Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Big Ten Preview

Minus Michigan (coming tomorrow) and Ohio State.

I'm going to sort this out by who I project to win the conference.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

2. Michigan Wolverines

3. Iowa Hawkeyes
The schedule: To be fair to all you Hawkeye fans out there, I have Michigan and Iowa finishing with the same conference records, but ultimately I think that Michigan will defeat Iowa in their Oct. 21st matchup. I also feel that the inexperience on defense will lead to another loss. Remember, I picked them to upset Ohio State yesterday, and I feel that the rest of the schedule is very winnable.

Offense: Unquestionably, the offense is the team's most experienced aspect. Although most of the preseason focus has been on Drew Stanton and Troy Smith, Drew Tate cannot be forgotten. He is a smart player who won't make many dumb mistakes with his arm. Albert Young ran for over 1,300 yards last season and is expected to be one of the top running backs in the Big Ten this season. The receivers are inexperienced, but thay can burn defenders easily. Led by three seniors (4 if you count TE Scott Chandler), the offensive line is experienced and should be able to make some big holes for Albert Young to run through.

Defense: No, Ohio State wasn't the only team to lose their top linebackers this season. Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway were thought of by some as the top duo in America regardless of position last season, and now both are off in the NFL. Edmond Miles was the third leg of that group of linebackers last season, and he is back for one last go around with the team. The other two guys? A combined 35 tackles between them. Ouch. The team returns both safeties, but loses their two best corners in a secondary that was already considered the weakness of the team. On the defensive line there is Ken Iwebema who last year established himself as one of the conferences best pass rushers. There will be a heavy load on the line to pressure the quarterback to make things easier on the secondary.

Projected finish: 10-2 (7-2), T-2nd in Big 10

4. Wisconsin Badgers
Schedule: I feel I may be a year premature on picking Illinois as my "sleeper team." If that is the case, then Wisconsin fits the mold this season. Barry Alvarez is gone as coach, and for the first time in a while, there is no real proven tailback, but this team is still capable of doing damage in the conference. I predict them to upset Penn State and then cap off their season shocking Iowa in Kinnick stadium. The nonconference schedule is about as soft as it gets, with their most difficult opponent being San Diego State. Some losses I do expect, however, are at Michigan, at Purdue, and home against Illinois. The team may not be as talented as the past, but their schedule plays out pretty well in their favor, which is why I have them ranked so high.

Offense: Is it just me, or has John Stocco been around forever? I swear I remember hearing his name back before Tressel was coach, but I can't be positive. He had a surprisingly strong season, and he should only grow on it in his final camaign. There isn't a Brian Calhoun in this group, or even a Booker Stanley for that matter, but there is a lot of talent ready to show what they're capable of. Redshirt froshie PJ Hill is a big, bruising back at 235 pounds, and was the star of spring ball. He's not a dual threat like Brian Calhoun, but let's face it: would you want to be in the way of 235 pounds beast being led by a fullback and All-American tackle Joe Thomas? Didn't think so.

Defense: If the starters stay healthy and the young guys live up to the hype, this could be one of the better defenses in the Big 10. The defensive line had some problems last season, but there is plenty of depth there this season and that problem shouldn't present itself this season. Mark Zalewski will be manning the middle, and is one of the surest tacklers in all the land. The cornerbacks feature a pair of sophomores who both got significant playing time last season, and there is plenty of experience to go around at the safety spots. Defense shouldn't be a problem for the Badgers this season.

Projected Finish: 9-3 (5-3) 4th Big Ten

5. Penn State Nittany Lions
Schedule: The Lions were fortunate to avoid Iowa in their conference schedule, but they get Ohio State in Columbus and at Wisconsin. I don't know if this team will be able to win either of those games, and I also think that Michigan will be too much for them to handle. Oh yeah, a non conference game at South Bend could hurt, too.

Offense: One thing you will get to know about me as I continue to post here is that I am a big believer in the spread offense. Spreading out the defenses and creating mismatches while also utilizing a mobile quarterback is turning into an almost unstoppable offensive strategy. Penn State used it last year with athletes Michael Robinson and Derrick Williams. Now, Robinson has moved on, and the Nittany Lions will have to rely on leadfooted Anthony Morelli to command the offense. Chances are, the team will be relying on Williams just a tad this season to do whatever he can. The offensive line only has one experienced player on it in tackle Levi Brown, which will make things even tougher for the young QB.

Defense: If there is one thing that will keep this ship floating it is linebacker Paul Posluszny. Poz was the nation's second best linebacker all season long last year, and after he undeservedly robbed AJ Hawk of the Butkus award last season, he should be all over the place this season. Whether he's out in coverage or stopping the run, Poz can do it all. The one question surrounding him is if he can return from knee surgery and be back at 100%. Also on the defense are fellow linebackers Dan Connor and Tim Shaw. The trio poses one of, if not the best, linebacker trios in the country. The rest of the defense is experienced enough to take this team places, even if the offense stumbles along the way.

Projected Finish: 8-4 (6-3), T-5th in Big 10.

6. Michigan State Spartans
Start fast, end early. That has been a common theme for Michigan State the past few years. Last season, MSU beat the likes of Notre Dame in South Bend, and hold their own against Michigan and Ohio State, yet only to lose four of their last five games (the lone win coming against Indiana). In those final four losses, the Spartans were outscored 149-75. Given the Spartan's history of doing this under John L Smith, there's no reason why I shouldn't go against it. I project them losing to Notre Dame, @ Michigan, Ohio State, and @ Penn State.

Offense: Once again, Michigan State is loaded on offense with Drew Stanton leading the way. Stanton has an NFL-caliber arm, but he also has the ability to scramble and make plays for himself as well. Since he's stuck in East Lansing, he isn't getting much Heisman Hype, but if he were to switch places with, say, Brady Quinn, he'd be even more of a lock for the award than Quinn is right now. Hard to believe, but true. The one knock on Stanton is that he often gets bit by the injury bug, but if he can stay healthy and consistent, he alone should be able to lead this team to respectability. Javon Ringer is an under appreciated running back that should easily surpass 1,000 yards and get some mention in the All-Big Ten chase. The receivers are experienced, which never hurts, either.

Defense: The only real big name on the defense is end moved tackle Clifton Ryan. Seeing as how I just had to look back to see if I had his name right, you can tell he isn't that big of a name. Ryan will be expected to create a much lacking pass rush on the front four. Justin Kershaw, Brandon Long, and Ervin Baldwin are all great athletes, but all three are raw and unproven, so only time will tell if the Spartans will ever be able to get to the quarterback. The linebackers are all experienced (all three players have 60+ tackles to their credit), but none are especially talented. Greg Cooper has been moved from FS to the team's number one corner, and if he can step up, then the secondary could become pretty good for the Spartans. There is a lot of upside with Otis Wiley and Nehemiah Warrick at safety, but neither has seen any significant time.

Projected Finish: 8-4 (4-4), T-5th Big Ten.

7. Illinois Fighting Illini
The days of mediocrity in Champaign are slowly reaching their end. Sounds a bit funny considering that the Illini finished only 2-9 last season, with their two wins coming in the first two weeks of the season against Rutgers and San Jose State. However, Ron Zook has the program headed in the right direction, and should be able to bring the program back on their feet once again. However, it may not be this season (although there will be noticable improvements). Illinois could very well go through their non conference schedule undefeated, and as far as conference wins go, I like them beating Wisconsin, Indiana, and Purdue. That's right. llinois will be bowl eligible this season.

Offense: The Illini will be loaded at tailback this season with power running Pierre Thomas and the nimble footed/multi purpose threat EB Hasley in the same backfield. The issue though is how much they will be able to run with a less than stellar offensive line that allowed 32 sacks last season. However, a year of experience should change things and the offense should be much better. The receivers are young and promising, but will quarterback Tim Brasic (11/11 TD/INT) be able to get them the ball? Let's just sit back and wait for the Isiah Williams era to start.

Defense: The line last year was just about as bad as it gets. They consistently gave the quarterback tons of time to make big throws, and they would get tossed around like a rag doll in the running game. The ends are young and promising, but haven't played much and could see trouble early on. Outside of JUCO transfer Antonio Steele, the linebackers lack the speed that Ron Zook so heavily desires. The defense finished second to last in the nation last year in pass efficiency defense. There isn't much depth, and there isn't much talent in the back four, which could make things difficult for Illinois.

Projected Finish: 6-6 (3-5), 7th Big Ten

8. Purdue Boilermakers
Schedule: Last season, a lot of people expected the Boilermakers to make some noise, seeing how they managed to avoid both Michigan and Ohio State. Well, after managing to go 5-6, beating only one decent team (MSU) along the way, the expectations have dipped a bit for Joe Tiller's squad. The non conference schedule features perrenial powerhouses Ball State and Indiana State, their only two guaranteed wins all season. However, the team is talented to pull a few more wins out of their collective rears.

Offense: Receiver Dorien Bryant is one of the top pass catchers in the conference, and he proved that last year by hauling in 80 catches despite the team going back and forth on quarterbacks. Curtis Painter could be the next big star QB in Purdue's offense, but if it is to happen, it probably won't be this year. He does have some decent protection on a line that is headed by preseason All-Big Ten performer Jordan Grimes. However, the offense lacks depth all-around, so if they get bit by the injury bug this year, things will turn sour quickly.

Defense: The Boilermaker defense was a total disaster last season. Most of that blame could be put on the secondary, which, although has some nice prospects, never did produce. The front seven will be solid. Not great, just solid. Ther aren't any all-stars on this defense, but if someone can step up and provide a decent pass rush, then they shouldn't be in too much trouble. Speaking of stepping up, someone is going to need to do it in the secondary, and quickly, or else Ryne Robinson and Miami will have a total field day in week 2.

Projected finish: 5-8 (3-5), 8th Big Ten

9. Minnesotta Golden Gophers
Schedule: 2006 will be a downer for the Gophers after going to three state bowls and Glenn Mason getting his much-needed contract extension. The non conference schedule features a tough game against Cal, which will almost definitely result in a loss, but there are three locked up wins against Kent State, Temple, and North Dakota State (!?). The only possible in-conference wins at this point are with Indiana and Purdue.

Offense: Running the ball effectively has turned into tradition at Minnesotta. However, Laurence Maroney is gone to the NFL, and the guy who was expected to be the next great Minny tailback, Gary Russell, failed to make the grade. Had Russell stayed on the team, I would have MINN much higher up on these rankings. He's that good. Will Amir Pinnix step in? Unlike the all the other backs, he's the smaller-quicker type. It will be interesting to see if he can fill the void. The team does have the best blocking tight end in the nation in Matt Spaeth.

Defense: Hybrid sophomore Steve Davis quickly became the top pass rusher on the defense last year, and the Golden Gophers better hope that he isn't in for a sophomore slump. The rest of the front four moved on, so it will be up to Davis to get to the quarterback consistently. The linebackers return all of their starters, but speed will remain a problem for these guys unless they whip themselves into shape. This defense will have to be much more opprotunistic (only 8 picks all season), if the team is to win more games this season.

Projected finish: 5-7 (2-6), 9th in Big 10

10. Northwestern Wildcats
Schedule: When Randy Walker took over Northwestern, this team was worse than the laughingstock of the Big Ten. They were total scum. In only a few short years, the Wildcats suddenly became a team to reckon with. Then, Walker passed away with what was an apparent heart attack. He was 52. Personally, I feel that this loss will be too much for the team to overcome this season, and on top of the fact that the talent dropoff is pretty big from last year, things aren't looking to good in Chicago. I see them winning one conference game, the season finale at home against Illinois. As far as the nonconference schedule goes, they should be able to beat Eastern Michigan and New Hampshire.

Offense: Brett Basanez moved on, and although he wasn't the most talented player out there, he was good enough to give the defense a scare through the air, an dhis mobility added another demention to the game. However, the team returns conference freshman of the year Tyrell Sutton, which the team will rely on heavily all season long. Sutton is also a pretty good multi purpose back, catching 44 passes last season. The new quarterback, CJ Bacher is a similar player to Basanez, but is young which could lead to some more interceptions than one would like. The strength of the offense, however, is the offensive line. Four starters return from a group that allowed only eleven sacks and had 193 rushing yards per game.

Defense: The team was unable to stop the run at all last season, and as far as things are looking right now, they won't be exceptionally better, either. The total D finished rock bottom in the entire nation allowing 480 ypg. But the linebackers should be a bit better even with the loss of tackle maching Tim McGarigle. Adam Kadela (Dublin native, by the way), is an effective player, who ranked third on the team in tackles despite suffering some injury problems. One thing the Wildcat defense is good at, though, is creating turnovers. They forced 30 last year, one of the better amounts in the nation.

Projected Schedule: 3-9 (1-7)

11. Indiana Hoosiers
Last and least, I present you with my mini-preview of the Indiana Hoosiers. Although Terry Hoeppner has the team going in the right direction, there is still a long, long way to go until this team is respectable. The team should win 2 or 3 of their 4 nonconference games, but the conference will be killer. All of the games that are remotely winnable are on the road, which makes it hard for me to pick them in any game. So you heard it here: the Hoosiers will go winless in conference play this season.

Offense: James Hardy, and then everyone else. That's the way the offense will look this season in Indiana. Receiver James Hardy is the lone weapon on this lowly team. Blake Powers should be able to do just enough to get him the ball consistently, but when teams start ganging up on Hardy, these guys won't have anywhere else to go. Powers was actually a hell of a player during the first half of the season last year, but he only threw two touchdowns over the last 5 games. Not very good. The running back situation looks glim after the top two rushers moved on, and their current starter got a grand total of 35 yards last season. If Indiana had any fans, I'd tell them to find another team to root for.

Defense: The IU defense has a long history of futility, and that tradition will probably carry on into this year. Last season, the Hoosiers allowed 211 points over the last 5 games of the season (42.2 ppg). Tackling has always been an issue with these guys, and with a complete cleanout of the front seven, that will probably carry on as well. If anything can be considered a strong suit of the defense, it is the experienced secondary that returns all four starters.

Final Projection: 2-10 (0-8)

Whew....that was brutal.

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