Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Big questions for Big Ten

If the Big Ten fails to send a representative to the Rose Bowl this January, it will end a historic streak of 55 consecutive appearances. In order to keep the tradition alive, one of the teams must finish in the top two nationally.

Is the conference too tough, too loaded with talent for one team to endure the eight-game schedule without a blemish? Or is it too weak, without any school capable of putting together a championship run? A Purdue loss in Pasadena and Nebraska’s embarrassment of Northwestern in last year’s Alamo Bowl lead observers to lean toward the latter.

All this, of course, causes conference coaches to tell you there’s no foregone conclusion that the Big Ten won’t play in the Granddaddy of Them All. They tell you they’re even hungrier for a shot at the title. The Badger Herald tells you how they’ll stack up.

1. Michigan

Coach: Lloyd Carr

2000 Record: 9-3 (6-2 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: 13

Key Player: Larry Foote

Marquise Walker is the only Wolverine skill player that didn’t sign a big professional contract in the offseason. So why isn’t he feeling like he missed the boat? Perhaps it’s because he has a better chance than any of his former teammates to win a championship in the fall (that is, unless the Yankees call up Drew Henson for their postseason roster) — not to mention the prospect of his own future NFL salary.

The consistent ability to replace talent with talent has kept Michigan at the head of the class for years, and 2001 will be no different. Walker will step into David Terrell’s spot as go-to receiver, while an experienced Ronald Bellamy assumes the 6-foot-3 senior’s old second-fiddle position. With young-but-tested sophomores John Navarre and Chris Perry leading the offensive backfield, a horde of new starters up front should be coach Lloyd Carr’s only cause for concern offensively. That, however, will be a great concern in a stiff early test at Washington Sept. 8.

Nevertheless, the conference schedule does not present a challenge until November, and UM’s eight returning defensive starters, led by Larry Foote and Eric Brackins, will carry the team through the Big Ten.

2. Northwestern

Coach: Randy Walker

2000 Record: 8-4, (6-2 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: 17

Key player: Damien Anderson

Two years ago, Randy Walker told the Big Ten media he felt like “Johnny off the pickle boat.” After his team’s success last season and with most of his key players returning this year, Walker is now the boat’s captain.

But he is quick to dismiss the preseason buzz surrounding his team.

“I just remind our guys that the same experts who [previously] picked us last are the same experts that are picking us first,” Walker said.

Northwestern boasts arguably the best quarterback/receiver/running back trio in the conference, with the talents of Zak Kustok, Sam Simmons and Damien Anderson. Kustok tallied 2,389 yards passing last season, showing the conference why the adopting the spread offense is necessary. Anderson’s 2,063 rushing yards justified his all-American honors and fifth place finish in Heisman voting. To top it off, Simmons was last year’s top receiver, with 38 catches and five touchdowns.

On the other side of the ball, the picture is not as clear. Last year, the Wildcats were near the bottom of the conference in several defensive categories. They lost five starters from that defensive squad, so the inexperienced roster will be left to make necessary improvements. Adding to the odds against the defensive corps is the tragic loss of safety Rashidi Wheeler, who died on Aug. 3 after collapsing during conditioning drills.

3. Ohio State

Coach: Jim Tressel

2000 Record: 8-4 (5-3 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: 13

Key Player: Steve Bellisari

After coaching at the I-AA level for 15 years, former Youngstown State coach Jim Tressel inherits a Big Ten squad with a brutal schedule.

In his inaugural season, Tressel will have to take his team to UCLA, Indiana, Penn State, Minnesota and Michigan.

In order to find success at these venues, he’s going to need more production out of his senior quarterback, Steve Bellisari. The veteran quarterback threw for 2,319 yards last season, but completed only 52.6 percent of his passes and threw just 13 touchdowns.
Even if Bellisari improves, th

ere might still be kinks to work out downfield. OSU lost four of its top receivers last year. Now they are looking for sophomore Drew Carter and junior college transfer Chris Vance to step up and perform well in starting roles.

The Buckeyes will face the same struggles defensively. The defensive line returns just one starter in Mike Collins. The bright spot is at linebacker, where all three starters — Joe Cooper, Courtland Bullard and Matt Wilhelm — return. Cooper was a consensus all-Big Ten selection and third-team Associated Press all-American last season.

4. Michigan State

Coach: Bobby Williams

2000 Record: 5-6 (2-6 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: 14

Key Player: T.J. Duckett

After an encouraging Citrus Bowl win over Florida capped a 10-2 season and began the Bobby Williams era at Michigan State, expectations were dashed by an extraordinarily disappointing 5-6 record in 2000. But with a quarterback controversy already brewing between Jeff Smoker and Ryan Van Dyke and the addition of explosive sophomore receiver Charlie Rogers, who sat out his true-freshman season due to academic ineligibility, excitement is high. Throw in a little Heisman hype for bruising tailback T.J. Duckett, and East Lansing becomes almost riotous.

At 252 pounds, Duckett prefers to run into defenders rather than follow his blockers. He may have to do just that after crediting not his offensive line — a running back no-no — but the Spartan defense for contributing to his yards last season by getting the ball back.

MSU returns a corner and safety from a secondary that ranked first against the pass last year and three starters on a solid defensive line. Only the linebackers — with the exception of Josh Thornhill — are suspect.


5. Wisconsin

Last season: 9-4 (4-4 Big Ten)

Coach: Barry Alvarez

Returning Starters: 10

Key Player: Wendell Bryant

After key losses in the off-season depleted their roster, the Badgers are adopting a new game plan this season.

With Michael Bennett now playing on for the Vikings on Sundays and Broderick Williams out with a knee injury, the Badger team will be forced to turn its attention away from the running game that has been its bread and butter in the past.

Instead of relying on the run, Wisconsin will look downfield with their newly installed “spread offense” formation. With a duo of talented QBs in starter Brooks Bollinger and backup Jim Sorgi, and a stacked receiving corps, UW will be looking for the pass more than they have before.

Defensively, the Badgers are inexperienced as well. With Jamar Fletcher in the pros, the secondary needs to replace his position with a roster of young DBs, and the defensive line will be relying on the talents of Wendall Bryant to lead their inexperienced corps.

The Badgers will be in the process of a rebuilding year, but if they can adapt to their new positions early on, they could surprise teams.

6. Purdue

Last Season: 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Coach: Joe Tiller

Returning Starters: 17

Key player: Montrell Lowe

Since Joe Tiller came on board in 1997, Purdue has transformed into a winning program. But in each of those four seasons, Tiller was able to win behind Drew Brees’ passing arm.

With Brees in the NFL, Tiller must produce a winning season without an all-Big Ten quarterback. Right now, his choice is redshirt freshman Brandon Hance. After playing in just two games, going 5-9 for 40 yards and a touchdown, Hance doesn’t have a lot of experience to offer the Boilermaker offense.

He’ll have the help of tailback Montrell Lowe, who rushed for 998 yards on 226 carries.

The Boilermakers also have experience at the tight end position, where Tim Stratton is expected to be named to the all-Big Ten team for his third straight year.

While the offense will be a little shaky until the QB gets his feet wet, the defense should be solid from the beginning. Purdue brings back one of the best defenses in the conference. Returning players Akin Ayodele and Matt Mitrione will be among the leaders on the defensive side of the ball.

7. Illinois

Coach: Ron Turner

Last season: 5-6, (2-6 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: 13

Key Player: Kurt Kittner

The Fighting Illini used the off-season to cure their major ailment — defense.

After allowing a league-worst 232.5 rushing yards per game last season, Illinois fired defensive coordinator Tim Kish and replaced him with Mike Cassity. Cassity brings to the Illini’s table an aggressive style of defense that should increase their intensity. Cassity’s blitzing style mixes team defense with man-to-man coverage.

Offensively, the Fighting Illini are stable. With Heisman hopeful Kurt Kittner in the pocket, Illinois should be productive when they have possession of the ball. Kittner and the Illini offense struggled a bit last year when receiver Brandon Lloyd went out with a leg injury, but Kittner’s 1,982 yards and 18 touchdowns show promise for this season.

Think Turner doesn’t appreciate the efforts of his senior QB? Think again.

“Kurt Kittner is one of the best quarterbacks in the country,” Turner said.

To aid the passing game, tailbacks Rocky Harvey and Antoineo Harris will provide a ground game. Last season the two combined for 1,455 yards and 10 touchdowns.

8. Iowa

Coach: Kirk Ferentz

2000 Record: 3-9 (3-5 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: 16

Key Player: Ladell Betts

Ladell Betts is poised to become Iowa’s top career rusher — an impressive feat in its own right, considering the names who have carried the ball for the Hawkeyes just in the last five years. But Sedrick Shaw and Tavian Banks generally had the luxury of a winning margin with which to pad their yardage — something Betts has certainly not enjoyed during his three years in Iowa City.

He has also been just about the only one carrying the ball for Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes due to rather sparse recruiting classes. But two wins in the final three games apparently wrapped up some decent talent for years to come. Now, Coach Ferentz is concentrating on bettering the players he already has.

“Watching tapes from last year,” Ferentz said, “the guys weren’t physical. So we’ve taught them how to use their hands, their bodies. And I’m pleased with the results.”

Whether or not he approves of the results in December will depend on his seniors: Betts, quarterback Kyle McCann, wideout Kahlil Hill, and a veteran defense.

9. Indiana

Coach: Cam Cameron

2000 Record: 3-9 (2-6 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: 17

Key Player: Antwaan Randle El

What will Antwaan Randle El play? How often will Randle El play? Who will play quarterback? Will Randle El return kicks? As usual, too many questions surround Indiana’s football team before the season. Unfortunately, they are the wrong questions.

Randle El will play wide receiver and a little quarterback and return punts. He’ll play everything extremely well, defending his title as College Football’s Most Exciting Player. Maybe he’ll get a few votes for the Heisman, and the Hoosiers will score — a lot.

Those are certainties. Randle El has been the constant at IU for three years, while the defense has been a question mark. Cam Cameron will try to answer the question by giving opponents a few questions to ask instead — like, “Who are these guys?”

Enter a corps of junior college transfers, led by top DB Antonio Watson, Cameron’s gamble that recruits with college experience will have more of an impact than freshmen who need a few years to develop. Can Randle El play defense, too?

10. Minnesota

Last season: 6-6, (4-4 Big Ten)

Coach: Glen Mason

Returning Starters: 13

Key Player: Ron Johnson

Although head coach Glen Mason was denied the opening at Ohio State, he has the opportunity to make history at Minnesota. The Gophers are trying to qualify for their third-straight bowl game this season, something no other UM team has done.

In order for this quest to be successful, the Gopher defense must find a way to contribute. With the huge loss of Karon Riley, last year’s Big Ten sacks leader, Minnesota must revamp its defensive line. The other areas on defense will also lack experience after key losses in the linebackers and secondary.

On the other side of the ball, the offense is in good shape behind the talents of wide receiver Ron Johnson, running back Tellis Redman and quarterback Travis Cole. Johnson is one of the best receivers in the country, and his 2000 numbers (61 catches for 1,125 yards) speak for themselves. After trading snaps with sophomore quarterback Asad Abul-Khaliq last season, Cole is now considered the go-to quarterback after starting the last eight games of last year.

11. Penn State

Coach: Joe Paterno

2000 Record: 5-7 (4-4 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: 12

Key Player: Matt Senneca

Gone is the troubled Rashard Casey. Back (in classes) is the once-paralyzed Adam Taliaferro. Both would seem to be positives for a Nittany Lion team that will take any plusses it can get.

While the distraction of his assault allegations certainly contributed to the disastrous 2000 season, Casey’s graduation comes as somewhat of a mixed blessing. After all, the mobile quarterback added a playmaking dimension to the offense. His replacement, Matt Senneca, will need to play better as the starter than he has in relief, especially if the offensive line breaks down around him like it did to Casey last year.

Unusual for a Paterno-coached team, the defense is without any superb talent. The only real standout player on Penn State is the quick and powerful senior tailback Eric McCoo.

Paterno is two wins shy of setting a new record for I-A victories, but a difficult schedule featuring Miami, Virginia, and Southern Miss will spell disaster. He’ll pass Bear Bryant, but it’s a shame that Joe’s Nittany Lions will be so Pa-thetic.

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