Pigskin season heats up in Big Ten, City LeagueWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue to benefit from avoiding Michigan, OSU
The Big Ten annually pats itself on the back this time of year with high football expectations on the national level as certified by preseason polls.
The conference then watches in dismay as its constituents go out and beat each other up, take a pounding in the polls and end up with a tattered reputation.
That same theme is underway this year but with more reason to expect the unexpected — the Big Ten to actually live up to its preseason accolades.
Three Big Ten teams — Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa — are mentioned among the Top 10 in just about every preseason poll, the most teams by any conference.
Defending conference co-champion Michigan leads the way, followed by Ohio State and co-champ Iowa, usually in that order.
The Wolverines also are picked to repeat as conference champion based on the return of most of their highly skilled athletes. The only exception is wide receiver Braylon Edwards, arguably the best receiver in the country last season, now with the Cleveland Browns.
Most college football purists already are attempting to decipher who will play defending national champion Southern California in the BCS championship game. Maybe it will be a Big Ten team hoping to give the conference its third national title in the last eight years.
Maybe it will be Purdue, the fourth Big Ten team to appear in everyone’s Top 25, checking in at about 16th overall.
But should the Boilermakers garner even a share of the Big Ten championship with a league-high 20 starters returning, there should be an asterisk, an investigation or a recount at the very least.
That’s because Toledoan Joe Tiller’s Thrillers don’t have to play Ohio State or Michigan, and the same goes for the 2006 season. After that, Iowa gets the same luxury.
‘’Some years the schedule rolls your way and some years it doesn’t,’’ Tiller said with a straight face. ‘’There are a lot of very good teams in the conference, so I don’t think you can make any assumptions about any teams.’’
Can a team win the Big Ten title without playing the Big Two? Keep the asterisk accessible.
With Michigan losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl, Iowa was the only Big Ten representative to finish in the AP Poll’s Top 10 last season, at No. 8.
The Big Ten had three teams finish in the Top 10 in 2003 and 2002, but none in 2001 and 2000. Five times during the ’90s, only one Big Ten team finished in the AP Poll’s Top 10.
Another reason the Big Ten is all big smiles is that it returns 28 all-conference players from last season, including 15 first-team honorees and 13 second-team selections. Ten of the Big Ten’s 11 teams return more than half of their starters from last season.
Included among the returnees are eight quarterbacks, a conference weak spot last season when only six returned. And only two returning starters will be seniors this season.
The top returning starters include Michigan’s Chad Henne, Iowa’s Drew Tate, Ohio State’s Troy Smith (or will it be Justin Zwick?) and Drew Stanton at Michigan State.
Following is a brief summary of each Big Ten team in predicted order of finish:
MICHIGAN: The Wolverines have young, game-breaking players at all skill positions, including Henne, who tied Elvis Grbac’s school record of 25 touchdown passes last season. Not bad for a freshman backup quarterback. Freshman tailback Mike Hart led the Big Ten in rushing and receiver-kick returner Steve Breaston, back from injuries, is a definite game-breaker
OHIO STATE: Oh, no. Not still another quarterback controversy. If the Buckeyes can get that situation sorted out, OSU can contend for a national championship. After all, the Buckeyes have Ted Ginn Jr. and no one else does. He will probably be the most exciting player in college football this season.
IOWA: Quarterback Drew Tate’s maneuverability and passing accuracy made up for a nonexistent running game because of multiple injuries. The Hawkeyes enter this season on an eight-game winning streak that won’t end until their fourth game of the season at Ohio State.
PURDUE: The fast-break-on-grass Boilermakers proved they can play defense, too, last season when they were fourth nationally in rushing touchdowns allowed. Sixteen of their last 17 losses have been by seven points or less. If they can win the close games, and without Ohio State and Michigan, this is a team to be reckoned with.
WISCONSIN: The Badgers won their first nine and then lost their last three last season when a stellar defense became a bunch of Stellas. Wanna bet the Badgers wish they weren’t opening at home against Bowling Green?
MICHIGAN STATE: Quarterback Stanton and a good corp of receivers can carry this team, but there have been a lot of player suspensions and the Spartans look a little out of sync at this juncture.
PENN STATE: Joe Paterno’s 40th season will see the Nittany Lions gain their second winning season in the last six years because of a good, young defense, but it will probably be Jo-Pa’s last harrah.
MINNESOTA: Laurence Maroney could be the best tailback in the Big Ten if he gets the blocking he needs from a somewhat revamped offensive line.
NORTHWESTERN: Quarterback Brett Basanez gives coach Randy Walker the confidence to say his seventh Wildcats team might be his best since 2000.
ILLINOIS: The Illini have a new coach in Ron Zook, who left Florida. Rebuilding will take time.
INDIANA: Like Walker, first- year coach Terry Hoeppner is from Miami of Ohio, where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gave him a lot of credibility. There are no Big Bens in Bloomington.
St. Francis expected to dominate
Football is king. It draws the largest crowds and remains the athletic director’s best friend due to the revenue it raises.
The Toledo City League’s dominating power has been the St. Francis Knights. Coach Dick Cromwell and his teams are always predictable but equally unbeatable.
The Knights’ graduation losses were minimal and it was expected that they would enter the season as heavy favorites. Their returning offensive and defensive lines are larger than many college teams’ and Cromwell always seems to find the necessary running backs to run his patented off-tackle offense. But coming off a very disappointing scrimmage with the Findlay Trojans, the Knights appear vulnerable.
Expect the Knights to recover from the Findlay thrashing and regroup once the season begins. They are a seasoned and talented group and Cromwell will have them ready. They do not beat themselves; they wear down opponents with size and strength. Come November, the Knights likely will reign supreme in the City League and own the top seed in the Division II state playoffs.
Picking a team most likely to challenge the Knights in the Toledo City League is not an easy task. Injuries, luck and competitive spirit will go a long way in determining who fills the shoes.
Traditionally, St. John’s Jesuit and Central Catholic have strong football programs, and both can be expected to continue the tradition. Central Catholic suffers significantly from graduation losses on offense but returns six quality starters on defense, including two of the league’s best linebackers in Lee Marquette and Ryan Brown.
If the defense can hold on until the offense develops, the Irish may find themselves in position to challenge the Knights. The schedule makers were kind, as the Irish do not face their toughest league games until the final three weeks of the season. Look for the Irish to be in a points’ battle for a state play-off berth.
The summer rumor was that Coach Doug“Crusher” Pearson was planning to defy nearly 40 years of rock ‘em, sock ‘em Titan football and actually insert some passing plays into the Titan playbook. This rumor has been confirmed, and the reports are the Titans looked impressive in a tri-scrimmage with Fremont Ross and Mansfield Senior.
As difficult as it is to imagine, Pearson said the forward pass is here to stay and offensive schemes with three and four wideouts will be a mainstay of the Titans’ attack.
Old-time coach John Braucher must be somewhere scratching his head in disbelief.
Because the change in the Titans’ offense is so radical, it is possible St. John’s could end up anywhere from first to worst. Although Pearson argues to the contrary, if the new offense does not gel in the first three games, expect the Titans to return to their old ways and, as a result, put together another 6-4 or 7-3 season and be in the thick of the playoff race.
If somehow the new offense works, who knows what the Titans might accomplish?
The public school most likely to challenge the big three coming into the season was Whitmer, but the Panthers have been hit heavily by injuries.
The most significant injury was to projected starting quarterback Nick Specht. Specht is a versatile athlete with excellent leadership skills and Coach Dan Fought was looking to him to replace his son, J.J., as the Panther QB. According to Fought, he is still counting on Specht.
If the quarterback situation is resolved, the Panthers will be a force. The combination of good coaching and large numbers allows Whitmer to reload every year. This year it returns quality players at nearly every position and benefit from a number of transfers and returning injured players.
Nevertheless, Specht remains the big question mark; if he is unable to play, the Panthers can be expected to struggle.
Nearly every observer of City League football considers the Start Spartans to be the most talented team in the league. It begins with one of the state’s best quarterbacks, Mike Berman, and goes on and on.
Offensively, there has been no better team in the area during the past several years. The Spartans have been able to score points in bunches but, unfortunately, they also have demonstrated a propensity to surrender points with even more frequency.
Coach Pat Gucciardo is confident he has cured his team’s defensive deficiencies and his Spartans will be serious contenders for the City League title and a playoff spot.
The surprise team of the year may be the Scott Bulldogs. Coach Jeff Davis has worked hard to put together a program at Scott and this could be the year the Bulldogs break through to challenge the rest of the league.
The Bulldogs were inconsistent last year but showed glimpses of greatness. With nearly 20 returning starters, the experience is there and if they can pull off some early upsets, who knows?
At first look it might appear this year is just more of the same, but the balance from top to bottom is much improved. Waite, Bowsher, Woodward and Rogers are all headed in the right direction and Clay is always tough. Even the Libbey program is beginning to show life.