Friday, August 21, 2009

College Football Insiders Preview: Big Ten

By JOHN SEARS - Big Ten Insider

Due to the weather patterns in the Windy City, we joke (or not) that in Chicago there are two seasons—winter and construction. By June, we’re clinging to the low ‘70s, hoping the afternoon “London Fog” burns off before it blocks the sun, sort of like a volcanic or meteor-strike ashen blanket that throws the globe in to a 10,000-year ice age. On the bright side, we have been inundated with previews of the 2009 college football season as early as the time Chicago has decided to begin its summer thaw. TV talking heads, magazines, blogs, podcasts, and a plethora of other online multimedia services have weighed in, but I know you have all been holding out through the dog days of summer to get my perspective on the season…All five of you (including my parents, my in-laws and my wife). So I present my 2009 Big Ten outlook with a sense of humility. This word may also be the best descriptor of how all teams planning on contending this year in the Big Ten should approach their season. Why? No team escaped roster evaluation without a fatal flaw in one (or more) of their units, which may inevitably stunt their chance at contending for the conference title. Those teams that play to their strengths, or mask their weaknesses best may escape the Big Ten ice age and take a step towards the warming effects of national and BCS respect.

The Favorites: Penn State and Ohio State: Despite most slotting the perennial power Ohio State atop the league, Penn State possesses enough talent, experience, and most of all, leadership to secure the conference crown over the Buckeyes. Will they be packing for Pasadena? Yes. Will they be packing for a January 7th game (the National Title game) or the January 1st Rose Bowl? I am not handing everything over to Penn State before a game is played, and I feel Illinois will give them a run and finish a close second. In fact, I see the Nittany Lions’ only loss coming to the Illini on October 3rd. One loss in the SEC or Big 12 can give you some bargaining chips for a case of National Championship representation, but Penn State will lose the BCS beauty contest, with a number 1 or 2 ranking just out of their fingertips. Why? Penn State has serious gaps to fill in their passing game and in defending the pass. Daryll Clark will likely have a stellar season statistically, leading Penn State with his arms or legs. But replacing the magnificent, record-setting receiving trio of Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood will be nearly impossible. If the Nittany Lions can ride the legs of Evan Royster, Stephon Green and Clark, perhaps there will be less pressure to gain chunks of yards through the air. On the other side of the ball, the front seven looks solid, despite key losses on the edges of Aaron Maybin, Maurice Evans, and Josh Gaines. A healthy Sean Lee coupled with last year’s standout at Linebacker U, Navorro Bowman, can be a deadly combination. However, zero starters return in the secondary. In 2006, their defense survived under similar circumstances; thus it goes without saying (then why am I saying it?) that some true freshmen or newcomers need to step up big to round out the D. If so, look for Penn State to make a run for national considerations. As for Ohio State, I’m a little skeptical of their chances. Funny how “skeptical” still puts them in the top two of the conference and possibly another 10+ win season. But losing running back Beanie Wells and top receiving targets Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie on offense, while losing the captain of the defense, linebacker James Laurinaitis, lockdown corner Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker Marcus Freeman leaves too many holes to fill, even for the Buckeyes. I know I know, Ohio State reloads every year, but reloading with a quarterback who is still mastering the PASS at the collegiate level (yes, he runs like a deer) may result in some hiccups. An early season rematch with USC looms over the Columbus faithful and a victory here could set the stage for conference play. Their schedule is not life-threatening overall, but they still need to man up against Illinois (9/26), Wisconsin (10/10) and Iowa (11/14), albeit at home. The only tough road-tester just happens to be in Happy Valley, on November 7th.

The Contenders: Michigan State and Iowa: For Michigan State, it’s a little more complicated. Their defense projects to be tough, returning seven starters, including a feisty linebacking corps led by MIKE Greg Jones. Their biggest loss on the defensive side of the ball is certainly All Big-Ten Otis Wiley at safety. On offense, leadership is lost at quarterback (Brian Hoyer), but more importantly, workhorse running back Javon Ringer has moved on to the pros. Last year, Ringer accounted for 22 touchdowns, which certainly relieved the pressure for the quarterback to make plays. A running back (or committee of backs) must step in to fill that gaping hole in the run game. There exists promise with several highly touted recruits in the stable, but all are unproven. Also unproven are the sophomore gunslingers, Keith Nichol and Kirk Cousins, but with experience they figure to be better than Hoyer. The outlook for the Spartans really depends on which unit can make the biggest jump the quickest, the running backs or quarterbacks? If the Spartans can make it through a tough early stretch of games—at Notre Dame, at Wisconsin, Michigan, and then at Illinois—they should be sitting pretty. Make no mistake, year-in and year-out, the Big Ten crown is up for grabs with strong defensive teams battling it out for conference bragging rights. Iowa has the potential to be real stingy defensively. If they can shore up the interior of the line, a return of the entire linebacking squad (Pat Angerer included) sitting underneath cornerback Amari Spievey (tied 2nd in the conference in INTs with four) and conference-leader in INTs, safety Tyler Sash, could make it tough for any offense to move the ball against the Hawkeyes. If young running back Jewel Hampton can give half the effort (900 yards, 10 touchdowns) put forth by Shonn Greene last year, Iowa will be the thorns in the conference favorites’ sides.

The Sleepers: Illinois and Northwestern: For Illinois,
it’s somewhat simple—ride your offensive star power (wide receivers Arrelious Benn, Jeff Cumberland, Jarred FAyson and running backs Daniel Dufrene, Jason Ford). With that supporting cast, quarterback Juice Williams must be salivating for opening day. Can they average 40 per game? Perhaps…and they’ll need to until their defense performs consistently. In terms of scheduling, the Illini season will most likely be dictated early with a stretch starting September 26th at Ohio State (Illinois conveniently has a bye the week preceding this doozey), home against Penn State, and home against Michigan State. If they take two of three here, which is certainly plausible, it may be clear sailing the rest of the way—their toughest hurdles will be at Minnesota, November 7th, and Northwestern the following week. Expect a double-digit win season, riding solely on where Williams takes them. Unlike the Illini, defense rules for the Wildcats. If they can find a solution on the interior to plug up the run with the loss of defensive tackle John Gill, Northwestern has the pieces to shut down the conference’s mostly vanilla offenses. Senior quarterback Mike Kafka showed potential last year, stepping in for injured starter C. J. Bacher. Kafka is now known mostly for his Big Ten quarterback record-breaking 217 yards rushing against Minnesota last year, but needs to prove he can distribute the ball effectively for the Wildcats’ spread offense to flourish. This will prove difficult as 80 percent of their receptions graduated last year. If Northwestern proves they are more than one-dimensional with playmakers stepping up on the offensive side of the ball, they have an opportunity as good as anyone else to contend for the conference title.

Offensive Player of the Year: QB Juice Williams (Illinois) vs. RB John Clay (Wisconsin): Did you know that Williams needs just 4,238 total yards this year to break the all-time Big Ten career yardage record held by Drew Brees? Williams has not been known for being tremendously accurate (2008 career high of 57.5 completion percentage), but still finds ways to get the ball down field for scores. With 3,173 yards through the air last year, Williams almost doubled his passing output from his sophomore campaign (1,743 yards). What else? How about the fact that the quarterback also led his team in rushing last year with 923 yards and five touchdowns? With a stable of competent running backs in the backfield with Williams, I suspect his rushing totals will diminish. I also expect, however, that Williams will continue to improve his touchdown/interception ratio (22/16 2008, 12/13 2007, 9/9 2006) with an elite receiving corps, augmented by Florida transfer Jarred Fayson. This may be a record, decorated year for the senior gunslinger in his final campaign. John Clay emerged last year as a complementary one-two punch to Badgers’ star running back P. J. Hill. When Hill needed a breather or was struggling, Clay answered the bell with 155 carries for 884 yards and nine scores. The sophomore running back is already drawing comparisons to the New York Giants franchise back Brandon Jacobs by possessing size (6-2, 247), speed, and a bruiser mentality. With Hill’s departure and no quarterback emerging as a star, Clay could emerge as the workhorse Wisconsin has traditionally grown to appreciate. If Clay can lose about 10 pounds, the Big Ten defenses are in for a serious pounding. Expect Clay to be featured in a classic power-running scheme that could net him somewhere between 200-250 carries this season.
Honorable Mention: WR Erick Decker (Minnesota), QB Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State), RB Evan Royster (Penn State), WR Arrelious Benn (Illinois)

Defensive Player of the Year: LB Greg Jones (Michigan State) vs. DE Corey Wootten (Northwestern): Last year, Jones anchored the linebacking corps with a team-leading 127 tackles and 12 tackles-for-loss. The defense looks primed to be as strong as or stronger than last year, particularly against the run. The Spartans’ schedule is loaded with run-first offenses (Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Penn State), so don’t expect a drop-off in the number of ball carriers Jones mops up. Further, Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern, and Purdue (on the schedule) will be walking out quarterbacks with little or no experience, so Jones may find his way in to the backfield more often. If it weren’t for a costly knee injury in last year’s Alamo Bowl, Northwestern’s defensive end Corey Wootten would already be in an NFL training camp showing off his playmaking ability. Wootten stands at a whopping 6-7, 270 pounds and possesses enough athletic ability to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Last year, he took down quarterbacks 10 times and hauled in a team-leading 16 tackles-for-loss. Furthermore, Northwestern’s defense projects to be even better than last season’s, so Wootten’s presence may help his teammates statistically with extra backfield pressures. Look for Wootten to be a star and anchor of Northwestern’s defense this year, launching him up the Big Board for next year’s draft.
Honorable Mention: DE Brandon Graham (Michigan), DE Jammie Kilrew (Indiana), LB Pat Angerer (Iowa), LB Navarro Bowman (Penn State)

Breakout Seasons: QB Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State) and DL Mike Martin (Michigan): Ohio State’s rising star, quarterback Terrelle Pryor, will be looking to have lightning strike from a more polished arm. Word out of Columbus suggests that Pryor is committed to developing himself as a drop-back passer, and he certainly provided flashes of this last year by leading the Big Ten in passing efficiency. If Pryor takes even moderate steps as a passer, his escapability and top-speed make him a homerun hitter every time the ball is in his hands. By season’s end, we would have been inundated with the obvious Vince Young comparisons, but a bigger compliment to Pryor would certainly be that he looked a lot like Ohio State’s own Heisman Trophy winner (and athlete-turned-pocket-passer), Troy Smith. How does a defensive lineman have a breakout season? Well, sophomore Mike Martin of the Michigan Wolverines may show us, by plugging up the interior as the defensive tackle in Michigan’s new 3-3-5 defense. Last year, Martin shined as a true freshman playing in all 12 games, compiling 20 tackles (4.5 for loss) and two sacks. Word out of Ann Arbor is that Martin is looking fierce so far through camp and if end Brandon Graham draws more double teams with his reputation as a sack-master from the outside, watch out for Martin up the middle one-on-one through the A-gaps.

Best Pro Prospects: WR Arrelious Benn (Illinois): Wide receiver Arrelious Benn looks to capitalize on quarterback Juice Williams’ senior campaign by improving on his 1,000-yard season from a year ago (67, 1,055 yards, 3 touchdowns). Although his production isn’t necessarily worldly, Benn’s frame (6-2, 220) and versatility (returning punts, kicks, and lining up in the backfield) suggest he will have pro scouts salivating, and there are already rumblings of the receiver being a top-ten pick in next year’s NFL draft. Benn’s stock will continue to rise now that NFL offenses are looking for multi-dimensional playmakers that may have an impact in Wildcat formations. Benn’s athleticism, build, and experience in the backfield would bring much to the table in that respect.

College Football Insider’s Picks:

Conference Champion: Penn State:
The Big Ten crown is really up for grabs this year with each of the contending teams having some holes to fill. However, Penn State returns solid leadership on both sides of the ball with quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster on offense, and a linebacking corps where Sean Lee possibly is second-best of the unit(!?). If the Nittany Lions establish themselves as a running team this year (which isn’t a stretch) and can hold off the pass on defense, they will be tough to beat. Their run defense should be fantastic. This team (as both a compliment and criticism) may end up looking like Michigan’s defense from 2006 where teams shouldn’t have bothered running the ball and focused on tearing apart a somewhat porous secondary. Furthermore, the team’s schedule isn’t necessarily Murderers’ Row.

Offensive Player of the Year: RB John Clay, Wisconsin: Nothing against Juice Williams—I think he will have a great year—but I’m skeptical that Williams will be able to turn the corner with his accuracy and cutting down the interceptions. If Williams makes a mistake in a big game, I feel his stock will drop, despite putting up solid numbers. I believe that the table is set for Wisconsin to pound the ball, especially when they need to protect a defense that lacks all-around experience. What do you do to protect an inexperienced defense? Keep them off the field. How do you keep them off the field? Time of possession. How do you possess…? You get the idea. Hand the rock over to the big fellow and watch him roll downhill all season. The Badgers’ schedule can also give John Clay the type of competition where he can flourish. One could expect big numbers during their non-conference schedule, and heading in to the Big Ten, solid games against Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, and Northwestern (with remaining games against weaker defenses such as Minnesota, Purdue, Indiana, and Michigan) will make him a bona fide star.

Defensive Player of the Year: LB Greg Jones, Michigan State:
As stated above, the Spartans are primed to have a solid unit on the defensive side of the ball. With a more experienced defensive line freeing up gaps for the linebackers, expect Greg Jones to be in the thick of most plays. I expect Jones to increase his tackles-for-losses (12) and tackles (127) based on the proposition of more freedom near the line of scrimmage. The battle for this crown will be closer than the offensive POY battle, but I bet you a lollipop a linebacker ends up shining by season’s end.

Photo Credit: The Ohio State Department of Athletics, Illinois Sports Information