Monday, August 24, 2009

Questioning the Rest of the Big Ten

Before we get to the second part of the Gopher preview, allow me to add this to Jer's excellent summary and comments on the brand spankin' new TCF Bank Stadium: WOW! The U hit an absolute home run with the new digs, and fans are going to be in awe of just how great it is to have a gorgeous, outdoor stadium on campus. Walking in it actually feels like, you know, a real, big-time college football environment. It certainly isn't going to rival some of the great old shrines on some other campuses around the conference for history, but for a game day experience and atmosphere, it's going to be on par with anybody. Just you wait! Also, when you go, head to the top of the upper deck and walk around to the back of the East end zone. The view overlooks the field with one of the biggest scoreboards in the country looming just behind the far endzone, with Williams and Mariucci Arenas just outside the black wrought iron gates and downtown Minneapolis in the distance. It's unreal. You can also just see the top of the dome and think to yourself "Never! Never again! Never, ever, EVER again!"

So Friday I started breaking down the Gophers and what we can and should expect from them this season. Today we'll look around the Big Ten and see how the conference around us is shaping up. As I said on Friday, I think 2009 will be the most competitive Big Ten season in a long, long, LONG time. Last year was competitive because the level of play was down, but this year it looks to be just the opposite. I don't believe we're going to have a national title contender out of the conference as nobody will run the table, and I'm not so sure Ohio State and Penn State will be the juggernauts the preseason pundits are claiming them to be. It seems like just about every team is more talented, yet like the Gophers, every team has also has questions. I'll pose the most important for each team.

Can the Illinois defense keep pace with the offense?
In 2008 Juice Williams and the Illini offense were the best in the Big Ten, and for 2009 they could be one of the most potent in the country. If they could just get their defense to make a few more stops per game, I'm apparently one of the few people outside of Champaign who believe Illinois could be headed back to the Rose Bowl. Their schedule is incredibly top-heavy (Four of their first five games are neutral site vs. Missouri, at Ohio State, then home to Penn State and Michigan State), but if they can take two of three of those first Big Ten games (which, again, if the D comes to play is VERY possible), they are absolutely in the driver's seat for the Big Ten title. After Sparty Spartan comes to town Oct. 10th, the Illini travel to Indiana and Purdue, host Michigan, travel to The Bank, then home to Northwestern. Those are five winnable games, and I'm picking Illinois to at least share the Big Ten title in 2009.

Which is worse right now: Indiana football or basketball?
One word of caution: if you're going to ask that question of a Hoosier fan, make sure you're beyond the distance of a Bob Knight thrown chair. Just to be safe, because Hoosier fans are pretty cranky right now. The basketball team can at least give the excuse "we hired Kelvin Sampson" and have the right guy to rebuild the program in Tom Crean-at least once their Sampson-induced probabtion ends sometime around the year 2050. But IU football? It seems like every year is another step in their rebuilding process, which is kind of like taking one step forward and seven back. Ben Chappell returns at QB, and the Hoosiers are hoping that adding "The Pistol" offense will make them better. This could be true if by "better" they mean "we might win four games instead of one." Why does Indiana have to be off of the Gophs' schedule the next two years?

Who Hates Iowa?!?
We hate Iowa! Just in case you missed the witty banter last week, we hate Iowa- they hate us. And we like it that way. While I wish they were going 0-12 this year, they unfortunately have one of the best teams in the Big Ten for 2009. Howver, the only person who might hate the Hawkeyes more than us is the Big Ten schedule-maker, as a BRUTAL slate should keep them from Pasadena this year: their four conference road games are Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State. Yeah that's not fun. They'll be lucky to split those. Still, they boast arguably the best offensive line and secondary in the conference, along with senior QB Ricky Stanzi who, if he didn't play in the same conference as Juice Williams, Daryll Clark and Terrelle Pryor, would be in the running for all-conference honors.

My only real question or concern is how Iowa fans seem to think it's a slam dunk that Jewel Hampton's going to replace Shonn Greene, the 2008 Doak Award winner as the nation's best running back, and not miss a beat. No question Hampton's talented, but he's been hurt three times in the past six months, and it's all been on the same knee. Yet they seem supremely confident Hampton will shoulder the burden of being the workhorse back Greene was last year. Not surprisingly, I'm skeptical at best. Yes, as Adam Rittenburg noted in his blog last week, he had Iowa's running backs ranked dead last in the conference entering 2008, only to see Greene go from the furniture show room to be the best back in the country last year. Can lightning strike twice? Sure, and I could win the lottery too.

I'm not questioning Hampton's ability, but I am questioning his ability to stay healthy in what's going to be a long, grueling Big Ten season. And sure, the response could be "well we're going to be able to throw much better than last year" and sure, the o-line is fantastic and Stanzi should be better, but then answer me this: who the hell is he throwing to? The Hawkeyes leading returning receiver is junior Trey Stross, who had a grand total of 13 CATCHES in 2008, and he's not exactly putting the fear of God into opposing defenses. Yes, converted QB Marvin McNutt looked good in the spring at wideout, but there's a wee bit of difference between the spring and fall. Let's see him do it for real before we can say Iowa's set at receiver. Again, there's a world of talent on this team and plenty of experience, but if Iowa wants to go to Pasadena this year, those are questions they need to answer.

Isn't it a little ridiculous that Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez is on the hot seat after only one season?
Sure, but I can't think of anyone not named Charlie Weis or Kirk Ferentz who I enjoy seeing struggle more than Rodriguez and Michigan. Problem is, I don't see it lasting much longer. The 3-9 stinker he put up last year was the worst in the school's illustrious history, causing fans of the Maize and Blue to throw their wine and cheese in disgust. It raised the volume in what's usually the quietest 110,000+ seat stadium in the world to a level that could almost be described as "loud." Well, ok maybe "loud if you were in a library" but hey it's a step in the right direction.

So Michigan fans are upset at their first losing season since 1976, and are basically demanding a trip back to the Rose Bowl this year or next: OR ELSE!! Rodriguez will do neither, but they'll be bowl eligible this season (since he finally has a couple of QB's who can run his system), and with the way his recruiting has gone, quite possibly be fighting for a New Year's Day bowl the next. If Wolverine fans let him stay that long, he'll have them back being the Michigan we know and hate by 2011. Here's hoping they don't.

The media picked Michigan State third in their preseason poll, to which I say: REALLY?
I like head coach Mark Dantoni. Really, I do. He's doing a fantastic job rebuilding Michigan State, and it looks like they're going to be a factor in the Big Ten for as long as he's there. Is a Big Ten title in their future? Possibly, but we're getting ahead of ourselves to say it happens in 2009. Yep, they return a very good defense, led by preseason Big Ten player of the year linebacker Greg Jones, but to finish third in the conference, the offense will need to be very good too, yet right now they have more questions than answers. Namely: just how in the h-e-double hockey sticks are they going to replace Javon Ringer? As I wrote about back in May, Ringer's 1,637 yards rushing accounted for an astonishing 96.7% of the Spartans rushing yards in 2008. He was also fifth on the team in catches and receiving yards for a squad that ranked sixth in passing offense with just 213.3 per game. Oh and they also return an underwhelming group of receivers, they have to plug holes on the offensive line AND replace their senior quarterback. But other than that, really, what's not to love?

*** we'll question Ohio State, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin in the next post.


Anonymous said...

Greg Jones, former Gopher commit...sign.

Jeff said...

Yeah Jones might have helped the Gophers just a wee bit.