As most people who know me are well aware, I'm a Midwest guy, so I grew up watching Big 10 games just like any other kid who grew up in the Great Lakes region. I root for the Big 10 teams to do well, and I enjoy a Brent Musberger Big 10 telecast as much as anyone.
On that note, even though Big 10 fans have been trying to deny it, it has been a rough stretch for the Big 10 the last few years. With all the bad conconferecne losses and bad bowl game performances, the Big 10 has been getting killed nationally. As Kirk Herbstreit has been saying all offseason (much to the dismay of the people here in town) if you go to any other part of the country, the Big 10 is viewed as a joke. Part of it is envy of all the attention that it receives compared to conferences in other regions of the country, but the vast majority of the Big 10 hatred is just that fans are tired of seeing Big 10 teams getting run off the field in high-profile games (the Illinois Rose Bowl game, the back to back blowout losses by Ohio State in BCS Championship Games, and Michigan getting destroyed at home by Oregon).
With "Big 10 fatigue" sweeping the nation, 2008 is a big year for the league. So where is this league headed over the next few years?? Well, there are a couple big factors, so let's start with the bad news. My biggest concern about the Big 10 is whether the league can sustain its reputation with the changing demographics in this country. Massive population losses in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania on a yearly basis make me wonder if the talent that used to grow up in the Midwest will now be coming out of places like Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia. If all these people graduating from Big 10 schools are fleeing the Midwest and moving to places like Phoenix, isn't it a logical conclusion that future Hawkeyes and Gophers and Hoosiers coaches will have less talent to recruit in their states?? Can the Big 10 schools continue to hang with the SEC and PAC 10 teams that appear to have more overall talent??
The good news is that high school football is still a huge deal in the Midwest, and the sophistication of high school football in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania means that players coming out of these states have a leg up on the raw talent that is coming out of less organized high school football programs in the fast-growing states of the South and West. Football is still king in the Midwest, and it probably always will be. The best athletes in this part of the country are generally playing football, so there is still plenty of hope for the Midwest programs if they can continue to bring in those types of players.
Another positive sign for the Big 10 has been the infusion of coaches like Rich Rodriguez, Ron Zook, and Mark Dantonio into the league. All three coaches have brought some new blood and increased competition to the Big 10, which could pay off well for the league over the next few years.
One other note, Kirk Herbstreit (who has been killing the Big 10 the last couple years) has a local radio show with Chris Spielman (who is essentially a Big 10 cheerleader) and he's surprisingly high on the league this year. With all of the experience back in the league, he seems to think the Big 10 is flying under the radar.
The Big 10 Network is also something to keep an eye on in future years. The network is probably going to increase exposure to Big 10 sports to places around the country, and it appears that it is going to be a huge revenue source for these schools. For those of you in Ohio, it appears that there is no deal in sight between the Big Ten Network and Time Warner Cable, so get ready for another year of watching Big 10 football and basketball at your local sports bar.
Let's get to the teams -
Iowa - 7.5 - UNDER - Holy cow, that is a high over/under for an Iowa team that flat out stunk last year and lost home games to the likes of Indiana and Western Michigan. Iowa was awful last year, and probably was fortunate to go 6-6.
I would have been all set to plunk down the under on Iowa without even thinking twice about it, but a chance meeting at Ravi's wedding with a diehard Iowa fan (I'm assuming everyone who reads this blog had a lengthy talk with him as well) has me thinking about my pick again. Iowa has somehow avoided Ohio State and Michigan on the schedule this year, and they get Penn State and Wisconsin at home. How is that possible?? How does Iowa avoid Ohio State and Michigan?? Aren't there only two teams that you don't play every year in the Big 10 rotation?? That shouldn't happen in the Big 10. A key game for Iowa could be that early nonconference game at Pitt. If they somehow win that game, they could be in for good year.
I'm just not buying it though. Iowa had all kinds of problems off the field in the offseason, and I feel like they are a clear notch behind teams like Illinois, MSU, and even Purdue. Iowa's recruiting has really tailed off, and I guess I just don't see a big year out of them even if they have a weaker conference schedule. I could see them losing 4 or 5 road games next year, and I think they'll lose a game or two at home.
Northwestern - 6.5 wins - OVER - I really want to get excited about Pat Fitzgerald as head coach of Northwestern. I enjoyed his career at Northwestern, and that 1995 Northwestern team is one of the great Cinderella teams of all time. I know he took over the program under very difficult circumstances after the tragic death of Randy Walker, so maybe he'll begin to make his mark on the program this year. Northwestern has had a randomly entertaining fooball program over the last 15 years or so, so there is potential for him to carve out a niche in the upper middle class of the Big 10.
Northwestern had a strange year last year. They lost to Duke at home, but also won a game at Michigan State. The Wildcats did not have a lot of great performances last year. Even their wins over bottom feeders like Minnesota and Nevada were squeakers.
Tyrell Sutton is still at Northwestern?? Wow, it seems like he has been a Wildcat forever. He should be one of the better backs in the Big 10, and the Wildcats return most of their defense. Their nonconference schedule is a joke, so they really need to find a way to beat Syracuse and Duke to get to 4-0 in the nonconference. If they win three games in the Big 10, they are going bowling this year.
Minnesota - 4.5 wins - UNDER - It's never a good sign when you take over a moderately respectable program and immediately run them into the ground. Tim Brewster has shown that he likes to recruit, but can he coach?? Minnesota was half-decent under Glen Mason, and at least they posed the threat of a dangerous running game. It seems like one of those situations where Minnesota bit off more than they could chew. They had a nice little run and decided that they could do better than Glen Mason. Unfortunately, they forgot that they're Minnesota!! You are never going to have elite talent at Minnesota, so the only way to win is with a great scheme and great coaching. Brewster has made it clear that he plans to out-talent people at Minnesota through recruiting, but he's never going to get the talent to do that no matter how hard he works on the recruiting trail.
Considering that Minnesota was the worst team in the Big 10 before Glen Mason arrived and now is the worst team in the Big 10 after he left, shouldn't there be a little more appreciation for what Mason did there?? Brewster seems like he has a little Gregg Robinson in him, which should be concerning. Apparently, Brewster has convinced himself that he can just recruit big at Minnesota and that the wins will come from there. That is not a winning formula at a place like Minnesota.
The Gophers have a ridiculously easy nonconference schedule ahead this year, but they are coming off a season where they lost at North Dakota State, Bowling Green, and Florida Atlantic plus all their Big 10 games. I don't see them making the leap to 5 wins this year.
Indiana - 5 wins - OVER - You can count on one thing with IU football this year. No matter what games are on at the same time, Ravi will find his way to the corner of the bar to tune into the Big 10 network's coverage of that IU-Murray State game!!
I didn't really expect to be taking any "overs" with the Hoosiers, but there's no reason they shouldn't go to a bowl game this year. Kellen Lewis is one of the better QBs in the Big 10, and their schedule is something out of the Kevin White playbook. They also don't play Ohio State or Michigan this year. Terry Hoeppner laid the foundation for some success in Bloomington, and Bill Lynch should be able to ride those coattails for another year or so and lead the Hoosiers to a bowl game.
Speaking of Indiana, I don't mean to pile on Indiana when they are down (especially since it's likely that Tom Crean will have them rolling in a few years), but how ugly is the 2008-09 season going to be in Bloomington?? Do they have anyone left?? Yikes. I'm usually a believer in the "front of the uniform" as Dick Vitale would say, but it's going to be awfully tough for IU to make the NIT this year. Give me 15-14 with IU turning down the NIT bid (much to Ravi's delight!).
Purdue - 6.5 wins - OVER - The fighting snout brooms!! Purdue is getting a little buzz as a Big 10 sleeper with Curtis Painter back at QB, but I don't really care what the preseason talk is with the Boilermakers. Purdue is incapable of winning anything more than 7-8 games. It's just not a program designed for a Big 10 title. Purdue gets the leftovers in the Midwest that ND, OSU, Michigan, Penn State, Illinois, and even Michigan State don't want. They are what they are. An overachieving program that can beat you when you are down but doesn't have the horses to go toe to toe with the big boys. Everyone was hyping up Purdue before their game with Ohio State last year, and they got blown off the field.
Joe Tiller gets laughed at a lot around college football, but I don't think the guy gets nearly enough credit. When has Purdue ever been bad since he's been there?? He wins about 7-8 games and goes to a mid-tier bowl game every year. Isn't that all you can ask for at Purdue?? Mark it down, Purdue is going to struggle when Tiller leaves. He was a much better coach than a lot of people realize. 2008 is his last season, so I would imagine that the players will be giving it their all to send him out with a winning season. Their nonconference schedule is pretty tough (Oregon and Notre Dame), but I still see Purdue fighting to 7 wins.
Since they are an ND opponent every year, I feel like I pay an inordinate amount of attention to Purdue. Memo to the athletic department, I'd be perfectly happy to give up following Purdue football to get some different teams on the schedule.
Michigan State - 7 wins - OVER - I can't make up my mind whether I should be buying or selling on Michigan State this year. I think they are certainly going to be better under Dantonio than they were under John L. Smith, but people are starting to talk about MSU like they are a sleeper for the conference championship this year. I think highly of Dantonio, and Ohio State's defense hasn't been quite as good since he left as defensive coordinator for the head job at Cincinnati. Dantonio made UC competitive, and it's entirely possible that he could have had the same success last year at UC that Brian Kelly did (I don't totally endorse that idea though). Michigan State currently has the 7th ranked recruiting class for 2009 on rivals.com, so Dantonio appears to have them headed in the right direction going forward.
A lot of coaches really start to make their impact on a program in their second year, so 2008 could be a big statement year for the Dantonio era. They have a veteran QB with Brian Hoyer and Jevon Ringer back as a standout running back, so the pieces could be in place for a breakthrough year. MSU has some quality defensive players returning, and Cincinnati transfer Trevor Anderson sounds like he could be a big time pass rusher for the Spartans.
Michigan State opens the year at Cal, which could be a huge game for both schools. Very interesting game. Who do you all like in that one?? Probably Cal, but Michigan State is always frisky early in the year. If MSU wins that game, they could be in for a great year. Michigan State's season will come down to how many of their "big games" they can win this year: Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin. If they win 2-3 of those games, they could be in for a nice year.
Just looking at Sparty from an ND perspective, I feel like that game at Michigan State could be our 2nd toughest game this year.
Illinois - 8 wins - UNDER - OVERRATED ALERT!! Illinois is on the rise as a program, and I think their overall strength is a good thing for the league. When teams like Illinois, Michigan State, and Iowa are competitive, it makes the Big 10 a much more respectable league. I just don't know about 8 wins for them this year with a very tough schedule and some key personnel losses. Illinois plays at Michigan, at Penn State, at Wisconsin, Missouri in St. Louis, plus Ohio State at home. I'm not sure I see them winning any of those games. There is no margin for error with them if they want to get to 8 wins.
Don't get me wrong, I think Ron Zook is doing an outstanding job at Illinois and he continues to recruit well. I just think that everyone expecting Illinois to keep rolling along with 9 wins is getting a little carried away. They are going to have a target on their backs this year, and it's not going to be as easy to sneak up on people. Illinois still has less overall talent than the big boys in the Big 10, so I see them falling back to the pack a little bit.
As far as personnel, Mendenhall is a huge loss, but they have some major weapons back. Arrelious Benn is an absolute stud and probably will be the best WR in the Big 10 this year. They need to find a way to get him the ball as many times as possible. I think Juice Williams will play better this year, but I'm still not sure I'd trust putting the entire offense in his hands. If they can run the ball effectively again this year, their offense should be pretty solid.
Michigan - 8 wins - UNDER - A lot of people are talking about a 3-9 type season at Michigan, but I think we're headed for one of two seasons in Ann Arbor:
1) Michigan comes out like gang busters, circles the wagons, surprises everyone with a new offensive scheme that throws everyone off guard, plays with a chip on their shoulder, and wins 9-10 games
2) Michigan is very up and down with some very shaky moments and also some occasionally inspired play. Their offense looks really spotty at times but shows some potential on the way to around 7-8 wins.
Is it possible that Michigan is going to be awful and win 3-4 games?? I guess, but I'm not seeing it. They've been a little down, but it's not like Lloyd Carr wasn't still bringing in good recruiting classes and talented players. Michigan is still Michigan, and they didn't have some Ty Willingham gap that killed off all their talent. I know they lost all their skill guys from last year and that Mallett transferred, but there are still a lot of solid pieces in place. They have a lot of players back in their defensive front seven, and they are always going to have talented skill guys stepping in.
I'll be interested to see how their offense looks this year. Are they going to be effective in the spread?? Is it going to take a couple years?? Who is going to play QB?? Are they going to run with the QB or have some sort of hybrid spread scheme?? I think the adjustment period with their offense might take a little while, but I could also see them being really dangerous once it starts to take off. Rodriguez is bringing a new mentality to the Big 10 that you would normally see down in the SEC. He is bringing new schemes, new philosophies, and new ideas to an old-fashioned league. Once he starts getting the players he needs, look out. Should be interesting, especially since he is at one of the more old-school stodgy programs out there. It will be strange to see Michigan in a spread, no-huddle type scheme, but that might be the best thing for that program. He is bringing a 2008 attitude to a 1970s program. I'm not discounting the possibility that Rodriguez could be a complete failure at Michigan, but then I think back to his West Virginia teams that just shredded people with less talent than what Rodriguez will have at his disposal at Michigan. I think Rodriguez will eventually put together some very explosive teams at Michigan if the fans let him grow into the job.
Game to watch: Utah at Michigan on August 30. Could be Appalachian State Part Deux. Still, I have to think that the Wolverines are going to be really cranked up for that game since it kicks off the Rich Rodriguez era. Could be a game that really builds some momentum for Michigan, or a potential disaster that sends them into a tailspin.
I'm certainly taking the under on Michigan, but I don't think they'll be awful by any stretch.
Wisconsin - 8.5 wins - OVER - It is somewhat of a shame to make this pick since Wisconsin's schedule is an absolute embarrassment, but the "over" for Wisconsin is the easiest pick in the Big 10 this year.
Honestly, Wisconsin has a very legitimate chance to run the table this year. Their toughest nonconference game is on the road at Fresno State (could be an interesting game), and they have to go to Michigan in early September. If they win those two games, everything could come down to that 8 pm showdown in Madison against the Buckeyes. Judging by past night game atmospheres in Madison, that is going to be a raucous crowd.
As always, Wisconsin is going to pound the ball with PJ Hill and Zach Brown, they are going to find some scrappy white guy who can barely throw to run the show at the QB position, and they are going to be tough and physical on defense. I'm surprised there isn't a Stocco brother out there for the Badgers to throw in at the QB spot.
Wisconsin is usually a very tough team to beat at home, so they are in for a great season with Ohio State and Penn State at home this year. I think 10+ wins is a very safe pick for the Badgers with the experience that they have back. I've always wanted to get up to Madison for a game. Sounds like it would be a blast. A Saturday Wisconsin game in Madison followed by a Sunday Packers game in Green Bay would be awesome. If we have any Wisconsin readers out there, feel free to weigh in on the possibilities of making that happen. If there is any available couch space, I'm in.
Penn State - 8.5 wins Penn State - UNDER - Ahh, Penn State. One of my favorite programs to discuss. Maybe I'm overly harsh toward the Nittany Lions, but I just don't see what there is to be excited about this program. Penn State fans, are you happy with where your program is at?? You've settled into the middle of the pack in the Big 10, and you can't really talk about your program being on the rise with an 80 year old coach.
Other than the one successful 2005 team (which was very fortunate to have a ridiculously easy schedule), Penn State has been a very mediocre program for a decade. They are right around 8-4 every year and usually lose to Michigan and Ohio State. They have been pulling in decent top 15-20ish recruiting classes, but nothing extraordinary. Penn State is not even the 3rd best program in the conference at this point. Again, this is the same Penn State that was dominant in the 70s and 80s and pretty much locked up the best talent in Pennsylvania every year. Penn State has the resources and potential to be a powerhouse type team that dominates mediocre/bad teams, wins big games, and competes for the best talent. They don't do any of those things these days. They should be top 10-15 every year, but instead they have become the equivalent of an NFL team that goes around 9-7 every year and loses in the first round of the playoffs. They aren't bad, but they are far from becoming a dominant program. If I was a Penn State fan, I'd be incredibly frustrated that the program has basically flatlined just so Joe Paterno can have something to do to keep himself busy. The fact that Terrelle Pryor from the heart of Penn State country is going to play his college ball at Ohio State is all you need to know about Penn State these days.
The good news is that Anthony Morelli is gone, and it sounds like whoever replaces him will be an upgrade. Penn State should be really good defensively, and their o-line sounds like it is going to be much better as well. Penn State's nonconference schedule is fairly favorable with their toughest game at home against Oregon State. I don't see them losing that game, so 4-0 looks reasonable heading into conference play.
One of the things I've noticed about Penn State in recent years is that they are an awful team on the road. They play like a completely different team on the road than they do at home. They will almost certainly lose on the road to Wisconsin and Ohio State, and I think they'll have some real problems winning at Iowa and Purdue. Put me down for 8-4 on the Nittany Lions and feeling good about it.
Ohio State - 10 wins - OVER - I think there are legitimate reasons for people to question an "over" pick, but I used this logic. If you put a gun to my head, am I really going to say that Ohio State is going 9-3 this year?? Nah. I think a worst case scenario for Ohio State is 10-2 this year, so you are talking about a push at worst.
Everyone is dwelling on the back to back BCS Championship game blowout losses, but the reality is that Ohio State has dominated the Big 10 in the Tressel era. The Vest is 45-11 in the Big 10. They have 18 starters back, several star players (Lauranaitis, Jenkins, Robiskie, Boone) decided to come back for their senior years, Beanie Wells is as good as any running back in the country, Tressel will get the most out of his players, they have plenty of motivation, and their schedule is not that bad with Michigan and Penn State at home. And that's before you get to Terrelle Pryor and whatever impact he might bring to the team. I don't see any reason why they won't win the Big 10 again this year. That game at Wisconsin could be tricky and maybe the Illinois game, but I would be very surprised if they lost more than one game in the Big 10 this year.
Ohio State fans have been pointing to this season for a couple years, so the expectations are as high as ever. The only question for OSU is whether they can run the table and get back to the BCS Championship game. That is the goal for this team, and I get the impression around town that anything less would be a disappointment. Those are ridiculously high standards and probably unfair, but that is the nature of the beast I guess. A few questions:
1) Todd Boeckman - While I won't go ahead and call Boeckman a liability, I think there are some serious questions about how good he is as a quarterback. He was solid for the first half of last year, but he really looked shaky down the stretch and threw 6 picks in the final three games. Boeckman doesn't throw a bad ball when he has time, but he needs to find a way to limit his mistakes. Boeckman apparently had a couple interceptions in the spring game, so I don't know what he'll look like this year. Even though he is a veteran guy, I think OSU fans are little nervous about how he will perform. Even if he struggles, I don't think there is any way that Terrelle Pryor takes over this veteran team as a freshman.
Boeckman will be fine against most of this schedule, but it will be a different animal on September 13.
Which leads me to my next question....
2) USC - The game of the year for the Buckeyes will be the trip to LA to meet up with the Trojans at the LA Colisseum. It is a big game for Ohio State if they want to rebuild their reputation in the college football world, and it will have major national title implications. If they get blown out in that game, it will deliver a serious blow to OSU's credibility and probably add fuel to the fire for all the Big 10 detractors. If they beat USC, they will have a clear path to the title game.
Needless to say, Ohio State will be geared up for this game and don't play anyone else noteworthy in the nonconference, but will it be enough?? USC has made their reputation by pounding midwestern teams into the ground, and I would imagine that Pete Carroll will have them sky high for that game. With USC's talent and weapons, it is going to be a daunting task for Ohio State.
What type of game plan will Tressel have for this game?? If he's planning to play conservative Jim Tressel ball and rely on his defense to get stops, he's kidding himself. They are going to need an aggressive game plan. How will Todd Boeckman perform under the bright lights?? Tough to say, but he can't turn it over and give the Trojans a short field.
Either way, Brent Musberger will be fired up for that one, and it should be quite an atmosphere.
3) Tressel - As I have said many times, I think Tressel is an outstanding coach who almost always gets the most out of his players, but I think that Ohio State will need him to come through with a more aggressive game plan if they want to beat USC or a prominent SEC team in a bowl game. Ohio State has been gliding through the Big 10 against lesser teams, and I think that the lack of quality teams in the Big 10 has hurt their ability to prepare for the big bowl games. There are so many great teams in the SEC that these programs are going against the best of the best coaches week in and week out. If you are not bringing an aggressive game plan every week, you are going to lose in that league. By the time they get to a bowl game, those teams have seen everything.
Tressel had a very passive "bend but don't break" style game plan in both bowl game losses, and they paid the price for it. LSU essentially did whatever they wanted in marching down the field for multiple scores. You simply cannot sit back in a zone all day against the top teams because they will gash you for big chunks of yardage. The only way to effectively stop a great team in college football is to get pressure on the QB with blitzes and aggressive schemes to force bad decisions and turnovers. LSU clearly had great talent on offense, but Tressel did not have a winning gameplan in that game. With all of the first round draft picks on their roster, it is hard to cite lack of speed or talent as the only reason why Ohio State gave up 38 and 41 points in back to back bowl games. Tressel needs to probably pop in a tape of the 2002 National Title game and recreate that type of gameplan for his next big game.
Tressel is beloved in Columbus and will probably never hear any real serious grumbling from fans if he continues to dominate the Big 10 and beat Michigan more often than not, but I can say that he will lose some of his luster if his team gets run off the field at USC this year. At the very least, Ohio State fans would like to see a competitive game out there, and they are counting on Tressel to have the team ready.