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The Big Ten had a ton of surprises during last years college football season. When it was all said and done, Joe Paterno led his Nitany Lions to a Big Ten title, Michigan struggled to stay above .500, and Ohio State was solid as usual. But lets face it only five teams have a reasonable chance at competing for the Big Ten title. Lets take a look at the contenders in the Big Ten this year.
Penn State Nittany Lions (’05 record: 11-1, 7-1)
We'll start with the defending Big Ten Champs, the Penn State Nittany Lions. It appears that it will be hard to expect the same result of last year for this season.
With questions at quarterback, and offensive line, don't expect the offense to be as good as last year. However, as unsure as we were about Michael Robinson last year, that managed to turn out OK. His replacement will likely be Anthoney Morelli, who coaches say has looked solid in the spring. They even went as far to say that he may have the strongest arm of any quarterback to play at Penn St. His progression will also be helped by the solid receiving core that is coming back at full strength this season. Derrick Williams will be coming back from his broken leg, and coaches say he looked as good as ever during spring drills. Now the offensive line is a different story. Left Tackle Levi Brown, who many consider a high draft choice next year, is the only returning starter on the line. The biggest question for this team will be if numerous freshman can step in and do an adequate job of blocking.
With key losses in the defensive back field, look for pass defense to struggle this year. Alan Zemaitis and Anwar Philips both went to the NFL in the off season and should present a problem. Sophomore Justin King should see time in that role, but last year he played little CB, in favor of WR. The defensive line will also struggle with the loss Tamba Hali. However, the Nittany Lions are strong at linebacker with the returning of Paul Posluzny, Dan Conner, and Tim Shaw. They also have a lot of depth at the position and could have the best linebacking core in the country this season.
Overall, the Nittany Lions have their work cut out for them and we shouldn't expect a season like last year. Expect them to finish no higher than 3rd in the Big Ten in '06.
Michigan Wolverines (’05 record: 7-5, 5-3)
Arguably the biggest disappointments in '05 were the Michigan Wolverines. Ranked number three in the nation at last years start, finishing 7-5 and tied for 4th in the Big Ten, was not what most anticipated. However, this year should be different. Expect the Wolverines to turn it around in '06.
The offense returns starters in most of the key positions. Quarterback Chad Henne, who returns as a junior, struggled last year after a sensational freshman year. This year is a question. Henne flourished with star receiver Braylon Edwards to throw to, and struggled last year after he left. With Jason Avant leaving, who will step up? Will it be receiver by committee? It very well could be unless Steve Breaston reaches his potential as a receiver. Expect last year’s freshman sensation Mario Manningham to step up as well.
Now we all know how good running back Michael Hart can be, and lets face it, last year he was never healthy. If he can remain healthy the Wolverines shouldn't have a problem running the ball. Also sophomore Kevin Grady returns in better shape and should provide a good 1-2 punch for the Wolverines. Expect the Wolverines to up their rushing game from 9th in the Big Ten last year, to near the top this year.
The biggest question on offense is the offensive line. During the off season Michigan lost 3 starters to the draft, and the only standout left is left tackle Jake Long. Mike Kolodiej was a disappointment at right tackle and will likely be moved else where. So who will make up the bulk of the line? That question is yet to be known.
On defense the Wolverines struggled last year. While there are no new additions to the defense itself, they did get a new Defensive Coordinator in Ron English. Coaches say that the defense is playing with much more intensity, and ferocity during practice. Could this make a difference? We'll find out in the fall. The biggest question that presents itself to the Wolverines on defense is the cornerback position. Who will start along side Leon Hall? It will probably be Morgan Trent, but watch out for red shirted freshman Johny Sears, and sophomore Charles Stewart to press for that spot.
After a disappointing season last year, the Wolverines have all the motivation they need to get back to the top. Do they have the personnel to get there? It appears so, but their defense could again struggle. The offense appears to be primed and ready, but will the O-line hold up? Again, we'll have to wait until the fall. Despite all of the questions, expect the Wolverines to climb back to the top of the Big Ten.
Ohio State Buckeyes (’05 record: 10-2, 7-1)
After their Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame, the Buckeyes took a heavy loss. Of last years defense, 9 of the 11 defensive starters are gone including the entire back seven on defense, and two starting ends. Do the Buckeyes have what it takes this year? Lets look and see.
The offense returns most of its skill position players this year. That means Troy Smith will be effective, as well as their running backs. But will the offensive line be solid like it was in years past? That seems unlikely at this point. After losing Mangold and Sims to the draft, the offensive line is at its weakest point in years. Tackle Doug Datish will move over to cover center, but in doing so leaves a hole at left tackle. That presents at least 3 new comers to need to play on the O-line this year. Receiver also took a hit with the loss of Holmes to the draft, but expect Ted Ginn Jr. to step it up as a possible Heisman contender.
As stated earlier, the defense took a gigantic hit in the off-season. Since it is highly unlikely they’ll be able to replace the likes of Hawk, Shlegal, and Carpenter, linebacker will be their weakest link. As of right now, no one even knows who will start at the LB positions. Also after losing, Whitner, Salley, and Youboty to the draft as well, the defensive secondary will struggle this year. If Ohio State has any chance at winning a National Title, they’re defense will need to mature immensely by the fall.
Despite its loss on defense, Ohio State will still remain a force in the Big Ten. The offense has enough star power to lead the way if need be. However, with their weaknesses I feel that it wont be enough to win the Big Ten. They’ll fall short to Michigan on November 18, the game that will decide the Big Ten.
Iowa Hawkeyes (’05 record: 7-5, 5-3)
The offense for the Hawkeyes in ’06 appears to be solid. With Junior Albert Young returning off of a great ’05 campaign expect Iowa to be near the top of the Big Ten in rushing. Another strength is their O-line, they are 2 deep at each position, all with solid players. However, quarterback Drew Tate could struggle this year due to his lack of receivers. Ed Hinkel and Clint Solomen both graduated, and that should present a hole at wide receiver.
Defense is where this team could have its problems. After losing Greenway and Hodge to the draft, there will be a problem trying to fill those holes. There are some guys in the wings such as Ed Miles, Mike Klinkenborg, Bryon Gattaas, and Zach Gablemann. Corner also lost two 4- year starters last year. Those however will be replaceable in the likes of Adam Shada and Charles Godfrey.
Don’t expect the Hawkeyes to win the Big Ten, but they could make some noise. Their offense should produce, if they can provide a passing attack with their running game. Defense is going to be their Achilles heal this year so expect them to finish no higher than 4th in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin Badgers (’05 record: 10-3, 5-3)
The Badger offense has a few holes to fill before the season starts. They lost Brian Calhoun, and have nothing but unproven backs left. Quarterback John Stocco also returns, but he lost his top seven pass catchers. The only returning receiver that had a catch in ’05 was Marcus Randle El, and he only had one catch for 29 yards. So there are a lot of questions at receiver. Tight end isn’t any better, both starters moved on to the NFL, and there are no sure replacements as of now. The one upside on offense is that they have a massive offensive line. The lightest player on the team is 306 lbs, and the shortest measures 6’5”.
The defense is going to have to carry this team if they are to have a chance in ’06. Their linebacking core is very athletic and should provide an adequate pass rush. Jonathan Cassilas, Mark Zalewski, and DeAndre Levy make up this unit. It is said that they may be the most athletic the university has ever produced.
Can Wisconsin win this year? Unlikely, but like Iowa, they could provide some upsets. They’re offense isn’t going to score enough to keep up w/ Michigan, or Ohio State this year. That will present some problems. Expect them to compete with Iowa for the 4 spot in the Big Ten.
Sleepers in ‘06
By a show of hands, who had Penn State winning the Big Ten last year? That’s what I thought. Will there be a team that could make noise like them this year? To me only one comes to mind. The Michigan State Spartans look like they could pull off some upsets this year. With last years hot 4-0 start, the Spartans looked like they were ready to turn the corner. However after losing to Michigan, the Spartans went on a skid and finished 5-6. Most of the reason for this skid was losing QB Drew Stanton to injury. Expect him to recover and have a great year.
The Rest of the Big Ten
Lets face it, Indiana and Illinois are locks to be at the bottom of the Big Ten. Northwestern was a good story last year, but I doubt they can repeat that success. Minnesota will struggle this year due to the loss of Maroney. Not to mention Gary Russell is currently in Junior College to become eligible. If he fails to do so, the Gophers will be horrible this year. After all, they do live off of the run. Purdue also has questions at QB, which should limit their success.
Last season, the Big Ten may have been the toughest conference with all 11 teams beating each other up. This year however it seems to be lob sided. Here are my predictions for the Big Ten
1) Michigan 2) Ohio State 3) Penn State 4) Wisconsin 5) Iowa 6) Michigan State 7) Purdue 8) Northwestern 9) Minnesota 10) Illinois 11) Indiana
Fri 05/05/06, 2:51 pm EST