Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part 12: Final Thoughts

David Fidler Correspondent IAugust 31, 2010

Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part 12: Final Thoughts

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    The key for this series was that it was, indeed, a series.

    I wanted to do an unbiased (as unbiased as I could hope to be) and thorough look at all the teams in the Big Ten. I not only did this as a Bleacher Report writer, but also as a college football fan.

    I suspect I am like most college football fans, in that I know a huge amount about my team, a fair amount about the other teams in my conference, and a little about any team outside of my conference.

    Because I have a somewhat obsessive personality, I thought it was irresponsible of me to be ill-informed about the other teams in the Big Ten.

    In effect, from the beginning this was a writing exercise, a research exercise, and a learning experience.

    I did not begin this with a fixed idea of what records I would predict for each team. Therefore, on May 2, when I predicted that Minnesota would go 2-10, I had no idea that on August 25, I would predict Ohio State to go 12-0.

    Along the way, I had some oversights and made some errors. I also looked back and wished I could write some things differently. Again, I think this went with the territory, and I wholly appreciate any corrections that were sent my way, whether by editors or posters.

    More than anything else, the interactive element to the Bleacher Report format was what I valued most of all. As I said, nobody knows more about a given team than that team's fans. On the other hand, nobody has thicker blinders on than a given team's fans, but sometimes that is what makes it fun.

    The articles got progressively more thorough as the series went on. This was not intentional. It just worked out that way.

    In fact, the first four parts—Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue—were decidedly less in-depth than everything that came after.

    I think that had a lot to do with Michigan, the fifth team in the series. They are such a hot-button team right now, that there are tons of information and opinions on them.

    Not surprisingly, that was the article that received the most comments, by far.

    After writing that Michigan article, I felt that all the other articles had to have the same degree of thoroughness.

    With that said, since May 2, or even since August 12, when I wrote the Wisconsin Badgers' installment, there have been some changes.

    Teams have now been at fall camp for over three weeks. Injuries have happened, players have left programs, and underclassmen have stepped up. Obviously, as football and predictions in general are not static, this meant that my outlook on certain teams had changed.

    Therefore, I thought I would do one extra installment to note any changes and wrap everything up.

    With that said, the first three Big Ten games of the year will be played on Thursday, September 2, and will feature Indiana, Minnesota, and the second-ranked team in the country, the Ohio State Buckeyes.

    Only two days later, all of the rest of the teams will play, and I will be at Kinnick Stadium to officially kick off what should be another great year for football.

    In closing, for those 18 readers that read every article and looked at all of them as the cohesive series that they were intended to be, I am particularly grateful.

    And for those that only looked at their own teams, I am only slightly less grateful.

    Football season is here, folks. The writing and predicting and pontificating is over.


    **The slideshow pictures are supposed to have captions, but for some reason, the caption option doesn't work. In effect, the explanation for most of the pictures is right next to the slides.**

The Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    The Golden Gophers Trophy Case

    Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part One: The Minnesota Golden Gophers

    **The Golden Gophers' Trophy Case**

    I predicted the Gophers would go 2-10. Without actually saying the words, I also predicted they would have the worst defense in the Big Ten.

    As I said, the first articles I did in this series were admittedly less in-depth than the the later ones. As this article was the first in the series, I not only had some oversights, but I made multiple flat-out errors.

    I was quickly corrected by frequent Minnesota contributor, Kristopher Fiecke, as well as another Gopher fan (who knew they had fans?). Fiecke noted, among other things, that Minnesota's lack of experience on defense was deceptive, as last year, the defense rotated very regularly.

    The other commenter further noted, "DT's Brandon Kirksey and Jewhan Edwards both saw extensive playing time at DT last year. DE D.L. Wilhite was named to the Sporting News All-Big Ten Freshman team, and LB Keanon Cooper was named to the Rivals All-Big Ten Freshman team. LB Mike Rallis played very well before a season ending injury against Cal, and DE Ra'Shede Hageman has as much, if not more, potential than any other defensive player in the Big Ten."

    I do think it's fair to disregard the poster's last comment about Ra'Shede Hageman. He may have potential, but "as much...(as) any other defensive player in the Big Ten" is going a bit far. Nevertheless, for the most part, the rest are verifiable facts.

    On top of those players, junior linebacker Gary Tinsley is making some waves.

    In effect, I think I underestimated the Minnesota defense and the Minnesota team. In fact, as Minnesota seems to be a consensus bottom-of-the-Big Ten pick, I think much of the national media have underestimated them.

    The thing is, despite that underestimation, I still don't see them as having a very realistic shot at winning more than four games.

    I just don't think they have a prayer against USC, Wisconsin, PSU, OSU, MSU, or Iowa.

    That is six losses right there. Of their remaining games, I would only put one down as a bankable win, and that is South Dakota State.

    If they get a bit lucky, and even exceed my revised estimation of what kind of team they are, then they have a shot at squeezing out five more wins. However, that is asking a lot.

    In the end, I would write them down for two more wins than I predicted. Also, I would say their defense is potentially fourth or fifth worst—or seventh or eighth best—in the conference, as opposed to the worst.

    Still, that won't get them to a bowl, and it won't save Tim Brewster's job.

    In the end, it is a combination of a team that should be in a rebuilding year, coupled with a vicious schedule.

The Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Would you hire this man?

    Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Two: The Illinois Fighting Illini

    **Would you hire this man?**

    I predicted the Illini would go 5-7. On some levels, I think I was pitying them. On another level, who can ever tell what Ron Zook's teams are going to do?

    They have more experienced talent than any other team at the bottom of the conference. Also, aside from Purdue, they face an easier schedule than any other team at what I predicted to be the bottom of the conference.

    The fact is, if anybody other than Ron Zook were coaching them, I'd probably pick them to grab at least six wins.

    Nevertheless, Ron Zook is coaching them.

    Therefore, nothing has really changed since I originally wrote the article on May 10. If anything, I think the Illini might do worse than I predicted by maybe one loss.

The Indiana Hoosiers

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    Ac-cen-tu-ate the positive. Besides, do IU fans really care about football?

    Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Three: The Indiana Hoosiers

    **As though IU fans really care about football**

    Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell is one of the players that most impressed me while doing this series.

    People are talking about Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi cutting out his mistakes and moving on to the next level at quarterback. However, Chappell, who tied Stanzi for most interceptions in the conference, has just as much potential as the Iowa signal caller.

    In fact, if he can iron out a few elements of his game, Chappell can be the best quarterback in the conference, and certainly the one with the most professional potential.

    As it stands, IU might have one of the five best sets of offensive skill players in the Big Ten, along with one of the three best wide receiver units.

    This is a team that is going to score, and, if they avoid the turnover bug, they are going to score often.

    The problem is their defense which, in my opinion, will be the worst in the conference.

    In the above installment, I mentioned that in 2009, Indiana was hamstrung by a number of questionable calls and bad luck. What I failed to mention was that head coach Bill Lynch had a lot to do with why those calls and unlucky breaks consistently seemed to go against the Hoosiers.

    The questionable call happened and Bill Lynch protested. And protested some more. And protested some more. And still more.

    Meanwhile, in many cases, while Lynch was protesting, the game and so many opportunities passed him by.

    In so many words, I said that Illinois's coach, Ron Zook, is a lousy coach who will cause the downfall of his program.

    I can't quite say the same for Lynch. At the very least, I can say Lynch is a tremendous offensive coordinator. However, as a head coach, if he doesn't learn from his own mistakes, then yes, he may very well lose games for a talented team.

    I predicted Indiana to go 5-7. I think they can go 6-6 on the back of a very good offense, and I still think that elusive sixth win could come down to their final game of the year against Purdue. The difference will be Lynch. We will see what he's learned.

The Purdue Boilermakers

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    Purdue's probable starting tailback when they face Notre Dame.

    Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Four: The Purdue Boilermakers

    **Purdue's probable starting tailback against Notre Dame**

    I predicted the Boilers to go 5-7. When I made that prediction on June 30, I was very much on the fence. However, since that time, I have become more confident that the Boilermakers will not make a bowl.

    One key area that I neglected to mention was the injuries. Needless to say, injuries aren't quite predictable, yet, there does seem to be a trend to them.

    Phil Steele has a theory that the number of injuries a team has varies from year-to-year. Moreover, a team with a number of injuries in year A, tends to be less injured in year B.

    Obviously, this is a controversial theory that I can't blame one for not buying into.

    Yet, here are two facts: Purdue was the least injured team in the Big Ten last year. They lost exactly 1.1 percent of their starts to injury. Compare this to Minnesota, which lost 10.6 percent of their starts, and you can see how fortunate the Boilers were last season. I don't expect that good fortune to continue into this season.

    Which leads me to my second fact: The season hasn't even started, and the injuries are beginning to pile up.

    We've known for a while that probable starting running back Ralph Bolden's season may not happen.

    On top of that, PU has seen the following players go down with injuries of various severity: current starting tailback Al-Terek McBurse, backup tailback Keith Carlos, receiver/punt returner Waynelle Gravesande, defensive tackle Kevin Pamphile, receiver Keith Smith, as well as a few others.

    Also, backup quarterback Caleb TerBush has been ruled ineligible due to grades, thus making the Boilermakers' backfield woes even more grave.

    Something else my article didn't take into account was Purdue's performance against the rush. I noted how talented and experienced many of the players in the front seven were. What I failed to mention was that despite that talent and experience, Purdue was dead last in the Big Ten against the rush.

    To me, that signifies a defense that is looking for the big plays and the highlight reels, and is not taking care of business. Certainly, that may change in 2010, as that defense is now more experienced.

    Nevertheless, it is an area of concern.

    In the end, I wouldn't bet on Purdue in 2010. They are just loaded with way too many question marks, and have too many intangibles working against them.

The Michigan Wolverines

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    The look of discontent that has been on the collective face of Michigan fandom since December 17, 2007.

    Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Five: The Michigan Wolverines

    **The look of discontent that has been on the collective face of Michigan fandom since December 17, 2007**

    I made the somewhat controversial prediction that Michigan would go 8-4. Since that time, it seems the entire Michigan secondary has fallen off the face of the earth.

    As we knew, All-Big Ten cornerback Donovan Warren left early for the NFL. Then top recruit Demar Dorsey was denied admission to the school. This was followed by redshirt freshman J.T. Turner's transfer. Finally, and most recently, senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk has sustained a leg injury that will cost him the season.

    On top of that, there is the issue with last season's starting quarterback Tate Forcier losing the wings off his helmet, as well as Woolfolk's offseason comments regarding Forcier.

    With all of that in mind, I am left to question my original prediction.

    As it happens, I am going to stick with it. However, I must admit, I am now leaning towards 7-5, though it has less to do with any of the above, than my feelings that I underrated Notre Dame when I made my July 8 prediction.

    Nonetheless, as concerns Michigan, yes, these blows to their secondary will hurt, but there was never a point I felt that they would have a truly good defense. At best, I felt they would be adequate. While the degree of "adequate" is affected by the secondary's problems, I still feel they will be improved from last year, though still somewhat lousy.

    My prediction, and Michigan's season, rests on their offense, which I still maintain will be one of the top two in the league.

    I will not review my reasons for thinking this, as that is why I wrote the original article, though I will say if the entire offensive line had gone M.I.A. instead of the secondary, then my prediction would quickly change.

    I will also note that I very firmly believe in the old adage, "Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships." The thing is, I am not predicting that the Wolverines will win any championships; only that they will win eight games in 2010.

    As regards Notre Dame, I predicted Michigan to win that game, yet, as I said, I underestimated the Irish, who have the players—and now the coach—to be very good this year. I also predicted UM to lose to UConn. I do think that the Wolverines have to get at least one win out of those two games. If they lose both, then the wheels will probably fall off the cart.

    In short, expect Michigan to have a lot of shootouts this year. If they take care of the football, I still think they will win more than they lose. Nevertheless, for Rich Rodriguez, the difference between seven and eight wins could be huge.

The Northwestern Wildcats

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    Ryan Field at half-time on Homecoming Weekend.

    Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Six: The Northwestern Wildcats

    **Ryan Field at half-time on Homecoming Weekend**

    I predicted an 8-4 season for the Wildcats.

    Nothing much has changed in the dynamic of the team, but I am inclined to change that prediction to 7-5, with the Cats losing a game to a team they probably should beat. Perhaps Central Michigan, or Minnesota, or Illinois.

    I just think Northwestern got a lot of very lucky bounces last season that are going to catch up with them this year.

    To be more specific, there is the issue of forced fumbles. In last year's Purdue game, NU forced six fumbles, of which they recovered a somewhat miraculous five. That ultimately led to a come-from-behind victory by a score of 27-21.

    Against Iowa, one sack and snapped leg later, and Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi was not only out for the game, but he had fumbled the ball right into the Cats' hands. Seven Northwestern points, and the hapless Hawkeyes were left scoreless for the rest of the game. All that Northwestern had to do was tack 10 more points on the board, and they had the victory.

    I won't go into it in any more detail, as does a superb job of breaking it down.

    The point is, there were a lot of lucky bounces last year, and luck is an intangible, yet finite thing. I don't see it holding over through this year.

    In effect, despite a very favorable schedule, and a surprisingly decent team, I will put the Cats down for seven wins.

    Still, seven wins won't change their bowl outlook from my previously predicted eight wins. And if they can finally win a bowl, I think that would be a very successful season for Pat Fitzgerald's team.

The Michigan State Spartans

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    Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Seven: The Michigan State Spartans

    I had Sparty going 8-4. I originally had them as 9-3, but I changed my mind, as far as them beating Michigan in the Big House.

    However, I will say that poster Chris Copeland made a good point. He said, "Against UM, it's going to come down to the Rush D. MSU was 24th in the nation in Rush D last year and, if you read the article, there shouldn't be too much of a drop off. So, that means UM will have to throw to beat UM. UM's pass O was 81st in the nation LY and will drop even more if Shoelace is starting."

    When you further consider Michigan's secondary problems, coupled with the fact that MSU should have a very good passing game, you have to like the Spartans' chances here.

    Either way, I feel the battle for Paul Bunyan's Trophy could be a huge game in these two teams' futures. I also think it will be one of the more important—yet under-the-radar—games in the Big Ten this year.

    Obviously, I've swung back and forth on this game, and right now, I'm inclined to go with MSU, but that could, and probably will, change.

    I think a lot of the Spartans' questions will be answered in Week 2, when Notre Dame comes to town. As Michigan State's biggest issues are its secondary and O-line, Brian Kelly's spread passing attack is sure to test the former. Meanwhile, the Irish return the majority of their defensive front seven, which will test the latter.

    In the end, nothing major has changed since I wrote the original article. Nevertheless, I very much like the way the intangibles stack up in the Spartans' favor this season.

    If OSU, Iowa, and Wisconsin can fairly be considered the favorites to win the Big Ten this year, then my one dark horse candidate to win it all is MSU.

    Nevertheless, I know enough not to try to predict anything with the always-unpredictable Spartans.

The Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Will we ever win one of these White Out games?

    Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Eight: The Penn State Nittany Lions

    **Will we ever win one of these white out games?**

    The Nits may have been the easiest team to predict.

    I had them as 9-3. I don't see any way this team finishes the regular season with more than nine wins. I also don't see any way this team finishes the regular season with more than four losses.

    With their opening game less than one week away, there don't seem to be any major surprises for Penn State.

    The quarterback situation is still unsettled, though the folks at the Big Ten Network seem to feel that true freshman Robert Bolden should be a lock for the job. According to Dave Revsine, "Not only wouldn't I be surprised if Bolden is PSU's QB, I'd also be surprised if he isn't, at least based on today."

    The "today" in question was their August 11 practice.

    The depth chart that was released on August 29 has a three-man race at signal caller.

    In the end, whoever wins the job will have to be obscenely gifted, and, in all probability, mature well beyond his years in order to beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Iowa in Iowa City, and Ohio State in Columbus.

    And, as I said, no matter who starts, I just don't see those wins happening for the Nits.

The Wisconsin Badgers

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    Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Nine: The Wisconsin Badgers


    I had the Badgers at 9-3, with relatively predictable losses to Ohio State and Iowa, and a not-so-predictable-loss to Michigan.

    As I said in the original article, I think Wisconsin can beat OSU and Iowa. I think they can run the table. I think they can win the Big Ten. I think they can go to the National Championship.

    Wisconsin featured columnist Carl Stine broke it down well in a recent article, detailing what the Badgers specifically have going for them that can propel them to 12 wins.

    However, in my opinion, they have two huge obstacles as well.

    The first obstacle is the head coach, Bret Bielema. Can he win the big games? Can he clean up some questionable decisions he's made over the past couple of years?

    Can he shore up his special teams, which cost Wisconsin considerably last season? Can he improve his half-time adjustments, an area where, at least in the case of his games against Iowa and Ohio State, he has gotten smoked over the past two seasons.

    The second obstacle is the intangibles: most notably, injuries. As I said, Wisconsin, in a strange, unverifiable way, is due to get the injury bug this season. Well, the season hasn't even begun, and the bug has already hit Madison.

    Starting linebacker Mike Taylor has had to have a second surgery on the knee that caused him to miss the end of last season. This second surgery will cost him anywhere from two to four weeks. He will unquestionably be out for the Badgers' season opener.

    On top of that, there have been a number of minor injuries, most notably to offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler and Bill Nagy, defensive tackle Jordan Kohout, wide receiver David Gilreath, linebacker Culmer St. Jean, and safety Jay Valai.

    In the article I wrote, "If J.J. Watt or Jay Valai go down, the UW defense will have a hole the size of Lake Mendota." None of those minor injuries appear to be serious, but time missed is time missed.

    Further hounding Wisconsin are questions that still abound on defense. On the Big Ten Network's recent trip to Madison, Dave Revsine commented, "Red zone drills showed some of the deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball, as the offense moved the football with little resistance."

    On the other hand, it is worth noting that Revsine also pointed out that defensive backs Antonio Fenelus and Shelton Johnson shined for UW.

    In closing, I'm sticking with 9-3 for the Badgers. Given Wisconsin's weak out-of-conference schedule, I highly doubt there will be anything to alter that opinion one way or the other, until their Big Ten opener against Michigan State.

The Iowa Hawkeyes

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    Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Ten: The Iowa Hawkeyes

    I predicted that Iowa would go 10-2, with losses to OSU and Arizona.

    I will stick with that prediction, but before writing anything else, I will say the following two things: If Iowa can secure a win in their September 18 meeting with Arizona, then I think they will have an extremely good chance to be undefeated when they face Ohio State on November 20.

    Also, out of all of the teams on OSU's schedule, I think Iowa has the best chance of beating the Bucks.

    As I said, with the Hawks, it will come down to three things: the offensive line, consistency from quarterback Ricky Stanzi, and the kicking game.

    As for the line, I have heard multiple second- and third-hand rumors out of camp that the line will be formidable.

    Moreover, something to remember is that this is not the 2007 line, which started one true freshman, one redshirt freshman, two redshirt sophomores, and one fourth-year junior. This line will start one or two fifth-year seniors, two fourth-year juniors, and either one or two redshirt sophomores.

    This line may be lacking in real-game experience, but they've been around, they have been with the program, and they know what is expected of them.

    As the Big Ten Network's Howard Griffth said, "All of these guys fighting for position have some experience, they are not total rookies. This program is a developmental program, where you do the same thing over and over again. They have played this song at Iowa before, where the linemen get better every year until they are called in the first round of the NFL draft.”

    I'll believe it when I see it, but there is a fairly good chance that this unit will exceed expectations.

    As for the kicking game, the depth chart that was released on August 29 still has an "OR" between sophomore Trent Mossbrucker and senior Daniel Murray. However, early returns have been good.

    Finally, there is Stanzi, who, according to the BTN crew, is as erratic as ever. As per Mike Wolf, "Ricky Stanzi gave us little indication that we will see a different quarterback this fall. The majority of practice, Stanzi was the exceptional playmaker that has led the Hawkeyes to countless exhilarating finishes. But with Stanzi, you come to expect the good with the bad, and linebacker Shane DiBona picked off a pass that would have been returned for a score in a game."

    So, I'm still at 10-2, though I will note that this a team about which the first three games will reveal a huge amount.

The Ohio State Buckeyes

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    God's gift to The Big Ten.

    Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Eleven: The Ohio State Buckeyes

    **God's gift to the Big Ten**

    I have absolutely no changes from my prediction of one week ago. I still cannot come up with any reason why I think Ohio State won't go 12-0. I also still believe that what they do in the regular season is of minimal importance. It is what they do in the post season that will define this program.

    Nevertheless, one thing I have definitively learned while writing this series, and particularly from responding to comments, is that after five straight Big Ten championships, OSU fans are, at times, impossible to dialogue with.

    I think this is the end result of so much uncontested dominance. There is no real balance in the Big Ten. Michigan has been awful these past however many seasons, and Penn State has not been a consistent match for the Buckeyes. Furthermore, it goes without saying there are no other teams in the conference that can go toe-to-toe, year in and year out, with the Bucks.

    This is to the team's credit, and I wholly applaud Jim Tressel for the job he's done. However, the fans' hubris has occasionally gotten to the point of rivaling Notre Dame and Florida.

    Of course, maybe I have allowed two or three very vocal and unreasonable fans to cloud the pool. After all, I have also been privileged to dialogue with a number of very fair-minded Buck fans.

    Regardless, this has nothing to do with actual football.

    The season will be here in less than three days. Let's play some Big Ten football.