The Big Ten in 2004: Another Wide Open Year

With the dust having settled on the 2003 Iowa Hawkeye season and with spring practice looming on the horizon, we thought it might be fun to take a look at how the 2004 Big Ten race might look. Who will be hurt most by graduation? What teams return the most players? Will the national media respect the Iowa Hawkeyes next year? We take on all of these questions and more in this look ahead to next year.

This story originally appeared on Hawkeyenation.com on 1/4/2004. However, given that we are breaking down the Hawkeyes heading into spring practice, we felt this one had bit more shelf life, and would be worth revisiting. Plus, there have been hundreds of new subscribers to the site since this story first appeared. Even if you have read it before, we feel that you will enjoy taking another look at it, now that we are three months closer to football season

Iowa fans feel that the Hawkeyes are going to be able to replace what they have lost and perform well next year to various degrees. Some fans are more optimistic than others, of course.

So we should also believe that some other schools in the league would be able to do the same to one degree or another. Kirk Ferentz and his staff have a track record of doing this over the last year and we all hope they can do it again.

Even though Iowa loses Sanders, Hodges, Clauss and Steen on defense, and believe me, those are huge losses, I am just not as concerned about the defense as seven players return. Iowa will have more depth in the secondary than at any other time in the Ferentz era as Antwan Allen, Jovon Johnson, Ma'Quan Dawkins and signee Walner Belleus will be in the mix at the least. Miguel Merrick, Marcus Paschal, Chic Ejiasi, Khaliq Price, Sean Considine and others will fight for time at the safeties. There will be depth at linebacker and Iowa returns the two best in the league. The defensive line will be interesting, but Iowa returns Jonathon Babineaux, Tyler Luebke, Matt Roth, Derreck Robinson and Matt Neubauer. I think Neubauer makes the move back to DE for next year, by the way.

George Eshareturi's legs are tree trunks. I could not believe what I saw down on the sidelines in Tampa. I think Bryan Mattison could put on another 20 pounds this off-season and I think he needs it, but people are very high on him in Iowa City. Kenny Iwebema may have had the most 'flash' of the true frosh this past year on scout team. Will Richard Kittrell be able to play next fall? I am talking from a scheme and understanding point of view. Let's hope so, as I don't think he can participate in Spring drills.

On offense, Iowa returns two to five starters. Pete McMahon, Mike Jones, Brian Ferentz and David Walker all saw starts on the offensive line. Jermelle Lewis has started before and I guess I don't see a drop off at RB. With all due respect to Fred Russell, I feel Lewis is a better overall back, just like I said at the end of last season that Abdul Hodge might make us forget about Fred Barr. Albert Young can also catch passes out of the backfield, so teams will not be able to key on the run in the one back set with those guys in.

Iowa breaks in a new quarterback...again. This time around, however, he will not be a fifth year senior, as has been the case the last three years. Plus you had Scott Mullen and Randy Reiners who were not spring chickens when they were taking snaps.

So this will be something new for Iowa, save the few games that Jon Beutjer started in 2000 and the starts that Kyle McCann had early in his career. Iowa will be as young at the position as they have been since 1995.

Drew Tate, Jason Manson and Eric McCollom will fight it out at quarterback this winter and spring, and most of the people that I spoke to down in Tampa feel that Tate and McCollom will emerge and they might both see time next year.

One of the more popular theories floating around Tampa, and one that I posted in the HN Clubhouse earlier this week, is that Manson might welcome a move to WR. We shall see.

At WR, there is some talent, but there needs to be more. Calvin Davis showed signs of being a playmaker and James Townsend has the speed. He will benefit from the off season as much as anyone. Ed Hinkel seemingly makes first downs every time he touches the ball and Matt Melloy got some dirt on his shoes this year and was Iowa's 4th WR in the Outback Bowl. Scott Chandler and Tyler Fannuchi will be there for some depth as well.

An Adrian Arrington would have the chance to come in right away and be in the mix. Will Herb Grigsby stay on the offensive side of the ball? No matter where he ends up, he needs to add at least 10 pounds or muscle this off season, if not more.

At TE, Mike Follett and Tony Jackson return and Kirk feels that there are a couple of other TE candidates on the team right now that we might not know about. Will that be Champ Davis? AJ Johnson sure looked like he has the frame for the fullback position at some point, but who knows if he can block. Aaron Mickens is back and will be in the mix at FB as well, but if Davis stays at that position, it's his to lose.

On the OL, you have Jones, McMahon, Walker and Ferentz with experience. Then you have a host of Hawkeyes that will have to step up. Lee Gray should be ready to do that. Chris Felder was hampered by injury this fall, as was Blake Larsen. Ben Cronin, Mike Elgin, CJ Barkema, Clint Huntrods...at least three of those players is going to have to be able to be relied upon.

Iowa used just six OL's this year...if they can come up with seven that they feel good about next year, things will be OK up front.

In Ken O'Keefe's offense, there is not as much pressure placed on a QB to make the big play as there is in some other offenses around the league. You know right off that Iowa will run the ball at least 60% of the time, and you know that five to ten pass plays per game are going to be a variation of the waggle or a naked.

Kirk did say earlier this year that he could envision some no huddle in the coming years....something Drew Tate did a lot of in high school.

Looking at the Big Ten race for 2004, and reminding you that this is very early and there will be injuries, ineligibilities, defections, etc, over the course of the next eight months that will impact things, I don't see a team that is head and shoulders above the rest.

Michigan loses six starters on offense, including three offensive linemen, John Navarre and Chris Perry. They lose five starters on defense, including three of four on their defensive line and cornerback Jeremy LeSueur. They return 11 starters in all.

Wisconsin returns the most starters with 16. On offense, they lose Jim Sorgi and Lee Evans. That is it. On defense, they lose all of their starting LB's and strong safety Ryan Aiello, but return their entire front four.

Ohio State loses three OL's, one WR (Jenkins), their TE (Hartsock) and QB Craig Krenzel. The good news for the Big Ten is that their defense will be hit hard by graduation and one early entrant into the NFL draft. Gone is five of their front seven, a group that has been the best in the Big Ten over the last two years. They also lose three of four DB's, including Mr. Everything Chris Gamble to the NFL as a junior entrant. Ohio State comes to Iowa City this year. In all, the Buckeyes return just nine starters.

If you thought Ohio State loses a lot on defense, take a look at Purdue. Their defense that gave Iowa so many problems over the past three seasons loses nine starters. They return one DL and one DB. On offense, they lose the Big Ten's all time leading receiver in Standeford and another starter, plus three offensive linemen. They return six starters on offense, but just eight overall.

Minnesota could be in the mix again in 2004. They lose three of their four top pass catching options, including TE Ben Utecht. They lose Asad Abdul-Khaliq at QB plus his backup and one offensive lineman. Two of their three-headed rushing attack returns, and with 4 of 5 OL starters coming back, one would expect the Gophers to run wild again in 2004.

On defense, they lose just one DL, one LB and two of four DB's. Even though Minnesota doesn't have that signature win on the road in Big Ten conference play, they should always be treated like a wounded animal…you might think you have them where you want them, until you get too close…they can still bite. But until they break through and actually win some games they are not supposed to, it's hard to seriously consider them for title contention. They return 13 starters overall.

Michigan State caught the league by storm through the first half of 2003, but teams adjusted to their offense later in the year and they faltered down the stretch a bit, going 2-3 over their final five league games, then the loss to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl.

They lose three of five starters on the OL, but return all of their pass catchers. Of course, the man throwing to those targets, Jeff Smoker, is also graduating and he will be hard to replace.

On defense, they lose two of four up front, one of three linebackers and return all of their secondary. In all, they return 15 starters and they should be considered as a title contender.

Here is the obligatory Penn State mention. After finishing 1-7 in the Big Ten this year and having just one above .500 league mark in the last four years, you would think that people would stop figuring them into the Big Ten title mix.

The good news for them is that they return 14 starters. The bad news is that they went 1-7 with those players. Will they improve that much to jump from league cellar dweller to conference contender? I don't think so, but here they are, nonetheless.

They lose their FB, TE and two of four OL's. They lose 2 of 3 LB's and 2 of 4 DB's. They led the league in pass defense in ‘04, but that was due to the fact that they gave up more than 211 yards rushing per game.

I do not expect Northwestern, Illinois or Indiana to sniff a bowl game next year, so I will save the time looking up their rosters and spend that on my daughter reading her a book.

For those of you wondering if Iowa will get much respect next year in the preseason publications, consider this: I just looked up the returning starters as they were listed by the schools for their bowl games. That tells you something, but it does not tell you everything.

Writers from around the country are going to perform the same task on Iowa.

When they look at Iowa's starters for the Outback Bowl, they will see just two returning offensive starters on offense in Mike Jones and Pete McMahon.

Two. And they will think that Iowa is in major trouble on offense with so many new faces. What Iowa fans know is that David Walker, Brian Ferentz, Ed Hinkel, Jermelle Lewis, Calvin Davis and Champ Davis all started games for Iowa this year. But remember, not many of us know if that is the case for the other schools I have outlined, either.

From its Outback Bowl starting list, the Hawkeyes return Roth, Luebke, Hodge, Greenway, Allen, Johnson and Considine, making seven starters. Jonathon Babineaux should be considered a returning starter on the DL, making he and Luebke a wash. We know that Robinson has starting talent and Neubauer played a lot of reps this year.

So Iowa will show nine returning starters, which would rank just above Purdue in the lower level that category among the teams I feel will fight for the league title.

But we know differently about Iowa. We might not know differently about players from other schools.

All of this tells me that the Big Ten will be wide open next year, maybe as much or more than it was this year, if that is possible.

I don't see a team going 7-1 the way Michigan did this season. 6-2 will win a share of the league title in 2004; I am convinced of that.

Iowa hosts Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State. That is a very good thing and I see all of those games as winnable. They travel to Minnesota, Penn State, Illinois and Michigan. Three of those four road games are very winnable, in my opinion.

They host Iowa State, Kent State and travel to Arizona State. All winnable games. By the way, Arizona State returns 16 starters, eight on both sides of the ball.

But what looks like a winnable game on paper in January is a long way from the gridiron of October and November.


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