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Tom Stryker's Big Ten Preview, Part 1
by Tom Stryker - 08/23/2005
The Big 10 likes to think of itself year in and year among the nation's best conferences. But the luster has been diminished in the last few years - except for Ohio State's national title in a few seasons back. This year could be a return to glory for the conference, and three teams (Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa) are ranked in most everyone's preseason Top Ten. Add Purdue, a monster of a sleeper this year to that mix and Big 10 boosters could have a banner year. We will look at all 11 teams in this preview - in an alphabetical tour around the Midwest.
Today's installment looks at Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State.
After losing four close games in a 3-8 SU season, I.U. fired Gerry DiNardo. In comes Terry Hoeppner, adding to Miami's "cradle of coaches" label and the Hoosiers are starting over again. Surprisingly, Hoeppner has promised early success, but the Cream and Crimson Hoosier faithful can only hope - they have heard that before.
It will all start with defense for I.U. During spring practice Hoeppner revamped the Hoosiers scheme and will use a zone-blitzing tactic with the hope of forcing turnovers. Three down defensive linemen are gone, but Indiana will rebuild around defensive end Victor Adeyanju and linebacker Kyle Killion. Everyone is also anxious to see true freshman linebacker Matt Lewis, who recorded 43 tackles for loss a year ago in Florida, then, spurned many other major offers to join Hoeppner.
Quarterback Matt LoVecchio has graduated and Blake Powers, built in the Ben Roethlisberger mode, seems to be the heir apparent. A strong thrower, Powers has the size to be a threat to opposing deep backs. Graeme McFarland and Kellen Lewis are battling to be Powers backup under center. Graduation hurt the receiving corps, but Jakheen Gilmore returns. A year ago he grabbed 23 passes.
There is good news for the Hoosiers on the offensive line. Four starters return and all five interior linemen have started at one point or another in the past. Injured a year ago, center Chris Mangiero returns to add some glue to that unit - one that had trouble protecting LoVecchio in 2004. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, perhaps the best of the Hoosiers running backs (881 yards in 2004), transferred to Mississippi, but look for Chris Taylor (329 yards in 2004) to become the go-to ballcarrier.
Indiana opens with three non-conference games - at Central Michigan, then home against Nicholls State and Kentucky before opening the conference season at Wisconsin.
Indiana Investing Tips
30-12 ATS â€“ Play AGAINST Indiana priced as a home dog versus a foe off a SU win
29-11 ATS â€“ Play AGAINST IU in Big 10 action if they beat the line by 10 points or more last
13-7 ATS â€“ Play ON the Hoosiers as a home favorite of -7 or less coming off a SU loss
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Ron Zook left Florida and soon thereafter moved to the Midwest to take the Illini job. He has the same task ahead as Terry Hoeppner at Indiana. Take a 3-8 team and do something with it quickly. Zook replaces Ron Turner, now the offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears.
Tim Brasic, who had an exemplary spring practice period, seems to hold the starting nod at quarterback. Basically untested, he will get a challenge from Kisan Flakes, whose speed and arm strength are noticeable - but who has to quickly become more accurate with his throws. Graduated is Jon Beutjer, and more experience in Brad Bower (a transfer) are lost for the Illini.
One of their strengths, however, could be at running back where Pierre Thomas (921 yards, 8 TDs) and E.B. Halsey (479 yards and 5 TDs) both return. One of the nation's most highly-recruited running backs a year ago, Rashard Mendenhall, also is at Illinois and could make some early noise. Kendrick Jones, who caught 47 passes a year ago, will lead the Illini receivers who may need adjustment to the 3 wideout approach often used by Zook.
A total of seven of last year's top 10 offensive linemen are back, and must do a better job of protecting the Illinois quarterback. A pair of starting defensive tackles have graduated, along with a defensive end. In fact only five starters return to the defense. The best of the bunch may be Alan Ball, a cornerback, who will be starting for his third straight season.
One bright spot for Illinois is punter Steve Weatherford, who averaged more than 45 yards per kick in 2004. All of the top punt returners and top kickoff man (Thomas) return, to add some credibility to the Illini special teams.
Three of Illinois' first four games are at home, with Rutgers, followed by San Jose State - then a trip to California before league play opens at home against Michigan State. The schedule gets tougher, however, as the Illini have to play Iowa, Ohio State and Purdue later in the season - all on the road.
Illinois Investing Tips
72-46 ATS â€“ Play AGAINST Illinois versus a sub .500 foe
20-11-2 ATS â€“ Play AGAINST Illinois as a non-conference favorite
22-10-1 ATS â€“ Play AGAINST the Illini as a host versus a foe off a SU loss
Producing an encore after last year's 10-2 season and amazing victory over LSU in the Capitol One Bowl might be tough, but many think seventh-year coach Kirk Ferentz has the tools to challenge for the Big 10 title - if not more.
Headliner, of course, is quarterback Drew Tate, who threw for 2,786 yards and 20 TDs in 2004 - and he is only a junior. Tate's success could even grow if the Hawkeyes could produce a consistent running game. Among the worst in the nation a year ago (ranked 116th), Iowa does have veterans Marques Simmons and Sam Brownlee back, but project starter at fullback, A.J. Johnson, was suspended. Simmons and Brownlee combined for only 459 yards rushing in 2004 - so there is nowhere to go but up.
Tate's favorite receiving target, Ed Hinkel returns for the Hawkeyes. A year ago, he caught 63 passes for 744 yards and 7 TDs. Also back is speedster Clinton Solomon who grabbed 58 receptions for 905 yards and 6 TDs.
Three starting offensive linemen have graduated, but Mike Elgin and Lee Gray lead a cast of experienced down linemen who know how to protect Tate. All four defensive linemen graduated are getting NFL looks this fall. The remaining 7 defensive starters are back, however, including standout linebacking tandem of Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway who combined for more than 200 tackles last season. Plenty of experience comes back to the secondary as well - along with Marcus Paschal, who will return after ACL surgery.
Kicker Kyle Schlicher gives Iowa some luster on special teams. He booted 21 of 26 field goals a year ago.
Iowa opens at home with Ball State, travels to Iowa State, and then hosts Northern Iowa before a huge road date to open Big 10 play at Ohio State. Other key games for the Hawkeyeâ€™s later in the season include matchups at Purdue (Oct. 8) and at home against Michigan (Oct. 22).
Iowa Investing Tips
31-16 ATS â€“ Play ON Iowa at home matched up against a foe that enters off a double-digit loss
18-8 ATS â€“ Play AGAINST the Hawkeyes as a road dog battling an opponent that is off a SU and ATS win
23-4-1 ATS â€“ Play ON Iowa at home (Hawkeyeâ€™s record in their last 28 games)
It's hard to talk about the Big 10 without an eye on Michigan and how high in the standings the Wolverines will finish. After last year's 9-3 record, including painful losses to Notre Dame, Ohio State and Texas in the Rose Bowl, there are some question marks in the Michigan camp heading into the 2005 campaign.
Lloyd Carr, now in his 11th season, has plenty back on offense, but some huge holes on the defensive side of the ball. Those holes have to be filled and the offense must dominate in order for UM to challenge Ohio State, Iowa and even Purdue for the conference crown this fall.
Sophomore quarterback Chad Henne is one bright spot offensively. He completed 60.2 percent of his passes last fall for 2,743 yards and 25 TDs. But standout receiver Braylon Edwards has taken his game to the NFL and making up for his 97 catches and 1,330 yards will be a monumental task. Pass-catchers Jason Avant (38 for 447 yards) and Steve Breaston (34 for 291 yards) do return, however, to bolster a solid receiving corp. Added to that is the return of sophomore running back Michael Hart, who gained nearly 1,500 yards last season and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Center David Baas has graduated, but seven veteran offensive linemen will be counted on to protect Henne and open holes for Hart. The offensive line should be a typical UM solid one.
But new faces everywhere dot the defensive alignment - and that's not good news for a crew that gave up tons of points three of the four final games a year ago (including 37 to Michigan State and Ohio State). The top two defensive backs are gone, two interior linebackers have graduated and much improvement is needed from last fall's campaign. Leon Hall and Grant Mason are likely to see action at the corners, while Ryan Mundy and Brandent Englemon work from the safety slots. The headliner up front defensively for Michigan may be Lamaar Woodley, who played both defensive end and linebacker a year ago while registering 70 tackles. Breaston gives some added strength to the UM special teams â€“ returning as both a kick and punt returner. He averaged 12.2 on punts and 24.6 yards on kickoff returns last season.
Michigan's opening three non-conference games are all at home â€“ against Northern Illinois, Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan. But the Wolverines have to play their first two Big 10 tilts on the road - at Wisconsin and at Michigan State. UM later travels to Iowa, but does host Ohio State in the season finale.
Michigan Investing Tips
27-15 ATS â€“ Play ON Michigan priced as an underdog
12-3 ATS â€“ Play ON the Wolverines coming off a double-digit straight up loss
22-13 ATS â€“ Play AGAINST UM on the Big 10 road battling a foe that is off a SU and ATS win
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Do you believe? That's what third-year head coach John L. Smith wants his players to do. The Spartans have had a recent history of losing games they shouldn't lose - or losing big leads to drop a game. Smith wants his Spartans to believe -- and they have enough talent to climb into a much higher echelon of the conference if they can overcome those silly stumbles. Last year, for example, they led both Michigan and Ohio State late in the fourth quarter before giving both games away.
It all starts with junior quarterback Drew Stanton, one of the Spartans best athletes. A year ago he ran for nearly 700 yards and threw for 1,600-plus more and accounted for 13 MSU touchdowns. He is a great leader and completes plenty of passes that sometimes aren't always pretty. Gone is awesome runner DeAndra Cobb, but back again are Jason Teague and Jehuu Caulcrick (6-0, 243 pounds). They accounted for more than 1,300 rushing yards and 13 TDs in 2004. Adding to the Michigan State optimism is the return of at least three proven receivers - Jerramy Scott, Matt Trannon and Agim Shabaj, who caught 57 passes two years ago, but was hampered by a nagging ankle injury much of last year. That's plenty of offensive firepower for the Spartans, who now look to their offensive line to do its part and contribute to the resurgence. MSU lost its starting right guard and right tackle, but eight of the top 10 offensive linemen return to camp. Stopping Michigan State this year could be a challenge for Big 10 opponents.
Defensively, the picture is not bleak. Six of the top eight defensive linemen are back, including veterans Brandon McKinney and Dopmata Peko. Four-year starter Ronald Stanley is gone from his linebacker slot, but Eric Smith (115 tackles) and Kaleb Thornhilll do return. Deep back Jason Harmon has graduated, but Greg Cooper is likely to move into his free safety slot. Punter Brandon Fields returns with his awesome 47.9 yards per kick as the Spartan punter - a factor that could be huge in a field position game.
The Spartans have to play at Ohio State, but they host Michigan on Oct 1, do not play Iowa and have to play at Purdue. The MSU trio of non-conference openers includes Kent St. and Hawaii at home and a road date at Notre Dame.
Michigan State Investing Tips
25-15 ATS â€“ Play ON MSU coming off back-to-back SU and ATS wins
23-14 ATS â€“ Play ON State versus a foe thatâ€™s off back-to-back SU and ATS wins
44-22 ATS â€“ Play ON Michigan State priced as a dog coming off a SU win