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Monday, July 28, 2008

BIG TEN COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW




Is Ohio State primed for unwanted three-peat?
With 9 starters back on both sides of ball, Buckeyes are Big Ten favorites


BIG TEN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
In Columbus, a city whose namesake sailed with a trio of ships, they understand the concept of threes. And so some may quiver at the thought of Ohio State, for a third consecutive season, playing in the BCS championship game versus yet another Southeastern Conference foe (Georgia).
Not to worry. These are high times on High Street, as the Buckeyes return nine starters on both sides of the ball. Coach Jim Tressel not only reeled in the nation's top recruit at any position, quarterback Terrelle Pryor, but he also landed Michigan's only returning All-Big Ten offensive player, guard Justin Boren, who made the unprecedented move of transferring from "Go Blue!" to OSU.
Beyond Columbus' confines, the supposed contenders to Buckeye hegemony all have a similar conundrum: inexperience in the backfield. Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin will have first-time starters at quarterback. Indiana may or may not have to replace junior Kellen Lewis (28 TD passes in '07), who was suspended for all of spring ball for the dreaded "violation of team rules".
At running back, Illinois loses Big Ten Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall, while Iowa's running backs enter 2008 with a combined total of zero carries for the Hawkeyes. Kirk Ferentz currently has Paki O'Meara, a former walk-on who spent parts of his childhood in Melbourne, Australia, and Western Samoa, atop the depth chart.
Elsewhere, Michigan State is rising, as is Minnesota, which has nowhere to go but up following a 1-11 season. Purdue, as always, is overdue, but senior quarterback Curtis Painter should provide a masterstroke here or there. And at Northwestern, which is breaking in both a new offensive and defensive coordinator, they did not keep score during the spring game. If only …

CONFERENCE GAME OF THE YEAR
Oct. 18: Ohio State at Michigan State

Call us crazy.
True, Wisconsin is undefeated (14-0) in Madison in coach Bret "I'm a" Bielema's first two seasons, and so the Buckeyes' Oct. 4 visit to Camp Randall Stadium might seem fraught with peril. The Badgers, however, have a first-year starter in quarterback in Allan Evridge and remain loyal to an Ambien-like offense.
The trip to East Lansing, however, represents a classic letdown game (a week before Penn State visits). For years, decades even, Michigan State was a repository of NFL talent with pre-school maturity. Second-year coach Mark D'Antonio is erasing that stigma. The Spartans may have lost six games in his first season, but none was by more than seven points.
Look out, Columbus. The other "school from up north" is the one to be wary of this
season.

NON-CONFERENCE GAME OF THE YEAR
Sept. 13: Ohio State at USC

Those of us who proselytize that "the season is the playoff" are here to tell you that this is, at worst, a Final Four contest. These two last played in the Coliseum in 1989, with the Trojans humbling the Buckeyes 42-3. USC, in fact, has taken five straight from Ohio State dating back to New Year's Day of '75.
The Trojans are absolutely devastating on defense. Defensive end Everson Griffen, linebackers Ray Maualuga and Brian Cushing and safeties Kevin Ellison and Taylor Mays are potential first- or second-team All-Americans. Then again, the only unit to finish with a higher "total defense" ranking than the Trojans last season was Ohio State, who return nine starters themselves on defense.
The past three teams to win the national championship (Texas, Florida and LSU) all beat Ohio State. Will Pete Carroll's crew extend that streak to four? The good news is that the loser of this game still has a shot at the national title should it win out. And if that happens to be Ohio State, it will be that much easier for them to vent their frustrations the following week considering the name of their opponent: Troy.

OTHER KEY NON-CONFERENCE GAMES
Aug. 30: Illinois vs. Missouri at St. Louis

The Tigers are a preseason top-10 squad. Last season's 40-34 Mizzou win was a wild one.
Aug. 30: Utah at Michigan
Rich Rodriguez makes his debut as everyone in the Big House has the words "Appalachian State" on the tips of their tongues.
Aug. 30: Michigan State at California
Great opportunity — and test — for the Spartans.
Sept. 13: Oregon at Purdue
Ducks humiliated Michigan in Ann Arbor last September.
Sept. 13: Michigan at Notre Dame
In April, Charlie Weis talked trash about how the Wolverines, who have outscored the Irish 85-21 the past two seasons, would be making excuses for losing in South Bend this year.
Sept. 13: Wisconsin at Fresno State
Bulldogs coach Pat Hill lives for games such as this.
Lightning Rodriguez
At least Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) always had Shooter (Dennis Hopper) in his corner. Rich Rodriguez, the new coach in Ann Arbor, appears to be making friends at a slower pace thus far. To wit:
Quarterback Ryan Mallett, arguably the freshman with the greatest potential as a passer in the nation last season, transferred within weeks of Rodriguez's arrival.
Mallett's exodus opened the door for All-Everything recruit Terrelle Pryor, just the dual threat who should flourish in Rodriguez's system — except that Pryor chose Ohio State.
Alliterative athletes Adrian Arrington and Mario Manningham, both wide receivers, opted to declare early for the NFL draft.
Junior-to-be offensive guard Justin Boren, an All-Big Ten selection in '07, quit the team, citing a "decline in family values". Boren then transferred to Ohio State.
The Michigan Daily reported that Rodriguez did not know the lyrics to "Hail to the Victors" at his inaugural press conference (you'd hope he at least knew the first four words of the song).
Lastly, Rodriguez gave the coveted No. 1 jersey, which since the days of Anthony Carter has only been given to a proven stud wide receiver (Carter, Derrick Alexander, David Terrell, Braylon Edwards, etc.), to incoming freshman defensive back J.T. Floyd. Edwards, now a Pro Bowl wideout with Cleveland, actually endowed a $500,000 scholarship in regard to that jersey and is quite annoyed. "I'm going to have a talk with him about that the next time I see him," Edwards said in May. "We have a jersey scholarship fund for this whole deal. What is he thinking?"
And suddenly Jim Harbaugh may not be the least popular Division I football coach in Ann Arbor.
Player of the Year: James Laurinaitis, MLB, OSU
The 2006 Nagurski Trophy and 2007 Butkus Award winner could easily be on an NFL roster. The Buckeyes have had two defensive players among the top 10 picks since 2005(A.J. Hawk, 5th, Packers; and Vernon Gholston, 6th, Jets) and Laurinaitis may be better than both of them.
Not your average Joes
The two longest-tenured coaches in the conference are Purdue's Joe Tiller (1997) and Penn State's Joe Paterno (Mesozoic). Both may be gone after this season. Tiller, 68, has already agreed to retire following this year while Paterno, 81, will not have his contract reviewed until after the season, which is quite the anomaly in Happy Valley.
Back-to-back-to-backbreakers

The Big Ten may not quite be the SEC in terms of overall talent, but in terms of hematomas, no conference may be tougher. A little compassion, then, for these schools who play three whirlpool-level foes in as many Saturdays:
Wisconsin: @ Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State (Sept. 27, Oct. 4, 11)
Penn State: @ Wisconsin, Michigan, @ Ohio State (Oct. 11, 18, 25)
Michigan State: Ohio State, @ Michigan, Wisconsin (Oct. 18, 25, Nov. 1)
The Boren Identity
Though he was raised in Pickerington, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, Justin Boren accepted a scholarship to Michigan. After all, his father, Mike, had played in Ann Arbor under Bo Schembechler.
As a freshman, Boren actually started a game at right guard. Last season as a sophomore he started eight games at center and five at guard and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten.
Then in March, Boren, citing that Michigan's "family values have eroded in just a few months", announced that he was transferring — to Ohio State. That, as far as anyone in Columbus can recall, has never happened.
Moreover, because Boren is transferring within the Big Ten, he is ineligible for a scholarship. Consider the year he must sit out, Boren is essentially saying he'd rather pay three years to attend Ohio State than attend Michigan two more years at no cost.
No huddle muddling
Indiana, Northwestern and Michigan are installing no-huddle offenses this season. The Hoosiers' effort should be interesting, as incumbent QB Kellen Lewis was suspended for all of spring ball.
And you may ask, How did I get here?
If you had the 2006 valedictorian from Adrian (Mich.) High School penciled in as the starting quarterback at Michigan this season, you must be his mom. Steven Threet initially enrolled at Georgia Tech in 2006, but then transferred home. He probably figured he'd be holding the clipboard for Ryan Mallett his entire career. Then it looked as if he'd be doing the same for Terrelle Pryor.
Threet is now a slight favorite to open the season as Chad Henne's replacement, albeit without Mike Hart and four of last year's five O-line starters.
Unhappy Val-Lee
Penn State linebacker and team captain Sean Lee tore an ACL during spring practice and will likely miss the season. There may be no player whose presence is more vital to his team's success this season. If this is JoePa's final season, Lee's absence is a cruel blow.
Meat The linemen
No conference serves up Grade A, 100% USDA-approved beef quite like the Big Ten (you may have noticed who was the No. 1 pick in April's NFL draft). In honor of that, here's our All-Meat Big Ten offensive line, a distinction based on Bunyanesque size, name or pure talent:
Eric Vandenheuvel, OT, Sr., 6-7, 321, Wisconsin
Steve Rehring, OG, Sr., 6-7, 345, Ohio State
David Moosman, C, Jr. 6-5, 292, Michigan
Zach Reckman, OG, Sr., 6-6, 308, Purdue
Ken Plue, OT, Fr., 6-8, 361, Purdue

Waiting in the wings
Michigan's 6-6, 292 backup guard Mark Huyge, provided he gains 25 pounds and renders the "y" silent.
Moonraker Boilermaker
And finally, a secretary in the Purdue football office has a Bond-girl name, Foxy LaFon, and a Bond-girl mane. Will someone please pick up LaFon? is likely a time-worn line in West Lafayette.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Illinois

Tight end Mike Hoomanawanui is scourge of opposing safeties and Big Ten Network broadcasters.
Indiana
Defensive end Greg Middleton led nation in sacks (16) last season.
Iowa
Quarterback Jake Christensen's first pass in the Hawkeyes' spring game was intercepted and returned 53 yards for a touchdown.
Michigan
Due to stadium renovations, Wolverines played their spring game at Saline High School, the alma mater of walk-on (and possibly starting) QB Nick Sheridan.
Michigan State
Linebacker Greg Jones led the Spartans in tackles as a freshman.
Minnesota
Big-time recruit Kevin Whaley (6,301 rushing yards in high school in Virginia Beach, Va.) was shot in leg during a drive-by shooting, and is recuperating at home.
Northwestern
Coach Pat Fitzgerald was recently elected to College Football Hall of Fame, as a player.
Ohio State
The nation's top-rated pass defense in '07 returns its entire secondary intact.
Penn State
The Nittany Lions are 0-5 versus Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin over the past two years.
Purdue
Brock Spack's defense has allowed 300-plus points the past three seasons.
Wisconsin
Among Big Ten coaches, only Michigan's Fielding Yost (who did not lose until his 57th game) had more wins in his first two seasons than Bret Bielema's 21.

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