Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Big Ten Football Previews – Part V

Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back often to see who’s next...

Team: Michigan Wolverines

Tidbits … The last losing season in Ann Arbor was 1967. The last time the maize and blue failed to go bowling was 1975. Rich Rodriguez is the first coach to lead Michigan without previous ties to the program in 39 years (Bo Schembechler, 1969).

Past Predictions/Results:
2007 Prediction / actual: 11-1, 7-1 (T-1st), BCS / 9-4, 6-2 (T-2nd), Capital One
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)

*Note, bowl shown only from 2004 on as I did not predict the bowl berths prior to that season.

Returning Starters: 3 offense, 7 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: WR Greg Mathews, RB Brandon Minor, OT Stephen Schilling, DT Terrance Taylor, DE Brandon Graham, LB Obi Ezeh, CB Morgan Trent

Key Losses: QB Chad Henne, WR Mario Mannigham, RB Mike Hart, OT Jake Long, LB Shawn Crable, S Jamar Adams

Looking Back ... 2007 marked the end of an era in Ann Arbor. Michigan fans and the media alike wondered aloud for a few years when Carr's time would come and the Wolverines would push away from 40 years of success under Bo Schembechler and his students. Well, they got what they wished for in a turmoil filled hiring that may have brought in the best, young(ish) football mind in the business. Still, 2007 left a little to be desired, with back to back losses to start the season - including what some will say is the biggest upset since the Miracle on Ice - Appalachian State's stunning win in the Big House. It also ended with another loss to Tressel's hated Buckeyes with a nice win over Florida the saving grace.

Outlook - Offense ... Hands down, the biggest question mark heading into this season. No doubt, Rodriguez will bring a style that thrills but there is one little problem this season - who can run the offense the way it is designed to be run? Not only is Henne gone, the only other quarterback with appreciable - albeit non applicable - experience (Ryan Mallett) has transferred. Also departed are standout WRs Mario Mannigham and Adrian Arrington. Toss in the loss of number one NFL pick Jake Long and heart and soul Mike Hart, and you can see why Michigan might struggle at times this fall. Steven Threat is the likely leader of the offense and Brandon Minor will get some spotlight, as will an always talented bunch of receivers. The key will be Threat and the offensive line. Look for struggles early but for the team to round into shape by seasons end.

Outlook - Defense ... The old adage that defense wins games will have to be true in Ann Arbor this season. With eight starters returning, including a veteran front four and a rock solid secondary, the defense just might be the Wolverines' ticket to the top this season. Taylor and Johnson are space eaters inside while Jamison and Graham have the ability to get after the quarterback. Obi Ezeh is the lone returning starter at linebacker but he's about as good as they get in the Big Ten. Michigan's style will be attack-attack-attack and the success of the team overall depends almost entirely on the defense for at least the first quarter of the season. Is this D up to the task? It might be and it might make my prediction way off base...

Outlook - Special Teams ... Michigan's kicking game looks to be in good shape heading into fall camp, but your guess is as good as mine as to who will handle the return duties. No worries here though, with the athletes Rodriguez brought in with his first class, there is bound to be at least one game breaker.

8/30 - UTAH
9/6 - MIAMI-OH
9/13 - at Notre Dame
10/11 - TOLEDO
10/18 - at Penn State
11/1 - at Purdue
11/8 - at Minnesota
11/22 - at Ohio State

Key Games:
9/13 - at Notre Dame, 9/27 - Wisconsin, 10/18 - at Penn State, 10/25 - Michigan State, 11/22 - at Ohio State

Prediction ... I can hear the "what the ...'s" flying already but I am not telling anyone anything shocking. Michigan is in a rebuilding mode. It might well last only one year or less than this entire season, but if ever the maize and blue are ripe for the picking, the time is now. Michigan will not get trampled this year, but until the offense can catch up with the defense, it might be a struggle at times. No worries, Wolverine fans, this temporary downturn will long-term produce a team that is entertaining to watch and nearly impossible to beat. Don't sleep on the first two games - neither is as easy as they look. But it will be more in the league that Michigan takes a few lumps...

OOC: 4-0 (I don't buy that ND is back and Michigan will be fired up for the opener - a potential trap otherwise)
B10: 3-5 (wins over Illinois, Minnesota and Northwestern)
Overall: 7-5, T-7th in the conference, Champs Sports Bowl

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Big Ten Football Previews – Part IV

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back often to see who’s next...

Team: Indiana Hoosiers

Tidbits … Indiana’s bowl berth last season ended a 14-year drought. The Hoosiers’ last winning season before last year came in 1994. IU is one of only three programs not to win at least a share of the Big Ten title in the last decade. Indiana was last in the Rose Bowl in 1968.

Past Predictions/Results:
2007 Prediction / actual: 6-6, 3-5 (T-7th), Motor City / 7-6, 3-5 (T-7th), Insight
2006 Prediction / actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-9th) / 5-7, 3-5 (T-6th)
2005 Prediction / actual: 3-8, 1-7 (11th) / 4-7, 1-7 (10th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th) / 2-10, 1-7 (T-9th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th) / 5-6, 4-4 (T-4th)

*Note, bowl shown only from 2004 on as I did not predict the bowl berths prior to that season.

Returning Starters: 6 offense, 7 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Kellen Lewis, RB Marcus Thigpen, WR Andrew Means, WR Ray Fisher, DE Greg Middleton, LB Will Patterson, FS Nick Polk

Key Losses: WR James Hardy, C Ben Wyss, DT Joe Kremer, LB Adam McClurg, CB Tracy Porter, CB Leslie Majors,

Looking Back ... 2007 marked perhaps the most emotional season in Indiana football history. Beloved coach Terry Hoeppner passed away in the summer and the team rallied around their lost leader, with a winning season and bowl berth - both firsts in over a decade. Kellen Lewis burst onto the scenes in combination with James Hardy, arguably the most dangerous receiver in the conference last fall. While the season ended with a tough loss to Oklahoma State in the Insight Bowl and the off season had its turmoil (suspension of Lewis), the cream and crimson hope to use last year as a spring board and avoid another long spell of losing seasons...

Outlook - Offense ... Kellen Lewis has served his time (suspension not jail) and looks poised to prove that last year was no fluke. While he won't have the tall, sure-handed James Hardy in his arsenal, he has plenty of options, notably Fisher and Means. IU isn't all pass no run though. Lewis ran for more than 1000 yards last year and could do so again this year and his backfield mates - Thigpen and Bryan Payton return. The key will be the offensive front. Two starters return but the unit is young, even if very talented. The Hoosiers will not sneak up on people this year but should still be able to rack up the yards and points against the easiest schedule in the Big Ten conference.

Outlook - Defense ... Indiana will be able to score, but will they be able to stop people from scoring? Only in the season opener last year - a romp over 1-AA Indiana State - did the Hoosiers allow less than 20 points. Ouch. With both starting corners gone from that defense, how will this year's version fare? The strength should be the front seven, led by end Greg Middleton, and all Big Ten performer that led the nation with 16 sacks. Four others return to start in the front seven, notably Will Patterson, the team's second leading tackler. The key lies in the secondary. Nick Polk is back but replacing seasoned corners is not an easy task in a conference that is no longer all about three yards and a cloud of dust.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Indiana is arguably the best of the Big Ten in this area. Austin Starr is among the best place kickers in the nation and Marcus Thigpen is a game breaker on the return side. Teams got smart and kicked away from him last year, after he led the nation with over 30 yards per return. Oh and he also managed three returns for scores. If games come down to a big kick, look for Starr to shine brightly...

10/4 - at Minnesota
10/11 - IOWA
10/18 - at Illinois
11/15 - at Penn State
11/22 - at Purdue

Key Games:
9/27 - Michigan State, 10/18 - at Illinois, 11/8 - Wisconsin, 11/22 - at Purdue

Prediction ... If ever a schedule was sent from Heaven, this might be it. Eight home games. EIGHT! No Michigan or Ohio State. No BCS league foes out of conference. Eight of the first ten at home. Anything less than a bowl eligible final record will frankly be an embarrassment for the Hoosiers. IU has enough weapons back and enough rising talent to make some serious noise - if not in the title chase, in the upper levels of the league. The season won't end pretty and that will be all that stands between IU and one heck of a follow up to 2007...

OOC: 4-0 (Who went to the Minnesota school of scheduling?)
B10: 3-5 (win over Minnesota, Iowa and Northwestern)
Overall: 7-5, T-7th in the conference, Motor City Bowl

Monday, July 28, 2008

Big Ten Football Previews – Part III

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back often to see who’s next...

Team: Northwestern Wildcats

Tidbits … The Wildcats are one of eight different teams to claim at least a share of the Big Ten title in the last decade (2000). Northwestern won two of its last three games in 2006.

Past Predictions/Results:

2007 Prediction/actual: 5-7, 2-6 (9th) / 6-6, 3-5 (T-7th)
2006 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-9th) / 4-8, 2-6 (T-8th)
2005 Prediction/actual: 5-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 7-5, 5-3 (T-3rd) – Sun Bowl
2004 Prediction/actual: 5-7, 2-6 (9th) / 6-6, 5-3 (4th)
2003 Prediction/actual: 3-9, 0-8 (11th) / 6-7, 4-4 (T-7th) – Motor City Bowl
2002 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-6th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th)
2001 Prediction/actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th) / 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th)

*Note, bowl shown only from 2004 on as I did not predict the bowl berths prior to that season.

Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB C.J. Bacher, RB Tyrell Sutton, WR Eric Peterman, DE Corey Wootton, DT Adam Hahn, CB Sherrick McManis, K Amando Villareal

Key Losses: OT Dylan Thiry, WR Kim Thompson, LB Adam Kadela, FS Reggie McPherson

Looking Back ... One game was the difference between a bowl berth and home for the holidays again - Duke. A flabbergasting home loss to Duke early in the season kept this potent offense home and wondering what might have been. Despite that disappointment, the Wildcats showed a flair for the dramatic in thrilling, back to back overtime wins over Michigan State and Minnesota and painted a picture of what we might expect to see in 2008. If the defense can come around and the offense can fire on all cylinders all year long, the disappointing end to '07 could be erased...

Outlook - Offense ... Northwestern can rack up yards and points in a hurry. Need proof? Look at the shootout wins over Michigan State and Minnesota. The 'cats also put up over 30 in two other wins. The good news? All of the leaders are back. C.J. Bacher is the unheralded leader of this attack. Tyrell Sutton seems to have been totting the rock for the purple and black for a decade, but he's back and ready to lead this team back to a bowl berth. There is plenty of talent and depth at wide receiver as well. The only potential roadblock to success is the front five. The line is young and thin, having lost three mainstay starters. If this group can gel early, watch out. If not, this fast horse may never get out of the gates...

Outlook - Defense ... Being able to rack up the yards and points is fun and all, but if this team wishes to go bowling, it must - MUST get a better performance out of the defense. The old read and react style has been replaced with a more attack oriented set of schemes, which often sees big plays allowed for every big play made. One thing is for sure, John Gill and Corey Wootton make up a solid left side of the defensive front. In fact, the entire front four is back and that is a huge plus for the Wildcats. It's the back seven where NU will need to make up ground. A few starters and players with experience return but no matter who is back there, this group MUST make plays and hold opposing offenses at bay in order for there to be success.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Northwestern has both kickers returning and a good option for either in the fold in Kyle Daley. The Wildcats are almost always strong in the return game and this year should be no different with McManis and Peterman back to build on last season's solid performances.

9/6 - at Duke
9/20 - OHIO
9/27 - at Iowa
10/18 - PURDUE
10/25 - at Indiana
11/1 - at Minnesota
11/15 - at Michigan
11/22 - ILLINOIS

Key Games:
9/6 - at Duke, 10/11 - Michigan State, 11/8 - Ohio State, 11/15 - at Michigan, 11/22 - Illinois

Prediction ... On one hand, I want to pick this team to burst into the top half of the league. On the other, I just don't see the all offense, very little defense style working out all that often in the Big Ten these days. There are plenty of toss ups along the way, and NU could certainly win a few more than I am predicting, but I'm generally pretty close with this squad from year to year.

OOC: 4-0 (no one here strikes fear into anyone!)
B10: 2-6 (win over Michigan State and Purdue)
Overall: 6-6, T-9th in the conference, potential AT LARGE bowl berth

Monday, July 21, 2008

Big Ten Football Previews – Part II

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back often to see who’s next...

Team: Iowa Hawkeyes

Tidbits ... Iowa's six-year bowl run - the second longest in school history - ended last season thanks mostly to a shocking, season-ending loss to Western Michigan. The Hawkeyes are a stingy 32-7 in their last 39 home games but included in those losses are Western Michigan, Northwestern and Indiana. Over the last five years, Iowa has the 17th best winning percentage at home in college football.

Past Predictions/Results:
2007 Prediction/actual: 8-4, 5-3 (T-4th), Champs/ 6-6, 4-4 (T-5th)
2006 Prediction/actual: 11-1, 7-1 (T-1st), Rose / 6-7, 2-6 (T-8th), Alamo
2005 Prediction / actual: 9-2, 6-2 (T-1st), BCS / 7-5, 5-3 (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)

*Note, bowl shown only from 2004 on as I did not predict the bowl berths prior to that season.

Returning Starters: 8 offense, 5 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Jake Christensen, WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, TE Tony Moeaki, DT Mitch King, DT Matt Kroul, LB A.J. Edds

Key Losses: RB Albert Young, DE Ken Iwebema, DE Bryan Mattison, LB Mike Humpal, DB Charles Godfrey

Looking Back ... Last season was a roller coaster ride, with two wins, followed by four straight losses, another win and loss, an overtime comeback win for the ages that revived the season and led to three straight Ws before a total collapse against MAC foe Western Michigan to close the season and even .500 and home for the holidays. Youth, injuries and off-field trouble were the headliners all season long. It was the second straight sub-par season for an Iowa program that had been on fire of late...

Outlook - Offense ... The Hawkeyes return eight starters on the offensive side of the ball, but none of them represent the sort of sure thing coaching staffs like to have in their back pocket heading into a season. There is experience, but the overall talent is in question and depth at quarterback and tailback is in critical mode. Jake Christensen looks to make strides after an up and down 2007 but there is no one of note behind him. 97% of Iowa's rushing yards from last season are gone, leaving it to Nate Guillory and Jevon Pugh to carry most of the load. Wide receiver is a deep position for the black and gold and when is the last time Iowa didn't find a way to put together a very good offensive line? Iowa will need to be more consistent on offense in order to improve, and that's in the hands of Christensen.

Outlook - Defense ... Iowa hopes it begins and ends with its pair of four-year starting tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul. If everything could just be forced to go inside to this duo, send the Hawkeyes to the Rose Bowl! In all seriousness, the Iowa defense could be good. There is just enough senior leadership to match with a lot of youth. A.J. Edds is the next in a long line of great Hawkeye linebackers. Sophomore safety Brett Greenwood is also a rising star. Success will come down to the emergence of a play maker at cornerback and support on the outside of the defensive line and at linebacker.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Iowa returns all of its kickers and while strong at punter, the place-kicking needs to improve on four, yes FOUR, missed PATs last season. The return game is also longing for a game breaker. It's been since the 2003 Orange Bowl that Iowa has returned a kickoff for a score.

8/30 - MAINE
9/20 - at Pittsburgh
10/4 - at Michigan State
10/11 - at Indiana
11/1 - at Illinois
11/15 - PURDUE
11/22 - at Minnesota

Key Games:
9/13 - Iowa State, 10/18 - Wisconsin, 11/8 - Penn State, 11/22 - at Minnesota

Prediction ... Many are predicting a turnaround for Iowa. While part of me wants to believe that, I have not read enough to convince me. The running game is a huge question mark, the defense has some stars but is overall quite youthful. It helps to avoid Michigan and Ohio State, but then again, Michigan is due for a down season. Kirk Ferentz might be kicking himself after this season for continually turning down offers from the NFL...

OOC: 3-1 (only loss to Pittsburgh)
B10: 2-6 (win over Northwestern and Purdue)
Overall: 5-7, T-9th in the conference