Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Week One, Get Gamm Previews

Editor's Note: To "Get Gamm" simply post your scores for each game in the comments area. You have to play all season to qualify for the prize.

Minnesota at Kent State (8/31)
Big Ten vs. MAC part one. Given the success that the MAC has had against the Big Ten over the years, it only makes sense that the Big Ten give a reciprocal visit or two to their Midwestern little brothers. The Golden Flashes were perfect for the part because, well, the chances for a Minnesota loss on the road to Kent State are highly remote, even if the Gophers are retooling a bit this fall. Kent State was the nation’s worst running team a season ago – by a landslide. Minnesota was an elite running team. KSU takes a step up there, Minnesota a step back, but any way you slice it, the Golden Gophers should have their way with a defense that gave up points in droves a season ago. Minnesota 44 – Kent State 17.

Northwestern at Miami-OH (8/31)
This Big Ten v. MAC contest might ordinarily get a little passing interest from college football fans but not much more than a glance from most. This year it is different. Randy Walker, the beloved head coach for Northwestern with major ties to Miami-OH died of a heart attack over the summer which means that the emotions will be ratcheted up several notches in this one. Both teams replace some key starters, most notably at quarterback. However, the Wildcats return Ohio product Tyrell Sutton at tailback and he will be the difference maker. In what will likely be the closest game on the schedule for the opening weekend, Northwestern guts out a big opening victory. Northwestern 24 – Miami-OH 23.

Eastern Illinois at Illinois
Think this is a blowout game waiting to happen? A contest where the mighty D1 squad does its part to help the 1-AA school by giving up a chunk of its gate? Maybe that’ll be the case when other big schools line up against the directional school of their choice, but not necessarily here. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect Illinois to lose. I really don’t expect them to win by any less than three touchdowns. But, stay with me here, Eastern Illinois is good. The Panthers won the Ohio Valley Conference last year and are a top 15 team in 1-AA heading into fall. They’ll give this more than the old college try; they will trek to Champaign with victory in their minds. It’ll be close for a quarter or so, but Illinois is slowly coming together and will run all over EIU for a solid win to start the season. Illinois 45 – Eastern Illinois 20.

Western Michigan at Indiana
Another one of the six MAC vs. Big Ten contests on the slate to kick off the 2006 season. Western Michigan was a bit of a surprise in 2005 but put a few key offensive players into the NFL and has had to overcome some injury issues at quarterback. Still, don’t just assume that the Broncos will roll over and play dead. WMU may be a year away from being a really good team in the MAC, but remember that most pundits had this team pegged for two wins last season and the Broncos won seven. The reason Indiana could and should beat Western is the horrid pass defense that WMU brings to the table. That is a certain strength of the Hoosier offensive attack and could be the difference in the game. I’m starting to talk myself out of the upset I picked in my previews, but will stick with it. In a shocker: Western Michigan 27 – Indiana 24.

Montana at Iowa
Another highly ranked 1-AA squad takes on the Big Ten when the No. 3 Grizzlies head to Iowa City to face my pick to win the Big Ten – Iowa. Iowa beat a very good 1-AA team in Northern Iowa last year but Montana is perennially in the hunt in 1-AA football. Lou Holtz hard sell of an opponent out of the way, there is virtually no chance for Montana in this game. Drew Tate and Albert Young are a fantastic one-two punch on offense and the Iowa defensive front hopes to establish itself early in 2006. Montana is keeps it respectable, if only because the Hawkeyes empty the bench early. Iowa 48 – Montana 21.

Vanderbilt at Michigan
Now, this might be a ball game if Vandy QB Jay Cutler were still donning the gold and black, but alas, he was a high first round draft pick and well, this is Vandy. Vanderbilt is to the SEC what Northwestern used to be to the Big Ten – the sure win. This is the perfect first game for Michigan. A team from a big conference to get their attention, but someone to knock around a bit so that the second and third stringers can see the field. This will be a good time for Michigan to get the all-important backup quarterback some quality game time. In a yawner… Michigan 41 – Vanderbilt 13.

Idaho at Michigan State
This is a nice way for Michigan State to start the season. Idaho is where MSU coach John L. Smith got his start. It is where two-time NFL boss and former big time college football field boss Dennis Erickson returns in hopes of reviving the Vandal football program and his career. Idaho has not won more than three games in a season since 2000. It’s been a long time since JLS ran the show out west – a time when the Vandals enjoyed five of six seasons with nine or more victories (albeit in 1-AA). Some say he’s on the hot seat in East Lansing this year and what better way to get out of the gate than to play bully to a pip-squeak. The Spartans have been strong starters of late under Smith’s reign and this opener will be no different. The best part to watch will be to see if the defense really is better and if State finally has a kicker worth his weight after struggling in that arena last fall. Michigan State 47 – Idaho 7.

Northern Illinois at Ohio State
The fourth battle with the MAC might actually be one of the best. Not in terms of how I expect the game to play out (see above) but because these are arguably the best respective teams from the two conferences. Not much needs to be said about Ohio State. They are a nightmare to prepare for offensively and will find a way to have success on defense. In reality, NIU is a perfect pre-Texas test for the scarlet and gray. Garrett Wolfe might be one of the best tailbacks that no one has heard of (outside of the MAC) in the nation and he will be the essay portion of the defensive exam for the Buckeyes. Look for it to be close early, but for OSU to pour it on in the second half in preparation for a huge trip to Austin. Ohio State 38 – Northern Illinois 13.

Akron at Penn State
The fifth in an opening weekend series of intriguing B10 v. MAC battles. Akron finally broke through with a bowl berth and MAC championship last season after getting snubbed for two straight years when now Cleveland Browns starting QB Charlie Frye was leading the show. The Zips have another savvy senior signal caller that could carry them into the postseason again in Luke Getsy. However, the Zips are faced with the daunting task of opening up in front of a six-digit crowd of rabid Nittany Lion fans. Penn State wants to get out of the gates fast to erase any doubt that last year was a last hurrah for the ageless Joe Paterno. Akron will battle, but Penn State has too much fire power. Penn State 45 – Akron 14.

Indiana State at Purdue
I’m not sure about you, but when I think Indiana State I think Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson in the 1979 NCAA basketball finals. This 1-AA team will find out right away where it stands when the Sycamores travel up the road to West Lafayette to take on the Boilermakers. It’s a chance for some gate money and at least regional attention for ISU and a chance for Purdue to get off to a strong start – the perfect way to compliment last season’s strong finish. This should be the easiest of Purdue’s 13 games this fall with plenty of chances to get game experience for unproven players on the depth chart. Purdue 52 – Indiana State 9.

Wisconsin at Bowling Green (Cleveland)
The last of a big weekend pitting a major and mid-major from the Midwest takes place on a “neutral” field. I say “neutral” because Cleveland is certainly closer to Bowling Green than to Madison. The Falcons were a bit of a disappointment last season and are in a sort of rebuilding/reloading mode. Wisconsin is in the same boat at several positions and with quarterback John Stocco questionable due to a bum knee, this game will be closer than many might imagine. Bowling Green has become known for its break-neck pace on offense but is facing a tough Wisconsin defense. I look for a slow start for the Badgers and first year head coach Bret Bielema but in the end, the bigger, stronger boys from the Big Ten prevail. Wisconsin 33 – Bowling Green 20.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews – Quick Recap

Editor's Note: If you missed my annual summer Big Ten football previews now is your chance to click-thru and read them before the season kicks off. For the old regulars from TFS, Get Gamm kicks off on 8/28 with picks due by 6pm on 8/31...

How they’ll finish:
T-9th – Indiana: Preview

T-9th – Minnesota: Preview

T-9th – Northwestern: Preview

8th – Illinois: Preview

T-6th – Purdue: Preview

T-6th – Wisconsin: Preview

5th – Michigan State: Preview

4th – Michigan: Preview

3rd – Penn State: Preview

T-1st – Ohio State: Preview

T-1st – Iowa: Preview

Major Awards:
Offensive MVP = Drew Stanton – Michigan State

Defensive MVP = Paul Posluszny – Penn State

Special Teams MVP = Ted Ginn, Jr. – Ohio State

Coach of the Year = Kirk Ferentz – Iowa

Get Gamm:
Get Gamm works like this: Each week I post the games and commentary here on the blog. You put your picks in via the comments section. I keep a running standings and the best of the lot each week picks on the main page with yours truly. At the end of the year, the best record gets $25 to spend in the TFS Fan Shop. We’ll start on 8/28 with the first games kicking off on the 31st.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews – Iowa Hawkeyes

Editor's Note: This is the last in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Catch the other ten in the right nav. Next up is a recap, followed by the start of Get Gamm...

Team: Iowa Hawkeyes

Past Predictions/Results:
2005 Prediction / actual: 9-2, 6-2 (T-1st), BCS / 7-5, 5-31 (T-3rd), Outback
2004 Prediction / actual: 9-2, 6-2 (3rd), Capital One / 10-2, 7-1 (T-1st), Capital One
2003 Prediction / actual: 6-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 10-3, 5-3 (T-4th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-6th) / 11-2, 8-0 (T-1st)
2001 Prediction / actual: 5-6, 2-6 (T-10th) / 7-5, 4-4 (T-4th)

Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Drew Tate, TB Albert Young, TE Scott Chandler, LG Mike Jones, C Mike Elgin, DE Ken Iwebema, LB Edmond Miles, FS Marcus Paschal, PK Kyle Schlicher, P Andy Fenstermaker

Key Losses: WR Ed Hinkel, WR Clinton Solomon, WR Matt Melloy, LB Abdul Hodge, LB Chad Greenway, CB Antwan Allen, CB Jovon Johnson

Looking Back ... Coulda, shoulda, woulda. A glance back at Iowa’s season brings into play each of the aforementioned. Iowa coulda taken out Michigan in a tense overtime loss. Iowa definitely shoulda had the W against Northwestern. With just those two changes in fate, the Hawkeyes woulda gone 7-1 in the Big Ten, good enough for a third share of the conference crown in four seasons. But football is a fleeting game. Sometimes the pigskin bounces your way, other times it doesn’t. It was that kind of year for an Iowa team that had to completely rebuild its defensive front but that shined brightly on offense.

Despite a 7-4 record, the same 7-4 that Michigan had when the bowls came calling, Iowa wound up in yet another New Year’s Day bowl (Outback) while Michigan went to the Alamo Bowl. That says something for a program not all that far removed from an abysmal three year run with three, one and three wins in each respective campaign. So does the way Kirk Ferentz and his staff continue to churn out title contenders each and every year, despite the countless rumors that abound each off-season about which NFL gig Ferentz is going to lurch for. 2005 looks like a down year compared to the recent success of the program. If anything it can serve as a reminder of how hungry a team needs to stay to be at the top year in and year out. Even with some coulda, shoulda, woulda, Iowa was in the mix in ’05 and this fall is looking every bit as rosy…

Outlook - Offense ...When you think of Iowa football, what comes to mind? For me it is three yards and a cloud of dust. Hayden Fry. Ball control offense. Take shots every now and then but win with a conservative, limit the turnovers type offense. That hasn’t been the case of late and certainly not heading into this fall. True, the Hawkeyes lose three highly valuable and underrated wide receivers as well as their big time production. However, when you return a quarterback like Drew Tate, a tailback like Albert Young and an offensive line that can flat out dominate, how can you not assume that this team will come out with both guns a blazing?

Raise your hand if you remember who the 2004 Big Ten Player of the Year Award went to. Anyone? Anyone? The answer: Drew Tate. Yet, the senior is considered one of many very good starting quarterbacks returning in the Big Ten this fall. Most think Troy Smith or even Drew Stanton is better. But are they? That could be debated for days but the fact is, Iowa is my pick to win the berth to the Rose Bowl because of the presence of Drew Tate. Yep, he’s that good. The only signal caller in Iowa history that will likely stand ahead of Tate – statistically speaking – is Chuck Long. Tate can do it all. He has a solid arm, is a great decision maker and can scramble to make something out of nothing. He is accurate, precise and above all, a leader. Even if something were to happen to Tate, there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Senior Jason Manson has settled into his role as a backup and actually may see time as a receiver this fall. The “next” Drew Tate is the player to look for in early season mop-up duty. Jake Christensen was highly touted as a part of the 2005 recruiting class and after a year to soak it in and now a chance to see some playing time, he’ll ensure that Iowa doesn’t miss a beat into the future. In the meantime, Iowa boasts one of the best all-around QBs in the conference and that will be a key to this team’s success in 2006.

All potentially great teams have more than a good, experienced quarterback in common. They have a game breaker at tailback. Iowa is no different. It’s hard to believe that Coach Ferentz had to be coaxed into offering a scholarship to Albert Young, who was fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards as a sophomore (first in rushing yards in conference games only) and is poised to take those numbers up yet another notch. Young is a talented runner and a good receiver as well. The nice thing is, the 5-10, 210 pound junior is not the only back in the Iowa stable. Junior Damian Sims has tremendous speed and sophomore Shonn Greene is a bruiser, offering the Hawkeyes a great mixture of speed, finesse and strength out of the backfield. Of course the most underappreciated players on any offense are the fullbacks. Iowa has two of the best in the Big Ten in Tom Busch and Champ Davis. Both are solid blockers with surprising ability as soft-handed receiving options as well. Look for the Iowa running game to lead the way for this offense given the amount of talent available. But also look for the backs to act as decoys for what should also be a really good aerial attack…

It is true that Iowa lost a lot of experience and production from last year’s receiving corps. Ed Hinkel and Clinton Solomon combined for 86 catches, 1,318 yards and 14 touchdowns last season and will be missed. So will Matt Melloy. But, waiting in the wings are some fast, athletic playmakers just waiting for a chance to shine. Calvin Davis, Herb Grigsby and Andy Brodell can flat out fly and Eric McCollom is a very promising possession type wideout. Davis is a senior that has made some contributions over his career and now will get a chance to step into the spotlight. With his speed and ability to stretch the field he’ll get every opportunity to be Tate’s go-to guy. If that number one option isn’t Davis, it will be Herb Grigsby. Grigsby came on strong at the tail end of the 2005 season and should put up some solid numbers this fall. The potential star of the corps, however, is Andy Brodell. The sophomore is not only the fastest of the lot, he is also a big target. Junior Eric McCollom is a smart, athletic receiver that has also spent time at quarterback. The true weapon for the passing attack might actually be tight end Scott Chandler. The 6-7 senior could well lead the team in receptions this fall. He may not be a dominant blocker, but the former wide receiver can stretch the defense and is the sort of target any Big Ten quarterback would love to have. The other two tight ends that will see some time are sophomore Tony Moeaki and senior Ryan Majerus. However it all shakes out, there are plenty of options for Drew Tate and combined with Albert Young and company, it will make for an explosive attack.

It can be accurately said that all good D1 programs have potential stars (or proven stars) at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. After all, don’t you have to in order to have sustained success? That said, the glue that holds it all together is the front five. Yep, the big uglies up front. The guys that make buffet owners cringe. Iowa might just have the best offensive front in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes certainly have the best depth and the most talent in the two- and three-deep. The core of the line are seniors Mike Elgin, Mike Jones and Marshal Yanda. Elgin has played center and guard and will quarterback the line from the center position this fall. Yanda can play guard or tackle but looks to settle in at right tackle. Mike Jones is one of the top guards in the conference. Add in sophomores Seth Olsen (guard) and Dace Richardson (left tackle) and you have yourself a line that could help this offense produce some huge numbers. The better news is all of the young and promising depth. While definitely young – three of the second stringers are sophomores, two are redshirt freshmen – the potential here is endless. Senior Lee Gray, who returns from an injury is going to have to battle to keep one of the youngsters out of the mix. The most talented prospect looks to be Dan Doering but the reality of it is that this team is set up front for years to come and should dominate early and often in ’06.

Outlook - Defense ... To continue the thought from the offensive overview… when you think of Iowa, you think not only solid, productive and maybe sometimes conservative offense (at least in the day), you think of eleven defenders lining up each willing and able to make every offensive opponent pay on each and every play. Guys who can get after the quarterback. Linebackers who ring bells with their hits. Defensive backs that get blood on their nose stopping the run but have enough finesse to knock away passes and create turnovers. It took some time in 2005, but that came around for Iowa. But just like last year saw some personnel turnover that took some adjustment to, this season will see more of the same. That means the defense will need to grow up a little early, in order to make it a 50-50 proposition when the big games roll in.

Last year’s big question mark is now the unquestioned strength of the defense. It was sink or swim - and at times, mostly sink – for the Hawkeye front four in 2005. That was then. Now that junior ends Ken Iwebema and Bryan Mattison and sophomore tackles Matt Kroul and Mitch King have learned the strength and speed necessary to make plays in the Big Ten, Iowa quietly fields one of the best defensive fronts in the conference. Iwebema should easily post double digit sacks this fall. He has tackle size to go with end speed and he is the anchor of this group. Mattison is quietly as productive as Iwebema. He might not get the accolades but his presence is a huge plus for this line. Matt Kroul is the run stuffer of the group. He moved to tackle from linebacker last season and after getting used to the nuances, became a very steady player. Mitch King is another former linebacker that might be small for a tackle, but who uses that to his advantage. King is a great inside pass rusher and he will be cut loose this season. One thing for Iowa to have sustained success this season is to make sure the backups produce and can be reliable enough to provide a solid rotation. Sophomores Ryan Bain and Alex Kanellis and redshirt freshmen Vernon Jackson and Justin Collins will get early season opportunities to get into the game and will need to grow up fast if Iowa is to stay tough as nails up front over a 12 game season. If that happens (more likely when) look for Iowa to dominate football games on both sides of the ball.

The biggest personnel losses heading into 2006 come in the linebacking corps. The two leading tacklers in the Big Ten have moved on to the NFL’s NFC North Division. Greenway and Hodge combined for 314 tackles and to say that they will be missed is a major understatement. That said, there is no time to look back and sulk when you have a Big Ten title to contend for. The good news is that the replacements have experience and join returning starter, senior Edmond Miles to form what should at least be an adequate unit. Miles is a big hitter and a great pass rusher. Perhaps more important, he has the ability to be the new leader of the Iowa defense. Juniors Mike Klinkenborg and Mike Humpal are the players that will try to fill the shoes of Hodge and Greenway. Klinkenborg is big, tough and a solid athlete. Humpal is fast and has the talent to be a playmaker. The real concern here is depth. There just isn’t a lot of developed depth to rely on, so if the injury bug bites, what would otherwise be an ample linebacking corps could take a sizeable step backwards. Zach Gabelmann is a senior and does have some experience but most of his PT has been on special teams. Pat Angerer is a redshirt frosh with a lot of upside, but he’ll face the same trial by fire as the front four youngsters did in ’05. This group doesn’t need to be as productive as last year’s – not with the front four returning all of its starters – but it does have to be solid, make plays and avoid injury if Iowa is to be as good as I predict.

The defensive backfield is another spot that will have to rely on some new blood this season. Seasoned cornerbacks Antwan Allen and Jovon Johnson have departed, leaving Iowa with a pair of juniors to take over. Adam Shada and Charles Godfrey both have great size (6-1) and some experience, though Godfrey is a converted safety that will have to learn to be a good cover man. Shada has good quickness and a nose for the ball and will likely assume the role as the guy that opposing QBs throw away from. The good news with the secondary is that unlike fellow contender Ohio State, who returns all four starters, Iowa brings back to polished, savvy veterans at the safety positions. Seniors Marcus Paschal (FS) and Miguel Merrick (SS) are good leaders and big hitters. Their presence should help bring along the new cornerbacks and add that all important strong back layer of defensive protection. The backups consist of a hodge-podge of players. Sophomore Bradley Fletcher could actually supplant Godfrey at one corner, giving Iowa more depth at safety. Senior Ma’Quan Dawkins is a former walk-on that will get a chance to play more this fall. Redshirt freshman Marcus Wilson and senior Devan Moylan fill out the depth chart at safety. One player to look for is freshman Justin Edwards. He could earn time at cornerback and give this unit even more depth. Overall, the Iowa secondary wasn’t as good in ’05 as it had been in ’04 but if it is at least as good this year as last, the Hawkeyes will be just fine.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Any team with title aspirations needs to have the whole package – offense, defense and yes, special teams. You’ve read that Iowa has the pieces in place with the offense and defense, but what about special teams? Let me ask this – when is the last time Iowa didn’t have a tremendous kicking game? If you don’t know who place-kicker Kyle Schlicher is, you will after you see Iowa play. Schlicher is money on field goals (he missed four last year and only nine in his career). Punter Andy Fenstermaker is a solid performer but he could stand to get some more yardage out of his kicks. All in all, if Iowa can replace Hinkel and Jovon Johnson in the return game, this unit could provide fireworks all season long for what will be an excellent football team.

9/9 – at Syracuse
9/23 – at Illinois
10/7 – PURDUE
10/14 – at Indiana
10/21 – at Michigan
11/18 – at Minnesota

Key Games: 9/16 – Iowa State, 9/30 – Ohio State, 10/21 – at Michigan, 11/11 - Wisconsin

Prediction ... Things are looking mighty rosy for the Iowa Hawkeyes this fall. It all kicks off with a couple of cupcakes before an underrated in-state rivalry game with the Cyclones. The black and gold hit the road to open the Big Ten, a perfect last chance to work out the kinks before Iowa’s game of the year – a visit from Ohio State. Win this one and take care of a fairly easy slate from there on out and Iowa is Pasadena bound. Of course the trip to Michigan is treacherous and you can never look past rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota, but this team is built to win the Big Ten, despite all of the attention given to the Buckeyes. It doesn’t hurt avoiding Penn State and Michigan State and playing three of the four “big” games at Kinnick. Look for Iowa to cruise to 11 wins and the ever coveted Rose Bowl appearance…

OOC: 4-0
B10: 7-1 (lone loss at Michigan)
Overall: 11-1, T-1st in the conference, Rose Bowl berth

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews – Ohio State Buckeyes

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

Team: Ohio State Buckeyes

Past Predictions/Results:
2005 Prediction / actual: 8-3, 6-2 (T-1st), Capital One / 10-2, 7-1 (T-1st), Fiesta
2004 Prediction / actual: 10-1, 7-1 (T-1st), Rose / 8-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Alamo
2003 Prediction / actual: 11-1, 7-1 (1st) / 11-2, 6-2 (T-2nd)
2002 Prediction / actual: 11-2, 6-2 (T-1st) / 14-0, 8-0 (T-1st), National Champs
2001 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th) / 7-5, 5-3 (3rd)

Returning Starters: 8 offense, 2 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Troy Smith, WR Ted Ginn, TB Antonio Pittman, FB Stan White, RT Kirk Barton, DT David Patterson, DT Quinn Pitcock, P A.J. Trapasso

Key Losses: WR Santonio Holmes, C Nick Mangold, OG Robbie Sims, DE Mike Kudla, LB A.J. Hawk, LB Bobby Carpenter, LB Anthony Schlegel, SS Donte Whitner, FS Nate Salley, CB Ashton Youboty, PK Josh Huston

Looking Back ... A few plays away. Much like Penn State, that’s how close and just how far away Ohio State was from taking the stage in the National Title game last season. There was the tough home loss to eventual champ Texas and a hard-fought road “L” at Penn State. That was how close the Buckeyes were to getting a shot at a second national title in four seasons. Not too shabby, eh? Last season’s team was built around a defense that fielded three of the NFL Draft’s first 18 picks in April. Ohio State landed five first round picks in all. The offense might have been the story late, but it was the defense that made the scarlet and gray a contender all season long, and that led the Buckeyes to yet another win over arch-rival Michigan.

Jim Tressel now has five seasons under his belt, and he has led OSU to three double-digit win seasons, a pair of Big Ten crowns, a national title and four, count ‘em, four wins over the despised Wolverines. All of it has Ohio State fans in a frenzy and ready to repeat all of the above in 2006. Given what the Buckeyes lost on defense, that may be easier said than done but so what if you give up closer to 20 points per contest (it was 15.2 in ’05) if you can score well over 30 points yourself (it was 32.7 ppg last season)? The Ohio State offense only got better as young stars like Smith, Pittman and Ginn all got on the same page. Imagine what an offense that did the damage that the Buckeyes did and returns several starters might do in ’06. 2006 might just see OSU gain those few extra plays needed to win the scarlet and gray yet another trip to the National Title game at the Bucks’ favorite January destination of late – Tempe.

Outlook - Offense ...There might not be a more potent group of starters returning in the Big Ten than what Ohio State brings back this fall. Top notch quarterback? Check. Unsung tailback? Check. A pair of wideouts that can make almost any football slinger better? Check, check. Folks, if Ohio State was as good as it was last season because of the defense, this year’s team will be in the same position because of the offense. Yes, it is that good. From the skill players to the trenches, this team might run circles around most of the opposition it faces. Brace yourself, a team that scored over 30 points in eight of 12 contests last year will be even better this season…

There isn’t a team with a better quarterback situation in the Big Ten. First, there is Troy Smith, the dual threat signal caller that has quietly become one of the nations’ best. Why quietly? Two words – Justin Zwick. Remember, not so long ago, Zwick was the next coming – at least as anointed when an incoming freshman. Zwick never completely materialized, in part because Smith became such an intriguing weapon. Just think, with a game under his belt instead of having served a suspension in the opener, Smith may have been able to lead OSU to a victory over Texas instead of a close but not cigar early season loss. Smith is widely thought to be the best of a strong lot in the Big Ten and with an experienced and hungry Zwick still on his heels, the Buckeyes are enjoying a great problem to have – two starting caliber players on the depth chart. Smith can run and throw and has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Zwick has adjusted to his role and is more than ready to step in at a moments notice. Both are seniors, which means players like Todd Boekman and Rob Schoenhoft might steal some of Zwick’s mop-up time, but no matter how you slice it, OSU can win this conference with its first or second string QB at the helm.

Much like at quarterback, it isn’t a one man show at running back either. Antonio Pittman quietly (notice the theme here?) put up 1,331 yards rushing to go with seven scores. The junior might be the most unheralded, big statistics producer for any of the big time programs in college football. He has a terrific blend of speed and power but doesn’t have to do it all himself, which means he can go full bore all the time. There is a stable of quality backing Pittman up, starting with sophomores Maurice Wells and Eric Haw. Both are more than capable of being the go-to back if something happens to Pittman. However, freshman Chris Wells might not give them a chance. Wells is considered by many to be the best incoming tailback in the country with size, speed and a nose for the endzone. Back to Pittman, he could be an all-league player this season if he can provide more scoring punch for the offense. Speaking of unheralded, is there a position in football that gets less spotlight than the fullback? And yet the lead blocker who is lucky to get a tote here or there or catch a screen pass on occasion is a main reason for the success of a running game. Senior Stan White is that guy for the Buckeyes. He is a tremendous blocker who will go mostly unnoticed due to a lack of carries and catches. OSU can go even bigger if they wish with Dionte Johnson. Either way, with Pittman leading the way, this will be one of the best running attacks in the Big Ten.

Some might think that losing a receiver like Santonio Holmes would be a big dent to a team’s passing attack. Those that do haven’t seen Ted Ginn. Ginn is easily the most electrifying player in college football. A cousin of mine, who plays at DII Ashland and was in the same class as Ginn told me I’d never seen anyone with his speed or ability, and he was right. Ginn is flat out a game changer. With the steady, speedy Holmes leaving early and sporting the colors of Super Bowl champ Pittsburgh, the go-to guy is Ginn. The nice thing is, he’s not alone. Anthony Gonzalez is quick, had tremendous hands and is not afraid to make the tough catch. He’ll fill Ginn’s role with Ginn moving to Holmes’ spot. The Buckeyes also have the luxury of four long, back-up receivers in senior Roy Hall (who will start in three receiver sets), sophomore Devon Lyons, redshirt freshman Brian Hartline and sophomore Brian Robiskie. While none evoke the fear that Ginn or even Gonzalez do, they each bring their own benefits the to table. One area that the Buckeyes will need to shore up is tight end. With the recent suspension of Marcel Frost, starter Rory Nicol is going to have to shoulder even more of the load. In the meantime, Ohio State will look to some other youngsters to help get more production out of the tight end position.

Of course the key to any good offense is to have a line that can be relied upon for pass protection and solid run blocking. It seems like it’s been a while since Ohio State has churned out a superstar on the offensive line but yet the unit quietly gets the job done and done well. This year will be no different and in fact this might be the best line of the Tressel era. Three seniors and a junior anchor the line, with a bevy of talented sophomores filling in the other slots and the depth chart. Dan Datish might be the most versatile player of the lot. He can play guard or center but is currently penciled in at center. Senior guard T.J. Downing could have a break through season and play on Sunday’s in the future. Senior Tim Schafer holds down the left guard position. While both are fifth year players, they will have to work hard to stave off sophomores Jon Skinner and Kyle Mitchum. Both are up and coming talents with size and offer OSU the luxury of depth at a position that is always giving and taking a beating. The best of the front five may be the tackles. Kirk Barton is a sure-fire NFL talent. The junior will hold down the right tackle spot. Sophomore Alex Boone will get the nod at left tackle, but the equally as imposing Steve Rehring will be right on his heels. The bottom line? This is another unsung unit that might not get a lot of praise but that will have a huge hand in any offensive success this team has all fall.

Outlook - Defense ... As potent as the offense was last year, the defense carried this team to another double-digit win total. Fast forward to ’06 and the shoe is firmly on the other foot. The OSU offense is the strength of this year’s team. Does that mean the defense won’t have success or create the next superstar Buckeye defender? Hardly. The scarlet and gray always field a good defense and despite the loss of key players to the NFL, this season will be no different. Yes, new players or former role players will need to step up, but with a seasoned power like Ohio State, that is the norm, the expectation, not the exception.

The good news heading into this season is that despite losing three linebackers to the NFL the player that gave each of those ‘backers the opportunity to shine returns. Defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock has the speed to play end but the strength and size to be one of the top tackles in the nation. With him bottling things up in the middle, the rest of the speedy OSU defenders can make the plays. He is joined inside by another player with end quickness and inside size – David Patterson. Patterson is a good run stopper but most notably gives the Buckeyes an inside pass rusher and someone the coaches can move around a bit to keep teams guessing. That leaves the end positions to senior Jay Richardson and sophomore Lawrence Wilson. Richardson is rangy but not all that quick and is in the mix more for his run stopping than pass rushing prowess. Wilson is a tall speed rusher that could develop into the next superstar. The depth chart isn’t anything to write home about, but there is a little bit of experience to mix with potential and up and coming talent. Tackle Joel Penton will see a bit of time as will end Vernon Gholston. Todd Denlinger and Alex Barrow round out the two-deep.

There was a boatload of amazingly talented linebackers in the Big Ten last season, but none as collectively disruptive and game-changing as the trio Ohio State sent to the NFL. Most teams would be scurrying to fill one of the positions vacated by that level of talent, let alone three, but not Ohio State. There is plenty of experience in the mix and incredible potential too boot. The anchor this year will be former Indiana starter John Kerr. The middle linebacker is a tough hitter that will finally get a chance to play after sitting behind A.J. Hawk. His backup Mike D’Andrea is another fifth year senior that if he had stayed healthy, might have been every bit as good as Hawk. He’ll also get one more go at making something out of what has been a somewhat frustrating career. Two speedy sophomores make up the other starting slots. Marcus Freeman has a world of upside with speed and size to drool over. James Laurinaitis is penciled in at the strong side for now, but he’ll have to hold off late recruit, heralded JUCO LB Larry Grant. Curtis Terry and Ross Homan make up the rest of what is another part of the depth chart filled with talent.

Much like the linebacking corps in front of them, all of the starters from last year’s secondary have moved on to the next level. Ordinarily, that would throw up major red flags, especially considering the fact that there are so many experienced pitch and catch combos around the Big Ten. However, thinking that of Ohio State is a mistake. When haven’t the Buckeyes replaced NFL talent with NFL talent? This year is no different. Four new starters, same potential. Perhaps the only concern is the youth. But then, if there is talent and it is fast and ready to play, who cares about the experience level? The elder statesman will be senior corner Antonio Smith. While a little on the small size (5-9) he is a good hitter and has great speed. He’s more likely to get picked on by opposing QBs given the size and speed of fellow corner, sophomore Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins is the next bit thing in the defensive backfield and could garner all-conference honors this season. Another pair of sophomores start at safety – Nick Patterson is another big, speedy DB and he’ll only get better as he works to hold off senior Brandon Mitchell for the free safety spot. Jamario O’Neal is a physical player, with – surprise, surprise – tremendous speed. Redshirt freshman Anderson Russell will push O’Neal for time. Donald Washington is probably the first corner off the bench, and he too provides size and speed to this group. New or not, look for the Ohio State secondary to shine as the season goes on.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Another strong, reliable place-kicker has moved on in the person of Josh Huston. Who wins the job is still somewhat up in the air between sophomore Ryan Pretorius and redshirt freshman Aaron Pettrey. Pettrey has the better leg but Pretorius was steadier in spring ball and looks to hold the job heading into the season. One area that isn’t a concern is the punting game. A.J. Trapasso had a solid first season and should only get better as he gets older. Also, how can you not mention the explosive return game? Ginn already has taken five punts back for scores and gobbles up return yards in droves.

9/9 – at Texas
9/30 – at Iowa
10/14 – at Michigan State
10/21 – INDIANA
11/4 – at Illinois
11/11 – at Northwestern
11/18 – MICHIGAN

Key Games: 9/9 – at Texas, 9/23 – Penn State, 9/30 – at Iowa, 11/18 - Michigan

Prediction ... This isn’t a slam dunk schedule for the Buckeyes by any stretch. Northern Illinois is perennially one of the better teams in the MAC, Texas is the defending national champion, and Cincinnati and Bowling Green are hungry, in-state schools looking to pluck off the team that calls itself the Ohio State University. Despite the potential pitfalls OSU faces OOC, I expect the Buckeyes to run through that slate unbeaten. In conference, Purdue and Wisconsin are off the slate, but Penn State and Iowa come on back to back weekends, there is a tricky trip to East Lansing and the annual battle with Michigan. I think the games will all be tight this year with a young defense, but expect the only black mark to occur when the scarlet and gray visit Iowa City. Other than that, another ten-win plus season and another trip to a BCS bowl keeps the Buckeye fans ecstatic.

OOC: 4-0
B10: 7-1 (lone loss at Iowa)
Overall: 11-1, T-1st in the conference, Orange Bowl berth

Friday, August 11, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews – Penn State Nittany Lions

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

Team: Penn State Nittany Lions

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

Returning Starters: 5 offense, 4 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: TB Tony Hunt, TB Austin Scott, FB BranDon Snow, WR Deon Butler, WR Derrick Williams, LT Levi Brown, DT Jay Alford, LB Paul Posluszny, LB Dan Connor, LB Tim Shaw, CB Justin King, P Jeremy Kapinos

Key Losses: QB Michael Robinson, DE Tamba Hali, CB Alan Zemaitis, CB Anwar Phillips

Looking Back ... One of JoePa’s best. That’s the answer to the question – where does the 2005 Penn State football season stack up against the many successes Coach Joe Paterno has had in State College? A miracle last play score by Michigan is all that stood between the Nittany Lions and an unbeaten season. After two straight losing campaigns and four in the last five, to win 11 games in ’05 was nothing short of amazing. It showed us that Paterno wasn’t losing his ability to attract big time talent or coach. It also reminded us that maybe we ought to let the guy coach as long as he wants because I’ll be darned if the guy, well past what should be “snow bird” status, still isn’t better at this job than 95% of the coaches in America.

The big difference in 2005, according to the masses of Penn State faithful, was Paterno’s willingness to let potential impact freshmen see the field earlier and more often than in the past. It was also the offensive game planning of Galen Hall and the settling in of formerly transient (part time QB, RB and WR) Michael Robinson as the unquestioned leader of the offense. Whatever it was, it was shear brilliance as Penn State fought and clawed its way back to the top where it belongs. Can it be sustained for 2006? That remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that 2005 will long be remembered as one of the best of the long and storied JoePa era…

Outlook - Offense ...Four of five starters from the offensive line? Gone. MVP from last season’s rise from the ashes? Playing on Sundays. Can Penn State move forward without first stepping back? Yes. No doubt, what Penn State had last year on offense was good, sound senior leadership and players hungry to go out on top after a dismal few seasons. But this year’s group could be better. The wideouts are more seasoned. The tailback tandem is back. The new signal caller isn’t really a rookie. All are great reasons not to assume that the Nittany Lions will have to step back before moving forward. All are great reasons to believe this team can be as good as last year.

The first position that needs to replace a leader and star is quarterback. Anthony Morelli is just the person to fill the role. After coming in as a highly touted recruit, Morelli has been biding time behind Zach Mills and Michael Robinson and is now primed to put his stamp on the Penn State program. It will be no picnic to replace the 806 yards rushing, 2,350 yards passing and 28 total touchdowns that Robinson provided, but Morelli is up the to task. He has good size, a strong arm and a good command of the offense. If the junior falters, Paul Ciancilo and Kevin Suhey are waiting in the wings. The good news is, even though Morelli is extremely unlikely to gain a quarter of the yards rushing that Robinson did, he doesn’t need to due to the fantastic stable of tailbacks and corps of receivers around him.

Ask most so-called experts and they will point to the young PSU receiving corps as the strength of this offense. Ask the running backs and they’ll point to themselves. Rightfully so. Led by a pair of solid seniors at tailback and arguably the team’s second best blocker (Levi Brown is the other) at fullback, Penn State will have a very well balanced attack this fall. Tony Hunt rushed for over 1000 yards in 2005 and that with a quarterback going for over 800. Imagine what he and fellow senior Austin Scott can do with another 150 carries to spread between them? Scott was one of the heroes of the Orange Bowl when Hunt went down with an injury, so the two are quite interchangeable. Toss in a third stringer the caliber of Rodney Kinlaw and you can see where Robinson’s output will be handled. What will really make this unit special is premier blocking fullback BranDon Snow. Snow, as do most fullbacks, often goes unnoticed in the Penn State attack but is key to the success of the running game. If Hunt or Scott or both rush for 1,000 yards plus, the MVP trophy should go to Snow.

Now on to the group that the experts rave about – Penn State’s wideouts. Is there a better collection of fast, young, game breakers in the nation? Deon Butler, Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood will be the envy of every coach in the Big Ten if they aren’t already. Each can step in and be a big play guy. Throw in cornerback Justin King, who played primarily as a receiver in ’05 and your head will spin with the quality of the rotation the Nittany Lions coaching staff can run with. The best of the lot is Williams. Had it not been for the broken arm against Michigan, Williams would have been All Big Ten. As it is, Butler and King stepped in big time, and Norwood was the star of the Orange Bowl. Terrell Golden is a junior to look for on the field at times as well. At tight end, the Nits are breaking in a new starter in Patrick Hall. He had little in the way of numbers last season, but is a good blocker and provides a nice safety valve for Morelli. Sophomore Jordan Lyons has the better hands but Penn State needs a sound blocker first given the state of the offensive line.

Speaking of the offensive line, this might be the Achilles Heel of the PSU attack this fall because four starters need to be replaced. Senior left tackle Levi Brown is undoubtedly one of the best in the Big Ten, but if the Nittany Lions hope to have as much success on this side of the ball as last year, the four new starters will need to gel and mold into a solid group ASAP. The only other senior starter is right guard Robert Price and he will be pushed by sophomore Greg Harrison. Junior right tackle John Shaw has good size and athleticism and will need to step in and be a difference maker right away. Sophomores A.Q. Shipley (center) and Gerald Cadogan (left guard) could become the future of the offensive line. There isn’t much in the way of depth or experience on the bench, but as long as the Nittany Lions can get some quality time out of the aforementioned Harrison, senior tackle Mark Farris and Chris Aulette, Penn State should be just fine up front, where more games than not are won and lost in this conference.

Outlook - Defense ... A lot of the success in 2005 stemmed from the pressure the front seven could put on the opponent’s offense. That pressure was a result of a savvy corps of veterans in the secondary. Well, three of the starters up front and all of the secondary has departed. Does that mean Penn State will be rebuilding on defense this fall? Not entirely. There is enough experience returning, sprinkled with young talent that the Nittany Lion defense could, quite possibly, be better this fall than last.

So, how does a defense that loses three starters in the front four get better the next season? It won’t be easy, but it is possible. Ends Tamba Hali and Matthew Rice are gone and so are their 16 combined sacks. Also gone is tackle Scott Paxson. However, Jay Alford returns and he racked up 8.5 sacks himself a season ago. Alford isn’t as big as some tackles around the Big Ten, but that means he has more quickness, which allows him to be a disruptive force inside. Senior Ed Johnson is back after taking some time away and should become a solid tag team partner for Alford. Steve Roach and Elijah Robinson will also battle for time and add to the rotation. Sophomore end Josh Gaines and senior Jim Shaw will be called upon to pick up the numbers that left with Hali and Rice. That won’t be an easy task, but there is help in sophomore Mike Lucian. There isn’t a household name in this group, aside from Alford, but if the Nittany Lions can get consistency from the front four, the defense will be just fine.

Those who have read my previews might be scratching their heads right now. After all, doesn’t Andy usually rate a defense mostly on what it has up front? Well, yes but most teams don’t have three linebackers behind the front four like Penn State has. Think Ohio State from 2005, but maybe even better than that. Now do you have a grasp for why this defense will be just fine come September? Paul Posluszny is one of the better linebackers to ever play in the Big Ten. That might be saying a lot, but it isn’t a stretch, not at all. And what makes him even more threatening is the presence of Dan Connor on the other side and Tim Shaw in the middle. This trio will see themselves on the highlight reel often this fall. Penn State is pretty well stocked for the future as well and has some really good depth if it is needed in the form of Tyrell Sales, Sean Lee and Dontey Brown. These sophomores will see plenty of time against the cupcakes, which bodes well for this season and beyond in Happy Valley.

The biggest worry for the Penn State defense is the secondary. All four starters are gone, and most of the departed were mainstays – i.e. started multiple seasons. The best news is that Justin King is ready to burst on the scene as a top-notch cover corner. The offense might not want to let him go so easily but King will be needed to help make the defense as good as it can be. Fellow sophomore Tony Davis will hold down the other starting cornerback position, while seniors Donnie Johnson and Nolan McCready will step in at safety. Replacing the likes of Anwar Phillips, Alan Zemaitis, Chris Harrell and Calvin Lowry will be a daunting task, but one the Nittany Lions need to do well if they are to sniff double digit wins again this fall. Assistance should come from Anthony Scirrotto and PSU was relying on receiver Mark Rubin but another major injury has cut into at least the start of the 2006 season. Beyond that, PSU is young in the defensive backfield and that can be a big problem in a league with so many veteran QBs.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Penn State is in great shape on special teams. Kevin Kelly was as good as a freshman can get and should be able to make the kicks that win Penn State the close games this fall. Senior punter Jeremy Kapinos is a field position specialist with a better than you might think leg. He’ll be critical early on as the defense grows up. The return game will be nothing less than explosive.

9/2 – AKRON
9/9 – at Notre Dame
9/23 – at Ohio State
10/7 – at Minnesota
10/14 – MICHIGAN
10/21 – ILLINOIS
10/28 – at Purdue
11/4 – at Wisconsin
11/11 – TEMPLE

Key Games: 9/9 – at Notre Dame, 9/23 – at Ohio Staten, 10/14 – Michigan, 11/4 – at Wisconsin, 11/18 – Michigan State

Prediction ... This won’t be a repeat of 2005, but it also won’t be a repeat of 2003 (the last time PSU came off of a big season and lost a solid corps of senior playmakers). It starts off relatively easy, although Akron has been far more competitive of late and gets tough in a hurry with a trip to South Bend. That starts the Big Ten on a Notre Dame binge and would send a perfect message were the Nittany Lions to return home the victors. After another cupcake, there is an even more daunting road trip – this time to Columbus where the Buckeyes will be itching for payback. The only tough road contest after that is a late fall trek to Wisconsin, but with Michigan and MSU at home and no Iowa on the slate, it should be another good, winning season for soon to be octogenarian Joe Paterno.

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Notre Dame)
B10: 6-2 (wins over Northwestern, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Purdue and Michigan State)
Overall: 9-3, T-3rd in the conference, Capital One Bowl berth

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews - Michigan Wolverines

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

Team: Michigan Wolverines

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

Returning Starters: 6 offense, 7 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Chad Henne, RB Mike Hart, WR Steve Breaston, WR Mario Manningham, OT Jake Long, DT Alan Branch, DE LaMaar Woodley, LB Prescott Burgess, CB Leon Hall, PK Garrett Rivas

Key Losses: WR Jason Avant, WR/QB Antonio Bass (injury), TE Tim Massaquoi, OT Adam Stenavich, OL Matt Lentz, DT Gabe Watson

Looking Back ... Utterly forgettable. All you have to do to rile the Michigan faithful is say “7-5.” So rare is a five loss season for University of Michigan football that you have to go back to 1984, when Bo Schembecler roamed the sidelines and a guy by the name of Jim Harbaugh (who broke his collar bone in a very rare home loss to Michigan State leading to a tough season) was taking the snaps from center. Folks that is over 20 years without a so-called bad season. Sometimes even the good programs need a wake-up call like the one Michigan received last year. Believe it or not, too much of a good thing for so long can put you in a rut. Too bad for the rest of the Big Ten, that rut will be short lived and some teams on the slate in ’06 are bound to pay for that headache of a season.

Perhaps the most unbelievable and very telling statistics from the 2005 campaign come from the offensive side of the ball. Ninth in scoring offense. Ninth in rushing offense. Ninth in total offense. Wait a minute, Michigan, ninth in rushing offense? Say no more. The doldrums of 2005 even have Lloyd Carr on the hot seat. All the guy does is win, win and win and yet 2005 was so gut-wrenching that Carr is considered to be on the verge of early retirement should it happen again. Ah the toils of a national powerhouse. All you have to do is remember that this is Michigan. Hail to the Victors. Winged helmets. The whole nine yards. The bottom line? 2005 will seem like decades ago when 2006 finally kicks off…

Outlook - Offense ...I said it before, I’ll say it again: Ninth in scoring offense. Ninth in rushing offense. Ninth in total offense. Fix that and, well, you probably find at least two more wins last season, maybe more. It isn’t like Michigan was getting blown out. The Wolverines lost the five games by a total of 21 points, not any one of them by more than a touchdown. Of course, the maize and blue also won three games by a total of eight points. So what, you ask? It all goes back to the lack of a consistent running game, an offense that could take heat off of the defense.

One reason for the season long offensive funk that Michigan trudged through was the sophomore slump that felled quarterback Chad Henne. Henne has all of the tools to be the next Michigan signal caller that leads an NFL team to multiple Super Bowls. His problem in ’05 wasn’t that his skills reverted or left him, it was that he pressed too much, too often. Obviously he can make the plays. Doubt that? Look at the last play of the Penn State game or some of the key moments in the win at Michigan State. Henne is bound to be better this year than last and he has plenty of weapons around him. Fortunately for Michigan, he’s been healthy since day one, because the depth chart is a little scary. Of course the second and third stringers at Michigan could probably start at most programs in the country, but with Antonio Bass out of the picture as a possible fill in, it falls on young and unproven Jason Forcier or David Cone if Henne goes down. If you’re Michigan, pray that doesn’t happen…

Looking for the best backfield in the Big Ten? Look no further than Ann Arbor. Mike Hart battled injury last season but is a proven gamebreaker. Kevin Grady came along very nicely as a freshman and will only get better. The next superstar? Remember the name Carlos Brown. Brown was an early enrollee who has a tremendous burst and good size. His presence should push Grady to be better and give Hart a chance to stay healthy – something that would bring consistency back to the Michigan ground game. Back to that first rhetorical question, if you’re hanging on the “ninth in rushing offense” stat that I tossed around twice before, you might be wondering how I can label this the best backfield in the Big Ten. Simple, if healthy, Mike Hart is proven to be one of the best by himself. Throw in Grady and a freshman like Brown and there’s your answer. Mark my words, Michigan will have one of the best running games in the Big Ten this fall.

An improved ground game is going to give Chad Henne more opportunities to find Steve Breaston and Mario Manningham through the air and let them work their magic. Breaston has been a special teams star for three years and has come along as a receiver as well. But it is Manningham, the hero of the Penn State victory, that you need to watch. The speedy sophomore has all the makings of being the next Michigan wideout worthy of wearing the number 1. The only concern with the receiving corps is depth. The depth chart took a hit when Antonio Bass went down this spring with a serious knee injury. The loss of Bass hurt at wide receiver and potentially, quarterback. That means redshirt freshman LaTerryan Savoy and sophomore Adrian Arrington will need to be ready to step into the playing group. Both have size and great speed but the lack of experience could hurt in early season battles. Michigan is in solid shape at tight end despite losing Tim Massaquoi to the NFL. Tyler Ecker has great hands and is a solid blocker and Mike Massey has plenty of upside as well. Combine this group with Henne and the fantastic running backs and the Wolverines should be able to dust last year’s offensive output, especially in the games that really matter.

Ask most of the experts and they will tell you that Michigan’s offensive woes in 2005 stemmed from inconsistent line play. Yes, Adam Stenavich, Leo Henige and Matt Lentz all garnered some All Big Ten recognition, but things just didn’t seem to click for the front five last fall. Maybe it was too much size and not enough speed. Maybe it was the constant moving of bodies due to untimely injuries. Whatever the case, Michigan needs to show improvement here or the skill players that are available to the Wolverines will never get a true chance to shine. With huge left tackle Jake Long back in the mix, that may well happen. Long is a star in the making and gives Chad Henne comfort in knowing his blind side will be well protected. The other starters are players that have experience both in terms of time in the program and on the field. Tackle Rueben Riley and guard Adam Kraus are seniors as is center Mark Bihl. The youngest starter is sophomore right guard Alex Mitchell. If this unit can avoid injury and put their summer trimming and toning to work, Michigan should be right back among the best offenses in the Big Ten this autumn.

Outlook - Defense ... A lot of the failures in 2005 were blamed on the offense. Rightfully so in many cases. However, there is no excuse for a defense this talented to not dominate more games and make more game-changing plays. New defensive coordinator Ron English will be called upon to use the speed and athleticism of his players more than his predecessor. Don’t expect Michigan to do anything crazy, but do look for subtle changes that let the playmakers loose more often. There are plenty of potential stars on the defense, now it’s time to see them shine.

If you follow my previews this year and over the years, you know that I put a lot of weight on a defenses’ overall ability based on what a team has up front. Michigan has some players that will be stars on Sunday in very near the future. First and foremost, there is LaMarr Woodley. The defensive end has been on the verge of something spectacular since he suited up in the maize and blue and this is his season to act on that. He will be among the best pass rushers in the league and can be a nightmare to ward off with linebacker speed in what has matured into a perfect defensive ends’ body. He doesn’t have to do it alone, however, and that’s what really makes him dangerous. Fellow end Tim Jamison is also a former linebacker and he is poised to become a household name as well. Tackle Alan Branch is a house inside and a definite candidate for all conference honors. Terrance Taylor will help people forget the underachieving space eater Gabe Watson. But what about the depth? It is solid. Rondell Biggs has been a spot starter and gives Michigan a nice rotation at defensive end. Marques Walton is light on experience but with tremendous upside and offers the Wolverines more options inside. Look for this unit to shine in ’06 and to make more highlight reel plays in every game.

Whatever highlight reel plays the front four doesn’t make, the linebackers will handle for them. Michigan is loaded with talent at linebacker, starting with senior Prescott Burgess. Burgess made the move from safety before last season and it paid off big time for the Wolverines. He is talented in all facets of the defensive game and will challenge for all conference honors. The thing is, it doesn’t stop there. Fellow senior Dave Harris is a playmaker as well and the leading tackler from last season. He was a tad inconsistent at times in ’05, but expect him to join Burgess and junior Chris Graham to make up one of the best linebacking corps in the Big Ten this fall. The better news for Michigan is that there is some talented depth that will see the field as well. Shawn Crable and John Thompson have experience and could start anywhere else in the conference. With a more aggressive game plan on the agenda, look for this group to produce big time for Michigan come September.

Talent. Depth. Experience. The Michigan secondary has it all. Perhaps the only issue heading into camp is what to do with everyone? For now, it appears that the starters will be speedy senior cornerback Leon Hall, sophomore cornerback Charles Stewart, and senior safeties Ryan Mundy and Brandent Englemon. This group alone would make defensive coordinators all over the Big Ten green with envy, so think of how they feel when they peer at the depth chart. Senior Willie Barringer will push Mundy for time and corner Morgan Trent might just be the next coming of Charles Woodson. Toss in Jamar Adams and Brandon Harrison for good measure and now you understand why all the hype. This group snagged nine picks last season, to go along 24 pass break ups. Think of what they can do with another year of experience, spring practice and fall camp under their belts…

Outlook - Special Teams ... Michigan brings back both kickers and all-world return man Steve Breaston, but while the return game is superb, the kicking game, returning starters and all, is lacking a tad. It seems like Garrett Rivas has been booting field goals for the maize and blue for a decade. At times, maybe Michigan fans feel the same thing. Rivas isn’t a great option from deep, but he is a steady kicker inside the 40 and you can’t complain about a pretty sure bet for points when the offense bogs down. Punter Ross Ryan had rather ho-hum statistics, though he was good at forcing fair catch situations. Still, the coaches would like to see a little more leg out of Ryan this fall.

9/16 – at Notre Dame
9/30 – at Minnesota
10/14 – at Penn State
10/21 – IOWA
11/11 – at Indiana
11/18 – at Ohio State

Key Games: 9/16 – at Notre Dame, 9/23 – Wisconsin, 10/7 – Michigan State, 10/14 – at Penn State, 10/21 – Iowa, 11/18 – at Ohio State

Prediction ... This won’t be a repeat of 2005, when eight of Michigan’s 12 games was decided by a touchdown or less and five of those eight were losses. Sure, there will be close games – anytime you play all of the conference big dogs (Michigan avoids predicted lower tier teams Illinois and Purdue) and Notre Dame – that is bound to happen. But, this team is more seasoned than a year ago, and at least for now, major injury free. Only Notre Dame poses a threat as far as the non conference slate goes, though Michigan will be hungry for payback and to help out the league, which has four straight weekends with N.D. on the schedule. In conference play, the losses will be gut-wrenchers at Penn State (a little payback for the Nits) and at Ohio State where Jim Tressel owns Lloyd Carr like Mo and Carr owned John Cooper. Nine wins and back to a New Year’s Day bowl it is…

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Notre Dame)
B10: 6-2 (wins over Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern, Indiana)
Overall: 9-3, T-3rd in the conference, Outback Bowl berth

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews - Michigan State Spartans

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

Team: Michigan State Spartans

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

Returning Starters: 6 offense, 6 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Drew Stanton, RB Javon Ringer, WR Matt Trannon, WR Jerramy Scott, OG Kyle Cook, DT Clifton Ryan, LB David Herron, P Brandon Fields

Key Losses: C Chris Morris, OT Stefon Wheeler, DT Domata Peko, SS Eric Smith

Looking Back ... As has often been the case in my lifetime as a Michigan State follower, it was a tale of two seasons in East Lansing last fall. Back in the days of George Perles, the Spartans would sputter out of the gates, close strong and garner a bowl berth. The same thing happened in John L. Smith’s first campaign, but lately – namely last season – it has been the exact opposite. In 2005, Michigan State turned the heads of fans, writers, teams and coaches across the nation with a thrilling OT win over Notre Dame and a highly prolific offense. Then the kicking woes set in against Michigan and Ohio State and that was all she wrote.

To follow a brilliant 4-0 start with two gut-wrenching losses to programs like Michigan and Ohio State was bad enough. To follow that by getting annihilated by Northwestern, bullied by Purdue, battered by Minnesota and beaten by Penn State was enough to get the fans that’ve had enough over the years calling for Coach Smith’s job. My take? John L. Smith is the right person for the job. Off-field issues have subsided. The depth chart is finally getting filled with something other than cast offs and walk-ons. If, and it is of course a big IF, players and coaches really do learn from the bad and build on struggles to be bigger and better, Michigan State must be primed for something good. But we’ve all been guilty of thinking that about the Spartans before…

Outlook - Offense ...You’d be hard pressed to convince me that there is a better offense coming back to the Big Ten this fall. There are good quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and offensive lines all around the Big Ten, but the Spartans return their biggest producers from a year ago with experienced depth too boot and if they get good line play, watch out. Of course, there is more to a good team than just the offense, but as the Big Ten has proved out lately, you’d better be able to mix it up if you want to compete on a national scale.

The Spartans are so powerful on offense for one main reason – quarterback Drew Stanton. If the league weren’t so chock full of great quarterbacks, Stanton would be the toast of the conference. Even with the stiff competition, he may well be the best of the best. Stanton has all of the tools to take Michigan State back to a bowl game and to make the green and white a contender in what looks to be a four or five team race. He’s dialed down his tuck it and go philosophy and is an equal threat to beat you with his arms or his legs. Perhaps more than that, he might be one of the hardest workers when it comes to film study. If he can stay healthy and let the offense work for him, the sky is the limit for this offense. If he gets dinged up, it might be another season like 2005 and it means MSU’s next signal caller, Brian Hoyer, will have to step in earlier than expected.

As much as it means to a good offense to have a great field general, you can’t be good without balance. Balance starts with a solid ground game. Jason Teague has moved on, but the core producers are back, and there is a redshirt freshman in the mix that might be as good if not better than last year’s first year sensation Javon Ringer. A.J. Jimmerson was a scout team monster last fall and is ready to compete with a bigger but just as fast Jehuu Caulcrick for second string status. If not for a three-headed attack, Ringer might be a legitimate candidate to battle Tyrell Sutton (Northwestern) and Michael Hart (Michigan) for “best back in the Big Ten” status. Ringer has added weight and strength to compliment his speed and has become a better blocker and receiver. He could be the first back in the JLS era to rush for 1,000 yards.

The other end of the balanced equation centers on the passing game. The Spartans return everyone that contributed last year with the exception of Kyle Brown. There is a ton of depth at each receiver slot, experienced depth. The player to watch is Matt Trannon. Trannon might be better known for what he means to Tom Izzo and the basketball program but he is primed for a big season. Jerramy Scott led the team in catches last year and might be the most underrated receiver in the Big Ten. Kerry Reed made a big splash as a JUCO transfer last fall and will have to hold off Terry Love who has also been a solid producer in his first few seasons. The players to watch are the young up-and-comers who will be the future of the receiving corps. Ryan Allison is a very good possession receiver. Carl Grimes is an athlete waiting for his shot. Freshman T.J. Williams is already being talked about as being the next great MSU receiver. State has depth and experience and a good quarterback to get the ball in the hands of the playmakers. Throw in a now seasoned threat at tight end in Kellen Davis and you can see why the Spartans should be an offensive force this fall.

Perhaps the one question that comes up regarding the Michigan State offense is what to expect of the offensive line. Three starters have moved on, most notably center Chris Morris. There are some big, young, talented players to plug in the holes left by Stefon Wheeler and Gordon Niebylski but going into fall practice, the center job is still somewhat up in the air. Will it be John Masters or starting guard Kyle Cook? Either way, the middle will need to be strong or the offense will not be as free flowing and dangerous as it could be. Both ends of the line are anchored by tall, big tackles Mike Gyetvai (LT) and Jesse Miller (or Pete Clifford). If Cook can stay at guard, he’ll be joined by the highest touted recruit from two years ago, Roland Martin. The key in August will be to develop some of the other backups and get a sound seven man playing group. In big time football, you need to have depth up front more than anywhere. Without it, even the highest octane attacks will spit and sputter to three and outs.

Outlook - Defense ... A lot of the onus for last season’s debacle was placed on the special teams. Maybe rightfully so, but don’t let the defense live down its own transgressions. Blown coverages. Missed tackles. Failure to make enough big stops or force game-changing turnovers. Each item plagued the Spartan defense in 2005 and if State is to take a step into the top tier and run with the big dogs, the defense must improve.

When John L. Smith took over in 2003, the defensive front thrived. Quarterback pressures, tackles for loss and sacks came in droves. The unit has since taken a few steps back and that inability to get to opposing quarterbacks has put pressure on a secondary that couldn’t make the plays. The hope is that after bringing in a bunch of JUCO defensive linemen these past two recruiting classes, the tide will turn. MSU loses three starters from a year ago, but might be better off in the long run. Clifton Ryan is a big, quick, versatile lineman who will shift inside this fall. He’ll be joined by former JUCO standouts David Stanton, Ogemdi Nwagbuo and Bobby Jones and, Joe Toth. That move strengthens the interior and brings some more speed into play on the outside. Sophomores Brandon Long and Justin Kershaw should spend some time in opposing backfields and will only get better as they are pushed by Jonal Saint-Dic and the oft-injured Nick Smith. This group doesn’t need to be fantastic, just good and dependable. If that comes to the table, MSU will be starting down a better path than a season ago.

For the first time in recent memory, the Spartans do not have to do a major shuffle at other positions in order to get depth at linebacker. All three starters return from last season, led by David Herron. Herron has turned into one of the better linebackers in the conference and could have a huge season. SirDarean Adams is definitely a playmaker and will be called upon to add to his early career successes. Kaleb Thornhill has battled injuries but has the genetics to be a solid linebacker. The depth chart is full of young talent, most notably Andrew Hawken, Adam Decker and Eric Gordon. Steven Juarez, a JUCO product that had the coaches buzzing last fall should also see plenty of action this fall.

No doubt about it, if Michigan State is to improve on defense it all starts with the secondary. That would seem like a tall task with the graduation of safety Eric Smith who now dons the green and white of the New York Jets. But the buzz of the spring and summer has been his replacement, JUCO transfer Nehemiah Warrick. Nemo, as his teammates call him, is a big hitter with big talent and should bring a swagger and attitude to a defense that badly needed both. Greg Cooper has moved from safety to corner and finally appears ready to live up to expectations. Demond Williams is small but developed into a decent cornerback last fall and brings electricity to the return game. Sophomore Otis Wiley rounds out the playing group as the starting free safety. Wiley was in on several big plays as a freshman and that should help him entering this season. There is also, for a change, some decent depth here as well. Whether it all comes together or not remains to be seen, but undoubtedly, any success that MSU has on defense will come as a result of an improved secondary.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Run and hide. Well, at least that was the case last season with this three stooge’s act that they called a kicking game. Even the reliable big leg of Brandon Fields went awry in 2005. The good news? It can’t get much worse than 5-16 on field goals. Todd Boleski and freshman Brett Swenson will battle it out for place-kicking duties while Fields has the green light to bang away again. The return game should be strong, so if the kicking game can come around, a successful season is well within reach.

9/2 – IDAHO
9/16 – at Pittsburgh
10/7 – at Michigan
10/14 – OHIO STATE
10/21 – at Northwestern
10/28 – at Indiana
11/4 – PURDUE
11/18 – at Penn State

Key Games: 9/16 – at Pittsburgh, 9/23 – Notre Dame, 10/7 – at Michigan, 10/14 – Ohio State, 11/18 – at Penn State

Prediction ... The out of conference slate is a bit tougher than the previous teams I’ve looked at. Pittsburgh should be better than last year and is a nice early season road test. Notre Dame comes in for a night game in what should be an electric atmosphere, charged with the Irish remembering the flag planting that occurred at the 50 in South Bend last fall. Conference play starts with Illinois but gets tough in a hurry with back to back contests with Michigan and OSU. The Spartans miss out on Wisconsin and Iowa again this fall, a definite advantage in the Big Ten race. A season without a bowl berth would be devastating to the future of this program. This offense is too good not to lead the team to at least seven if not a handful more wins. State will beat the teams it should and end much stronger than it has the past few seasons. An upset or two along the way would be the difference between a good and a great season.

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Notre Dame)
B10: 5-3 (wins over Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota)
Overall: 8-4, 5th in the conference, Champs Sports Bowl berth

Friday, August 04, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews - Wisconsin Badgers

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

Team: Wisconsin Badgers

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

Returning Starters: 3 offense, 6 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB John Stocco, WR Marcus Randle El, LT Joe Thomas, DE Joe Monty, DT Nick Hayden, LB Mark Zalewski, SS Joe Stellmacher, CB Jack Ikegwuonu, PK Taylor Mehlhoff, P Ken DeBauche

Key Losses: RB Brian Calhoun, WR Brandon Williams, WR Jonathan Orr, TE Owen Daniels, C Donovan Raiola, LB Dontez Sanders

Looking Back ... The end of an era. Can we finally consider Wisconsin a major player in D1 college football? There might not have been much to cheer for before a former Lou Holtz assistant Barry Alvarez took over the program in 1989, but he sure built a program to reckon with in his 16 years as the boss. He took Wisconsin to Rose Bowls, had a Heisman winner, sent oodles of players to the NFL and most important – won and won the right way.

2005 was no different than most others for Alvarez. Expected to be decent but not great, the Badgers won eight of their first nine games and sent coach out a winner with a nice Capital One Bowl victory over Auburn. The defense wasn’t as good as usual, but the offense was sometimes spectacular. Were the Badgers that good (again) because they gave their beloved head coach, who they knew was hanging up the headphones for good, unbelievable effort, or were they really that good? Maybe a little bit of both, but shouldn’t we have learned by now that Wisconsin should be respected as a football power in the Big Ten?

Outlook - Offense ...2006 may see a changing of the guard of sorts. A season ago, it was the big play abilities of Brian Calhoun and Brandon Williams that carried the Badgers to offensive explosion after offensive explosion en route to a ten win season. This year, savvy signal caller John Stocco is back, but none of the major, impact skill players return. Will it be a year of rebuilding or will we all be surprised?

Despite having to replace four skill players, the Wisconsin offense at least brings back a seasoned veteran to kick off the Bret Bielema era. John Stocco is the unquestioned leader of this offense and is going to have to step up if the Badgers hope to realistically contend for the Big Ten title this fall. This is Stocco’s third season as a starter and he is equipped to do the job. He’s often overlooked due to the other tremendous quarterbacks around the conference, but the Badgers would struggle to hit a .500 mark without his experience in the mix. Tyler Donovan is a decent backup but in my mind, any success for this offense will center on Stocco.

This is where it all starts to get really fuzzy for the red and white. Brian Calhoun took his game to the NFL and with him went a boatload of rushing and receiving yards, not to mention a bevy of touchdowns. That begs the question, who will take over? It also gets anyone who has followed the Badgers to respond – when hasn’t this program plugged in a guy capable of rushing for 1,000 yards? The best candidates are P.J. Hill and Jamil Walker. Both possess a lot more size than Calhoun meaning a switch to power running may be in store. Then again, keep the name Lance Smith in mind. He is a speed back out of Ohio that just may break into the playing group sooner than later. Also, don’t forget junior fullback Chris Pressley. He is a punishing blocker and a better than average ball carrier.

If the backfield situation is fuzzy, the receiving corps picture might be considered. Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr as well as tight ends Owen Daniels and Jason Pociask are gone and while there is some talent available, the projected starters hauled in a meager two catches last season! The best bets to step up and take over the load are juniors Marcus Randle-El and Paul Hubbard. After that Jarvis Minton and Luke Swan are in the mix. Sean Lewis and linebacker convert Andy Crooks are battling it out at tight end. If not for the potential, things would be really bleak for the Badgers when it comes to the receiving corps. However, there might be just enough talent there and desire to be the next go-to guy to make this an area of pleasant surprise to the coaching staff and fans this fall.

One area you never question with Wisconsin is the offensive line. Sure, center Donovan Raiola has departed after what seems like a decade of anchoring the middle of the line, but when you return NFL talent like Joe Thomas, things can’t be that bad. Thomas might be the best offensive tackle in college football and he will lead a polished young group to battle each and every game. Guards Kraig Urbik and Andy Kemp are the next potential greats to protect a Wisconsin QB while versatile center Marcus Coleman and tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel have experience as well. There isn’t a lot of depth on the pine, but the size and ability of those that are available make this a definite strength for the Wisconsin offense. Just what a senior signal caller, looking to break in some new skill talent around him needs…

Outlook - Defense ... Roles are reversed this time around. Last season, it was the defense that was the big question mark. It was a very un-Badger like season with the Wisconsin defense giving up 23.8 points per game and struggling to stop the run as well as get after the quarterback. However, all of the growing pains suffered while young players learned on the job should pay dividends this fall, starting with the front four.

There is depth, talent and experience along the defensive front. Junior tackle Nick Hayden and senior end Joe Monty anchor the group but sophomore tackle Jason Chapman may wind up being the star of the group. Look for better pressure of opposing quarterbacks if ends Matthew Shaughnessy and Jamal Cooper can maintain their somewhat wiry frames. Justin Ostrowski is at the crossroads of his career, in between being a bust and growing into a reliable player that becomes a star. When push comes to shove, all the beatings this group took last season should play to its advantage when September rolls around. Don’t be surprised if this is one of the better defensive lines in the conference at the end of the season.

As strong as the front four appears to be, the linebacking corps might be every bit as good – if not better. The loss of Dontez Sanders hurts from a leadership aspect, but senior Mark Zalewski is primed to take on that role. Outside of Zalewski, one possible issue is the lack of size in the playing group. Then again, that means there is plenty of speed and speed means playmaking ability. Sophomores DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas fit into that group. Paul Joran, O'Brien Schofield and Elijah Hodge are all capable backups of what should be a solid, if not spectacular corps of linebackers.

The razzle-dazzle of the defense will likely come from the secondary. Senior safeties Joe Stellmacher and Roderick Rogers anchor a very, very good defensive backfield. Senior Johnny White and sophomore Shane Carter provide depth at both spots. The real potential star though is sophomore cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu. Blessed with size and speed, he had a natural nose for the ball and causing timely turnovers in ’05 and will be counted on for even more this fall. Fellow sophomore Allen Langford holds down the starting spot on the other side and is a physical, if not lock-down corner. If this group can best last year’s production, it could be a very nice season in Madison.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Probably the overall strength of this team. Wisconsin is solid from the kicking to coverage to return teams. Placekicker Taylor Mehlhoff is very reliable and has a big leg. Punter Ken DeBauche is a game changer in terms of the field position battle. Look for big plays out of this group to decide a pivotal game or two this fall.

9/2 – Bowling Green (Cleveland)
9/23 - at Michigan
9/30 - at Indiana
10/21 – at Purdue
10/28 – ILLINOIS
11/11 – at Iowa
11/18 – BUFFALO

Key Games: 9/23 – at Michigan, 10/14 - Minnesota, 11/4 - Penn State, 11/11 - at Iowa

Prediction ... The out of conference slate is a breeze. Anything less than 4-0 will be puzzling and a huge disappointment. That means the bowl positioning will come from how things go in conference play. Wisconsin misses Michigan State and Ohio State, not bad considering the beating the Spartans last put on the Badgers in 2004 or the fact that OSU is preseason number one in the nation. I suspect that the Badgers could do better than I predict based on some of the foes I have them losing to, but when all is said and done, it will be a nice 8-4 start for Coach Bielema and a berth in the Alamo Bowl.

OOC: 4-0
B10: 4-4 (wins over Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State)
Overall: 8-4, T-6th in the conference, Alamo Bowl berth