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August 30, 2004

Heading into the first week, there was some feedback I received with my 2004 Big Ten preview column. Unfortunately, none of it was via the e-mail; it was just those around here that told me, so here are the most common questions I heard. If there are some you would like to ask, don't hesitate to e-mail.
Can QB Matt Gutierrez handle the pressure in Ann Arbor?
What was the reasoning behind picking Wisconsin ahead of better teams like Ohio State, Iowa, and Minnesota?

First, I don't think that Ohio State, Iowa, and Minnesota are better teams; that’s why I picked them ahead of those three. Regarding the top two slots in the Big Ten, every year Michigan and Ohio State are picked as the top two teams. Despite last year, it hardly ever works out that way. Regarding last year for the Badgers, they beat Ohio State 17-10 at Camp Randall, they lost to Minnesota on the road by three, and they lost to Iowa by six, almost winning a close game there. A 1-2 record against those teams wasn’t good, but when you look at how it shapes up this year with a new aggressive defense and Anthony Davis back healthy, it ends up shaping up nicely for them to make a run at a BCS game.

Obviously they are hurting at running back depth with the retirement of running back Dwayne Smith because of a heart ailment. This means that the health of Davis is more important than ever, and some additional pressure is placed on the passing game.

This year more than ever, the defense will help the offense. With Bret Bielema taking over as defensive coordinator, an aggressive, ball hungry defense will be the norm for the Badgers. Another factor benefiting the offense is freshman kicker Taylor Mehlhaff who has been asked to shorten his kickoffs during practice -- he was kicking them too far out the back of the endzone and not allowing the return to occur. They won't be asking him to do that come game time, and driving 80 yards against an improved defense will not be an easy task. Look for the Badgers to be able to win a lot of field position battles that way.

Can Michigan really go undefeated? Don’t they usually end up losing a game they shouldn’t?

Yes, they can; the better question is will they? Look at their schedule, and you'll see that they will be favored in every game they play until OSU on November 20. They will face a stiff challenge from an extremely embarrassed Notre Dame team in a game that is on the road, and Iowa will give them a big challenge in the Big Ten opener on the 25th of September. I expect them to meet both challenges and go into Columbus undefeated, so yes, while they do lose games they shouldn’t (see Oregon last year), I don’t think they will do that this year. Still, I wouldn’t be overly surprised if they lost to Notre Dame, Iowa, or Minnesota (or some other team for that matter).

Some people point to the inexperience at quarterback with Matt Gutierrez as a reason for them struggling; I disagree. He knows how to deal with pressure -- you don't quarterback at De La Salle High School and not deal with pressure to keep that winning streak going. Also, his job is made a lot easier with a rock solid offensive line and what many consider (myself included) the best receiving core in the nation. If a running back steps up or they are able to do a committee routine that succeeds, then it should be lights out until the Horseshoe.

Outside of the "big names" Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota, Purdue and Wisconsin, who has the best chance of surprising some people in the Big Ten this year?

Well, I would add Michigan State to that list. I don't expect them to be down very long, as John L. Smith is a good recruiter and a good coach, and while I'm not a huge fan of his, he has won everywhere he has been.

But I don't think they will do it this year. Northwestern is my pick. They surprised a lot of people last year making it to a bowl game, and they return every starting linemen on both sides of the ball. If QB Brett Basanez improves on his numbers from last year (162-302 for 1916 yds, 4 TDs, 12 INT) and makes opposing defenses respect the pass as well as the run, the Wildcat defense will be good enough, led by Loren Howard, to keep them in games they don't have any business being in.

...Now that our schedule is set up, you will be reading an “Instant Replay” column each Sunday night throughout the season. I would appreciate any and all feedback as far as what you would like to see. Also, I will have a second column later in the week, and I would like it to include some reader mail, but after by first column, I didn’t get any. I hope someone is reading my column; if you are, send something in please. I will have a preview of the upcoming week's Big Ten games that will be out later this week.

 > Talk about it in The College Corner...

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