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Big Ten Preview: Michigan, Mike Hart Set the Pace

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Big Ten Preview: Michigan, Mike Hart Set the Pace
IconWith tailgate season just around the corner, Bleacher Report's David Williams is taking a tour around Division I-A.
 
Here, David breaks down the Big 10. Be sure to check back for all his conference previews:
 

1. Michigan Wolverines
 
Projected Record: 11-1 (7-1)
Loss: Ohio State (11/17)
 
Key Players: QB Chad Henne, RB Mike Hart, WR Mario Manningham, WR Adrian Arrington, TE Mike Massey, OL Jake Long, OL Adam Krause, DT Terrance Taylor, LB Shawn Crable, CB Morgan Trent, S Jamar Adams, P Zoltan Mesko
 
Newcomer: T Steve Schilling
 
The prolific Michigan offense will be better than ever in 2007.
 
The Wolverines return only six starters on O, but those six include four or five potential All-Americans, most notably Heisman candidates RB Mike Hart and QB Chad Henne.
 
Although a season-ending injury to backup RB Kevin Grady has limited the depth in the backfield, the Wolverines' pro-style system should carry them to a successful season.
 
On defense, the front line was tops in the nation with only 43.4 rushing yards allowed per game last year, and should continue to produce despite the departure of anchor Alan Branch.
 
The major Achilles heel for the Wolverines is the secondary, but the most accomplished quarterbacks Michigan faces in 2007 are Curtis Painter of Purdue and Anthony Morelli of Penn State, so they should be fine.  
 
Final verdict: Michigan is certainly talented, but head coach Lloyd Carr's big-game ineptitude argues against a perfect season. Look for a better-coached Ohio State team to be the spoiler.
 
 
2. Wisconsin Badgers
 
Projected Record: 11-1 (7-1)
Loss: Michigan (11/10)
 
Key Players: QB Tyler Donovan, RB P.J. Hill Jr., WR Paul Hubbard, TE Travis Beckum, C Marcus Coleman, G Kraig Urbik, DE Matt Shaughnessy, DT Nick Hayden, LB Jonathan Casillas, CB Jack Ikeguonu, K Taylor Melhaff, P Ken DeBauche 
 
Newcomer: QB Allan Evridge
 
With experience (16 returning starters), a strong offensive line, and a stud at running back, Wisconsin has all the makings of a national title contender.
 
Converted fullback P.J. Hill was Freshman of the Year in several publications, and will look to build upon his rookie success in 2007. The only issue on offense is at quarterback, where Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge has an edge on fifth-year senior Tyler Donovan to replace three-year starter John Stocco.
 
While neither Everidge nor Donovan has the experience of Stocco, each is mobile enough to effectively run the option.
 
On defense, Wisconsin returns both cornerbacks from the number-two pass defense in the country (138.3 passing yards allowed per game). If you don't know who CB Jack Ikegwuonu is now, you will soon.
 
The X-factor may be the punting and kicking games for Wisconsin, which are certainly the best in the Big Ten. K Taylor Melhaff and P Ken DeBauche could both get drafted, and look out for PR Marcus Randle El, the brother of NFL receiver Antwan.

Final verdict: Wisconsin certainly will make its push for a Big Ten title. The Badgers could go undefeated, especially if they establish a consistent passing attack.
 
 
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
 
Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3)
Losses: at Michigan (9/22), Wisconsin (10/13), at Michigan State (11/17)

Key Players: QB Anthony Morelli, RB Austin Scott, WR/PR Derrick Williams, WR Deon Butler, WR Jordan Norwood, C A.Q. Shipley, T John Shaw, LB Dan Connor, LB Sean Lee, CB Justin King, S Tony Davis
 
Newcomer: DT Abe Koroma

QB Anthony Morelli has plenty of weapons this year, and you can expect Joe Paterno to employ a more dynamic game plan.
 
Derrick Williams should bounce back from injury to recover his freshman form. The running game will have a drop-off after the departure of Tony Hunt, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Williams might see time at tailback.
 
On defense, Penn State should be solid again. Even with the loss of Paul Posluszny, "Linebacker U" has two of the best 'backers in the country in Dan Connor and Sean Lee. Those two will have to anchor the D as several new faces settle in. Former High School All-American CB Justin King should earn some time in the national spotlight.
 
Final verdict: Joe Pa's sitting on a winner in Happy Valley. If the Nittany Lions can open up their offense, they'll be a major force in the conference.
 
 
T-4. Ohio State Buckeyes

Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3)
Losses: at Purdue (10/6), at Penn State (10/27), Wisconsin (11/3)

Key Players: RB Chris Wells, WR Brian Robiskie, WR/KR Ray Small, TE Rory Nicol, T Alex Boone, T Kirk Barton, DE Vernon Gholston, LB James Laurinaitis, LB Marcus Freeman, LB Larry Grant, CB Malcolm Jenkins, P A.J. Trapasso
 
Newcomer: DB Eugene Clifford

After a loss in the BCS National Championship Game, Ohio State has a few large voids to fill.
 
Heisman winner Troy Smith made one spectacular play after the next, but the dynamic quarterback is gone. Smith's replacement, junior QB Todd Boeckman, lacks his predecessor's mobility and arm strength.
 
Still, so long as Boeckman minimizes his mistakes and acts as a caretaker to the offense, he should be fine.
 
The Buckeyes boast an experienced O-line and a few young receivers who look primed for breakout seasons. Chris "Beanie" Wells is the feature back, and will be pushed for playing time by Maurice Wells and incoming freshman Brandon Saine.
 
The OSU defense lost tackles Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson to graduation, but returns a solid secondary and an outstanding linebacker corps. Nagurski Award winner James Laurinaitis should prove that last year's stellar season wasn't an aberration.
 
Final verdict: Ohio State is young and inexperienced on O. The Buckeye defense is good enough to keep them in games...unless they have to play Florida in the near future. Expect some noise from Jim Tressel's team at the end of the season.
 
  
T-4. Iowa Hawkeyes
 
Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3)
Losses: at Wisconsin (9/22), at Penn State (10/6), at Purdue (10/20)

Key Players: QB Jake Christensen, RB Albert Young, WR/PR Andy Brodell, WR Dominique Douglas, TE Tony Moeaki, T Dace Richardson, DE Kenny Iwebema, DE Bryan Mattison, LB Mike Klinkenborg, CB Adam Shada
 
Newcomers: S Brett Greenwood, QB Arvell Nelson
 
Iowa is the dark horse of the Big Ten.
 
Last year, the Hawkeyes were loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, including Heisman candidate Drew Tate at quarterback, but only managed a 6-7 record. Several players from that team return in 2007 with a chip on their shoulders.
 
Iowa has the most proven running back tandem in the conference in seniors Albert Young and Damian Sims. Wide receivers Andy Brodell, Dominique Douglas, and Trey Stross will help ease the transition to a new QB.
 
The defensive line is the biggest question mark on the other side of the ball, but LB Mike Klinkenborg is a rock in the middle.
 
Final verdict: Worst case, Iowa could have a season similar to last year's. Best case, Iowa could finish second or third in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes' fate depends on both their chemistry and their ability to close out games.
 
 
6. Purdue Boilermakers
 
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3)
Losses: at Minnesota (9/22), Notre Dame (9/29), at Michigan (10/13), at Penn State (11/3)

Key Players: QB Curtis Painter, WR/KR Dorien Bryant, WR Greg Orton, TE Dustin Keller, T Sean Sester, G Jordan Grimes, C Robbie Powell, DE Cliff Avril, DT Alex Magee, CB Royce Adams, P Jared Armstrong

Newcomer: LB Brian Ellis

Aside from Michigan, Purdue has the best offense in the conference.
 
The Boilermakers return nine starters (including all receivers and tight ends) from the fifth-best passing attack in the country. Curtis Painter follows Drew Brees and Kyle Orton in the line of NFL-caliber Purdue QBs. Jaycen Taylor and Kory Sheets are competing for the starting tailback spot.
 
The defense, on the other hand, was simply bad last year, finishing 114th against the run (191.2 yards per game) and 104th against the pass (241.2). That said, the Boilermakers return their entire secondary and a few key lineman, so an improvement in production seems likely.
 
Final verdict: Purdue could very well beat Ohio State, Iowa, and Notre Dame. However, the Achilles heel for the Boilermakers is a large one: They haven't proven that they can stop anyone on defense. Expect a few 44-41 shootouts.
 
 
7. Illinois Fighting Illini

Projected Record: 6-6 (3-5)
Wins: Western Illinois (9/8), at Syracuse (9/15), at Indiana (9/22), Ball State (10/27), at Minnesota (11/3), Northwestern (11/17)

Key Players: QB Juice Williams, T Akim Millington, RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Arrelious Benn, DE Derek Walker, DT Chris Norwell, LB J Leman, LB Martrez Wilson, CB Vontae Davis, K Jason Reda
 
Newcomer: WR Arrelious Benn

Head Coach Ron Zook recruited one of the best freshman classes in the country, and several of the newbies, including WR Arrelious Benn, LB Martez Wilson, RB Daries Hodge, and DE D'Angelo McCray, can contribute immediately.
 
With a year of experience under his belt, QB Juice Williams should be a much more poised decision-maker than he was in 2006. Junior RB Rashard Mendenhall, meanwhile, is a well-kept secret in Champaign. Expect him to be a playmaker for the offense.
 
On defense, Illinois returns nine starters. Linebacker J Leman is one of the most prolific tacklers in the nation.
 
Final verdict: With nine returning starters on defense, an older Juice Williams, and an influx of new freshmen contributors, the Illini might be expected to go far. But remember, the nine starters on D aren't very good (with the exception Leman), Juice has a lot of growing up to do, and it's hard to count on inexperienced players, no matter how talented they are.
 
 
8. Michigan State Spartans

Projected Record: 5-7 (3-5)
Wins: UAB (9/1), Bowling Green (9/8), Northwestern (10/6), Indiana (10/13), Penn State (11/17)

Key Players: RB Javon Ringer, RB Jehuu Caulcrick, QB Brian Hoyer, TE Kellen Davis, G Roland Martin, LB Kaleb Thornhill, LB SirDarean Adams, S Otis Wiley, K Brett Swenson

Newcomer: LB Jon Misch

One of Michigan State's biggest concerns will be replacing Drew Stanton at quarterback. Brian Hoyer performed well while Stanton was injured last year, but an entire season is different than one game.
 
The Spartans have an underrated running back duo in the quick, shifty Javon Ringer and the bruising Jehuu Caulcrick. Despite losing several receivers to graduation, Hoyer should have targets to throw to in TE Kellen Davis and WR T.J. Williams.
 
The Michigan State defense has a few solid players, including S Otis Wiley and LB SirDarean Adams, but the unit as a whole is nothing to write home about. At least new head coach Mark Dantonio has the opportunity to implement his own scheme.
 
Final verdict: In addition to away games at Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Purdue, MSU has to play Pitt, Michigan, and Penn State at home. Needless to say, the Spartan schedule is a difficult one, but they may come up with an upset or two. With several underclassmen and a rookie head coach, look for this team to move up the ranks in a year or two. 
 

9. Northwestern Wildcats

Projected Record: 6-6 (2-6)
Wins: Northeastern (9/1), Nevada (9/8), Duke (9/15), Minnesota (10/13), Eastern Michigan (10/20), Indiana (11/10)

Key Players: QB C.J. Bacher, RB Tyrell Sutton, WR Ross Lane, C Trevor Rees, T Dylan Thiry, DE Corey Wootton, DT Adam Hahn, LB Adam Kadela, S Brendan Smith
 
Newcomer: CB Jordan Mabin

Tyrell Sutton looks to pick up where he left off as freshman, when he rushed for over 1,500 yards. The combination of Sutton and QB C.J. Bacher is reminiscent of the days when Zak Kustok and Damien Anderson roamed the backfield for the Wildcats.
 
The defense isn't very good, but at least it's experienced. John Gill and Adam Hahn form a formidable interior line.
 
Final verdict: Don't expect Northwestern to win the Big Ten anytime soon, but don't be surprised if they pick off a conference foe here or there. Look for bigger things in 2008, when several of these key players will still have eligibility.
  

10. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Projected Record: 6-6 (2-6)
Wins: Bowling Green (9/1), Miami University (9/8), FAU (9/15), Purdue (9/22), at Indiana (10/6), North Dakota State (10/20)

Key Players: RB Amir Pinnix, WR Ernie Wheelwright, TE Jack Simmons, TE Troy Reilly, C Tony Brinkhaus, DE Will VanDeSteeg, LB Mike Sherels, S Dominique Barber
 
Newcomer: T Dominic Alford

First-year coach Tim Brewster inherited a team lacking depth in several positions.
 
On offense, Brewster will rely heavily on RB Amir Pinnix. Pinnix is the latest in a line of talented Minnesota running backs that has included Marion Barber III, Laurence Maroney, and Gary Russell.
 
Replacing QB Bryan Cupito is Tony Mortensen, who will have deep threat Ernie Wheelwright as well as TE Jack Simmons to throw to.
 
On defense, Will VanDeSteeg anchors the front four. Outstanding kick and punt return specialist Dominic Jones may not play this year, as he is currently suspended from the team.
 
Final verdict: Glen Mason led the Golden Gophers to an underachieving 6-7 record last year, and Minnesota could face some growing pains with a new coach at the helm. Still, the Gophers' cupcake schedule will allow them to break even.
  
 
11. Indiana Hoosiers
 
Projected Record: 3-9 (0-8)
Wins: Indiana State (9/1), at Western Michigan (9/8), Ball State (11/3)
 
Key Players: QB Kellen Lewis, RB/KR Marcus Thigpen, WR James Hardy, T Roger Sadfold, DE Greg Brown, CB Tracy Porter
 
The focal point of the Hoosiers' season will be the tragic death of inspirational coach Terry Hoeppner. While the current squad doesn't have much talent or depth, it could surprise some of the better teams in the conference (a la Illinois last year).
 
WR James Hardy is big and physical, and if the QB can get him the ball, look out.
 
Final verdict: Indiana isn't very good, and the unfortunate transition between coaches will be rough. Luckily, the Hoosiers out-of-conference schedule is an easy one.
  

All-Big Ten Predictions
 
Offense

QB : Chad Henne, Sr., Michigan
RB : Michael Hart, Sr., Michigan
RB : P.J. Hill Jr., So., Wisconsin
WR : Mario Manningham, Jr., Michigan
WR : James Hardy, Jr., Indiana
TE : Kellen Davis, Sr., Michigan State
OL : Kirk Barton, Sr., Ohio State
OL : Jake Long, Sr., Michigan
OL : Adam Kraus, Sr., Michigan
OL : Alex Boone, Jr., Ohio State
OL : Jordan Grimes, Sr., Purdue
 
Defense

DE : Vernon Gholston, Jr. Ohio State
DT : Terrance Taylor, Jr., Michigan
DE : Matt Shaughnessy, Jr., Wisconsin
DE : Will VanDeSteeg, Jr., Minnesota
LB : James Laurinaitis, Jr., Ohio State
LB : Dan Connor, Sr., Penn State
LB : J Leman, Sr., Illinois
CB : Jack Ikeguonu, Jr., Wisconsin
CB : Justin King, Jr., Penn State
CB : Malcolm Jenkins, Jr., Ohio State
 
Special Teams

K : Taylor Melhaff, Sr., Wisconsin
P : Ken DeBauche, Sr., Wisconsin
KR : Dorien Bryant, Sr., Purdue
PR : Derrick Williams, Jr., Penn State

Big Ten Offensive MVP: RB Michael Hart, Sr., Michigan
Big Ten Defensive MVP: LB James Laurinaitis, Jr., Ohio State
Big Ten Newcomer of the Year: WR Arrelious Benn, Fr., Illinois
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