Reviewing my preseason Top 25 (things to watch)
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's always fun at this time of year to look back at preseason thoughts and predictions. In August, I outlined 25 items I wanted to see during the Big Ten season. Several of them came true, others didn't and some materialized in different ways.
Here's a look back at the list to see what worked out and what didn't.
|AP Photo/Carlos Osorio|
|Terrelle Pryor earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.|
1. Terrelle Pryor lead an offensive drive -- He might be a Tim Tebow-like weapon near the goal line, but I'm more interested in how the Ohio State freshman quarterback handles a real offensive series. Pryor's athleticism is undeniable, but it will be important to monitor his passing accuracy and the way he leads older teammates.
The verdict: We had plenty of opportunities to see Pryor lead drives after he was named Ohio State's starter in Week 4. Despite a few growing pains, Pryor held his own and displayed remarkable athleticism in winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. He also came up big in the clutch to lead Ohio State's game-winning touchdown drive Oct. 4 at Wisconsin.
2. Michigan's quarterbacks -- Rich Rodriguez has ushered in a new era in Ann Arbor and will turn to unproven players like Steven Threet, Nick Sheridan and possibly Justin Feagin to lead his spread offense. There will undoubtedly be growing pains, but if one of those three takes control, the Wolverines will surge.
The verdict: Oh, there were growing pains. Big ones. Threet and Sheridan struggled to fit into Rodriguez's system, and Michigan finished the season ranked 109th nationally in total offense. Feagin likely will move to slot receiver in 2009, and incoming freshmen Shavodrick Beaver and Tate Forcier will compete for the starting quarterback spot.
3. Jump Around at night -- Camp Randall Stadium is intimidating enough during daylight hours, but the electricity will reach new levels this fall with back-to-back night games against Ohio State and Penn State. The Badgers haven't lost at home under coach Bret Bielema, and they should have a tremendous home-field edge this fall.
The verdict: It was pretty cool to see Ohio State players jump in lockstep with the Wisconsin students on Oct. 4, but Camp Randall certainly lost its edge this fall. Wisconsin saw its home win streak fade against Ohio State and then suffered its worst home defeat since 1989 the next week against Penn State. Plus, the Badgers band was suspended from performing Oct. 4 after allegations of hazing surfaced.
4. The Spread HD -- Penn State's new offense remains somewhat of a mystery, but the Lions will try to utilize their many weapons at wide receiver, running back and quarterback. "Hopefully HD will stand for high def, highly diverse," quarterback Daryll Clark said, "and hopefully it doesn't turn out to be huge dud."
The verdict: HD definitely stood for highly diverse, or huge difference, as Penn State surged behind Clark, a stockpile of skill players and a veteran offensive line. Penn State led the Big Ten in scoring offense and ranked second in rushing offense.
5. Jim Tressel vs. Pete Carroll -- Two of the sport's elite coaches couldn't be more different in personality or style (can't exactly picture Carroll in a sweater vest), but they will match wits when Ohio State visits USC in Week 3.
The verdict: Everything about the game turned out to be a disappointment for Ohio State, and Tressel didn't have much of a chance to outcoach Carroll. USC's talent and athleticism overwhelmed a Beanie-less Buckeyes team, handing Ohio State another national embarrassment.
6. Little brother in the Big House -- The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry is growing, thanks to Mark Dantonio, but the Spartans need to win one of these games sooner or later. After six straight losses, Sparty heads to Ann Arbor on Oct. 25 determined to show they're nobody's little brother.
The verdict: The "little brother" tag is gone, at least for a year, after Michigan State rallied to beat Michigan and record its first win in the Big House since 1990. Despite a terrible call that gave Michigan a touchdown, Michigan State surged behind quarterback Brian Hoyer and All-American running back Javon Ringer.
7. New quarterbacks -- Three teams will start new quarterbacks this fall, and Iowa's situation under center is far from settled. Wisconsin needs Allan Evridge to effectively manage games, while a greater load will be placed on Penn State's Clark and Michigan's new signal callers.
The verdict: It was a mixed bag here, as Clark earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and Ricky Stanzi established himself as Iowa's quarterback of the future. On the flip side, quarterback play hurt Wisconsin during a four-game losing streak and prompted a switch from Evridge to Dustin Sherer. Michigan's quarterback situation was messy, and that's being kind.
8. Beanie vs. P.J. -- Forget about the spread offense when Wisconsin and Ohio State meet Oct. 4 in Madison. The Big Ten's rushing roots will be on display as Heisman contender Beanie Wells goes up against P.J. Hill and the Badgers.
The verdict: Both backs scored touchdowns, but Wells dominated with 168 rushing yards in Ohio State's 20-17 win. The 237-pound junior bullied his way into the end zone on a 33-yard scoring run and added a 54-yard burst in the third quarter. Hill split carries with John Clay and couldn't do much in Wisconsin's one-dimensional offense.
9. Juice in the pocket -- Juice Williams came on strong at the end of last season, and the Illinois quarterback continued to make strides in the spring and summer. He takes over an offense without Rashard Mendenhall and looks to pass more this fall.
The verdict: Williams started off very st
rong and set total offense records in three separate stadiums during the first half of the season. Illinois' big-play passing attack challenged opposing defenses, but Williams struggled with interceptions in the second half as Illinois dropped its final three games to miss a bowl.
10. Ferentz under fire -- Iowa's Kirk Ferentz still might be one of the league's top coaches, but he has to prove it this fall. With his reputation suffering on and off the field, Ferentz needs a strong season from a squad that has major questions on offense.
The verdict: The heat was rising on Ferentz after a 3-3 start, but Iowa turned the corner in the second half, got over its crunch-time woes and reached a New Year's Day bowl game. A potentially program-changing upset of Penn State gives Iowa and Ferentz some momentum heading into 2009.
11. Tiller's farewell tour -- Joe Tiller revolutionized offense in the country's premier cold-weather conference, and the Purdue coach should be celebrated as he goes through his final season. The regular-season finale against Indiana will surely be emotional for Tiller and the Boilers fans.
The verdict: Tiller's final game proved to be a fitting sendoff, as Purdue pounded Indiana 62-10. Unfortunately for Tiller, his offense didn't do much in the first 11 games and his final go-round left him with the most losses (8) in his Boilermakers tenure. Purdue missed the postseason for just the second time under Tiller.
|Mark Cowan/Icon SMI|
|Arrelious Benn led the Big Ten in receiving yards (1,055) this season.|
12. Arrelious Benn in the backfield -- The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year is fully healthy following shoulder surgery, and that means more touches this fall. Defensive coordinators will shudder at the thought of Juice Williams and Benn running the option in the same backfield.
The verdict: Benn wasn't in the backfield as much as I expected after watching Illinois during preseason practice, but the sophomore certainly made his mark as a receiver. He led the Big Ten in receiving yards (1,055) and ranked third in receptions (67), doing most of his damage in conference play.
13. Grande Dos -- That's the self-appointed nickname of Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson, who was named to the Butkus Award watch list despite no career starts in college. Wilson will get every opportunity this fall to show why he could be the next Simeon Rice.
The verdict: Wilson was more like grande cero for much of the season, though he still finished third on the team in tackles and added three sacks and two fumble recoveries. The hype machine might have been cranked up a little early here, but Wilson will certainly play a major role in the Illini defense down the line. He's expected to make a full recovery after getting stabbed outside a Champaign bar last Friday.
14. RichRod vs. Charlie Weis -- Both have been lauded as offensive innovators, though Weis' honeymoon ended when Notre Dame went 3-9 last year. Michigan is dealing with some eerily similar personnel losses, and Rodriguez's coaching ability will be tested when the Wolverines visit South Bend on Sept. 13.
The verdict: Wow, I really didn't think one would come to fruition, but Michigan's 3-9 record, its team records for futility and its offensive ineptitude certainly mirror what Notre Dame went through in 2007. Rodriguez will be in the spotlight in Year 2 as Michigan fans demand more.
15. Brian Hoyer in crunch time -- The Michigan State quarterback has taken heat for his fourth-quarter shortcomings, but he'll have plenty of chances to redeem himself this fall. Hoyer's poise under pressure will largely determine whether the Spartans back up their preseason hype.
The verdict: Hoyer led Michigan to a 9-3 record and a New Year's Day bowl appearance, and he made big throws at critical times. Though his overall statistics weren't impressive and he struggled against the Big Ten's top two teams (Ohio State and Penn State), Hoyer managed the game well and played intelligent football for much of the season.
16. Stephfon Green in the open field -- The Penn State running back enters the fall with tons of hype despite never playing a collegiate game. If the reports prove true, Green will torch defenses if he gets any room to run.
The verdict: Green showed flashes of his track-star speed and rushed for 521 yards and four touchdowns, but teammate Evan Royster stole the spotlight at running back. Royster proved to be just as dynamic as Green, averaging 6.5 yards a carry, and has the between-the-tackles comfort that featured backs need in the Big Ten.
17. The renovated Memorial Stadium -- Illinois is bringing in so many great players for its reopening of Memorial Stadium on Sept. 6 that I expect Red Grange to miraculously turn up. The 1923 relic has been spruced up big time, and it should give coach Ron Zook another recruiting tool.
The verdict: The renovations were impressive, especially the new press box, but the on-field product was not. Illinois is certainly enhancing the profile of its program, but going from the Rose Bowl to no bowl at all must be viewed as a step back.
18. Lewis and the no-huddle -- Indiana coaches had Kellen Lewis in mind when they installed the no-huddle offense in the offseason. Lewis got a late start with the system after being suspended for spring ball, but the junior quarterback should catch up fast.
The verdict: The no-huddle seemed guaranteed to succeed at Indiana, but injuries to Lewis and the general ineffectiveness on offense led to sobering results. Lewis never really got on track this fall and split snaps with Ben Chappell, who led Indiana to its only Big Ten victory.
19. Painter's pursuit -- Purdue senior quarterback Curtis Painter is on pace to set a bevy of Big Ten career passing records this fall. The underrated Painter has a new group of receivers to work with but consistently puts up big numbers.
The verdict: Much like Tiller, Painter didn't finish his Purdue career on a high note, though he does leave the school with several records. Painter ranked second in the league in passing (240 ypg) but threw only two more touchdowns (13) than interceptions (11). Receivers Greg Orton and Desmond Tardy emerged down the stretch, but Painter missed tight end Dustin Keller and Dorien Bryant.
20. Gilreath on the move -- Wisconsin sophomore David Gilreath is quickly deve
loping into the league's most dangerous return man. He might not merit the Devin Hester treatment quite yet, but expect Gilreath to break some electrifying runs this fall.
The verdict: Gilreath finished third in the Big Ten in all-purpose yards (145.3) and will enter 2009 as one of the league's most versatile players. He likely will see an enhanced role as a ball carrier after some big games down the stretch. Though Gilreath didn't surge as a return man, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors as a wide receiver.
21. Mike Hankwitz's impact -- Northwestern hasn't fielded a decent defense since adopting the spread offense in 2000. Hankwitz, the league's most experienced coordinator, steps in this fall and tries to change the script in Evanston.
The verdict: Northwestern's hiring of Hankwitz proved to be the Big Ten's top offseason coaching move. Hankwitz transformed a perennially poor Wildcats defense into one of the league's top units. Northwestern led the Big Ten in sacks and allowed 17 points or fewer in seven of the team's nine victories.
22. Michigan Stadium makeover -- The team on the field isn't the only thing getting overhauled in Ann Arbor this season. Fans will enter a construction site every Saturday at Michigan Stadium, setting up an unusual game day experience.
The verdict: The stadium project definitely looks impressive and should be a sight to see when completed. Michigan fans should be more concerned about the team calling the Big House home after a 3-9 season.
23. Ringer returning kickoffs -- Michigan State star running back Javon Ringer will showcase his speed on kickoff returns this fall. How long the arrangement lasts isn't known -- I'm not sure how wise it is to put your best player on such a dangerous play -- but Ringer is sure to produce a highlight or two.
The verdict: Ringer started on kickoffs before Michigan State wisely went with freshman Glenn Winston, who averaged 22.8 yards on 16 runbacks. The Spartans coaches still made sure Ringer got plenty of work, as the senior led the nation with 370 carries, 32 more than any other FBS back.
24. Minnesota's JUCOs -- Gophers coach Tim Brewster needed some immediate help on defense and got it with junior-college transfers like Tramaine Brock, Traye Simmons, Cedric McKinley and Rex Sharpe. How quickly those players blend in will determine whether Minnesota makes a jump this fall.
The verdict: Simmons and Brock made an immediate impact as starters in the secondary, with Simmons earning second-team All-Big honors after recording four interceptions. Brock ranked third on the team in tackles (68) and forced three fumbles, while McKinley and Sharpe played minor roles. Linebacker Simoni Lawrence finished second on the team in tackles for loss (9.5), and Brewster effectively blended the jucos with the returning players.
25. Finch on the field -- Indiana's Jerimy Finch has been cleared to play this fall, and the Florida transfer gives a big boost to the secondary. Considered arguably the nation's top safety coming out of high school, Finch will make his presence known right away.
The verdict: A Hoosiers secondary depleted by injuries gave Finch an opportunity to play, but he saw the field sparingly, appearing in only five games. Finch made his mark on special teams with two blocked kicks and four punt returns, but he was a nonfactor on defense.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
12:00 PM ET Iowa Pittsburgh 12:00 PM ET Eastern Michigan 11 Michigan State 12:00 PM ET Western Illinois Northwestern 12:00 PM ET Southern Illinois Purdue 12:00 PM ET Bowling Green 19 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET Maryland Syracuse 3:30 PM ET Utah Michigan 3:30 PM ET Rutgers Navy 4:00 PM ET Massachusetts Penn State 4:00 PM ET San Jose State Minnesota 4:00 PM ET Texas State Illinois 4:00 PM ET Indiana 18 Missouri 8:00 PM ET Miami (FL) 24 Nebraska