Sunday, August 27, 2006
2006 PREVIEW, QUICKLY: THE BIG TEN
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The Big "Ten" presumptively separates this season, as in the past, into two tiers of quality, the first represented by legitimate championship contenders (Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa) and the other by potential sleepers with a chance to knock off one of the favorites, but less opportunity to actually replace one (Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan State). The sheer quantity of quality teams here is going to drive records from the superlative to the middle - again: seven teams broke even in league play for the third consecutive season last year, also the third straight year no team has navigated the league without a loss. Among the so-called power conferences, only the ACC approaches such parity by the same measures during that span.
Beating up on each other, as often noted regarding the dog-eat-dog nature of the SEC, diminishes the opportunities for a top team to make it the distance unblemished, as only Penn State (1994), Michigan (1991 and 1997), Iowa (2002) and Ohio State (2002) have managed since 1990. If Ohio State, preseason national favorite in the AP, Coaches and Blog polls, is going to be the sixth addition to that list, it's going to owe it in part to providence. Or Woody Hayes.
Underlying Literary Themes in the Big Ten
Innocence and Experience - Certainly few teams have ever been deemed the national preseason favorite with nine starters removed from probably the country's best defense, one that bid adieu to three of the NFL's first 18 draft picks, three others in the first four rounds and another first-team all-conference selection and must now field an entirely new back seven. Few such contenders, though, have also returned the collective firepower that Ohio State welcomes back on offense, which itself lost two first round picks (Santonio Holmes and Nick Mangold) from the group that averaged more than 38 points over its last seven games, all wins - four of them against winners, though only one (Michigan) against a better-than-average defense. Troy Smith and Ted Ginn Jr. seem to have only scratched the surface of their potential otherwordliness, which - even if Ginn displays some of the go-to chops he's sorely lacked to date - will not necessarily manifeset itself in greater production within the generally conservative philosophy that feeds the ball to Antonio Pittman - and surely also super recruit Chris Wells - 25-30 times a game. But it should outscore at least ten teams out of twelve, if not better, depending on the trajectory of the defense's coming-of-age.
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Do you know Marcus Freeman? If you don't by October, the Buckeyes are in trouble
Evolution and Change - The Big Ten isn't far removed from its reputation as a conference full of tough, slow, grinding sorts of teams playing on skin-ripping terrain consisting of dirt and ice and beating each other into submission in World War I-like battles of attrition. Then comes the spread at Purdue, and the spread option at Northwestern, and within the decade the league's got ten teams averaging more than four touchdowns a game, eight teams giving up more than 380 yards and zero teams allowing under 200 yards passing. Minnesota and Penn State were the only teams to average more rushing yards than passing. Northwestern tied for third place while allowing 6.2 yards per play. More than half the teams finished with double-digit interception totals; all had double-digit touchdowns passing. Eight of the league's top ten passers return for '06, which means the football equivalent of guerilla war tactics - SMQ can't even think of what strategic innovation would suffice to carry on this analogy - are the next refuge for overmatched defenses.
The Individual in Society (A person's identity is determined by place in society) - Laurence Maroney has departed to further excite fans of the New England Patriots, Gary Russell to behave in a lackadaisical fashion towards academics at a random junior college, and subsequently a little uncertainty exists regarding the fate of presumptive replacements Amir Pinnix and Brylee Callender: only one 1,000-yard performance, or two? This pending their pledging to the Gophers' absurd fraternity of running backs, whic has produced ten 1,000-yard rushing performances in seven years, a string from Chris Darkins to Thomas Hamner to Tellis Redmon, Terry Jackson II and Marion Barber III before Maroney and Russell. The machine-like offensive line, now absent Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom, is nevertheless conducive to this ongoing feat; returning starter numbers may officially read "2" up front, referencing center Tony Brinkhaus and tackle Steve Shidell, but guard Tyson Swaggert and Joe Ainslie are seniors with more than four good years of solid starting/playing time between them. Massive (6-6, 270) all-Big Ten tight end Matt Spaeth may as well be a part of that group, too, all of which leads to much adulation for Pinnix (467 yards, at 6.0 a pop, as a junior) or welcome JUCO transfer Callender, or both.
Same deal at Wisconsin: the Badgers never pulled the "double-decker" trick of two 1,000-yard guys Minnesota's managed three straight seasons (SMQ's spotting Maroney the 10 yards he lacks from 2003), but the string of star backs trotted out by Barry Alvarez was at least as impressive, and sometimes - as will have to be the case this year for Alvarez's replacement, Bret Bielema - completley unexpected, as when true freshmen Ron Dayne and Anthony Davis and transfer Brian Calhoun, in 1996, 2001 and 2005, respectively, exploded all over unsuspecting upper Midwestern defenses (even if, as is true with Minnesota, too, this didn't happen so frequently against better units). Jamil Walker, P.J. Hill ("Powerful," notes Phil Steele) and a bunch of other current no-names will be familiar to viewers of the second rate, 11 a.m. ESPN2 games "announced" by Chris Spielman shortly, and everyone else soon after.
SMQ Must Justify...
Penn State and Wisconsin finished 12-4 in-conference, won January bowls and had top ten seasons. Purdue lost its first five league games, did not beat a winning team and had its first losing season since the early days of the Tiller Era. Including double-digit losses to the aforementioned squads represented by predatory cartoon mammals. Obviously, the Boilermakers are going to finish on top of this presumably middle-class triumverate. As much as Penn State fans believe in the talents of Anthony Morelli, an 80 percent new offensive line and similarly inexperienced starters on the D-line and in the secondary, PSU's recent record is one of mediocre-to-poor program with the occasional uplift from a long-abused senior class, and one revelation (Larry Johnson, Michael Robinson) in particular; the results of four of its six efforts this decade have come down on the wrong side of the ledger. The rockin' linebackers and skill guys - where, as at Ohio State, there's a better-than-adequate workhorse back and very fast receivers who have not established themselves yet as consistent weapons - are going to keep the Lions out of four/five-win purgatory, but playing at Notre Dame, at Ohio State, at Purdue, at Wisconsin, along with Michigan in town, means they also will not exceed eight wins again, and might be lucky to get there. Whereas Purdue has established itself as a solid bet to win seven in years of non-cataclysmic turnover, and returns all the surrounding elements - a good collection of receivers and a virtually the whole of a veteran line that held opponents to a sensational nine sacks in all of 2005 - to give Curtis Painter the chance to mature into a reliable passer before being pulled at midseason for complete noob Keith Smith. Which is maybe not such a convincing argument. But at least give Purdue the edge of playing Penn State and Wisconsin at home and - though SMQ can't believe he's going to fall for this again, after naming an entire rule based on the hype of Purdue's '05 schedule - missing Ohio State and Michigan again entirely. This program is not incompetent enough to let that fortune pass a second year without taking some meager advantage.
Most Likely To Prove SMQ Wrong
Which brings us back to the plucky Badgers, a team SMQ has somewhat written off due to the departure of astonishingly successful (.603 winning percentage, three conference championships in 15 years at a previously floundering program) Barry Alvarez to direct athletics and serve among the shortest-lived TV crew on record. It's tempting to underestimate a young, first-time head coach inheriting a team with some lingering problems on the offensive line (37 sacks allowed last year) and defense in general (418 yards allowed per game, at 4.6 yards per carry) , with something like 35 career touches among the returning backs, and basically none by the receivers. Last year's team also pulled out close games with the aid of a +13 turnover ratio, never falling on the negative side of that number, any repeat of which would defy reasonable probability.
And yet: there's the inevitable running back of doom (or at least of infinite frustration, as far as opponents are concerned) waiting in the wings. John Stocco, incredibly, is
20-519-6 as a starter. The defensive line, poor as it was against the run, is intact, with two highly-recuited/no-longer-spring-chicken tackles and some pass rush ability. All just waiting, wanting, wishing to make SMQ look like a fool for placing Wisconsin all the way down at seventh.
If One Thing Is Certain...
Michigan State will suffer a debilitating setback that will wreck its season. Sooner or later. This does not mean the first loss, if the first loss is an "acceptable" one (i.e. overtime at Michigan last season), but a defeat in some scarring psychological fashion on the order of the self-inflicted ten-point swing that cost the Ohio State game at home last year. If it's sooner - say, Pittsburgh or, god forbid, Illinois in September, a la the Rutgers loss in 2004 - MSU will probably come out of the tailspin in time for a November bowl run. If it's later, like Northwestern or Indiana, early hopes will fade. It's a schizophrenic race to 6-6 either way.
In a season wide-open enough to result in non-ironic number one and number two votes for Cal, it's a little surprising no voter was willing to pull the trigger in the top spot on Iowa, whose veteran quarterback, defensive line and recent success make it an attractive "sleeper" pick, and legitimate contender to win the league over the near-unanimous favorite, Ohio State. Spots four through eight can sensibly be shuffled any and every which way, and although SMQ would love to give underdog nods to Northwesterm, which lost its coach in a sudden, tragic medical calamity, or Indiana, whose coach mentored Randy Walker and himself had surgery to remove a brain tumor, the large number of returnees at Illinois probably makes it and Coach Redacted most likely among the bottom three to crash a bowl game.
Projected Order of Finish (SMQ's BlogPoll Ranking)
This is not a power poll...
1. Ohio State (#3)
The favorite in every game, by SMQ's reckoning, the September trip to Iowa actually being the toughest to get around, given the likely devastating effects of Texas' quarterback youth at that early stage. If there's a loss in there - again, those nine new defensive starters say there must be - that's probably it. The defense should be in some semblance of adequate form by Michigan time.
2. Michigan (#5)
On paper, the most complete team in the conference, and one of the most balanced in the country. Scared SMQ away from a number one pick by the collective qualms Mike Hart's injury problems, two new defensive tackles anchoring a gradually slipping run defense, Chad Henne's progression and Jim Tressel/Troy Smith's general ownership of the Wolverine defense. All but the last are small issues, but they add up.
3. Iowa (#13)
Another pretty good-looking team on paper, but hampered by a pair of new corners, the loss of the nation's busiest (and longest-running) linebacker combo and a lack of quality options for Drew Tate at receiver. May have the best chance of beating OSU, but got lit up in Columbus in '05, and SMQ's not willing to pull the trigger on that prediction. Like Michigan, last year's somewhat misleading five-loss total shouldn't be discarded entirely, but it also shouldn't surprise anyone if the Hawkeyes wind up in one of the big money games.
4. Purdue (#25)
The jury's out on Curtis Painter, but in general, the receivers are a good group and the passing game seems to be back on track the past two seasons after a couple down years. The defense graduated an awful lot, but regressed so much in '05 that even seven or so new guys figure to improve the results. No better than last year on paper, but too healthy to finish below .500 again.
5. Penn State
A mix of old and new means a "reversion to the mean" year for the sort-of rebuilding Lions, the trick being to figure out what the mean here is. If the program's not in bad enough shape to consistently go 3-8, or in good enough shape to consistently go 11-1, which are PSU's most recent rercords, then 7-5 or 8-4 against a tough schedule seems about right. Only the tiniest sliver of a hair behind Purdue.
6. Michigan State
Given they'll beat Notre Dame on the road one week and go down in flames to Northwestern the next, or vice versa, and there is no rational method to determine which of these outcomes is pending, the Spartans are in the dead-middle until further notice. All bets are off if Matt Trannon finally reincarnates Plaxico Burress, or is mutilated and reassembled into a servicable kicker.
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If he can handle basketball, too, why not try field goals?
See above for all the reasons this is a stupid pick. But Bielema's going to have to earn automatic top four status in this league on his own with a seemingly weapon-less offense before SMQ overlooks the Badgers' deficiencies on defense.
No reason to panic or anything, but does Bryan Cupito emerge from the dreadlocked shadows of Laurence Maroney as a cool, capable senior leader at quarterback, or collapse in the improbable event his new rushing crutch doesn't measure up? Makes no difference if the defense is more or less smacked around for the umpteenth consecutive year.
Inevitably slotted at ninth with quarterback-for-life Brett Basanez's graduation and the precarious talent gap with the other perpetual middle-of-the-packers, but with Randy Walker, it was ninth with a shot at fifth by way of the usual tricks (along with the more conventional wiles of the few legitimate talents, like RB Tyrell Sutton). Without him, and with instead the uncertainty inherent to the ad hoc ascension of the country's youngest head coach, it's ninth and look out below.
Not at all competitive against anyone last year, including Indiana. But almost all those guys are back!
Also not in serious contention to win a conference game outside of Illinois, which it visits with less returning, um, talent.
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I just fixed his record and deleted that part of the sentence. Stocco's 1-1 in January bowl games.
As they say in central Pennsylvania: "Time will tell, shit will smell, and water will seek its own level."
SMQ, thanks for giving Purdue some respect... You're about the only one outside of us Boiler homers that is doing so. Painter will be pretty good this year, we have our best O-line since the 2000 Rose Bowl year, and it would be difficult for our defense to be any worse than last year. I'm a bit worried, though, because if any close games need to be decided by kicking, we're potentially as bad as Michigan State's kicking unit. Hopefully we're at least serviceable, but early practice reports puts our kicking game as a major question mark... Still, I think Purdue goes 10-3, with losses on paper to Notre Dame, Iowa, and MSU. We'll probably take one of those three, and then drop a game we shouldn't.