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Big 10 Football Preview

   by Tom Stryker - 08/14/2008

After a somewhat disappointing season for a big name conference, there is only one major question staring at Big Ten football teams as they begin to prepare for the 2008 campaign. Can anyone stop Ohio State? That is the major question as the Buckeyes look for their fourth straight Big Ten crown. Finishing 2007 ranked No. 1 before a bowl loss to LSU, the Bucks have 19 starters back and clearly are the team to beat in the conference.


But there are plenty of subplots.


Can Wisconsin stay with Ohio State? Can new Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez put aside all the drama that followed his departure from West Virginia?


There is more. How much emotion can Purdue generate in Joe Tiller’s last season? Can it be enough to steal a victory or two to separate the Boilers from the middle of the Big Ten pack? And, can ageless Joe Paterno guide his talented Penn State team far enough to challenge?


Let’s take an alphabetical look at the teams in the Big Ten.


ILLINOIS

Many veteran Chicago area writers and broadcasters refer to Illinois’ 2007 season that included a Rose Bowl trip as “catching lightning in a bottle.â€쳌 But there might be different kinds of storm clouds following the Illini this season.


Coach Ron Zook took a club from a 2-10 mark in 2006 to last year’s 9-4 mark before collapsing against USC in the Rose Bowl.


The Illini lost more lettermen than any other Big Ten team after the 2007 season, including Rashard Mendenhall (1,681 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns), who many say was the heart and soul of last year’s club.


Juice Williams will be back at quarterback (1,743 yards and 13 TDs in 2007) and his favorite target is likely to be a healthy Arrelious Benn, who averaged 12.5 yards on 54 receptions last fall.
A mixture of veterans and newcomers in the offensive and defensive lines will have to blend quickly. Road games at Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin will make matching last year’s 9-win total difficult.


INDIANA

Normally football season is just a tuneup for basketball around Bloomington, Indiana. The roundball troubles at that school, however, combined with the enthusiasm that head coach Bill Lynch has brought to the program could make it an interesting fall at this once-hotbed for basketball.


Lynch’s Hoosiers made it to a bowl game last fall after a drought of 12 years, but were crushed by Oklahoma State.


Many pick I.U. for the Big Ten cellar this season, and a big reason is the cloud hanging around multi-talented quarterback Kellen Lewis. Lewis was huge in 2007 for the 7-6 Hoosiers, throwing for 3,043 yards and 28 touchdowns. He also was the team’s leading rusher with 736 yards and nine scores. He was suspended in the spring, but should be back.


His favorite receiver, one of the league’s best in James Hardy, however, has graduated. Hardy collected 79 passes for 1,125 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2007. He will be sorely missed.


The running game is suspect and three starters are gone from the offensive line. Seven starters do return on defense, which is where Indiana will have to step up if it is to finish above .500.


Indiana opens at home with four straight games. Non-conference matchups include Western Kentucky, Murray State and Ball State before league play begins with Michigan State at home.


The Hoosiers have to capitalize in the early season. They close with Wisconsin and then road games at Penn State and Purdue.


IOWA

Football people around Iowa City can’t wait for the 2008 season to begin. Sure, there are high hopes, but more they want to erase the bad taste from a lackluster 2007 campaign.


Coach Kirk Ferentz saw his Hawkeyes slip to 6-6 a year ago – a fall that included somewhat embarrassing defeats at the hands of Iowa State, Indiana, Purdue and Western Michigan.


The schedule does not include Ohio State or Michigan and most feel the Hawkeyes could be among the “best of the restâ€쳌 after Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State in the conference.


Iowa has eight offensive starters returning, but lacks headliners at the skill positions. Quarterback Jake Christensen is back, but his numbers were among the worst in the Big Ten in 2007. He did throw for 2,269 yards and 17 touchdowns. Also back is his favorite target, receiver Derrell Johnson –Koulianos.


Six of the top eight defensive linemen return for Iowa, but starting corners Amari Spievey and Jordan Bernstein both missed spring drills.


Home games with Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue late in the fall could hold the key to Iowa’s fortunes in 2008.


MICHIGAN

It is no exaggeration to say that the eyes of the Big Ten (and maybe much of the college football world) will be on Ann Arbor this fall. But it’s for a reason different than what has become the norm for the usually-powerful Wolverines.


New coach Rich Rodriguez continues to be followed be a swarm of controversy after his departure from West Virginia. Adding to the woes is the fact that 11 players with remaining eligibility have left the program since the departure of former coach Lloyd Carr.


Standout quarterback Chad Henne is gone. So is running back Mike Hart and receiver Mario Manningham. And offensive tackle Jake Long was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Only 10 returning starters are back – fewest in the Big Ten.


Four losses likely ended the Carr era – including season-opening stunning defeats to Appalachian State and Oregon (at Michigan), but more likely season-ending defeats to Wisconsin and Ohio State.


Everyone is anxious to see if Rodriguez immediately goes to his new system – one that will make Michigan considerably different from the team that his stamped success on its name for decades in the Big Ten.


A freshman and Georgia Tech transfer, Steven Threet, may become the starting quarterback – especially after last year’s backup, Ryan Mallett, left the program. It genuinely could be the year of the freshmen for Michigan. The top rusher (Hart) is gone, the top two receivers are gone. The lack of experience may lead Rodriguez to lean on some of his new recruits.


Michigan success will have to come from its defense, where seven starters do return. The Wolverines return their entire first two units from the defensive line and three players from the secondary who started at least 10 games a year ago.


The linebacking corps could be a question mark.


Four road games could hold the key to Michigan fortunes. They play at Notre Dame, Penn State, Purdue and Ohio State. Michigan will open at home against Utah and Miami (Ohio).


MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans of then coach John L. Smith became known as a “Jekyll and Hydeâ€쳌 team, looking like world beaters one Saturday, then falling off the planet the next. Sometimes the huge turnaround would come during the same game.


Last year’s Michigan State squad closely resembled those older units, winning six of their first seven games before falling apart with losses at season’s end to Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan and Penn State.


Some of the troubles had to be blamed on injuries to veteran, standout quarterback Drew Stanton. But Michigan State didn’t lose a game by more than seven points (twice) during the 7-6 season. The Spartans lost by three points in bowl action to No. 14 Boston College.


Second-year Coach Mark Dantonio hopes to get more consistency from the 2008 Spartans, but he will have to find a full-time replacement for the graduated Stanton. Brian Hoyer is the heir apparent. The senior threw for 2,725 yards and 20 touchdowns a year ago, but he has to cut down on his interceptions (11).
The running game will be solid with Javon Ringer, one of the conference’s best backs, still in the fold. Ringer rushed 1,447 yards in 2007. The receiving corps is depleted and needs to grow up early for much Spartan success.


Three linebackers (all sophomores) return to give depth to that unit, but three defensive line starters have to be replaced.


Michigan State opens at California, could be helped by playing Ohio State and Wisconsin at home, but must travel to Michigan and Penn State.


MINNESOTA

Second-year Coach Tim Brewster is hoping the lessons learned during a painful 1-11 2007 season will payoff in 2008.


And a host of experienced skill-position players could return the Golden Gophers to respectability.


Among the eight offensive starters back are quarterback Adam Weber, receiver Eric Decker, punter Justin Kucek and placekicker Joes Monroe. Veteran Duane Bennett (442 yards in 2007) could help at running back.


Weber threw for 2,895 yards and 24 touchdowns last fall, but we was plagued by 19 interceptions – a number that has to decline this fall for the Gophers to make their mark. Decker, meanwhile, caught 67 passes for 909 yards and nine touchdowns.


Seven starters return to the defense with one thought in mind – improvement. Minnesota’s D was porous last year, allowing 40 or more points in six games.


The Golden Gophers schedule includes three tough road trips – to Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin.


NORTHWESTERN

Wildcat fans are thinking bowl game again after a 6-6 2007 season that did not include postseason action.


Some 15 starters return, the schedule does not include games against Penn State or Wisconsin, a total of 47 lettermen are on hand – it could be Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s best crew.


C.J. Bacher was inconsistent at quarterback last season, with 19 interceptions hurting the Wildcats. Nonetheless, he threw for 3,656 yards and 19 touchdowns and is expected to be much improved this fall.


Helping him and the Wildcat offense will be senior running back Tyrell Sutton, who could have a banner year if he stays healthy. Sutton led the Wildcats a year ago with 522 yards, but he only played in seven games because of injuries.


Three of the top four receivers return, with Eric Peterman leading the way. Peterman caught 66 passes for 744 yards a year ago.


Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has eight starters back to form the backbone of a unit expected to be considerably stronger this fall. And seven home games could help the Wildcats, whose toughest road tests might be at Iowa and at Michigan.


OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes have a basket full of items that all the other league teams envy. The list includes three straight Big Ten titles, a string of Top Ten national rankings, 19 returning starters and one freshman quarterback that everyone wanted. Ohio State has speed, depth, strength and skill.


Coach Tressel, 73-16 in his seven seasons in Columbus, seems to be in a position of power this fall. Overachieving last season before stumbling against Illinois and in the BCS title game to LSU, this could the year of the Buckeye – once again.


Quarterback Todd Boeckman is back (his passing efficiency of 148.91 was among the best in the nation in 2007) hoping to improve upon his game that saw him throw for 2,372 yards and 25 touchdowns. Look for highly-touted freshman Terrell Pryor to see some action this year as well. Pryor, 6-6 and 235 pounds, has 4.3 speed and could bring a whole new dimension to the Ohio State attack. Many feel he will be used much like Florida’s Tim Tebow when he was early in his career.


Junior Beanie Wells headlines a talented backfield. Wells rushed 1,609 yards and 15 touchdowns during the Buckeyes 11-2 run last fall. All of Ohio State’s top receivers are back, including Brian Robiskie (55 catches for 925 yards) and Brian Hartline (55 catches for 94 yards).


The Big Ten’s best offensive line returns four starters, and the defensive line has seven of its top 8 from a year back on the playing field. Additionally, all the key special teams players are back for Ohio State, a team with few weaknesses on paper.


There are some huge games circled on the Ohio State calendar, games over and above the season ender at home against Michigan. The Buckeyes play at Southern Cal on September 13 and also visit title contender Wisconsin (Oct. 4).


PENN STATE

The questions about Joe Paterno’s exit will continue, but Joe Pa has a solid unit ready for his 43rd year on the Penn State sidelines.


The biggest question marks are in the offensive backfield and at linebacker – a strange statement for a school commonly known as Linebacker U.


Much maligned Anthony Morelli, and Daryll Clark likely will be the signal caller. But he only threw eight passes in 2007. Similarly, leading rusher Rodney Kinlaw is gone (1,329 yards and 10 touchdowns), and Evan Royster (513 yards) will be counted on to pick up the slack.


Penn State’s receivers, however, would be welcome at any school. The top three – Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood – all return. That trio accounted for 142 receptions for 1,646 yards.


The offensive line is solid – all but one starter is back. Ditto for the secondary, where five players are back with starting experience. Last year’s top linebacker, award-winner Dan O’Connor (145 tackles) has graduated, and the sensational Sean Lee (138 tackles) had spring ACL surgery and is expected to miss the season.


Rugged games at Ohio State and Wisconsin likely hold the key to Penn State’s 2008 fortunes.


PURDUE

The Joe Tiller era in West Lafayette, Indiana, will come to close at the end of the 2008 season. And it has been a good run. Tiller is 83-54 in his 11 seasons at the helm of the Boilers and another winning season is expected.


Primary reason for the optimism is the return of quarterback Curtis Painter, who threw for 3,846 yards and 29 touchdowns one season ago. Painter also is in the Top 10 of four offensive career categories in the Big Ten, including standing ninth with 8,763 passing yards entering this campaign.


Painter will get plenty of help in the backfield. Purdue’s top three rushers are all in camp. Kory Sheets, Jaycen Taylor and Dan Dierking combined for 1,600 yards in the pass-oriented Boilermaker attack.


One concern for the Boilers is at the receiver position, where outstanding tight end Dustin Keller and standout wide receiver Dorian Bryant both are gone. Those two accounted for more than 1,800 receiving yards in 2007 and 15 touchdowns. Greg Orton may be the best of the returning bunch. He caught 67 passes last fall.


Painter will benefit from an experienced offensive line (seven of the top 10 return). The defensive improvement (or lack of it) will be the key to Purdue’s fortunes in Tiller’s last season. The defensive line should be solid, but three of last year’s top four linebackers are gone.


There isn’t much that separates the middle of the pack Big Ten teams, but many feel Tiller’s style and Painter’s arm could move the Boilermakers up a notch or two in the standings.


Purdue does not play Illinois or Wisconsin this fall, and key road dates include Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa.


WISCONSIN

Throngs of red-clad “craziesâ€쳌 live for fall in Madison, and this year’s version of the Badgers gives them plenty of reason for optimism.


Some 17 starters return for Coach Bret Bielema, now 21-5 after two seasons as the head man at Wisconsin. Losses late in the 2007 season to Ohio State, Michigan and a bowl defeat at the hands of Tennessee dampened the spirits a bit (9-4), but Wisconsin is loaded this season.


One of the biggest concerns, though, is at quarterback. Tyler Donovan has graduated and likely starter Allan Evridge only threw 12 passes all last season.
The rest of the offense has plenty of experience.


Three of the top four receivers are back, Travis Beckum, Kyle Jefferson and Garrett Graham. Last year Beckum caught 75 passes for 982 yards.
The Badgers still have their top three rushers from a year ago, led by P.J. Hill, who gained 1,212 yards rushing and scored 14 touchdowns.


Six of the top eight defensive linemen return, as well as all three top linebackers. Additionally, three of the top four defensive backs are still on hand for Wisconsin.


Bielema’s squad will play contenders Ohio State and Penn State at home on back to back Saturdays in early October.

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