|2005 College Football Preview: Big 10
By Avery Smith
Sports Central Columnist
The Big 10 will most certainly be the perennial powerhouse that we have grown accustomed to. The upcoming college season will bring a bit of parity to a league often dominated by Michigan and Ohio State. Even the teams that will fall in the bottom half of the standings, such as Penn State and Illinois, are capable of springing upsets. Who will come out on top? It’s not New Year’s Eve yet, but let’s countdown the five best teams in the Big 10 for 2005.
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5. Minnesota (Projected Record: 7-4; League: 4-4)
It really seemed like last year was the year for the Golden Gophers. Fans from Duluth to Minnesota had to feel that 2004 was going to be their year. Unfortunately, the Gophers ended the season poorly and forfeited any hopes of a Big 10 championship.
In 2005, Minnesota will have learned from the mistakes of years past, but it just won’t be enough to put them over the top. They are the beneficiaries of a brutal schedule, and I don’t know if they have enough offensive firepower to compete with the elite teams in the conference. However, if everyone on Minnesota’s squad were as talented as Laurence Maroney, the Gophers would win the title, hands down.
Every publication has Laurence Maroney rushing for huge yardage this season. All of the ingredients are there — a strong offensive line, a talented rusher, and an offensive playbook centered around the run. He has to be Minnesota’s best Heisman shot in years, and will most certainly rush over 1,500 yards. Maroney will most certainly be the featured player in this offense, but it will be up to Bryan Cupito, the Minnesota quarterback, to prove that he can improve on his accuracy and make the Gophers offense a more balanced one.
Cupito will have an excellent array of pass catchers to choose from. Jared Ellerson and Ernest Wheelwright are both strong receivers who can go deep and run precision routes. I look for Ellerson to be the possession guy, while Wheelwright will be the deep threat. Matt Spaeth is a solid tight end who can both run-block and catch the ball.
The offensive line is solid with Mark Setterstrom and Joe Ainslie leading the way. They will provide plenty of holes for Maroney to romp, and give Bryan Cupito plenty of time to pass. If Cupito can have a breakout year, and be a true field general, the Gophers may surprise some people on offense.
In 2004, Minnesota’s defense looked lost a good majority of the time. Head coach Glen Mason has focused on the defense this spring, and has promoted David Lockwood to defensive coordinator from secondary coach. Lockwood has a lot of question to answer such as how to improve on one of the worst pass defenses in the conference and how to offset the departure of Darrell Reid on the defensive line.
Anthony Montgomery, the Gophers’ starting tackle, will attempt to fill the void that will be left on the D-line because of Darrell Reid’s departure. He will not be a pass rusher, but he will rack up the tackles, and has potential to be an all-conference performer. Mark Losli can also be depended upon at the other tackle position. Losli will be looking to cap his career at Minnesota with a strong senior campaign, and I predict he will do so. Unfortunately, the strength of the defensive diminishes once we move away from the defensive line.
The linebacking corps will be very young and inexperienced this season. Kyle McKenzie is the only upperclassman with significant playing time and will have to step up his play. John Shevlin and Mike Sherels will have to make giant leaps and bounds if the Gophers hope to stop their opponents on the ground.
In 2004, there were 108 teams that had a better pass defense than Minnesota. That’s not good. As you can see, coach Lockwood has his work cut out for him in the secondary. Unfortunately, I predict he will still have many long nights ahead of him. There were no solid recruits brought in to help the situation and the current players just don’t have the talent to make it happen. I think a Sun Bowl appearance is in their future.
4. Michigan (8-4; 5-3)
No, that is not a typo, and I really do think the Wolverines will come in fourth this season. I’m not counting on the EA Jinx (Desmond Howard is on the cover of NCAA Football 2006), but I just think that a combination of a so-so defense, and playing in conference with three better teams ahead of them will doom them. Of course, Chad Henne could surprise everyone and be even better than we think and lead the maize and blue all the way to Pasadena.
Chad Henne, Michigan’s sophomore QB, did an excellent job last year. The only problem going into 2005 is that Braylon Edwards is not there to turn mistakes into 80-yard touchdown receptions. Henne will miss Edwards, but he will still have Mike Hart to hand the ball off to.
Mike Hart will anchor the running back position for the Wolverines this season. He had an excellent freshman campaign with almost 1,500 yards last year. The offense will even more focused on him, so achieving these totals should be possible. Michigan will need backups Max Martin and Kevin Grady to give Hart enough rest so that he doesn’t wear down during the season.
Jason Avant and Steve Breaston are hungry and ready to prove that they can carry the torch that Braylon Edwards gave to them. Avant will serve as Michigan’s pass-catching receiver, while Breaston gives them a solid deep threat. While I am sold on Avant’s ability, I just don’t know how good Breaston will be. He’s been inconsistent in his three previous years, so he will have a lot to prove.
There was a debate in a previous column as to which school is Quarterback U. There is no disputing that Michigan is OL U. Every year, the Wolverines crank out top quality talent at every line position. This year is no exception. Adam Stenavich is outstanding and will be an All-American, while Matt Lentz is almost a lock to secure conference honors. Mike Hart should flourish with this strong line ahead of them, and this group will wear down many of their opponents.
In 2005, Michigan best defense will be their offense. However, when their defense does take the field, there will still be plenty of players to watch; most notably Lamaar Woodley.
Woodley has been used at both the linebacker at defensive end positions. He seems to be more suited for the end position as his pass-rushing is truly fierce. The rest of the defensive line is solid as well. Gabe Watson and Pat Massey will help form one of the best defensive lines in the country. They have three players on the line that could be in the NFL. Unfortunately, those are the only three in the entire defense that will be playing on Sunday anytime soon.
The linebackers will be true to Big 10 form by being strong against the run and much weaker against the pass. Scott McClintock is the prototypical Michigan ‘backer with excellent vision and agility to match. Prescott Burgess will be the player to watch, and he will have to further develop his pass defending skills if Lloyd Carr’s team is to be successful.
The 2005 Michigan secondary will be filled with new faces. Leon Hall and Grant Mason will be the corners, and Ryan Mundy will combine with Brandent Englemon to form the safety crew. This unit may have trouble in the early going, as they figure out how to work as a unit. Communication is crucial for defensive backs, and this only comes with game experience. This squad has the potential to be solid, but it may be a case of “too little, too late.”
3. Purdue (8-3; 6-2)
Whoever created the 2005 Big 10 schedule must be a Purdue fan. The Boilemakers miss both Michigan and Ohio State, and their toughest road game is at Minnesota. The schedule is tailor-made for success, and Joe Tiller’s team just has to capitalize on it.
Purdue was the first Big 10 team to realize that you can actually win a game by passing the ball. Drew Brees and Kyle Orton excelled in Purdue’s precision passing game, and Brandon Kirsch, Purdue’s starting quarterback, will be the best player no one has ever heard of.
Kirsch is the type of QB who believes in substance more than style — it may not look pretty, but he’ll get the job done. He can make plays with his arm and he will not hesitate to tuck the ball and run. If he’s smart, he will let Jerod Void do the running. Void is the projected the starter at running back and he will most likely platoon with Brandon Jones. Together, these guys, along with redshirt freshman Kory Sheets will gain over 1,000 yards.
Purdue’s offense has always relied upon excellent pass catchers to be successful. This season, Dorien Bryant and Kyle Ingraham will team up to be one of the most feared tandems in the country. Bryant has sick talent and will spend most of his Saturdays on the way to the end zone. Ingraham, at 6-9, presents huge matchup problems. Repeat after me: “jump ball in the end zone, caught by Ingraham!”
The offensive line is not spectacular, but they are serviceable. Mike Otto will be the star of the unit. Jordan Grimes and Matt Turner will also assist. Purdue’s line does not have to be fantastic — they just need to give Brandon Kirsch enough time to find his superstar receivers.
The defensive line for the Boilemakers this season may be their best ever. Ray Edwards and Anthony Spencer are superstars, and they may just be the best pair in the country. Purdue’s defense starts with these guys, and the defensive line is really going to surprise a lot of teams. This is the final piece of the puzzle for Joe Tiller’s squad to be able to compete with the elite.
There isn’t too much off a dropoff in talent at linebacker. All the starters return and George Hall is their undisputed leader. He had 92 tackles last year, and he will be leading the team once again this year. The key to this unit will be their pass defense. The Boilemakers could really play a lot of cover two this season because of their dominating defensive line. It will depend on how these guys do in the passing game.
Purdue’s secondary is not the greatest, but its not terrible, either. Once again, everyone is coming back, so at least they are used to playing with each other. Bernard Pollard is an oversized safety, who will provide excellent run support. Pollard and the rest of the crew will have to not make the mistakes they made last year, and Purdue just might come out on top in December.
2. Ohio State (9-2; 7-1)
The Buckeyes have found themselves in the limelight ever since winning one of the best National Championship Games in history. The Maurice Clarett fiasco played out like Thursday night TV and I don’t even want to start talking about Troy Smith. I think that Jim Tressel’s team will be ready to play, and with all of the scandals behind them, they will also be ready to win.
In 2005, all Buckeye fans will attempt to keep their eyes on Ted Ginn. He is, bar-none, the best athlete in America. He is the most valuable player on this team and he does just about everything on it. He returns kicks, punts, and has enough spare time to find the end zone via lining up as a split end. The key to the season will be how well the coaching staff adjusts the offense around Mr. Ginn.
The man responsible for getting Ted Ginn the ball on offense will be Justin Zwick. Zwick has underperformed throughout his career, but he just might be ready to shine. At Tressel U, all the quarterback has to do is not lose the game. I certainly think that Zwick will do just fine, but if not Troy Smith or even Todd Boeckman could get a shot.
The running game is not nearly as strong as in years past, but this year it doesn’t need to be. Antonio Pittman and Eric Haw will platoon and give the Bucks decent numbers on the ground. Their inexperience may hurt them, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple of balls left on the turf. Fortunately, Ohio State will be throwing the ball much more in 2005, and they have some very capable targets.
I’ve already heaped enough praise on Ted Ginn, so let’s talk about Santonio Holmes. Holmes also has excellent speed with good hands to boot. He should put up much better numbers than last season, as he is going to get the ball more. He can go deep and run good routes, so I see him getting a lot of touches. Roy Hall, Devon Lyons, and Ryan Hamby will also get some catches.
The defensive line for the Buckeyes will be solid, but not spectacular. Quinn Pitcock was the leading tackler out of the group last season, and he should be their star in 2005. Marcus Green, Jay Richardson, and David Patterson will also see significant playing time. The key for the linemen will be to lock on to an offensive player so their stellar linebackers can make the plays.
The linebacking unit at Ohio State is the best in the nation. A.J. Hawk had a mind-blowing 141 tackles last season, and has to be the favorite for the Butkus Award. He has 4.4 speed, and at 240 pounds, that it one scary combination. Bobby Carpenter is a guy that just makes plays. He is a no-nonsense type of football player and he gets the job done. Anthony Schlegel and Mike D’Andrea will secure the middle linebacker chores, and this unit will make the Buckeyes’ defense very tough in the interior.
Ohio State secondary is one of the best in the conference. Ashton Youbody is their best cover man and Donte Whitner is the best tackler. They have plenty of speed and all of these guys have played with each other before. The most important game this season may be in September for the Bucks, and if they can run the table in the early going, they will most likely win the conference.
1. Iowa (10-1; 7-1)
The Iowa Hawkeyes have the best shot of representing a Big 10 team in Pasadena this year. Even though this year’s Rose Bowl is not slated to feature the traditional Pac-10/Big 10 matchup, the Hawks just might crash the party.
The Hawkeyes start 2005 with tremendous momentum from last season. The Capitol One Bowl against LSU was one of the most amazing games I have ever seen. Iowa won on an amazing touchdown pass from Drew Tate with only seconds left. It just might have been the greatest play since some guy named [Doug] Flutie got his prayers answered 20 years ago.
Drew Tate, Iowa’s starting quarterback, is the unquestioned leader of the offense. He had a tremendous season last year, throwing for almost 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns. He will have an even better season this year, and he’s an early favorite for the Heisman in 2006. The only issue I have with this offense is how productive are they going to be on the ground.
Iowa didn’t really produce much on the ground last season. They were ranked 116th (which is almost unimaginable in the Big 10) in rushing yards last season. It was mainly due to injury, but the talent level must improve this season or the gains will still be minimal. Marques Simmons and Sam Brownlee will both try to improve on their efforts from last season, and if either can be productive, watch out.
Ed Hinkel and Clinton Solomon will once again be the receiving tandem for the Hawkeyes. They bring upperclassmen leadership and skills to a group who I expect to have a big season. Hinkel, Drew Tate’s favorite target, is an excellent pass-catcher and can make just about any play. Solomon is the big-play guy, and can break a game wide open with his blazing speed.
The offensive line will be stronger this season, and will be one of the best in the conference. These guys will surprise some people, as many pundits feel that they are a notch below the best in the Big 10. Mike Elgin and Lee Gray will be the leaders on an all-upperclassmen starting lineup that will be very solid.
On defense, the line is the major concern for Hawkeye fans. They lost three very talented players to graduation, and this will be the area that teams will try to exploit. The starters had a combined total of nine tackles last season, so they must get ready in a hurry.
The linebacking corps, on the other hand, will be one of the best in the country. Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway are among the top duos in America, and will prove it this season. These guys combined for 229 tackles in 2004 and they will need to do even better this year. Hodge will be the primary stopper against the run, and Greenway will shut down opposing backs and tight-ends in pass coverage.
The Hawkeye secondary will be among the best in the conference again this season. They have two seniors at cornerback (Jovon Johnson and Antwan Allen) and the safeties have had playing time together as well. The key to this unit will be how well Marcus Paschal does after coming back from ACL surgery. He is not yet slated to start, but if he can even play as well as he did before he got injured, Iowa fans will be very pleased.
The key to this team’s season will be the game against Ohio State in Columbus on September 24. If the Hawkeyes win that one, they just might go undefeated, and make me look like a genius. They won’t sneak up on anyone anymore, but they have the talent to win the conference outright.
This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.
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