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Preseason Lookaheads - Big Ten
Before spring ball and before the recruiting madness fully kicks in, we look ahead at what every team needs to work on along with the big hopes, concerns, and key losses.
The numbers are the CFN pre-preseason national rankings.
Wisconsin 2006 Record: 12-1
Why to get excited: The Badgers are flat-out loaded with one of the
best defensive lines in the country, two tremendous corners, All-America
caliber RB P.J. Hill, four starters on the offensive line, and all the
receivers including TE Travis Beckum. If that wasn't enough, Marcus
Randle El is back after a knee injury to become the number one deep
threat target right off the bat. QB John Stocco might be gone, but Tyler
Donovan and Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge are experienced. PK
Taylor Mehlhaff and P Ken DeBauche, even after a down year, should be
the nation's best kicking tandem. To add to the expectations, the
non-conference schedule is squishy-soft playing Washington State, at
UNLV and The Citadel.
Why to be grouchy: Put those national title dreams on hold with
trips to Penn State and Ohio State, along with a home date with
Michigan. Can the program handle being under the national microscope? It
didn't exactly beat anyone with a pulse last year outside of Penn State
and Arkansas, and now it'll be Big Ten title or bust. While there's a
slew of talent returning, losing top five NFL draft pick Joe Thomas off
the line, LB Mark Zalewski, and safeties Joe Stellmacher and Roderick
Rodgers will hurt.
The number one thing to work on is: Kickoff returns. And while
they're at it, the Badgers could use a ton of help returning punts after
averaging just 6.58 yards per try. They were dead last in America at
kickoff returns averaging 15 yards per try.
Biggest offensive loss: OT Joe Thomas
Biggest defensive loss: LB Mark Zalewski
Ohio State 2006 Record: 12-1
Why to get excited: Forgetting the Michigan and Florida fiascos, the
defense should be out of this world now that all the talent is
experienced. The team still has as much athleticism and skill as anyone
in the country and should be able to beat just about everyone on overall
talent level alone. While much will be made out of all the major
departures from the offense, remember, this is Ohio State. It replaces
NFL-caliber players with more NFL-caliber players. The defense proved
that, for the most part, last year, however ..
Why to be grouchy: ... you don't get better by losing a Heisman
winning quarterback, Ted Ginn, Anthony Gonzalez, Antonio Pittman, and
two key offensive linemen. The defense might get plenty of talent back
in the back seven, it loses some great players on the line. Did the loss
to the Gators take away the Buckeye mystique? Certainly, the jury is now
out about how the team can do against good, fast offenses.
The number one thing to work on is: Use the BCS Championship Game
for motivation. This was a far better team than it showed in Glendale,
and it needs to find something positive out of the loss to get back to
the level it played at for most of last year. This is still one of the
favorites for the Big Ten title, and it needs to act like it right out
of the gate.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Troy Smith
Biggest defensive loss: DT Quinn Pitcock
Michigan 2006 Record: 11-2
Why to get excited: It'll be a mega-shock if this isn't one of the
ten most productive offenses in America. There's no better trio of skill
players than Chad Henne, Mike Hart and Mario Manningham, while the
return of Jake Long to the offensive line makes the front five
outstanding. The schedule is a dream early on getting Oregon, Notre Dame
and Penn State in the Big House while the first three road games are at
Northwestern, Illinois and Michigan State. And then ...
Why to be grouchy: ... the year finishes up at Wisconsin and at
home against Ohio State. The defense loses way too much talent to come
close to repeating last year's pre-Ohio State game production with
LaMarr Woodley, Rondell Biggs, David Harris, Prescott
Burgess, Leon Hall, Willis Barringer, and most painfully, Alan Branch,
all off to play somewhere in the NFL. The loss of PK Garrett Rivas will
The number one thing to work on is: Using all the offensive
talent to put teams away early. There's far too much talent to demand
anything less than 35 points a game, and there's far too much firepower
to not end most games against average teams by midway through the second
quarter. With the toughest games coming at the end of the year, the more
Kevin Grady and others can get involved in the running game, the fresher
Hart will be when needed most.
Biggest offensive loss: C Mark Bihl
Biggest defensive loss: DT Alan Branch
24. Penn State 2006 Record: 9-4
Why to get excited: If the Outback Bowl was any indication, Anthony
Morelli might have turned the corner. If he can use all his experience
and all his talent to grow into a consistent, accurate passer, the Penn
State passing game will be as good as it's been in years. The coaching
staff has to figure out how to get the ball into Derrick Williams' hands
on a more regular basis, while Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood help form
one of the Big Ten's most dangerous receiving corps. Even without Paul
Posluszny, the linebacking corps will be one of the best in America
thanks to Dan Connor and Tim Shaw.
Why to be grouchy: The left side of the offensive line, Levi
Brown and Robert Price, are gone, while there are just enough key losses
(Posluszny, RB Tony Hunt, DE Tim Shaw, FS Donnie Johnson) to hurt.
Punter Jeremy Kapinos was a key playmaker who won't be easily replaced.
The number one thing to work on is: Get more offensive pop. The
weapons are there in the receiving corps; now they have to be used.
State only scored more than 20 points six times with all but the OT win
over Minnesota coming against the dregs on the schedule. The 20 scored
against Tennessee was helped by a defensive score. Against Notre Dame,
Ohio State, Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin, five of the six bowl teams
on the regular season schedule, State averaged 9.6 points and went 1-4.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Tony Hunt
Biggest defensive loss: LB Paul Posluszny
2006 Record: 6-7
Why to get excited: The team played as poorly as it had since Kirk
Ferentz first took over and still got to the Alamo Bowl. Most of the key
defensive players return, including DE Ken Iwebema after missing a key
part of the year with a shoulder problem, and there should be even more
production on offense despite the loss of QB Drew Tate. Albert Young and
Damian Sims will be a tremendous 1-2 rushing tandem, while receivers
Dominique Douglas, Andey Brodell and Herb Grigsby should make the
passing game shine if ...
Why to be grouchy: ... Jake Christensen is ready to roll. Tate
might not have been right all of last year, but he was the tone-setter
for the team. If Christensen isn't rocking out of the gate, there could
be problems early in Big Ten play with road trips to Wisconsin and Penn
State before mid-October. The pass defense hasn't been anything special
in a long time, and now it loses safeties Marcus Paschal and Miguel
The number one thing to work on is: Turnover margin. The Hawkeyes
turned it over 31 times last year and only came up with 20 takeaways.
The Big Ten is too good and too even to make mistakes. Getting
improvement from a kickoff return game that averaged 17.79 yards per
return would be nice.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Drew Tate
Biggest defensive loss: LB Edmond Miles
Minnesota 2006 Record: 6-7
Why to get excited: Glen Mason bashers, you got your wish. Former
Denver Bronco tight ends coach Tim Brewster is a recruiting maniac who
should up the talent-level in Minneapolis in a big hurry. The
offensive line should be fantastic with four starters returning, while
the defense can't help but be better with ten starters coming back.
Brewster will have time to get his feet wet with an easy non-conference
schedule before dealing with a home date against Ohio State in late
Why to be grouchy: Brewster's head coaching career consists of
two years at Central Catholic High School in Lafayette, Indiana. Even
though the hire might work out in time, this isn't exactly the type of
"wow" hire the program needed to instill confidence in the fan base.
Brewster's recruiting magic won't take hold quite yet. Even with all the
returning talent, the defense still has to prove it has the players to
slow someone down.
The number one thing to work on is: Pass defense. The offense
will be fine and should be able to run without a problem, but the
production won't matter much if the D isn't far better. The Insight Bowl
only put a spotlight on a secondary that got torched by everyone all
season long. The front seven didn't do enough to get into the backfield,
while the run defense wasn't much better getting hammered for 158 yards
Biggest offensive loss: QB Bryan Cupito
Biggest defensive loss: LB Mario Reese
Purdue 2006 Record: 8-5
Why to get excited: The receiving corps might be the best in the
nation with Dorien Bryant returning for his senior year to join Selwyn
Lymon and Greg Orton. The weapons will all shine with QB Curtis Painter
about to come into his own. Throw running backs Kory Sheets and Jaycen
Taylor into the mix, and Purdue's offense has the potential to be
unstoppable. Eight starters return on D. Missing Wisconsin on the Big
Ten schedule is a major plus, but ...
Why to be grouchy: There's no Illinois, and welcome back to the
schedule, Ohio State and Michigan. After years of missing the Big Two,
Purdue gets slapped back into a nasty slate playing at Minnesota, Notre
Dame, Ohio State, at Michigan and Iowa over a five-week span. A trip to
Penn State comes up later. Linebackers George Hall and Al Royal are gone
along with All-America DE Anthony Spencer.
The number one thing to work on is: Stop the run, stop the run,
stop the run. Purdue hasn't slowed down a running game in about two
years and finished 114th in the nation in total defense last year. The
pass defense wasn't exactly a prize, but to be better in Big Ten play,
the Boilermakers have to work on being far more physical up front.
Biggest offensive loss: OT Mike Otto
Biggest defensive loss: DE Anthony Spencer
Michigan State 2006 Record: 4-8
Why to get excited: Mark Dantonio, Mark Dantonio, Mark Dantonio,
Mark Dantonio, Mark Dantonio, and Mark Dantonio. If he doesn't
immediately make the difference in at least four games, it'll be a
shock. Expect the Spartans to be far more effective defensively, and far
less flaky offensively right off the bat. The ground game should be
excellent with a slew of great back working behind a veteran offensive
Why to be grouchy: The talent is good, but not at a championship
level. Is QB Brian Hoyer really ready to make the offense better?
It might be tough right off the bat with the top three receivers gone.
Road trips to Notre Dame and Wisconsin at the end of September might
ruin what should be a great start. Late October road trips to Ohio State
and Iowa could be an issue to the team's psyche.
The number one thing to work on is: Pass defense. Part of the
problem last year was a lack of pass rush generating just 16 sacks,
while shaky all-around play from the corners was a bigger issue.
Dantonio's first priority will be to figure out how to shave at least 30
yards per game from what the secondary gave up last year.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Drew Stanton
Biggest defensive loss: DT Clifton Ryan
Illinois 2006 Record: 2-10
Why to get excited: Nine defensive and eight offensive starters
return along with one of the most exciting young offensive players in
the Big Ten, QB Juice Williams, as well as the Big Ten's leading
tackler, J Leman. The team has more speed and athleticism than it's had
in years, so if Ron Zook can actually coach a bit, the wins should start
to come. Lost in the two win season was the defense that was strong all
season long. With so much returning experience, the expectations will be
Why to be grouchy: The passing game needs to make a massive jump
in overall production, while the running game loses Pierre Thomas and
E.B. Halsey. For all the promise and potential, the team still has to
prove it can win under Zook after being three points away from being
winless against D-I teams. While Illinois will certainly be better this
year, so will the Big Ten.
The number one thing to work on is: Getting Williams to throw the
ball better than your sister. The Illini finished dead last in the
nation in passing efficiency, and while Juice was able to produce with
his legs, the passing game was non-existent for massive chunks of the
year. With his mobility, he has to handle the rush far better.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Pierre Thomas
Biggest defensive loss: CB Alan Ball
Northwestern 2006 Record: 4-8
Why to get excited: A 54-10 loss to Ohio State aside, the team
improved at the end of the year with wins over Iowa and Illinois in
November. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff appeared to get the
ins and outs a little better starting to get more consistent offensive
production against the average defenses on the schedule, and now things
should shine with Tyrell Sutton and seven other starters returning. Ten
starters return on defense. Along with a date with Eastern Michigan in
mid-October, the first three non-conference games are against
Northeastern, Nevada and Duke before ...
Why to be grouchy: ... going to Ohio State and hosting Michigan.
While the Cats will be experienced, talent-wise, it's still going most
Big Ten teams to be looking ahead and caught flat-footed to come up with
wins. The offense was decent against the mediocre, but managed a total
of 29 points against Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State. QB
C.J. Bacher still likely needs another year of seasoning before he makes
the attack hum against everyone.
The number one thing to work on is: Getting into the backfield.
Northwestern has had problems generating pressure for years, and while
it came up with sacks at times throughout 2006, the D only came up with
50 tackles for loss. The coaching staff has to work on better blitz
packages and needs to figure out how to get the front four to make more
big stops against the run.
Biggest offensive loss: WR Shaun Herbert
Biggest defensive loss: LB Demetrius Eaton
Indiana 2006 Record: 5-7
Why to get excited: The pitch-catch combination of Kellen Lewis and
James Hardy is worth the price of admission. When these two were on, IU
was nasty with an explosive offense that showed against teams like
Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State that it can be something special. In
year three, Terry Hoeppner has the program close to where he wants it to
be and should have IU's best team in tears with eight returning starter
on defense and seven on offense. What two teams do the Hoosiers miss in
Big Ten play? Ohio State and Michigan.
Why to be grouchy: The defense is still small and average. While
the size issue is by design, choosing speed and quickness over size,
there wasn't any measurable improvement as the season went on and there
are still major question marks about the D's talent level and its
ability to stop anyone.
The number one thing to work on is: Getting to the quarterback.
The secondary isn't good enough to hang with most above-average passing
games, so the front seven has to to do far more to pressure the passer.
IU only came up with 14 sacks last year, and with all the extra time to
cover, the corners got toasted time and again.
Biggest offensive loss: OT Scott Anderson
Biggest defensive loss: FS Will Meyers