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August 23, 2004

Questions and (some) answers

Finally given the opportunity to cover Big Ten football, I can't say that I don't have anything to write about. Oh, there are the standard questions: Who will make it to the Rose Bowl (please let it be a Big Ten team, the sooner the better)? Who is poised to make an upset and possible run at the title? Who will win Michigan vs. Ohio State? And then there are the specifics: Why did Penn St. give a 4 year extension to Coach Paterno? Will Iowa be able repeat their past success? Will Wisconsin finally play up to expectations? Will Minnesota have enough defense to contend for the title? Will Michigan play up to its potential? Will Coach Smith or Coach Walker give us another surprise bowl team? How will instant replay work?
UM WR Braylon Edwards is one of the Big Ten's biggest stars.
You read all the national publications, and you see that this is a "down year" for the Big Ten. Really? By my count three teams have realistic shots at the Orange Bowl (Michigan, Ohio St., Wisconsin), and the depth outside of Illinois and Indiana is among the best ever in the conference. Is this based off bowl performance? Or is it coastal bias against Midwest schools? I don't know, nor do I care. While they are out watching the 'chic' teams, I'm going to be watching Big Ten football with as many stories as any conference in America.

2003 Record 10-3, 7-1
2004 Projected Record 11-0, 8-0 Big Ten
Coach: Lloyd Carr 11th year 86-26

Offensive Player to watch: WR Braylon Edwards would have been a top 10 pick in the NFL Draft but decided to return for his senior season to try and win another Big Ten Title and a National Championship. He caught 85 passes and 14 touchdowns and could improve on those numbers this season. His presence on the field will help either Matt Guiterrez or Clayton Richard break in for their first season under center. His presence makes Michigan the most talented receiving corp with Jason Avant, Steve Breaston, and Carl Tabb complimenting the All-American.

Defensive Player to watch: CB Marlin Jackson is to the defense what Edwards is to the offense. Coming back to try to win a championship, this senior moves back to cornerback after filling in at safety last year. Along with safety Ernest Shazor, he will provide a blanket over opposing teams receivers.

Top Concern: They lose QB John Navvarre and RB Chris Perry, but are still looking to reload and make a run at the national title in Ann Arbor. They always seem to come up short in seasons like this, but this is a team with few weaknesses and should be undefeated before facing Ohio State in their annual showdown. With Guiterrez or Richard taking over for Navarre and David Underwood and Pierre Rembrandt replacing Chris Perry, Michigan should be able to reload and not miss a beat.

If it all goes right: Michigan is aiming high and has the ability to reach the national championship game.

Realistic: Anything other than a Big Ten Championship will be a disappointment.

Three reasons they will succeed: 1. A strong veteran offensive line anchored by Adam Stenavich and David Baas on the left side. 2. Arguably the strongest, deepest defense in the Big Ten, helped by Marlin Jackson staying for his senior year. 3. Breaston and the special teams will win at least one game this year.

Three reasons they won't: 1. It will be hard for there not to be a dropoff from Navarre and Perry. 2. They play in Columbus Nov. 20. 3. Big Ten is the deepest conference in football - other than Illinois and Indiana, anyone can beat anyone on any Saturday. Running through the entire schedule without the upset occurring is a challenge.

Three Key Games: November 20 @ Ohio State, September 25 Iowa, Septmeber 11 @ Notre Dame

2003 Record: 7-6, 4-4
2004 Projected Record: 9-2, 7-1
Coach: Barry Alvarez 15th year 99-67-4

Offensive Player to Watch: RB Anthony Davis should allow the Badgers to return to the style of football that has served them well in the past. Smashmouth football. The key here is Davis' health. If he can remain healthy, 2,000 yards, a date in New York City, and a Rose Bowl berth aren't out of the question.

Defensive Player to Watch: FS Jim Leonhard is the sort of player that everyone should like. The former walk-on who only stands 5 feet 8 inches still had seven interceptions, 98 tackles, and returned two punts for touchdowns last season for the Badgers. Now he will be asked to hold a secondary together and provide Wisconsin with a championship defense.

Top Concern: Memo to Coach Alvarez: You are due. They need to show that they are one of the elite teams in this conference. A run to the Rose Bowl will do just that. To do that though, they must start closing out games, something they didn't do losing to UNLV and Northwestern last year, two teams they should have beaten in their sleep.

If it all goes right: With a Heisman candidate in Anthony Davis and a solid defense, Wisconsin can compete for a Big Ten Title and/or a BCS berth.

Realistic: Its time for Barry Alvarez's team to step it up and at least make it to a New Year's Day bowl.

Three Reasons they will: 1. Davis' leg injury appears to be totally healed, and behind a loaded offensive line, he could gain 2,000 yards. 2. They don't play Michigan this year. 3. They have the most underrated defense in the Big Ten.

Three Reasons they won't: 2. They haven't had the will to win like past Rose Bowl teams. 2. They must play Ohio State and Iowa on the road, and they don't play the Hoosiers. 3. Having a new QB is always an adventure.

Three key games: November 20 @ Iowa, October 9 @ Ohio State, Sep. 18 @ Arizona

Ohio State
2003 Record: 11-2, 6-2
2004 Projected Record: 8-3, 6-2
Coach: Jim Tressel 19th year 167-64-2, 4th year 32-7

Offensive Player to Watch: RB Lydell Ross. He rushed for 826 yards last season but wasn't overly impressive doing so. The pressure will be on him to provide a stabilizing force with a new QB under center for the Buckeyes.

Defensive Player to Watch: LB A.J. Hawk he must overcome surgery on his right knee and return to his potential All-Big Ten and All-American caliber play. He was the heart of the defense last year and will be the leader this year as the Buckeyes only return 3 other starters from last season's defense.

Top Concern: Last year's team overcame a lot: Maurice Clarett and his circus act, the cries to remove Craig Krenzel from QB, and every team gunning for them each Saturday. No problem, they merely went 11-2, ending with a strong win over Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. Now they must replaces a slew of starters on both sides of the ball. Still, they are reloaded and ready for another run.

If all goes right: No one would doubt if Jim Tressel led the Buckeyes back to a BCS bowl.

Realistic: They are due for a down year, however they should still be able to make a New Year's Day game.

Three Reasons they will: 1. Along with Michigan and Iowa, they have one of the top defenses in the Big Ten. 2. Coach Tressel has been able to consistently get the most out of his players, year after year. 3. They're THE Ohio Sate University. (And by that I mean they expect to win.)

Three Reasons they won't: 1. They lost Craig Krenzel and his leadership at QB. 2. They have only four returning starters on the defense and lost coordinator Mark Dantonio to Cincinnati. 3. The underachieving - by OSU standards - running game.

Three key games: November 20 Michigan, October 16 @ Iowa, September 18 @ N.C. State

2003 Record: 10-3, 5-3
2004 Projected Record: 8-3, 6-2
Coach: Glen Mason 103-104-1 11th year, 44-40 8th year

Offensive Player to Watch: RB Marion Barber. With most potent 1-2 rushing attack in college football along with Laurence Maroney, this should be once again exciting to watch. They will help out the new quarterback, but one wonders if having Maroney taking carries away will hurt Barber's Heisman chances.

Defensive Player to Watch: DT Anthony Montgomery. He disappointed last season but had a productive Sun Bowl, complimenting Darrell Reid. Montgomery will be the key to the defensive line, and in due course, the defense.

Top Concern: No one doubts the potent offensive attack of the Golden Gophers, but one does wonder if fans of the Gophers won't be wishing for a defense worthy of a Big Ten Champion come Thanksgiving. They lost 5 starters off last year's defense that gave up the dramatic Michigan comeback. Replacing and improving upon that play is a must to compete for the title. They lost QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq, but most are comfortable with Brian Cupito leading the charge this year. His transition will be made easier with two standout running backs and an extremely talented offensive line.

If all goes well: Making a run for the Big Ten title...

Realistic: ...and get a New Year's day bowl.

Three reasons they will: 1. The strongest, deepest running attack in the Big Ten led by Barber and Maroney. 2. They have the strongest O-Line in the Big Ten led by Greg Eslinger and Rian Melander. 3. They have 7 starters returning on the offense and only replace one offensive linemen.

Three reasons they won't: 1. They have a new QB in Brian Capuito. 2. They play at Wisconsin. 3. The defense is suspect, especially the run defense with a lack of size on the D-Line.

Three key games: November 13 Iowa, October 16 @ Michigan St, November 6 @ Wisconsin

2003 Record: 10-3, 5-3
2004 Projected Record: 8-3, 5-3
Coach: Kirk Fernetz 44-509th year, 32-29 6th year

Offensive Player to Watch: QB Drew Tate. The front-runner to replace Nathan Chandler, Tate will take over an offense that ranked last in the Big Ten in passing. He holds a bunch of Texas high school records but if he doesn't perform, then fellow sophomore Jason Manson will get playing time.

Defensive Player to Watch: LB Chad Greenway. With fellow linebacker Abdul Hodge getting all of the headlines, Greenway is one of the best run stoppers in the conference and will clean up anything Hodge doesn't get.

Top Concern: If Coach Kirk Ferentz wanted to, he could probably coach Iowa for the next 25 years. With rumors swirling around about him leaving for the NFL, all the coach did was lead his team to another double-digit win season and a New Year's Day Bowl victory over Florida. Now he must replace his QB (again) as well as 8 other members of the offense. Still, that offense only ranked 92 in the nation and should improve by default, especially if Tate plays up his potential.

If all goes well: It doesn't look like the Hawkeyes have the offensive skill to make it back to a BCS - but that's what everyone said last year too. And they would have if they hadn't lost to Purdue or Ohio State.

Realistic: They should easily make a bowl game but not out of the realm of possibility to be playing New Year's Day.

Three reasons they will: 1. They play both Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin at home 2. Their defense should keep them in every game. 3. They have a strong incentive to prove that they are one of the elite programs in college football with a good season.

Three reasons they won't: 1. They have a young offense returning only two starters (LG Mike Jones and RT Pete McMahon), with a new QB and a weak receiving core 2. They are replacing a starting QB for the second year in a row. 3. They are now a big game on people's schedule as no one views them as a fluke - now they're one of those teams to beat.

Three key games: Septmeber 25 Michigan, October 16 Ohio St., November 13 @ Minnesota

2003 Record: 9-4, 6-2
2004 Projected Record: 6-5, 4-4
Coach: Joe Tiller 94-62-1 14th year, 55-32 8th year

Offensive Player to Watch: QB Kyle Orton. He's an All-Big Ten player, but he faces his toughest challenge of his career. It's back to the late 90's for Purdue, outscore the opponent and hope the defense is good enough to win. Orton should thrive as he has plenty of tools with fellow All-Big Ten performer Taylor Stubblefield and running back Jerod Void.

Defensive Players to Watch: Whoever starts across from CB Antwaun Rodgers. It could be Brian Hickman, Sean Petty, or Paul Dubler. Regardless, opposing QB's will be picking on that side of the field and avoiding Rodgers. If they can't stop the opposing teams passing game, it could be a long season.

Top Concern: Losing 8 starters off a 13th ranked defense is going to hurt them immensely. Trying to find replacements for all of them will be a tough task. How defensive coordinator Brock Spack does with the players he does have returning will determine how this season goes for Purdue. Look for them to be a middle-of-the-pack year team with a potential for an upset or two.

If it all goes right: A New Year's Day bowl.

Realistic: Bowl game.

Three Reasons they will: 1. The strongest offense in the Big Ten - 30 points and 400 yards - wouldn't be unreasonable for the Boilermakers. 2. Ben Jones and the special teams should help a poor defense by giving the other team a long field. 3. Kyle Orton is the most experienced QB in the Big Ten.

Three reasons they won't: 1. They replace 8 players off a defense that was ranked 13th in the nation last year. There will be a drop off. 2. They must visit Iowa and Notre Dame - they'll be lucky to win one, let alone both. 3. They don't have a grind it out system that almost every other team in the Big Ten has. It's harder to win those grind it out games when you throw the ball 50 times.

Three Key games: October 2 @ Notre Dame, October 16 Wisconsin, November 6 @ Iowa

Penn State
2003 Record: 3-9, 1-7
2004 Projected Record: 6-5,3-5
Coach: Joe Paterno 33rd year 339-109-3

Offensive Player to Watch: QB Zack Mills. With sophomore Austin Scott solidifying the running game and an offensive line that should be much improved over last year squad, Mills will be counted on to spread out the passing to a young but talented receiving core and to manage the game effectively as Penn State won't be blowing anyone out. The question is which Mills will we see. The sophomore who impressed NFL scouts with his passing ability and running efficiency? Or the junior who struggled with a poor offensive line and a bum knee?

Defensive Play to Watch: CB Alan Zemaitis had a breakout season his sophomore year with 71 tackles and a team-high 4 interceptions, including returning two for touchdowns. He also led the Big Ten with 18 passes broken up. With his talent and a strong defensive line, the Nittany Lions defense should be much improved.

Top Concern: Giving Coach Joe Paterno a four year contract extension was questioned by many, especially after the extremely disappointing season last year. This team has some talent as JoePa can still recruit, but without developing that talent, seasons like last year will become the norm instead of the aberration. Having an offensive line that can protect the quarterback would be a good idea, too.

If all goes well: Happy Valley could be happy again if they exceed expectations and win 8 or 9 games.

Realistic: Just making a bowl game would be an improvement over a sorry 2003 season.

Three reasons they will: 1. Austin Scott is a sleeper All-Big Ten RB. 2. They have a young, athletic defense that is led by junior Alan Zemaitis at cornerback. 3. They came close last year to upsetting Wisconsin and Ohio St. They're a year older, and they have some talent - albeit young - at WR. Maybe they pull one off.

Three Reasons they won't: 1. JoePa can't resist playing Michael Robinson at QB. Zack Mills could be a star if left to his business. As it is, it eats away at his confidence and the rhythm of the team, and as a consequence, play suffers. 2. Their offensive line is weak, although better than last years model. 3. They must get through an average non-conference schedule unscathed, or their bowl chances hinge on at least one upset.

Three key games: September 11 @ Boston College, October 23 Iowa, November 20 Michigan St.

Michigan State
2003 Record: 8-5, 5-4
2004 Projected Record: 5-7, 2-6
Head coach: John L. Smith 118-65 16th season, 8-5 2nd season

Offensive Player to Watch: Whoever comes out of the quarterback derby. With Stephen Reaves, Damon Dowdell, and Drew Stanton battling it out in East Lansing, whoever wins will be faced with the tough task of replacing Jeff Smoker. The one that wins will be able to throw to a talented receiving core, but the inexperience of both groups will hurt the Spartans.

Defensive Player to Watch: Safety Jason Harmon. It tells you something when a safety is your leading tackler as Harmon was last year with 108. He will be looked upon to provide a stabling, veteran presence on a defense that was overhauled in the off-season.

Top Concern: They did well last year, winning 8 games and making the Alamo bowl, although such success would be a stunner this year. This year it's a rebuilding project, though it's one with promise with some very talented receivers, especially Agim Shabaj. Making sure that they beat teams like Notre Dame and Northwestern is the key to this team making a bowl game. They can't afford any slip-ups.

If all goes well: John L. Smith and his boys overachieved last year, and if they do so again, this year will be rewarded with one of the higher non NYD bowls.

Realistic: Making a bowl game may come down to beating Hawaii, but it's possible.

Three Reasons they will: 1. Smith has proven himself as a motivator and it wouldn't surprise me if he did it again. 2. With Dave Rayner's FG kicking and Brandon Fields pinning down opponents with his punting and DeAndra Cobb as the best return man in the nation, they should pull off at least one game because of their special teams. 3. Jaren Hayes and Tyler Dortch moving to the defense, at left cornerback and "bandit" respectively. This should improve a pass defense that gave up 258 yards and 5 TD's to Lee Evans last year.

Three reasons they won't: 1. No Jeff Smoker - and who knows who the QB will be. It's still undecided with Dowdell, Stanton, and Reaves all competing for the job. 2. They only have two starters returning on the offensive line. 3. Jaren Hayes and Tyler Dortch are moving to the defense, and that hurts the running game that will have to take the load off the new QB.

Three key games: December 4 Hawaii, October 30 @ Michigan, October 2 @ Iowa

2003 Record 6-7, 4-4
2004 Projected Record 4-8, 2-6
Coach: Randy Walker 83-70-5 15th season, 24-35 6th season

Offensive Player to Watch: Not often is it that an offensive linemen is the best player on an offense, but it might be the case with Northwestern and lineman Zach Streif. One of five returning starters, this junior will lead one of the top rushing attacks in the Big Ten, which is a good thing because the passing game is anemic.

Defensive Player to Watch: DE Loren Howard came out of nowhere to record eight sacks in his sophomore season. The Wildcats are looking for more of the same from him as they return 10 starters on defense.

Top Concern: Coach Randy Walker has one of the most intriguing teams in the Big Ten this year. With much the same team that snuck into a bowl last year, this Wildcat team is one that will be overlooked at peril to their opponents. The fact they return 18 starters this year shouldn't leave them to be complacent. They'll be dead in the water if they do. But they have enough talent to give the big boys fits. I just don't know if they will.

If all goes right: They win 6 or 7 game and reach a bowl game.

Realistic: Don't embarrass themselves, and build on a solid finish last year.

Three reasons they will: 1. They return 8 starters on offense including their QB Brett Basanez, and all 5 offensive linemen, led by RT Zach Stief. 2. They return 10 starters on defense and have one of the most underrated defensive lines in the Big Ten. 3. It's possible that if they don't regress, they can upset a few teams in the Big Ten. Look out for them in '05 if everything goes to plan.

Three reasons they won't: 1. They have an inconsistent passing game with a QB who hasn't yet proven he perform up to expectations. 2. The back seven of the defense is a dropoff after the exceptional D-Line. 3. They are an improving team but still a lower level team in this conference. Most teams will be better than them on Saturdays.

Three key games: October 30 Purdue, November 6 @ Penn St, November 27 @ Hawaii

2003 Record 3-8, 1-7
2004 Projected 2-9, 1-7
Coach: Ron Turner 39-53 9th year, 32-39 8th year at Illinois

Offensive player to watch: QB Jon Beujter was granted another year of eligibility after a season-ending knee injury last year, and he will look to improve his standing in the NFL Draft as well as try to reverse the Fighting Illini's fortunes. If he returns to 2002 form, a completion percentage of 59 percent, 21 touchdowns with only 11 interceptions, then it could be interesting to watch. If he fails, sophomore Chris Pazan will start.

Defensive player to watch: LB Matt Sinclair. He will lead the defense which will have to step it up, especially now that Antonio Mason is not in camp and might not be with the team at all this year - more of the fun with Ron Turner. Sinclair is no slouch though; he led the team with 129 tackles last year and four sacks.

Top concern: Everyone else has a reasonable chance to reach a bowl game other than these last two teams in Illinois and Indiana. They keep QB Jon Beutjer, who was granted a medical redshirt after injuring his knee last year. Coach Turner is on the hotseat with two consecutive losing seasons and bad vibes coming out of Champaign.

If all goes right: They win five games and have a nice upset along the way.

Realistic: Save Coach Turner's job.

Three reasons they will: 1. The offense with a good QB should be better than the 16.9 points a game they averaged last year, as they have a solid RB in E.B. Halsey and an exciting prospect in DaJaun Wagner. 2. They have a lot of potential in LB that is built around the play of senior Matt Sinclair. Potential never made a tackle though. 3. Teams are made or broken when under pressure, and the pressure to succeed will be there as Coach Turner needs to win or else.

Three reasons they won't: 1. They have a poor defense that gave up 33 points last year, and the Antonio Mason situation doesn't help. 2. Quite possibly the worst offensive and defensive lines in the conference, they only rushed for 5 TD's while giving up 32. 3. Players are saying, "There are no teams on our schedule that we should beat." (Center Duke Preston, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch) Hey Duke, what about Florida A&M, Western Michigan, and Indiana?

Three key games: October 30 Iowa, September 25 Purdue, September 4 Florida A&M

2003 Record 2-10, 1-7
2004 Projected record 0-11, 0-8
Coach: Gerry Dinardo 56-68 12th year, 5-19 at Indiana 3rd year

Offensive player to watch: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The sophomore averaged 4.2 yards per carry and rushed for 7 TD's his freshman year. He will be looked on to carry much of the offense, especially with a passing game that only had four TD passes - and Green-Ellis caught one of them. If he can stay healthy, he should be able to improve on his 938 yards last season.

Defensive player to watch: Paul Sczesny, a JUCO transfer from Pima CC in Arizona, will bring size and some speed to a defense that gave up over 30 points and 400 yards a game.

Top Concern: Well, we know this is a basketball school, but this is a little ridiculous. Other than the opening game against Central Michigan, they will be underdogs each time they play. It doesn't look like they even have the talent to upset one of the pack teams in the conference. And the one player whose name the casual fan recognizes is Matt LoVecchio, and he only because he played QB for the Notre Dame squad a few years back. One hopes that Coach Gerry Dinardo knows what he is doing.

If it all goes right: They get 4 wins.

Realistic: Win a game or two in the conference and not get blown out the rest of the time.

Three reasons they will: 1. Paul Sczesny, along with a defense that returns 9 starters 2. They do not play Iowa or Wisconsin. 3. Sometimes you just luck into a win.

Three reasons they won't: 1. Both the offensive and defensive lines could be the worst in the conference. 2. They have little skill at the skill positions. 3. Two teams they could beat, Northwestern and Illinois, are played on the road. Not that they have much of a home field advantage.

Indiana key games: September 4 Central Michigan, September 25 Michigan St., November 6 @ Illinois

Preseason All-Big Ten

QB - Kyle Orton, Purdue
RB - Anthony Davis, Wisconsin
RB - Marion Barber III, Minnesota
WR - Braylon Edwards, Michigan
WR - Taylor Stubblefield, Purdue
TE - Tim Massaquoi, Michigan
OL - David Baas, Michigan
OL - Zach Streif, Northwestern
OL - Gregg Eslinger, Minnesota
OL - Dan Boenning, Wisconsin
OL - Rian Melander, Minnesota

DL - Simon Fraser, Ohio St.
DL - Anttaj Hawthorne, Wisconsin
DL - Matt Roth, Iowa
DL - Loren Howard, Northwestern
LB - Abdul Hodge, Iowa
LB - Pierre Woods, Michigan
LB - Chad Greenway, Iowa
CB - Marlin Jackson, Michigan
CB - Antwan Allen, Iowa
S - Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin
S - Ernest Shazor, Michigan

PK - Mike Nugent, Ohio St
P - Adam Finley, Michigan
KR - DeAndra Cobb, Michigan St.
PR - Steve Breaston, Michigan


Best Team - Michigan
Best Coach - (TIE) Kirk Ferentz, Iowa / Jim Tressel, Ohio St.
Best Player - Braylon Edwards, Michigan
Best Stadium - Michigan Stadium
Best Game - Michigan @ Ohio St.
Best Fans - All Big Ten Fans
Best Tradition - The best college football in the country
Best Bet to Over-Achieve - Northwestern
Best Bet to Under-Achieve - Iowa

Since I've been asked to write for this website, I figured I would let you, the reader, know what to expect. I do not have a favorite team in the Big Ten; I have never attended a Big Ten school. I try to cover all things objectively, and this is no exception. I do love hearing from other people, either on the message board or through e-mail. I'd like to have one or two columns this year with other fans' questions. Each Monday during the season, I'll provide a short recap of all the Big Ten games, so you will know what happened in all the other Big Ten games while you were watching your own team play. Hopefully, it will be entertaining and informative. Finally the real Big Ten preview lays out what I think will happen in the Big Ten this year. If you disagree, agree, or just want to spout off, send me an e-mail. Just remember one thing -- no one really has any idea what will happen this's just a lot of fun to guess!

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