hoyer has the arm to throw it deep, but unfortunately no Matt Trannon,
There will also be big changes on defense, especially considering how poor the Spartan defense has been in recent years and how Dantonio is a defense-minded coach, having spent previous stints as Ohio State's defensive coordinator during their 2002 national championship and building Cincinnati into a respectable defense.
"We won't accept a soft defense," Dantonio said. "Where I've been and where I've come from, we played well on defense and I expect that to continue."
Dantonio's philosophies are pretty simple in that he wants his defense to "be predicated on pressure, on attacking in space and attention to detail."
That might be a bit of a problem considering the defensive line will be without its top tackles from last season. The majority of the burden will fall to Ervin Baldwin who, as an end, had four sacks last season.
The safety position should be a strength, with Otis Wiley the most notable returnee. Two new starters will have to be inserted at cornerback.
But since Dantonio brought Pat Narduzzi with him from
There's plenty of change around the Spartans and that can only be viewed as a good thing. State lost eight of their last nine games to end 2006, the only win coming over Northwestern in what turned out to be the greatest come-from-behind win in Division I-A history. And Smith, despite how great of a guy he is, had worn out his welcome with the mounting losses and erratic post-game behavior.
"What I have tried to say since I've come to
There will be some tribulations for sure this season, but Dantonio has proven he can put a winning product onto the field. It's not going to come this season, as
Regular Season Prediction: 4-8 Overall, 2-6 Big Ten
Kellen Lewis is back for his second season at the helm after a productive freshman campaign. The quarterback threw for over 2,000 yards and a 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, despite some up-and-down performances.
Lewis will have James Hardy to throw to yet again, even though Hardy just broke his finger in practice last week. The 6-foot-7 wideout should be just fine by the time the real competition rolls around for the Hoosiers - he could miss the opener against
There was a large emphasis on the running game during the spring so that figures to continue as the Hoosiers head into the season. There are three starters back on the offensive line - they're young, but do have some experience - while Marcus Thigpen returns to his spot as the Hoosiers' premiere running back.
"We felt we needed to get the running game going the same way we do with our passing," new Hoosiers coach Bill Lynch said. "We will utilize all of them and now we feel we are in a position where we can be pretty balanced."
Barring injuries, bet on
Things kind of blew up for the Hoosiers at the end of last season when they allowed 68, 34 and 28 points, not surprisingly losing all of those contests. Eight starters are back from that unit, along with nearly the entirety of the defensive front.
That means there should be some improvement defending the pass and most especially the run, where the Hoosiers allowed 174 yards per game last season. Adam McClurg and Geno Johnson are two quality linebackers who should help stem the tide of yards and points put up against the Hoosiers while two starting corners return as well.
The theme for the Hoosiers this year will be how they overcome the death of head coach Terry Hoeppner, who passed away in June after a long battle with cancer.
More than they'd like, the Hoosiers have been asked about Hoeppner and how the loss is going to affect them this fall. Lynch has essentially been the head coach since the spring when Hoeppner took a leave of absence and Lynch was tapped to step in. He's had to juggle a bit to get things in place and then has been forced to deal with the fallout of Hoeppner's passing.
"As a football team, they have been through a lot of adversity and I know this summer has been tough on them," Lynch said. "There is not one single thing that you can do. I think in this profession, a lot of it is building that trust between player and coach and over the last few years, we think we've been able to do that."
Regular Season Prediction: 5-7 Overall, 2-6 Big Ten
Northwestern - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 2-6 Big Ten
You'll see a number of different looks from the Wildcats, but you'll mostly see Tyrell Sutton running the ball for big yards. The junior has averaged over 5 yards per carry for his career, and that mark doesn't figure to change very much. As long as he stays healthy - a problem for him last year when he only managed 1,000 yards (down from 1,474 as a freshman) - he should be one of the top runners in the Big Ten.
Depth is certainly not an issue for the Wildcats at wideout, and that's a very good thing, considering they like to spread things out from time to time.
Quarterbacking duties should fall on the shoulders of C.J. Bachér after he established himself as the Wildcats' best option behind center. He showed marked improvement as the season wore on and distanced himself from Mike Kafka.
Trevor Rees is considered one of the better centers in the nation, but after an off-season run-in with the law, his status with the team is yet to be determined. He's been reinstated after a suspension, but still awaiting punishment. The rest of the line should be solid, and as long as Rees doesn't miss significant time, pretty good.
The strength of the defense is going to be the line. End Corey Wootton is the one to watch up front. He does a little bit of everything - sacking, tackling and intercepting.
The Wildcats are still going to feature a 4-3 look for the majority of the time, but Fitzgerald wants to eventually institute the 3-4, and you should see the Wildcats line up in the formation multiple times a game. But overall depth at linebacker is going to limit their ability to play it for long stretches.
Three starters are back in the secondary that was respectable against the pass and should be the same this year, especially if Wootton can create more havoc in the backfield.
Just as the Hoosiers are dealing with the death of a coach, Northwestern is only a year removed from losing Randy Walker right before the start of fall camp in 2006.
Fitzgerald was quickly named
"From an organizational standpoint, you are much more prepared than a year ago," Fitzgerald said. "We're ready to go. Last year, I was figuring out what keys were to my office. Our players are more prepared for my style."
Fitzgerald hopes that style can lead to a few more wins. Reaching four again might be a push
Regular Season Prediction: 4-8 Overall, 2-6 Big Ten