Big Ten football loaded with talent

Jeff Sherry

When Northwestern stunned the sports world last year by catapulting to the Rose Bowl, the college football community reacted with overwhelming enthusiasm. NU’s run was heralded as being great for the game, a fairy-tale season and a source of hope for struggling programs everywhere.
But Northwestern’s feel-good feat does not come without consequence, especially for other teams in the Big Ten. A conference that was already loaded with talented teams suddenly has one more force to contend with. For teams like the Gophers and Indiana, the Wildcats’ rise may be more depressing than inspiring.
Of course, all that depends on whether the Wildcats can stay on top. There are already several people writing them off as a one-year wonder, destined to follow Wisconsin’s lead into the land of the mediocre.
And so far this season, Northwestern hasn’t done much to prove the skeptics wrong. Lowly Wake Forest stunned the Wildcats, 28-27, in the opener, and they trailed Duke early the following week before winning, 38-13.
“Right now we’re just not the same team we were a year ago,” NU head coach Gary Barnett said Tuesday. “And I didn’t expect us to be. At least in the second half of the Duke game I thought we played better.”
Unlike recent years, no one has emerged as a clear preseason favorite, and it appears unlikely that any team will cruise through the conference schedule without a loss. Here’s a look at this year’s Big Ten, in predicted order of finish:
Michigan’s days of annually dominating the Big Ten may have passed, but its defense should be strong enough to lead Lloyd Carr to his first championship as head coach.
The Wolverines have already flexed their defensive muscle this season, most notably in their 20-13 win at Colorado on Sept. 14. Michigan lost only two starters from last year’s defense that was ranked first overall and against the run.
Michigan’s biggest challenge will be replacing tailback Tshimanga Biakabutuka and wideouts Amani Toomer and Mercury Hayes. Carr admittedly doesn’t have any runners with Biakabutuka’s talent coming back, but he’s confident sophomore split end Tai Streets can eventually perform as well as Toomer and Hayes.
Probably the biggest lift for the Wolverines’ offense is at quarterback, where Scott Dreisbach has wrestled the starting job back from Brian Griese. Dreisbach won Michigan’s first four games as the starter last year before injuring the thumb on his throwing hand. He is back to 100 percent.
The Buckeyes are similar to Michigan in that they have significant losses at their offensive skill positions and will rely primarily on their defense to carry them this season.
Coach John Cooper faces the same dilemma Penn State struggled with before last season — replacing three NFL first-round draft picks. Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George is gone at tailback, as is tight end Rickey Dudley and wide receiver Terry Glenn. They also lost quarterback Bobby Hoying.
Their replacements will be eased into action by the team’s experienced offensive line, which includes Lombardi Award-winning tackle Orlando Pace. Pace (6-foot-6, 320 pounds) is projected as a possible top-three pick in next year’s NFL draft, should he bypass his senior year.
The Buckeyes lost only one starter from the third-best defense in the conference, but for the team to win the title, it must improve against the run.
Penn State still has some holes to take care of, but it’s never smart to count out Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions. They have played in a Jan. 1 bowl game each of the last five years, and they appear to be on track for number six.
Paterno originally thought his team would have to rely on its defense, which returns all of its starting linebackers and defensive backs. The offense had to replace four-fifths of its front line, along with wideouts Freddie Scott and Bobby Engram.
“We’ll start off slow, but we have some really good young people,” Paterno said in July. “I think our defense and our kicking game will have to keep us close until we get the kind of offensive consistency you need in the Big Ten.”
No, Northwestern isn’t surprising anyone this year. But despite the Wildcats’ slow start, they have the necessary parts for another strong season — especially after the defense becomes more experienced.
“Part of the problem is that we’re playing six or seven new guys on defense, and we don’t quite have the same chemistry back there,” Barnett said. “Everyone’s just trying to hold on and not make any mistakes, so as a result they’re not playing with so much enthusiasm.
Northwestern still has its share of premier players. NU had both the Big Ten’s offensive and defensive preseason players of the year in linebacker Pat Fitzgerald and running back Darnell Autry. Autry, who averaged a conference-leading 148.8 yards rushing per game last year, is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
The Wildcats also benefit from playing Michigan at home and not having to play Ohio State for the second straight year.
Some people are saying Iowa could be this year’s surprise Rose Bowl team. Then again, some people say Elvis Presley is still alive and running a motor lodge in Kalamazoo, Mich.
The Hawkeyes have a lot of talent coming back and should play in another bowl game. Their strength is on offense, where they have the conference’s best running back tandem in Sedrick Shaw and Tavian Banks.
Matt Sherman, the Big Ten’s top-rated quarterback, and both of his top wideouts also return. The defense is young, but could be solid.
Other factors are all-conference punter Nick Gallery and a schedule that has Northwestern, Wisconsin and Ohio State at home. Iowa does not play Michigan this year.
They’re excited down in Madison about this year’s Badgers, particularly the team’s gargantuan offensive line. The line has seven fifth-year seniors, four of whom start. All-Big Ten selections Jerry Wunsch and Jamie Vanderveldt lead the unit, which averages 6-foot-6, 309 pounds.
“We’ll be a better football team, and we have a chance to be a real solid, solid football team,” Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. “When we’ve had good teams, the offensive line has been our strength.”
Sophomore Mike Samuel will be asked to take over for departed quarterback Darrell Bevell. Replacing the gritty Bevell won’t be as difficult as expected for Samuel, who can use his physical talents to run the option.
The Badgers return eight starters on defense, including the entire secondary, which should negate many of its mistakes from last year.
Michigan State has already experienced severe highs and lows this season, including a 52-10 thrashing of Purdue in its opener and a 55-14 drubbing at the hands of Nebraska.
The Spartans lost much of its key talent from last year, and most of second-year coach Nick Saban’s recruits are too young to contribute this year. They’ll have a tough time earning another upper-division finish.
Derrick Mason brings loads of talent as a wide receiver and kick returner, but he will need to hope junior quarterback Todd Schultz develops quickly. Last year’s worst defense against the run returns eight starters.
Indiana is trying to re-establish its once-dominant rushing game behind the strength of junior tailback Alex Smith, who suffered through numerous injuries last season. The Hoosiers bring back their starting tight end and four veteran offensive lineman to open holes for him.
“(Smith) was never in true form last season,” Indiana coach Bill Mallory said. “I think he’s a great back. I’ve had two great ones here in Anthony Thompson and Vaughn Dunbar, and I put Alex right in the same category with those two.”
Last year’s last-place team returns all of its linebackers and much of its secondary on defense. Former defensive line coach Steve Stripling takes over as defensive coordinator.
The big question with the Gophers this season is whether they will be able to improve on their horrendous defensive showing last year, when they gave up an average of 443 yards and 33.5 points each game. Coach Jim Wacker has handed the defensive reins to new coordinator Tim Rose.
Rose’s defense was third in the country at Memphis in 1992 and 1994.
Minnesota should not have to worry about its offense either. Junior Cory Sauter has developed into one of the conference’s top quarterbacks, and Tutu Atwell and Ryan Thelwell make up the conference’s best set of wideouts. Freshman running back Thomas Hamner has also looked impressive.
The bottom could fall out on Illinois this year as the Fighting Illini’s defense will finally have problems bailing out the team’s feeble offense.
The losses of All-America linebackers Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy leave Illinois without a premier, impact player on defense. The defense has also had trouble forcing turnovers thus far this season.
The offense gets nine starters back, but that isn’t as encouraging as it sounds. Entering Saturday’s game against Akron, the Illini hadn’t scored a touchdown in their last 16 quarters.
It hasn’t been pretty for Purdue this season, and there are no immediate signs of recovery. The Boilermakers were outscored, 88-10, in their opening losses to Michigan State and Notre Dame.
The Boilermakers are learning that life is much more difficult without fullback Mike Alstott. After those first two games, Purdue was averaging a league-low 2.8 yards per carry. Ed Watson will be the new workhorse, although coach Jim Colletto is going to the air more often than usual.