All square: Big Ten title up for grabs

Staff Reports

ILLINOIS

Last season: 5-6, ninth (tie) Big Ten

Key losses: OT Marques Sullivan, OG Ray Redziniak, TE Josh Whitman, CB Trayvon Waller

Key returning players: QB Kurt Kittner, RB Rocky Harvey, DE Fred Wakefield

X-factor: If its experienced playmakers can stay healthy, Illinois’ explosive offense could generate the big numbers it posted in 1999.

Outlook: The Fighting Illini turned their program around last season – thing is, they took a wrong turn.

After a Micronpc.com Bowl game victory in 1999, Illinois plummeted in 2000 amid high expectations. Barring another snake-bitten season, Illinois should improve on last year’s 5-6 mark.

The team returns all of last year’s skill-postition players on offense, including standout quarterback Kurt Kittner. The Illini also bring back 6-foot-7 defensive end Fred Wakefield, who finished with nine sacks and an interception last season.

Defensive end Terrell Washington and tackle Brandon Moore should help Wakefield on the front four, but a weak linebacking corps and a secondary in need of leadership could hurt a unit that was ninth in the Big Ten in overall defense and dead last against the run.

INDIANA

Last season: 3-8, ninth (tie) Big Ten

Key losses: None

Key returning players: QB/WR Antwaan Randle El, LB Justin Smith, RB Levron Williams, LB Devin Schaffer

X-factor: What of star quarterback Antwaan Randle El? He practiced with the wide receivers this spring while backup Tommy Jones took the majority of the snaps with the first-team offense.

Outlook: The Hoosiers’ season is one filled with question marks. Can Tommy Jones take over the quarterback role? Can Randle El boost the team’s inexperienced corps of receivers? Can the defense improve?

Last season the Hoosiers put up plenty of points – 51 against Minnesota, 42 against Cincinnati and 45 against Iowa – but couldn’t back them up with any defense.

Indiana brings back eight starters from an offense that averaged 30.6 points per game, including all five on the offensive line. The defense also returns eight starters and should get a boost in the secondary from junior college standout Antonio Watson. Otherwise, the Hoosiers will rely on linebacker Justin Smith for leadership.

IOWA

Last season: 3-9, eighth Big Ten

Key losses: WR Kevin Kasper, LB LeVar Woods, S Ryan Hansen, P Jason Baker

Key returning players: RB Ladell Betts, QB Kyle McCann

X-factor: Iowa has won a total of four games over the past two seasons. Whether or not the Hawkeyes use those forgettable campaigns as learning experiences could determine how well they perform this season for coach Kirk Ferentz.

Outlook: Iowa started seven true freshmen last season, and the inexperience showed.

But the Hawkeyes found a silver lining to their dismal 3-9 campaign last season – after all, for a while it looked like they wouldn’t win a game.

Ladell Betts, who topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark last season, returns to lead the offense. Also returning is quarterback Kyle McCann – one of three signal-callers Ferentz used last season – who showed promise in starting Iowa’s last four games.

Youth aside, the Hawkeyes are talking about a bowl berth this season. Is it so far-fetched? NU made the turnaround last season from 3-8 to 8-4.

MICHIGAN

Last season: 9-3, first (tie) Big Ten

Key losses: QB Drew Henson, RB Anthony Thomas, WR David Terrell, OT Steve Hutchinson, OG Jeff Backus

Key returning players: QB John Navarre, WR Marquise Walker, LB Larry Foote, LB Victor Hobson, DE Dan Rumishek

X-factor: Can coach Lloyd Carr replace the Big Three – Henson, a proven leader; Thomas, the school’s all-time leading rusher; and Terrell, one of the nation’s best receivers last season? Michigan’s defense has the burden of carrying the team this season.

Outlook: The Wolverines lost one of the top five quarterbacks in college football, a Heisman Trophy candidate and their claim to the title of preseason favorites to win the Big Ten when Drew Henson bolted for baseball. But Michigan’s situation isn’t nearly as bad as it seems.

Wolverines quarterback John Navarre is no slouch. When Henson broke his foot last season, Navarre filled in nicely, leading the Wolverines to a 2-1 record to start off the season. He finished the year with eight touchdowns and only one interception in 77 pass attempts.

If Michigan struggles next season, its troubles will likely come from other losses on offense. Star running back Anthony Thomas is gone, along with four starting offensive linemen. But perhaps the biggest loss is first-team All American David Terrell, who decided to go pro a year early.

MICHIGAN STATE

Last season: 5-6, ninth (tie) Big Ten

Key losses: CB Renaldo Hill

Key returning players: RB T.J. Duckett, QB Jeff Smoker, QB Ryan Van Dyke, LB Josh Thornhill

X-factor: The Spartans go into next season with Smoker and Van Dyke vying for the

No. 1 quarterback spot. Even though Smoker has the edge now, who knows in September?

Outlook: Michigan State endured an Illinois-like collapse last season, going from 10-2 and a Citrus Bowl victory in 1999 to rock bottom in the 2000 Big Ten standings.

To make matters worse, the Spartans open this season with a genuine quarterback controversy. Ryan Van Dyke and sophomore Jeff Smoker have been dueling it out this spring. Smoker has prevailed for now.

For the Spartans to become winners this season, they will have to rely on a defense that was the Big Ten’s best against the pass last season – especially given the conference’s sudden shift to wide-open passing offenses.

Michigan State will also lean on running back T.J. Duckett, a bruising work horse cut from the Ron Dayne mould. As a sophomore last season, Duckett rushed for 1,353 yards and seven touchdowns.

MINNESOTA

Last season: 6-6, fifth (tie) Big Ten

Key losses: C Ben Hamilton, DE Karon Riley, CB Willie Middlebrooks

Key returning players: RB Tellis RedMonday, QB Travis Cole, WR Ron Johnson

X-factor: Will the team respond to coach Glen Mason after he tried to get the Ohio State job?

Outlook: The Golden Gophers will look to their experience on offense to keep them in the Big Ten race this fall. Minnesota set a school record for offense last year (429 yards per game) and can look forward to the return of nine starters, including its quarterback tandem of Travis Cole and Asad Abdul-Khaliq.

On the receiving end, the Gophers offense will be in good hands with first team All-Big Ten selection Ron Johnson, who caught 11 touchdown passes last season. Running back Tellis Redmon accounted for more than 2,000 all-purpose yards last year.

Where the Gophers could fall flat on their faces is on defense. Only two starters return and no defensive assistant coaches are back. Minnesota may miss defensive end Karon Riley next season as much as any team will miss a departed star.

And Minnesota will have to wrestle with the question of coach Glen Mason’s allegiance
to the team. After a bowl win last season, Mason made himself available for the Ohio State job. When he didn’t get it he returned to Minnesota, but his bid to leave may have soured some players.

NORTHWESTERN

Last season: 8-4, first (tie) Big Ten

Key losses: DE Dwayne Missouri, WR Teddy Johnson, CB Harold BlackMonday, K Tim Long, DE Conrad Emmerich

Key returning players: QB Zak Kustok, RB Damien Anderson, LB Billy Silva, OT Leon Brockmeier, OT Jeff Roehl, LB Kevin Bentley, WR Sam Simmons

X-factor: If NU’s high-powered spread offense continues to baffle opposing defenses, the Cats’ experience makes them the favorites to win the conference.

Outlook: No longer can NU sneak up on the rest of the nation, and the predictions aren’t completely without merit. The Cats return 10 of 11 starters on offense, including Heisman candidate Damien Anderson at running back.

The defense remains a question mark at best. The linebacking trio of Kevin Bentley, Billy Silva and Napoleon Harris is one of the conference’s best, but the d-line will miss Dwayne Missouri’s presence and the secondary Harold Blackmon’s.

Even so, NU hasn’t washed out the bitter taste of Nebraska’s 66-17 stampede in the Alamo Bowl and comes into this season of high expectations focused and motivated.

OHIO STATE

Last season: 8-4, fourth Big Ten

Key losses: CB Nate Clements, WR Ken-yon Rambo, WR Reggie Germany

Key returning players: QB Steve Bellisari

X-factor: The Buckeyes offense won’t need to score too many points, but they will have to put something on the board to win.

Outlook: There’s a new sheriff in town, and he’s already predicting a win against Michigan.

But coach Jim Tressel may want to address a few problem spots before focusing his energy on Rivalry Week.

For starters, he needs to rebuild a mix-and-match offensive line and find replacements for talented wideouts Ken-Yon Rambo and Reggie Germany and running back Derek Combs.

But don’t cry for the Buckeyes – they’ll be just fine. Linebackers Joe Cooper, Matt Wilhelm and Courtland Bullard anchor a talented defense. And stud safety Mike Doss should pick up the slack in the secondary.

PENN STATE

Last season: 5-7, fifth (tie) Big Ten

Key losses: QB Rashard Casey

Key returning players: TB Larry Johnson, RB Eric McCoo, WR Eddie Drummond

X-factor: How do the Lions bounce back from a rare losing season?

Outlook: Things weren’t so happy in Happy Valley last season. The alarm bells went off when the Nittany Lions lost to visiting Toledo early in the season, and things went downhill from there.

It’s tough to count out Penn State, but this season’s team has plenty to prove and plenty of holes to fill before it can be considered a Big Ten contender.

Junior Matt Senneca looks to replace Rashard Casey at quarterback, but redshirt freshmen Zac Wasserman and Zack Mills have battled him throughout the spring.

Penn State returns a deep backfield, with talented runners Eric McCoo and Larry Johnson, but the team will have to address several weak links on the offensive line as well.

PURDUE

Last season: 8-4, first (tie) Big Ten

Key losses: QB Drew Brees

Key returning players: RB Montrell Lowe

X-factor: If the Boilermakers want to repeat last season’s run to the Rose Bowl without golden boy Drew Brees running the spread offense, they’ll have to rely on a staunch defense and an improved running game.

Outlook: Purdue, the team that brought the spread offense to the Big Ten, will rely on their defensive experience next season. The Boilermakers return 10 of 11 starters on defense and will have to defend the type of passing attacks that led to their success in recent years.

With Drew Brees gone to the NFL, Purdue will look to redshirt freshman Brandon Hance to fill the void. In two scrimmages this spring, Hance has thrown for more than 550 yards and 8 touchdowns.

Although Hance is supposed to be the starter this fall, highly-touted recruit Kyle Orton should challenge him for the position.

There won’t be any challenge for the starting running back position, with 1,000-yard rusher Montrell Lowe returning for his junior season.

WISCONSIN

Last season: 9-4, fifth (tie) Big Ten

Key losses: RB Michael Bennett, CB Jamar Fletcher, WR Chris Chambers

Key returning players: QB Brooks Bollinger, QB Jim Sorgi, DT Wendell Bryant

X-factor: Wisconsin abandoned its three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust philosophy and took a page out of Randy Walker’s playbook this spring, implementing a spread offense. Who knows how the Wisconsin offense will perform?

Outlook: Having lost Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne and speedster Michael Bennett the last two seasons, Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez opted to move away from the Badgers’ traditional run-oriented offense.

Quarterbacks Brooks Bollinger and Jim Sorgi will provide a healthy quarterback controversy. Sorgi has already fanned the flames this spring by giving Bollinger a run for the starting job.

There is plenty of uncertainty at the running back position as well. Sophomore Broderick Williams, the only one of Wisconsin’s backs that has taken a handoff in regular-season play, is Bennett’s likely successor.

On defense the Badgers feel they have found a replacement for star corner Jamar Fletcher in senior Mike Echols. The defensive line is also a strong suit with All-American candidate Wendell Bryant.