Scouting the Big 10 Conference

VandyMania's Howell Peiser continues with his expert look at the football conferences. Today we will take a look at the Big 10 Conference.

The Big 10 Conference has more outstanding teams than any other league this year. The top six schools could all compete for the conference title, and four have legitimate hopes of going all the way. One team should make a return to near greatness after being down a few years, while one team should struggle to eke out a winning record after being quite good for several years.

This conference could become the top super league quite quickly. 47 out of 50 Big 10 home games will be televised this year to a regional or national audience. 10 of the 11 schools finished in the top 50 in recruiting rankings, with six in the top 25.

Unfortunately, with this conference having so many quality teams, it will be difficult for one to emerge unscathed and garner the coveted Rose Bowl bid. My ratings say that one team will go 11-0, but the ratings are so closely bunched that the Big 10 champion could be 6-2, or there could be multiple co-champions at 6-2 or even 5-3.

The Big 10 doesn't release an official preseason poll ranking all 11 teams. They just release the top three. Those top three are: Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa. My ratings differ, but the difference in these teams is minimal. Each week, injuries, weather, and coaching strategy will determine which of these gridiron tyrants will emerge victorious.

Only Indiana gets the minimum three points home field advantage. Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin get the maximum five points, while the rest of the league gets four points.

1. Ohio State PiRate: 118 HFA: 5

Ohio State's chances to go undefeated and advance to the Rose Bowl will more than likely be curtailed by a killer schedule this year. Not only must the Buckeyes play at Penn State and at Michigan, they host Iowa and Texas. Asking even Southern Cal to come away 4-0 in those games may be asking too much. Still, Coach Jim Tressel's squad is one of the best five teams in the nation.

18 starters return from a year ago, evenly split amongst the offense and defense. Tressel's last two offensive editions failed to scare most defenses, but late in the year, things started to change. Against Michigan and Oklahoma State, The Buckeyes scored 70 points and produced 849 yards of offense.

The one possible area of concern with this year's offense comes at the most important position. Quarterback Troy Smith became famous last year when he almost single-handedly destroyed Michigan with 145 yards rushing and 241 yards passing. He became infamous when it was discovered he had accepted five hundred dollars from a booster and received a one game suspension. That leaves Junior Justin Zwick to start the opener against upset-minded Miami of Ohio. Zwick failed to live up to his hype as the next Art Schlichter last year, as he completed just 52.4% of his passes for 1,209 yards. He has the arm strength and size to be an NFL QB, but if he doesn't learn to throw the ball on target, he will never make it. Expect a two-man QB tandem once Smith returns.

If one or both quarterbacks can throw on target, Ohio State will be in the gravy. The Buckeyes have two of the most talented wide outs in the Big 10. Ted Ginn, Jr. is a combination of Paul Warfield, Archie Griffin, Rod Gerald, and Jack Tatum. Last year, he cracked the starting lineup in the middle of the year and sparked an anemic offense. He caught 25 passes for 359 yards and two scores. He ran the ball 13 times for 113 yards, and he returned 15 punts for 25.6 yards and FOUR touchdowns. On top of that, he played a few downs as a direct snap tailback (similar to a short punt formation). If that's not enough, there is talk that he may see action in the secondary as a cornerback.

Not to be overshadowed, Santonio Holmes returns at the other wide out. He merely led the Buckeyes with 55 receptions for 769 yards and seven scores. Included in that haul was an 80-yard scamper. With Ginn in the lineup, he should see less double team coverage.

Tight end Ryan Hamby and third wide out Roy Hall are physical targets who can run the short routes and catch the ball in traffic.

Ohio State has not run the ball that well since Maurice Clarett left in 2002. Antonio Pittman is the new tailback. He has flashed glimpses of brilliance, but he does not remind OSU fans of Eddie George. Fullback Brandon Schnittker is used strictly as a blocker. His 6-02/250 frame should open a few holes for Pitttman.

The Ohio State offensive line improved as the season progressed last year. Four starters return, so this unit should be exceptional. Center Nick Mangold is one of the two or three best in the league at his position. Tackle Rob Sims blocks equally strong for the run and the pass. Guard Doug Datish has the potential to be an All-American if he ever puts it all together.

The Buckeye defense surrendered 18.3 points and 332 yards per game last year. Expect those numbers to drop to the levels of the 2002 national champions (13.1/321). OSU is strong at all three units. The only possible fly in the scarlet ointment is the departure of their defensive coordinator to Marshall. The new DC has been on this staff for a decade (going back to the John Cooper years).

Without a doubt, Ohio State has the best pair of linebackers in the country. A.J. Hawk and Anthony Schlegel should both make somebody's All-American team. Schlegel transferred from Air Force, where he was a 1st team All-MWC pick in 2002. Last year with the Bucks, he registered 84 tackles with seven for loss and 3.5 sacks. Hawk led the defense with 141 tackles with seven for loss. He broke up five passes. He is a sure first round draft pick. Bobby Carpenter gets lost on this roster, but he has NFL potential as well.

The secondary is chock full of swift, hard-hitters. Five players return with significant starting experience. Donte Whitner will play both cornerback and safety. He recorded 69 tackles in 2004. Ashton Youboty will be the shutdown corner. He broke up 14 passes and intercepted four. Safeties Nate Salley and Tyler Everett (who will also play CB) tallied 94 tackles and 10 passes broken up.

The defensive line is the weakest link on this side of the ball, but it is definitely not weak. End Mike Kudla sacked enemy QBs four times and stopped three runners behind the line, while playing injured and ill. Tackle Quinn Pitcock made six tackles for loss along with two sacks. Expect the average yards per rush to drop from last year's 3.5 to ward 2003's 2.0.

Ohio State should win 10 games this year. Unfortunately, the one loss should be in the Big House, and that won't sit well with the alumni and sidewalk alumni.

2. Purdue PiRate: 117 HFA: 4

Slowly over the last few years, Coach Joe Tiller has seen his defenses improve to the level of his stellar offenses. Last year, Purdue gave up only 17.2 points and 345 total yards per game. This year, all 11 starters return. Purdue will be downright stingy and could challenge for top scoring defense in the country.

The Boilermakers have been given a huge gift by the Big 10 schedule-makers this year. They do not play Ohio State or Michigan, and they get Iowa at home. If they can get by Minnesota and Penn State on the road (those are big ifs), they could run the table and meet Southern California in a repeat of the 1967 Rose Bowl.

Like the Miami Dolphins of the early 1970's, the Boilermaker stop troops could be called, "The No-Name Defense." Nobody on the roster is a lock to make 1st team All-Big 10, and only one or two have a strong shot at 2nd team. However, they hit hard and gang tackle. Another plus is an excellent group of reserves.

The defensive line is led by two fabulous book ends. Anthony Spencer and Ray Edwards will play for pay in two years. The duo teamed for 15.5 sacks and five tackles for loss last year. Edwards is a demon against the pass and can drop back in the short zones like a linebacker.

There are no All-Americans in the line backing unit, but George Hall and Stanford Kegler will team for 150-200 tackles. Bobby Iwuchukwu missed the end of the 2004 season with a knee injury that required surgery.

For Purdue to realize their stellar season, the secondary must do better than 240 yards passing allowed. Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller torched them for 370 yards in the bowl game. Safety Bernard Pollard is the best of this bunch, leading the team last year with 96 tackles.

The Boilermaker offense should perform up to its usual standards. Seven starters return to a unit that scored 32 points and produced 446 yards of total offense per game in 2004.

Brandon Kirsch replaces Kyle Orton at quarterback. In backup duty last year, he completed 61.1% of his passes for seven touchdowns against only three interceptions. He has decent running ability. Waiting in the wings is Curtis Painter. Tiller thinks he may eventually be the best of his Purdue quarterbacks.

No matter who throws the ball, Purdue has a full stable of fine receivers, even though Taylor Stubblefield graduated taking his 89 receptions with him. Kyle Ingraham poses huge match up problems for defenses. At 6-09, he can out-jump just about every defender. Last year, he caught 51 passes for 624 yards and seven touchdowns. Dorien Bryant added 38 receptions as a freshman. He has the speed to run by defenders for the deep ball. Tight end Charles Davis caught 34 passes and delivered some devastating blocks.

Jerod Void and Brandon Jones shared the load in the backfield last year and should do so once again. Redshirt freshman Kory Sheets could eventually replace them both as the principle back. Void and Jones are both excellent coming out of the backfield on short to intermediate pass routes.

The offensive line returns three starters. Tackle Mike Otto has All-American potential if he can put it all together. He will team with Uche Nwaneri at guard on the left side. Guard Jordan Grimes and tackle Sean Sester will provide an excellent running option on the right side. Center Matt Turner is the leader of this group.

Another weapon for Purdue is kicker Ben Jones. He can hit from 50+ yards and should rebound from an off year in 2004.

3. Michigan PiRate: 115 HFA: 5

With Nebraska falling by the wayside, Michigan now holds the current record of going to bowl games for 30 consecutive years (The last nine have been in January). They also hold the current record with 37 consecutive winning seasons. From 1968 to 1974, The Wolverines failed to qualify for a bowl five times with records of 8-2, 9-1, 10-1, 10-0-1, and 10-1 because The Big 10 allowed only one representative to go to a bowl, that being the Rose Bowl. History lesson over.

The 2005 edition of Wolverines could very well go 10-1 this year, and like those goliaths of the late 1960's and 1970's, not win the Big 10 title. Michigan is loaded with talent, especially on offense.

Eight starters return to an attack that averaged 31 points per game. Quarterback Chad Henne put up spectacular numbers as a true freshman. He completed 60.2% of his passes for 2,743 yards and 25 touchdowns. His only liability is an inability to escape danger. That makes him a big injury risk. Grizzled veteran Matt Gutierrez was supposed to be last year's starter, but he missed the season with a shoulder injury. He did not participate in spring practice.

The Wolverines have one of the two outstanding Big 10 running backs. Michael Hart rushed for 1,455 yards and nine scores with a 5.2 average. Not just a runner, he caught 26 passes. Fullback Brian Thompson will provide the offense an extra blocker when the Wolverines go with two backs.

The receiving corps is missing the school's all-time leading pass receiver. Braylon Edwards caught 97 passes for 1,330 yards and 15 touchdowns, so it will take more than one player to replace that production. Jason Avant and Steve Breaston will take up some of that slack, as they teamed for 72 receptions and six scores. Tight end Tim Massaquoi made 1st team All-Big 10. He caught just 18 balls last year; look for that amount to almost double in 2005.

What's Michigan football without a group of hard-working, blue collar guys blocking in the trenches on a cold and wet field? Coach Lloyd Carr's blocking brigade will be one of the best in the nation and the best in this conference. It starts with returning 1st team All-Big 10 guard Matt Lentz and tackle Adam Stenavich. Both have excellent shots at becoming All-Americans. Tackle Jake Long could develop into the best of the bunch. At 6-07 and 338, he can cause an eclipse at Michigan Stadium.

The Wolverines lost three games last year because of their defense. The 23.3 points per game allowed were the most they've given up since 1962 and the second most ever!

The only thing keeping my ratings from calling Michigan the best team not playing at L.A. Memorial Coliseum is a suspect secondary. There are no stars in the defensive backfield. Last year, UM allowed 55.8% of enemy passes to be completed for 203 yards per game. Gone from this secondary are the team's leading tackler from last year, Ernest Shazor and shut-down corner Marlin Jackson, as well as key reserve Markus Curry. Cornerback Leon hall and safety Ryan Mundy are the two experienced returnees.

Michigan uses both a 4-3 and 3-4 defense, but doesn't change personnel. LaMarr Woodley has the size to be an end and the speed to be a linebacker, so he changes alignment based on the call. Prescott Burgess, Chris Graham, and Scot McClintock team with Woodley to form an excellent four-man line backing crew.

Up front, Gabe Watson and Pat Massey make the tackle position the strongest part of the defense. They combined for seven sacks and 74 tackles last year.

Look for Michigan to struggle at times against good quarterbacks, but they should win 10 games and compete for all the marbles.

4. Iowa PiRate: 112 HFA: 5

After his first two years at Iowa, Coach Kirk Ferentz had produced 1-10 and 3-9 seasons. He started to turn things around in 2001 with a 7-5 record and Alamo Bowl win over Texas Tech. In the last three years, Iowa has gone 31-7 with three January bowl invitations. Coming off a 10-2 season, what can they do for an encore? How about another 10-2 season? If the new starters measure up to their press clippings, it's possible.

The Hawkeyes lost some talented players to graduation, especially on defense. Tackle Jonathan Babineaux was in the enemy backfield so often, opponents thought he needed to be wearing their jersey. Matt Roth was one of the best ends in the Big 10. This year, Iowa must start anew in the trenches. Ferentz will start three sophomores and a redshirt freshman here. Tackle George Eshareturi is the anchor they will build around.

This will be one of the strongest units in the country with two probable All-Americans in the lineup. Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway both made 1st team All-Big 10 last year after combining for 229 tackles, seven for loss, six sacks, and nine passes broken up. Opposing coaches must believe these two guys are actually two sets of twins, because they always are in on the play.

The defensive backfield returns talent and experience from a year ago. Safety Marcus Paschal finished third on the team in 2004 with 58 stops, and he broke up six passes while intercepting a couple. He is trying to recover from a torn ACL in last year's bowl game, so he should cede his starting spot to Miguel Merrick. Cornerback Antwan Allen intercepted three passes and broke up six others.

The Iowa offense has regressed the last two years going from 37 to 29 to 24 points per game. The Hawkeyes couldn't run the ball last year, coming in at just 73 yards per game. Part of that figure can be attributed to 40 QB sacks, but even when you factor that out, the rushing total stays below 100 yards and three yards per carry.

There was nothing wrong with the passing game except the high number of sacks. Quarterback Drew Tate returns after passing for 2,786 yards and 20 touchdowns with a 62.1% completion rate. He garnered Player of the Year honors in the Big 10.

Tate has his top three receivers coming back this year. Wide outs Clinton Solomon and Scott Chandler teamed for 121 receptions and 13 touchdowns, while tight end Scott Chandler added 24 catches for 324 yards.

The running back situation has still not been resolved. Last year, Iowa had to reserve an extra trainer's cart to keep on standby for the next injury. Virtually the entire depth chart of backs lost time due to injury. With just a few days to go until the opener, the starter is yet to be determined. Four players are contending for the starting job. My guess is that Marcus Schnoor will get the nod. He is coming off a lame knee. Albert Young (broken leg) and Marques Simmons (ankle) will get their chances if Schnoor cannot get the job done. A healthy Simmons could be the answer.

The offensive line must accept some blame for the pitiful rushing results and almost all the credit for the 40 sacks. This group of interior blockers should be less generous to the opponents. Center Brian Ferentz is the coach's son. He should be the best player and leader of the unit.

Iowa has mastered the art of "winning ugly." When you look at the stats in the box score, you wonder how they won. For two years, The Hawkeyes have finished back in the pack in most statistics, yet they have managed to go 20-5. Look for more of the same in 2005.

Note: Defensive Coordinator Norm Parker was the DC at Vandy for Woody Widenhofer when the Commodores had the brilliant defense in 1997.

5. Penn State PiRate: 111 HFA: 4

Hogwash! That's what I have to say to people who say Joe Paterno cannot coach any more. He will prove it this year, when his Nittany Lions return to their winning ways. Penn State has another one of their famous defenses ready to make life miserable for offensive coordinators in the Midwest. If the offense can just score 21 points in every game, the Lions could even sneak up and challenge for the Big 10 title.

Nine starters return to a defensive unit that gave up just 291 yards and 15.3 points per game. Nobody scored more than 21 points against them. Linebacker U. will be back in session this season, as Penn State has an excellent trio. Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor finished one-two in tackles last year with 104 and 89 respectively. Tim Shaw added 50 tackles. The trio combined for 4.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, eight passes broken up, and three interceptions.

The Nittany Lions will field a top-rate secondary this year. Three starters return to the fold, led by "Hero Back" Calvin Lowry. Lowry intercepted four passes last year and recovered four fumbles. Cornerback Alan Zemaitis broke up six passes, even though most quarterbacks threw to the other side.

The defensive line returns all four starters, but tackle Scott Paxson was moved to the bottom of the depth chart after an off-season incident involving arrows being shot into a dormitory bedroom. End Tambi Hali recorded 10 tackles for loss, while his counterpart Matthew Rice made three sacks with three other tackles for loss.

If Penn State's defense continues to improve, they have a shot at holding opponents under 14 points per game and pitching a few shutouts.

The Nittany Lions offense has continued to be rather vanilla the last two years. Since the great 2002 offense scored 34.3 points per game, the last two editions have averaged 19.4 and 17.7. Last year's offense produced just 311 yards per game.

Trying to change that this year is quarterback Michael Robinson. Robinson will never be confused for Donovan McNabb, but he has decent run/pass/catch skills. He impersonated Kordell Stewart last year by leading the Lions in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Sophomore Anthony Morelli will take over the job when he is ready. He has a strong arm and quick release, but he just isn't ready to lead an offense.

Two running backs with experience return this year, including Tony Hunt. Last year, Hunt led the Lions with 777 yards rushing, 39 receptions, and seven touchdowns. Austin Scott returns as Hunt's backup. Fullback BranDon Snow will lead block for the backs.

The receiver corps has some blue chip recruits in the wings, but whether Paterno lets them play much this year is still to be determined. With Robinson entrenched at quarterback and wide out Mark Rubin lost for the season due to an ankle injury, freshmen Derrick Williams and Justin King may be thrust into action immediately. Penn State hasn't had this type of speed at these positions in a long time, if ever.

All five starters were expected to return to the offensive line, but guard Tyler Reed and center E.Z. Smith were involved in that off the field incident. Smith was dismissed, while Reed fell to the bottom of the depth chart. Tackles Levi Brown and John Wilson are the two best blockers, and they don't own bows and arrows.

If the offense improves just enough to keep the defense off the field, this team could be playing in a New Year's Day bowl.

6. Minnesota PiRate: 110 HFA: 4

The Golden Gophers return 16 starters from a team that won seven games and beat Alabama in the Music City Bowl, yet they are picked sixth in the Big 10. That's how tough the top tier of teams is in this league.

Coach Glen Mason's offenses have regularly led the Big 10 in rushing. Last year, the Gophers averaged 257 yards on the ground and produced two, 1000-yard rushers. One of them returns this year in preseason 1st team All-American Laurence Maroney. With teammate Marion Barber, III gone, Maroney could challenge Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson and Memphis's DeAngelo Williams for top rushing honors. Sharing the load last year, he rushed for 1,348 yards and 12 scores (6.2 avg). Should Mason decide to return to the two-headed tailback scheme, Amir Pinnix could threaten the 1,000-yard-mark.

Handing the ball off to Maroney will be returning starting quarterback Bryan Cupito. Cupito completed less than half his passes last year, but he threw many more long balls than the average quarterback. His 123 completions averaged better than 17 yards, as he threw for 14 touchdowns against seven interceptions. Just the threat of throwing deep will keep defenses from creeping up to stop the running game.

Two tight ends and two wide outs return to give the Gophers an excellent pass catching quartet. The Gophers frequently employ two tight end formations. Matt Spaeth and Jarod Posthumus are both excellent blockers who provide big targets for Cupito. Wide outs Ernie Wheelwright and Jared Ellerson can go deep or catch a quick pass and turn it into 20 yards. They collectively snared 67 passes for 1,175 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Center Greg Eslinger and guard Mark Setterstrom are two of the best run blockers in the nation. Eslinger is the best center in the country and if he stays healthy, he will walk off with the Rimington award.

Minnesota has not fielded a dominating defense since 1999, but that hasn't stopped the Gophers from winning 25 games in the last three seasons. This year, the defensive line should be as strong as Mason has had in Minneapolis. Tackles Anthony Montgomery and Mark Losli combined for 78 stops with eight for loss and six sacks.

One full-time starter and one part-time starter return at linebacker. Kyle McKenzie led the Gophers with 79 tackles in 2004. Mario Reese started the last six games at end, but he was too small to be effective.

The secondary was a very weak unit last year, allowing 60.1% of passes to be completed for an average of 266 yards per game. Expect some new blood to get a chance to crack this lineup as the year progresses. Safety John Pawielski led this unit with 70 tackles, but at 5-11 he cannot cover bigger receivers. Cornerback Trumaine Banks is the best pass defender; he broke up nine passes and picked off two more.

The schedule is rough, as Minnesota must play the five teams rated higher than them. 6-5 may be the best this team can achieve, but that will get them back into a bowl.

7. Michigan State PiRate: 104 HFA: 4

I'm sure you've seen it before. If you follow young musicians or actors, you will see and hear several with excellent talent. Some of these will make it, while others will never become a star, even though they have the same amount of talent. What is it that separates these stars from the stars that never were? Luck plays a part, but there is always some intangible factor that never surfaces to the casual outsider.

The same thing happens in sports. You can watch two different, yet equally talented, teams play every week and witness one win consistently, while the other cannot seem to get a break. Coach John L. Smith's two Michigan State teams fit into the latter category. He has had the talent, but they couldn't put it together. The same team that wiped Minnesota off the turf last year 51-17 and slaughtered then undefeated Wisconsin 49-14 lost to Rutgers and struggles to beat Illinois.

The Spartans return some exceptional talent, but I don't see them putting the pieces together in 2005. Look for another losing season, where they beat a couple of good teams and lose to a weak team or two.

The offense has the horses to score points in droves. Quarterback Drew Stanton is just behind Chad Henne and Drew Tate in the Big 10 talent hierarchy. Last year, he completed 64.1% of his passes for 1,601 yards, while rushing for 687 yards and five scores.

Three excellent receivers return as targets for Stanton. Jerramy Scott led the Spartans with 39 receptions. Matt Trannon is a two-sport star, playing for Tom Izzo in the winter. He caught 36 passes a year ago. Kyle Brown added 23 receptions.

Running back Jason Teague is equally competent as a runner and pass receiver. He rushed for 688 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 28 passes for two more scores.

The unsung offensive line may have been the most underrated quintet in the nation. The Spartans rushed for 5.7 yards per play and the quarterbacks were sacked just eight times. Three starters return to this unit. Tackle Stefon Wheeler, guard Kyle Cook, and center Chris Morris could make one of the All-Big 10 teams.

While the offense averaged 461 total yards a game to score 29.4 points per game, the defense surrendered 80 less yards per game but gave up 27.2 points per game. There are holes in this year's stop troops, so the allowance could go up.

The defensive line lacks a dangerous pass rusher. End Clifton Ryan is the best of the lot, and he could manage only 2.5 sacks last year. Tackle Brandon McKinney is a decent run stopper.

David Herron leads the charge from his linebacker position. Last year, he recorded three sacks and five tackles for loss among his 95 total tackles. Eric Smith plays the "Bandit" position, a hybrid that's half linebacker and half strong safety. He is the leading returning tackler with 115. He broke up nine passes in 2004.

The secondary underperformed a year ago and looks to be in even worse shape this year with only one full-time starter returning. Jaren Hayes broke up eight passes from his cornerback position. Free safety Greg Cooper saw time at nickel back last year and needs to step up and become a star with his exceptional speed.

Punter Brandon Fields hit several rockets last year en route to a 47.9 yard average. He out-kicked his coverage frequently, so the net was only 37.1.

It looks like another five win season for the Spartans, unless the team can discover what little things they have been failing to do. If they go 5-6, Smith will have one more year to turn the program around.

8. Wisconsin PiRate: 103 HFA: 5

After thumping Ohio State, Purdue, and Minnesota last autumn, Wisconsin's record stood at 9-0. The Badgers were ranked number four in the polls. The defense was giving up just 9.1 points per game and just 87 rushing yards per game. Then, the bubble burst. Playing at Michigan State, the Badgers were at the Spartans goal line trailing by seven. On the last play of the half, the Badgers appeared to score a touchdown, but the referees decided not. The Badger players couldn't believe the missed call, and something happened at that point. A deflated group watched the Spartans score four, second-half touchdowns to win 49-14. Wisconsin lost the next week at Iowa 30-7, and then dropped the Outback Bowl game to Georgia.

In the summer, Coach Barry Alvarez announced he would retire as coach after this season. His replacement will be current defensive coordinator Bret Bielema.

Alvarez may go out on a sour note. The Badgers lost a ton of talent, and the replacements are good but not great.

The defense must replace the entire front line, including superstar Erasmus James. End Jamal Cooper lacks size (6-4/217), but he's fast and tough. Joe Monty and Jason Chapman will split time at the other end. Sophomore tackles Juston Ostrowski and Nick Hayden will be a good duo once they have gained valuable experience. For now, they are raw.

All three linebackers return and will be called on to make the big plays. Dontez Sanders, Mark Zalewski, and Andy Crooks combined for 10 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, and five passes broken up.

Much like the defensive line, the secondary is a mess. Cornerback Brett Bell is the only experienced player this year. He intercepted three passes and broke up 10 more. The expected other three starters combined for 30 tackles in limited play. Look for Wisconsin to give up 200-250 yards passing this year.

The offense is in a little better shape, but it was not that strong last year. Quarterback John Stocco returns this year after throwing for 1,999 yards and nine scores. He won't destroy a secondary; he needs a strong running game to compliment his passing.

The strong running game has a chance to develop thanks to Colorado transfer Brian Calhoun, who has the skills to rush for 1,000 yards. Fullback Matt Bernstein is an excellent blocker and punishing runner. Last year, he ran for 123 yards against Penn State as a last-minute replacement at tailback. What makes this feat even more fantastic is he did it after fasting 24 hours on Yom Kippur. The game started as the sun set ending the holiday.

An underrated group of receivers will line up in Madison this year. Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr won't remind anyone of Lee Evans, but with a better year from the quarterback, they could double their combined 55 receptions. Tight ends Owen Daniels and Jason Pociask will share the minutes. Daniels is the better receiver and perhaps the best on the team, while Pociask is a better run blocker.

The offensive line returns just two starters, but it should be a decent group. Center Donovan Raiola rates second in the league only to the nation's best center (Eslinger). Tackle Joe Thomas is equally strong blocking for the run or pass.

Barry Alvarez may need an upset over one of the big six teams in the conference this year in order to go out a winner. The opening game against Bowling Green and first road game at North Carolina will reveal whether Wisconsin can win six games and earn a bowl bid.

9 (tie). Northwestern PiRate: 98 HFA: 4

Back-to-back 6-6 regular seasons have led Northwestern fans to expect more. It won't happen this year, as Coach Randy Walker's Wildcats are about as good as 2004, while most of the league is much better than last year. NU enjoyed a remarkable recruiting year, so this program should continue not to resemble the old Wildcats of the 1980's.

As usual, Northwestern will be exciting to watch when they have the ball. The spread formation forces defenses to cover all of the field, horizontally and vertically. Quarterback Brett Basanez returns for his senior season having thrown for 2,838 yards and 12 touchdowns. He played most of the year with a lame shoulder, so expect better numbers this year. Backup C. J. Bacher will be a capable replacement.

Basanez has a fine set of receivers to play catch with. Jonathan Fields, Mark Philmore, and Shaun Herbert combined for 134 receptions and 1,658 yards. Kim Thompson provides a tall target. Brandon Horn could start this year. Tight end Erryn Cobb is a hard-hitting blocker.

The running game usually features one back gaining over 1,000 yards. Last year's feature back, Noah Herron, has picked up his sheepskin. Terrell Jordan was supposed to be the new starter, but a hamstring injury has prohibited him from suiting up. Brandon Roberson is only 5-09, but he is quick. Fullback Chris Malleo will see action when NU goes to two backs.

The offensive line returns just one starter, as center Trevor Rees is missing the year to academic suspension. Tackles Zach Strief and Dylan Thiry are giants at 6-07 and 6-08 respectively. They should open holes for Roberson. The rest of the line is a question mark, and there is little quality depth.

Northwestern's offense produced 409 yards and 24.6 points per game. They should equal or surpass that by a little. The defense, on the other hand, could more closely resemble the results of 2002 (41.1 points and 503 yards) than last year (28.5 points and 391 yards). Only three starters return after injuries shelved three other returning starters.

Barry Cofield is the lone returnee to the defensive line. NU gave up 139 yards rushing last year, which was the best mark in years. Don't expect a repeat performance.

The line backing crew should be the one strong point. Tim McGarigle led the team with 151 tackles. Nick Roach sacked enemy QBs five times and broke up three passes. If completely healthy after suffering a fractured leg, Adam Kadela should register 70-100 tackles.

The secondary is in bad shape. The two starters returning to this unit will both miss the season due to injuries. Last year's team surrendered 252 yards per game; this year's team could easily finish dead last in the NCAA and give up close to 300 yards. Cornerback Marquice Cole is the best player of this very green unit. He missed 2004 with a fractured ankle, but he is healthy at the start of the season.

Northwestern doesn't play Indiana this season and must face rival Illinois in Champaign. It adds up to an 0-8 Big 10 season. The Wildcats should win their first two games, then lose the rest.

9 (tie). Illinois PiRate: 98 HFA: 4

The Ron Zook era begins in Champaign-Urbana after Ron Turner was let go following 1-11 and 3-8 seasons. The Illini should be more competitive this year and scare a few teams rated ahead of them.

Zook's specialty is defense, although it was a weak defense that cost him to lose his job at Florida. His first Illini defense should do better than 29.4 points allowed and 424 yards that last year's team produced.

Defensive tackles Ryan Matha and Chris Norwell give Illinois a pair of above-average inside defenders. Matha tackled seven runners behind the line last year. End Derek Walker should be the team's best pass rusher.

Two sophomores and a redshirt freshman start at linebacker. J Lehman made 56 tackles last year and is the leader of the group. Remond Willis has exceptional quickness, but he hasn't developed the upper body strength to star in the Big 10.

Free Safety Morris Vigil anchors the secondary after registering 78 tackles and breaking up six passes. Cornerback Alan Ball made just 37 tackles and broke up just one pass last year, as he dealt with injuries for most of the season.

The offense returns its leading rusher and top weapon from a year ago, but he will be sharing the starting role. Pierre Thomas rushed with power for 893 (5.9 avg.) yards and eight touchdowns. E.B. Halsey supplies the speed factor and can catch a pass out of the backfield. When Illinois uses a fullback, Jason Davis is not the prototypical blocker. He is an excellent runner and pass receiver.

Zook plans to use the spread offense, but he will have an inexperienced quarterback piloting the attack. Tim Brasic begins the year as the starter. The junior didn't see action at quarterback last year, when three others played. One of those three was Chris Pazan, who returns this year. Pazan has better passing mechanics than Brasic, but he is not consistent.

With the new offense, expect the receivers to have more productive years. Wide out Kendrick Jones should be the leader of the pack after pulling in 47 passes for 687 yards last year. Redshirt freshman Jody Ellis impressed enough to earn the third receiver starting nod. Tight end Melvin Bryant is more of a receiver than a blocker.

The offensive line returns three starters from a unit that gave up only 12 sacks and opened holes for 4.2 yards per carry. Center Matt Maddox is an excellent run blocker. Guard Martin O'Donnell is a better pass blocker. Tackle J. J. Simmons, like Maddox, is a better run blocker.

Illinois hosts Northwestern and visits Indiana in Bloomington. It gives them a good shot at winning two conference games. Hosting Rutgers and San Jose State gives them a chance at two more.

11. Indiana PiRate: 93 HFA: 3

It's been a long time since the Hoosiers last won the Big 10 championship and advanced to the Rose Bowl—1967 to be exact. That team had three excellent offensive players nicknamed the "BIG" offense. Wide receiver Jade Butcher, tailback Phil Isenbarger, and quarterback Harry Gonso led the Hoosiers to eight close victories and one blowout win. John Pont had come from Miami of Ohio to coach this Hoosier team to the title.

Pan forward 38 years. Indiana has selected a new coach from----Miami of Ohio. Terry Hoeppner produced a 21-6 record the last two seasons in the MAC. He inherits a team with three good defensive players. Could 1967 happen again? Not this year, as the Hoosiers don't have enough offensive talent to win in the Big 10.

Those three good defensive players are end Victor Adeyanju, linebacker Kyle Killion, and cornerback Leslie Majors. Adeyanju recorded four sacks and six tackles for loss. He broke up three passes. Killion made 107 tackles with five sacks and 12 tackles for loss. He intercepted two passes as well. Majors broke up eight passes.

The rest of the defense should be much improved over last year with several other starters returning. Nose guard Russ Richardson made three sacks last year as a part-time starter. Cornerback Buster Larkins broke up nine passes and intercepted a couple.

Indiana gave up 31.2 points and 453 yards last year; that number should improve, especially against the pass, where opponents threw for 256 yards. IU could hold opponents to around 400 yards and give up less than 28 points. Then again, if the new offense lengthens the game much, the defense may be caught on the field too long, where a lack of quality depth will expose weaknesses.

Speaking of that new offense, Hoeppner plans on using a four-wide spread offense and throwing the ball more than 27 times a game like last year.

Blake Powers begins the season as the starter under center. Last year in very limited action, he hit nine of 22 passes for just 98 yards and two interceptions. At 6-04 and 228, he has the size that Hoeppner likes. Graeme McFarland will see action at quarterback this year. If Powers cannot do the job, McFarland will move into the starting lineup.

Chris Taylor is the only returning running back who carried the ball more than 25 times last year. He rushed for 329 yards on 82 carries. In 2002, reserve back Yamar Washington ran for close to 700 yards.

Filling Courtney Roby's shoes won't be easy. The wide out caught 55 passes for 810 yards last year, but he now plays for the Tennessee Titans. Jahkeen Gilmore is the only returning wide out to have registered double digit receptions. Included in his 23 catches was an 80 yard touchdown play.

The offensive line will be the most improved unit of the entire team. Returning from season-ending injuries early in 2004 are center Chris Mangiero and tackle Isaac Sowells. When the two linemen were in the lineup, IU beat Oregon.

The Hoosiers face four teams that are beatable. Figure on them winning half of those this year.

If All Games Were Played September 1st

(in other words, these ratings are only good for the first week of the season)

(and predicted records may move a team up or down due to HFA)

Team           Conf.    Overall

Purdue         8-0       11-0
Michigan       7-1       10-1
Ohio State     7-1       10-1
Iowa           6-2        9-2
Penn State     5-3        8-3
Michigan State 4-4        5-6
Minnesota      3-5        6-5
Wisconsin      3-5        6-6
Illinois       2-6        4-7
Northwestern   0-8        2-9
Indiana        0-8        2-9 Top Stories