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Thursday, December 11, 2003
The best and worst of the Big Ten

By Herb Gould
Special to ESPN.com

A final team-by-team look at the Big Ten.

Illinois
The Illini, just two years removed from an outright Big Ten title, couldn't slip any further. Injuries, youth and talent issues on both lines left Illinois with a humiliating 1-11 bellyflop. Ron Turner, who has three years left on his contract, is safe this year. But he'll be on the hot seat next year.

MVP: E.B. Halsey. The true freshman running back, who also is a gifted receiver and returner, had a fine rookie season and will be a key building block for Illinois as it tries to regroup.

Biggest Disappointment: The talent base was exposed in this feeble campaign. Illinois brought in some promising offensive skill players, but the deficiencies were apparent practically everywhere else.

What's Next: Illinois has a lot to do. A key will be shoring up both lines, and judging by the way Turner has praised the freshman offensive linemen who redshirted this fall, some of them could bump returnees out of jobs. The Illini also are high on freshman quarterback Brad Bower, who will compete for the starting job even if Jon Beutjer wins his NCAA appeal for another year and returns.

Indiana
The Hoosiers, who were about 20 players below the 85 scholarships they're allowed, were in over their head in the Big Ten, but that was expected in the rugged conference. The rebuilding will continue at a school that may have more obstacles to overcome than any team in the Big Ten.

MVP: BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He may have as many moves as names. In rushing for 98 yards per Big Ten game, third in the league, he gave IU a needed offensive spark. Best of all, he was a true freshman who has a very promising future.

Biggest Disappointment: Just how much work Indiana has to do was apparent in some of the games where it had a chance to get something done. The Hoosiers couldn't finish off Northwestern and lost in overtime, and they were overmatched against Penn State, which has its own problems.

What's Next: Upbeat and savvy Gerry DiNardo will continue trying to bring in and mold enough talent to give Indiana a chance against more opponents.

Iowa
The Hawkeyes are back. Kudos to Kirk Ferentz for reloading this year after losing many important players from last year's surprising Big Ten co-champions. A team that was expected to finish far down the list wound up in a New Year's Day bowl, the first time the Hawkeyes have ever played in back-to-back Jan. 1 bowls.

MVP: Robert Gallery. It's no wonder the left tackle is an All-America candidate. The only returnee on the offensive line, he was an anchor on an offense that entered the season with a lot of question marks, and left it knowing that it gave the Hawkeyes a chance to be successful in practically every game.

Biggest Disappointment: The Hawkeyes can second-guess some mistakes in their losses, especially the 20-10 loss at Michigan State on Sept. 27. But the disappointments were few and far between for these overachievers.

What's Next: After the Outback Bowl, Iowa will need to replace senior quarterback Nathan Chandler, a one-year starter; Gallery and some defenders, notably strong safety Bob Sanders.

Michigan
Other Big Ten schools may have had more imposing defenses, more explosive passing games, more punishing rushing attacks. But no one was as solid in all three. Mix in the resilience to bounce back from early setbacks at Oregon and Iowa, and it added up to the Wolverines' 41st conference championship.

MVP: Chris Perry. If he's our choice for the Big Ten's MVP, he still has the edge over quarterback John Navarre here.

Biggest Disappointment: Mistakes and some ineffectiveness by Navarre doomed the Wolverines in their surprising losses at Oregon and Iowa. Win one of those, and maybe the Wolverines are playing for the national title instead of trying to spoil USC's chances of winning one.

What's Next: Michigan-USC. The Rose Bowl has a dream matchup and the Wolverines have a chance to climb to No. 2 in the final polls with a win over the Trojans. Not bad considering the early stumbles of the Wolverines.

Michigan State
The Spartans again were full of surprises, but this year they were of the happy kind for wearers of the green and white. Expected to be a contender last year, MSU was a disaster area. Expected to be a tailender this year, the Spartans got off to a dazzling 7-1 start. Three straight November losses don't diminish the bright prospects for the program under new coach John L. Smith.

MVP: Jeff Smoker. If the Big Ten had a comeback player of the year, it would be Smoker, who returned from a substance-abuse problem that saw him leave the team in 2002. Smoker had a marvelous year as a passer, and is deserving of his second-team All-Big Ten accolades, behind Michigan's Navarre.

Biggest Disappointment: After rising to top-10 status in early November, the Spartans couldn't keep it going and lost to Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The 56-21 loss at Wisconsin was especially messy.

What's Next: After making an unexpected trip to the Alamo Bowl, the Spartans will need to find a new quarterback and improve their line play to continue to contend.

Minnesota
Their 9-3 record gave them their most wins in nearly 100 years. The season doesn't rank quite that high, but the Gophers made a strong statement by finishing strong this year after collapsing with an 0-4 November last year. It was not only their best season under Mason, who has Minnesota poised to make its fourth bowl trip in five years. The Gophers also proved they can be competitive with top teams.

MVP: QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq. Runners Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney deserve all the attention they are getting, Abdul-Khaliq set the tone for Minnesota's outstanding running game with run-pass threat. The fact that Barber-Maroney succeeded last year's duo of Jackson-Tapeh shows that the conditions were right for the runners. Give Abdul-Khaliq a lot of credit for the rushing success. And give him the Gophers' MVP award.

Biggest Disappointment: In their battle for the Floyd of Rosedale pig, the Gophers not only couldn't bring home the bacon. They made a rasher of mistakes in a 40-22 loss to Iowa. What's Next: After the Sun Bowl, its best bowl trip under Mason, Minnesota will have some key holes to fill for next season, notably Abdul-Khaliq and All-Big Ten tight end Ben Utecht. But the Gophers also will have enough returnees to keep it going.

Northwestern
After some early problems, Northwestern got in a good groove, winning four of its last five. That gave the Wildcats a 6-6 mark and earned them a surprise trip to the Motor City Bowl. NU combined an improved defense with a solid running game to finish strong and remove any doubts about the status of coach Randy Walker, who had been the subject of speculation he was on the hot seat.

MVP: RB Jason Wright. Despite a nagging ankle injury, Wright finished with a flourish. The senior tailback wound up fourth in Big Ten rushing with 95.9 yards a game. He had 1,151 yards on 246 carries, a 4.7-yard average. Wright, who had 19 rushing touchdowns and one receiving TD, led the Big Ten in scoring with 120 points.

Biggest Disappointment: The Wildcats started 0-3 at home in a trio of games that were winnable. A late meltdown left them with an empty feeling in a 22-21 loss to Air Force. The following week, they were virtual no-shows in a 44-14 loss to Miami of Ohio, where Walker coached before coming to Evanston. And against Minnesota, NU started strong, opening a double-digit lead, then went into a shell and lost 42-17.

What's Next: Trying to shut the rest of the world up. While some wonder how the 'Cats are in a bowl when teams a 10-win team like Northern Illinois or 9-win team like UConn isn't, Northwestern can prove it belongs with a win over dangerous Josh Harris and Bowling Green.

Ohio State
The season-ending loss at Michigan snuffed Ohio State's hopes of defending its national championship. But considering all the obstacles they faced, the Buckeyes had a very good year. A surprisingly high number of narrow victories called the overall strength of the team into question, but the defense and special teams did an excellent job of helping the Buckeyes survive despite a lackluster offense.

MVP: Will Allen. You can argue that there are better players on the Buckeyes' roster. But there's no questioning the three game-saving plays Allen made in early contests that easily could have been defeats without his heroics.

Biggest Disappointment: With sophomore running star Maurice Clarett ineligible and senior quarterback Craig Krenzel bothered by nagging injuries, the offense never was very effective. It did improve late in the year, but not enough to deal with the Wolverines.

What's Next: Trying to find a running game. While Lydell Ross is solid, he's not Maurice Clarett. And as much as OSU hates to admit it, if they have Clarett -- or any kind of consistent running game -- they would be doing better than the Fiesta Bowl.

Penn State
There's no way to sugar-coat the Nittany Lions' third losing campaign in four years. Penn State was not competitive in many of its losses, and the question of whether Joe Paterno, 76, should retire isn't going to go away easily. Paterno, who has earned the right to make his own call, said he'll be back barring an unforseen health issue.

MVP: Gino Capone. The senior middle linebacker held together a rebuilding defense, and finished fourth in the Big Ten with 10 tackles a game.

Biggest Disappointment: Penn State didn't look like Penn State. It not only wasn't talented enough to do better. It also made far too many mistakes, a departure from Paterno's past teams.

What's Next: If Paterno returns, and there's every reason to be believe he will, the Nittany Lions will have to use the experience that young players got this year in an effort to rebuild the shaky foundation of a storied program.

Purdue
The Boilermakers just couldn't ever quite get over the hump, but they had a fine season nonetheless. This veteran squad started sluggishly, losing its opener 27-26 to a Bowling Green squad that proved to be very strong. Their only other blemishes were a 31-3 thrashing at Michigan and a 16-13 overtime loss at Ohio State.

MVP: Shaun Phillips. The All-Big Ten senior defensive end led the big Ten in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (21.5) and was an explosive force on a stingy defensive unit.

Biggest Disappointment: Purdue had chances to knock off Ohio State, but didn't get it done because of some uncharacteristic miscues.

What's Next: After making their seventh bowl trip in seven seasons under Joe Tiller, the senior-laden Boilermakers face a big rebuilding job in 2004.

Wisconsin
Injuries played a role, but the Badgers had another mixed bag of a season. When they were good, they were very good. They ended Ohio State's 22-game winning streak and routed a good Michigan State team. When they weren't on their game, they were vulnerable, losing to UNLV and Northwestern.

MVP: Lee Evans. The redshirt senior wideout came back strong after missing the 2002 season with a major knee injury. The All-Big Ten receiver led the conference with 96.8 receiving yards a game and a caught a record five touchdown passes against Michigan State to re-establish his considerable pro credentials.

Biggest Disappointment: The 16-7 loss at Northwestern, an upset that changed the parameters of the Badgers' season, was a surprisingly listless performance. For sheer surprise, though, the 23-5 home loss to UNLV is harder to explain.

What's Next: After making their ninth bowl trip in Barry Alvarez's 14 years at Wisconsin, the Badgers will have some retooling to do for the 2004 season. Job One will be grooming a new quarterback. But there is a solid core of building blocks on both sides of the ball.

Herb Gould covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Sun-Times.