Friday, July 28, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews - Purdue Boilermakers

Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...

Team: Purdue Boilermakers

Past Predictions/Results:
2005 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Outback / 5-6, 3-5 (8th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 5-3 (4th), Outback / 7-5, 4-4 (T-5th), Sun
2003 Prediction / actual: 10-2, 6-2 (T-2nd) / 9-4, 6-2 (T-2nd)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (T-4th) / 7-6, 4-4 (T-5th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 9-2, 6-2 (T-1st) / 6-6, 4-4 (T-4th)

Returning Starters: 7 offense, 4 defense, no kickers

Key Returnees: QB Curtis Painter, RB Kory Sheets, WR Dorien Bryant, LT Mike Otto, DE Anthony Spencer, LB George Hall, CB Zach Logan

Key Losses: C Matt Turner, TE Charles Davis, SS Bernard Pollard, DE Ray Edwards, DE Rob Nikovich, DT Brandon Villarreal

Looking Back ... Crash and burn. That is the best term to describe what was being touted as Purdue’s year. Twenty starters returned last season and yet the Boilermakers got annihilated by the Fighting Irish and before winning out over the last three games, were sitting at a rather ugly and highly dissatisfying 2-6. To say that there was some unrest among fans and alumni is an understatement. But, (isn’t there always a but?) those last three games gave the same folks a glimmer of hope going into 2006.

It may not officially be do or die time for Coach Joe Tiller, but you can bet that what happens on and off the field this year will be more scrutinized than at any point of his tenure. The players seem to be making the headlines for all the wrong reasons and Tiller needs to put a halt to that or he will lose his team again, and maybe this time, his job. Honestly, I think he’s safe and that last year was an aberration, but in this day and age, the only way to make sure of that is to do one thing – WIN.

Outlook - Offense ... Somewhere over the past few seasons, and why I really don’t know, the Purdue offense went from its basketball on grass approach to a more traditional, smash-mouth style of football. The Boilermakers have had the personnel to do so, but again, why they did it remains a mystery. Fact is, the gold and black attack has been at its best when it was pass first, pass second, and run to surprise teams. Will that return with a new offensive coordinator joining the staff? We’ll see…

When Purdue has been good, it has been in direct correlation with a stud quarterback. First it was Drew Brees, then Kyle Orton. Last year, many thought that Brandon Kirsch, who showed flashes while sharing time with Orton earlier in his career. That wasn’t the case and Curtis Painter got his chance. Painter did all he could to salvage what was, by then, a wasted season and in the process helped keep Purdue fans engaged and looking to the future. The trouble is, if he goes down, there is little in the cupboard, at least in terms of experience. If Painter stays healthy, he is a threat to run and if work on his mechanics comes to fruition, Purdue could raise a few eyebrows this fall.

Depth is also a bit of an issue in the backfield. Kory Sheets has what it takes to be a great Big Ten running back, but if he gets dinged up, things get a little dicey. Anthony Heygood is a physical back that can offer up a change of pace, but he might not be ready to carry the load if something happened to Sheets. Back to Kory, he is fast and has experience and with the line he has in front of him, could be just what the doctor ordered on the offensive side of the ball. Another name to watch, unless he gets scooped up by the receivers coach, is JUCO transfer Jaycen Taylor. He is small but fast and gives the Boilers at least a little more depth in perhaps the second most important position for a Big Ten offense.

One thing that will really aid in the continued development of Curtis Painter is the experience of the receiving corps. Dorien Bryant is the most underrated receiver in the Big Ten, if not the nation. He is highly productive, has fantastic hands and great speed. He is a go-to guy who could end up as one of the best ever to don the gold and black. However, for Bryant to be as effective as possible, those around him need to step up – namely 6-9 senior Kyle Ingraham and senior Andrew Chattams. Beyond this pair, there is some talent on board but it isn’t very experienced. A big hole will have to be plugged at tight end as well, where Charles Davis was the dream safety valve for a young quarterback. Dustin Keller has the talent to fill those shoes completely.

The absolute strength of the Purdue offense, as it often has during the Tiller era, lies with the offensive line. NFL talent churns out of this line all the time, or so it seems, and there is more of that heading into this year, namely left tackle Mike Otto. The next player to take that title might be junior right tackle Sean Sester. The bookends have plenty of help inside as Uche Nwaneri returns from a suspension and Jordan Grimes and Robbie Powell round out the starting five. The only trouble, surprise, surprise, is if the injury bug bites as there is little experience on the depth chart

Outlook - Defense ... Lost in all the hype that typically surrounds the Purdue offense is the success that the defense has had over the years – last year being an exception. Despite returning several defensive starters last year, the unit never gelled and it took its toll. Look for things to be different in ’06 however, with guys like Torri Williams and George Hall leading the way.

A sure strength of this defense each and every year has been along the front four. Well, only one starter (Anthony Spencer) returns and the depth chart is full of first year players. There is potential in Eugene Bright who is big and has nice acceleration as well as tackles Ryan Baker and Alex Magee. However, as mentioned, you must have good depth to have success on the defensive front. Three youngsters have that ability, but can they step in and be difference makers? Keyon Brown, Mike Neal and Jared Zwilling will all get their time in the rotation. How they develop will be what determines the overall success of the Purdue defense this fall.

The foundation of this defense lies at linebacker. George Hall might be the best returning middle linebacker in the conference and Stanford Keglar is speedy and has added needed bulk to be an every down player. Cliff Avril rounds out the starting group but injuries have plagued him over his career. That means guys like Dan Bick, Josh Ferguson and Jason Werner need to be ready to play and do so at a high level. Again, stay healthy and this unit has a load of promise. If not, Purdue might have to put too much reliance on a still young quarterback.

Much like the defensive front, the secondary doesn’t return much in the way of starting experience. Safety Torri Williams has the potential to be a superstar, but he’s been battling a slew of injuries. Cornerback Zach Logan is the lone starter that returns and he was a pretty good cover corner but not as sure-handed a tackler as you’d like in your last line of defense. Brandon King (CB) and Brandon Whittington round out the starting four but will be pushed for time Aaron Lane and JUCO transfers Jonte Lindsey and Brandon Blackmon. In a conference that brings back a ton of firepower in its pitch and catch tandems, this secondary is going to have to become a force in a hurry.

This defense doesn’t have the makings of some that have made Purdue so good over the past several years. Then again, last season’s “D” was highly touted and fell flat on its face over and over again. If it can be serviceable and the fresh talent can get good fast, Purdue should be better than it was during last year’s disaster.

Outlook - Special Teams ... The kicking game is such a question that Coach Tiller brought in a load of JUCO and freshmen talent to compete with penciled in starters Casey Welch (PK) and Jared Armstrong (P) for their jobs. Ben Jones and Dave Brytus depart and while neither was as consistent as you’d like, they had experience. A player to watch out for might be freshman recruit Tim Dougherty.

9/9 – MIAMI-OH
9/30 - at Notre Dame
10/7 – at Iowa
10/14 – at Northwestern
10/28 – PENN STATE
11/4 – at Michigan State
11/11 – at Illinois
11/18 – INDIANA
11/25 – at Hawaii

Key Games: 9/23 – Minnesota, 9/30 – at Notre Dame, 10/7 – at Iowa, 10/14 at Northwestern, 11/18 - Indiana

Prediction ... Purdue seems to be taking the Minnesota approach to out of conference opponents this fall. Aside from Notre Dame, Purdue should have no problem with any of the OOC foes it faces – just the confidence booster a team on the rebound needs. The Boilermakers also miss Michigan and Ohio State again. The first four games are at home before a showdown in South Bend. How the gold and black come out of that game will set the tone for the rest of the season. I’m banking on enough time to get the depth chart some experience and no disastrous injuries this fall. Otherwise I will be overshooting Purdue’s actual finish…

OOC: 4-1 (loss to Notre Dame)
B10: 4-4 (wins over Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois & Indiana)
Overall: 8-5, T-6th in the conference, Insight Bowl berth
Big Ten Football Previews - Illinois Fighting Illini

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...

Team: Illinois Fighting Illini

Past Predictions/Results:
2005 Prediction / actual: 4-7, 2-6 (10th) / 2-9, 0-8 (11th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 4-7, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 5-7, 3-5 (T-7th) / 1-11, 0-8 (11th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-6th) / 5-7, 4-4 (T-5th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 6-5, 3-5 (T-7th) / 10-2, 7-1 (1st)

Returning Starters: 10 offense, 9 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Tim Brasic, RB Pierre Thomas, RB E.B. Halsey, WR Kyle Hudson, OL Matt Maddux, DT Chris Norwell, DE Derek Walker, SS Kevin Mitchell, PK Jason Reda

Key Losses: P Steve Weatherford

Looking Back ... Year one of the Ron Zook era was utterly forgettable. After winning the first two games of the season, the Illini got beaten, battered and outright hammered the rest of the way. An 0-fer in Big Ten play was punctuated by an average margin of defeat of 32 points per game. But, we all know that sometimes you have to take a few steps backwards in order to make progress. The cupboard that Zook opened up when he came was mighty bare and it’ll take time for him to bring this program back to respectable status.

The bright side of such a lackluster season was the effort of the team. Even in crushing defeats to Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State, there was no real sign of quit in the young players that make up the foundation of this team. Given time to recruit and fill needs, Ron Zook will likely become one of the more solid bosses in the league. Meantime, Illini fans have to be patient. The good news? All the experience gained last year will lead to more competitive results this year and probably a few more wins too boot.

Outlook - Offense ... You might not think it by looking at last season’s statistics, but the Illini offense could surprise some people this fall. The biggest reason is the return of all of the skill players. Big strides can be made this autumn if the Illinois offense can give the defense a break. And it should be able to.

It all starts with quarterback Tim Brasic. Brasic was nothing spectacular in 2005 but he was a fairly accurate passer. He needs to cut down on his interceptions as he threw 11 (to 11 TDs) a season ago. If Brasic doesn’t pan out, don’t be at all surprised to see a freshman rise up and take the reigns. Isiah Williams is a highly touted recruit who might be just what this program needs to rise from the cellar of the Big Ten. We all know that potential doesn’t always pan out, but in today’s win now, not later world, Zook’s hand may be forced earlier than planned. The thing is, we all might take notice if and when that happens…

The unquestioned strength of this offense is the running game. If Illinois gets good play up front, the trio of Pierre Thomas, E.B. Halsey and Rashard Mendenhall could be this year’s version of Maroney, Russell and Pinnix. Any of the three could be the featured back and Thomas and Halsey have had big games in their careers. Look for the depth chart to go in that order, but for Zook and new offensive boss Jim Pry to work to get two or even three of them on the field at a time in stretches.

An area with tremendous potential, if not currently a true strength of the attack is the receiving corps. Although the group is rather young, there is plenty of speed and talent to make some noise this season. Kyle Hudson is arguably the go to guy, a sophomore who came out of nowhere in his first season to lead the team in receiving. DaJuan Warren is probably the most intriguing player in the mix. He is the elder statesmen of the corps as a junior but given his potential and speed, he’s been rather underwhelming thus far. If Illinois is to have success, Hudson and Warren need to standout and players like Derrick McPhearson, Will Judson and Greg McClendon must step up as reliable playmakers.

With all of the potential at the skill positions, the spotlight is on an offensive line that returns four starters and brings in a highly touted transfer. Running backs can’t break off long runs, quarterbacks can’t find open receivers and offenses cannot have success without a good front five. Like every other area on offense, it seems, this group has plenty of potential, but will that translate into on field success? If it does, Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington and long-time starter Matt Maddux will be the players to thank. There is ample experience up front and a bit of depth as well. The bottom line is, if this group is up to the task, Illinois will improve, vastly improve.

Outlook - Defense ... If the old adage that defense wins games is true, then that explains 2005. The Illinois defense gave up points (yards too) in droves. Obviously, that has to change – and fast – if the Illini hope to improve on last year’s swoon.

Any good defense starts with the front four. This group was flat out awful in 2005 but there is hope heading into 2006. There may still be some growing pains early, but junior tackle Chris Norwell is big and quick and can also add experienced to his resume. Sophomore Derek Walker has the potential to be a special pass rusher and was one of the best freshmen defenders in the nation last season. The question is, are the rest of the players in the mix up to the challenge? Can they step up their games as well so that the Illini defense can become less and less of a liability? Big questions that we’re not going to have answers for right away.

One thing is for sure when you look at the linebackers – they are young. That said, there is some speed and definite ability here and the lumps the group took last season might start to pay off. J. Leman might be the slowest, but best playmaker in the linebacking corps. He is good against the run, however, something the worst run defense in the nation desperately needs. Brit Miller, Sam Carson and Remond Willis are three youngsters with a lot of upside and a player to keep an eye on is JUCO transfer Antonio Steele. Much like the front four, this unit needs to show vast improvement in order for Illinois to be much more competitive this fall.

The strength of the defense is the secondary. There is a ton of experience at all four positions with a couple of potential stars working to take over starting slots. Cornerbacks Alan Ball and Sharriff Abdullah are able bodies, even if Abdullah is working at a major height disadvantage (5-8). Safeties Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison and Justin Sanders are sure-tacklers and good playmakers. The problem is, they will get way too much work if the front seven fails to do its job. The player to keep watch for is cornerback Dere Hicks. He has tremendous speed and better size than Abdullah and could give him a run for his money. Then, that’s exactly what teams need to get better – young players that can legitimately push the veterans to get better.

Chances are this defense is going to have to be bailed out a lot this fall but don't be surprised to see some of the guys who were thrown into the fire last season start to really come around and become bona fide Big Ten playmakers. That is going to need to happen if the Illini wish to climb from the basement this fall.

Outlook - Special Teams ... It sounds a little funny, but the biggest personnel loss that this team suffered from last season was the graduation of punter Steve Weatherford. He was one of the best in the nation and will be missed. He’ll be replaced by the highly touted Kyle Yelton but it remains to be seen whether or not Yelton can help the Illini win the field position game. Of comfort is the return of PK Jason Reda. He needs to be more consistent but we all know what experience typically means for a kicker…

9/9 – at Rutgers
9/23 - IOWA
9/30 - at Michigan State
10/7 - INDIANA
10/14 - OHIO
10/21 – at Penn State
10/28 - at Wisconsin
11/11 - PURDUE
11/18 – at Northwestern

Key Games: 9/9 - at Rutgers, 9/16 - Syracuse, 10/7 – Indiana, 11/11 – Purdue, 11/18 – at Northwestern

Prediction ... As bad as Illinois was last year, and really has been the past few seasons, I expect to see some strides in Champaign this fall. Players who are tossed into the fire young have a tendency to make that work to their advantage later on down the line. There are some underrated playmakers on offense and if the defense can just shore it up a bit, the Illini may come surprisingly close to a bowl berth. I certainly feel that this team will be more competitive this fall and missing Michigan doesn’t hurt. The key will be taking any early season OOC success and translating that into momentum and wins in conference play.

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Rutgers)
B10: 2-6 (wins over Indiana & Northwestern)
Overall: 5-7, 8th in the conference

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews - Northwestern Wildcats

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...

Team: Northwestern Wildcats

Past Predictions/Results:
2005 Prediction / actual: 5-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 7-5, 5-3 (T-3rd) - Sun
2004 Prediction / actual: 5-7, 2-6 (9th) / 6-6, 5-3 (4th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 3-9, 0-8 (11th) / 6-7, 4-4 (T-7th) - Motor City
2002 Prediction / actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th) / 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th)

Returning Starters: 8 offense, 8 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: TB Tyrell Sutton, WR Shaun Herbert, OT Dylan Thiry, OG Joe Tripodi, LB Nick Roach, CB Marquice Cole, SS Brian Heinz

Key Losses: Head Coach Randy Walker, QB Brett Basanez, WR Mark Philmore, WR Jonathan Fields, DT Barry Cofield, LB Tim McGarigle

Looking Back ... No one accurately predicted several things pertaining to Northwestern football in the past year. First off, the common theme from preseason pubs (myself included) was another tough, close but no cigar, spend the bowl season at home type of year. Second, that a team could be so explosive on offense, so porous on defense and yet wind up a blown coverage away (PSU game) from a solo finish in third place in the Big Ten and then give a really good UCLA squad a run for their money in a bowl game. Finally, no one could have foreseen the tragic, sudden death of 52 years young head coach Randy Walker.

To say the season and postseason was a roller coaster ride is like saying a Ferrari is a nice ride ... DUH! The 'cats exceeded expectations, had a great run at the Sun Bowl, came out of spring practice looking to rebuild a tad but excited and were met with tragedy in the summer. The big question that remains heading into the 2006 campaign is whether the team can overcome all of this and once again prove the naysayers wrong? Can someone fill the shoes of Brett Basanez? Can Pat Fitzgerald make a smooth transition to the head coaching job? Will this team score at the same frenetic pace as last year but be as flat-footed on defense and still manage a bowl berth? Looking back on last year and using it as a baseline - yes. But can and will are two different stories.

Outlook - Offense ... If you blinked, you missed it. That was the Wildcat offense in 2005. However, with the graduation of long-time starter Brett Basanez and the departure of some key receivers and a great offensive lineman, will Northwestern be as potent in 2006? It all depends on what happens at quarterback. If projected starter C.J. Bacher is adequate, the answer is maybe. Basanez put up impressive career numbers but never really blossomed as a star until his senior season. Bacher has been in the system and knows the offense and just has to play decent football and let it happen around him. If he struggles early, redshirt freshmen Andrew Brewer and Mike Kafka will be on his heels.

The saving grace for this offense is in the star power and depth at tailback. When Terrell Jordan went down before last season with an injury, there was plenty of doubt about who would pick up the load. Enter Tyrell Sutton. Shunned by his favorite team - Ohio State - Sutton ran wild in the Big Ten, racking up 1,474 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. Sutton will be a little bigger, a little stronger, maybe even a little faster this year and he has Jordan joining him. There is also the original starter from last season, Brandon Roberson. Between the three, the new signal caller will be able to ease into the offense a bit and the Northwestern offense will be able to maintain it's prowess. Look for more two back sets and for the 'cats to rely on the running game, especially early, to carry the team to success.

The other good news for the new QB is the return of leading receiver Shaun Herbert. Jonathan Fields and Mark Philmore leave a sizeable hole in the passing game, taking 115 catches away from the aerial attack, but Herbert caught 79 balls for 862 yards and is the sure-handed, go-to guy a new quarterback needs. There is some potential in Rasheed Ward, Kim Thompson and Ross Lane but they still have something to prove in order for Northwestern to be as potent as last year. Tight end Erryn Cobb is a great blocker and can even tote the ball in short yardage situations but he is not the safety valve a raw quarterback needs.

Despite the loss of tackle Zach Strief, the Northwestern front five is fantastic. All five penciled in starters have been mainstays on the O-line and more than one has All-America potential. The best of the lot is left tackle Dylan Thiry. At 6-8, 315, Thiry is a house, only an agile one. He will be tasked with protecting the blindspot of the young QBs and leading the way for Tyrell Sutton and Terrell Jordan. The versatile Austin Matthews jumps out to tackle after playing center and guard and Trevor Rees returns at center after academic problems a season ago. Ryan Keenan and Joe Tripodi round out what might be, from top to bottom, the best line in the league.

This offense once again has a chance to shine, but it all depends on the development of Bacher (or Brewer or Kafka). With the weapons this team has on offense, an above average season by the quarterback could spell another surprise season in Evanston.

Outlook - Defense ... Any success Northwestern had in 2005 was in spite of its defense. To be blunt, the Wildcat D was abysmal. It ranked near the bottom in most categories that matter, not only in the conference but nationally. The saving grace, however, was the 30 forced turnovers. Everything needs to get tighter and the turnover still need to come in droves if this team hopes to repeat the surprise performance of a season ago.

It all starts with the front four. Northwestern loses NFL talent in tackle Barry Cofield but has plenty of experience despite no seniors in the two deep. The next player to keep an eye on and with a bright future ahead of him is sophomore end Kevin Mims. Mims had a productive rookie campaign and put up some impressive statistics. He's extremely athletic and will be a recognized force in the league by the end of the season. He is joined by Mark Koehn, John Gill and Adam Hahn, all players with experience and plenty of upside. One thing is for certain, this foursome needs to shore up the run stopping or it will put more undue pressure on an offense that is breaking in a green signal caller.

The biggest hit the defense took was the graduation of Tim McGarigle. McGarigle was more or less a one man wrecking crew and his production will be sorely missed. On the bright side, Nick Roach and Adam Kadela return and are more than ready to try and fill the shoes of McGarigle. Senior Demetrious Eaton is the third starter and there is a young player in the mold of McGarigle waiting on the bench in Mike Dinard. In concert with the front four, this group must have success in slowing down the run this season or it will be a long, long year for the Northwestern faithful.

The best player on the defensive side of the ball, is, without a doubt, Marquice Cole. Cole is lightning fast and is an underrated lock-down cover corner. He'll have some talented help along side, notably Bryan Heinz. Heinz, a senior strong safety, missed most of last season with an ACL injury. He should help shore up the middle of a pass defense that gave up plenty of yards (262 ypg) last season. Eric Peterman and Brendan Smith round out the starting group.

Chances are this defense is going to have to be bailed out a lot this fall but don't be surprised to see some of the guys who were thrown into the fire last season start to really come around and become bonafide Big Ten playmakers. That is going to need to happen if the 'cats hope to get back to a bowl this holiday season.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Special teams, much like the defense, is an area with some concern heading into the fall. Place kicker Joel Howells is back, but he was a paltry 11-21 last year and will need to be far more accurate this year, particularly with a new quarterback at the helm. The punting and return game should be fair, also important in the field position battles that often play an integral role in Big Ten contests.

8/31 - at Miami-OH
9/22 - at Nevada
9/30 - at Penn State
10/7 - at Wisconsin
10/14 - PURDUE
10/28 - at Michigan
11/4 - at Iowa
11/11 - OHIO STATE
11/18 - ILLINOIS

Key Games: 8/31 - at Miami-OH, 9/22 - at Nevada, 9/30 - at Penn State, 10/28 - at Michigan, 11/18 - Illinois

Prediction ... As much as I'd love to see a "Rudy" type story come out of Evanston this fall, I just think the personnel losses (Basanez in particular) and the tragic loss of head coach Randy Walker will make things too tough for the men in purple this fall. I fully expect that Tyrell Sutton will have another outstanding year and that Northwestern will be right in several of the games, but looking back, it took a good three years to get Brett Basanez running the offense like a well-oiled machine and it will take a while for C.J. Bacher to do the same. In a year prefaced with heartbreak, the season will follow suit with a tough run through the Big Ten and a sub-par finish in the Big Ten.

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Nevada)
B10: 1-7 (win over Purdue)
Overall: 4-8, T-9th in the conference

Friday, July 14, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews - Minnesota Golden Gophers

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...

Team: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Past Predictions/Results:
2005 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Motor City / 7-5, 4-4 (7th), Music City
2004 Prediction / actual: 6-5, 3-5 (8th), Motor City / 7-5, 3-5 (8th), Music City
2003 Prediction / actual: 9-3, 5-3 (5th) / 10-3, 5-3 (T-4th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 6-6, 2-6 (9th) / 8-5, 3-5 (T-7th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 5-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th)

Returning Starters: 7 offense, 5 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Bryan Cupito, RB Amir Pinnix, FB Justin Valentine, WR Ernie Wheelwright, TE Matt Spaeth, OT Steve Shidell, DE Steve Davis, LB Mario Reese, S Trumaine Banks

Key Losses: RB Laurence Maroney, RB Gary Russell, C Greg Eslinger, OG Mark Setterstrom, DT Mark Losli

Looking Back ... Last season made it four straight bowl berths for the Golden Gophers but excuse me for lacking excitement over yet another appearance in the Music City Bowl. Why? Simple, this team had arguably the two best tailbacks in the nation running behind one of the best O-lines in college football. In my book, that should have had Minnesota in contention for the Big Ten title and not safely, quietly residing in the middle of the Big Ten pack.

I still think Minnesota's lack of ability to get over the hump is a direct result of the 1-AA caliber OOC slate they take on each year. Glen Mason obviously subscribes to the Bill Snyder philosophy of gain experience through easy wins, but nothing better prepares a team for a rugged conference slate like the one the Big Ten throws at you like playing at least one legit, national program early in the season. Until then, this section can be copied and pasted forward for years to come because nothing will change.

Outlook - Offense ... It's hard to argue against the success the machine that is the Minnesota ground game has produced over the last several seasons, but something tells me it won't be so easy to plug and play this year. Key players return, but in my estimation, you cannot lose a Maroney and a Russell as well as two four year starters up front and just expect the same success the following season.

If I'm proven wrong, it will be because of the underrated, underappreciated Bryan Cupito. Each and every year he gets dogged as average at best and more of a role player in an offense that may as well snap it right to the tailback! Cupito is capable of leading this team far beyond my expectations, but this go around, he doesn't have the same trusty line in front of him or nearly unstoppable backs behind him. The good news is, if he gets banged up, Tony Mortensen is waiting in the wings.

Let's cut to the chase. The real question everyone is waiting to see the answer to is whether or not junior tailback Amir Pinnix can help Gopher fans forget about Maroney and Russell. Pinnix isn't as big and bruising as either of his former backfield mates but he is quick. He ran up 206 yards against Michigan State and has potential for certain. The bigger question, however, may be - can Minnesota find the second 1,000-yard potential guy to hand the ball to behind Pinnix?

The good news for Pinnix and company is that with a veteran signal caller and a pair of wideouts like Ernie Wheelwright and Logan Payne, not to mention All-American caliber tight end Matt Spaeth, the pressure will be lighter than in years past. In other words, Minnesota should be able to attack people through the air to keep defenses honest, more so than in recent seasons. The only real fear is lack of experienced depth.

The front five should be good again, despite some key losses. The Golden Gopher coaching staff has always been good at developing the offensive front and backfield. But, remember, it was also working with the same core of players for four years. Now that a few of them have moved on (was Eslinger there for 15 years or what?!) we'll see how good they really are. Steve Shidell and Joe Ainsile are very good tackles, but it will be up the middle - where Eslinger and Setterstrom leave rather large shoes to fill - where this team wins or loses.

In general, this is a potentially dangerous offense but a paper thin one as well. An injury here or there and this team is in big trouble...

Outlook - Defense ... The biggest hindrance in Minnesota's efforts to be a yearly contender in the Big Ten is the defense. There is no question that year in and year out, the offense produces in droves. Plug and play is the name of the game on that side of the ball. The trouble is on the defensive side of the ball. The Golden Gophers annually have a playmaker or two on "D" but lack a total, solid, cohesive unit that can get timely stops at key junctures of Big Ten battles.

Not much changes this year for the Minnesota defense, including the presence of some game breakers. The best on an otherwise average (at best) defense is sophomore defensive end Steve Davis. Davis emerged into a fine playmaker as a somewhat undersized, sometimes fish out of water true freshman in 2005. The trials and tribulations paid off, however, and Davis returns to anchor the Minnesota defense. He is joined by another rising sophomore Willie VanDeSteeg, senior Eric Clark and junior Todd Meisel. But the question in the rough and tumble Big Ten often comes down to depth and there isn't much. An injury to Davis could be devastating.

All three starters return at linebacker, but there is still an overall lack of athleticism. Guys like John Shelvin, Mario Reese, Alex Daniels and Mike Sherels are solid but unspectacular in a conference known for churning out NFL caliber 'backers. Deon Hightower is a name to follow as he could develop into a playmaker - a much needed playmaker - for an average linebacking corps on an average defense.

Despite the loss of strong safety Brandon Owens (injury) this might be the strength of the defense. Keith Massey is young but big and talented and could round into a great cover corner. Dominic Jones is undersized but hits like a ton of bricks and will anchor the group. Former corner Trumaine Banks has experience and moves over from corner and will see plenty of action as well. In the Big Ten, where the pass is becoming as prevalent as the run and there are a boatload of good, experienced quarterbacks, this unit will need to hold its own in order for Minnesota to go bowling this winter.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Special teams is another area with some question marks. There are two placekickers battling it out and it may well be a situation where the hot hand (or leg in this case) gets the nod. That scares me a bit as the fragile psyche of a kicker can haunt a team - just ask Michigan State! The Gophers should be fine at punter, but need more consistency from a guy who gets to kick in a controlled environment for half the season. No question that the return game will be strong. It usually is in Minnesota.

8/31 - Kent State
9/9 - at California
9/16 - TEMPLE
9/23 - at Purdue
10/14 - at Wisconsin
10/28 - at Ohio State
11/4 - INDIANA
11/11 - at Michigan State
11/18 - IOWA

Key Games: 9/9 at California, 9/30 Michigan, 10/14 at Wisconsin, 10/28 at Ohio State, 11/18 Iowa

Prediction ... For a change, the Golden Gophers have one above average out of conference opponent on the slate - California. Still, Kent State, Temple and North Dakota State? What is beating up on those three going to do for you? Not much in the overall scheme of things, except provide three of the few wins I project for Minnesota this fall. In the Big Ten, Minnesota skips Illinois and Northwestern, two much easier shots at "Ws" than the other foes lined up. Just when they don't need it, Minnesota takes a step back.

OOC: 3-1 (loss to California)
B10: 1-7 (win over Indiana
Overall: 4-8, T-9th in the conference
Big Ten Football Previews - Indiana Hoosiers

The time has come. Admittedly, these will not be the near novels that many of you grew accustomed to back in the heyday with, but it'll be better than last year and maybe a revival for future epics.

As always, I will be working team by team, from worst to first. Feel free to comment away, send to your Big Ten friends, etc. There is no time-table for getting these all in, but one way or another, every team will get an equal review. Without further ado...

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...

Team: Indiana Hoosiers

Past Predictions/Results:
2005 Prediction / actual: 3-8, 1-7 (11th) / 4-7, 1-7 (10th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th) / 2-10, 1-7 (T-9th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th) / 5-6, 4-4 (T-4th)

Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Blake Powers, WR James Hardy, WR Jahkeen Gilmore, WR James Bailey, C Chris Mangiero, OG Justin Frye, S Will Meyers, CB Tracy Porter, CB Leslie Majors, P Tyson Beattie, KR Lance Bennett

Key Losses: RB Chris Taylor, RB Yamar Washington, OG Adam Hines, OT Isaac Sowells, DE Victor Adeyanju, LB Kyle Killion, LB John Pannozzo

Looking Back ... Talk about the perfect, immediate impact. Indiana cans Gerry DiNardo, brings in Terry Hoeppner and viola, the cream and crimson start the 2005 campaign 4-1. Of course, it went downhill from there, with six straight, rather large losses but for at least a month, there was excitement among students, alumni and fans about something other than IU basketball. A nice foundation was set in that hot start and while it might take some time to get Indiana to where it is competing for a bowl bid year in and year out, it was the first real step in the right direction in years.

Outlook - Offense ... The 2006 season should see some improvement out of an Indiana offense that struggled to put points on the board against Big Ten foes. Junior quarterback Blake Powers is back at the helm and he has some company to push him, notably redshirt freshman Kellen Lewis - a mobile signal caller with a strong arm.

Whether it is Powers, Lewis or senior Graeme McFarland tossing the pigskin around, one thing is for sure, there is ample firepower in the wide receiver corps. Six players return that caught at least ten passes in 2005, led by superstar James Hardy.

The question is whether a depleted stable of running backs can keep opposing defenses honest enough for the Hoosiers to have success through the air. There are a handful of players seeking to step into the tailback position, from youngsters like Demetrius McCray, Justin Carrington and Bryan Payton to older role players like Kenni Burns and Josiah Sears or converted receiver Marcus Thigpen.

The front five should be solid, despite replacing two long time starters. A new name to watch is Notre Dame transfer Chauncey Incarnato. Overall there is decent depth for a change, if a bit of inexperience. As long as the line can provide the QB time to pick from the plethora of good receivers and a go-to runner emerges, the Hoosiers should be able to see solid improvements on the offensive side of the ball.

Outlook - Defense ... One thing Coach Hoeppner instilled when he took on the coaching gig in Bloomington was that Indiana would vastly improve its defense. The statistics don't tell the total story so far but the Hoosiers were much better on defense in stretches during the 2005 season than they had been in several years. The new style employs a lot more speed and attacking and despite losing a few solid playmakers, the Indiana defense should be decent this season.

In the Big Ten, you need to have a good front seven or you will get the ball rammed down your throats. I.E. it doesn't matter if you have a great secondary because the good teams will just attack and attack and attack your weakest link. That puts the onus on the somewhat re-tooled front four. All league defensive end Victor Adeyanju has moved on, and steady Ben Ishola is gone as well. A pair of veteran backups (Kenny Kendal and Tyler Altman) return but will have big shoes to fill. Indiana should be solid in the middle, with experience and a little bit of depth.

What the front four doesn't bottle up, a revamped linebacking corps will need to. Two of the top four tacklers are gone and that means senior Jake Powers needs to step up and fill the void. There is some fair experience and skill coming back but any kinks will have to be worked out fast or Indiana will see several more of the 40-plus point efforts that opponents rang up last fall.

The best news for the defense is in the secondary. There is a ton of starting experience at all four spots, though depth might be questionable. Will Meyers is underrated and the corners both have three years of experience, which will be huge in a conference full of great quarterbacks and talented receivers.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Indiana returns a veteran, well-balanced special teams unit. Senior Tyson Beattie is a very good punter and the speedy, diminutive Lance Bennett can be a nightmare return man for any opposing team. Sophomore Joe Kleinsmith needs to be more accurate if Indiana hopes to cash in on all scoring opportunities.

Newcomer to Watch: JUCO LB transfer Vernon Smith

9/9 - at Ball State
10/7 - at Illinois
10/14 - IOWA
10/21 - at Ohio State
11/4 - at Minnesota
11/11 - MICHIGAN
11/18 - at Purdue

Key Games: 9/23 Connecticut, 9/30 Wisconsin, 10/21 at Ohio State, 11/11 Michigan, 11/18 at Purdue

Prediction ... Indiana will come out of the gates fast again in 2006. Of the four out-of-conference tilts, Western Michigan is the only game I see that could spoil an otherwise fantastic start to the season. I also predict early Big Ten success followed by another late season run of tough losses. Indiana misses Northwestern and Penn State this season at a time where both might be more ripe for the picking than last season.

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Western Michigan)
B10: 1-7 (win over Wisconsin)
Overall: 4-8, T-9th in the conference