The big spring question is ... Can Illinois be more
competitive in the Big Ten? Ron Zook took over a slow team that had
major problems matching up athletically with the rest of the conference,
but at least the effort was there. His 2006 recruiting class was full of
good prospects that'll eventually rectify the problem, but the Illini
won't get that major infusion of talent right away. This spring is vital
for many of last year's players to prove that they shouldn't be replaced
by an incoming freshman.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Can
Tim Brasic or Chris Pazan show enough improvement to hope for an
improved and more consistent offense? Pazan doesn't appear to be the
answer and Brasic's mobility and experience will certainly make him the
one to beat going into the season, but they could both be competing for
a backup spot behind incoming star freshman
Isiah Williams, who turned down Penn State, Ohio State
and Tennessee to be Zook's main man.
Spring attitude... Keep improving. Duh, every team wants to
use the spring to improve, but Illinois gets almost all the starters
back on both sides of the ball and has to use the experience to become
more consistent and far sharper. All the spring practice in the world
won't make the Illini D faster, but the offense can improve.
The big spring question is ... How much can IU improve from
year one in the Terry Hoeppner era to year two? The Hoosier offense has
a lot to get excited about with QB Blake Powers and almost all the top
receivers, led by James Hardy, returning. However, IU didn't just lost
its final six games of last year, it wasn't even close getting blasted
by an average margin of 26 point per loss. The offense has to regain its
early-2005 form while the defense has to get far better after allowing
over 40 points in each of the final five games.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end.
The run defense wasn't anything to write home about, but the line wasn't
all that bad. Tackles Joe Kremer, Greg Brown and Charlie Emerson should
be rocks to build around, but replaying Victor Adeyanju and Ben Ishola
could be tough. The spotlight will be on Kenny Kendal and Tyler Altman
to come up big.
Spring attitude... Help is on the way. Hoeppner made a big
deal out of bringing in speed with his 2006 recruiting class, and he's
planning on giving several true freshmen chances to at least provide
more depth when they hit campus late this summer. IU has to find more
playmakers on defense and make the offense more efficient. The pieces
are there to come up with a scary passing game to at least keep the
Hoosiers alive in most games, but it has to all come together this
practice starts March 22, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... Can Iowa start out hot? In the
seven years under Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have lost at least one game
in September in all but one of them, and that was in 2001 when they only
played three games before October. More often than not, it seems to take
that first month for Iowa to hit its stride and start to play its best.
This year the September slate is Montana, at Syracuse, Iowa State and at
Illinois. Even though the Cyclones always give the Hawkeyes problems, a
4-0 start could mean a huge, huge season. The Ohio State game in Iowa
City and the road trip to Michigan will likely be the only games Iowa
will be the underdog.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive line.
It was the big issue going into last season, but the concerns quickly
went away as the front four showed signs of developing into something
special with players like end Ken Iwebema. Linebacker is the team's
biggest concern losing Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, so the line has to
take the next step up in production and dominate from practice one. Even
so, Iowa isn't starting from scratch at linebacker with Mike Linkenborg
and Mike Humpal each seeing plenty of playing time last year.
Spring attitude... Big Ten title or bust. If Iowa can
reestablish its dominance at home and beat Ohio State, Wisconsin, and
nemesis Iowa State, it's a one game season on October 21st at Michigan.
As long as the holes are patched in the linebacking corps and at
receiver, there's absolutely no reason this team can't win the Big Ten
title and be in the hunt for even more.
Spring practice starts March 18, Spring Game April 1
The big spring question is ... Which Michigan team will show
up? With five losses, another loss to Ohio State, and another bowl loss,
2005 wasn't Michigan's finest hour, but it was a better year than many
made it out to be. Remember, some (cough, me, cough) were suggesting
midway through the year that the Wolverines weren't going bowling after
starting 3-3 and with Penn State, at Iowa, at Northwestern and Ohio
State still to play. The team obviously rallied to turn things around,
but that's the only positive to take away. Once again, there's enough
talent to win the Big Ten title, and now the team has to play like it.
The most important position to watch is ... Assistant coach.
When things start to go wrong at a huge program like Tennessee, Miami or
Michigan, there are going to be changes among the assistants first to
buy more time for the head coach. Michigan lost much-maligned defensive
coordinator Jim Herrmann to the NFL and was replaced by secondary coach
Ron English. Special teams coordinator Mike DeBord, who used to be the
head coach at Central Michigan, is the new offensive coordinator
replacing now New Orleans Saint Terry Malone.
Spring attitude... Beat Notre Dame. Step one to stopping the
Maize and Blue grumbling would be to win all the non-bowl,
non-conference games for the first time since 1999. Vanderbilt, Central
Michigan, and in November, Ball State shouldn't be a problem, but the
Wolverines have to win at South Bend or they'll once again be out of the
national title hunt before the leaves change. Lose to the Irish, and
even a Big Ten title would bring a "yeah, but ..." from those who
believe a program as big as Michigan should be battling for the BCS
The big spring question is ... Can MSU go a year without the
wheels falling off? The program hasn't been all that great in October
and November (which just so happens to be a big part of most college
football seasons) going 14-28 over the last five years in the big two
months, and that doesn't include the bowl-hope-killing loss to Hawaii in
December of 2003. The team has to get mentally tougher to overcome
adversity, but history could easily repeat itself. What's the first game
in October? At Michigan. Three road games and home dates with Ohio
State, Purdue and Minnesota follow.
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback. The
Spartans were awful against the pass all year and couldn't slow down
accurate, efficient passers. The cornerback play has to be far better,
but they could use more pass rushing help after the front seven
generated a mere 16 sacks.
Spring attitude... Relax, and have fun. It's hard not to be a
little loose with John L. Smith as the head coach, and maybe the key to
overcoming the recent slump is to learn how to take the losses in
stride. Drew Stanton is one of the nation's best quarterbacks and there
are good athletes on both sides of the ball to battle anyone on the
schedule. What's the worst that can happen? Another meltdown?
Spring practice starts March 28, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Can the team finally find
enough defense to be consistent game in and game out? The running game
will always be great under Glen Mason, and the passing game should be
fantastic with QB Bryan Cupito and several top receivers returning.
However, forget about anything more than another Music City Bowl-caliber
season unless the D, which allowed 413 yards and 29 points per game, can
finally turn a corner. The Gophers gave up 19.2 points per game in the
seven wins, and 42.6 points per game in the five losses.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive
lineman. There was size up front, but little to no pass rush. It's not
rocket surgery to figure out that the secondary is going to struggle
when you don't get to the quarterback, so the Gophers have to figure out
how to generate more than 15 sacks. Just as important in a conference
that likes to run like the Big Ten does, the new young starters up front
have to use their quickness to make up for the loss of the beef that
clogged things up last year.
Spring attitude... Turn up the heat on defense. Mason's
contract situation is in place, so he and his staff can relax. Everyone
knows Minnesota will win at least seven games, run for a bazillion
yards, and win at least one shocking game it's not supposed to.
Eventually, everything will break the right way and the Gophers will be
in the mix for the Big Ten title, but that can only be helped by better
play from the D.
practice starts March 28, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Will the team ever stop
anyone's running game? The Wildcats were saved by the nation's fourth
best offense able to get to the Sun Bowl despite having the nation's
worst defense. It's not a plus losing tackling-machine LB Tim McGarigle,
DT Barry Cofield, and both starting safeties. The offense is going to be
worse without QB Brett Basanez, so the defense has to be a whole bunch
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback.
Basanez finished third in the nation in total offense averaging 337
yards per game with an incredible 3,622-yard, 21 touchdown, eight
interception season with 497 rushing yards and seven scores. C.J. Bacher
is a big passer who had a strong 2005 spring, but he only saw a little
bit of mop-up duty last year completing six of 15 passes for 59 yards
with a touchdown and an interception. He's mobile and has the potential
to be another good, unheralded Wildcat quarterback, but it should take
time. Mike Kafka and Andrew Brewer will also get chances at the starting
Spring attitude... Do everything humanly possible to tighten
up the defense, because the onslaught is coming. Northwestern should be
able to get past a opening night Thursday game at Miami University and
shouldn't have a problem with New Hampshire and Eastern Michigan, but
those are followed by a parade of tough offenses that'll have their way
with the Purple with three straight road games at Nevada, Penn State and
Wisconsin before getting Purdue, Michigan State, at Michigan, at Iowa
and Ohio State before facing Illinois.
Spring practice starts March 30, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... How in the world can Ohio
State replace all the stars in the defensive back seven? It wouldn't be
a shock if three Buckeye defenders (A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, and
Ashton Youboty) go in the first round of the upcoming draft, with more
to be taken on the first day. There's no question the offense will be
explosive, and the Buckeyes will always have athletes to burn to fill in
the holes, but to immediately replace the lost production is asking a
The most important position to watch is ... Placekicker.
Obviously the focus will be on the linebackers and secondary, but
placekicker is always a spotlight position at Ohio State. Last year, the
big question was whether or not the program would survive without Mike
Nugent, and then Josh Huston came on to blast 22 of 28 field goals and
44 of 45 extra points. Expect this to grow into one of the bigger
battles of spring ball with an open casting call to take over the gig.
Spring attitude... We're a factory. Everything will be fine.
Troy Smith and Ted Ginn Jr. are being touted as Heisman candidates,
Antonio Pittman is a tremendous running back, and there are more highly
recruited players on both sides of the ball to keep the interest of the
NFL scouts piqued. While that's great, this isn't last year's team, and
that group lost two games. Fine, so the two defeats were to Texas and
Penn State, but the Buckeyes have to go to Texas on September 9th along
with dangerous road trips to Iowa and Michigan State. The schedule isn't
all that bad, so a win over the Longhorns might be the springboard for
another BCS season.
Spring practice starts March 25, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Was last year a fluke? The
team will still be good, but BCS good? The Nittany Lions were on the
right side of four of the five close games they played, and now the
defense will be worse with the loss of DE Tamba Hali, CB Alan Zemaitis,
and five other starters while the star of the show, Butkus Award winning
LB Paul Posluszny, still recovering from a knee injury. The offense
should have a killer running game with Tony Hunt and Austin Scott, but
can the attack overcome the loss of QB Michael Robinson?
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback. While
all eyes will be on QB Anthony Morelli to see if he can handle the
offense, the big key to the season might be how quickly the replacements
can be found on defense. There are several areas of concern, but taking
away Zemaitis and Anwar Phillips puts the pressure on Tony Davis and
Devin Fentress from day one.
Spring attitude... Don't slip. Penn State went 9-4 in 2002
with a senior dominated team, and then pffffft. 3-9 in 2003 and 4-7 in
2004. There's far too much talent to see a freefall to another non-bowl
season, but it wouldn't be a total shock if the Nittany Lions lost five
games with road trips to Notre Dame, Ohio State, Minnesota, Purdue (the
team is better) and Wisconsin and with a tough home game against
Spring practice starts April 5, Spring Game April 29
The big spring question is ... How much pressure is there on
Joe Tiller? For the second straight season, Purdue gets a boatload of
starters back on offense and doesn't have to play Ohio State or
Michigan. The middle of last year was disaster after the loss to
Minnesota, but things can quickly turnaround if the coaching staff is
good enough to make it happen. This is year ten of the Tiller era and
the Drew Brees Rose Bowl season is a distant memory; there can't be
another midseason meltdown like last year.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. The
defense has the biggest holes to fill, but last year's group allowed 431
yards, 28 points per game, and was next-level bad against the pass. The
key to the season will be Curtis Painter, who showed good mobility after
replacing Brandon Kirsch midway through last year, but he struggled
mightily with his passing hitting only 52% of his throws with three
touchdowns and five interceptions. He can keep running, but he needs to
use Dorien Bryant, Kyle Ingraham, and his strong receiving corps.
Spring attitude... Things might not have been that
bad. Blowout wins over lightweights Illinois and Indiana to end the
season, along with the win over Michigan State, put a band-aid on the
wound. Looking back, was it so bad to lose in double overtime at
Minnesota, lose to home at Notre Dame, Iowa and Northwestern, and lose
on the road to Wisconsin and Penn State? Those were six bowl teams with
two who played in the BCS. With this year's schedule, seven wins is a
must and a nine-win season is possible.
Spring practice starts March 25, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... What's the biggest change to
kick off the Bret Bielema era? Primarily the coaching staff; it's full
of full of Bielemas. The 36-year-old Bielema was growing into a hot
property after the job he did with the 2004 Badger defense. Not wanting
to lose him, Alvarez named him the heir to the throne for 2006. Under
the new head man, several other hot coaching prospects were brought in
as assistants. 34-year-old Dave Doeren will combine with former Colorado
defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to handle the defense. 36-year-old
Randall McCray was brought in from Toledo to handle the defensive line
and linebackers. 40-year-old former Atlanta Falcon star John Settle was
brought over from a successful stint with Fresno State to coach the
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver.
Running back is an issue after losing Brian Calhoun and Booker Stanley,
but no one plugs and chugs 1,000-yard backs like Wisconsin. Receiver
will be the bigger problem right away after losing Brandon Williams,
Jonathan Orr, and reliable tight end Owen Daniels. Jarvis Minton and
Marcus Randle El, who has had his share of off-the-field issues, will
have to emerge.
Spring attitude... This is mostly the same team that beat
Auburn. Fine, so there's no Calhoun and the receivers are gone, but the
defense that did such a great job against the Tigers in the Capital One
Bowl returns most of the starters, and should be even better now that
there are healthy live bodies to play on the defensive line. Once again,
most publications will pick the Badgers to finish in the second half of
the Big Ten standings, and once again, this team should surprise.