Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Get Gamm - Week One
It's time. Football season is upon us. That can only mean one thing to the regular followers of this blog, and formerly, the web site. Time to Get Gamm. Each week we pick the games, with commentary. Simply beat me and everyone else for the week and you get to join me in next week's Get Gamm blog. Make your picks via the comments board and watch the standings in the right nav. Good luck. BuckeyeNation won for BOTH football and basketball last year and wears the giant bulls eye...

FIU at Penn State
Youngstown State at Ohio State
Northeastern at Northwestern
UAB at Michigan State
Appalachian State at Michigan
Missouri vs. Illinois (St. Louis)
Washington State at Wisconsin (Tiebreaker)
Iowa vs. Northern Illinois (Chicago)
Purdue at Toledo
Bowling Green at Minnesota
Indiana State at Indiana

Florida International at Penn State
The Golden Panthers have absolutely no shot at laying an upset on Penn State. The Nittany Lions are a recent favorite to win the Big Ten title and will use this as a glorified scrimmage. FIU is routinely listed on's Bottom Ten list and that means one thing. That damn lion in the scoreboard will be roaring aplenty this Saturday. Penn State 48 - FIU 7.

Youngstown State at Ohio State
About the only thing that makes this game noteworthy is the fact that Jim Tressel's re-tooled Buckeyes take on his old program. The Penguins may be fired up and stay close - until the Buckeyes take the field. Reloading, rebuilding, retooling... however you shake it, this game will be a nice chance for the scarlet and gray to lock down personnel battles. Ohio State 37 - YSU 9.

Northeastern at Northwestern
This is the king of directional school name match-ups! The Wildcats got picked off by Northeastern's CAA rival New Hampshire last year but that was then and under very different circumstances. There isn't much to say here except if the purple and black want to get back to winning ways, they can't lay a 1-AA egg again to start the season. They won't. Northwestern 28 - Northeastern 10.

UAB at Michigan State
The Blazers come into this game fresh off a 3-9 campaign. Michigan State sprints through the tunnel with a new coach, staff and - supposedly - a new attitude. The Spartans know they need to make hay early as the Big Ten slate is brutal for them. UAB will run two quarterbacks at the green and white, and things will be uncomfortable for a while, but State fans will see glimpses of the smash-mouth brand they've longed for since Saban left. Michigan State 31 - UAB 10.

Appalachian State at Michigan
Don't laugh, this could be a game - for a quarter or so. App. State is the two-time defending 1-AA champion and will come to Ann Arbor eager to prove that they can stay with the big boys. Whether they can (and if so, how long) remains to be seen. Michigan will have one of the most explosive offenses in the land this season. The defense needs to come along and will get a chance to work out the bugs as this game wears on. Michigan 38 - Appalachian State 14.

Missouri vs. Illinois (St. Louis)
This is one of only two good games on tap for the Big Ten in week one. The rivals will do battle in St. Louis with Missouri ranked and poised to contend for a Big 12 North title, while Illinois is just hoping to finally put more than two or three wins on the board again. The hype is about the great youth at Illinois, but I will take the veterans of Missouri in this one, perhaps the only loss on the day for the Big Ten. Missouri 27 - Illinois 17.

Washington State at Wisconsin
Wazzou has been mediocre the past few seasons, but on the upward tick. Wisconsin quietly whipped butts all over the Big Ten last fall and set a school record for victories in a single season. A boatload of starters return for the Badgers on a team primed to smell the roses come January. WSU is getting better, but they crowd in Madison is worth 7 to 10 points - easy. Wisconsin 34 - Washingston State 13.

Northern Illinois vs. Iowa (Chicago)
The first of three Big Ten v. MAC tilts on the slate this week, with many more to follow. NIU has been a pretty good team out of the MAC the last few years, but Iowa is hungry to get back to big time winning. The Huskies gave Iowa a run in Iowa City last fall, but Garrett Wolfe has departed and catch Iowa on the rise this go around. Like many Big Ten - MAC battles of late, this could be hotly contested for a half or so, but in the end, Iowa gets the W. Iowa 31 - Northern Illinois 13.

Purdue at Toledo
A rare opener away from home, and in a MAC venue too boot. Purdue has the offensive weapons to have a great season. Toledo is in turmoil with major off the field issues but has been a pretty good team over the past several seasons. The Rockets beat Penn State and Minnesota in season openers earlier in the decade and are no stranger to shocking wins. In fact, ten years ago, Toledo beat Purdue in the opener. Okay, enough of the grand illusions. Purdue makes the Big Ten 2-0 against the MAC and with ease. Purdue 44 - Toledo 10.

Bowling Green at Minnesota
This one could be interesting. Minnesota will look a lot different with a new coach, new QB and light four key players. BSGU is never afraid to take on the Big Ten and does so this season on back-to-back weeks to kick off the season. The Falcons had a down year last year and have some questions, but will compete with the Gophers. Minnesota will win on the legs of Amir Pinnix. Minnesota 27 - Bowling Green 21.

Indiana State at Indiana
Feels like we should be talking basketball with this one, but alas, we're a few months away from that. The big question here is no secret - how will the Hoosiers, who have slowly improved the past few seasons, respond to the loss of Terry Hoeppner? Will they play inspired or flat? This team has a bowl berth in reach, but it MUST take care of these highly winnable games early. Indiana 34 - Indiana State 14.

Monday, August 27, 2007

This week in the Big Ten...
Here is the slate of games as college football season kicks off. I love this time of year. New hope. Clean slate. Anything can happen. Check back Tuesday for the first set of Get Gamm picks. What is Get Gamm? A carry over contest from the old site. Pick the games each week, best record picks with me in the blog for the following week.

Here is the schedule of games:
FIU at Penn State
Youngstown State at Ohio State
Northeastern at Northwestern
UAB at Michigan State
Appalachian State at Michigan
Missouri vs. Illinois (St. Louis)
Washington State at Wisconsin (Tiebreaker)
Iowa vs. Northern Illinois (Chicago)
Purdue at Toledo
Bowling Green at Minnesota
Indiana State at Indiana

Monday, August 20, 2007

News from around the Big Ten...
Illinois guard Jamar Smith will sit next season

Iowa receiving corps takes a hit.

James Hardy down with a broken finger.

Other news from the league...

Coming soon, Get Gamm...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part XI

Editor's Note: This is the eleventh and final in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Next up, postseason awards predictions, a recap of the previews and Get Gamm.

Team: Wisconsin Badgers

Tidbits … Today’s up and coming young football players see Wisconsin as a power in the Big Ten with perennial contender status. Wisconsin is one of just nine schools to win at least nine games in each of the last three seasons. The Badgers have won at least a share of three titles since 1993, 11 overall. Since 1993, Wisconsin is 9-3 in bowl games after not making a postseason berth since 1984. Prior to turning it around – permanently – in 1993, Wisconsin had a five year record of 14-41.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-6th), Alamo / 12-1, 7-1 (T-2nd), Capital One
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: 9 offense, 7 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: RB P.J. Hill, TE Travis Beckum, TE Andy Crooks, WR Paul Hubbard, WR Luke Swan, C Marcus Coleman, RT Eric Vanden Heuvel, DT Nick Hayden, DE Matt Shaughnessy, LB DeAndre Levy, CB Jack Ikegwuonu, PK Taylor Mehlhaff, P Ken DeBauche

Key Losses: QB John Stocco, LT Joe Thomas, DE Joe Monty, LB Mark Zalewski, S Roderick Rogers, S Joe Stellmacher

Looking Back ... I promise you, no one saw coming what Wisconsin achieved in 2006. The Badgers had a lot coming back, no doubt, but had lost five NFL draft choices, returned receivers with a total of one catch between them, were starting a redshirt freshman at tailback and oh by the way, were replacing a coaching icon with the second youngest coach in D1 football. A winning season was never really in doubt, but a school record 12 wins, the lone loss coming at Michigan in the fourth game of the season? I’d say it was an unexpected, amazing campaign – one that sets the table quite nicely for 2007.

Maybe the biggest benefit in 2006 was the lower expectations. With the pressure off, teams can find something to rally around and in a way it makes it easier to achieve big things. So, with the pressure back on and the bar as high as it gets in 2007, where will the Badgers go? Most of the players from the 2006 team that may have had the most consistent offense and had the best total defense in the conference return, along with both kickers. Is a national title within reach? That may be a lot to ask for, but the momentum from last season is still strong and the Badgers have a chance to do something special again…

Outlook - Offense ... Hmm, 9.5 starters (co-starting tight ends) return to an offense that tied for second in points per game in the Big Ten last year (29.2), scored at least 30 points seven times last season, amassed 4,851 yards of total offense and boasted the Big Ten’s leading rusher. Wonder how this year’s version will fare? Well, the Badgers are certainly primed to be great again on offense with just two players departing, albeit the second pick of the NFL Draft (left tackle Joe Thomas) and steady-Eddie starting quarterback John Stocco. Don’t let those losses bother you. The ’06 version of the Wisconsin offense had to replace eight starters and look what they did. Pull that seat belt extra tight, this could be a wild ride…

Wisconsin is one of many around the league faced with replacing a starting quarterback. Thing is, one of the candidates did start a little last year when Stocco went down with an injury and don’t we wonder every time Wisconsin has to replace a steady, mistake-free, long-time starter how they will do it? Wonder we do, and at the end of the season, we wonder why we wondered! The good news for Wisconsin is that there is a battle over who will take on the starting duties. Why is that good news? Because it means there is quality depth in the coffers and a little competition keeps things sharp.

The inside track might belong to senior Tyler Donovan, who saw time in seven games last season and has plenty of experience on his fifth-year senior resume. Donovan is accurate and historically very efficient, giving him a leg up on his competitors. Junior Allan Evridge has more size than Donovan and also has D1 experience (transfer from Kansas State). While not as mobile, he has a better arm and will be right in the thick of things all season long. Don’t sleep on sophomore Dustin Sherer either. The 6-4, 216-pounder has all the tools to be the next long term starter in Madison. Whoever the job falls to (my money is on Donovan) all Wisconsin will ask of the signal caller is to be a leader in the huddle and to be solid with the pigskin. Make smart decisions, stay out of trouble, avoid bad plays and there is plenty of success to be had. The Badgers have won for the past 15 years with steady, heady play at quarterback, not spectacular, highlight-reel caliber play. Expect more of the same this fall in the frenzied environment at Camp-Randall.

Confused as to why Wisconsin can win with just good (and not great) play at quarterback? Look no further than the Badgers’ ground game. Wisconsin has quietly churned out a bevy of 1,000 yard rushers over the past fifteen seasons and when you have a good rushing attack, you just need to have a passer that can hit the mark and keep opposing defenses’ honest. Why do you think Joe Tiller worked more running into his spread offense? No running game in the Big Ten means you go south in the standings. Just ask John L. Smith. On the other side of the coin, a great running game means the potential to contend each and every year.

A season ago, Wisconsin was faced with an offensive conundrum. It turned to P.J. Hill. Hill responded with 1,569 yards and 15 scores. The sophomore has been drawing comparisons to Ron Dayne already and – here’s a scary thought – should only get better as long as he can stay healthy. He’s been talking to former UW running backs like Brian Calhoun to explore ways to avoid big hits. As he continues to learn, he might just encounter – and surpass – some of Dayne’s lofty records. Also helping out in the ground game is fellow sophomore Lance Smith. Smith was a highly touted recruit that was average as a freshman and then got into some hot water in the off-season. He was reinstated to the team just hours before fall practice kicked off and as long as he keeps his nose clean offers a great change of pace to Hill. He’s more in the mold of Calhoun and Anthony Davis and might be the only thing standing between Hill and the record book (Dayne never shared the load). If Smith can’t stay out of trouble, John Clay and Zach Brown are two freshmen that are in line to be great backs for the Badger program. Clay wowed the nation as a high school junior but was dinged up much of last year and may fly under the radar just long enough for him to be pulled out as a big weapon off the bench.

A key to the sustained success of the UW running game is the fullback position. For the life of me, I can’t name any from the past without cheating and looking it up, but trust me, without great play at the lead blocking position, all of the glory shed upon Dayne, David, Calhoun and company would be a lot dimmer. The Badgers have the luxury of rotating two juniors with starting experience and near offensive lineman size. Bill Rentmeester stepped in last season when Chris Pressley was out with an injury and more than pulled his weight. Now that Pressley is back, the two will share time. Both are tremendous blockers with decent hands and will play vital roles in the success of the UW offense.

With all the talent at running back, who needs to worry about an aerial attack? Well, gone are the days of three yards and a cloud of dust. Don’t get me wrong, the Big Ten contenders are always going to be a little more run oriented but in today’s world it is all about offensive balance. A season ago, Wisconsin had to hang its hat strictly on the ground game with nothing coming back at receiver. It’s a whole new ballgame this fall. The top four receivers are back, two of them tight ends who went gangbusters last fall, and there is solid depth as well as a pair of super-recruits waiting to burst onto the scene as well.

Let’s start with the wideouts. A pair of seniors holds down the starting slots. Paul Hubbard is a 6-4, 215-pounder with track start speed. He has the potential to be the homerun-hitting deep threat that offensive coordinators crave and defensive coaches loathe. Luke Swan was just behind Hubbard in production a year ago. He has good speed and can take routes inside or out. With a season of experience under their belts, the duo should be even more consistent this fall. Behind them is plenty of depth with some decent game experience and that pair of head-turning newcomers. Marcus Randle El tore an ACL last season and is working hard to get back to game shape. If he can contribute, he adds fantastic athleticism to the mix. Meanwhile, sophomores Isaac Anderson, Xavier Harris, redshirt freshman Maurice Moore and senior Jarvis Minton are vying for time. That time, however, could immediately go to two of the top recruits in a small, highly successful recruiting class – Nick Toon and Kyle Jefferson. Toon is the son of Wisconsin and NFL alum Al Toon. Jefferson comes from the same high school that produced Ted Ginn Jr. I’ll go out on a limb now and say if not right away this season, this pair will be wreaking havoc on the Big Ten very, very soon.

The funny thing is, despite all of that talent and depth at wide receiver, the passing game starts with a pair of tight ends. Junior Travis Beckum caught 61 passes last season and is a nightmare to match-up against. He’s fast, strong and athletic with great hands. Once he improves his blocking, he’ll be among the best at his position in the country. Senior Andy Crooks returns as well. Crooks hauled in 19 passes last season and is more of a typical tight end, with a well-rounded game. Sophomore Mickey Turner is also in the mix, particularly because Crooks is getting over an issue with his shoulder. Any way you cut it, Wisconsin is in great shape in the receiving corps. Whether it is Donovan or Evridge getting the nod at quarterback, he will be able to rest assured that there is plenty of skill around him to help get the UW offense rolling this season.

In much the same way that we’ve come to expect a great running back to emerge for the red and white each season, we’ve also come to expect a collection of five behemoths protecting the passer and opening gapping holes for said running back. Despite losing all-world left tackle Joe Thomas to the NFL, Wisconsin again brings back a wealth of size and talent in the front five. Let’s start with Thomas’ heir apparent. Sophomore Jake Bscherer has all the tools to be the next great left tackle to come out of Madison. At 6-7, 297 pounds, he certainly has the size. And credit the coaching staff for some foresight a season ago, as Bscherer saw some time in each game a season ago. He doesn’t need to be Thomas, he just needs to be consistent, especially with his pass blocking. He has the luxury of playing around four returning starters. Senior center Marcus Coleman is an all-star in the making. He has the tools and quickness to play about anywhere on the line and anchors the group. He is flanked by junior guards Andy Kemp and Kraig Urbik, a pair of 6-6, 320-plus pounders with unbelievable run blocking skills. Rounding out the starting lineup is junior right tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel, another giant with All Big Ten ability.

Perhaps the only “concern” is that the depth chart is young – really young. With the exception of senior Danny Kaye, Wisconsin is looking at four redshirt freshman and a true freshman to fill the depth chart. Everyone of course has incredible size – as it seems to be a prerequisite that lineman at UW are at least 295 pounds and 6-4 – but the lack of experience is something the staff will want to address early in the season, when and where possible. Look for a full rotation early and then for three or so to settle in as regulars. The most likely to get long looks include the star line recruit of the class – Josh Oglesby, an amazing 6-7, 320-pounds – as well as John Moffitt (guard), Bill Nagy (guard), Gabe Carimi (tackle) and Brad Thorson (center). It’s lock and load along the offensive line at Wisconsin. The size of the younger players is astounding and as they develop, this will be a deep unit that is among the best in college football, let alone tops in the Big Ten…

There you have it, perhaps the most complete offense in the Big Ten. There are better quarterbacks and receivers, some tailbacks that are as good and some good linemen, but this collection of offensive talent is phenomenal with depth too boot. If Donovan or Evridge can simply guide the offense and not make mistakes, there is no reason that this cannot be the best all-around attack in the league. And just think, last year, faced with replacing EIGHT starters on this side of the ball, the Badgers managed to rack up yards and points at a break-neck pace. What will the O do this year? It’s downright scary to consider how good UW might be…

Outlook - Defense ... Sometimes, as they say, the best offense is a great defense. Well, we already know Wisconsin has the actual offense to get points on the board, but how does the defense look? To answer that, first let’s look back. Last year’s UW defense led the Big Ten and was second nationally in scoring defense. It was second nationally in passing yards per game, fourth in third down efficiency and did not allow five of its opponents to score a touchdown. Now, consider that seven starters return along with a load of talented young players. The defense might not be quite as good as last year, but it can certainly take some chances given what the offense will be capable of.

The Badgers only need to replace one starter on what was a very good, if not great, defensive line last year. There was no single head-turner, per se, but the collective group was solid. The strength lies up the middle where junior Jason Chapman and senior Nick Hayden hold down the fort. Both are very good against the run and have the potential to make plays behind the line of scrimmage as well. What aides them in their duties is the presence of end Matt Shaughnessy. The junior was very good last year, racking up 35 tackles, 4 sacks and six TFLs and he should be even better this go around. Replacing Joe Monty on the other end is Kurt Ware. He’s been a bit of an underachiever in his career and gets a chance to go out with a bang.

The starting four is very good and the depth is strong. Junior Mike Newkirk is smallish for a tackle, but he will definitely see quality time in the rotation. He has sneaky power and can get into the backfield. Kirk DeCremer is a promising redshirt freshman end that brings solid pass rushing potential to the outside. Brandon Kelly is a senior who has yet to have a major breakthrough, but provides talent and athleticism at end as well. He’ll likely battle fellow senior Jamil Walker for time in the playing group. Joining Newkirk on the inside are sophomore Jeff Stehle and second year freshman Brandon Hoey. Both have a ton of upside potential and give the tackle spot some nice depth. All in all, the starting four and backups make for a good Big Ten defensive front. It isn’t made up of any real stars but has the sort of lunch-pail guys that can anchor a very good all-around defense.

Arguably the biggest loss on the defensive side of the ball comes at middle linebacker, where leading tackler Mark Zalewski has departed. Don’t fret for the Badgers’ linebacking corps however, because he may be quickly forgotten if sophomore Elijah Hodge lives up to expectations. The strong, smart, athletic middle linebacker has football in his genes – his brother is former Iowa all-star Abdul Hodge. Helping the transition is the fact that two starters return. Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy are the leading returning tacklers from 2006. Casillas is a playmaker on the weakside and Levy a fantastic pass rusher from the strong side. Both have speed and a nose for the ball and combined with Hodge should make this the strength of a very good defense.

As with every position, it helps to have quality depth in your pocket as well. Wisconsin has that at linebacker. Each of the second stringers and one key newcomer has his own strengths and weaknesses, but the good news is, all of them can step in and make plays when called upon. The two players I have my money on to make some real noise are Culmer St. Jean and Kevin Rouse. Both are in the 220-pound range with great speed and athleticism. St. Jean plugs in on the strongside, which makes him a little small for the spot but he can make a bang with his pass rush ability. Rouse is a fast, big hitter who should also find a spot on the outside. Jaevery McFadden should see quality time behind Casillas, if Rouse doesn’t supplant him and Josh Neal needs to emerge from his special teams role to be a steady backup to Hodge in the middle. This unit reminds me a lot of the linebacking corps that Iowa has fielded of late and we all know how good the Hawkeyes have been in the middle of the defense.

The biggest gaps to fill come in the secondary. While both starting corners return, and should anchor some of the best pass coverage in the country, UW must replace the starting safeties. Joe Stellmacher was the second leading tackler last season and Roderick Rogers was also a sound playmaker. The Badgers were among the very best in the nation in passing defense last season and could be right there again this year. How, in the face of losing two starters? Jack Ikegwuonu and Allen Langford, that’s how. Ikegwuonu is a big, fast, physical corner that can lock down an opponent’s number one threat. Langford is a quick junior with a nose for the ball. Having two firmly entrenched cornerbacks should make the transition for new starters at safety that much easier. Who will take on that task? Sophomores Aubrey Pleasant (SS) and Shane Carter (FS) are the prime candidates. Pleasant has good size and range while Carter, like Hodge, has football genes. His brother is Cris Carter, one of the best receivers to play the game. It will be learn on the job for the pair, but the unit should gel nicely as the season wears on to be a strength of the defense.

The depth chart consists mostly of young players but there is one senior who can be relied upon to get the job done when called upon and to perhaps be the tie that binds the entire secondary together. That senior is Ben Strickland. He’ll play behind Ikegwuonu and is a good, all-around player. Behind Langford is sophomore Josh Nettles who is a little on the small side, but is a rising star that is biding his time learning the system. At strong safety, sophomore Kim Royston is right in the thick of things. He is small for a safety but he has experience and has had a good off-season. Finally, redshirt freshman Jay Valai is an interesting prospect. He has the size of a strong, the speed of a free but needs to get consistent or he could be the odd man out. Top to bottom, this is a solid, if not spectacular secondary. The starting corners are excellent but don’t look for the Badgers to be quite as good against the pass this year as in 2006.

Overall, I really like what I see on paper. A few good players departed but for the most part, the replacements should be as good, in some cases, maybe better. The defensive front should be a nice blue collar group that gets the dirty work done. The linebackers are set up to make plays. The corners will help the safeties adjust and when it all comes together, watch out. There may only be one or two “household” names at the onset, but look for many to contend for postseason honors when it is all said and done.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Right up there with the Buckeyes in terms of the best special teams units in the conference. Tyler Mehlhaff has a big leg and has improved every single year. He is a nice weapon in cases where the offense stalls in that dead zone of not quite go for it, but in range for a long field goal try. Something to not be overlooked is his ability to bang it deep on kickoffs. That will be at a premium with the rule change this year. Fellow senior Ken DeBauche could emerge into one of the nation’s top punters if he can get some consistency. He had a solid average in 2006 and pinned teams deep on occasion but he should be a better weapon this year. The only weakness is in the return game but with the influx of speedy new talent, look for that to be handled and turned into a positive.

9/8 – at UNLV
9/22 – IOWA
10/6 – at Illinois
10/13 – at Penn State
10/27 – INDIANA
11/3 – at Ohio State
11/10 – MICHIGAN
11/17 – at Minnesota

Key Games: 9/1 – Washington State, 9/22 – Iowa, 10/13 – at Penn State, 11/3 – at Ohio State, 11/10 - Michigan

Prediction ... Wisconsin has a fair test in out of conference play, at least early on and misses Purdue and Northwestern on the league side. The Badgers might start slow as they plug the vacancies, but will get by Wazzou and UNLV before pasting The Citadel. Opening up with four of five at home is helpful too. The meat of the schedule occurs the first two weekends in November with a toughie at Penn State in mid-October as well. I look for the sole slip up to happen as the Badgers lick their chops in anticipation of a rematch with Michigan. The Wolverines are paid back as Wisconsin goes 7-0 at home for the second straight year and ups the run to 30 wins in 34 tries at home. Can you smell the Roses? The Badgers can…

OOC: 4-0
B10: 7-1 (losses at Ohio State)
Overall: 11-1, T-1st in the conference, Rose Bowl berth

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part X

Editor's Note: This is the tenth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Michigan Wolverines

Tidbits … Michigan is 860-282-36 with a .745 winning percentage all-time – the winningest program in college football history. U-M has 42 conference titles to its credit, 18 of them outright, and 10 of them shared with Ohio State. The last losing season in Ann Arbor was 1967. The last time the maize and blue failed to go bowling was 1975.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 9-3, 6-2 (T-3rd), Outback / 11-2, 7-1 (T-2nd), Rose
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, 4 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Chad Henne, WR Mario Manningham, RB Mike Hart, LT Jake Long, LG Adam Kraus, DT Terrance Taylor, LB Shawn Crable, S Jamar Adams

Key Losses: RT Rueben Riley, WR/KR Steve Breaston, DT Alan Branch, DE LaMarr Woodley, LB David Harris, LB Prescott Burgess, CB Leon Hall, K Garrett Rivas

Looking Back ... The 2006 season was yet another very successful one for the nation’s best college football program. Sure, by Michigan fan’s standards it didn’t live up to expectations, but the Wolverines jumped out to an 11-0 start, played in a highly anticipated and memorable 1 vs. 2 battle with arch-rival Ohio State and returned to Pasadena for what seemed like the hundredth time in history. Yes, the season wound up 11-2 and the two losses were the last two games played (OSU and USC) but there are at least 100 other programs in D1 football that would kill to have the sustained success that the maize and blue have enjoyed.

Aside from the two tough losses on the field, Michigan lost an icon when Bo Schembechler passed away just before the game in Columbus. Those “three” losses aside, it was another solid season in Ann Arbor. The defense was tough, the offense explosive at times and all other rivals (Notre Dame, Michigan State & Penn State) were beaten and battered by the boys in blue. A great measuring stick for how good a season played out, or more appropriately how well a program develops its players is the NFL draft. Michigan landed seven draftees in April, including four in the first two rounds. Another solid indicator of Michigan’s success in 2006. We know the success has been sustained for decades, the question heading into fall camp – can it be built upon this go around?

Outlook - Offense ... If I asked you to jog your memory and tell me if Michigan had resounding success on offense last season, I bet the majority of you would say yes. Well, you’re both right and wrong. The star power was there for certain. So was the scoring (second in the conference at 29.2 ppg). The rushing attack was vintage Michigan, with Mike Hart churning out 1,562 yards and leading the Wolverines to a league best 2,282 yards for the season. However, despite the passing weapons in the cache, the aerial attack struggled at times. Michigan was just middle of the pack in total offense and maybe not as balanced as one would hope for. That could, more likely - should change this year with the key pieces coming back hungry to be atop every category this fall…

Michigan is the only legitimate title contender in the Big Ten this year (aside from maybe Penn State) that brings a starting quarterback back into the fold. And not just any starter. A three-year starter. Chad Henne was pressed into duty as a true freshman and has led Michigan to two Rose Bowls, a share of one Big Ten title and a second place finish (last year). He has the total package and appears destined to be an early pick in the 2008 NFL draft. But back to the here and now, Henne’s legacy as one of the best quarterbacks to don the winged helmet will only come to fruition if he leads this team to college football’s promised land – the BCS championship game.

Henne had a moderately successful junior campaign, by Michigan standards anyway. He completed 61.9-percent of his passes for 22 scores, eight interceptions and 2,508 yards. That would turn heads every where else, but remember, we’re talking about the best program in college football history and expectations are always sky high. He should have no trouble moving closer to 2006 Troy Smith-like numbers (30 TDs, 5 picks) because he has all of his key weapons back. Even if he produces like 2006, that should be good enough to lead Michigan a long way this season. If Henne gets hurt, the ball goes to true freshman Ryan Mallett. At a towering 6-6 and a solid 245-pounds, Mallett is the next star quarterback for the Wolverines. Ideally he can watch and maybe even redshirt this fall, but he’s an injury away from becoming the next Chad Henne. Beyond Mallett there is little experience to fill the number three role, but don’t expect to see anyone other than Henne for the majority of the snaps this fall.

It might be hard to fathom, but Mike Hart is arguably the most underrated tailback in college football. Maybe it’s because he’s on the small side. Perhaps it’s because this is Michigan and the maize and blue always field a 1,000 yard rusher – i.e. it’s the system not the player. But trust me, it’s different with Hart. The guy is a winner. He came out of high school as an amazing producer and has done nothing but churn out yards and scores in his career at Michigan as well. What he means to this offense can best be summed up in how the Wolverines struggled as he battled injury as a sophomore. The 5-9, 196-pound back is poised to capture top honors in a league that has a bevy of nice backs. A season ago he rushed for just seven yards and one score less than leader PJ Hill (Wisconsin). This year he may take a back seat statistically if only because Michigan might work to bring even more balance to the attack. Either way, he’s my preseason All Big Ten tailback and a player that could contend for Offensive Player of the Year honors.

One of the great luxuries U-M has is depth at positions like tailback. And we’re not just talking bodies. We’re talking guys who would start most anywhere in the nation. That might take a slight hit this year, as Kevin Grady is still working through a major knee injury. However, right on cue, there are guys like Brandon Minor – last season’s second leading rusher – a big but lightning fast sophomore and Carlos Brown. Brown, who was moved to the defensive secondary in the spring pending the status of Grady, may stay at tailback for the foreseeable future.

The Wolverines must replace the lead blocker from a season ago, Obi Oluigbo. The fullback is often the most overlooked, unheralded player on the field, but don’t sleep on the position in terms of its importance in the Michigan running attack. Oluigbo was good, but replacing him won’t be too difficult. There are only three fullbacks listed on the roster, but Michigan won’t need to go much deeper than sophomore Mark Moundros. As he develops, he’ll see more time and hopefully offer a nice safety valve on passing downs on top of good run and pass blocking. Freshman Vince Helmuth and sophomore Quintin Patilla are the backups. Put it all together and you have one of the top ground games in a conference with some nice attacks.

In this look at Michigan, the maize and blue are two for two in terms of returning star power. Make that three for three as we delve into the receiving corps. Gone is Steve Breaston, but he was always a bigger threat to take one to the house on special teams than at wide receiver. Back in the mix and hoping to stay healthy all season long is one of the best receivers in college football – Mario Manningham. The junior might have been the best player over the first half of last season, and then suffered a knee injury that slowed him a bit. Now that he’s back and ready to go, look out. He provides a highly reliable first option for Henne all wrapped up in a game breaking package. What will help Manningham and the Michigan passing game is the return of Adrian Arrington from off-field troubles that had him suspended during spring ball. Arrington is a big target and was the second leading receiver last season. His absence in the spring allowed Greg Mathews to step up and shine. Now the two are locked in a battle to see who will join Manningham in the starting lineup. Another player to watch, though one who also got into some hot water in the spring, is LaTerryal Savoy, a former superstar recruit who could finally turn some heads this fall.

At tight end, Michigan must replace co-starters Tyler Ecker and Carson Butler. The heir apparent is senior Mike Massey. Massey isn’t your typical big, bruising tight end (6-4, 229) but has decent hands and has been a nice performer on special teams. Massey’s backups are probably better blockers respectively but not the threats to make things happen in the passing game. Juniors Chris McLaurin and Andre Criswell have a bit more size but will need to get better in the pitch and catch game to see the field in key situations. Overall, Michigan might be a bit light on depth at receiver compared to past seasons, but the talent is fantastic as usual and poised to lead the Wolverines from the middle of the pack (in passing offense) to the top.

Rounding out one heck of an offensive unit is a front five that might boast the best left side in the game. Henne-Hart-Manningham is arguably the best combo of QB-RB-WR in college football. What gives them a huge edge is the offensive front. There is plenty of time for Henne to drop back and find Manningham. The line opens up holes galore for the shifty Hart to find, dart through and break big gains. While replacing two-fifths of the starters is never a fun task, the Wolverines found ample, if not better replacements for center Mark Bihl and right tackle Rueben Riley. Justin Boren is a 6-3, 310-pound sophomore who could be one of the best centers to suit up for the maize and blue. He has versatility to play guard as well. Fellow sophomore Mark Ortmann fills Riley’s position with great athleticism and measurables. Where the bread is buttered is in the three that return. Left tackle Jake Long could have gone pro early and his return might pay huge NFL dividends as he’ll be spotlighted all year long. Adam Kraus is versatile and can play center but will start along side Long. The pair should be playing well into the future, but for now give Michigan an imposing left side. Junior Alex Mitchell rounds out the playing group. The 6-5, 317-pound right guard can also play outside adding to the overall adaptability of the starting group.

Again, part of Michigan’s success as a program is its strength in numbers. Some programs are lucky to field a first string and half of a second string. Not Michigan. Players who could start most anywhere else will go to Michigan and toil among the second and third stringers just to be a part of the program. We all know that it really comes in handy with the offensive line, however, to have plenty of talented depth. Injuries and the need for a breather take their toll over the course of a twelve game regular season and that spells opportunities for guys like Steve Schilling (right tackle), Cory Zirbel (tackle), Jeremy Ciulla (guard), Tim McAvoy (center) and David Moosman (center). If McAvoy or Moosman were to emerge as a solid option at center, it might mean that Boren can move to guard and Mitchell to the outside. A nice problem to have – where to put all the bodies. Any way you slice it, Michigan is stacked on the offensive line again this fall and the group will be the number one factor in the success of the skill players all season long.

I think it is fair to put Michigan in the same league as last year’s returning offense in Columbus. Henne is bigger albeit less mobile than Smith but is a more prototypical passer. Manningham has wheels and hands to be the Ginn or Gonzalez of that offense and Hart is a better back than Pittman. Toss in the front line and positions like tight end and fullback and it isn’t out of the question to expect the same explosiveness in all facets of the game that led the hated rival to the BCS title game last season. Even an injury here or there should not derail this team. It all comes down to not getting complacent and continually pushing to be better than ever…

Outlook - Defense ... If there is anything that may hold Michigan back a touch this year it will be the defense. After taking a huge step forward last season under the tutelage of Ron English, the Wolverines will again aim to do what rival OSU did a season ago – replace a load of starters with speedy, athletic playmakers and develop into a defensive force. SO why might they step back and who dare says that with English in charge? Well, I’m not saying, I’m just saying. If, IF there is a weakness heading into the season, it is probably the defense. Not because there aren’t playmakers, just because seven such players have taken their game to the next level.

The biggest task is up front, where three of four starters have moved on. Tackle Alan Branch and ends LaMarr Woodley and Rondell Biggs are honing their skills for Sunday’s. Only big tackle Terrance Taylor is back, but let me tell you, he’s a great returnee to build around. He is big, strong, and quick and should be the next draft pick off the line. Will Johnson is a quick, athletic tackle tasked with filling the shoes of Branch. It may take him awhile to make folks forget about Branch, but Johnson has all the tools to do so. Filling the void at the ends are senior Tim Jamison and sophomore Brandon Graham. Jamison is a senior with experience at linebacker and end and will need to step up with consistency. Graham is a freak of nature. He has wideout speed with great size and might be the next great linebacker to end convert – a la Woodley.

Along with replacing three starters, the depth chart is a little bit in question up front. The biggest issue that presents itself is inexperience. There isn’t a ton of proven production stepping up but as I’ve said before, it’s Michigan. There is no rebuilding, just reloading. Speaking of the depth, the players to keep a close eye on are sophomore end Adam Patterson and 6-3, 318-pound sophomore tackle Jason Kates. The pair is of course relatively untested – Kates has yet to see any mentionable action – but will have to step right in to help the big blue defense. Several others are in the mix to see the field and you can expect to see a big rotation early in the season as the status of games allows. One thing is for sure, the group will be far better at the end of the season than it is heading into the season, and even then, it really is pretty good already here in August…

I should have led in that the defense really needs to replace a boatload in the entire front seven, not just on the line. Prescott Burgess and David Harris are gone and the pair led the team in tackles last season. The loss of Harris might be the biggest one facing the coaching staff this fall. The man in the middle was all over the field, it seemed, and will be missed. The candidates to replace him are senior John Thompson or the second JUCO transfer of the Lloyd Carr era – Austin Panter. Neither has tremendous size for a middle linebacker, both are solid tacklers with good speed.

The leader of the group, assuming he stays at the strongside and doesn’t move to the defensive line, is Shawn Crable. Crable is quick, athletic and able to be a key stopper on the U-M defense this fall. Burgess’ spot belongs to Chris Graham, a spot starter that has great wheels. Another name to watch is Obi Ezeh. The big sophomore is primed to be a great linebacker even if he is still a little raw (and in some hot water for an off season DUI). Brandon Logan and Max Pollock are two more players who should get some time this season on what will, like the line, start a little slow and end with a bang.

The strength of the Michigan defense, despite the need to plug two holes, is the secondary. Leon Hall took his game to the first round of the NFL draft. Willis Barringer was a steady starter at free safety. But, Michigan brings two back that have a chance to be as good, if not better in senior Morgan Trent and senior Jamar Adams. Trent is a big, rangy corner with good tackling skills but sometimes questionable cover skills. He was used like a rented mule in the last two games of the season – both Michigan losses. He didn’t necessarily improve over the spring, but he still have the potential to be a lock-down cover man. Adams hits like a heavyweight fighter, is tough, smart, fast and possesses great ball skills. He is the leader of the secondary, maybe the defense.

Replacing Hall is a tall task, and one that looks to fall to Johnny Sears. Sears has blazing speed but limited experience and will be fighting Brandon Harrison and Carlos Brown as well as Doug Dutch for his time. This trio gives Michigan depth to go with the talent that resides, always a good thing in the smash-mouth Big Ten. Filling Barringer's shoes at the free safety spot will be Stevie Brown or Brandent Englemon. Brown is fast and physical and had a solid spring. Englemon was a disappointment last season but has one more go around to get it right. Rounding out the playing group will be Charles Stewart, a versatile senior who can also play some corner. There you have it, the most depth, the most returning starters, the best unit of the defense…

The need to replace seven starters is a little concerning to this outsider. I keep harping on the fact that this is Michigan, but even Appalachian State is no cakewalk, and then Oregon, Notre Dame and Penn State come to town on successive weeks. This new bunch of players needs to step up fast and step up big. The good news is that Michigan has an offense that will allow for some growing pains and then in the end, the Wolverines should look very much like rival OSU did a year ago – chock full of new, game-changing players hungry to get Michigan to the national title game.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Michigan has it nailed at two of the three areas on special teams. The return game should be excellent, as usual with speed to burn all over the place. The key will be for someone to be as elusive as Breaston was the past four years. The second strong point will be the punting game. Zoltan Mesko has a cool first name and a big leg. He’s a big kid with the ability to pin teams deep and with accuracy. The question is who will replace Garrett Rivas, who seemed to be there forever and made 17 of 20 field goals a season ago. It looks to be a three-way battle between Jason Gingell, K.C. Lapata and Bryan Wright. Gingell and Lapata are seniors, Wright a sophomore and whoever is most consistent in fall camp will get first crack at it. Regardless of who it is, it’ll be a tall task to replace the consistency of Rivas.

9/8 – OREGON
9/29 – at Northwestern
10/13 – PURDUE
10/20 – at Illinois
11/3 – at Michigan State
11/10 – at Wisconsin
11/17 – OHIO STATE

Key Games: 9/8 – Oregon, 9/15 – Notre Dame, 9/22 – Penn State, 11/3 – at Michigan State, 11/10 – at Wisconsin, 11/17 – Ohio State

Prediction ... Michigan has an impressive schedule this year. Despite missing Iowa and Indiana, the Wolverines have one of the top all-around slates in the conference. It starts with Appalachian State, a 1-AA foe that is at the top of its division. Oregon and Notre Dame come to town in successive weeks giving a tough start to the season, albeit at home. There are four games circles on the Big Ten calendar – Penn State and Ohio State at the beginning and end of league play and roadies at MSU and Wisconsin deep into the slate. An undefeated campaign is not out of the question, but that game in Madison looms large. Payback will come against the Buckeyes, but only after a lone slip up in Mad-town en route to another BCS bowl berth.

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