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2008 Early Big Ten Lookaheads
Illinois QB Juice Williams
Illinois QB Juice Williams
Posted Jan 28, 2008

The Big Ten took yet another PR hit after the bowl season, but the league should be better in 2008. Here's an early look ahead at each Big Ten team with what needs working on and why to be excited and grouchy.

2008 Big Ten Team Lookaheads

Illinois | Indiana | Iowa | Michigan | Michigan State | Minnesota
Northwestern | Ohio State | Penn State | Purdue | Wisconsin

2007 Pages
2007 Big Ten Season | 2007 Big Ten Lookbacks/Recaps

Illinois | Indiana | Iowa | Michigan | Michigan State | Minnesota
Northwestern | Ohio State | Penn State | Purdue | Wisconsin

Why to get excited: There's a good nucleus of players coming back, led by QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, and CB Vontae Davis, to challenge for yet another trip to the Rose Bowl. There's a boatload of young talent waiting in the wings from Ron Zook's first two recruiting classes, and while this might be a bit of a transition year, the overall skill level is there to prevent a big dip. It'll be an absolute shock if this isn't one of the four best teams in the league.
Why to be grouchy: Missouri (in St. Louis), at Penn State, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, Ohio State. Uh-oh. Illinois might be happy to win two of those five. While there's talent ready to shine through, you don't get better by losing certain first round pick Rashard Mendenhall out of the backfield, tackling-machine LB J Leman, all-star OG Martin O'Donnell, and unsung DT rock Chris Norwell.
The number one thing to work on is: The passing game. It was far, far better than it was in 2006, but teams still didn't respect Williams when he had to put the ball in the air. He made Ohio State pay, but couldn't do the same against USC. Benn might grow into the Big Ten's best receiver, and there will always be single coverage with everyone selling out to stop the run, so if Williams can be a little more efficient, the offense should explode.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Rashard Mendenhall
Biggest defensive loss: LB J Leman
Best returning offensive player: QB Juice Williams, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: CB Vontae Davis, Jr.

Why to get excited: 2007 wasn't a one-year fluke. With QB Kellen Lewis back, the offense should continue to improve as long as the line, with four returning starters, gives him time to work. The defense was among the best in the nation at getting into the backfield, and 270-pound pass rushing terror Greg Middleton is back along with seven other defensive starters. PK Austin Starr will be in the mix for the Lou Groza Award. Merry Christmas, IU. For the second straight year, no Ohio State and no Michigan. 
Why to be grouchy: The running game has a talented back in Marcus Thigpen, but it has to prove it can get moving without Lewis tearing off big runs. Receivers like James Hardy don't come through Bloomington all that often, and the graduation of the sensational corner tandem of Tracy Porter and Leslie Majors could be a killer for a D that likes to rush the passer.  
The number one thing to work on is: Getting Lewis more help. While he's a tremendous talent, he's not big enough to handle much of a pounding and there has to be a few more offensive weapons involved to spread things around. If Lewis goes down for any appreciable stretch of time, or if he has a bad game, pack up the bus.
Biggest offensive loss: WR James Hardy
Biggest defensive loss:
CB Tracy Porter
Best returning offensive player: QB Kellen Lewis, Jr.
Best returning defensive player:
DE Greg Middleton, Jr.

Why to get excited: The schedule is a joke. There's no Ohio State or Michigan, and Wisconsin and Penn State have to come to Iowa City. The road games are against Pitt, Michigan State, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota; that's not that bad. Outside of the running back situation, everyone returns on offense. Everyone. The defensive line should be among the best in the Big Ten if Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard step up at end.
Why to be grouchy: Can the offense really be night-and-day better? With the indignity of finishing 11th in the Big Ten, the Iowa attack needs a jump-start from somewhere while hoping for overall experience to turn into production. The loss of Albert Young and Damian Sims from the running game means that Jevon Pugh is the only scholarship back on the roster, and he was thinking of transferring.
The number one thing to work on is: Getting more offensive pop, and it starts with the line. All five starters are back including all the backups, but the pass protection has to be much, much better after almost getting Jake Christensen killed. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has always put together good front fives, and now he has to mold this group into a strength for the Hawkeyes to be in the Big Ten hunt.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Albert Young
Biggest defensive loss:
LBs Mike Humpal and Mike Klinkenborg
Best returning offensive player: C Rafael Eubanks
Best returning defensive player:
DT Mitch King

Why to get excited: You don't have Lloyd Carr to kick around anymore. He was a better head coach than he ever got credit for, but there was a large segment of Wolverine fans who were ready to move on. If you wanted a change, you got it, and then some, with Rich Rodriguez coming in to change around the attack to his beloved spread. If West Virginia could win with the offense, what can Michigan do with the talent it brings in? However ... 
Why to be grouchy: ... it's going to take a little while. Even if Terrelle Pryor, the nation's top recruit, picks the Maize and Blue over Ohio State and Florida, it's not like the offense is going to rock and roll right away. There are two huge, screaming concerns. 1) If you thought Carr couldn't get Michigan over the hump after winning it all in 1998, take a look at Rich Rod's inability to come through when the spotlight was on. 2) This is a big gamble. Michigan was a wide receiver pipeline to the NFL. That could dry up to a trickle in a big hurry.
The number one thing to work on is: Just getting everyone on the same page. No one's expecting anything for at least a year knowing there needs to be a little bit of an adjustment period. That's not to say the team can stink, but if it struggles a bit this year to take a giant leap forward for 2009 and beyond, that's fine. Every move, every practice, and every game has to have an eye on being better for next year.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Mike Hart
Biggest defensive loss: LB
Shawn Crable
Best returning offensive player: OG Justin Boren, Jr.
Best returning defensive player:
DT Terrance Taylor, Sr.

Michigan State
Why to get excited: The flakiness is over. No one thought MSU was going to challenge for the Big Ten title in Mark Dantonio's first season, but Spartan fans were hoping the program's overall attitude and self-defeating culture would change. Mission accomplished. While past MSU teams would've folded up the tents after losing three straight late in the year with an overtime loss to Iowa and yet another heart-stomper against Michigan, the 2007 team went on the road to beat Purdue and came back to beat Penn State to get to a bowl where it battled the ACC's number two team, Boston College. The way November ended means everything.
Why to be grouchy: Just enough key cogs are gone to prevent a major improvement in Dantonio's year two. RB Javon Ringer and QB Brian Hoyer are back, but DEs Jonal Saint-Dic & Ervin Baldwin, FS Travis Key, LB Kaleb Thornhill, TE Kellen Davis, WR Devin Thomas, and RB Jahuu Caulcrick have to be replaced. Schedule-wise, how's this for a back half of the season? Ohio State, at Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, at Penn State.
The number one thing to work on is: The punting game. For a team that likes to run the ball and pound away like this one, field position is always at a premium. The Spartans were tenth in the league in punting and dead last, and 118th in the nation, in punt returns. Expect that to change.
Biggest offensive loss: WR Devin Thomas
Biggest defensive loss:
DE Jonal Saint-Dic
Best returning offensive player: RB Javon Ringer, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: CB Kendell Davis-Clark, Sr.

Why to get excited: This was a really, really young team at the end of last year. For all of first year head man Tim Brewster's problems, he did do one thing right in scuttling the ship and getting the freshmen some meaningful minutes once the wheels started coming off. That should now pay off. It might not have seemed like it, but the team played better late with near-misses against Iowa and Wisconsin, while the combination of QB Adam Weber to WR Eric Decker started to explode. Yes, there were too many blowouts and a whole slew of ugly losses, but a veteran team would've won almost all the close games against Bowling Green, Florida Atlantic, Northwestern, North Dakota State, Iowa and Wisconsin. The schedule won't be an excuse with a non-conference schedule against Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Montana State and Florida Atlantic.
Why to be grouchy: Does the defense have a killer linebacker who can make a stop? The pass rushing will come with a few good players, like Derrick Onwauchi and Lee Campbell, ready to emerge, but the linebacking corps could still be a problem. Eight starters might return on defense, but it was the worst D in America.  
The number one thing to work on is: All things defense. The offense will be more than fine as long as Weber is upright, but the defense has to take a major step up. True freshmen were littered throughout the secondary and several players were thrown to the wolves on the defensive front seven. This year, the D has to figure out how to do at least one thing well.
Biggest offensive loss: C Tony Brinkhaus
Biggest defensive loss: LB Jason Pratt

Best returning offensive player: QB Adam Weber, Soph.
Best returning defensive player: LB Deon Hightower, Sr.

Why to get excited: While Northwestern can't take anyone lightly, the team has enough returning talent to demand a winning season with a non-conference schedule against Syracuse, at Duke, Southern Illinois and Ohio. There's no Wisconsin or Penn State, and two of three of the Big Ten road games are at Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota. QB C.J. Bacher and RB Tyrell Sutton lead what should be one of the Big Ten's best offenses, while the defense should be solid even with some key losses.  
Why to be grouchy: Will the offensive line be able to reload? The Wildcats were tenth in the league in sacks allowed and the running game wasn't always there, but the O line was full of decent players from C Trevor Rees to OG Adam Crum and OT Dylan Thiry on the left side. The secondary struggled last year, and now it has to try to improve without CB Deante Battle and FS Reggie McPherson.
The number one thing to work on is: More production from the lines. The O line should've been far, far better last year, while the D line was a disappointment. 6-7, 280-pound junior-to-be DE Corey Wootton has NFL potential, and now he has to start playing like it. There was no pass rush, no push into the backfield, and not enough plays made against offenses on a roll.
Biggest offensive loss: C Trevor Rees
Biggest defensive loss: LB Adam Kadela

Best returning offensive player: RB Tyrell Sutton, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: CB
Sherrick McManis, Jr.

Ohio State
Why to get excited: Don't let the haters (sorry for using that term, but it fits) ruin the facts; this really might be the best team in America going into 2008. DE Vernon Gholston is gone, but the return of LB James Laurinaitis and CB Malcolm Jenkins, when they would've been drafted in the top 15 had they left early, all of a sudden means the defense should be among the best in the nation again. The offense gets nine starters back including all the top players other than OT Kirk Barton. If that wasn't enough, PK Ryan Pretorius and P A.J. Trapasso might be the best kicking combo around.
Why to be grouchy:
Fine, so you still don't want the Buckeyes anywhere near your national championship after the way the last two seasons ended. If they get there, they'll have certainly earned it more than they did in 2007 with road games at USC, Wisconsin and Illinois. The overall speed, athleticism, and NFL talent is in place. So why the problems against Florida and LSU? OSU was every bit as good as those two, so the coaching staff has to figure out what's going wrong at the highest of the high levels. 
The number one thing to work on is: The psyche. If the team gets its head on straight, this could be a jaw-dropping dominator from the start. However, you don't take the beating in two straight title games, in the press, and in the court of public opinion, without having a sense of self-doubt start to creep in. Having a glass is half-full attitude, the team played for the national title in three of the past six years. Jim Tressel and the boys must be doing something right.
Biggest offensive loss: OT Kirk Barton
Biggest defensive loss:
DE Vernon Gholston
Best returning offensive player: RB Beanie Wells, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: LB James Laurinaitis, Sr. & CB Malcolm Jenkins, Sr.

Penn State
Why to get excited: The team might fly under the radar, but it could be the sleeper in the Big Ten race if the quarterback situation comes together. It's not like Anthony Morrelli was the reason for last year's nine-win season, and it's not a stretch to think the QB play can't be improved a bit if Daryll Clark or Pat Devlin works well with the fantastic receiving corps right off the bat. The D line, led by pass rushing terror Maurice Evans, will be a killer, while Sean Lee will be this year's Greatest Penn State Linebacker Ever. 
Why to be grouchy: There's a ton of experience, but is the team really that good? You'll hear some say the receivers (Deon Butler, Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and TE Andrew Quarless) are among the best in the country, but they've been fine, not special, and they certainly aren't going to blow up if Clark, a runner, is under center. The D put up great stats, but when push came to shove against the good teams, other than the Wisconsin game, it got shoved.
The number one thing to work on is: The quarterbacks. Everything else is in place with nine starters returning on offense and nine on defense, but if teams load up against the run, the offense will be inconsistent. With a fantastic offensive line in place, the running game will rock if Penn State's passers offer the mere hint of a deep ball to keep the safeties deep. The passing game doesn't have to throw for 300 yards a game, but it has to be more efficient.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Rodney Kinlaw
Biggest defensive loss: LB Dan Connor

Best returning offensive player: OG Rich Ohrnberger, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Sean Lee, Sr.

Why to get excited: You know exactly what you're getting, and that can be a good thing. QB Curtis Painter will throw for a bazillion yards, there will be more offensive balance with RBs Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor, and the defense, which improved after a few horrible years, will be decent. Even if the defense needs time to replace some key players, which it will, Painter and the attack is built to keep up in shootouts. Missing Wisconsin and Illinois is a plus.
Why to be grouchy: Greg Orton is a good receiver and Joe Tiller always finds productive targets, but losing longtime playmaker Dorien Bryant and top catching TE Dustin Keller isn't a plus. In Tiller's final year before passing the reins to Danny Hope, the defensive players aren't there to come up with big days against offenses with a pulse. On the non-conference schedule is Oregon, an even better Central Michigan, and a trip to an improved Notre Dame, while the opening Big Ten road game is at Ohio State.
The number one thing to work on is: Getting the offense going against the good teams. Oh sure, it blew the doors off the MAC teams, Eastern Illinois and Minnesota, but when it came time to playing Ohio State and Michigan, the production went bye-bye. Basically, Purdue beat the teams it was supposed to and, with the possible exception of Indiana, it lost to the teams it was supposed to. To get to a bowl and be in the Big Ten upper-division, it'll have to pull off an upset or two. That hasn't been Tiller's forte.
Biggest offensive loss: WR Dorien Bryant
Biggest defensive loss: CB Terrell Vinson

Best returning offensive player: QB Curtis Painter, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Anthony Heygood, Sr.

Why to get excited: If the Badgers don't have the best group of running backs in America, they're close with thumper P.J. Hill, the solid Zach Brown, and the slippery Lance Smith forming a three-headed monster that should run amok behind a fantastic defensive line. Tyler Donovan was a better quarterback than he might get credit for, but he's replaceable; Allan Evridge is ready to hit the ground running. It's a no-name defense, but it'll be really, really good with LB Jonathan Casillas, FS Shane Carter and DE Matt Shaughnessy among the three best players in the Big Ten.
Why to be grouchy: The first seven games of the Big Ten season before closing out at Minnesota: At Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, at Iowa, Illinois, at Michigan State, at Indiana. That's six bowl teams and a trip to Iowa City. Wisconsin might be great, but it won't be good enough to get through the slate unscathed. Going to Fresno State in late September will be nasty. The punting game was averaged, but Ken DeBauche will be missed and PK Taylor Mehlhaff is a huge loss.
The number one thing to work on is: Being Wisconsin. Back in the day, the Badgers would overcome problems by steamrolling teams with their big, beefy offensive line and great backs. Last year, the passing game opened things up enough to keep opposing safeties deep, but the ground game still wasn't always as effective as it should've been. The line was lousy in pass protection and didn't inflict its will often enough. With talent up front returning, that has to change.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Tyler Donovan
Biggest defensive loss: CB Jack Ikegwuonu

Best returning offensive player: RB P.J. Hill, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: DE Matt Shaughnessy, Sr.