THE BIG TEN CONFERENCE
BY DANIEL MOGOLLON
Conference Champ: Michigan Wolverines vs. Ohio St./Wisconsin: Some may see this as a two horse race, but I cannot count the Buckeyes out, not considering their recent record against Michigan or the fact that they don’t play either Michigan or Wisconsin (who they host) until November, giving their passing game time to develop. The winner of the OSU-Wisconsin contest (Nov. 3) will challenge the Wolverines who close out the season with a trip to Badger country (Nov. 10) before they host the Buckeyes (Nov. 17). OSU is stacked defensively led by James Laurinaitis. Wisconsin returns 16 starters from a team that finished 12-1 in Brett Bielema’s first season as head coach. Michigan is the favorite, with the likes of Chad Henne, Jake Long, Mike Hart and Mario Manningham back on offense.
The Sleeper: Iowa: The Hawkeyes are coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons; nevertheless, you can never sleep on a Kirk Ferentz coached team. They return eight starters on defense, including six of their front seven led by defensive end Kenny Iwebema. On offense, they may have lost Drew Tate, but the quarterback regressed and had injuries after his spectacular sophomore season. Stepping in will be Jake Christianson, who has talent, as well as an improved receiver corps and a solid running game. They have been at their best when slept on.
Offensive Player of the Year: Chad Henne (UM) vs. Mike Hart (UM): The much-maligned Chad Henne enters his senior season with 70 career touchdown passes to 28 picks…not a bad ratio. Last season, he improved his completion percentage to 61.9 percent and his yards per attempt to 7.65 (up from 6.61 in 2005) and the signal caller should be even better in 2007. He has the prototypical left tackle in Jake Long, who is probably the best offensive player in the conference, with receiver Mario Manningham not to far behind himself, however it will be tailback Mike Hart who will provide Henne with the biggest challenge. No one in the country is more reliable than Hart, who rushed for 1562 yards and 14 scores. He may be small but makes up for it with quickness, toughness and sheer desire. One thing is for sure -- it will be a huge upset if someone not wearing Maize and Blue is the Offensive Player of the Year.
Defensive Player of the Year: Vernon Gholston (OSU) vs. Dan Connor (PSU): What no Laurinaitis you may ask? I hate to say it, but the Buckeye backer is slightly over-hyped and may not be the best defender on the OSU defense (Please no hate mail from the “Little Animal” Fan Club). That would be Gholson, their pass rushing defensive end. While Laurinaitis, who is an excellent player, made most of his big plays early on in the season, Gholson continued to improve and I expect him to put up even bigger numbers after recording 8.5 sacks last season. Another linebacker he will have to beat out is Connor out of Linebacker U, who is ready to finally break out of Paul Posluszny’s shadow. Connor, who made 113 tackles last season, brings even more speed than the school’s all-time leading tackler, as he shifts over to the MIKE position, needing 98 tackles to step in as the career leader.
Breakout Seasons: Brandon Graham (UM), Chris Wells (OSU), A.J. Wallace (PSU): Graham did not get many opportunities in a backup roll on the star-studded Wolverines, with five of their front seven moving on to the NFL. This season Coach Ron English expects Graham to put his hand down and make plays in the opponent’s backfield, an ideal replacement for the talented and versatile LaMarr Woodley. Wells also had to wait his turn behind Antonio Pittman, but he gave Buckeye fans (as well as Michigan fans) a sneak peak of what he can do. By the end of the season, the 6’1”/230 pound speedster may be the best back in the country. Playing opposite Justin King, Wallace will be tested early and often and the talented sophomore should be up to the task. He has an opportunity to make a major impact. He is playmaker who contributes on special teams as a return specialist and even dabbled a little on offense last season.
Best Pro Prospect: Chris Wells (OSU): Jake Long could be a franchise left tackle, Chad Henne can make all the throws and Dan Connor is future star linebacker in the NFL, all three could go in the top ten in April, nevertheless I can’t help but go with Chris Wells, the Ohio St. running back. He just looks like he has NFL star written all over him. He is ready in terms of his size and speed and in limited duty, he has already proven that he will live up to, if not exceed the hype.
College Football Insiders Picks:
Conference Champion: Michigan Wolverines: The Maize and Blue are simply too talented to lose to the Buckeyes again (at home), as they have as good a chance as any to run the table. Henne, Long and Hart returned to win it all.
Offensive Player of the Year: Chad Henne (UM): With Jake Long protecting his back side and Mario Manningham leading a talented group of playmakers, Henne will have every opportunity to build on last season and shine.
Defensive Player of the Year: Dan Connor (PSU): It is pretty amazing considering how ballyhooed Paul Posluszny’s career was, twice the Defensive Player of the Year, that Connor is on pace to pass him as PSU’s top tackler.
Check back tomorrow for Part V: The Pac-10