Since there is now less than 50 days before the kickoff of the Big Ten season, here are some things about each of the conference football teams that maybe you didn’t know.
Ron Zook’s squad reeled off nine victories last year, ended Ohio State’s record conference winning streak in the process, and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl. Unfortunately, a crushing 49-17 loss in Pasadena to USC seemed to expose the Illini as an overachieving team playing in what is perceived nationally as a weak conference.
In the wake of losing his top two players – running back Rashard Mendenhall and linebacker J Leman – Zook will be faced with proving his program can take the next step. It won’t be easy. First, Illinois has not strung together back-to-back winning seasons since 1989 and ’90. Secondly, despite his success last season, Zook’s six-year record as a college head coach is still under water at 36-37.
Additionally, the Illini get no favors from the schedule-makers this year. They kick off the season Aug. 30 on the road in St. Louis against Missouri, led by Heisman-worthy quarterback Chase Daniel.
Then things get rough. The conference season has Illinois traveling to Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State. The Illini haven’t won in Madison since 2002 and in Ann Arbor since 1999, and they’ve never come home victorious in five previous trips to Happy Valley.
The Hoosiers got a huge boost last week when starting quarterback Kellen Lewis was reinstated. Lewis had been under indefinite suspension since March for violation of team rules, and missed all of spring practice after throwing for 3,043 yards and 28 touchdowns last season and leading IU to its first bowl game since 1993.
There was some speculation that Lewis’ suspension would continue into at least part of the 2008 regular season, but Indiana head coach Bill Lynch isn’t crazy. He shed a little bit of light on the subject in late May, saying that Lewis was “doing the things we’re asking him to do,” estimating that he would re-evaluate the situation in late June.
Obviously, the only part about the situation Lynch wanted to re-evaluate was whether or not he wanted to coach a team relegated to the bottom of the Big Ten pack. In addition to his passing yardage, Lewis was also his team’s leading rusher last season with 736 yards and nine TDs.
Simply put in Bloomington – no Lewis, no chance.
The honeymoon in Iowa City is pretty much over for Kirk Ferentz, whose teams have posted a 19-18 record since tying for the conference championship in 2004. Ferentz’s program seems to have become rudderless on the field and has experienced a spate of trouble off it. No fewer than nine Hawkeyes have either been dismissed or left the program in the past year due to legal problems.
As a result, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta announced in late May that the school would hire something called a “life skills advisor” to work primarily with the football team. Ferentz put a little different spin on the subject, dismissing it as “a new staff position to focus on player development.”
Meanwhile, Ferentz is looking to shore up his offense in 2008, a unit that ranked dead last in the Big Ten in scoring. The task won’t be any easier with the loss of top rusher Albert Young to graduation. But the Hawkeyes do have a few things going for them – eight returning starters on a defense that finished third in the league in scoring, conference favorite Ohio State is not on their schedule and their toughest games – against Penn State, Wisconsin and Purdue – will all be at home.
In nine years under Ferentz, Iowa has posted a 40-17 record in Kinnick Stadium but is just a paltry 17-28 on the road.
You probably know by now that Steven Threet is going to be the first starting quarterback in the Rich Rodriguez era. What you probably don’t know is that when Threet transferred from Georgia Tech before ever throwing a pass for the Yellow Jackets, few observers thought he would ever get a chance to play for U-M much less become the starter.
But when Lloyd Carr stepped down at the end of last season and the Wolverines settled upon Rodriguez and his spread-option offensive attack, heir apparent QB Ryan Mallett decided the attack was not for him and he transferred to Arkansas. Into the breach stepped the 6-5, 228-pound Threet, who is by no means the prototypical fit for Rodriguez’s scheme. But he ran the spread offense during his senior year in high school, and that gave him a leg up on the competition.
Most observers believe Michigan will struggle in its initial season under Rodriguez – the Wolverines may even miss out on going to a bowl game for the first time since 1974. How U-M progresses throughout 2009 and beyond, however, will become the ultimate barometer for whether or not Rodriguez was a good hire.
If you’re into playing hunches, you may want to get some money down on the Spartans because several preseason publications envision Michigan State as a Big Ten title contender – Dark Horse Division.
Why the love for Sparty? The schedule for starters. MSU kicks things off at California and a victory there against the rebuilding Bears could serve as a huge springboard because the Spartans’ next six games are against teams that posted a combined record of 34-40 in 2007.
Then there is the fact that each of Michigan State’s six losses a year ago were by a touchdown or less. Illinois used a similar season in 2006 as a steppingstone to a breakout year in ’07 and the sentiment is that head coach Mark Dantonio can work something similar in East Lansing.
I don’t necessarily buy it, but that’s because I think as a head coach, Dantonio is a terrific defensive coordinator.
There may have been a lot of grumblings among the fan base but university officials knew head coach Tim Brewster’s first season with the Gophers was going to be a tough one. From the first time he set foot on campus, Brewster began a complete overhaul of Glen Mason’s system knowing full well that his program would suffer growing pains.
Perhaps a 1-11 season that included a loss to Division I-AA North Dakota State and the school’s first Big Ten record without so much as a single win or tie since 1920 wasn’t exactly expected. But Minnesota officials will be patient with Brewster, especially since the program should get a big shot in the arm when the new TCF Bank Stadium opens for business on campus in 2009.
That’s not until next year, of course. The Gophers will have to improve in all phases of the game to improve upon last year’s horrible season. If you’re looking for something to hang your hat on, try the fact that seven of their 11 losses came by seven points or less and two of those were overtime defeats by a single point. At least it’s something.
The popular perception may be to write off the Wildcats, but they may play a role in this year’s conference race. Maybe not as title contenders, but they could throw a huge monkey wrench into the proceedings.
Early in the season, NU plays at Iowa on Sept. 27, just one week after the Hawkeyes visit Pittsburgh. Then the Wildcats take on both Purdue (Oct. 18th) and Illinois (Nov. 22nd) just one week after those respective teams have taken on preseason favorite Ohio State.
Add in the fact that Northwestern has neither Penn State nor Wisconsin on its 2008 schedule, and you can overlook the Wildcats at your own peril.
Of course, if Pat Fitzgerald can’t coax a better performance out of his defense this year, it’s not going to matter. The Cats gave up 28 or more points in nine of their 12 games last season, and allowed four opponents to score more than 40. That doesn’t even count losing to Duke and allowing the Blue Devils to break the NCAA’s longest current losing streak at 22. Ugh.
With the exception of USC, don’t expect the Buckeyes to work up much of a sweat during their nonconference schedule. OSU opens with Youngstown State and Ohio University, and hasn’t lost to an instate school since 1921.
As far as Troy is concerned in week four, the Trojans are coming off a Sun Belt championship. But Ohio State is an impressive 43-1 at home against nonleague opponents going all the way back to 1991 – the early years of the John Cooper era when things were not nearly as rosy. The only home loss during that span? The 2005 loss to eventual national champion Texas.
That loss brings up another point about the run the Buckeyes are currently on. Since 2005, the team has a 33-5 record. Of those five losses, one in each of the past three seasons has come against the eventual national champion.
If he can stay healthy, Beanie Wells should make an assault on Eddie George’s single-season rushing record of 1,927 yards. If Wells can do that, he would become only the second Buckeye ever to amass 4,000 yards in his career – and would still be some 1,500 yards behind Archie Griffin’s school record.
From the upturned cuffs of his pants to his team’s nondescript uniforms, you would think Joe Paterno is old-school all the way. But the 81-year-old coach is decidedly nontraditional when it comes to a Division I-A playoff. He wants one and calls the reasons against it bogus.
“To be frank with you, I don’t know what the reasons are not to have a playoff,” Paterno told a Pittsburgh audience in mid-May. “You can talk about missing class and all that kind of stuff, (yet) you see (the college) basketball (season) go on forever. You have a lot of bogus excuses, but obviously the majority of people who have the say don’t want it.”
Paterno’s stance is a bit strange in that any kind of a playoff at the I-A level is likely to never affect the longtime coach. His Nittany Lions are not considered a national championship contender in 2008, a season many believe will be JoePa’s last hurrah in Happy Valley. His contract runs out following the season and university officials have reportedly indicated – at least privately – that it will not be renewed.
But just because Penn State doesn’t figure in the national title picture, don’t completely rule the Lions out of the Big Ten championship chase. If they can find a quarterback to run the spread offense, and find suitable replacements for linebackers Dan Connor (graduated) and Sean lee (out for the season after ACL surgery), remember where you heard first that the Nittany Lions may be the surprise team of the Big Ten in 2008.
Joe Tiller has already anointed assistant Danny Hope as his successor as head coach following the 2008 season, but the question is how much input Hope will have this fall when it comes to crunch time? Maybe more than you may think.
The Boilermakers hired Hope away from the head coaching job at Eastern Kentucky – Hope’s alma mater – and installed him as associate head coach on the 65-year-old Tiller’s staff. But Hope previously spent five years in West Lafayette, coaching the offensive line that provided protection for former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees.
One other thing – Hope is every bit as offensive-minded as Tiller. He was offensive coordinator at Louisville in 2001 when the Cardinals went 11-2 and quarterback Dave Ragone threw for 3,056 yards and 23 touchdowns. That should be music to ears of returning QB Curtis Painter, who led the Big Ten last season with 3,846 yards and 29 TDs.
If Tiller is to make any noise in his final season at Purdue, though, he is going to have to do two things – shore up a defense that allowed 28.3 points in its conference games last season and simply win more games. Since going 6-2 in league play in 2003, the Boilers are 15-17 against Big Ten competition. That simply won’t cut it.
The Badgers would appear to have an abundance of talent on the offensive side of the ball, starting with studs P.J. Hill at tailback and Travis Beckum at tight end and continuing with unsung stars such as Kraig Urbik and Gabe Carimi on the offensive line.
But it won’t mean much if U-Dub doesn’t settle its quarterback conundrum between lefty transfer Allan Evridge and junior Dustin Sherer. Evridge attempted only 12 passes last season in relief of departed starter Tyler Donovan while Sherer threw none.
Evridge had some success as a part-time starter for Kansas State way back in 2005, but his stats are far from gaudy – dating back to his days as a Wildcat, he has completed only 12 of his last 49 pass attempts. That’s a less-than-healthy 24.5 percent.
Happy birthday today to former Ohio State linebacker Jerry Rudzinski. Born July 16, 1975, in Dayton, Ohio, Rudzinski grew up in Centerville and was a two-time All-Ohio pick at Kettering Alter. He won Division III defensive player of the year honors as a senior and went on to become a four-year letterman for the Buckeyes from 1995-98. Rudzinski started two seasons at outside linebacker and was co-captain of the ’98 team that narrowly missed winning the national championship. He lives in Columbus, is a frequent analyst on various area radio shows and is regional manager for the Stryker Corp., a medical technology company.
Others celebrating today include: former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh; former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman; International Tennis Hall of Fame member Margaret Court; NFL Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders; The Police drummer Stewart Copeland; dancemeister Michael Flatley; actress Phoebe Cates (she played red-bikinied Linda Barrett in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”); poker bad boy Phil Hellmuth; PGA Tour player Adam Scott; and comic actor Will Farrell.
Several other celebrities who have passed into history also shared July 15 as birthdays. They include religious leader Mary Baker Eddy; explorer Roald Amundsen; baseball player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson; popcorn magnate Orville Redenbacher; actress Barbara Stanwyck; dancer Ginger Rogers; and reluctant Super Bowl I star Max McGee.
** I used to love the All-Star Game, but honestly, could the Midsummer Classic get any more commercial? One of these years, the first sentence out of Joe Buck’s mouth is going to be something like, “This welcome to the Aquafina/Baby Ruth/State Farm Insurance Major League Baseball All-Star Game presented by Chevrolet in cooperation with MasterCard, Holiday Inn and Budweiser, America’s Lager and the King of Beers, is brought to you by Viagra, Taco Bell and ‘The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,’ starring Brendan Fraser and Jet Li and opening near you August 1st.”
** Could we please have a major sporting event that started before 8:45 p.m. in the East? By the time the AL finally won in 15 innings, most the kiddies in the Eastern, Central and even Mountain time zones were fast asleep.
** Was anyone but me rooting for the game to continue another inning or two? I wanted to see what would happen to Bud Selig’s grand plan of awarding home field advantage in the World Series in the event of a tie.
** Lost amid all of the fawning over Yankee Stadium was this nugget: New York left fielder Hideki Matsui may need season-ending knee surgery. Who might the Yankees go after as a replacement? A rested and ready Barry Bonds.
** Notre Dame is reportedly set to announce its new athletic director today, and if you’ve heard of him, you’re one up on me. The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Indianapolis lawyer Jack Swarbrick is the man. He was a leader of Indy’s successful bid this past spring to bring the 2012 Super Bowl to the city, and – perhaps most important in South Bend – Swarbrick is a Notre Dame grad.