Marc Lawrence is a Covers Experts handicapper. Check out his picks and articles here.
The Big Ten Conference has been an Ohio State lovefest the last three years where the Buckeyes have gone 22-2 in conference play while capturing three straight titles. Another championship would put them in elite company, tying Michigan with four consecutive crowns. Better yet, no team in its 112-year history has ever stood alone atop the BIG Ten CONFERENCE three straight years, a feat the Buckeyes will look to accomplish this season. With Michigan changing coaches and complexion, Ohio State figures to make history this year.
Here is my take on the BIG Ten for 2008. Returning starters are listed alongside each team’s name (returning QB’s designated with an *). Coming up next: the BIG 12 CONFERENCE.
ILLINOIS - *6 / 6
Team Theme – JUICED UP!
Last year's national improvement champion (2-10 to 9-4) has to be feeling pretty giddy these days. They welcome seven starters back from an offense that increased eight points and 80 yards per game last year. Heading the attack is JR QB Juice Williams, who saw his pass completion rise from 40 percent to 57 percent from his freshman to sophomore years last season. Accompanying him is WR Arrelious Benn, the Big 10 Freshman of the Year, and SR C Ryan McDonald, who has started 36 games in a row. Illinois, the Big 10's rushing leader in each of the last two years, figures to replace star RB Rashard Mendenhall, an early entry into the NFL draft. With nary a change in the coaching staff, Ron Zook needs mostly to guard against complacency.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Wisconsin (10/25)
INDIANA - *6 / 7
Team Theme – LYNCH MOB
It’s amazing what the first winning season in 12 years will do for a football program. So enamored with interim coach Bill Lynch for that effort, Indiana inked him to a four-year contract. His goal this season will be to return the Hoosiers to consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1991. Behind a schedule laced with eight home games, including four to open the season, we wouldn’t bet against this mob. JR QB Kellen Lewis returns with impressive numbers. Lewis not only passed for 3,043 yards and 28 TDs, he also rushed for 736 yards (11th in the league) while scoring nine TDs. By our count those are ‘Tebow-type’ numbers. And lest we forget, the seniors on this squad represent the first class recruited by the late Terry Hoeppner. Once again they will be going all out to ‘win one for the Hoepper’.
PLAY ON: vs. Ball State (9/20)
IOWA - *8 / 5
Team Theme – BEAM ME UP SCOTTY!
After six straight bowl seasons, a six-win effort was not enough to extend the streak last year. As a result the Hawkeyes were home for the holidays for the first time since 2000. "We've seen good, we've seen bad," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. Bad came last year when injuries and inexperience forced Ferentz to play 31 true or redshirt freshmen. Good comes this year in that last year’s youngsters are now experienced. The schedule is extremely favorable, too. In addition to hosting seven games, and avoiding Ohio State and Michigan, they open up with five non-winners from last season. Toss in a full deck (52) of returning lettermen (16 more than last year) and suddenly Captain Kirk looks ready to be beamed back up. Besides, how can you not cheer for a coach who donated $400K to Iowa’s Children’s Hospital?
PLAY ON: vs. Indiana (10/11)
MICHIGAN – 3 / 7
Team Theme – IN CARR CERATED
With much fanfare, and a resolve to beat Ohio State, the all-time winningest school in Division 1-A history welcomes Rich Rodriguez to Ann Arbor. Rest assured, there is a lot on the line - 33 straight bowl games, 23 straight winning seasons and the best record in the Big 10 (71-17) the last 10 years. So why is it Lloyd Carr is out and Rodriguez in, you ask? Try Carr's record against Ohio State (1-5 since Jim Tressel took over in Columbus). To make matters worse, Rodriguez lost prize recruit Terrelle Pryor to the Buckeyes when the celebrated QB chose Jim over Rich. A word of caution before hunting with the Wolves and their new no-huddle spread offense this season. This marks Rodriguez’ fourth stop as a head coach. His other three teams suffered losing seasons in his first year. Shriek!
PLAY ON: vs. Ohio State (11/22
MICHIGAN STATE - *6 / 5
Team Theme – EAST LANSING TWO-STEP
Contained in last year’s preview of the 2007 Spartans was a litany of goals outlined by Mark Dantonio in his first year with MSU. It’s no surprise that each and every objective was achieved. He eliminated the spread offense in favor of a more traditional philosophy. He insisted his team play with a purpose and a passion. He brought consistency back to the program. “I think the best (sic) thing I want to do as a head coach, and we as a (sic) staff, is maintain that hunger for excellence and that drive for excellence. Take two steps forward, not one step back. Two steps forward, then take another, ” says Dantonio. Now you know why this guy is a winner. His 7-6 record last year came against opponents with a combined record of 75-57 (.568). All six losses were by seven or less points. The second step is on its way.
PLAY ON: vs. Iowa (10/4) – *KEY off underdog win
MINNESOTA - *8 / 7
Team Theme – GARDEN FRESH
In a nutshell, last year's atrocious 1-11 record under first-year head coach Tim Brewster was like a newly planted garden washed away by a torrential downpour. Nine freshmen started at Michigan, eight freshmen started against Illinois, and seven freshmen started at Iowa and against Wisconsin. Its no wonder the Gophers finished dead last in the nation in total team defense. Brewster brought in former Duke head coach Phil Roof to fertilize the defense and, although seven starters are back from last year’s unit, the word is he figures to start eight new freshmen (there’s that word again) or JUCO transfers. On the plus side, SO QB Adam Weber will be in his second year running the spread offense. He started all 12 games as a freshman last year and looked really comfortable directing the attack this spring. Punky’s obviously a firm believer that you reap what you sow.
PLAY ON: vs. Northwestern (11/1) - *KEY dog 7 > points
NORTHWESTERN - *8 / 7
Team Theme – SCENT OF A WINNER
If you’re like us and enjoy sniffing out ‘sleeper teams’, you have to like the scent of the Wildcats this year. Bowl-eligible last season, they return their leading passer, fifth-year SR QB C.J. Bacher, leading receivers (all three) and leading running back, Tyrell Sutton. Bacher is the Big 10's leading returning passer (3,656 yards last season) and figures to benefit greatly from new OC Mike McCall's expertise. Formerly with Bowling Green, McCall developed Josh Harris and Omar Jacobs, two record setting Falcon QB's. Sutton is the league's leading returning RB with 2,996 yards. On the other side of the ball, new DC Mike Hankiwitz (from Wisconsin) has 25 years of experience as a defensive boss with 14 of his teams ranking in the Top 25 nationally in total defense. Northwestern will play seven home games again this year and is expected to go into game five with a 4-0 record. There's a lot to like about the 2008 version of the Wildcats.
PLAY ON: vs. Duke (9/6)
OHIO STATE - *9 / 9
Team Theme – IN TRESSEL WE TRUST
It’s not often you will find alumni, fans and the media on the same flag-waving bandwagon after their team has been smoked two years in a row in national championship games. Then again, it’s not often you will find the same team making back-to-back appearances in a BCS title game. There’s a love affair going on in Columbus and head coach Jim Tressel is the focus of attention. Since his arrival in 2001, Ohio State has defeated hated-rival Michigan six of seven times. In fact, when the Buckeyes meet Michigan on 11/22 this season it will have been 1812 days since the Wolves last defeated the Buckeyes on a football field. To arrive at the Battle of 1812 unscathed, however, OSU will need to win some tough fights this season (at USC and at Wisconsin). The addition of star recruit QB Terrelle Pryor certainly helps. Having faith and a deeply talented team does too.
PLAY ON: vs. Illinois (11/15)
PENN STATE – 8 / 7
Team Theme – TIME MARCHES ON
Here’s a stat to chew on: Since Joe Paterno became the head coach at Penn State in 1966 there have been 817 head coaching changes in Division-1 football programs – an average of more than six per team. And if you think the octogenarian is slipping, guess again. His teams are 29-9 the last three seasons while his defense is ranked No. 4 overall the last four years, allowing 297 YPG. The good news is seven defensive starters are back. Better news is the return of eight starters on offense, including all five linemen. Eight teams that played in bowl games last season dot the schedule. Fortunately for JoePa, five of them come to Happy Valley. With 372 career wins, just one shy of Bobby Bowden, Paterno continues to stalk immortality his way – one win at a time.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Wisconsin (10/11)
PURDUE - *6 / 6
Team Theme – BOLTIN’ JOE
The best thing to happen to the Purdue football program in a dozen years is about to come to a halt and it is disappointing news. Joe Tiller will step down as the Boilermakers head coach at season’s end. He’ll walk away with his head held high knowing he has brought the program back to and beyond respectability. And he did it with an offense that refused to be stopped. In 137 games with Tiller, Purdue has gained 500 or more yards 39 times, or 28.5 percent of the time. He’ll look to add to those numbers behind the top gunslinger in the Big 10, QB Curtis Painter – the second active leading passer in yards (8,763). When he plays his final game at home against Indiana they should be playing the Who’s top-selling hit “I Can See For Miles and Miles” in honor of the yards and yards of success he’s brought to Purdue.
PLAY ON: vs. Indiana (11/22) - *KEY
WISCONSIN – 8 / 9
Team Theme – HOLEY ROLLERS
How is it that a team who appears to have major holes at the quarterback and wide receiver positions can be considered a major threat in its conference race? Simple. When that team happens to be the third winningest program in the conference the last 11 years and owns a powerful ground game, it’s a threat. Bret Bielma, the third youngest Division 1-A coach, will rely on a defense that returns nine starters, including seven seniors, this season. But Bielma’s bread and butter is JR RB P.J. Hill, who has rushed for 2,805 yards and 31 TD’s in his first two seasons. A full compliment of talented RB’s are in place behind Hill. Holes? What holes?
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Michigan State (11/1)
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