Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Big Ten Football Previews – Part VIII

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

Team: Iowa Hawkeyes

Tidbits ... Last year, Iowa gave up its lowest ever points in a season where the Hawkeyes played in 13 games. It was the lowest since 1997 - Hayden Fry's last winning season in Iowa City.

Past Predictions/Results:
2008 Prediction / actual: 5-7, 2-6 (T-9th) / 9-4, 5-3 (T-4th), Outback
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: 6 offense, 8 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Ricky Stanzi, WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, DE Adrian Clayborn, LB A.J. Edds

Key Losses: RB Shonn Greene, DT Mitch King, DT Matt Kroul

Looking Back ... I don't usually use this space to rehash my old predictions, but man did Iowa burn me last year. After two very sub-par seasons, I expected more of the same. I think a lot of others did too and therefore took the black and gold for granted. Iowa was very good last year, in an old-fashioned, smack you in the mouth type of way. The Hawkeyes dominated on the ground and with a stellar defense, all while helping a young signal caller grow into one of the better QBs in the conference. Can Iowa maintain that trend or will it be just another decent season in Iowa City this fall?

Outlook - Offense ... The Hawkeyes return six starters on the offensive side of the ball, led by quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Stanzi grew into a top-notch signal caller a season ago and his experience and maturity will be key for the Iowa offense. Iowa will absolutely miss Shonn Greene, who was an absolute stud for this attack last year. The good news for the Hawkeyes is that Greene sort of came from no where a year after Iowa lost 97% of its running game to graduation. That means big opportunity for sophomore Jewel Hampton. Hampton had an outstanding freshman season and is poised to do big things for Iowa this fall. The line, as it typically is for Iowa, will be good and should only get better as the season wears on. Stanzi has a few weapons in the passing game as well, so look for a solid, pro-style, balanced attack out of the Hawkeyes this fall.

Outlook - Defense ... Iowa brings back a defense that stopped just about everything thrown at it a season ago. Eight starters return, led by the entire linebacking corps and three starters in the secondary. The bad news, if any, is that the M&M tandem has departed. Mitch King and Matt Kroul flat-out dominated the Big Ten last season. The two tackles had 95 career starts between them and were a big reason for Iowa's success. Replacing them is no small task, but it is made at least a bit easier by the fact that the starting defensive ends return. I don't expect Iowa to be as good on this side of the ball as it was in '08, but the Iowa defense will not lose this team any games. If those holes at tackle are filled at even 75% of last year's production, watch out. This will be the sleeper team in 2009.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Iowa returns all of the kicking game from a unit that performed very well a season ago. The return men are sure-handed and solid, if they don't strike fear into the opposition's hearts with their speed or escapabililty. Iowa won games with solid punting and place kicking last year, expect more of the same in 09.

9/12 - at Iowa State
9/19 - ARIZONA
9/26 - at Penn State
10/10 - MICHIGAN
10/17 - at Wisconsin
10/24 - at Michigan State
10/31 - INDIANA
11/14 - at Ohio State

Key Games:
9/26 - at Penn State, 10/17 - at Wisconsin, 11/14 - at Ohio State

Prediction ... Iowa has a tough road slate this fall, but the OOC games are a virtual cake-walk. An early win at Penn State would be huge and likely catapult this team to a top two finish in the conference, but playing at night in State College, then at Camp Randall, followed by a night game in East Lansing and a trip to C-bus? Not this year. Iowa will have a great season and the fans who grow restless with Ferentz will be fully on his side once more...

OOC: 4-0 (onlyArizona even poses a threat)
B10: 5-3 (wins over Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Northwestern and Minnesota)
Overall: 9-3, T-4th in the conference, Capital One Bowl
Big Ten Football Previews – Part VII

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

Team: Illinois Fighting Illini

Tidbits ... Illinois had more wins in 2007 than they did the previous four years combined. The last time the Illini went 5-7 following a BCS Bowl season they went 1-11 the year after...

Past Predictions/Results:
2008 Prediction / actual: 9-3, 5-3 (T-2nd), Capital One / 5-7, 3-5 (T-6th)
2007 Prediction / actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-10th) / 9-4, 6-2 (T-2nd) - Rose Bowl
2006 Prediction / actual: 5-7, 2-6 (8th) / 2-10, 1-7 (T-10th)
2005 Prediction / actual: 4-7, 2-6 (10th) / 2-9, 0-8 (11th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 4-7, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 5-7, 3-5 (T-7th) / 1-11, 0-8 (11th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-6th) / 5-7, 4-4 (T-5th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 6-5, 3-5 (T-7th) / 10-2, 7-1 (1st)

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

Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, DT Corey Liuget, LB Martez Wilson

Key Losses: LT Xavier Fulton, C Ryan McDonald, DE Will Davis, CB Vontae Davis

Looking Back ... Last season's outcome was not what folks in Illinois expected after a seven game turnaround and subsequent Rose Bowl berth in 2007. The Illini were violently unpredictable a season ago, struggling at times with what appeared (heading into the season) to be a well-oiled offensive machine and a defense that could never make the big plays needed to sustain 2007's success. For my money, the jury is still out on Ron Zook. He has grabbed some headliner recruits in his time at Illinois, but when will that turn into what every fan desires - a consistent winner?

Outlook - Offense ... Get used to this phrase - "Williams to Benn ... touchdown Illinois." Minnesota has Weber to Decker but this tandem is more explosive than its northern counterpart and must step up big if Illinois is to avoid another second division finish. The duo only connected for three scores last year, something that needs to improve if Illinois is to be the threat they ought to be. The passing game is more than Juice and Arrelious, however. Jeff Cumberland is a big target and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui has tremendous upside. The Illini will miss center Ryan McDonald and has to replace the left tackle as well, but should be sound. If things are to really pan out for this team, the running game needs to be a consistent threat. Daniel "Don't call me Andy" Dufrene has big play potential but needs to also be a stabilizing factor.

Outlook - Defense ... The bad news for Illinois is that the offense might need to score in droves just to ensure a winning season. It isn't that the defense is bad, but there aren't a lot of proven playmakers on this side of the ball. The Illini are young and athletic, which means big plays will happen, but so will big mistakes. The anchor of the unit is linebacker Martez Wilson. The junior has the size and speed to be a force for this defense. He also has a decent defensive line in front of him and a solid secondary behind him. The Illini will miss Vontae Davis, but Dere Hicks is a great corner and the safeties are sound. No matter who the personnel, this defense MUST be better than it was a year ago if Illinois is to sniff a bowl game, let alone the upper tier teams in the conference.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Illinois brings back all the key cogs in what was a decent, if somewhat up and down special teams unit. Sophomore kicker Matt Eller was 15-20 a season ago and should be better with a season under his belt. Punter Anothony Santella needs to get more distance out of his kicks. The return game should be great, with Benn and A.J. Jenkins always threatening to take it to the house.

9/5 - vs. Missouri
9/26 - at Ohio State
10/17 - at Indiana
10/24 - at Purdue
10/31 - MICHIGAN
11/7 - at Minnesota
11/27 - at Cincinnati

Key Games: 9/26 - at Ohio State, 10/3 - PENN STATE, 10/10 - MICHIGAN STATE

Prediction ... Even without Iowa and Wisconsin on the slate, this is a pretty brutal schedule. Missouri is always a tough opener, and then the three week run of "States" is an early make or break stretch. The Illini, assuming bowl eligibility, might be in good shape as such given two games well after the rest of the Big Ten calls it quits for the regular season (except Wisconsin). There are plenty of chances to shine or fail, and the pressure is on for the Illini to prove that '07 was no fluke.

OOC: 3-1 (lone loss comes at Cincinnati)
B10: 5-3 (wins over Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan and Northwestern)
Overall: 8-4, T-4th in the conference, Alamo Bowl

Friday, July 24, 2009

Big Ten Football Previews – Part VI

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

Team: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Tidbits ... Minnesota's last, outdoor, home football game was played on November 21, 1981. It was a win over rival Wisconsin. The six game turnaround in 2008 was the best since the 1960 Gophers went from 2-7 to 8-2.

Past Predictions/Results:
2008 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 2-6 (T-9th) / 7-6, 3-5 (T-6th), Insight
2007 Prediction/actual: 5-7, 1-7 (T-10th) / 1-11, 0-8 (11th)
2006 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-9th) / 6-7, 3-5 (T-6th), Insight
2005 Prediction/actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Motor City / 7-5, 4-4 (7th), Music City
2004 Prediction/actual: 6-5, 3-5 (8th), Motor City / 7-5, 3-5 (8th), Music City
2003 Prediction/actual: 9-3, 5-3 (5th) / 10-3, 5-3 (T-4th)
2002 Prediction/actual: 6-6, 2-6 (9th) / 8-5, 3-5 (T-7th)
2001 Prediction/actual: 5-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th)

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

Returning Starters: 10 offense, 8 defense, 0 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Adam Weber, WR Eric Decker, LB Lee Campbell, CB Traye Simmons

Key Losses: TE Jack Simmons, DE Willie VanDeSteeg, LB Deon Hightower, P Justin Kucek

Looking Back ... If the 2007 season was nothing but ugly, the 2008 season was at least part beauty before it turned beast. The Golden Gophers followed up one win in '07 with seven in its first eight games of '08. It was on track to be more than a great turnaround, but one of epic proportions. That is, until Minnesota hit the skids and limped home with five straight losses, including an ugly shellacking at the hands of rival Iowa. The question going into 2009 is can Minnesota restore the early season momentum en route to another round of marked improvement?

Outlook - Offense ... Your eyes don't deceive you, the following sentence is a direct, well almost direct, pickup from my preview last year: The Gophers return plenty of offensive firepower from a team that could move the ball and score last season - at least through the first eight games. Adam Weber is among the best returning quarterbacks in the league and can still seek out battery mate Eric Decker with hopes of burning opposing defenses. The trouble is, second leading pass catcher Jack Simmons has moved on. But he's the only starter that doesn't return and given the first few classes Coach Brewster has brought in, surely someone will step up. Ideally, the Gophers will get more production on the ground, with Deleon Eskridge and Shady Salamon more than capable of racking up big numbers. If it all clicks, watch out - this could be one of the more prolific attacks in the country.

Outlook - Defense ... Minnesota took a few giant leaps forward at the onset of last season but crashed to earth by giving up 132 points in their last three games, including 55 at Iowa. Eight starters return and eight of the projected starters are seniors. That should mean a more consistent, season-long effort in 2009 - at least theoretically. However, the loss of DE Willie VanDeSteeg will be felt and the loss of safety Tramaine Brock to academics will also hurt. The key will be for the returning group to step it up a notch and hope that the very young depth chart is able to fill the gaps and bring the defense back to total season respectability. Look for Cedric McKinley, Simoni Lawrence, Lee Campbell and Traye Simmons to be the stars for a team that took the ball away in droves last season.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Minnesota will not lack for a return man as both Troy Stoudermire and Marcus Sherels return but the kicking game could be a roller coaster ride for a while. Both kickers have moved on, which means Eric Ellestad and Dan Orseske must step in and step up to provide the Golden Gophers with a shot at improving over last season.

9/5 - at Syracuse
9/12 - AIR FORCE
9/26 - at Northwestern
10/10 - PURDUE
10/17 - at Penn State
10/24 - at Ohio State
11/21 - at Iowa

Key Games: 9/12 - Air Force (Stadium opener), 10/3 - WISCONSIN, 11/21 - at Iowa

Prediction ... Minnesota sure turned the tables on its scheduling tendencies, picking up two BCS conference teams and a tough Air Force team in place of 1-A newbies and lower tier MAC squads. That might bite them this year, although the Gophers certainly have the talent to be as good as last year, if not better. A four game run of at Penn State, at Ohio State, Michigan State and Illinois at home could be make or break for the season.

OOC: 3-1 (lone loss comes to Cal at home)
B10: 4-4 (win over Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois)
Overall: 7-5, 6th in the conference, At Large Bowl Berth
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: Wisconsin Badgers

Tidbits … Coach Bret Bielema went 17-1 in his first 19 games. Since then he is 11-10. Last season marked the Badgers' seventh straight with a bowl bid, but brought about the least wins since 2003.

Past Predictions/Results:
2008 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (T-2nd), Alamo / 7-6, 3-5 (T-6th), Champs
2007 Prediction / actual: 11-1, 7-1 (T-1st), Rose / 9-4, 5-3 (4th), Outback
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)

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

Returning Starters: 6 offense, 5 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: RB John Clay, TE Garrett Graham, C John Moffitt, SS Jay Valai, CB Aaron Henry

Key Losses: RB P.J. Hill, TE Travis Beckum, OL Kraig Urbik, DE Matt Shaughnessy, LB Jonathan Casillas

Looking Back ... Wisconsin started hot in 2008, blew a big lead at Michigan and then suffered four staright set backs before closing out the regular season with four wins in five games. It was not a pretty year for the Badgers. Penalties, injuries and inconsistent play from the quarterback position really put a damper on what looked to be a promising campaign. Aside from giving the game away in Ann Arbor, the loss at Michigan State was particularly disturbing, given that the Badgers dominated everywhere but the scoreboard. The murmurs and mumbling is starting, can Bret Bielema do the job that Barry Alvarez did?

Outlook - Offense ... There is one question mark on the offensive side of the ball - quarterback. Can Dustin Sherer gain the consistency needed to command his offense and lead Wisconsin to victories? He certainly has support. The offensive line is always solid for the Badgers. John Clay and Zach Brown are proven entities at tailback. Garrett Graham will quickly help UW fans forget about Beckum. The wide receiving corps is rock solid, if a little injury prone. The pieces and parts are there, but there needs to be a maestro. Can Sherer conduct the Wisconsin offense with the efficiency and power needed to turn tough losses into big wins? I'm not 100% sold.

Outlook - Defense ... The fact that Wisconsin is not long on experience when it comes to the defensive front seven puts even more pressure on Sherer and the offense. There is plenty of depth and some nice talent on the defensive line, and transfer J.J. Watt could really burst onto the scene. The problem is, the linebacking corps is paper thin. Jaevery McFadden is a very good linebacker and the starters that flank him are decent, but the depth chart is full of inexperience. The good news is that the secondary returns three starters, including one of the best hitters in the league in Jay Valai. It will also help matters if Aaron Henry can return to form after an ACL injury forced him out in 2008. This isn't your typical, nasty Wisconsin defense with a pounding front seven, so the group will have to be opportunistic if the Badgers hope to finish in the upper division of the Big Ten.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Last year I wondered whether Wisconsin could replace its dynamic kicking duo. Well, it did and now the sophomores are among the best in the conference. Philip Welch converted 20 of 24 field goals and Brad Nortman had a better average than his predecessor. The cardinal and white always find a dangerous return man so this might in fact be the strength of the team.

9/19 - WOFFORD
10/3 - at Minnesota
10/10 - at Ohio State
10/17 - IOWA
10/31 - PURDUE
11/7 - at Indiana
11/14 - MICHIGAN
11/21 - at Northwestern
12/5 - at Hawaii

Key Games:
10/3 - at Minnesota, 10/10 - at Ohio State, 10/17 - IOWA

Prediction ... Unlike past Wisconsin teams, which have left me wondering as soon as the ink dried on my prediction whether I was way low on my take, I am thinking I might be a little over-generous here. The offense doesn't scare me. The defense is not what you'd expect from Madison. I'm just not sure. The OOC slate is the difference maker. It is about as easy as it gets, in my opinion. It will be another winning season in Mad-town, but will it be winning enough for the grumblings to cease?

OOC: 4-0 (Wofford?! Hawaii could be tough, but the rest are not)
B10: 3-5 (wins over Purdue, Indiana and Northwestern)
Overall: 7-5, T-7th in the conference, Insight Bowl

Thursday, July 23, 2009

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: Michigan Wolverines

Tidbits … The last losing season in Ann Arbor - before last season - was 1967. The last time the maize and blue failed to go bowling - before last season - was 1975. The last time Michigan only won 3 games was 1963 and they followed that with a 9 win season.

Past Predictions/Results:
2008 Prediction / actual: 7-5, 3-5 )T-7th), Champs / 3-9, 2-6 (T-9th), None
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: 10.5 offense*, 5 defense, 1 kicker (* given the slew of injuries, Michigan returns 4.5 part time starters and 6 full time starters on the offensive side of the ball)

Key Returnees: WR Greg Mathews, RB Brandon Minor, DE Brandon Graham, LB Obi Ezeh

Key Losses: DE Tim Jamison, DT Will Johnson, DT Terrance Taylor, CB Morgan Trent

Looking Back ... If 2007 marked the end of an era in Ann Arbor, 2008 provided a ghastly start of a new time for college football's winningest program. So anytime you go outside the program and make a hire like Michigan did, there are bound to be growing pains. But no one expected it to be this bad! Just when you thought losing to Appalachian State was bad, there was the Toldeo game. And to lose to every rival by at least two TDs? Ouch. But, as they say, that was then. Those who really wanted change are willing to give it three years. Will that be enough? Will Rich Rodriguez need that much time? Stay tuned...

Outlook - Offense ... The Wolverines return 10-plus guys with starting experience, but I have yet to determine if that is a good thing or not. The offensive front gained a lot of experience in the new scheme last year and developed depth along the way. There is talent at tailback and wide receiver. Tight end Kevin Kroger is underrated. New blood arrives at the skill positions too. But the single key to success will rest on the arm and legs of a true freshman. Tate Forcier - welcome to the spotlight. Michigan players certainly have a better grasp of the offense in year two and there is plenty of talent in the pantry, but can a true freshman lead this team from the depths to contention in one year? Not probable. But then again, Michigan and three wins was not a probable combination last year either.

Outlook - Defense ... Michigan's defense was supposed to carry the team last fall and never really stepped up to the challenge, giving up 35 + points a stunning six times. The good news is that the offense should be better this year, meaning less pressure on the D. The bad news is - unlike with Wolverines' teams in the past - there is only one real star on the defensive side of the ball. Typically Michigan boasts up to a handful of future NFLers, but this year, Brandon Graham is the only one who really stands out - though Obi Ezeh could also fit that bill eventually. Of course there is talent around, this is - after all - Michigan we're talking about, but there is some settling in that needs to be done. The key will be for this group to shake last year's woes and get off to a better start with the basics. Tackling was a big problem last year, but with a new coordinator, new focus and renewed energy, you have to bet that the M defense will be far better in '09 than it was a season ago.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Michigan's special teams play last year was less than stellar. The kicking game only yielded 10 field goals at a .667 clip. Upwards of 13 players tried their hand at the return game and put the ball on the turf at an alarming rate. Only punter Zoltan Mesko had a decent campaign and he may have tired from over-use! Mesko is back and the special teams' units have hopes of vast improvement in 2009. Whether or not they get it remains to be seen.

9/26 - INDIANA
10/3 - at Michigan State
10/10 - at Iowa
10/24 - PENN STATE
10/31 - at Illinois
11/7 - PURDUE
11/14 - at Wisconsin
11/21 - OHIO STATE

Key Games:
9/12 - NOTRE DAME, 10/3 - at Michigan State, 11/22 - at Ohio State

Prediction ... Well, last year was even worse than I expected. Word from the die hard Michigan fans is that expectations are for six or seven wins this year. I think that is realistic. My big question is this: what happens if Rodriguez & Co. have another sub .500 season? Will he get a third year? I expect some new weapons to emerge this year that are much better fits for the team and style, but along with young players comes inexperience and rookie mistakes. It'll be better this year, but it still won't measure up to Michigan standards.

OOC: 3-1 (Notre Dame is the only loss, but don't sleep on Western Michigan)
B10: 3-5 (wins over Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin)
Overall: 6-6, T-7th in the conference, Motor City Bowl

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

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 won nine games in 2008 - the most since the 1996 team went 9-3. It was only the fifth time in school history that the team recorded nine wins. The others? 1898, 1903, 1995 and 1996.

Past Predictions/Results:
2008 Prediction/actual: 6-6, 2-6 (T-9th) - At Large Bid / 9-4, 5-3 (T-4th) - Alamo Bowl
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: 5 offense, 8 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Mike Kafka, DE Corey Wootton, FS Brad Phillips, SS Brendan Smith

Key Losses: QB C.J. Bacher, RB Tyrell Sutton, DT John Gill, DE Kevin Mims, K Amando Villareal

Looking Back ... Wow! To anyone who doubted the move to Pat Fitzgerald in the wake of Randy Walker's sudden death a few years back, shame on you. Fitzgerald turned in one of the best seasons in school history, rattling off nine wins and making a nice run at Mizzou in the Alamo Bowl. And just think - within the losses was one to - gasp - Indiana. That team had a nice mix of power and finesse on offense and a defense that could step up on occasion. How does it look for 2009? Well, that remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, Pat Fitzgerald is another big season away from myriad big program coaching opportunities.

Outlook - Offense ... If the Wildcats take a step back in 2009, it will be due to the loss of proven weapons from the offensive arsenal. Mike Kafka got some good experience at quarterback last fall, but Bacher had that winning knack about him. So did Tyrell Sutton, who might be the most missed of them all on the offensive side of the ball. Having to replace three solid wide receivers is no small task either. But enough gloom and doom. What Northwestern does have is a line that returns three starters and Kafka. The key will be for a young back and receiver or two to step up early, otherwise 2009 could be a side step or step back before the next program growth spurt.

Outlook - Defense ... Okay, so how often do we use Northwestern and defense as a strength in the same sentence? Truthfully, not often. That said, the Wildcats have produced some great defenders over the past 10-15 years. The trouble has been fielding defense that is rock solid from top to bottom. Well, this year might be the year. Eight starters return and there are a few others in the starting mix who have seen time but battled injury a season ago. Only two games really got away from the purple and black last year (OSU and MSU) but the defense will have to be even tighter this year if the 'cats are to have success. The entire front four looks good, potentially really good, but each has battled injuries over the years. The back seven is flat out good. The linebackers are quick and athletic, the secondary deep. If this unit can stay healthy, Northwestern will win a few this year with its defense.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Northwestern will miss place kicker Amando Villareal but Stefan Demos may be able to handle all the kicking duties this fall. Northwestern also lost plenty of return game weapons, but the depth that is battling for time at tailback will be a nice positive for that part of special teams this fall.

9/5 - TOWSON
9/19 - at Syracuse
10/3 - at Purdue
10/10 - MIAMI-OH.
10/17 - at Michigan State
10/24 - INDIANA
10/31 - PENN STATE
11/7 - at Iowa
11/14 - at Illinois

Key Games:
10/3 - at Purdue, 10/17 - at Michigan State, 11/14 - at Illinois

Prediction ... If only... if only this team had proven firepower returning to the offensive side of the ball, I could easily see better than I am predicting. The schedule isn't bad at all, with no Buckeyes and Penn State at home. This would be a year to get Michigan as they still rebuild, so that is a bummer but in general, it is a good schedule. The OOC slate is ripe for a whipping and that will power NU into yet another bowl game...

OOC: 4-0 (no one here strikes fear into anyone!)
B10: 3-5 (win over Minnesota, Purdue and Indiana)
Overall: 7-5, T-7th in the conference, AT LARGE bowl berth

Monday, July 20, 2009

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: Indiana Hoosiers

Tidbits … Indiana's five year trend is 3, 4, 5, 7, 3 ... wins that is. The Hoosiers have been two two bowl games in the lifetime of most current players on the roster.

Past Predictions/Results:
2008 Prediction / actual: 7-5, 3-5 (T-7th), Motor City / 3-9, 1-7 (11th)
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: 7 offense, 9 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Ben Chappell, DE Greg Middleton, LB Will Patterson, FS Nick Polk

Key Losses: QB Kellen Lewis, RB Marcus Thigpen, DT Greg Brown, K Austin Starr

Looking Back ... How soon the success of one, emotionally charged season can wane. One year after making a run to postseason play for the first time in well over a decade, Indiana was slammed to reality. An injury-riddled 2008 campaign and continuous turmoil from supposed star Kellen Lewis led the Hoosiers from the brink of something consistent to the cellar once more. Maybe we should have seen it coming - the letdown from that season-ending high in 2007. Regardless, there is work to be done in Bloomington this season, or IU will reside in the basement once more.

Outlook - Offense ... Kellen Lewis is gone. So is Marcus Thigpen. Both were big-time playmakers for the Indiana offense. That said, is the loss of Lewis a blessing in disguise? His me-first attitude kept him out of important spring action in 2008 and this go around, it was the end of the road. Ben Chappell has plenty of experience, an offensive front that returns four of five starters and a big trio of wide outs to find down field. The key will be the Indiana ground game. Can Darius Willis go from redshirt to superstar? This offense is going to need Willis - or another back - to balance the attack if the Hoosiers are going to have any sustained success this year.

Outlook - Defense ... Indiana returns nine starters on defense. Ordinarily, that's a good thing. But this is a defense that gave up 42, 55, 45, 55, 34 and 62 in Big Ten tilts a season ago. There are some solid players here, but this unit must gel and come together as one if Indiana is to improve at all on last year's woeful defensive performance. Teams scored 27 times on the ground against IU last fall. The key is for the experienced front seven, led by DEs Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew and three-year starting linebacker Will Patterson to return to the form they flashed in 2007. Get some pressure up front and the secondary can gets its licks in. If that front seven flounders, look out - the numbers that seemed bad in '08 could turn catastrophic in '09.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Indiana entered the Big Ten as one of the best in this category last season. But, Austin Starr is gone and so is game-breaking return man Marcus Thigpen. Yes, punter Chris Hagerup returns, but the place-kicking falls to an untested freshman and the Hooisers will be hard-pressed to find a returner with the same speed and knack for finding the holes as Thigpen.

9/19 - at Akron
9/26 - at Michigan
10/10 - at Virginia
10/17 - ILLINOIS
10/24 - at Northwestern
10/31 - at Iowa
11/14 - at Penn State
11/21 - PURDUE

Key Games:
9/12 - WESTERN MICHIGAN, 10/10 - at Virgina, 11/21 - PURDUE

Prediction ... Indiana’s bowl berth in 2007 ended a 14-year drought. The Hoosiers’ last winning season before last year came in 1994. Will it be 2020 before IU has another winning season? The recruiting class that comes in was actually a decent haul by Indiana standards and I do like Bill Lynch as the Indiana coach. The key is not to jump the gun and start over - again - if the season plays out as I expect. The OOC slate is much tougher than last year, and the only in conference "break" is no Michigan State. Don't be surprised to see this team pull off a shocker or two, but it might be a lot of the same in 2009...

OOC: 2-2 (Someone call up last year's foursome instead. Wins over EKU and Akron.)
B10: 1-7 (win over Purdue)
Overall: 3-9, 10th in the conference

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Big Ten Football Previews – Part I

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

Team: Purdue Boilermakers

Tidbits … The Boilermakers have made a bowl game in ten of the last 12 seasons, however last year was the second time in four seasons that Purdue was home for the holidays. Consensus has the Boilers as owning the worst rated incoming class in the Big Ten - BUT - a movement towards speed could pay huge dividends immediately.

Past Predictions/Results:
2008 Prediction / actual: 7-5, 4-4 (6th), Insight / 4-8, 2-6 (T-9th)
2007 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-6th), Alamo / 8-5, 3-5 (T-7th), Motor City
2006 Prediction / actual: 8-5, 4-4 (T-6th), Insight / 8-6, 5-3 (T-4th), Champs
2005 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Outback / 5-6, 3-5 (8th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 5-3 (4th), Outback / 7-5, 4-4 (T-5th), Sun
2003 Prediction / actual: 10-2, 6-2 (T-2nd) / 9-4, 6-2 (T-2nd)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (T-4th) / 7-6, 4-4 (T-5th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 9-2, 6-2 (T-1st) / 6-6, 4-4 (T-4th

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

Returning Starters: 4 offense, 7 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Joey Elliott, RB Jaycen Taylor, FS Torri Williams, DT Mike Neal

Key Losses: QB Curtis Painter, WR Greg Orton, RB Kory Sheets, LB Anthony Heygood

Looking Back ... Purdue fans would appreciate it if we all just swept 2008 under the rug. It was no way to end a solid tenure for Joe Tiller. Team turmoil and gripes over playing time, philosophies, etc. led to the worst season in West Lafayette in a long, long time.

Outlook - Offense ... Purdue's top four offensive weapons have moved on. Well, make that five. The very promising Justin Siller failed to meet academic expectations, forcing the Boilers to face the season with very little depth or experience at the quarterback position. The good news is that there is some - albeit rather limited - experience in signal caller Joey Elliott. Wide receiver Keith Smith and tailback Jaycen Taylor provide some big play potential and the strength is the offensive line, which returns four starters. I believe that this offense will bog down at times, but look for Danny Hope to inject some of his young speedsters into the fray and for the offense to improve as the season wears on.

Outlook - Defense ... This is where the Boilermakers will have to make hay early in the season. Seven starters return, including a couple of stalwarts up front and a nice wall of linebackers. Health has been an issue for a few of those being counted on for big things in 2009 (LB Jason Werner, FS Torri Williams) and that is a concern since the depth chart is littered with sophomores. Purdue doesn't have a real weakness on the defensive side of the ball, and that is good news considering the plight of the offense. If this group over-achieves at all, the Boilers will be far better than I predict.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Both kickers return, though neither is necessarily upper echelon in the conference. Look for one of the fast frosh to break onto the scene as a key play maker in the return game.

9/5 - TOLEDO
9/12 - at Oregon
10/10 - at Minnesota
10/17 - OHIO STATE
10/24 - ILLINOIS
10/31 - at Wisconsin
11/7 - at Michigan
11/21 - at Indiana

Key Games:
9/26 - Notre Dame, 11/21 - at Indiana

Prediction ... Did Joe Tiller leave the program in the condition it was when he inherited it? Don't hate on me Purdue friends. This season is gonna be ugly. But it won't last too long. Purdue will be in most games this season and a decent foundation will be laid for the future. Plus, you have a Top Ten - maybe Top Five - hoops program to look forward to watching, so I know you can't wait for winter...

OOC: 2-2 (wins over Toledo and Northern Illinois)
B10: 0-8 (tough sledding in W.L. this fall)
Overall: 2-8, 11th in the conference