So anyway, in the Sporting News annual, NU got some surprising love in the conference opening segment (Willie the Wildcat beat out probably the most well-known conference group for best mascot in the league), but were picked dead last in the league with a 3-9 record overall. No respect for Fitz, who they rank as the league's worst coach. To add to the ick Factor, TSN is all aboard the Zook-Juice Illini love train, predicting a bowl berth for ILL-noise.
Still, good to have the football talk back. They have the Big Ten placing two in the BCS - an unbeaten Michigan (left out of their USC-LSU title game) and an 11-1 Wisconsin. The only thing NU ranks in the top half of the league in is the receiving corps and no 1st or 2nd team players.
I gotta say I see 7-5 or 6-6 as much more likely. I like our schedule this year in who our opponents play the week before us. Nevada visits Nebraska (ouch), Illinois visits OSU and MSU visits Wisconsin. Indiana does have Ball State before us, but they visit Madison the week before and have the big Bucket game with Purdue the week after. Those are the four key games, IMO, with us needing at least 3 of the 4 for bowl hopes.
Minnesota, Purdue and Iowa are probably the ring above those where we could pull an upset or two to offset blowing a game or two. And Michigan and OSU would be a true upset ... though we do catch them early.
Still, I like our chances to get into the bowl mix. I think the league will be deep this year but that we'll get an upset or two to help out. Our offense should be solid and the D should keep improving. We gotta start 3-0, though. My early breakdown ...
** TOP TEN TEAMS ***
- MICHIGAN: They're loaded on offense and it could be LLoyd's swan song. The only bad news is that they're the one Big Ten team that kept a tough schedule. September includes Oregon, ND and PSU in consecutive weeks and November has Wisky and OSU to end things ... the good news is that only the Badgers are on the road. If they escape those, the only other forseeable slip up is at MSU in the rivalry game.
- WISCONSIN: With Iowa and MSU visiting Camp Randall, the Badgers should be 6-0 heading into their toughest road test of the year, a night game at PSU. Win that and it's home free until November, when they visit OSU and host Michigan. With a load of talent returning on both sides, it's no wonder they're a popular sleeper pick for the national title game.
*** TOP TWENTY TEAMS ***
- OHIO STATE: That Texas series was well timed in that it ended last year and the young Bucks have a long time before their first big game (the last week of October at PSU ... unless Purdue decides to play D). By the time they face the Badgers and Wolverines in November, the offense should be recovered from their losses and they could be a dangerous spoiler in the Rose Bowl race.
- PENN STATE: The Nits may be the most balanced team in the league and might be a favorite to win the thing if there wasn't that one game on the schedule ... the one JoePa hasn't been able to crack for more than a decade. Michigan. The Irish, Badgers, Hawkeyes and Bucknuts all visit Happy Valley ... but an early game in the Big House will be the difference between a good year and a great one in State College.
*** BOWL TEAMS ***
- IOWA: OK ... no more whining about NU's help from the schedulemaker, either this year or in the past when OSU was off the schedule. Yeah, we had years with the Bucks off our slate, but never the luck Iowa has this year in the rotation. No Michigan. No Ohio State. Neither of the Big Two. Wow. If Ferentz can't pull a 10-win season out of this creampuff, he may be on a serious hot seat by November. True, there are games at Madison, State College and West Lafayette ... but win two of those and Iowa could be Pasadena bound.
- PURDUE: There's a lot of starters returning and a powerful offense ... but also some big questions on the Boilers toughness, especially on D. No Badgers, but the schedule is rough, especially in the middle, with Notre Dame, Ohio State and Iowa visiting and a trip to Ann Arbor in between. There's a November trip to Happy Valley, too, but those four games in the center will determine whether it's a January bowl of a December one.
After those six, who should easily make the bowl cut, it's going to be a mad scramble. No one's clearly out of the postseason hunt and there will be no easy wins in league play ... but each has a load of questions as well that means that a break or two will determine who gets to keep practicing in December.
* MINNESOTA: Lots of people back, but a new coach and new offensive quarterback could mean trouble. Like NU, winning the non-conference games area must ... and they get to skip PSU and MSU, while also getting Purdue, OSU and Wisconsin at home. Still, it's tough to see more than six, maybe seven wins - Coach Brewster may pay off in the future, but not right away.
* MICHIGAN STATE: Same as Minny ... new coach + new quarterback usually doesn't spell success. Throw in a schedule with trips to South Bend, Madison, Columbus, West Lafayette and Iowa City (not to mention Michigan and Penn State visiting in November) and six wins will be a great first year for Coach Dantonio.
* ILLINOIS: Expectations are high with Juice and all Zook's recruits, and I'm not doubting all the hype. But the Illini may still have some lumps as they climb into new territory. A 4-0 start is possible, but the middle of the schedule (visits from PSU, Wisconsin and Michigan with a trip to Iowa) could squash the momentum. Still, if they make it through that, a game at OSU is the only real monster challenge left to close the year.
* INDIANA: Obviously, there's no way to really gauge how Coach Hoepp's loss will affect the rising Hoosiers. Much like NU last year, I expect the early rallying cry to be strong but for emotions to take a toll later. At least the schedule is kind with no OSU or Michigan and a 4-0 start could happen before trips to Iowa, MSU and Wisconsin -- and a visit from PSU -- test IU's mettle. If they can get an upset or two, though, everybody will be rooting for them in the finale as they host rival Purdue.
So let the pigskin feast begin! I truly believe that NU and Illinois have better chances of making a bowl than MSU or Minny with their new coaches ... but I can see scenarios for any team to get 6 or more wins this year. The one thing I know for sure is that two of our big three had better get BCS bids (Playing each other in November instead of September probably won't help - but making sure we pound ND down in September as a league will) ... because we'll easily fill our bowl spots and need room for more.
GO CATS!!! BEAT NEU
(if we're always identified as NWU, would NEU be correct?)!!!
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STEPHEN J. TRUOG GO CATS!!!
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