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College Football - Top Wolves: Big 10 Preview

By Kevin Beane
Tuesday, July 22nd, 2003
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The Big 10 is always full of both stalwarts (Ohio State and Michigan) and surprises (Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin have all won titles in the last five years). This year, it's Michigan's turn ... although, as always, a few teams will be much better than expected -- and a few, far worse.

1. Michigan
(8-0 Big 10, 11-1 overall)

To watch Ohio State win an undisputed national championship had to pack a particular sting for the Wolverines, who were compelled to settle for the kissing-your-sister co-national championship a few years back. The best revenge for Michigan may prove to be ... well, revenge, and the Wolverines have a great shot of doing what OSU did last year.

It starts with the offensive line, heralded by many to be the best in the country. The anchor is OT Tony Pape, who can play either side and will provide constant protection for incumbent QB John Navarre. Navarre, who seems to be starting his eighth-year in Ann Arbor, will look heavily to WR Braylon Edwards to move the chains. Another advantage of such a great line will be the continued development of 1,110-yard rusher Chris Perry, who may be poised to break out this year and add 600 yards to that total this year.

The defense returns with a bit of momentum, having allowed 14 points or less in three of its last four regular-season games. Six starters return, including the disruptive LB duo of Carl Diggs and Zack Kaufman. It's not the best defense in the Big 10, but it will be more than up to task in getting this team to the Rose Bowl.

2. Ohio State (7-1, 10-2)

Not many national champions return all starters from their offense, but this one does, including (if eligible) sophmore RB Maurice Clarett, whose poised for a Heisman run and, if he only gets better with time, could even surpass and Eddie George and Archie Griffin as the greatest OSU RB ever. A tall order, but Clarett is that good.

QB Craig Krenzel is the kind of player you want in the foxhole with you. He will not fold, will not falter when the team needs him, and of all of OSU sweating-bullets victories last season, Krenzel made a clutch conversion, usually on fourth-down, with either his arm or his feet every time. To say he has ice-water in his veins is understating it.

But OSU, of course, won last year with defense, and they lost some huge contributors from that unit. Mike Doss and Matt Wilhelm will particularly be hard to replace, and with po10tial Wilhelm replacements (Fred Pagac and Mike D'Andrea) both showing varying health and talent problems, MLB could be a huge hole.

Look for Chris Gamble to continue the Secondary of Stars tradition at Ohio State, and his role on offense to be slightly lessened. Bottom line, though, this isn't the defense it was last year.

Although OSU will drop a couple this year, with all 11 offensive starters back, look for them to win the games they do win a lot more handily this year.

3. Penn State (5-3, 9-3)

Yes, the Lions lost an awful lot of great talent from last season, but the Big 10 is always ripe for surprises, and PSU has a favorable schedule -- they avoid Michigan and have Ohio State and Wisconsin at home ... and the team is still coached by Joe Pa.

Name to look for: Mike Gasparato. He has the unenviable task of replacing Larry Johnson, and you will be hearing his name a ton this year. He won't make anyone forget Johnson, but he should make people forget tailback is supposed to be a weakness for PSU.

The defense lost five starters, and will be more breakable than last year's, but they have a solid linebacking corps in Gino Capone, Deryck Toles, and Derek Wake.

4. Purdue (5-3, 7-5)

Purdue's big shot was last year, when all six of their losses were by a touchdown or less. The schedule isn't nearly so kind this year, as they travel to Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It will take a comic book hero to make them competitive in the Big 10 -- I submit to you that hero, John Standeford, the best wide receiver in the Big 10 now that Charles Rogers and Brandon Lloyd are gone. The defense should hold their own, especially safety Stuart Schweigert, perhaps the best-tacking free safety in the country.

5. Iowa (4-4, 8-4)

The fall from grace is expected to be precipitous for the Hawkeyes this year, but this is still easily a bowl-caliber team, and .500 in the Big 10 sounds about right. With four starters gone from the O-line, expect a lot of quick-outs to WR Maurice Brown, who will be asked to do an awful lot for a Hawkeye offense that lost two of its biggest stars (Brad Banks and Dallas Clark) in recent memory. The defense will be led by the front-four, particularly DE Howard Hodges, an All-Big-10 player last year.

6. Wisconsin (4-4, 7-5)

Most preseason publications have the Badgers finishing third in the Big 10, and some have them as high as second. I'm a bit more skeptical. Whenever Wisconsin is forecasted to do great things, that's when you can expect them to choke. It's when they are supposed to be down that they rise to the top.

Jim Sorgi, a pocket-passer with little scrambling ability, is not an improvement over Brooks Bollinger. Lee Evans is coming off of a monster injury, and it's questionable whether he can come all the way back to superstar form. Jonathan Orr was a fine replacement last year, and the team will rely no less heavily on him. CB Brett Bell has fallen short of expectations. No way this team does worse than .500, but the top echelon of the Big 10 is, in fact, out of their reach.

7. Northwestern (3-5, 5-7)

The Cats will be the surprise of the Big 10 this season, and may even sneak into a minor bowl. The strategy for NU will be to simply outgun the opposition, and they can do that. QB Brett Basanez is the best Big 10 quarterback you never heard of, and RB Jason Wright was fourth in the country in all-purpose yards last year. In spite of a forgettable 2002, the Wildcats put up 24 or more points in seven of their games, and will at least equal that this year.

The defense, led by sophomore DE Loren Howard, will be dramatically better this year, though still one of the worst in the Big 10. Expect the NU Defense to be motivated by the embarrassment of finishing dead-last in D1-A in total defense last year.

8. Illinois (3-5, 4-8)

The Illini went from Big 10 champs to losing to San Jose State in less than 10 months. Expect the slide to continue this year.

QB Jon Beutjer is your garden variety, middle-of-the-pack Big 10 QB, although he certainly chose the right time to leave Iowa. He won't have Brandon Lloyd to throw to anymore, nor will he have Antoineo Harris to hand-off to. This spells "long year" for the Illini offense. To make matters worse, Illinois loses six defensive starters, although they do return the exciting DE Derrick Strong, who had 5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss last year.

9. Minnesota (2-6, 6-6)

Once again, the Gophers have prepared a non-league schedule that prepares them not at all for the rigors of the Big 10, and that's too bad, because the Minnesota D could use a crash-course after giving up over 42 points per game over the last four conference games last season.

True, Asad Abdul-Khaliq is a good QB, and they have three great RB options in Thomas Tapeh, Marion Barber, Terry Jackson. But last year, we saw what the Gophers can do against the best of the Big 10 (nothing, except get blown-out), and this year, while avoiding OSU and Purdue, have to go on the road against most of their middling foes (PSU, Northwestern, Iowa).

10. Indiana (1-7, 3-9)

It is likely that, with Gerry DiNardo now at the helm, Indiana will get their turn atop the Big 10, but that sure isn't going to happen this year. Former Notre Dame QB Matt LoVecchio is an exciting transfer, and this year, he gets to learn what it's like to be on his back looking at the sky, since the Hoosier O-line is replacing three starters and features no seniors. None of the projected starting defensive lineman go over 275. In the grind-it-out Big 10, that will be a huge handicap. With as young as this team is though, and with a great hire at the top, look for IU to be the surprise team of the Big 10 in 2004.

11. Michigan State (1-7, 3-9)

All that hype you have been hearing about that great Spartan, Mr. All-Everything, the great ... okay, of course you have heard no such hype, because Michigan State is completely devoid of any players who are anything better than "solid," and way too many aren't even that. Former QB-turned-problem-child Jeff Smoker will have a shot at coming back behind center, but it is uncertain how will he will be received by his teammates or how effective he will be.

Charles Rogers might be the biggest impact loss in the Big 10 this year, and of the defense, who gave up 42 or more points in five of the last seven games last year (not even Northwestern or Minnesota can make that claim), the less said, the better. This is going to be ugly.

Look for my weekly college football report coming this fall to Sports Central!

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