Preseason Lookaheads - Big Ten
Posted Jan 19, 2007

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. 

5. 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 

6. 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 
10. 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 hurt.
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 

27. Iowa    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 Merrick.
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 

46. 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 September.
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 per game.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Bryan Cupito  
Biggest defensive loss: LB Mario Reese

53. 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 

60. 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 line.
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 

61. 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 sky-high.
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 

66. 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 

73. 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