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The Illini had a fabulous 2001 season, winning ten games and the Big Ten regular season title. Although QB Kitner is gone, seven starters on offense, along with another seven on defense, return to try to defend Illinois’s title. Two experienced WRs are back, but the middle three members of the OL will have to be replaced. The backfield appears to be in good shape. Defensively, two members of the DL return. The strong point of the defense will be the LBs, where all three starters are back for the Illini. Two members of the defensive secondary also return. The non-conference schedule has only one tough game, a trip to take on Southern Miss. Illinois has more difficult conference contests at home (Michigan, Purdue, Ohio State). Road games at Minnesota and Northwestern are also winnable. The Illini have half their games at home and should be able to capture a winning season in 2002. Defending their title, however, will be difficult this season.
The Hoosiers were hoping to make some nosie in the Big Ten last season with Heisman Trophy candidate Randle El at QB. But the Hoosiers finished 4-4 in conference play and 5-6 overall, and coach Cam Cameron found his way out the door. Now former LSU coach Gerry DiNardo will take over the Hoosier program. Only five offensive and six defensive starters are back, along with both kickers. Two WRs are back this season, and only three starters are back on the OL, one of which is DeMar, a possible all-conference selection. All three backfield positions will have to be replaced. Defensively, the Hoosiers will have to play better defense this season than last. The two inside members of the DL are back as are two of last year’s starting LBs. Two members of the secondary also return. Two kickers return, but that isn’t saying much on this team. The non-conference schedule has a couple of halfway-tough games. They are both road contests, one at Kentucky and the other at Utah. Half of the Hoosiers’ games are at home this season, but I don’t think IU will come too close to winning half their games. It will take a couple years for IU to get over the loss of Randel El and for DiNardo’s effects to be seen.
The Hawkeyes were a big of a surprise team last season, winning seven games and going bowling. They finished 4-4 in conference games, which was good for a tied for fourth place finish. Five starters return from each side of the ball along with both kickers. The offensive line will be the most experienced portion of the offense since four of the five starters are back. No starting WRs are back, and the loss of Khalil Hill, who also returned kicks, will hurt the Hawkeyes. TE Dallas Clark, a possible all-conference selection, will be back. All of the backfield will be inexperienced. Defensively, only one member of the DL returns, but two LBs are back. Two members of the defensive secondary are back, including Bob Sanders who could be all-conference. The kickers are in fairly good shape, especially with K Nate Kaeding. The OOC schedule has a couple of tough contests, a trip to Miami (OH), a contender for the MAC title, and a visit from in-state rival Iowa State. The Hawkeyes may be slightly down from last season, but I still expect a .500 record both overall and in the conference.
The Wolverines finished the 2001 season in second place in the Big Ten. An 8-4 record was good enough for a New Year’s Day bowl appearance, and Michigan is looking to get at least that far again this season. Five offensive and eight defensive starters are back. Only two OL starters are back, but one of those, Tony Pape, could make all-conference. One WR is back as well as QB John Navarre. The RB spot is up for grabs. The defensive side of the ball looks a little more promising for Michigan. All four DL are back, including two possible all-conference selections, Rumishek and Orr. Only one LB is returning, but three of the four members of the secondary return, two of which are a couple of the best in the conference, Jackson and June. There are big questions at kicker and punter where there is not a starter back. The non-conference schedule is one of the toughest in the league, with visits from Western Michigan, Utah, and Washington as well as a trip to Notre Dame. Seven games are in Ann Arbor, which should help Michigan contend for yet another Big Ten title. I think the Wolverines will come up just short again this season, probably getting similar records to the ones they had last season.
I think Michigan State could step up and be a major factor in the Big Ten this season. With eight starters back on offense and seven back on defense from a team that went 7-5 and finished tied for eighth in the conference last season, this could be the year the Spartans step up and take on a BCS bowl. One starting WR is back, and he’s a good one, probable All-America selection Charles Rogers. All five members of the OL are back as well. Starters will need to be found at TE and FB, but QB Jeff Smoker has those duties under control. On the defense, two of the four DL are returning, and two LBs are back as well. The secondary is experienced with three of the four members back for the 2002 campaign. The OOC schedule is towards the bottom of the pack in the Big Ten, with all four games at home and the only challenging one being against Notre Dame. The Spartans have seven of their first eight games at home, a schedule that’s built for nothing but success. Most experts don’t think MSU will be a major factor, but the Spartans have experience on both sides of the ball and a favorable schedule to work with in 2002.
The Golden Gophers struggled to a 4-7 season last year while finishing tied for tenth place in the Big Ten. Ron Johnson will be tough to replace in 2002, but the Gophers could contend for a .500 record. Five offensive starters are back as are eight defensive players. One WR is back, but the OL is very inexperienced with only one starter back. TE Utecht is a possible all-conference player, while Asad Abdul-Khaliq (gotta love the name) is back to lead the offense. RB Marion Barber appears to be ready to be the main man in the backfield even though he’s only a sophomore. The defense has two of the four DL back. All three LBs, including Phil Archer who is a possible all-conference player, are back. The secondary has three members back for the 2002 campaign. The Gophers might have the best combination of punter/kicker in the Big Ten. The OOC schedule is probably the weakest in the league, the only tough game being a vist from Toledo. The Gophers have a decent shot at a .500 record this season and can work from there. They still have a long way to go to get to the elite status but a .500 record would do wonders for this team.
The Wildcats had a very disappointing season in 2001. Many people picked them in the top two or three in the conference, and some picked the Cats to win the Big Ten. Instead, they finished 4-7 overall and tied for last place in the conference. Four offensive and six defensive starters are back this season. The OL returns only two players (Roehl and King), but both are a couple of the league’s best. The WRs seem to be in good shape, but QB Kustok and RB Anderson will have to be replaced. Defensively, only two starters from the DL are back, and one LB returns. The most experienced part of the ‘D’ is the secondary where three starters are returning. The OOC schedule is one of the weakest in the conference. There really isn’t a tough game on it. Half of the Cats games are at home, and the team finishes with three of the last four games at home. A .500 is made a lot easier thanks to the poor OOC schedule. Northwestern shouldn’t need to win more than 3 conference games to reach .500, so I think they’ll accomplish that feat.
The Buckeyes had a fairly successful season in 2001, winning seven games and finishing third in the conference. QB Bellisari and RB Wells are now gone however. Five offensive and eight defensive starters do return though. WR Michael Jenkins is one of the best in the conference. Three of the OL are back as is a second WR. The entire backfield will need to be replaced though. Defensively, the Buckeyes look much more promising. The entire DL is back, including Scott and Anderson who could be all-conference members. Two LBs return, and one, Wilhelm, is one of the league’s best. Two members of the secondary return, and Mike Doss is probably an All-America selection. Both kickers also return. The punting appears to be in good shape though the kicking of field goals is shaky at best. The OOC schedule is probably the toughest in the Big Ten, with a trip to in-state rival Cincinnati and visits from Texas Tech and Washington. The Buckeyes have four of their first five games in Columbus and should get off to a quick start. The tough non-conference games will tell which direction this team is heading, up towards a conference title or down to the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. My guess is up.
The Nittany Lions came up just one win short of a bowl berth last season and finished tied for fourth in the conference. A total of twelve starters, six on each side of the ball, return for the 2002 campaign. Both WRs are back this season, and three of the OL from last year’s squad return. The backfield appears to be a strong point for PSU, where QB Zack Mills and TB Larry Johnson (although he’s not considered a returning starter) are back. Both of these players are candidates for the all-conference team. The DL also appears to be strong with all-conference candidates Kennedy and Adams two of the three returning DL. Only one LB is back, and two members of the defensive secondary return. Both kickers return, so the special teams appears to be in good hands. The non-conference schedule doesn’t have an easy game on it although all four games are at PSU. Central Florida and Louisiana Tech, although smaller schools, will both be challenging for their conference titles while Nebraska and Virginia are both members of major conferences. I think Penn State will improve on their win total from last year by one or two wins but have about the same conference record. A bowl should be in store for the Nittany Lions.
The Boilermakers finished an even .500 both overall and in Big Ten play in 2001. With so many starters returning, it looks as if Purdue will have yet another successful season. A total of sixteen starters, nine on offense and seven on defense, are back for the ‘02 season. The offense should again be successful as all three WRs are back, including team leader Standeford. Four-fifths of the OL is also back as is QB Kyle Orton who took over for Drew Brees last season. RB Montrell Lowe, who could be an all-conference player, may now finally get to shine in his senior season. On defense, two of the four DL are back, and all three LBs are back. All-conference candidate Schweigert is one of two members of the defensive secondary returning this season. The non-conference schedule is in the middle of the pack in the conference. With the exception of the ISU game, home games against Western Michigan and Wake Forest won’t be easy nor will a trip to Notre Dame. I expect the Boilermakers to finish just above .500 and with about a .500 record in the conference.
The Badgers fell below .500 last season and were left out of postseason play. They finished a disappointing eighth place in the conference. Eight offensive but only two defensive starters are back this season to try to send UW back bowling again. Potential All-America WR Lee Evans is back as are all five OL. QB Bollinger is back as is sophomore sensation RB Anthony Davis. The FB and TE positions are looking for new starters. Defensively, the Badgers don’t look promsing. All four DL as well as each of the three LBs will have to be replaced. The only two returning starters are in the defensive secondary. The OOC schedule is one of the toughest in the conference. Tough home games with Fresno State, West Virginia, Northern Illinois, and Arizona, as well as a road trip to UNLV, will not be easy wins for Wisconsin. If the Badgers pull out three of these OOC games (which they should), only four conference wins will be needed to secure a .500+ season. I think the Badgers will be right around the .500 mark both overall and in the Big Ten, possibly just under .500 in both categories.
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