***Illinois (2-10 overall, 1-7 in the conference): Head coach Ron Zook turned some heads in a positive light this year on the recruiting trail, and now heads into the season trying to carry some of that momentum. With the team he has returning in his third season, Zook has a chance to win more games this fall than the four total he has won his first two seasons in Champaign.
Sophomore quarterback Juice Williams (1,489 yards, 9 TDs, 9 INTs) couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn last season, completing a shade over 39 percent of his passes. Even with those sketchy numbers, Williams rushed for 576 yards and showed glimpses of being a potential star. And now he has better players around him. Most of his receivers are back from last year, and freshman phenom Arrelious Benn joins the lineup. Junior running back Rashard Mendenhall (640 yards, 5 TDs) was a great recruiting catch a few years ago, and is ready to step in and be the team’s full-time runner. Offensive tackle Akim Millington anchors the offensive line. The key for this unit, don’t turn the ball over so frequently. The Illini gave it away 35 times last year.
After defensive coordinator Vince Okruch decided to take a temporary leave of absence from the team, Zook promoted Dan Disch and Curt Mallory to interim co-defensive coordinators. This side of the ball is the program’s most talented in quite some time, returning nine starters. Linebacker J. (yes one letter) Leman (159 tackles, 19 TFL) led the conference in tackles last season. Chris Norwell (42 tackles, 12.5 TFL) and Derek Walker (29 tackles, 8 TFL) lead the defensive line, and cornerback Vontae Davis (52 tackles, 6 pass breakups) is back in the secondary. Incoming freshmen Martez Wilson and D’Angelo McCray will certainly have a chance to impact the defense.
***Indiana (5-7 overall, 3-5 in the conference): There was plenty of reason to be excited about the direction of the Hoosiers’ football team for the first time in well over a decade, and then in an instant, football didn’t matter. A brain tumor took the life of energetic head coach Terry Hoeppner, and the team heads into the 2007 season with heavy hearts. Interim head coach Bill Lynch will try to pick up where Hoeppner left off, which was making Indiana football relevant again.
Quarterback Kellen Lewis (2,221 yards passing, 14 TDs, 7 INTs, 441 yards rushing 5 TDs) reminded Indiana fans of the Antwaan Randle El days. He should be even better this fall, and will still be asked to carry the offense with his arm and legs behind a very suspect offensive line. Receiver James Hardy (722 yards, 10 yards) is arguably the best in the conference, and running back Marcus Thigpen (387 yards rushing, 2 TDs, 3 TDs as a kick returner) is definitely a homerun threat.
Defensively, the Hoosiers are undersized in the trenches, and will have to gamble a lot to stay in games. Tracy Porter (59 tackles, 4 INTs) and Leslie Majors (32 tackles, 1 INT) give the Hoosiers a nice cornerback tandem. Defensive end Greg Brown (42 tackles, 5.5 TFL) and Jammie Kirlew (27 tackles, 5 TFL) will have to bring more pressure off the edge. Geno Johnson (52 tackles, 3.5 TFL) leads the linebacker unit.
***Iowa (6-7 overall, 2-6 in the conference): Last season’s struggles certainly caught the Iowa faithful and head coach Kirk Ferentz off guard. Expected to compete for a conference title, the Hawkeyes struggled to get any kind of consistency, and suffered a couple embarrassing losses. If the team doesn’t get back on track, the once heralded Ferentz could quickly find himself on the hotseat.
The offense will take a new identity this fall. Gone is three-year starting quarterback Drew Tate. He will be replaced by Jake Christensen (285 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs). Look for Ferentz to pound the football with the talented duo of Albert Young (779 yards, 7 TDs) and Damian Sims (664 yards, 6 TDs). Christensen has two reliable receivers in Andy Brodell (724 yards, 5 TDs) and Dominique Douglas (654 yards, 2 TDs). The offensive line is brand new. Only guard Seth Olsen and center Rafael Eubanks are the only two with real experience.
The strength of the defense is definitely across the defensive line. Defensive tackles Mitch King (56 tackles, 12 TFL) and Matt Kroul (59 tackles, 5.5 TFL) man the middle, with Bryan Mattison (59 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and a healthy Ken Iwebema (27 tackles, 3 sacks) coming off the edge. Linebacker Michael Klinkenborg (129 tackles, 5 TFL) led the team in stops last season. Charles Godfrey (83 tackles, 2 INTs) and Adam Shada (40 tackles, 3 INTs) are the team’s cornerbacks, while there is question marks at safety heading into the fall.
Without Michigan and Ohio State on the schedule, Iowa has a chance to bounce back this season in the wins column.
***Michigan (11-2 overall, 7-1 in the conference): One of the preseason favorites to win the National Championship, the Wolverines return an explosive offense led by two Heisman Trophy candidates and several other All-American candidates. The defense lost seven starters, but the team should be alright considering the amount of fire power head coach Lloyd Carr has. Plus, four of the five big games on the schedule, Notre Dame, Oregon, Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State are being played at the Big House.
Pick your poison defenses. Quarterback Chad Henne (2,508 yards 22 TDs, 8 INTs) and the receiving core led by Mario Manningham (703 yards, 9 TDs) could pick you apart. Or running back Michael Hart (1,562 yards, 14 TDs) and company could run the ball all day behind maybe the best left side of an offensive line in the country in guard Adam Kraus and tackle Jake Long. This team is capable of putting up big numbers every Saturday.
Last year, the Wolverines were the nation’s best team against the run. With this offense, maybe the defense won’t have to be as good and the team can still achieve its goal of a National Championship. Linebacker Shawn Crable (37 tackles, 10.5 TFL) is the only returner in the middle, and safety Jamar Adams (47 tackles, INT) and cornerback Morgan Trent (45 tackles, INT) are back to help the secondary overcome the loss of Leon Hall. The key to the defense is defensive tackle Terrance Taylor (23 tackles, 5 TFL) and how much chaos he can cause on every play.
The Ohio State game to end the regular season could have the same stakes this past season’s game had.
***Michigan State (4-8 overall, 1-7 in the conference): First-year head coach Mark Dantonio walks into quite a situation. He takes over a team deep in the tank, trying to find its identity. One of the best hires of this past off-season, Dantonio, a defensive-minded coach will try to establish a smash-mouth presence on both sides of the football. Expect an improved team that is a year or two away.
Gone is John L. Smith and his spread offense. Also gone is quarterback Drew Stanton and the top three receivers from last year’s team. Implemented is a grind-you-out type offense that running back Javon Ringer (497 yards, 1 TD) could be a real stud in. When Ringer’s number isn’t called, big 260-pound fullback Jehuu Caulcrick (426 yards, 6 TDs) is a real load to bring down. Quarterback Brian Hoyer (863 yards, 4 TDs, 3 INTs) is the likely guy to take over for Stanton, and it’s time for Terry Love (18 rec. 234 yards) to be the man at receiver. Offensive tackle Matt Gyetvai is back on the offensive line.
The Spartans should be tough to run the football against with safety Otis Wiley (94 tackles 6.5 for loss) and linebackers Kaleb Thornhill (68 tackles, 2.5 TFL) and SirDarean Adams (46 tackles, 6.5 TFL) flying around. Wiley’s 10 pass breakups also led the team. The defensive line in suspect coming into the year, so Dantonio, who likes to pressure the quarterback on a regular basis could be frustrated at times.
***Minnesota (6-7 overall, 3-5 in the conference): A brand new staff led by head coach Tim Brewster tries to elevate the Gophers from the mediocrity this team has been stuck in for several years. Brewster has certainly been passionate since being hired. Offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar brings with him a spread offense that can also run the football, and defensive coordinator Everett Withers will try to improve a defense that was one of the worst against the pass in the nation.
Junior Tony Mortensen and freshman Adam Weber enter fall camp competing for the starting quarterback job. They have big shoes to fill with Brian Capito gone. Whoever the new starter is, he will have a talented back to hand the ball off to in Amir Pinnix (1,272 yards, 10 TDs). Capito’s top two targets from last season are also gone, but Ernie Wheelwright (437 yards, 5 TDs) appears ready to take over being the primary receiver. Like receiver, there aren’t many proven players across the offensive line.
Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg (40 tackles, 10 sacks) leads a defensive line that hopes to do more pushing then getting pushed around this fall. There is a lot of new faces on this side of the ball, especially at linebacker, and that could be a good thing. Cornerback Dominic Jones (82 tackles, 2 INTs) is back to help improve a secondary that ranked last in the nation against the pass.