Of course when you have so many good teams, the question arises: Can anybody finish 8-0 in league play and place themselves in contention for the BCS Championship? The answer is a qualified yes. Three teams can do it, but these three teams play each other and could each go 1-1 in those games. On the bright side, any one of them could go 7-1/11-1 and be in the mix at the end of the regular season.
The Big 10 has this obsession of not hurting teams' feelings. Their official media poll only reveals the top three picks and lets the other eight teams think they must have been number four.
The media chose Ohio State first, Michigan second, and Iowa third. It sounds like the preseason choice from several past seasons. According to the PiRates, those choices are almost on the mark.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
PiRate: 122 National Ranking: 3 HFA: 6
The Consensus preseason number one team, not many voters believe defense wins championships. The Buckeyes lost All-American linebacker A.J. Hawk, Ashton Youboty, Donte Whitner, Anthony Schlegel, Bobby Carpenter, Nate Salley, Mike Kudla, Marcus Green, and Tyler Everett from their defense. How can this team be better than last year? The answer is they cannot be better than last year's team, but they can be better than all other teams this year. In a season that should see the top teams come back to the pack, Coach Jim Tressel has enough talent to win 11 or 12 regular season games and head to the BCS Title Game.
One need only look back to 1968 when Ohio State had numerous first year starters like Rex Kern, Jack Tatum, Jim Stillwagon, and John Brockington. They won the National Championship.
The rebuilt defense isn't going to be a sieve where opponents score 30 points every week. After giving up 15.2 points per game last year, expect the total to rise only two to three points. With a powerful offense, surrendering 17 points every week should be a winning proposition.
The secondary should be strong even though it has four new starters. Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins played enough in reserve to make 37 tackles and break up a couple of passes. Safety Brandon Mitchell has started seven games in three years, and he should lead this group. Fellow safety Jamario O'Neal could be another all-Big 10 performer in the next year or two.
How do you replace the three linebackers lost to graduation? A.J. Hawk was the best linebacker here in years. The Buckeyes hope Marcus Freeman is the next superstar linebacker. Former Indiana star linebacker John Kerr takes over in the middle and could earn all-Big 10 honors.
The defensive line has all the experience, as tackles David Patterson and Quinn Pitcock are the defensive starters returning. They teamed for 52 stops last year.
Now, for the reason Ohio State is the preseason number one—their offense is intimidating to say the least. Start with quarterback Troy Smith. He threw for 2,282 yards at 62.9% with 16 touchdowns against only four interceptions. Backup Justin Zwick added another 359 yards and completed 72.4% of his tosses. The Buckeyes should top 250 yards passing and complete two-thirds of their attempts this year.
When Smith and Zwick drop back to pass, they will have the best group of receivers in the Big 10 on the other end of those throws. Start with the amazing Ted Ginn, Jr. He caught 51 passes for 803 yards (15.7 avg). Anthony Gonzalez and Roy Hall combined for 44 receptions. Running back Antonio Pittman is a talented pass-catcher out of the backfield, and he should sneak past opposing linebackers for an occasional big gain.
Pittman's running ability is where his bread is buttered. Last year, he led the Buckeyes with 1,331 yards at 5.5 yards per carry. Smith was the second leading rusher, but he shouldn't run for as many yards this year.
The offensive line features four powerful blockers who will give Smith time to wink at the cheerleaders before passing the ball. Versatile Doug Datish can play anywhere in the line. Guard T.J. Downing and tackles Kirk Barton and Alex Boone rate highly as well.
What could be the deciding factor in some close games is the special teams play. OSU has one of the best in the nation. Ginn returns punts and kicks for long distances; he averaged just 10 yards per punt return last year with a touchdown, but he returned kickoff to the tune of a 29.6 yard average and scored a touchdown that way too.
The game of the year should be the week two match up at Texas. The Longhorns probably will have a 60% chance of winning that one, but Ohio State can still go the distance if they lose just that game. The Buckeyes have to play at Iowa and Michigan State, two teams capable of beating them and who will also be looking for revenge. Home games with Penn State and Michigan will be no picnic. In a league this loaded, it may be close to impossible to run the table. If anybody can go 8-0 in this league, they deserve a chance to play for all the marbles. Nevertheless, I am calling for OSU to finish 7-1/10-2.
2. Michigan Wolverines
PiRate: 119 National Ranking: 5 HFA: 6
The way I rate teams, Michigan played the most difficult schedule in the NCAA last year. The lost five games, but look at the teams that beat them! Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Nebraska were not the little sisters of the poor. Additionally, Michigan knocked off Penn State, Iowa, and Northwestern (when NU was in the Top 25).
Any talk that Lloyd Carr should be on the hot seat is ridiculous. The man has won a national title and a multitude of Big 10 titles. If Michigan dumps him, a pox on their big house!
The Wolverines will not take a back seat to anyone with the returning talent in Ann Arbor this season. After giving up 20.3 points and 345 total yards, expect the maize and blue stop troops to kick it up another notch this year and give up about 16 points and 320 yards.
The defensive line is the only area of the defense that isn't one of the top three or four units in America. They have to settle for about 10th best. End Lamar Woodley and tackle Alan Branch are both can't miss NFL draft picks. They combined for 26 stops for loss, with 12 sacks.
The linebackers rate with Penn State and Ohio State in a class above the other eight Big 10 teams. Dave Harris, Prescott Burgess, and Chris Graham teamed for 211 tackles with 14 stops for losses. They found time to defend 10 passes.
The secondary is one of the three best in the nation and features cornerback Leon Hall. Hall intercepted four passes and broke up five others even though most teams tried to throw away from him. Safeties Jamar Adams and Ryan Mundy will put a hurt on receivers coming across the middle.
The Wolverine offense scored just shy of 29 points per game and produced 385 total yards per game last year. If Michigan can replace their fabulous wide out Jason Avant (82-1007), the offense could replicate or top those numbers.
Quarterback Chad Henne didn't have a great year in 2005, completing just 58.4% of his passes for 2,526 yards and 23 touchdowns against eight picks. He should top 60% accuracy this year for 2,900 or more yards. If Henne should go down, The Wolverines could be in trouble, as they don't have an experienced backup.
The running back situation is in good hands and feet thanks to the return of Mike Hart and Kevin Grady. Hart is capable of rushing for 1,000 yards, as he went for 1,455 as a freshman in 2004. Last year, he stayed injured most of the season and only gained 662 yards. With Grady available to carry the ball and contribute 500-700 yards, Hart won't have to be abused. The two should team up for close to 2,000 yards.
The receiver corps loses their big star, but fret not. Steve Breaston and Mario Manningham should both top 50 receptions and 700 yards this season. Tight end Tyler Ecker is good for 25-30 crucially-made receptions and will break free for a 30-yard gain every now and again.
The offensive line is the weakest unit, but it is still quite competent. Michigan should be able to run to the left behind tackle Jake Long, guard Adam Kraus, and center Mark Bihl. Long is a powerful pancake-maker, while Kraus plays like Jerry Kramer. He can pull and get out into the perimeter with the best of them.
The Wolverine special teams are almost as special as their interstate arch-rival. Breaston will challenge Ted Ginn for best return specialist.
Michigan has three tough road games—Notre Dame, Penn State, and Ohio State. Their home slate looks like it could be a clean sweep. Even if they only win one of those three toughies on foreign turf, 10-2 should give them a top 10 finish. Will Michigan win 10 games this year? Ya, Sure, Ya Betcha!
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
PiRate: 116 National Ranking: 8 (t) HFA: 6
So, Joe Pa is too old and can't coach any more? Ha Ha Ha. He might become the first octogenarian to coach a Division I-A team. As he enters his 41st season as head coach in State College and spends his seventh decade on campus, he faces a major rebuilding job. However, like Ohio State, the Lions have plenty of talent ready to move into the starting lineup.
Anthony Morelli replaces Michael Robinson at quarterback. In limited action, he completed 13 of 20 passes for 155 yards and a score. He won't rush for 900+ yards like Robinson, but he could remind folks of Kerry Collins.
Morelli has a host of talented receivers on his side. Wide outs Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, and Derrick Williams make this unit the most experienced in the league. The trio amassed 91 receptions and 1,402 yards last year. Butler is a threat to break free any time he catches the ball in open space. This unit has good depth as well.
The Lions return 1,000-yard rusher Tony Hunt, who also found time to catch 20 passes for 206 yards. Hunt averaged six yards per carry.
Levi Brown is the only returning starter up front. The tackle should contend for 1st team All-America honors this year. The new starters are quite good, but don't have the experience that last year's starters possessed.
An easy question to answer is "What is Penn State's defense most noted for?" If you've followed football for two days, you know the answer. And, this year, the answer to that question uses the reigning Butkus and Bednarik Trophy winner as its prime example. If you haven't figured it out, the Lions are "Linebacker U.," and Paul Posluszny is the best in the nation. Last year, he made 116 tackles with 11 for losses. The only fly in the ointment is he suffered a knee injury in the Orange Bowl. He appears to be fully recovered.
Joining Posluszny at linebacker are Dan Connor and Tim Shaw, who both made 76 tackles last season with 5.5 and 6.5 stops for loss respectively. Connor is an excellent pass defender, and he stopped eight receptions from being made.
The rest of the defense will have to grow up quickly. After the linebackers and tackle Jay Alford, there are no other returning starters. Alford is a tough pass rusher who dumped quarterbacks 8.5 times last year.
Road games at Notre Dame, Ohio State, Minnesota, Purdue, and Wisconsin should keep the Lions from repeating as Big 10 champs. Home games against the two Michigan teams will provide two more obstacles. This team is still capable of getting eight or nine wins; I'll call for 8-4.
4. Iowa Hawkeyes
PiRate: 114 National Ranking: 15 HFA: 6
Iowa is the fourth Big 10 team capable of competing for high national honors this season. The Hawkeyes are 29-3 at home the last five years, and they benefit from getting Ohio State at home while avoiding Penn State altogether. A road game at Michigan could be the only game in their way of sneaking into the Big 10 penthouse. Coach Kirk Ferentz has spurned offers from the NFL to stay in Iowa City. He either loves his job or loves to look at miles and miles of corn.
The Hawkeyes have one of the top three quarterbacks in the Big 10. Last season, Drew Tate completed 62.2% of his passes for 2,828 yards and 22 touchdowns. He should top 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns this year.
Keeping the pressure off Tate is the top running back in the league. Albert Young rushed for 1,334 yards and eight scores with an average of 5.4 yards per carry. Fullback Tom Busch could be the best lead blocker in the Big 10.
The receiving corps is a little green with the loss of two starters, but the returnees are talented and fast. Herb Grigsby has a chance to be a star. Young helps here as well; he caught 24 balls out of the backfield last year.
The offensive line is solid, but not brilliant. Guard Mike Jones is the leader of this group and could make the 1st team All-Big 10.
The defense must replace two star linebackers who were overshadowed by two other outstanding linebackers at Ohio State and Penn State. Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway both topped 150 tackles and double digit stops for loss. Only Edmond Miles returns to this unit. He finished a distant third with 68 stops, with nine of them behind the line.
The defensive line will be awesome this year, as all four starters return. Tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul and ends Bryan Mattison and Kenny Iwebema represent the best trench defenders in the league. The four mules joined together to record 34.5 stops behind the line, with 15 sacks. Imagine improving these stats? They may be in the opponents' backfield so often, the will deserve to be in their offensive huddle.
Safeties Marcus Paschal and Miguel Merrick are experienced secondary defenders, but they need to intercept some passes this year. Cornerback Adam Shada intercepted three balls in a reserve capacity.
Iowa should be 4-0 when the Buckeyes come to Kinnick Stadium on September 30. Should they pull off the minor upset, then they should be 7-0 when they head to Ann Arbor. If they could somehow get by the big two, 12-0 would not be a reach—in fact it would be expected. I think the Hawkeyes will lose to one of the big two and maybe fall one other time. 10-2 is still a great season.
5. Michigan State Spartans
PiRate: 113 National Ranking: 21 (t) HFA: 5
This is a team that is hard to figure out. They outplay opponents and then pull off a bone-head move that costs them the game. If you watched them play Ohio State last year in a nationally-televised game, they threw the game (and the season) away by breaking down on a simple field goal attempt just before halftime that could have put the Buckeyes in too big of a hole to escape. Instead, 12 seconds later, Ohio State went into the locker room high as a kite after blocking that attempt and taking it back all the way. Michigan State out-gained OSU that day 456 to 386, yet lost 35-24. After starting the season 4-1, they finished 5-6 because they never recovered from that game.
This could be a coincidence, but when John L. Smith coached at Louisville, his team botched a two-minute drill on a Thursday night national television game in 2001.
The natives are starting to get restless in East Lansing. MSU has gone just 18-18 in his three years.
One of the problems with relying on a dominant passing game in the northern climes is the negative effect brutally cold weather and frozen fields have on passing. In the first six games last year (which includes the tilt against the Buckeyes), Michigan State averaged 318 yards passing. In the last five (which included games against Northwestern, Indiana, and Purdue), they could dropped off 50 yards to 268.
Quarterback Drew Stanton could be a first round pick in next year's NFL draft. Last year, he completed a whopping 2/3 of his passes for 3,077 yards and 22 touchdowns. He should approach 3,500 yards in his final season.
Stanton's top targets this year will be the top two from last season. Jerramy Scott and Matt Trannon are both capable of 60-catch, 850-yard seasons.
MSU rushed for 202 yards per game last year, and the two backs responsible for most of that yardage return. Javon Ringer picked up 817 yards (6.7 avg), while Jehuu Caulcrick added 478 (5.4 avg). 200 yards per game is in reach again.
The offensive line lost a couple of excellent blockers, but the five projected starters this year are not much weaker than the 2005 group. Guard Kyle Cook is the leader of the unit.
Defensively, MSU yielded 29 points and 410 yards per game last year, and improvement may not be forthcoming. The Spartans did not tackle well last season, letting backs get second effort and giving quarterbacks enough time to locate the fourth receiver on routes. Except for the linebackers, the other two units are below average by Big 10 standards. David Herron, Kaleb Thornhill, and SirDarean Adams return to the second line of defense after uniting for 188 tackles.
With another mediocre pass rush and no big stars in the backfield (cornerback Greg Cooper is the best and he is just a little above-average), MSU will have to outscore their opponents in shootouts every week.
A schedule that starts with Idaho and Eastern Michigan gives MSU a shot at 100 points heading into week three at Pittsburgh. The Spartans can get by the Panthers, but Notre Dame might put 50 points up on them. A bounce back game at home with Illinois precedes a visit to Ann Arbor. At that point, MSU should be 4-2. Ohio State comes to Spartan Stadium the next week, and I can tell you the green and white have that game circled in their lockers. If they upset the Buckeyes, MSU could go on a roll and close the season at Penn State with a chance to tie for the Big 10 title. If Ohio State drills them, then the Spartans could fold, losing to Northwestern, Purdue, Minnesota, and Penn State or any combination of three of those to finish with another losing record. My guess is they will be 4-3 after seven games and then pull themselves together for a good finish. 7-5 or 8-4 will land them in a bowl game for the first time in three years. If they upset Ohio State, then 10-2 is a possibility.
6. Wisconsin Badgers
PiRate: 111 National Ranking: 27 HFA: 5
So long Barry Alvarez. You brought Wisconsin back from the dead and leave with the program in good shape. Enter Bret Bielema, who made Kansas State a great defensive power in his tenure there as defensive coordinator.
2006 is going to be a down year in Madison. UW has lost too much talent to contend for the Big 10 crown, and the Badgers may find it hard breaking even. The offense took a big hit by graduating eight starters including tailback Brian Calhoun, and just about every receiver that played.
One of the few returning offensive starters is quarterback John Stocco. He completed 60.1% of his passes last year for 2,920 yards and 21 touchdowns. He will be hard-pressed to equal those numbers this year, and his interceptions are liable to go up from the nine he threw in 2005. He underwent knee surgery a few weeks ago, and his status for the first couple of games is unknown. Backup Tyler Donovan will start if Stocco isn't ready to go. Donovan is more of a running threat, but he doesn't have the passing skills of Stocco.
The likely starting wide receivers caught one total pass last year. Luke Swan and Phil Hubbard have good speed and should force defensive backs to respect their ability to go deep, like last year with Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr. Tight ends Andy Crooks, Sean Lewis and Travis Beckham should catch more passes than Owen Daniels did last year. They will give Stocco excellent, big targets.
Replacing Calhoun in the backfield will be a three-headed monster known as Jamil Walker, P.J. Hill, and Jerry Butler. This trio should rush for a combined 1,500 yards. Hill is the best power back of the bunch.
The offensive line returns just tackle Joe Thomas to the starting five. Thomas made 1st team All-Big 10 last year and should do so again this season. His new starting teammates are all big and strong and should allow the rest of the offense to run as smoothly as having eight new starters can.
The Badger defensive line should be solid this season. End Kurt Ware played so well in the preseason, he supplanted returning starter Joe Monty. In limited action last season, Ware made 5.5 stops for loss. Tackle Nick Hayden registered nine tackles behind the line.
Middle linebacker Mark Zalewski led UW with 12.5 tackles for losses last year. He will team up with two new starters, sophomores Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy.
The secondary gave up too many yards last year (250), but they held opponents to just 51.7% completions. Safety Roderick Rogers defended a team-high 14 passes; he returns along with cornerback Allen Langford and safety Joe Stellmacher who combined for 11 defended passes.
The Badgers should win all four non-conference games (Bowling Green, Western Illinois, San Diego State, and Buffalo). They should be able to win at least two and more likely three conference games to retain bowl eligibility. Call it 6-6 or 7-5 and another bowl game.
7. Minnesota Golden Gophers
PiRate: 111 National Ranking: 28 (t) HFA: 5
How do you replace two running backs who both rushed for more than 1,000 yards and combined for almost 2,600? How do you replace them when they accounted for half of your offense? How do you replace a good part of the offensive line that opened up the holes for the two guys to gain all those yards? These questions may not be answered this year, and Minnesota is headed to a .500 or worse season.
One position where the Gophers don't have to worry is at quarterback, where Bryan Cupito threw for 2,530 yards and 19 touchdowns. He has three talented receivers on hand. Wide outs Ernie Wheelwright and Logan Payne join best Big 10 tight end Matt Spaeth. The three caught 100 passes last year at 14.3 yards per catch and scored 11 times.
Trying to replace Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell's 2,659 yards and 28 touchdowns will be Amir Pinnix and JUCO Brylee Callender. Pinnix should be the next 1,000-yard rusher, but this duo won't approach the numbers of their predecessors.
Minnesota's offensive line has been top-rate for the last five or six seasons. Converted center Tony Brinkhaus and tackle Steve Shidell are the lone returnees this year, but the new starters are talented. Tackle Joe Ainslie started all of 2004 before missing most of last year with an injury.
The Gophers should score about 30 points and gain 425-450 yards per game this year; that's a bit off last season's numbers, but still spectacular. Defensively, UM surrendered 29 points and 413 yards per game in 2005, and this year's group is about as good as last year's.
There are few stars on the stop side. Safety Trumaine Banks defended 14 passes; fellow safety Dominique Barber could actually become the new star if he starts. Dominic Jones is the fastest secondary defender, but he hasn't parlayed that speed into great stats.
John Shevlin and Mario Reese form a formidable pair of linebackers after teaming for 12.5 tackles behind the line last year. Up front, Steve Davis is the lone returning starter; he recorded nine stops for losses.
The 2006 schedule presents some problems for the Gophers. They must open the season on the road on Thursday night at Kent State, where current UM coach Glen Mason got his start. That should be a comfortable win. After that, Minnesota heads to the West Coast to take on Cal, which should produce a loss. Road games at Purdue, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State could all go the other way, while home games against Michigan, Penn State, and Iowa are no picnic in the park. If the Gophers can go 6-6 this year, it will be a successful season. It wouldn't surprise me to see them fall to 4-8.
8. Northwestern Wildcats
PiRate: 108 National Ranking: 35 HFA: 4
This is a team in transition but on a mission. The Wildcats lost Head Coach Randy Walker, when he passed away from a heart attack. The season was going to be a rebuilding year to begin with, as quarterback Brett Basanez and his 10,580 career passing yards. The new coach is former Northwestern star Pat Fitzgerald, who played on the Rose Bowl team of 1994.
Redshirt freshman Mike Kafka gets first crack at replacing the graduated Basanez at quarterback. Kafka has a cannon for an arm, but he has never taken a snap in college. He cannot match Basanez's 3,622 passing yards and 21 touchdowns.
The offensive star should be running back Tyrell Sutton who rushed for 1,474 yards (5.9 avg) as a freshman last year. Sutton will get some help from Kafka, who is a fairly adept runner.
Shaun Herbert returns at wide receiver where he caught 79 passes for 862 yards in 2005. Joining him should be deep threats Kim Thompson and Ross Lane, who teamed for 16.4 yards per reception a year ago.
The offensive line returns four players who have been regulars in the past. Center Trevor Rees, guard Ryan Keenan, and tackle Dylan Thiry should form a strong core.
Look for Northwestern to still be an offensive force and score about 28 points per game this year, but the new quarterback will make some mistakes and give the opposition some gifts. The defense won't be strong enough to stop quality offenses especially if they have to come on the field for more plays this year.
The secondary could develop into a fine unit if safety Bryan Heinz is fully recovered from his ACL injury suffered last year. He'll team with cornerback Marquice Cole, who intercepted five passes a year ago.
The front seven needs improvement after the Wildcats gave up 218 yards rushing last year in 5.2 yard increments. A lack of a pass rush allowed opponents to pass for 262 yards per game. Linebackers Adam Kadela and Nick Roach teamed up for 148 tackles, but only seven for losses. End Kevin Mims has the potential to be a better pass rusher, but he only recorded two sacks last year.
Northwestern has two difficult non-conference road games in Miami (O) and Nevada. They should go just 2-2 out-of-conference. Inside the Big 10, NU doesn't play Indiana, but gets Illinois at home. The best I can see this team is 5-7, but they could fall to 4-8 or even 3-9.
9. Purdue Boilermakers
PiRate: 108 National Ranking: 36 HFA: 5
The Boilermakers finished in a three-way tie last year for the best at something. Unfortunately, that something was most disappointing team, which they shared with Tennessee and Texas A&M. Prognosticators were calling for Purdue to go 11-0, but they fell apart after losing in overtime to Minnesota, finishing 5-6. Their defense let them down last year, yielding more than 28 points per game after giving up 17 points and change the prior two years. It was not expected, since every starter returned on that side last year. Now, a majority of those starters are gone, and 2006 could be another bumpy year for Coach Joe Tiller.
Curtis Painter took over as the starting quarterback in the last half of the season, completing just 52.4% of his passes at a low 10.5 yard per completion rate (5.5 yards per attempt). He threw more interceptions than touchdown passes. He has no real competition to start the season, so he must stay healthy or Purdue will be in dire shape.
Running back Kory Sheets provides a solid, but not outstanding dual threat. He could run for 750 or so yards and catch 25-30 passes. There isn't much quality depth here either .
The receiving corps has a star in Dorien Bryant, who nabbed 80 passes for 960 yards last season. Joining him to give Purdue a solid receiving unit is Kyle Ingraham, who caught 41 passes for 500 yards.
The offensive line welcomes back four starters (Robbie Powell, Jordan Grimes, Sean Sester, and Mike Otto) who blocked exceptionally well for both the run and the pass. They gave up just nine sacks and blocked well enough for the backs to average 4.9 yards per rush.
Purdue should score at least 30 points per game for the third consecutive season. Whether the rebuilt defense can improve upon last year's performance will determine if the Boilermakers can make it back to a bowl.
All three linebackers return to the lineup this year. George Hall, Dan Bick, and Cliff Avril joined for 150 tackles last year. They need the four guys in front of them to keep blockers off them. Only one starter returns up front, and that's end Anthony Spencer, who made 7.5 stops behind the line.
The secondary returns just one starter. Cornerback Zach Logan broke up five passes but didn't get an interception.
The schedule-maker could be this year's MVP. The three non-conference games other than the annual bout with the Irish, are all home tilts. Purdue can beat Indiana State, Miami (O), and Ball State to go 3-1 before Big 10 play begins. The Boilermakers travel to Hawaii on November 25th, meaning they play 13 games in 13 weeks! Yikes! On second thought, bring Coach Tiller the head of that schedule-maker. If the ball bounces just right, PU could finish 8-5. If there are problems at some of the thin-depth areas. The Boilermakers could finish 6-7 or even 5-8.
10. Indiana Hoosiers
PiRate: 99 National Ranking: 65 HFA: 4
In his first season in Bloomington, Terry Hoeppner's Hoosiers raced out to a 4-1 start and gave Iowa all the could handle in game six. The season should have ended there, because Indiana finished the season on the wrong end of five blowout losses. In year two at IU, Hoeppner could win one more game than 2005. Next year, Indiana could be ready to begin to compete for a bowl.
Quarterback Blake Powers took his lumps last year in his first season as the regular. However, when the dust cleared, he set the all-time single season record in Bloomington for touchdown passes with 22. His one bugaboo was the 16 passes that were intercepted.
Powers welcomes the return of IU's top six pass receivers from last season. Starting wide outs James Hardy, Jahkeen Gilmore, and James Bailey caught 118 passes for 16 touchdowns (Hardy contributed 61 receptions and 10 of those TDs).
This year's starting running back Marcus Thigpen caught 32 passes as a receiver last year and showed excellent ability to run after the catch. If he can get the ball on the perimeter with a little running room, he could break off some long runs.
Three starters return to the offensive line. Center Chris Mangeiro is the best of the bunch.
The Hoosiers still have problems on defense, where they surrendered nearly 33 points and 420 yards per game last year. The secondary is the only area where there isn't a lot of concern. All four defensive backs return after combining for 239 tackles (way too much for a secondary) and 20 defended passes. The best of this unit is safety Will Meyers, the leading returning tackler with 84.
The seven defenders in front of the secondary are not up to par with the Big 10's upper division. IU allowed opponents to run for 215 yards at five yards per try. The top leading returning tackler not in the secondary is tackle Charlie Emerson who made a grand total of 23 stops.
Indiana has a decent shot at going 4-0 prior to league play with Western Michigan, Ball State, Southern Illinois, and UConn. They could also be just 2-2 after playing these four games. Since the Illinois game is a road contest, IU may post a bagel in conference play. 4-8 is about all they can expect this year.
11. Illinois Fighting Illini
PiRate: 98 National Ranking: 73 HFA: 4
Ron Zook's first year in Champaign was one he'd like to forget. The Illini finished 2-9 and gave up 435 points. The season began with wins over Rutgers and San Jose State. At 2-0, Illinois took Cal into the second half before allowing the Bears to come back and win. From that point on, the Illini never came close to winning.
The Illini may not have the best talent in the league, but they do return the most starters. They should at least improve a little this year.
The defense was quite offensive last year. Illinois gave up almost 40 points per game. Against the run, opponents averaged 234 yards and 5.5 yards per carry. They were even worse against the pass, where they allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 67% of their passes for 235 yards. The top seven tacklers return to this unit.
Illinois must find a way to put more pressure on the quarterback after recording just 11 sacks in 2005. Tackle Chris Norwell led the Illini with three sacks.
Linebackers J Leman and Brit Miller teamed for 113 tackles, but only 10 were for losses. Defensive backs Justin Harrison, Alan Ball, and Charles Bailey defended only nine passes, intercepting just two.
The offense scored 17 points per game last year and gained an average of 354 yards per game. Most of the key contributors are back this year. Quarterback Tim Brasic completed 61.1% of his passes for 1,979 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has rushed for over 100 yards in a game before, so defenses have to respect his ability to run the ball.
Pierre Thomas, E.B. Halsey, and Rashard Mendenhall all return to the backfield after rushing for 1,231 yards. Thomas averaged 5.2 yards per rush.
Wide receiver Kyle Hudson is a legitimate Big 10-quality pass catcher after hauling in 31 passes for 469 yards. Thomas, Mendenhall, and Halsey added 79 receptions as Brasic frequently had to dump the ball off to a back.
The offensive line is the most experienced unit on the team with the entire starting five returning and with some decent depth. Guard Matt Maddox and tackle Akim Millington could challenge for Honorable Mention All-Big 10 accolades.
Having Eastern Illinois, Syracuse, and Ohio come to Memorial Stadium gives Illinois a chance to surpass last year's win total just in non-conference play. Getting Indiana at home for homecoming should be enough to earn a conference win this season. 3-9 or 4-8 would be a small step forward.
Next Up: The Southeastern Conference. The league is so balanced, and nobody is dominant at every unit on both sides of the ball, so both divisions should be exciting this year—even if the SEC doesn't have a team in competition for the BCS Title game.
Sources: The official website of the Big 10 Conference plus all member institution's official website.
The Capital Times (Madison, WI)
The Wisconsin State Journal
The Minneapolis Star Tribune
The St. Paul Pioneer Press
The Chicago Sun Times
The Detroit Free Press
The Columbus Dispatch