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Football Predictions: A Second Slice
Tier 1: Ohio State
To recap, in 2002 the Ohio State Buckeyes went unbeaten. In 2003, a 10–1 Buckeyes team tripped over Michigan in the final week. Jump ahead to 2006 and Ohio State takes a 12–0 record into the national title game, only to fall to Florida. 2007, 11–1 before losing to LSU. It's fair to say that the Buckeyes know how to get through a regular season. It's just the endgame that haunts them. As far as the regular season goes, Ohio State should roll again. Penn State and road trip to Wisconsin are hardly walks in the park, but their biggest challenge along the way will be the September 13 game at USC, early enough that a loss would allow them back in the title game if USC trip late and the Buckeyes win out (although I say Ohio State wins that game). Now, if you need to know about the team, just think back a year — most of it remains, including QB Todd Boeckmann (25 TDs), RB Chris Wells (15 TDs) and a great offensive line, some good receivers, MLB James Laurinaitis, and a secondary that's only become better. Then there's kicker Ryan Pretorius, coach Jim Tressel... As a final note, during the offseason, Michigan lineman Justin Boren transfered to Ohio State, and they also landed top recruit QB Tyrelle Pryor. Y'know these Buckeyes won't quit. They'll just keep going back again and again until they win another of these things. I predict another 1–loss record going into January. After that, we'll see.
Tier 1a: Wisconsin; Penn State; Illinois
We could talk about Wisconsin's Travis Beckum, the best tight end in the Big Ten, or we could talk about RB PJ Hill, who ran for 1570 yards in 2006 and 1200 in an injury–shortened 2007. Or the good offensive line, the great linebacking corps, or the 17 returning starters on both side of the ball. But it comes down to this: QB Allan Evridge has to look the part for a team that is in the top 15 in both national polls, despite the fact that over the past two years he's thrown the ball 12 times. Fortunately, Evridge is a senior who saw some time in 2005, so he won't exactly be a deer in the headlamps. He'll be allowed to warm up that arm against Akron and Marshall before the real fun starts, but road visits to Fresno and Ann Arbor before home games versus Ohio State and Penn State should make or break the Badgers' season.
Penn State have been no more sure about their QB than Wisconsin, announcing Daryll Clark as the starter just days before kickoff. Clark has even less experience than Evridge up in Wisconsin. But this is Penn State, where Xs and Os matter. The defensive line is a monster, returning everybody and then some. Most of the secondary is back, and new linebackers will inevitably step up. The Nittany Lions also boast an impressive offensive line, with four returning starters, meaning that the running game will function whoever ultimately carries the rock. The schedule invites a 4–0 start before a run of Illinois, at Purdue, at Wisconsin, Michigan, and at Ohio State. Evridge better make the most of those first five weeks.
Rashard Mendenhall is no longer in Illinois, so expect to hear a lot more about QB Juice Williams, who ran for 7 TDs last season. As a passer, he has yet to arrive, however, with 22 scores to 21 picks over two years. He has an arm and he has receivers, but the other upper–echelon teams in the Big Ten may have the defensive tools to take advantage unless he take a big step forward. The Illini also boast a good defense (pity any Big Ten minnow which doesn't) — a line to rival Penn State's hiding some inadequacies beyond. Pro–sized Cornerback Vontae Davis is not one of those inadequacies, with 56 tackles and 4 interceptions last season. If Illinois wants to do better than last year's 9 wins, the Illini better be on their toes: the season starts with Missouri, and they visit Penn State before September is through.
Tier 2: Michigan State; Michigan
A crisis of identity at Michigan means Michigan State becomes the in–state favorite. RB Javon Ringer had almost 1500 yards last season. QB Brian Hoyer added 2705 through the air. But Ringer scored only 6 times last year, and Hoyer only 20. Twenty–one more were taken in by Jehuu Caulcrick, but he has gone, so taking passes and breakaway runs the distance would be desirable. With most of last year's line gone, that may be a bit much to ask. The defense could be nasty, as it was in 2007, with a secondary that is not just experienced but dangerous. The schedule has some obstacles, opening at California, hosting FAU and Notre Dame, neither of which can be underestimated, and finishing with the toughest sequence of Big Ten foes. Like Michigan, State will be vying for bowl consideration rather than a bowl of distinction.
Two offensive starters return for Michigan. Some graduated, some left early, some just left — one left for Ohio State! And that's probably for the best, because coach Rich Rodriguez brings a spread attack to Ann Arbor that will take time to implement and he doesn't want the burden of expectation. Even calling Michigan a second tier team in the Big Ten assumes some of the talent adjusts. If it doesn't, Michigan could vanish for a year. (Mind you, they did that last year — that's how they got to be this way). Of course, pure athletic talent works quicker on defense than offense, and that's why the Wolverines are still a factor. Remember, this team once shared a national title on the basis of a great defense and half an offense.
Tier 3: Northwestern; Purdue; Indiana
Northwestern lost to Duke in 2007. They were beaten by FIFTY points by Ohio State. And they still managed to go 6–6. This year an established receiving corps will take passes from CJ Bacher who threw 19 scores last season, but also 19 picks. If those interceptions are cut, the Wildcats get better. RB Tyrell Sutton was averaging 4.8 yards a pop last year before injury. If he's fit and the running game develops a rhythm, the Wildcats will be better. The new defensive coordinator is Mike Hankwitz from Wisconsin. If he improves an already okay defense, the Wildcats will be better. And if all three of those things happen, starting 4–1 or 5–0 could lead to a bowl invite despite a later slump.
Okay, let's hear it for Purdue QB Curtis Painter. He might not show up on Heisman ballots, but Painter has steadily, surely become an icon of continuity: almost 4000 yards and 22 TDs in 2006, almost 4000 yards and 29 TDs in 2007. Now Painter needs to beat somebody of note, to show some moxie to go with that statuesque poise. In their 8 wins last season, Purdue averaged 41 points a game, but when they played Ohio State, they managed 7, Michigan 21, Penn State 19. The defense doesn't look much better on paper than last year, so Joe Tiller better try and establish a credible rushing game to slow games down. If not, Painter's career, record–breaking or not, will just be a load of statistics.
Things aren't looking good for Indiana after going 7–6 last season. After QB Kellen Lewis was recently reinstated, four players including sackmaster DE Greg Middleton are to be suspended for the first game of the season. That fixture is only Western Kentucky, but Indiana doesn't need distractions — it isn't that good a team. They certainly have sparkle in the passing game, where Lewis threw 28 scores last year, ran for 9 more and has numerous targets and protectors back, but the running game doesn't stretch much beyond Lewis, and Lewis doesn't play defense. The schedule is at least helpful, so an even record is doable ...as long as they're not distracted, and Lewis stay healthy.
Tier 4: Iowa; Minnesota
You don't have to be bad to end up near the bottom of the Big Ten, and Iowa are not a bad team. The Hawkeyes' defense is tight, and the offense has talent here and there, but Iowa simply didn't score enough points to avoid a 4–4 conference record last year, and this year could be worse. The passing game was a no–show last year and coach Kirk Ferentz hasn't found a better option than Jake Christensen so far; the line returns, but didn't play together much in '07 through injury. The non–conference start of Maine, FIU and Iowa State could put them at 3–0. Winning more than three could be tough, as they travel to Pittsburgh before Big Ten action.
After going 0–8 in Big Ten play last season, the only way is up for Minnesota. Their defense was the nation's worst last season. At least this year they might beat their 1–AA opponent. Sorry, Golden Gopher fans, we don't see things getting better any time soon. Er... the punter's pretty good (plenty of practice).