Considering the solid of coverage of the Hawkeye football team on this web site in the last month, this is probably a good time for me to give you a few of my thoughts about the rest of the Big Ten Conference football squads.
MICHIGAN: Right now, I think the Wolverines have the third best team in the country. And probably the best team in the Big Ten. Look at their schedule and you'll see that Michigan might be in the hunt for the national title when it hosts the Buckeyes on November 22. An improved defense, a strong offensive line, a veteran quarterback (John Navarre threw for 2,905 yards in 2002), a good runner (Chris Perry gained 1,110 yards in 2002) and a very good receiver (Braylon Edwards had 1,035 receiving yards in 2002) lead me to believe that the only Big Ten game the Wolverines will lose will be in Iowa City on October 4. Michigan plays Purdue and Ohio State at home…and doesn't have to play Wisconsin this fall.
WISCONSIN: Coach Barry Alvarez will have an improved defense in 2003, you can count on that. With Anthony Davis (1,555 yards rushing in 2002) and Lee Evans (1,545 yards receiving in 2001) leading the way, I look for a terrific year from the Badgers. Some people are predicting that Alvarez will leave his head coaching position after this season to become a full-time Athletic Director at Wisconsin (he has both duties right now) and if that's the case, he could go out with a bang. Wisconsin doesn't have to play Michigan this fall and the Badgers will play Ohio State, Purdue and Iowa in Madison. If they can split their first two games—at Illinois and at Penn State—the Badgers could be playing for a share of the Big Ten title when they host the Hawkeyes on November 22.
OHIO STATE: Plenty of "experts" are really, REALLY high on the Buckeyes. On the surface, that makes a lot of sense. The defending national champions have 17 starters returning and 51 players who lettered a year ago. In addition, Coach Jim Tressel appears to be one of those "never let 'em get too high, never let 'em get too low" type of guys who has probably worked as hard as ever this offseason.
However, the Buckeyes lived on the edge in 2002, winning a handful of games they could have EASILY lost. I'm not trying to diminish a 14-0 season—that would be crazy—but there was some good fortune involved. The bottom line is: Not only do I not expect the Buckeyes to repeat as national champs, I don't think they'll win the Big Ten. Why not? Ohio State has to play at Michigan and at Wisconsin this fall. Plus, I wouldn't be surprised if Maurice Clarett doesn't play another down of college football. I think a 6-2 league mark might be in the offing for the Buckeyes.
PURDUE: The Boilers return 17 starters, including junior quarterback Kyle Orton (Southeast Polk). Orton completed 61% of his passes for 2,257 yards and 13 TDs last season and I look for him to improve on those numbers this fall. Purdue has a ton of talent and many people expect Joe Tiller's team to contend for the league title this year, but the schedule-makers handed the Boilers road games at Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State. Those are three losses right there. One more loss puts gives them a .500 record in the Big Ten. Purdue will be fun to watch, but the Boilers will finish no higher than fourth in 2003.
PENN STATE: Zack Mills returns to lead an offense that will be missing Larry Johnson at tailback. However, I think the Nittany Lions will still be able to move the football. I just don't trust their defense. Five of the top seven tacklers in 2002 are gone now and that was a team that gave up 42 points to Iowa and 31 to Wisconsin. I think Penn State will lose at Purdue, at Iowa, at Michigan State and at home against Ohio State. Its homecoming game against Wisconsin will be the "swing game" that sets the tone for the rest of the season.
ILLINOIS: Jon Beutjer—like it or not—is one of the Big Ten's best quarterbacks. The former Hawkeye QB threw for 2,511 yards and 21 TDs in 2002, with only 11 interceptions. As a fifth-year senior, I look for him to continue to put up some big numbers. His worst outing will probably come in his return to Iowa City on November 1. This season will be a test for Beutjer and the Illini offense as the top four receivers and the top running back from 2002 are gone. Look for Illinois to finish in the middle of the pack with losses to Wisconsin, at Purdue, at Michigan and at Iowa.
MINNESOTA: Coach Glen Mason has 16 starters returning from an 8-5 team. So, why can't I get excited about the Gophers? I don't have faith in their defense, for one thing. In 2002, Minnesota gave up 42 points to Northwestern, 34 to Ohio State, 41 to Michigan, 45 to Iowa and 49 to Wisconsin. I guess I'm trying to decide if nine returning starters on that defense is good news…or bad news. As a Bears' fan, I find it difficult—if not impossible—to predict positive outcomes for any football team in Minnesota. I smell a 3-5 league mark for the Gophers.
MICHIGAN STATE: The Spahhh-ins were the most underachieving team in the league—and perhaps the nation—a year ago. With John L. Smith taking over the program, Michigan State can boast having the only coach in the league who uses his middle initial everywhere he goes. Neat, huh? On the field, the Spartans have something to prove and only one way to go this season. The talent on this team is better than many people might think and I could see Michigan State improving on its 2-6 conference mark of 2002. To 3-5 in 2003.
INDIANA: The Hoosiers gave Iowa a good game in Bloomington last fall, but that 24-8 loss was one of their best performances. Indiana managed to beat Wisconsin, but that won't happen again this season…as they don't play each other. Gerry DiNardo's team hosts Northwestern for Homecoming on October 11 and that could be a heckuva battle. I'll give the edge to the Hoosiers in that one. But, that may very well be their only Big Ten victory this fall.
NORTHWESTERN: The Wildcats beat Indiana last year, 41-37. However, they have to play the Hoosiers in Indiana this season. So, where are the "winnable" games on the league schedule for the purple-and-white? Ummm…let's see. Wisconsin? Nope. Penn State? I doubt it. At Illinois? No. This isn't looking real good. I could very easily see the Wildcats turning in an 0-8 Big Ten record in 2003. But, don't feel too bad, Northwestern fans…Indiana will be a home game again in 2004.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)