July 20, 2004

Let's play some Football! Big 10 Version

The Big 10 is down a bit this year, especially at the QB position, as only Purdue’s Kyle Orton is totally secure in his starting position. The other contenders, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin all will be breaking in new starters, and only OSU has a definite favorite. It could be a strong year for runners though, lead by Minnesota’s dynamite combination of Marion Barber and Lawrence Maloney. Several of these teams, OSU and Michigan State among them, seem to be building towards big 2005 seasons.

1. Michigan Wolverines
The Blue would be a serious national title contender, if it weren’t for the lack of a starting QB or RB. John Navarre, who started for three years, is gone, and Michigan fans were never able to forgive him for not being Drew Henson. Soph Matt Gutierrez is the favorite, but don’t count out RS frosh Clayton Richard or even true freshman Chad Henne. Whomever wins the job will get to throw to the best receiver corps in the nation, led by senior Braylon Edwards, and exciting sophomore Steve Breaston. The defense is a bit thin, but very talented, with a bona fide star at each group. Sophomore Lamarr Woodley leads the line, giant Pierre Woods the linebackers, and Marlin Jackson should have a fine senior year at corner, after spending a year out-of-place at safety.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes
THE Ohio State University, after a national championship and back-to-back Fiesta Bowl wins, is going to keep playing the same way: dull, grind-it-out offense, strong defense, and many wins. This is the year Buckeye fans were looking forward to, RS Sophomore Justin Zwick, an Ohio schoolboy legend, finally is the man at QB. Zwick isn’t stepping into the best situation though, the line lost three quality starters, and sophomore Santonio Holmes, while exciting, leads an inexperienced group of receivers. The backs, Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall are competent, but nothing special. Defensively the Bucks will be exciting, even after losing end Will Smith. Not many teams that can lose 2/3 of their starting linebackers and improve, but that’s what the Buckeyes may do. AJ Hawk returns as MLB, he should be an All-American. Add transfers Anthony Schlegel (Air Force) and John Kerr (Indiana) joining talented holdovers Mike D’Andrea and Bobby Carpenter, and you have five starters for three spots.

3. Purdue Boilermakers

Finally, a team that does return a quarterback and a very good one at that: Kyle Orton made great strides last year and should be an NFL first-rounder next year, leads a loaded offense. After a couple years being led by the defense, expect the Boilers to outscore people this year. Orton, most of the offensive line, star receiver Taylor Stubblefield and up-and-coming RB Jerod Void all return. Defensively Purdue lost seven NFL draftees, and will have to depend on youth and coordinator Brock Spack’s schemes. This is a team that could finish anywhere from first to sixth.

4. Wisconsin Badgers

After a series of mediocre years, Barry Alvarez’s team could be a sleeper. As with most of the conference, no is quite sure who will play QB, possibly sophomore John Stocco. There is talent on the offense though, led by Anthony Davis, who returns after an injury-truncated 2003. All five OL starters return, they were uneven game-to-game last year, but should improve with experience. The defense should be improved with a new coordinator; Bret Bielema arrives from Kansas State, installing more attacking schemes than the Badgers had been running under Kevin Cosgrove. There is some talent too: Anttaj Hawthorne leads the line, and Jim Leonhard and Scott Starks lead the backfield.

5. Iowa Hawkeyes
Every year I think Iowa will finish about sixth and win 6-7 games. Every year, under Kirk Ferentz anyway, they finish second or third and win 10 games. I’m still not ready to jump on board, not with questions at quarterback and along the line. Jemelle Lewis takes over from Fred Russell at tailback, and the Hawkeyes have only two returning starters on offense. The defense is in better shape, led by borderline psychotic DE Matt Roth and steady linebacker Scott Greenway.

6. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Another team without a quarterback, but that isn’t as important as with other teams. The Gophers love to run, and with Barber and Maloney, they should. Minnesota does need to keep pressure off the running attack, which means probable starter Brian Cupito needs to be at least decent. The Gophers, as is Glen Mason’s wont, will fatten up on an easy non-conference schedule.

7. Michigan State Spartans
What a difference a year makes. John L. Smith has completely turned around this program, and the Spartans are on the way up again. Jeff Smoker departs after an uneven career that ended on an upswing. There are two candidates to replace him. Drew Stanton, last years back up, and Stephen Reaves. The redshirt freshman Reaves, a lefty, is the guy everyone is talking about. Look for him to get the job. This team, with Smith recruiting well, could be on the verge of something big.

8. Northwestern Wildcats

The Wildcats went bowling last year, despite having no passing attack whatsoever. Brett Basanez had a horrific sophomore slump, throwing only 4 TD passes compared with 12 interceptions. What makes it even worse is that those were the only TD passes for the entire team. Basanez should be better this season; he cannot be much worse. Beyond him, the ‘Cats feature some fine line play on both sides, and a nice 1-2 punch at tailback with Noah Herron and Terrell Jordan. They do need help at receiver though. Defensively they return 10 starters. They weren’t all that great last year, but should improve with experience.

9. Penn State Nittany Lions

Fran Gantner, the longtime PSU offensive coordinator finally gave up this year. He realized that JoePa isn’t moving out of the big chair anytime soon. Gantner moved up to the AD office, and was replaced by former Florida head coach Galen Hall. Make no mistake; Paterno is still in charge of the offense. It will be lead by senior QB Zack Mills, who hasn’t ever really lived up to his big freshman season. He does not have much to throw to; in fact, his best receiver is probably his backup, Michael Richardson. Sophomore Austin Scott is a promising tailback. They will need him to come through. On defense the Lions are okay, but not much about them is special, beyond CB Alan Zemaitis, a big (6-2) future pro. Remember when Penn State joined the Big 10 and everyone thought they would dominate? That certainly has not happened.

10. Illinois Illini
Three seasons ago, this was a BCS team. What happened? Illini fans are still wondering. They went from next big thing in the Big 10 to road kill. This season they should be better. How much better will determine Coach Ron Turner’s fate. The offense returns some tools, primarily tailback EG Halsey. The quarterback situation is unsettled, but this is the Big 10, everyone has questions this year. The Illini return Jon Beutjer, granted a sixth year of eligibility, but not guaranteed a job. Sophomore Chris Pazan has shown talent, and will get a long look this fall. On defense, there is nothing uglier than a 46 that isn’t working, and that is exactly what happened last year. It cost Mike Cassity his job as coordinator, and cost the offense some players, as the defense was allowed to draft players to fill holes. One, WR turned CB Kelvin Hayden could turn into a fine player.

11. Indiana Hoosiers
Gerry DiNardo is slowly improving the Hoosiers. After the Cam Cameron disaster, it will take some time. On offense, Indiana wants to run a quick-passing West Coast offense, but they don’t have the horses. QB Matt LoVecchio was adequate in his first year after transferring from Notre Dame, but he isn’t a threat to take over a game. Nor do the Hoosiers have the receivers to run the West Coast, though they do have a talented tight end in Aaron Halterman. They do have an excellent young tailback in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and handing him the ball 35 times a game seems the best chance they have. Defensively, Indiana features two fine ends in Kenny Kendel and Victor Adeyanju, but little else. The best news for the Hoosiers is that they finally have 85 scholarship players, and that rival coaches admire DiNardo’s staff enough to steal from it. Both coordinators, Al Borges the offensive (left for Auburn) and Tim Kish the defensive (Arizona) left for better things. DiNardo promoted from inside to replace both.

Previously: ACC, Big East

Posted by Frinklin at July 20, 2004 05:59 PM
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