Nittany Lions, Wolverines, Badgers all see Sugar rays

Michael Dougherty

College football players like to claim they play for two big reasons: to win the national championship, and to score some hardware from the Downtown Athletic Club. Either way, the gridiron warriors strap on their helmets for team and individual glory.
In the old days — way back in the early 1990s — the national championship was usually decided in either the Orange Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl or the Sugar Bowl, and the player of the year award was known simply as the Heisman Trophy.
But the 1999 college football season will see some off-the-field changes.
This season’s national champs will still be determined by the outcome of the Sugar Bowl, however, the game is now sponsored by Nokia. The player of the year, meanwhile, will still receive the Heisman Trophy. However, this year the award will be sponsored by Suzuki.
Despite the influence of a cell-phone pusher and car-maker, college football players still gun for the same two things the old guys used to.
And chances are good that representatives from the Big Ten will be hoisting the commercially tainted hardware for both the team champion and player of the year.
Penn State, No. 2 in this week’s Associated Press poll, Michigan (7), Wisconsin (9) and Ohio State (13) are all ranked among the top 15 teams.
And the list of Heisman-hopefuls is also littered with players from the conference that can’t count (the Big Ten, with 11 teams). Headed by Wisconsin senior running back Ron Dayne, the list includes: Penn State junior linebacker LaVar Arrington; Purdue junior quarterback Drew Brees; Ohio State senior running back Michael Wiley; and Indiana sophomore quarterback Antwaan Randle El.
Here’s a look at this year’s team’s in the Daily’s predicted order of finish:

Penn State
Last season: 9-3 overall, 5-3 Big Ten (fifth)
Returning starters: 19
Key players: Junior linebacker LaVar Arrington, 6 feet 4 inches, 233 pounds; senior wide receiver Chafie Fields, 6-1, 200; senior fullback Aaron Harris, 5-11, 226; sophomore tailback Eric McCoo, 5-10, 198;
Outlook: Picking the Lions to win the Big Ten involves about as much risk as being the stunt double for Kathy Lee Gifford. Led by Arrington and his 4.4 speed and 40-inch vertical, the linebackers (Brandon Short and Mac Morrison) could probably all start for the new Cleveland Browns. Although Arrington garners all of the media attention, head coach Joe Paterno said Morrison and Short are better linebackers.
Paterno is in his 50th year with Penn State (33 years as head coach, 17 as an assistant), and with 308 wins he is only 15 away from breaking Bear Bryant’s Division I record. When Paterno began coaching at Penn State, there were only 48 states and gasoline cost 16 cents a gallon.
Despite all of the media outlets gushing over Paterno’s team, the old coach still refuses to be satisfied.
“We’ve got to get a lot better offensively,” Paterno said at the Big Ten media luncheon earlier this month.
Mistake-prone senior quarterback Kevin Thompson needs to cut down on mistakes and get the ball in the hands of McCoo, Fields and Harris.
Prediction: 11-1 — Saturday’s 41-7 walloping of then-No. 4 Arizona was a sign of things to come. Although Ohio State and Michigan have to go to Happy Valley, and Wisconsin is off their schedule, the Lions have to travel to No. 8 Miami on Sept. 18.


Wisconsin
Last season: 11-1, 7-1 (tied for first)
Returning starters: 16
Key players: Senior running back Ron Dayne, 5-10, 252; sophomore cornerback Jamar Fletcher, 5-10, 171; senior tackle Chris McIntosh, 6-7, 310.
Outlook: Returning 16 players from a team that won the Rose Bowl is a confidence builder. But when Dayne announced he was coming back for his senior season, it caused Wisconsin fans to celebrate, while opposing defenders shuttered with thoughts of trying to bring down the behemoth Badger.
Dayne needs 1,717 yards to break the NCAA’s all-time rushing record of 6,279 set by Ricky Williams last season, and he needs only 499 yards to surpass two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin of Ohio State, as the conference’s all-time leading rusher.
The Badgers have a favorable schedule with Michigan at home, and not having to play Penn State.
“You could be a very good team in this league and finish fifth,” head coach Barry Alvarez said. “You need some luck, you need to stay healthy and get a couple of bounces, and your schedule has to be right. All of those things are important, so I really don’t pay attention to (preseason predictions), it’s how you play on Saturdays.”
Prediction: 9-2 — Trips to Ohio State on Oct. 2, and Purdue on Nov. 6, and the Sept. 25 home game against Michigan will ultimately result in two losses.

Michigan

Last season: 10-3, 7-1 (tied for first)
Returning starters: 17
Key players: senior quarterback Tom Brady, 6-5, 213; sophomore quarterback Drew Henson, 6-4, 221; senior linebacker James Hall, 6-3, 257.
Outlook: The Wolverines started 0-2 last season with losses at Notre Dame and at home against Syracuse. They also lost at Ohio State before finishing the season with a 45-31 win over Arkansas in the Florida Citrus Bowl.
Ouch — Michigan again faces a tough schedule. This year the Irish travel to Ann Arbor for the season opener, but the Wolverines have to travel to Syracuse, Wisconsin and Michigan State during a four-week stretch. And they finish the regular season with a trip to Penn State before coming home to face Ohio State.
There are also some unanswered questions at quarterback. Does head coach Lloyd Carr stick with last year’s starter Brady, or go with the young star-in-waiting Henson?
“Drew Henson will give him a run for his money at the starting position,” Carr said of Brady. “Both quarterbacks are able to lead this team, and the other players know that.”
Prediction: 8-3 — That schedule will be hard to overcome, but don’t be surprised to see this team make a run.
Purdue

Last season: 9-4, 6-2 (fourth)
Returning starters: 18
Key players: Junior quarterback Drew Brees, 6-1, 220; senior wide receiver Randall Lane, 6-1, 210; senior strong safety Adrian Beasley, 6-0, 200.
Outlook: How many ways can the Purdue radio announcers say, “Touchdown pass from Drew Brees?” Last year they had to say it 39 times, as the then-sophomore threw for a Big Ten record 3,983 yards, 361 completions and 569 attempts to go along with those 39 touchdowns.
The defense lost stud-defensive end Rosevelt Colvin, but Beasley and senior linebacker Willie Fells are expected to lead the defense.
The one problem with head coach Joe Tiller’s high-octane offense is its inability to control the clock — something that could hurt them in the Big Ten. Developing a running game is something Tiller said is very important, but might not be easily attainable.
“We have a position today that is being run by committee,” Tiller said of his current crop of running backs. “We’d certainly like to do more things with our running game.”
Prediction: 8-3 — Consecutive road games against Michigan (Oct. 2) and Ohio State (Oct. 9) loom large, along with home games against Notre Dame and Penn State.

Ohio State

Last season: 11-1, 7-1 (tied for first)
Returning starters: 13
Key players: Senior running back Michael Wiley, 6-0, 195; junior linebacker Na’il Diggs, 6-4, 235; senior cornerback Ahmed Plummer, 6-0, 193.
Outlook: Granted, rebuilding a team that lost David Boston, Dee Miller, Andy Katzenmoyer, Joe Germaine, Joe Montgomery and Antoine Winfield is tough, but this is Ohio State, folks, and the results of a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes won’t be quite as tragic as the rebuilding of the Twins.
“The big question in Columbus is who’s the quarterback going to be,” head coach John Cooper said. “We had two quarterbacks that went through practice. One was Austin Mohermann, … the other candidate is Steve Bellisari, who did a great job for us last year as a special team’s player.”
Cooper went with Mohermann in his team’s first game, a 23-12 loss to then-No. 12 Miami at New Jersey’s Meadowlands, and it was clear the sophomore was overmatched.
Cooper said last year’s explosive receiving duo of Miller and Boston will be tough to replace. Expect to see Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo blazing down the sidelines this year. Cooper said, “Rambo is the second-fastest player we’ve ever had at Ohio State behind Joey Galloway.”
Prediction: 8-4 — Games at Penn State and Michigan, along with home games against UCLA, Wisconsin and Purdue mean the football-Buckeyes might lose more games than the Final Four basketball Buckeyes will this season.

Minnesota
Last season: 5-6, 2-6 (tied for seventh)
Returning starters: 19
Key players: Senior strong safety Tyrone Carter, 5-9, 184; senior quarterback Billy Cockerham, 6-1, 217; senior wide receiver Luke Leverson, 6-0, 181.
Outlook: This is shaping out to be one of the most promising seasons since Lou Holtz strutted around on the sidelines. An easy schedule along with a pretty talented returning nucleus should equate to the team’s first bowl bid since the 1986 season.
Cockerham has established himself as the starter on an offense that often sputtered last season. But another year of experience for an offensive line that started to gel at the end of last season will help.
Carter anchors a defense that was ranked 13th in the nation against the run last season, and head coach Glen Mason said the struggles on offense are overshadowed by the tough defense.
“I’ll always take a good defense (over a good offense),” Mason said. “Typically, if you check the Big Ten Conference, those teams that finish one-two-three in team defense are the teams that are playing in those Jan. 1 bowl games.”
Prediction: 7-4 — A schedule that includes seven home games and only four road games is very nice. Here are rankings of some of the Gophers opponents (out of 114 Division I teams): Ohio (108); Northwestern (86); Northeastern Louisiana (82); Illinois (78); Iowa (73); Indiana (68).
That fluffy schedule won’t matter during Christmas break, however, because Minnesota will be some place warm playing in a bowl game. And it’s safe to bet the team would not mind if the game had some sort of corporate sponsorship.

Indiana
Last season: 4-7, 2-6 (tied for seventh)
Returning starters: 21
Key players: Sophomore quarterback Antwaan Randle El, 5-10, 186; senior cornerback Curtis Randle El, 5-10, 186; senior free safety Mike McGrath, 5-11, 200.
Outlook: The quarterbacking Randle El is as exciting a player as there is in college football. Also a member of coach Bobby Knight’s basketball Hoosiers, Randle El rushed for almost 900 yards and 10 touchdowns last year while passing for 1,745 yards and six scores. Plus, he’s added 15 pounds of muscle.
Antwaan’s brother Curtis and defensive backfield mate McGrath lead a defense that head coach Cam Cameron calls “the strength of our team.
“I feel we made good strides on the offensive side of the ball with balancing the option game with our passing attack,” Cameron said. “Having Antwaan is a real asset, and we are excited about our offense.”
Prediction: 5-6 — Although Ohio State is off the Hoosiers’ schedule, IU has to go to Penn State and Wisconsin. Not to mention they have North Carolina and Kentucky coming in for nonconference games. With some luck and a great season from Randle El, Indiana could possibly make a bowl game.


Mich. State
Last season: 6-6, 4-4 (sixth)
Returning starters: 17
Key players: Senior quarterback Bill Burke, 6-5, 200; senior wide receiver Gari Scott, 6-1, 197; senior strong safety Aric Morris, 5-11, 207.
Outlook: Burke, Scott and junior wide receiver Plaxico Burress should provide a pretty decent passing game, but the loss of running back Sedrick Irvin will hurt.
Last season the Spartans were picked by some to challenge for the conference title but experienced one of the most up and down seasons in all of college football.
Michigan State lost its first two games to Colorado State and Oregon, before smashing Notre Dame 45-23. Then they lose to Minnesota only to knock off undefeated Ohio State in Columbus a couple of weeks later.
“Last year, we were ranked 13th coming into the season, and I didn’t know why,” head coach Nick Saban said. “This year, nobody’s talking about us and I think we’re better, relative to last year.”
Prediction: 5-6 — At Notre Dame, at Purdue, at Wisconsin and home games against Michigan and revenge-minded Ohio State paint a dark and cluttered picture for the Spartans.

Iowa
Last season: 3-8, 2-6 (tied for seventh)
Returning starters: 17
Key players: Sophomore quarterback Kyle McCann, 6-5, 190; senior quarterback Randy Reiners, 6-3, 200.
Outlook: Gone after 20 years as head coach is Hayden Fry. The coaching reins have been handed to longtime Fry assistant Kirk Ferentz. However, getting handed the reins to this team isn’t quite like getting the Budweiser Clydesdales. Instead it’s like getting a team of stubborn mules like Mad Jack had on that old Grizzly Adams television show.
Reiners and McCann will battle to be the starting signal caller with McCann getting the first start thanks to Reiners’ suspension for disciplinary reasons. Also suspended — for the season! — for disciplinary reasons is sophomore wide receiver-kick returner Khalil Hill, 6-3, 185.
“People ask me, ‘How do you plan to fill (Fry’s) footsteps?'” Ferentz said. “Well, I don’t. Nobody can. I just plan to make Iowa the best team I possibly can.”
Prediction: 3-8 — Ferentz might follow in Fry’s footsteps with another 3-8 finish. A season opener against Nebraska, and trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin will be painful.






Illinois
Last season: 3-8, 2-6 (tied for seventh)
Returning starters: 18
Key players: Senior safety Asim Pleas, 5-10, 180; senior linebacker Danny Clark, 6-2, 225.
Outlook: Having 18 players return to this team is sort of like having 18 crew members come back to sail the old Titanic for one last time. Illinois passed for three touchdowns all of last season. By comparison, Purdue’s Drew Brees threw for three touchdowns in a six-minute span against the Gophers last season.
The Illini were outscored by their opponents 326-149 last season.
“Three of our first four games are at home,” head coach Ron Turner said, “… we’re really not focusing on the second half of the season right now.”
Why is Turner not focusing on the second half of the season? Perhaps it’s because the Illini face a four-week stretch where they go to Michigan (Oct. 23), are at home against Penn State (Oct. 30), at Iowa (Nov. 6) and at Ohio State (Nov. 13).
Prediction: 3-8 — If they focus really hard on the first four games, they might be able to win three of them. Thank goodness for the nonconference schedule.

Northwestern

Last season: 3-9, 0-8 (last)
Returning starters: 14
Key players: Sophomore wide receiver-kick returner Sam Simmons, 5-10, 202; senior tight end Jay Tant, 6-3, 254.
Outlook: First-year coach Randy Walker takes over the team after former coach Gary Barnett left for Colorado. The only way the Wildcats will improve is if former geriatric Wildcats center Evan Eschmeyer is granted some football eligibility and becomes quarterback.
“I’m not sure I saw a competent player in our spring practice at that position (quarterback),” Walker said.
Nick Kreinbrink has emerged as the current starter, Walker said, but that continues to be up in the air.
Prediction: 2-9 — Sadly, a season opener against Walker’s former team Miami (Ohio) highlights the Wildcat’s schedule. Unfortunately for Walker, it’s all down hill after that.