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Buckeyes Buckeye Archive 2008 Big Ten Preview
Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar
The Big Ten Conference ended 2007 with one of those "giant sucking sounds" that tend to carry over in the minds of college football fans to their perception of the conference for 2008.  Dan Wismar believes the conference will be improved this season, and today, unleashes the first half of a very in depth preview of the Buckeyes Big Ten foes.  Part II will post this weekend ... The Big Ten Conference ended 2007 with one of those "giant sucking sounds" that tend to carry over in the minds of college football fans to their perception of the conference for 2008. Of course the Buckeyes (11-2) headed that list of disappointments, again blowing a perfectly good night for a BCS Championship Game Party in January, getting drilled by LSU in New Orleans. Illinois didn't help the conference image by getting embarrassed by USC in the Rose Bowl after being the only team to blemish the OSU record. And early-season pretender Wisconsin lost another SEC match-up to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl, 21-17. Of the top conference teams, Michigan salvaged some Big Ten pride with a big send-off to Lloyd Carr, beating Florida in the Capitol One, 41-35, and Penn State got by Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl, 24-17. 
Just as distressing to followers of Big Ten football fortunes was the mess at the bottom of the conference. Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern all seemed to regress from the previous year, and in 2007, Purdue, Michigan State and Indiana were "bowl" teams only in the very loosest sense of the term. In 2008, it appears just as likely that one or more of the teams in last year's top tier will come back to the pack as it is that one of those mediocre teams will make a big move up. Some of the experts are predicting a bounce-back year for the Big Ten though, and that leaves me wondering if I'm measuring the teams with the right yardstick. 
From a Buckeye fan's perspective, the conference may only look weak relative to the notch on which Ohio State has set the bar. It's not just my scarlet-colored glasses view that projects the Buckeyes as far and away the class of the Big Ten in 2008. The consensus is that no other team in the conference has a realistic shot at knocking off Jim Tressel's guys. I'll not trot out all of the caveats, disclaimers and clichés about how the games aren't played on paper....and Coach Tressel would probably never even suggest such a thing....but the Buckeyes have their sights set well beyond the Big Ten Championship. Winning a third straight outright Big Ten title would be one hell of an accomplishment for Ohio State. In fact, it has never been done in conference history. But it's not the cut-glass football. 
Yes, the Buckeyes have something to prove to the world in 2008, and it can only be completed in January, 2009. So if it's going to be the Big One and the Little Ten, let's take a look to see if the Davids have the stones to take down Goliath. 
There are realistically only four conference teams with a shot, and three of them, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin, will have first-year starters at quarterback. That's not an automatic problem, as Todd Boeckman proved last year, winning the conference and All Big Ten honors in his first year as the starter. However, it usually adds up to at least two losses, as Todd Boeckman also proved last year with a couple of miserable games. 
Illinois has Juice Williams back, but returns no one resembling Rashard Mendenhall, and has to play at PSU, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Wolverines have some talented true freshman quarterbacks, but that program has too many other holes to fill as well. I don't think they'll fall as far as some people are projecting, but a three-loss season may loom in Ann Arbor. Teams will load up to stop Wisconsin's excellent running game, and dare the Badgers to beat them throwing the ball, and a couple teams will probably beat them that way, because the Badger defense is also still suspect. I think Penn State may have the best returning overall talent of the challengers, with real strength on both lines, and the sting of a disappointing 2007 still lingering. The Nittany Lions may also be playing with a little extra emotional boost this year. You never know when Joe Pa will either jump or be nudged into retirement. 
With major question marks everywhere but in Columbus, it seems unlikely that anyone but the Bucks could skate through with only one conference loss. No team but OSU did it in 2007, and there's even less reason to think it could happen this year. Which means it will probably take two of those four teams to beat the Buckeyes head-to-head, and then have one of them lose only one conference game, in order to dethrone Ohio State as conference champ. Even without the tinted glasses, I just don't see that scenario playing out. But here's a more detailed look at the teams...


Illinois Fighting Illini

Head Coach - Ron Zook - 4th Year

Offense:  Illinois QB Juice Williams had the game of his life against Ohio State last November, running and passing the Illini to an upset over the unbeaten Buckeyes. But the rest of his season was not nearly as consistent as he was that day. Williams passed for 1743 yards in 2007, and threw 13 TD's and 12 interceptions. He added 755 yards of rushing offense, and established himself as a true dual-threat offensive weapon. But he struggled to pass the ball effectively at times, and enjoyed the luxury of having RB Rashard Mendenhall in the backfield with him, rushing his way into the NFL's first round with 1681 yds. Daniel Dufrene looks to be Mendenhall's replacement in 2008, and he's a talented athlete, but it's reasonable to expect the rushing game to be less potent without the 2007 Big Ten Offensive MVP. And it follows that Williams' numbers might also suffer somewhat. 
Wide receiver Arrelious Benn took the conference by storm as a true freshman, winning the conference Freshman of the Year award, and he gives Williams a big, athletic target at the wideout spot. Junior Jeff Cumberland is another huge (6'5", 247 lbs.) and gifted pass catcher, and Kyle Hudson backs up at the receiver spot. Coach Zook snagged a prized wide receiver recruit away from Jim Tressel when Glenville's Cordale Scott committed to Illinois. Scott may be good enough to earn some playing time as a true freshman in '08. The Illini are replacing 40% of their 2007 offensive line, including All-American guard Martin O'Donnell, but they are huge, and look to repeat their conference leading yards-per-rush numbers from last year. It wouldn't surprise me if Ron Zook kept a tighter rein on Juice Williams this year, having him pass more and run less, if only to reduce the risk of injury. 
Defense: The Illini will have a strong unit in 2008 despite the loss of star linebacker J Lehman. They return a very good defensive line with three starters coming back in DE's Will Davis and Doug Pilcher, and tackle David Lindquist, plus promising sophomore Josh Brent.  Britt Miller and sophomore Martez Wilson will be at linebacker spots, with Miller moving inside for 2008. Junior corner Vontae Davis is on numerous preseason All-American lists, but the rest of the secondary is a little green. They won't have time for much on-the-job-training though, since August 30 brings a date with Top Ten ranked Missouri with Heisman finalist Chase Daniel, in St. Louis. 
Summary: Zook has been recruiting very well for a couple of years now, and already has one Rose Bowl berth to his credit at Illinois. He seems poised to drag the Illini into the top tier of the Big Ten Conference for the long term. If the 2008 offense gets some production from the running backs, and Williams develops more consistency passing the football, Illinois should be back in a bowl game in 2008....just maybe not that big one in Pasadena. After Missouri and two cupcakes, the conference schedule opens with two tough road games (PSU, UM). Split those two and the Illini are in it. Lose them both and any conference title hopes are probably gone before Halloween. 
Good News: Solid defense and returning skill position talent at QB and WR. Confidence high after some big conference wins in 2007. 
Bad News: 2008 conference road games are tough and early. Illinois starts Big Ten play at Penn State and then at Michigan, with a date at Wisconsin on Oct. 25. 
Returning Starters:13 
2007 Record: 9-4  (6-2 in Big Ten)   Lost to USC 49-17 in Rose Bowl. 
Best player starting in 2008 that no one knows about yet
: G Jon Asamoah (because the word is out already on 'Tez Wilson) 
Last Beat OSU: 2007, 28-21 
Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2008: 41% 
Buckeye Matchup - 2008: November 15, in Champaign, IL. Once again, the Illini get OSU a week before the OSU-Michigan game. They embarrassed the Buckeyes last year with a 260-yard rushing performance, denying the Buckeye offense the ball for the final nine minutes (let alone denying them an undefeated regular season). I'm guessing Tressel has circled the date for this one with some payback in mind. 
Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams)  #3 Lindy's;  #3 Athlon's; #T4 Phil Steele's; #2 TSN 
Preseason National Ranking - (119 teams) #17 Lindy's; #16 Athlon's; Unranked- Phil Steele's Top 50; #10 TSN 
2007 OSU-Illinois Game Recap 
2008 Illinois Roster 
2008 Illinois Schedule 

Indiana Hoosiers

Head Coach - Bill Lynch - 2nd Year

Offense: The season for the Indiana offense revolves around dual-threat quarterback Kellen Lewis being around to run the show. Lewis was suspended from the team and missed Spring practice for violations of team rules, but is now reportedly back on campus, enrolled in summer school classes, and working toward reinstatement to the team. All Lewis did last year was pass for over 3000 yds, with 28 TD passes, and rush for another 736 yds, with nine more TD's, as Indiana went to a Bowl for the first time since the Mesozoic Era (okay, 1993). The Hoosiers lost big WR James Hardy to the NFL, but two experienced targets for Lewis return in Ray Fisher and Andrew Means, who had 52 and 48 catches respectively in 2007. 
Top running back Marcus Thigpen (568 yds in '07) returns, as does his primary backup Bryan Payton (361 yds), but look out for true freshman Darius Willis, a 6'0" 220 lb. power back who could see field time early. The offensive line returns two starters on the left side, tackle Roger Saffold and guard Pete Saxon, and will be bigger, but greener in 2008. As long as Lewis is the man taking the snaps in the Fall, the Hoosiers have a chance to put up points against most anyone. If he fails to get his act together, it's a very long year for Indiana. 
Defense: The big names on the Hoosier defense begin and end with Greg Middleton, a 6'3" 275 lb. defensive end, who led the NCAA in sacks in 2007 with 16, and made First Team All-Big Ten. Even at that, Indiana was near the bottom of most defensive statistical categories in 2007, and they lost both starting cornerbacks from that team. Both starting defensive tackles and two linebackers return in 2008 though, and the front seven could be respectable. 
Summary: The 7-6 record was more than a little bit deceiving last year, as the Hoosiers beat the weak sisters of the conference, and lost to the first division. Only the wins over Purdue and Iowa were mild upsets, and they beat three MAC teams and Indiana St. among their seven wins. And like in 2008, they missed OSU and Michigan. They'll have their share of cupcakes again this year, with WKU and Murray State on the schedule, but they'll play two of the better MAC teams in Central Michigan and Ball St. With only one star quality player on each side of the ball, I think it will be tough for the Hoosiers to get back to a bowl game in 2008. 
Good News: The Hoosiers avoid both Ohio State and Michigan on the 2008 schedule.  
Bad News: Lewis has been reinstated, but missed spring ball, and his status as a team leader is in doubt. Losing James Hardy will be hard to overcome for the offense. 
Returning Starters: 13 
2007 Record: 7-6  (3-5 in Big Ten)  Lost to Oklahoma State 49-33 in Insight Bowl. 
Best 2008 starter no one knows about yet: S Nick Polk 
Last Beat OSU: 1988; 41-7 
Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2008: 0% (not scheduled) 
Preseason Big Ten Ranking: (11 teams) #9 Lindy's; #10 Athlon's; #11 Phil Steele's; #10 The Sporting News (TSN) 
Preseason National Ranking (119 teams)- #65 Lindy's; #65 Athlon's; Unranked- Phil Steele's Top 50; Unranked TSN Top 25 
2008 Indiana Roster 
2008 Indiana Schedule 
Iowa Hawkeyes

Head Coach - Kirk Ferentz - 10th Year 
Offense: The Hawkeyes were dead last in total offense in the conference a year ago at under 300 yds/game. That number and rank should improve as QB Jake Christensen will return for his junior season with the wear and tear of 46 sacks in 2007 behind him, but with a year of Big Ten experience as well. The receivers should be better, with returnees Darrell Johnson-Koulianos and Andy Brodell, backed up by Trey Stross, the junior from Avon Lake. Both top Hawkeye running backs from 2007 are gone, and Ferentz hopes to see JC transfer Nate Guillory fill Albert Young's shoes. They also have big back Shonn Greene returning after a year at a junior college. One offensive highlight is sure to be tight end Tony Moeaki, who might end up on some all-conference teams if Christensen can stay upright.  Iowa is returning the offensive line intact, for better or for worse (see 46 sacks), but it looks like the Hawkeyes will continue to struggle to score points in Big Ten play. 
Defense: The middle of the defense is solid with All Big Ten defensive tackle Mitch King and his running mate Matt Kroul both returning, along with both safeties, including developing sophomore Brett Greenwood. Outside linebacker A.J. Edds is one of the leading tacklers returning, but the defense will be breaking in new starters at both corners, both ends and inside linebackers. Just five starters total are returning on defense, and that probably won't be enough to keep them in the top half of the conference standings. 
Summary:  Kirk Ferentz better watch out, because the bloom is coming off his rose in Iowa City. Over the last three seasons, Iowa has averaged just over 6 victories per season, after averaging over 10 per season from 2002-2004. The schedule is not exactly daunting. Maine and Fla. Intl. come in before the traditional Iowa St. battle. The trip to Pitt on Sept. 20 will tell us a lot about what kind of product Ferentz will have on the field in 2008. In Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes avoid OSU and Michigan, and have road games at MSU, IU, Illinois and Minnesota. Home games are with NW, Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue. If they upset Pitt (who are ranked in several Top 20's), Iowa could run out to a respectable 5-0 before hitting any conference road games. But it would be a mirage, and a repeat of four conference wins is about the height of my expectation for them. 
Good News: The Hawkeyes don't play either OSU or Michigan (there ought to be a law!) 
Bad News: Even with decent line play on both sides of the ball, there don't appear to be enough difference-makers on this team to compete for the first division of the conference. 
Returning Starters: 13 
2007 Record: 6-6 (4-4 in Big Ten) 
Best player starting in 2008 that no one knows about yet: S Brett Greenwood 
Last Beat OSU: 2004, 33-7 
Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2008: 0% (not scheduled) 
Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams) #7 Lindy's, #6 Athlon's; #T4 Phil Steele's; #9 TSN 
Preseason National Ranking (119 teams) - #45 Lindy's; #38 Athlon's; #34 Phil Steele's; Unranked TSN Top 25 
2008 Iowa Roster 
2008 Iowa Schedule 
Michigan Wolverines

Head Coach - Rich Rodriguez - 1st Year

Offense: First-year Head Coach Rich Rodriguez will be installing a whole new spread package in Ann Arbor, and breaking in a new starter at quarterback at the same time. In fact, the holes to fill on the Wolverine offense are numerous and gaping. QB Henne: gone, RB Hart: gone, WR Manningham: gone, OT Jake; Long gone. In all, three offensive starters return for Michigan, just one on the offensive line. At least Rodriguez will have the element of surprise working for him...for a while. As you'd expect, the Wolves have quality personnel with which to reload. Juniors David Moosman, Tim McAvoy and Cory Zirbel are likely starters inside on the OL, and returning starter sophomore Stephen Schilling and junior Mark Ortmann will line up at the tackles. Receiver Greg Matthews Jr. is back, and sophomores Junior Hemingway and Toney Clemons are ready to step in. Look for some true freshmen to get playing time at WR as well, particularly Darryl Stonum. 
Redshirt freshman Steven Threet  (6'6", 230) figures to be the starter at quarterback for Rodriguez, though he is not the prototype spread offense QB. True freshman Justin Feagin is more like the Pat White-clone that Rodriguez favors to run his offense, but all four UM quarterbacks have a combined one career pass attempt. Which means it might make sense to emphasize the running game this year in Ann Arbor. There is talent in this group, with Brandon Minor (429 yds, 1 TD in '07) emerging from spring practice looking like the starter. Junior Carlos Brown (399 yds, 4TD in '07) adds great speed, and junior Kevin Grady hopes to return to form in '08 after an injury-ridden season. Lots of new players in an all new system. If it weren't Michigan, I'd be tempted to predict a tough struggle on offense. But they'll be able to out-talent most of their opponents as usual, and put points on the board. The key will be Rodriguez' ability to stay unpredictable offensively, while also limiting the mistakes his young starters will inevitably make. 
Defense: The pressure will be on the Wolverine defense to hold the fort early in the season while the offense finds itself. The defensive line alone looks strong enough to do just that. All four starters and their 2007 backups return, with standout senior DE Tim Jamison leading the way. Seniors Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson are big and tough inside, and junior Brandon Graham is another very talented end. Sophomore ILB Obi Ezeh started as a freshman, and leads the linebacker group, and in the secondary both cornerbacks return, senior Morgan Trent, and sophomore Donovan Warren, while the safeties will both be first-time starters. 
Summary: By far the biggest "unknown" entity in the Big Ten this year, the Ugly Hats will sink or swim based on how quickly and how smoothly Coach Rodriguez can get his system rolling with all the young players. The schedule is fairly favorable. They open with Utah, a team ranked as high as #14 (Steele's) in the preseason, but you'd think the Wolverines would be jacked sky high for their opener, after last year's embarrassment. Utah came into the Big House in 2002 though, and almost pulled off the upset, losing 10-7. The Wolverines play the Irish at South Bend this year (an annual match-up in which I take solace that someone must lose) and both teams seem equally flawed...a toss-up. They get Wisconsin and Illinois in the Big House, with their toughest road trips at Penn State and OSU. I'm seeing 9-3 or 8-4 for this bunch. The degree to which Rodriguez has alienated players and alumni in Ann Arbor before his first game has probably been overblown a bit here in Buckeyeland. I suspect his grace period is not quite as limited as some have claimed. And I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they rolled into Columbus on Nov. 22 with the Big Ten still up for grabs. 
Good News: Michigan and Notre Dame renew their storied rivalry on September 13. (and one of them must lose) 
Bad News: Few will care about the game, because they are both average teams, and the Buckeyes play USC that night. 
Returning Starters: 10 
2007 Record: 9-4  (6-2 in Big Ten)  Beat Florida 41-35 in Capitol One Bowl. 
Best player starting in 2008 that no one knows about yet
: ILB Obi Ezeh 
Last Beat OSU: 2003, 35-21 
Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2008: 36% 
Buckeye Matchup - 2008: November 22 in Columbus, where UM is 0-3 in the Tressel era. 
Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams)  #5 Lindy's;  #5 Athlon's; #T4 Phil Steele's; #4 TSN 
Preseason National Ranking - (119 teams) #31 Lindy's; #28 Athlon's; Unranked- Phil Steele's Top 50; #18 TSN 
2007 OSU-UM Game Recap 
UM 2008 Roster 
UM 2008 Schedule 
Michigan State Spartans

Head Coach - Mark Dantonio - 2nd Year


Offense: One of the reasons the Spartans are being picked by some pundits to make a move into the Big Ten's first division in 2008 is that they have seniors at key positions on offense. Players from Ohio abound on the MSU roster, and two of the biggest names, quarterback Brian Hoyer (St. Ignatius) and running back Javon Ringer (Dayton Chaminade), come from south of the border. Hoyer is smart and steady if unspectacular as the signal-caller, and Ringer is simply one of the best backs in the Big Ten. Ringer finished third in the conference in rushing yardage in 2007, with 1447 yds., behind only Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Wells. The receivers will be young but talented. Sophomore Mark Dell looks to break out after a strong first year, and redshirt freshman B.J. Cunningham will push senior Deon Curry for playing time. Three OL starters return, and junior Rocco Cironi (Warren Harding) will get the first-time start at the key left tackle position. This team will score lots of points. MSU averaged 34.8 points/game in the conference, leading the Big Ten by a wide margin over #2 OSU. They lost top WR Devin Thomas and TE Kellen Davis, but most of the other pieces are back on offense for the Spartans. 
: Defense is second-year head coach Mark Dantonio's specialty, as Buckeye fans well know. He'll be replacing seven lost starters on that side of the ball in 2008, but he'll also be coaching a group that has worked under his system for a full season now. He has some experience in the secondary, with CB Kendell Davis-Clark and safety Otis Wiley returning, but the front seven will be pretty green (OK, yes, they'll all be green.)  The top tackler from 2007 is another Ohio kid, sophomore linebacker Greg Jones (Cincinnati Moeller), who will shift to MLB this year, and make MSU faster as a team. Eric Gordon is another fast linebacker with a high ceiling. Dantonio's defensive line returns just one starter, DT Justin Kershaw, but transfer (UCinci) Trevor Anderson and senior Brandon Long look like capable replacements at the DE spots, and they have a good young tackle in Antonio Jeremiah. The Spartans defense will have to be much improved over 2007 if they hope to flip that 3-5 conference record around this season. One guy who might help is freshman DB Johnny Adams (Akron Buchtel) who enrolled early and made a big spring impression. 
: MSU did finish strong last year, beating Purdue and Penn State in their last two conference games, and that after just a four-point loss to Michigan. It somewhat reversed a recent trend for MSU in which they have started fast and then faded down the stretch of the season. All six of their losses in 2007 were by a touchdown or less, so they legitimately feel that they were in every game. This year they travel to Cal for the opener, and then have Eastern Michigan and Florida Atlantic before hosting Notre Dame. The conference slate is back-loaded, as the last five games for the Spartans are Michigan, OSU, Wisconsin, Purdue and Penn St. That will make for tough sledding in October and November. They get OSU and Wisconsin at home though, in addition to the home date with the Irish, so a winning record in the conference and on the season, and a bowl appearance, are realistic goals. Dantonio's recent recruiting success has taken some of the national talent gurus by surprise. He has won some key recruiting battles with the downstate Corn and Blue, and the MSU program overall appears to be on the rise. 
Good News: The early schedule is favorable and with a couple of good bounces, they could be 6-1 or 5-2 when the Bucks come to town on Oct. 18. 
Bad News: Not enough big-playmakers on offense, or enough experience on defense. Tough late schedule will temper the optimism.  
Returning Starters: 13 
2007 Record: 7-6  (3-5 in Big Ten)  Lost to Boston College 24-21 in Champs Sports Bowl. 
Best player starting in 2008 that no one knows about yet
: WR Fred Smith 
Last Beat OSU: 1999, 23-7 
Chances of beating the Buckeyes in 2008: 26% 
Buckeye Matchup - 2008: October 28, in East Lansing. Bucks have won six straight in the series. 
Preseason Big Ten Ranking - (11 teams)  #6 Lindy's;  #7 Athlon's; #7 Phil Steele's; #6 TSN

Preseason National Ranking - (119 teams) #36 Lindy's; #49 Athlon's; Unranked- Phil Steele's and TSN 

2007 OSU-MSU Game Recap 

MSU 2008 Roster 
MSU 2008 Schedule

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