Friday, December 29, 2006

Embarrassment (Live, on national TV no less)

Purdue football means a lot to me. I simply love going to games, watching games, and the entire experience around it. It takes an awful lot for me to get upset and walk away from a game. The only two recent instances I can think of occurred during the 2003 Michigan game, when I didn't watch most of the second half, and last season's Notre Dame game, when I walked out disgusted at halftime. A bowl game is a rare occasion and even given our recent history, we have at least made the games exciting.

Friday night was an instance of leaving a game early.

For some reason CNN's coverage of the Saddam Hussein execution was more interesting. Hell, at one point I even switched it over to the Pacers-Pistons game. That's a feat because I love basketball, but I hate the NBA during the regular season. Had there been a quilting bee on the History Channel I think I would rather have watched that than this game.

This was an embarrassment. There is no excuse for us playing that poorly in a game that we had more than a month to prepare for. There was no sense of urgency, no passion, and no fire on either side of the ball. I have written about and defended this team for the entire season, and we go out and have our worst bowl performance in Purdue history. I am man enough to admit that I was wrong about this team in all aspects. The flashes we showed against Hawaii were just that, flashes. We are a toothless team that can only beat other toothless teams, and that became apparent tonight when we faced a mediocre team from the ACC and they flat out owned us. There's no getting around it; they owned us from beginning to end.

I don't even know where to begin. They let themselves be a one-dimensional team by running the ball 50 times. Of course, we let them do that to control the clock and let them own the time of possession. When they did have to pass, mostly on third down, receivers were wide open over the middle to get the first down. Hollenbach only had to manage the game and make a few key throws. He did just that and got two touchdowns. Maryland's offense was nothing special, and they controlled the tempo against our piss-poor defense. Yes, that's exactly what it is; piss-poor. They were piss-poor last year. They were piss-poor this year, and unless they magically transform into something new next year with nine players returning they will be piss-poor again.

Were dominated by an offense that statistically was the worst we had faced all season long. They ranked behind Northwestern, Michigan State, Ball State, Miami (OH) and even Indiana State. They held the ball for more than two thirds of the entire game. I don't care how bad our defense is or how one-dimensional our offense is, no team, lest of all one ranked in the 90's offensively, should hold the ball for more than 40 minutes against us. I will give credit to Maryland and their offense. They played the perfect game and we put up little resistance to it. When we needed a stop we could not get the defense off the field. Of course, that is to be expected, as in reality the defense didn't play any worse than they had all season.

On offense the situation was even worse. We have two quality running backs, both of whom moved the ball well when given the ball. We needed to control the clock against a team that did not have a good run defense. So what did we do? WE ABANDONED THE RUNNING GAME COMPLETELY!!!!! It's not like we gave up two touchdowns in the first quarter either. We never even tried to establish a running game. We had 13 rushes, at least three of which were 'rushes' that were sacks but had to technically be counted as rushes. That is 10 designed run plays against the situation I described above. The blame there lies solely on the coaching staff, and I will get more into that later.

Painter had a respectable game. He didn't set the world on fire, and his one interception was a tipped pass that can be attributed to the receiver. He ended up just 13 yards short of the single season passing record for Purdue, which he would easily have had if we held on to the ball for more than 20 minutes. This game isn't about records though, and I was highly disappointed in another aspect of his game. Once again, he seemed focused on two receivers or his back out of the backfield, and they were getting the ball and damn everything else. We have a deep threat in Lymon and a potential All-American tight end in Keller. Both did not get their first catch until the final seven minutes when we were doing nothing more than driving for a respect score. Bryant and Orton were the only receivers out there, and everyone else might as well have gone through the motions. I know the offense didn't have the ball much, but they didn't do a whole lot with it when they did have the ball.

There's not a whole lot to gripe about on special teams, but again, we would have needed the ball to do that. Chris Summers missed a field goal again, so that is nothing new. There weren't any miscues in the punting game, and the kickoff coverage was good on our two kickoffs. When it comes to special teams, we once again have to magically hope things get better for next year, but it's certainly not the only area of the team we're waiting for a magic wand to be waived over.

This latest disaster lies clearly with the coaching staff. It comes not from a lack of preparedness, but from a poor gameplan and refusing to adjust it to the situation at hand. We have a situation that dictates running the football to control the clock, with a quarterback that knows how to successfully run a rush-based offense after last season. So naturally, we don't even try to establish the running game, give the ball up, and keep our terrible defense on the field as much as possible. Again, we rant he ball 10 times in a game that dictated we should have run the ball 30-40 times. Until our coaching staff comes to realize this we will not accomplish anything as a team.

It is frustrating to see that we continue to stick to a certain gameplan on both sides of the ball when all factors indicate we should change. Even tonight there was not the traditional slow start. 21 points in the first half is certainly not unusual for us, and there should even be credit given to the defense for giving up just 3 points in the second half. Still, this was clearly poor execution and failure to adapt to the game as it flowed along. Yes we started a little slowly, but not as slowly as in some past bowl games. At least in this one we got a defensive stop first, and that is progress.

Still, it is way too little progress for this point in the season. I don't know if it is just tonight's game, or the course of a mediocre season finally catching up to me, but this could have been so much more. There is no reason we should get beat by a team like Maryland by 17 points. They just are not that good and their entire conference was a joke this year. On paper, this should have been us winning 24-7, not them.

So where do we go from here? In what should have been a springboard to next season we jumped off the springboard, Wile E. Coyote-style, and smacked directly into the wall in front of us. To add insult to injury, Minnesota came out and was slapping around Texas Tech before imploding late in the Insight Bowl. At least we're off the hook for the 2000 Outback Bowl now.

It's not a good night for the Big Ten at all. I am sure I will have more to write later, but I have a very sick feeling in the pit of my stomach now, and that's after not watching most of the fourth quarter.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Champs Sports Bowl Preview (With a shallow Big Ten Bowl preview)

I hope all the Boilermaker fans out there (and the Maryland fans who have stumbled across this blog) had a Merry Christmas and are enjoying the magical, non-productive week of work between Christmas and New Year’s. Is there anything better than a week of work that feels like a vacation? I always thought it made sense to work this week and enjoy it when most other people are off, and save the vacation time for later in the year when you can go somewhere instead of sitting at home in the cold weather.

Of course, some of you out there are going somewhere, and that is toward Orlando for the Champs Sports Bowl in two days. Please know that I am envious, but I dug myself a hole on this one by going to Hawaii instead of the bowl game. Still, it will be nice to actually sit and watch a game on TV this year, a luxury I only had for the Michigan State game from B-dubs in downtown Indy thanks to attending nine games, and being busy for the other three. It should be an exciting bowl game, and I am very much looking forward to ending 2006 on a high note and sending out our seniors with a much-needed bowl win.

Speaking of our seniors, I wanted to thank them for all they have done for Purdue football. Ours is not a senior class full of big names that have loads of accomplishments outside of Spencer, Otto, and Nwaneri, but it is a senior class built on leadership. Spencer, George Hall, and Al Royal were all contributors and leaders on a very young defense and will be missed. Otto and Nwaneri were simply class acts that will be tough to replace on the offensive line. The rest of the seniors may not have contributed much on the field, but exhibited class that was sorely needed after last year. What else can you say about a guy like Casey Welch, who hung around and hung around waiting for his shot that at time looked like it was never coming? When he finally did get his chance, he was true and ended up winning a game for us. His punting also went largely unnoticed, but it was good to see him perform in a limited role there and showed his heart by contributing in any way he could.

Personally, I want to thank Mike Otto for a career that has spanned more than his five years at Purdue. I began writing part time for the Kokomo Tribune in the spring of 1999, just after I finished my freshman year at Purdue. That following fall and winter I was asked to cover quite a few Maconaquah High School football and basketball games in which Mike was involved. In football it was obvious he was the best talent on a team that was never that great, as most every running play was run in his direction of the field. In basketball he was a key cog for three years on a team that ended up being ranked #1 in the class 3A poll for most of the 1999-2000 season. That team featured a front line that went 6’7", 6’7", 6’6" with Mike, and they finished 22-2, losing only to Kokomo late in the season and Pendleton Heights in the regional. I remember Mike had quite a few huge rivalry games in both football and basketball with future Purdue running back Brandon Jones while he was at county rival Peru. Covering both of them at the high school level and seeing them continue their careers at Purdue has been a privilege.

Thank you, football seniors of 2006, and thank you as well, Mike Otto, for being a joy to watch over the past several years.

In the mean time, we still have a bowl game to prepare for, as do six other big Ten teams. So it’s time to dust off the old predictions page and try and call the scores for all seven Big Ten bowl games. I know I have had shallow, off the cuff predictions already, but it is time to vacillate a bit and nail some scores to the picks.

Dec. 29 Insight Bowl, Phoenix, AZ. Texas Tech vs. Minnesota – It’s time to draw weird parallels from across the college sports world. This is the first bowl game to kick off involving a Big Ten team, since there wasn’t one available for the Motor City Bowl last night, which had a Big Ten tie-in. Allegedly, this bowl was high on Indiana had the Hoosiers been bowl eligible, but thanks to three straight losses to end the season, the Gophers are here. The Gophers started that skid in resounding fashion, beginning a streak of three straight wins that were needed to get here. Who are they playing but Texas Tech, whose basketball team is lead by Bobby Knight. How Ironic would it have been to have Indiana playing Texas Tech in a football bowl game, a long sought grail for the IU football program, the night after Indiana’s most famous basketball coach is going for a record breaking win at the school Indiana would be facing?

Or is Knight really going for the record tomorrow night? Three of his victories came at Indiana in losses that were later forfeited because of the use of an ineligible player. Two of them came in the 70’s against… Minnesota! The other came in 1996 against Purdue, when Luther Clay played less than a minute and never touched the ball in a loss to the Boilermakers. Not only did Purdue have to forfeit that win (a forfeit that Purdue does not recognize, along with the other wins that Clay appeared in that season and Purdue later had to forfeit), but it officially means that Bob Knight finished his career with a 21-20 edge of Gene Keady. So that means knight holds a slim edge of Keady, and will temporarily hold the record on a technicality.

Sorry for the diatribe there, but I am still a huge basketball fan at heart and felt compelled to say something about coach Knight, whom I respect greatly as a basketball coach who flat out gets results on the floor and graduates his players. The fact Texas Tech is in this game gave me the opportunity.

As for the game itself, I don’t expect much of a contest. Texas Tech loves to throw the ball. They may not do it quite as well as Hawaii, but they do it fairly well. Minnesota has struggled mightily to stop the forward pass this year. If the Minnesota offense from the IU game shows up this could be a fun shootout. If not, Texas Tech will roll.

PREDICTION: Texas Tech 45, Minnesota 28 – I’ll go with fun shout for this game. Unfortunately, only about 12 people will see it since it is on NFL Network. And I thought we were on a bunch of networks this year. Minnesota can add TBS (from the California game) and NFL Network to their long resume.

Dec. 29 Champs Sports Bowl, Orlando, FL. Purdue vs. Maryland – Boy it has been a fast few weeks since the end of the Hawaii game. I think that may actually be beneficial and break us out of our slump of slow starts in bowl games. That will be critical because this is the type of game will need a fast start. If we can get off to a fast start, there shouldn’t be any problems.

Both teams appeared to have mirror image seasons. We both had comfortable, but unexpectedly close wins over Division 1-AA teams. In Maryland’s case it was a 27-14 win over William and Mary. We both struggled to barely beat a bad team. In our case it was the Miami (OH) overtime win, while Maryland barely beat winless Florida International 14-10. They had their share of ugly losses (West Virginia 45-24, Boston College 38-16), and so did we (Iowa 47-17, Wisconsin 24-3).

What I like about the game is that they have an offense that hasn’t done much all season long and a defense that isn’t that great. When you see that they surrendered 45 points to West Virginia, the one good offense they faced, that is a good sign for us. I know we have moved the ball very well this year, only to have several empty drives because of turnovers and missed field goals, but we have still averaged almost 28 points a game. When you take away the very poorly played (offensively) Penn State and Wisconsin games, our average suddenly jumps to over 32 points per game. Those two games were poor performances against two very good defenses. Maryland defense isn’t nearly as scary.

Defensively we have gotten better as the season has gone on. If you take away the Hawaii game, we did a good job of forcing turnovers and at least keep teams from the end zone in most games as the season progressed. Maryland ranks 96th in total offense. That is statistically worse thane very single team we have faced this year, including Indiana State. They rank behind a Northwestern team that saw us have our best defensive outing of the season. People talk of them beating Florida State and Miami this year, becoming the first team to do so in 21 years, as if it was a great feat. Well, Florida State got worse as the season went on, and they beat Miami by a point thanks to two long TD passes, a terrible Miami offense, and the fact that Miami attended Bryan Pata’s funeral a few days earlier.

On paper I have a hard time seeing why Maryland is a favorite in this game. Yes, we haven’t beaten a team with a winning record all season, but it’s not our fault that every team we beat went on to have a terrible year. We can only play who is scheduled, and we accomplished exactly what we needed to do. The ACC wasn’t anything special this year, as evidenced by the fact that Wake Forest won the conference and they ranked behind even Maryland in total offense. We have a good offense and a bad, but improving defense going against a bad offense and a mediocre defense (ranked 89th overall). Putting who played whom aside, the statistics alone favor us.

If it is a close game, then I favor the Terps because of their experience. They are 6-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown this year, playing al seven of those games in a row. We are 3-1 in such games, proving that we either win comfortably or lose comfortably, but we’re getting better in close games.

PREDICTION: Purdue 38, Maryland 24 – We’re due for a fast start. I see us being comfortably ahead the whole game, and even getting Chris Summers a confidence building field goal heading into next year.

Dec. 30 Alamo Bowl, San Antonio, TX. Iowa vs. Texas – We really need to get a rule about getting conference records involved in bowl selections. Iowa finished 2-6 in a mediocre Big Ten, beating only Illinois and us while losing to Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, and Northwestern. Three losses can be understood since they are to teams currently ranked in the top five, but a team as good as Iowa shouldn’t lose the other three.

The Hawkeyes were fairly banged up all season long, and a long layoff before a bowl could get them healthy enough to return to form. Texas comes into this with a two game losing streak that saw them fall from potentially being in the national title game to not even winning their division in the Big 12.

Someone has to win this game after finishing on such a down note. Iowa could step back even further next if they lose this one, losing a decent senior class that underachieved mightily this year. Texas is a young team that will likely improve going into next season, and they still have plenty of players that won the national championship last year.

PREDICTION: Texas 31, Iowa 14 – Iowa simply had worse losses to finish the year. At least Kansas State and Texas A&M went to bowls. The Northwestern and Indiana losses were simply ugly.

Jan. 1 Outback Bowl, Tampa, FL. Penn State vs. Tennessee – This is the first of three Big Ten-SEC bowl games, as the conference generally like to brag about being the best conference in the country. I don’t know too much about Tennessee, except that they saved us from being the most disappointing team in the country last year. While we were a dark horse national title contender, they began the year with higher expectations than us and finished it with a 5-6 record.

Penn State’s defense is a solid one, but they, much like us, didn’t really beat anyone of note and lost to nearly every good team on its schedule. In the game for the Outback bowl against us, they won 12-0. Their other seven wins were unspectacular, and their four losses were to teams that went a combined 44-4 and all finished in the top 10. Penn State’s obvious weakness is its offense, with Tony Hunt being the key to stopping them.

Tennessee has had a solid season in the SEC, losing by a point to Florida, by four to LSU, and 17 to Arkansas. That’s certainly a solid year in a very tough conference. Still, they struggled against the likes of Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, and Air Force. This is an up and down team and Penn State has a great chance to win if they can work out the kinks offensively.

PREDICTION: Tennessee 17, Penn State 10 – This is the hardest bowl game to pick, mainly because I have no idea of how good Tennessee really is.

Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl, Orlando, FL. Wisconsin vs. Arkansas – One of these teams is highly overrated. Wisconsin lost the one game that really mattered on its schedule, while getting past Purdue and Penn State, it’s next two toughest opponents, without a lot of trouble. Arkansas had a good season and finished as the SEC runner-up, but I can’t respect any school where the mommies and daddies of players come whining to the head coach that their little boys didn’t get enough playing time even though they were the stars of the team. Seriously, in this ESPN article the incident is spelled out.

I am surprised that Mitch Mustain, Ben Cleveland, and Damian Williams can go to the bathroom by themselves. This is worse than Jeff George’s little tenure at Purdue with his mommy.

I like Wisconsin, and they will be a dangerously good team next year. I think Arkansas got hot and overachieved at the right time during the season, while Wisconsin took advantage of a weak schedule to gain confidence for next season. They have that confidence now, and they could get rolling in a hurry over the Razorbacks. John Stocco will also want to go out with a bang after a nice career with the Badgers.

PREDICTION: Wisconsin 27, Arkansas 21 – The Badgers have one of the best defenses in the nation and Arkansas’ little boys will probably go running to the sidelines crying for mommy when things start to not go their way. Go out and make the Big Ten proud, Wisconsin.

Jan. 1 Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA. Michigan vs. Southern Cal – What a great way to return to the traditional Big Ten-Pac Ten Rose bowl. In recent years the game hasn’t quite been the same with the rotation of the title game and the fact that Ohio State and USC have played for multiple titles, but this should be a great return to the game’s roots. USC has been suspect all year, and in my opinion they are the best team of a highly mediocre Pac-10.

Michigan has been good, but the rest of the Big Ten outside of Wisconsin and Ohio State has been average. Still, Michigan came the closest to beating Ohio State and pretty much destroyed everyone else on its schedule. They should be incredibly good next year, and they even get Ohio State at home.

The long layoff shouldn’t matter for either team, even though USC has played twice since Michigan’s last game. Michigan also has the added motivation of playing for at least a piece of the championship should Ohio State lose. I honestly like the Wolverines a lot this year, and they have been more consistently solid than any other team. Plus, what is not to like about this game? Both of these teams beat mighty Notre Dame and Brady Quinn badly, so that means they have to be the best two teams in the history of college football, right?

PREDICTION: Michigan 31, USC 21 – I really don’t like USC in this game. They got lucky way too many times this year and they are due to get waxed by a good team.

Jan. 8 BCS National title game, Glendale AZ. Florida vs. Ohio State – There are tons of predictions and analytical pieces out there for this game, as well as for every other bowl game. That’s why I have been probably as shallow as possible in writing about them. Honestly, I am not that excited for this national title game. To me it is a case of two teams that are always good playing for either an undisputed championship in Ohio State’s case, or disputed chaos in Florida’s case.

I don’t particularly like either team, since Ohio State may run one of the dirtiest programs in the country and Florida has been so good for so long they are boring. I would rather see Ohio State play Wisconsin because I think it would be a better game.

Ohio State has been #1 all year and they have twice beaten the #2 team during the season. No one else, outside of Boise State, could even finish undefeated. If the regular season matters at all, Ohio State has already proven themselves and it is ridiculous to have them play again. Some people are crying that Michigan should be here, but Ohio State already proved they were better and its not like we would get a third game if Michigan won this time around.

What I would love to see is a conference like the ACC or SEC that has a conference championship game have two really dominant teams in each division, for example, Florida State and Miami. Say both were obviously the best two teams in the country, and Miami won the regular season meeting, but Florida State wont he SCC title game. Would we get a third game in the National title game? What if it was Florida and LSU, or Oklahoma and Nebraska?
Still, this is what we have for a title game, and we have to deal with it.

PREDICTION: Ohio State 24, Florida 20 – It will be a closer game than you think, but to me Ohio State has been the best team all year and they were never seriously challenged. Even against Michigan they were comfortably ahead most of the game.

BCS game predictions: Speaking of shallow predictions, its time to do a quick pick of the other three BCS games, two of which look like snoozers.

Boise State 25, Oklahoma 23 – The kids have their shot, so why not call for the upset.
Louisville 42, Wake Forest 21 - Of course, Wake Forest has been written off all year.
LSU 38, Notre Dame 20 – I can’t think of a better way to end the college football season. It’s tradition to see Notre Dame lose a bowl game.

And with that, I am out of here until the end of the Champs Bowl. I may do a running diary of the game, but there will at least be a wrap-up afterwards. Everyone enjoy the game and BOILER UP!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

2007 Schedule Preview (Beware the ides of October)

As I said in my previous couple of entries, I am very nervous heading into next season. To me, there are more questions surrounding next season than there were coming into this season. Most of that stems from the fact that many of this year’s questions were never answered. I would like to say the defense was appreciably better at the end of the season, and it certainly showed signed against Wisconsin and Penn State. We still gave up a ton of yards against Indiana and Illinois. We also didn’t even come close to slowing down the best offense in the country in Hawaii, when the very next week an Oregon State team that is comparable in terms of talent, prestige, and recruiting ability came in and slowed them down enough to get the win.

Painter had a solid season, but turnovers were still a problem. We didn’t seem to fumble much, but some of the interceptions that Painter threw were downright awful throws. Still, with even a modest bowl performance Painter will go over 4,000 yards passing and break Drew Brees’ school and Big Ten single season passing record. Yes he had an extra game to do it (Brees played 13 games in 1998), but it is still an impressive record.

The kicking game will still be a question next year, where at the very least Summers will have to win the job again over Tim Daugherty. At least we have found a punter in Jared Armstrong. In an interesting note about special teams, we actually are currently ranked 3rd in the nation out of 119 teams in terms of kick return defense. We trail only Air Force and Ohio in this, giving up just 15 yards per kickoff return. When I think of that it makes sense because the biggest return we gave up came against Illinois when Summers had to make a tackle around the 45. People say he kicks it short when it comes down on the 20, but the coaches ask him to do that by design. If the returner is fielding a high kick at the 20 with the coverage there by the time he gets the ball, its easier to stop than if he had a 20 yard running head start from the goal line with the coverage set up. Considering we faced some very good returners in Miami (OH)’s Ryne Robinson and Indiana’s Marcus Thigpen and never gave up a big one that’s a good sign. Maybe we need to kickoff every defensive play.

Those are the biggest questions we faced this season, and most of them are still lingering going into next year. And next year our schedule take a major step up in weight class. Let’s face it: We blew it the last two years with the easy schedules we had. Now it is up to us to improve while playing tougher competition, and it begins right off the bat.

Sept. 1 at Toledo – This will be our first game against the Rockets since they began the Tiller Era with a 36-22 loss in 1997. We should get used to seeing them too because according to they are on the schedule for three of the next four years. The Rockets had a down season this year finishing only 5-7, but they were dangerous. They lost a 3OT game at Iowa State to start the season and beat Kansas at Toledo in two overtimes. They also went 9-3 with a bowl win in 2005 and they are almost always at the top of the MAC. There is the possibility we’ll get them on a downturn like we did Miami (OH) this year, but what are the chances?

I never like playing a MAC school at their place, and this is the first time we have done it in 10 years. This will be Toledo’s season next year, but at least they have another BCS home game with Iowa State coming to town. They also have to overcome the disappointment of finishing 5-7 last year when they were expected to contend for the MAC title.

Fortunately, we will go into next year with the tag of being ‘experienced,’ something we must be expected to pick up at Wal-Mart in the off-season. This year we fared very well on the road against teams we had superior talent against, going 3-0 against such teams that we were probably better than. We need to have an attitude of taking care of business in this one, and setting the tone early. Minnesota began 2006 with a 45-0 shutout at Kent State, and we need to have that type of dominating performance. This game is still very dangerous though, and I don’t like it to start things off. PREDICTION: Close win

Sept. 8 vs. Eastern Illinois – The Panthers boast a couple of head coaches in the NFL and qualified as one of 16 teams in the 1-AA playoffs this past season, losing to Illinois State in round 1 24-13.

I don’t care.

It’s the home opener and they are a 1-AA team. While they are a step up from Indiana State, they still got blasted by Illinois 42-17 this year. There’s no excuse, period, for losing to a 1-AA team unless you are another 1-AA team.

If we lose this game I am giving up my season tickets and not going to a game the rest of the year. PREDICTION: Resounding win

Sept. 15 vs. Central Michigan – Another dangerous MAC team, and the defending MAC champions. The Chips play both Indiana and us next year, and they have a real shot to win both games. Hopefully we will be 2-0 coming into the game, and we should be if we’re going to be as good as some expect. I like that this is not the first game, so it eliminates the first game letdown like we had against Bowling Green in 2003.

We have a major advantage in that his game is at home, but we’ve proven in the past we’re not invincible at home against non-Big ten, non-Notre Dames teams (see Bowling Green 2003, Wake Forest 2002). The Chips are punchy enough to come in and pull off the upset too.
This should be a great test for us before the schedule gets serious. The Toledo-Central Michigan combo is much stronger than the Ball State-Miami combo from this season, and I look forward to getting tested but still winning convincingly in a game like this one. Central Michigan has played some BCS teams like Indiana and Boston College tough of late, but they have yet to break through. If we take the game seriously, we should still win easily. PREDICTION: 7-10 point win

Sept. 22 at Minnesota – This is where the 2005 season started to go into the tank, and we need a win in this game in order to avoid the same thing in 2007. Still, this is a team we beat this season and they will be breaking in a quarterback that will be seeing his first Big Ten action. I like starting the Big Ten season, as we often do, against the Gophers, because it makes for a very winnable game.

This is everything you can ask for in a Big Ten road opener. It’s a decent team, but one we can still beat. They will have experience, but not an overwhelming amount. There isn’t a whole lot expected of them year in and year out, and 2007 looks to be the same. They finished this year on a strong note, but they face a daunting challenge in their bowl game. This will once again be out toughest challenge in an opening four game set, setting things up for our most difficult stretch of the season. The Metrodome is also not an overly daunting venue, and has been a place where we have had a lot of success lately. Along with Indiana and Michigan State, Minnesota has only beaten us once under Tiller, and we can generally consider them a win.

This will be a statement game to see if we haven’t fallen further back in the pack. It won’t prove we belong at the top, but it will certainly prove that we belong in the middle. This will be our easiest road game in the conference, and maybe the easiest road game on the schedule because of the challenge that Toledo is sure to bring. If there is going to be a modicum of success next year, this game is a must win again. PREDICTION: 7-10 point win.

Sept. 29 vs. Notre Dame – This needs to be a must win if we hope to continue being competitive against Notre Dame. The pundits are already predicting a top 15 ranking for the Irish next year, but they simply have to replace WAY too much offensively to merit that high of a ranking. With the talent they have coming in the Irish could be very good in a few years, but they still haven’t beaten a good team under Charlie Weis outside of Georgia Tech this year. Losing what they lose, they are bound to take a step back as the incoming starters take their lumps.

We get the Irish back at home, and I know we’ll be looking to erase the memories of the horrible 2005 game. Since Tiller became coach that is the only time we haven’t even been competitive against Notre Dame at home. Look for the atmosphere around this game to be huge, as we should be 4-0 again at the time and will feel the pressure of our first big home game in a few years. This is our first chance to truly make some national noise since the Fumble, and we can’t pass it up.

I am calling this one as the biggest game of the season. If we win it, we have a chance at a really good year and maybe an outside shot as a BCS bowl if things fall right. A loss means another trip to a mid-tier bowl. PREDICTION: close win

Oct. 6 vs. Ohio State – I can’t say too much about this game right now because of the ambiguity of the Buckeye offense next season. Right now they have four juniors who aren’t sure if they will return to campus. If all four go, our chances suddenly get a whole lot better. Their defense should return in tact, but they didn’t have to stop many good offenses this year. They will be better, but Michigan still scored plenty of points against them. It will be interesting to see what they do in the title game.

We have played Ohio State very well in Ross-Ade recently. So well that we own a pair of wins and a four point, final two minute loss in their last three trips. That’s more than many teams in the conference can say about their history. Of the big two, we have played the Buckeyes the best, and that gives us a real chance.

This is forecasting 10 months in advance though, and hundreds of things could change in the five games leading up to this one. If we come out of this game 6-0, or even 5-1 with the loss being to Notre Dame, we might seriously talk about a Big ten championship. No win against Ohio State is automatic though, and I don’t see us beating them until I am proven wrong. This is our best chance to get a win again the top of the league. PREDICTION: close loss

Oct. 13 at Michigan – this game is the day after my birthday, and no matter how good we end up being next year, I don’t see us winning this. Michigan has way too much coming back, especially if Mike Hart decides to return. We never play well at Michigan, and haven’t won there in 40 years. While we seem to match up favorably with Ohio State for some reason, we always seem to match up poorly with the Wolverines.

It will take an absolutely perfect game for us to win this one, and even then I don’t know if it will be enough. Our best-case scenario for winning the Big Ten is to win the other seven games, and hope Wisconsin gets a loss AND beats Michigan. Even then we would lose the tiebreaker head-to-head.

The offense will give us a puncher’s chance, but only if they are perfect. The defense will need to play out of its mind and get a few turnovers in order to keep hope of an upset alive. If we can get a lead early and hang on to it we might get this one. If we fall behind though, you can probably forget it. PREDICTION: 10-20 point loss

Oct. 20 vs. Iowa – I just don’t think Iowa is going to be that good next year, and this will be a necessary bounce back game at home after three straight brutally tough games. Not much will be expected of Iowa next year, and it will be a good year to get them at home as they attempt to rebuild. Again, we’re facing a new quarterback, our fourth in five weeks at this point, and we really need to take advantage of that with the veteran team we have.

This will be another game to prove we’re above the middle of the pack, and with the way the Hawkeyes finished this year I don’t see us dropping this game unless things fall apart. By this point we should know exactly what kind of team we have, and we’ll be through the meat of our schedule. There’s a decent chance we’ll be sitting at 6-1 as well, with the chance for a January bowl game if we can merely hold serve from this point on. When this is potentially our third-toughest home game, we need to win it. PREDICTION: 7-10 point win.

Oct. 27 vs. Northwestern – They will be better, as they closed 2006 very well, but we still should handle the Wildcats with ease if we’re any kind of a good team. This is the type of game that a good Purdue team at home will have no trouble winning, as I am not sure they will be better than Central Michigan next year. Only a letdown could give us trouble. If we had little trouble beating them this year, next year should be no different.

We need to keep the trend of winning the games we should. This is a game we should win. PREDICTION: 14-20 point win

Nov. 3 at Penn State – This is a very, very tough game late in the year, and we could still be in the hunt for the Big Ten title at this point. Penn State could also have a lot to play for, and that is why I am strongly considering this as my road trip next year. Of all the mega-venues we’ve played in, Penn State is the only one where we have walked away with a win in recent history. Penn State will be good, but not overly good and we can win this game.

Being so deep into a season of unknowns, this game is the hardest to call, but I am leaning toward a loss. Even if we are playing well at this point in the season we have a history of mental let downs on the road late in the season (see Michigan State 2000). If the Nittany Lions still have something to play for, we could be in serious trouble. They will need more offensive consistency though. PREDICTION: close loss

Nov. 10 vs. Michigan State – The short and sweet preview here. They will likely be the worst team in the conference next year as they will be breaking in a new coach and new players at several positions. Mark Dantonio is a defensive-minded coach, and getting them late in the year is worse than getting them early in the year. Still, they will likely be a very bad team next year, and the worst team we face at home outside of Eastern Illinois.

We also have not lost since 2001 in our final home game of the year, and I don’t see that happening in 2007 no matter how the season turns out. I fully expect next year’s seniors to leave Ross-Ade for the final five as the previous five groups have. PREDICTION: 14-20 point win

Nov. 17 at Indiana – And now we come to the Hoosiers. Kudos for the basketball team accomplishing what the football team couldn’t do, and that is beat Southern Illinois. What’s even more impressive is that it was probably a more difficult win for the basketball team to pull off.

We will get Indiana’s best shot in years next year, and we need to be ready. They could be primed for their first bowl in a long time, and they would love to get the bucket back for it. We should already be bowl eligible, with an outside chance of playing for a very nice payday coming into this game. The Big ten is going to be very mediocre next year behind the top two or three teams. With Indiana missing Michigan and Ohio State, they very well could have a whole lot to play for in this game if things go right. It would take an awful lot of breaks, but say they somehow split with Penn State and Wisconsin, while beating the rest of a conference that isn’t that good. That puts them at 6-1 in the conference coming into this game.

Now we all know that likely won’t happen and I am not saying it will. I am just saying that there’s a chance, however small, that it could. I fully expect Indiana to go to some bowl game next year, because if they can’t make it next year they never will. That would make for the best bucket game we have seen in some time, and certainly erase the memories of this year’s sloppy affair.

Still, it is our bucket, and they need to prove to me they can beat us and take it from us. They’ve lost five straight, and couldn’t even do it this year in a game where we had terrible quarterback play and they had the motivation of a rare bowl bid. It is ours until you take it from us. PREDICTION: close win.

So that is my call for next year at 9-3. It’s not an overwhelmingly good year, as it’s 5-3 in the Big Ten, but it would be a big step in the right direction. We need to get back to beating some good teams next year, and the schedule affords that. It has to be a priority to take at least one of the four games against Notre Dame, Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan. If we finish 8-4 while losing those four we have accomplished nothing and it will be exactly like this year.

NEXT UP: A look at the Terps and our bowl preview.

Monday, December 11, 2006

2007 Preview continued (Search your feelings you KNOW it be true!)

Thing are shaping up on the recruiting front for us, with a fairly decent JUCO defensive end potentially coming out way. Still, I don't often pay too much attention to recruiting, because we've had more success with the more lightly regarded guys than with higher profile recruits. When it comes to recruiting, Notre Dame's big name in Jimmy Clausen is more likely to turn out like Ron Pawlus than Joe Montana. Hopefully he'll be as good of a football player as Ron Jeremy.

In the mean time, I promised the second half of a look ahead to 2007, and I will not disappoint. 2007 marks the next schedule rotation in the Big Ten, so for all 11 teams they have to get ready to see someone they haven't seen in two years. We have five teams to look at, and a few other thoughts to get through before moving on.

Minnesota: The Gophers were very young this year and closed the season on a nice little winning streak to get into a bowl game. We also need to write them a big Christmas card for destroying Indiana and letting us finish off their invitation to stay at home for the holidays and watch basketball (which isn't even that great for them this year, even better!). The bad news is that the one position where you need leadership, quarterback, will be brand new for them starting next year. Tony Mortenson is their most experienced returning quarterback, and he has all of 34 passing attempts in his career with one touchdown against three picks. When it was the passing game that saved the Gophers late in the year, that's not a good sign.

There's the potential that Gary Russell will return for them on the ground much like we expect Kyle Ingraham back, but will Minnesota be able to get its ground game going again after being conspicuously absent this year. Amir Pinnix had a good year, but that was about it for them after the first few games against Kent State and Temple.

Minnesota has always been known to play a weak non-conference schedule, but bucked the trend this year by traveling to California to face the Golden Bears. They still have an open non-conference date as of right now, but they host Miami (OH) and North Dakota State before a strange road game at Florida Atlantic. Of all the teams in the Big Ten, Minnesota seems to be the only one who regularly schedules road games against non-BCS opponents. They have recently traveled to Kent State and Tulsa as an example. They get two of the easier road trips in the Big Ten with Northwestern and Indiana, but Michigan and Iowa are their other two road games. Not playing Penn State or Michigan State is neither good nor bad.

Look for Minnesota to be in the middle to bottom of the Big Ten again. It's never good to break in a new quarterback in a conference like ours, as almost every team seems to struggle.

Northwestern: For as bad as Northwestern's season was, they still almost made a bowl game. They lost to a 1-AA team and a WAC team, but were actually playing quite well at the end of the season to handle Iowa and Illinois. Had they held on against Michigan State and gotten on against Nevada or New Hampshire, the Cats would still be playing.

What's important is that a lot of young players got plenty of playing experience, and they could form the nucleus of a typical Northwestern team that has a down year or two, then breaks out to finish in the top three of the conference because they have played together for so long. The offense finally found a little bit of a punch at the end of last year, and they certainly were playing better at the start of the season than at the end of it. As I have said before, with the new 12 games schedule it's even easier to get to the six wins you need for a bowl bid. You schedule four winnable non-conference games, then hope you can pull of just two conference wins. It's so easy even IU can figure it out (oops!).

Northwestern appears to be doing just that, with their most difficult non-conference game coming at home against Nevada. They have a mid-season trip to play Eastern Michigan in Detroit that I am sure will break all Ford Field attendance records, while getting 1-AA Northeastern as a season opener and an academic bowl at Duke. I should make light of a Duke-Northwestern football game, because win or lose, those people will be our bosses very soon.

In the conference there isn't a real scary road trip other than Ohio State, as they go to Purdue, Michigan State, and Illinois. Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, and Indiana all come to Evanston. They certainly get a break in not playing Wisconsin and Penn State.

With a non-conference slate like they have and an improving team, look for Northwestern to get the six wins they need from somewhere to get to a bowl. The Wildcats always seem to be good for one big upset, and if they win their non-conference games and get that upset they only need a win over Indiana, Michigan State, Illinois, Minnesota, or Purdue just to get to a bowl.

Ohio State: They have the reigning Heisman trophy winner and they are the best team in the country right now. There's a strong chance that they will be the defending national champion next year. Simply put, 2006 has been very good to Ohio State (I refuse to call them THE Ohio State University, it's too pretentious). They also lead the Big Ten in rioting and general loutish behavior by fans. I guess they do take pride in being number 1.

Still, with many of the top players on the offense either graduating or likely headed to the NFL early, it will be next to impossible for them to run the table again next year. Yes, a team like Ohio State always has solid recruits ready to step in to the starting lineup. It still takes them time to gel though, and when they have to break in a brand new quarterback because they lose both their starter and number one backup something is bound to go wrong in at least one game. The top three receiving threats will also likely be gone, as well as the leading rusher should Pittman declare for the draft early. That's too much to replace and expect perfection for even a team like Ohio State.

Ohio State always lets in state teams come in and play at the 'shoe every few years, and 2007 is no different with Youngstown State, Akron, and Kent State all coming to take a beating and receive a check. Youngstown State even gets the distinction of losing to its former head coach. The only non-conference road game for the Buckeyes is a trip to Washington, which could be very interesting if they aren't quite ready and the Huskies continue to improve. Of course, we're waiting for the 2010 season in my house where the Buckeyes play both Purdue and Miami at home. Ohio State has to consider themselves lucky they dodge Indiana next year, as it means they won't have to hunt long and far for tickets for the game in Bloomington. They also miss Iowa. Road games at Purdue, Minnesota, Penn State, and Michigan are all pretty good tests, while the Big Ten home slate of Illinois, Northwestern, Michigan State, and Wisconsin is a joke aside from the Badgers.

The bottom line is this is still Ohio State. They very rarely have a bad year, and even with replacing so many key parts next season you can still expect at least 8-9 wins. Unless the rest of the Big ten significantly improves, I don't see them falling out of the top four.

Penn State: Penn State is a team that I think could be right back in the thick of the conference title chase next year. They always have a solid defense, and if the offense can get in gear they will have a solid team. They are almost the diametric opposite of Purdue in that the defense has to carry a questionable offense. Losing Tony Hunt will hurt, but they have some good receivers coming back and Anthony Morelli will have another year under his belt. They lose some talent on defense but they always reload.

They also have a factor that very few other teams have, and that is 100,000+ fans in the stands every Saturday. That's quite a significant advantage that I know is intimidating to anyone who comes in there short of Ohio State and Michigan, whoa re used to it. I am looking at making this game my Big Ten Road Trip of 2007 (Indiana doesn't count) because we have some friends who are Penn State fans, and I hear it is a wonderful experience all around.

Penn State will start 2007 with two wins already in the bank thanks to games against Florida International and at Temple. Pencil in a third win against Buffalo and you're left with only a visit from Notre Dame on the non-conference schedule. Aside from going to Michigan the Big Ten road schedule is Charmin soft in going to Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan State. Purdue, Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin provide a nice home slate. There is no Minnesota or Northwestern.

Looking at all that, it's hard to see Penn State missing a bowl game. I don't think they'll be quite there for the conference title, but they'll be in the running for a top four finish and a New Year's Day game. The real question is will Florida State continue to suck and allow JoePa to catch Bobby Bowden. Also, does JoePa get credit for the wins over Temple and Michigan State to end the season?

Wisconsin: Thank God we don't play the Badgers next season! Still, they will be one of four teams in the conference starting a new quarterback. The other three won't have the benefit of a 1500 rusher coming back to take the heat off like Tyler Donovan does in P.J. Hill. Donovan isn't exactly a stiff either, getting a start against Iowa late in the season and against Buffalo. That's two full games of experience, one against a Big Ten opponent, in which he did just fine. Only Michigan State's Brian Hoyer has that much experience of the new QB's next year.

The defense appears to be solid as well, and the most it gave up this year was 27 points to Michigan, who might just be the second best team in the country. Still, outside of that Michigan game the rest of the schedule was as lousy as the rest of the Big Ten was this year.

The non-conference schedule for the Badgers is very interesting next year. They have an open date, which will likely be filled with Sisters of the Poor and Blind or some equivalent. They have home games against The Citadel and Washington State, with the Cougars being an interesting test. The other non-conference game is a trip to UNLV for some hookers and gaming… I mean football.

In the conference the Badgers avoid us and Northwestern, which aren't great losses. They get Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan State at home, while traveling to Ohio State, Illinois, Penn State, and Minnesota. This should be one of the strongest teams in the conference, and the game against Michigan at the end of the year could have national title implications.

Having looked at everyone, here are my predictions for next year's big Ten standings, and whether a team will make a bowl game or not:

1. Michigan – Most definitely in a bowl, possibly in the title game.
2. Wisconsin – In a bowl, possibly in the BCS as they shouldn't get screwed again.
3. Ohio State – I am kind of shaky with this pick, but they always find a way here. Probably in a New Year's day bowl
4. Penn State – Could be in the top two when all is said and done because of the big games at home. Probably also in a New Year's day bowl.
5. Purdue – And I think this may be high for us. We should still get to a bowl at least, but don't be surprised if we don't We may just be the best of a bad rest of the league.
6. Indiana – I honestly looked at the screen for about 5 minutes talking myself into and against every team remaining. So I picked the Hoosiers. If they don't go to a bowl in 2007 they never will.
7. Northwestern – They'll get to a bowl, but that is about it.
8. Minnesota – The schedule is enough to get bowl eligible, but like every team below Penn State they have a major flaw
9. Iowa – They have a tough non-conference slate that will leave little room for error in the conference. It looks like a 5-7 rebuilding year.
10. Illinois – This will be different if they can hold on to the ball, but no bowl.
11. Michigan State – Look for everyone to tee off on t hem, as they are truly going to stink.

NEXT UP: A more in depth look at our schedule for 2007 with picks!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Filling the void

I admit that this is a difficult time of year to write, yet I still have the desire to. Not being in West Lafayette nor being directly connected to the program means that there isn’t a whole lot to fill the void between the regular season and the bowl game. After writing three entries a week for 13 weeks in a row I would like to say I have been driven mad by the change of pace, but with the holidays, getting back from the Hawaii trip, and the inevitable shift of my psyche from football to basketball mode I have been so caught up in everything I simply haven’t had the time I have wanted to devote to my writing. We still do have a season going on and I do recognize that there is plenty to comment on.

The first thing I wanted to comment on is rumors, specifically the rumor that was floated about Miami defensive coordinator randy Shannon heading up to West Lafayette. I admit when I first read this rumored I was surprised because it meant on of three things. It meant that either coach Tiller was retiring and Shannon was becoming the new head coach, Tiller was retiring and Brock Spack was taking over as head coach, therefore necessitating that Shannon would become the new defensive coordinator, or that Spack was gone at the end of the season to be replaced by Shannon.

It was a very intriguing rumor while it lasted, especially involving the unique circumstance of my marriage between Miami and Purdue. Normally both teams aren’t mentioned in the same circles, except in terms of being back-to-back national disappointments. Shannon was a big name too, too big of a name than Purdue is normally linked with. Still, it would have been huge news because I have long been envious of the defense that Miami has built in recent years. I made the comment earlier this year that if you combine Purdue’s offense with Miami’s defense you would have a national title contender against either teams’ schedule.

Miami gave up more than 21 points just twice in 12 games. One game was against Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The Cards have been known to score a point or two at home. The other was in a bit of a collapse against Georgia Tech. Even in that game it was a few mistakes from an otherwise disciplined unit that cost them the game. By comparison the Miami offense only got over 25 points three times: once against 1-AA Florida A&M, against winless Florida International, and against a 3-9 North Carolina team. Even a good defense will struggle when the offense can’t score.

When looking at us, we were the opposite. Take away the Penn State and even Wisconsin game in which a tired D gave up two late scores, our defense was horrid. We knew this and needed to simply outscore some pretty bad teams. We got a few big stops against Indiana, Minnesota, and Miami (OH) to preserve wins, but for the most part it was the offense bailing us out by rolling up more than 30 points. Only in the Michigan State game did we really win what could be called a defensive struggle, and that was owed as much to the ineptitude of the Spartans as our defense.

Can you imagine how our season would have gone differently with a Randy Shannon led defense against Iowa, Notre Dame, and Hawaii? How would Miami’s had gone differently if they had our offense clicking against the likes of Maryland, Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Virginia. We’ll get a glimpse of it in a few weeks when we play Maryland, but it is an intriguing thought that came to mind when the Shannon rumor was strong.

Of course, now that Shannon has signed on to be Miami’s next head coach we won’t get to find out how a Randy Shannon built defense would look at Purdue. We would still need the personnel to pull it off too, something we have been lacking the last few years because of injuries and youth. With a coach like Shannon you can bring in some good players. And please don’t make any cracks about Miami having thugs for players. With the arrests that Purdue has had in recent years we’ve been much worse than Miami. We just happen to have a lower profile, plus we can’t rap.

Which gets me looking forward to next season. I know we still have bowl games to play, but it is never too early to plan ahead to next year. So with that, I offer the briefest, most superficial look at every team in the Big Ten next year, starting with our own Boilermakers.

Purdue: The bad news is that we graduate two critical offensive linemen and an all-world talent in Anthony Spencer. The good news is that pretty much everyone else comes back. The offense should be unstoppable unless it stops itself, which happened several times this year. Assuming no one bolts to the NFL early and we can replace Nwaneri and Otto, we should be able to roll on anyone offensively.

Defensively, we need to fix the front seven or we can expect to have more no-name running backs and quarterbacks to have career days running the football against us. The secondary is really starting to come together, but when the front seven can’t get any push or stop the run, the secondary is naturally going to get torched. Will the possible return of Jason Werner and Torri Williams make much of a difference? Will our defensive tackles get some size and be able to stop the run better? Will we have another pas rushing option since Spencer is leaving? I haven’t seen us recruit an impact guy on defense that can play right away since Stu Schweigert and his posse. It is honestly looking like the defense will be a liability for the third straight year, only we’re now slanting more against being unable to stop the run as opposed to the pass.

On special teams it will be interesting to see how much Chris Summers improves with a year of experience. Yes, he has been bad, but he hasn’t cost us a game yet. It may be a competition between him and Tim Daugherty in the spring, but Chris does have a year of experience behind him. One of these two will emerge because we don’t really have many other options. Look for Summers to continue kicking off regardless, as the majority of his short kicks have been planned short kicks high in the air to the 20 to allow the coverage team to get there. We haven’t given up a big return all year, and he’s done a fine job there, an area where he hasn’t received a lot of credit. Remember fans, people rode Travis Dorsch for the better part of three years, and as a senior he damn near won the Groza award when he was our only real offensive weapon.

The schedule is brutal and makes me queasy just thinking about it. I do not like opening on the road at Toledo one bit, and the four game stretch of Notre dame, Ohio State, at Michigan, Iowa is ruthless. Still, if we’re going to take a step forward as a program I am saying right now we need to win three of those four games. We won’t get any respect unless we do. Central Michigan is no walk in the park as they just won the MAC. There will be no complaints of playing a weak schedule next year, as only Eastern Illinois appears to be a true pushover. Thank God there’s now Wisconsin on the schedule. If we want to gain any respect we must finish at least 9-3 against a difficult schedule, as I see the Michigan and Penn State road trips as being the only really hard games to win. We have matched up well against Ohio State at home in recent years and they lose quite a bit on offense, but it still won’t be easy.

Indiana: Next year is the make or break year for the Hoosiers. There are no excuses anymore since they get the break we had by losing Michigan and Ohio State, so it’s perfectly alright for them to play a weak schedule while we’re committing a capital offense if we do. They still have a slot to fill schedule-wise, but they have Indiana State, a trip to Akron, and Central Michigan listed as out of conference games. The Chips won’t be a pushover, but the other two need to be wins. Outside of Iowa and Wisconsin there are no scary road trips, and if they can ever really get a home field advantage Indiana could be decent.

The offense will improve as Kellen Lewis improves, as he is a gamer. Unlike Juice Williams he can actually hold on to the football when running with it and has a solid target to throw to in James Hardy if Hardy doesn’t go to the NFL or jail. I find it funny that their program is a shooting rocket, when it is Purdue that has had all the astronauts and rocket scientists. It must be the same shooting rocket associated with the North Korean nuclear program.

The key for Indiana will be much like ours: if they can improve their defense to actually stop someone when it matters. They have plenty of speed, but it needs to pay off with actually playmaking ability. An eight win season is possible for the Hoosiers, but they have to play nearly perfect football in order to get there. They haven’t exactly set a standard for that in losing four very winnable games in 2006. Their season will be a success if they make a bowl, which for the first time in years is a reachable goal.

Illinois: If the Illini can solve their turnover problems they could be the surprise team of 2007. They played Ohio State closer than anyone not named Michigan this year, and they have a ton of youth that will develop. The out of conference schedule is tough, but not overwhelmingly so with trips to Syracuse and St. Louis to play Missouri, and home games against Kent State and Western Illinois.

Juice Williams is very athletic and will battle Kellen lewis for the title of Michael Vick of the Big Ten. By Michael Vick of the Big Ten I mean a dynamic running quarterback who has the potential to break a big play, but the team overall still sucks. The first one to contract herpes wins the title (kidding!). Seriously though, if he can hold on to the football Illinois will be able to move against almost anyone. Losing a mercurial Purdue team and Michigan State from the schedule is not good, and gaining a Michigan team that may be the best in the country certainly doesn’t help matters.

Illinois’ defense wasn’t that bad this year, and they will be better. I think Illinois could be the surprise of the conference next year, or they just as easily could remain at the bottom of the standings. Again, the turnover story will be the key. Illinois will either be in a mid-level bowl or finish dead last.

Iowa: It may be time for the Hawkeyes to take a major step back in the Big Ten, as they didn’t finish the season strong at all and losing even a banged up Drew Tate will hurt. If the Hawkeyes make some noise against Texas in the Alamo bowl they could have a big year next year. If they get destroyed they may be at the bottom of the conference.

They have a non-conference schedule with some chest hair by playing Northern Illinois in Chicago and Western Michigan in Iowa City. Those are two of the better MAC teams and both are in bowl games this year. They also get Syracuse in Iowa City after needing double-OT to win this year and a tricky rivalry game at Iowa State. That leaves little margin for error in a Big ten where the vast majority of teams that aren’t already powers will get better. Iowa is one of the few teams that may get worse next year.

It could be a very long year in Iowa City as they have to go to Penn State, Purdue, and Wisconsin in the conference. At least there is no Ohio State or Michigan, as that is always a plus.
If Iowa is going to continue being Iowa they will scrap and claw to a 9-3 finish against a fairly tough slate. If they start next year like they finished this year, it could be Kirk Ferentz’ first losing season in Iowa City in a long time. Still, it is Iowa and they should at least finish 6-6 for a bowl game no matter what.

Michigan: If it doesn’t get hit by early departures to the NFL Michigan could very well be the pre-season #1 team next year. They started playing like the Michigan of old this year and I doubt they are going to use the one open date on the schedule to bring in someone like Florida or USC. Once again a game at the end of the season could decide half of the national title game, only this time it would be at Wisconsin instead of Ohio State.

The non-conference slate is unspectacular. The hardest game currently is a visit from a Notre Dame team that should take several steps back from an already over-inflated year. Eastern Michigan is consistently one of the worst teams in Division 1-A, but a visit from Oregon is interesting and could provide a challenge. The talent is certainly returning, assuming Mike Hart doesn't bolt to the NFL early. This team can dominate the Big Ten next year and the only teams that may challenge them are Wisconsin and Ohio State, who they finish the season with. Remember what Mike Hart did to Purdue as a freshman in 2004? He could be in for an even bigger day than the infamous Game after the Fumble.

Michigan will start the season in the top five and anyone who is going to knock them off next year needs to have a near perfect game. For their sakes they are lucky that they miss the 'shooting rocket' of a program in Indiana, and they miss Iowa as well. Anything less than the Big Ten championship is a failure.

Michigan State: It certainly looks like the Spartans will be the worst team in the Big Ten next year. They finished 2006 on about as down of a note as you can after the third quarter of the Notre Dame game, and they lose their highly overrated, more so than Brady Quinn, quarterback of the last four years. They will also be breaking in a new coach and several new players. The players that do come back aren't exactly that great. Along with Iowa, this is one of the teams that should actually be worse next year, and after a 4-8 season that isn't good.

Michigan State simply needs to blow everything up and start all over, and that is what the 2007 season will be for the Spartans. You can count on a win with a visit to Notre Dame, since they seem to have the uncanny ability to win in South Bend with regularity when no one else outside of USC can. The rest of the non-conference schedule is average with visits from Western Michigan, Pittsburgh, and UAB.

Traveling to Ohio State and Iowa aren't gifts, and the Spartans only miss Illinois and Minnesota out of conference. That doesn't help either. Simply put, the Spartans should be the worst team in the conference next year and should define the term rebuilding year.

NEXT UP: The second half of a look at next year, with predicted Big Ten Standings.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Bowl announcement (Oh you know I fear the Turtle, TURTLE POWER!)

My apologies for the lack of updates over the past few days. I had about half of an entry prepared last week but I never finished it, so I will save it for the lag between now and the bowl season. It is more about the season as a whole and how everything turned out for the Boilers. I also want to get in a quick look at next year’s schedule before the bowl game, as well as how things look for the conference as a whole going into next year.

It is bowl time, however, and that means we’re back playing in the postseason after a year’s absence. At least this time we’re not headed to El Paso. As much as I liked playing in the Sun bowl, three times in four years is enough, especially when two of those three games were very tough losses. This time we get the Terrapins of Maryland for the first time in school history, and I think we could not have asked for a better matchup.

Think about it things for a minute. If we had gone to the Insight bowl, not only would we have been unable to watch it on TV (It’s on the NFL network), we would have had to play a Texas Tech team and their pass-happy offense. Going to the Alamo Bowl would have likely meant getting destroyed by a Texas team that did win the National Championship last year. The Capitol One and Outback bowls feature Arkansas and Tennessee, two top-tier SEC teams from the toughest conference in the country. Someday soon we will need to play a team of that caliber (or Texas) and beat them in order to gain respect, but as anyone who has watched us this season knows, we are not ready.

Instead we get an offensively challenged Maryland team that may be the boost our young struggling defense needs. Yes the Terps are 8-4, but that’s in the ACC, perhaps the worst of the six major conferences this season. They have losses to West Virginia, Georgia Tech, Boston College, and Wake Forest. All four are very, very good teams, and much like us against Notre dame, Penn State, Hawaii, and Wisconsin, they couldn’t get the job done. An interesting note is that the Terps became the first team in 21 years to beat Miami and Florida State in the same season, but when both teams finish 6-6 that’s not a great accomplishment.

Instead of looking at Maryland’s loss, more attention should be paid to their eight wins. This is where things get a little dicey. If it ends up being a close game, I give the edge to Maryland as six of its eight wins, all in a row by the way, came by less than a touchdown. They also have wins over four bowl teams in Middle Tennessee State, Florida State, Miami, and Clemson. While they aren’t great bowl teams, and much of it may be the byproduct of eight bowl bids by the ACC thanks to a good non-conference schedule, which is still better than our measly one win over a bowl team.

Maryland seems to be the type of team that relies on its defense and gets just barely enough out of its offense to get the win. No respectable team should have a 14-10 win over Florida international, which finished 0-12. The Terps also struggled with 1-AA William and Mary. Perhaps their best win was 13-12 over Clemson, which is likely why we are playing Maryland instead of the Tigers.

Maryland’s largest scoring output of the season was only 28 points in a 28-26 win over Virginia. They rank 97th out of 119 teams in total yards by averaging 314.7 per game, otherwise known as a decent half by Hawaii’s standards. They pass for only 190.2 yards per game (88th nationally) and run for 124.5 yards per game (74th nationally). They are also only 81st in scoring at 21.7 per game. Offensively we have a huge advantage and numbers tell me that even with our defense, if we can score 35 we have a great shot at winning. Then again, that is the story of our entire season. We have managed to hold all but four opponents under 35 points, and still had enough to win one of those four (Indiana State, Notre Dame, Iowa, and Hawaii).

Defensively we should, should being the key word, be able to keep them at bay. Unfortunately we have had a habit of letting even the most pedestrian of offenses have a field day against us. We were able to keep Wisconsin and Penn State in check for the bulk of each game, but fatigue took its toll because the offense was unable to hold up its end of the deal. Outside of those two games, the only team we have held in check offensively was Northwestern. Miami, Ball State, Indiana State, Indiana, and Illinois all move the ball consistently against us, and were only undone by turnovers and one or two key stops.

I have said all along that this team was going to find one game in which everything came together. Unfortunately, I think that game already happened in Evanston. Maybe I am wrong and a month off will change things, with the extra practices allowing us a chance to gel that we did not have over the course of a 13 game season. I am not exactly encouraged when, outside of Hawaii and Wisconsin, we didn't exactly face a good offense, and both of those offenses bulked up on weaker schedules. If Miami of Ohio can go nuts on us, then Maryland certainly can.

Offensively, we will go as far as Painter can take us in the bowl game. With our past bowl history, that does not leave me with much confidence. Hopefully with the Hawaii game making for a shorter layoff between games the offense won't have the struggles it has had in recent bowl games. Hopefully Tiller won't have as relaxed of an attitude that he did going into the Hawaii game either. Hawaii easily could have been a win, but his timeout that allowed Hawaii to change its mind and kick a 52-yard field goal instead of punt changed the game. I am not sure how that really links with what I am talking about, but I wanted to hit on that point since I missed it in my last entry.

So where was I? Oh yes, our offense in bowl games. A major point of contention among our fan base has been our slow start in every bowl game since the 2000 Outback bowl. It is no coincidence that, including that Outback bowl, we are 1-5 in our last six bowl games. In all but that Outback bowl we fell behind by multiple scores in the first half, but came back to tie if not take the lead in every game. I honestly don't have a good feeling about our offense at the start of the game. Painter is still working on his game, but he is the best option we have and may be ready to make a leap next season. Both of our starting tackles are injured and may not play. Finally, until I see otherwise, I am going to expect our token slow start.

Still, this is our best possible matchup. If the offense is working like it did in the second half against Hawaii, we have the potential to roll in a bowl game like we haven't rolled since the first Alamo bowl against Oklahoma State. This is a good our, in fact our last chance, to have a bit of a signature win to make the 2006 season look that much better. After everything we have been through in the past two seasons, 9-5 with a bowl win won't be that bad of an ending. It certainly will make me feel better going into next season, and I feel like this is the type of game we can win going away without having to sweat out another close game. I'll have a more in depth preview when the game gets closer, but my knee-jerk prediction is Purdue 34, Maryland 24. It is the second straight game in which we play a school for the first time ever, and we begin this new series with a bang.

Meanwhile, we have six other bowl games as a conference. Here is the quick, paragraph-long preview of each one.

Insight Bowl – Minnesota vs. Texas Tech – Minnesota has trouble with the pass and Texas tech loves to throw the ball around almost as much as Hawaii. This has blowout potential all over it, although I give the Gophers credit for turning their season around and making it to a bowl. Minnesota showed it has a passing offense with the way it played the final three games, so this could turn into a shootout if Minnesota gets rolling. My pick: Texas Tech

Alamo Bowl – Iowa vs. Texas – I could have picked this game earlier in the season, but only as a dark horse national title game and not the Alamo bowl. Iowa has gone into the tank since they destroyed us, and I see no way of them hanging with Texas. Sure, the Longhorns lost two games late in the season, but Kansas State is returning to its former strengths and Texas A&M is a solid team. Iowa dropped games to Northwestern and Indiana. My pick: Texas

Outback Bowl – Penn State vs. Tennessee – This is a very interesting game because I am not fully convinced Tennessee is that good, and Penn State has a tremendous defense to go with an offense that has really struggled at times. I don't know how to call this one, except that with the inspiration of having JoePa on the sidelines again could be a huge boost for the Nittany Lions. Tennessee nearly lost to Air Force at home for crying out loud. At least Penn State's losses were to teams that finished a combined 44-4, with 3 of 4 losses coming to each other (Ohio State over Michigan, Michigan over Wisconsin, Michigan over Notre Dame). This could have been us, but our offense took the Penn State game off. My pick: Penn State

Capitol One Bowl – Wisconsin vs. Arkansas – People get on us about our weak schedule, but Wisconsin's schedule may have been even weaker. They took advantage of a very weak Big Ten to go to 11-1 and played four lay-up non-conference games. At least they were dominating and not seriously challenged in all 11 wins, but they are still one bad game against Michigan away from having an all-Big Ten title game. Hopefully we'll be able to warm up the stadium with a Big Ten win for them. My Pick: Wisconsin

Rose Bowl – Michigan vs. USC – I don't care what Michigan fans say. They had their chance against Ohio State and lost. Get over it. I actually like that they got left out of the title game, and we get to keep the traditional Big Ten-Pac 10 Rose Bowl. USC played way too many close games this year and ended up being the rare two-conference loss champion. California has to feel terrible about blowing the Arizona game now; otherwise they would be here instead of USC. The media is already jumping all over this as a preview of next year's title game, but let's worry about this year first. My pick: Michigan

National Championship game – Ohio State vs. Florida – Florida is a tough team from a very tough conference, and this will be the third time Ohio State will face the #2 ranked while being ranked #1. They truly are the best team in the country if they can win for the third time in such games. Personally, I think it would be interesting to see Ohio State play Boise State, since they are the only two undefeated teams left, but we very well can't give Boise State even a chance to be named the national champion. What if Florida blew out Ohio State and Boise State blew out Oklahoma in the Fiesta bowl? I don't think it will happen, but its fun to think about. My pick: Ohio State

I'll get to more of an in depth national and bowl preview later, but I just wanted to touch on a few things about the Big Ten before anything else. Look for my season review sometime later in the week.