August 16, 2007

Big Ten takes aim at favored Wolverines

RIVALS.COM BIG TEN PREVIEW:
Conference breakdown | Preseason All-Big First Team | Preseason All-Ten Second Team

Amateur comedians throughout the Big Ten have worn out a joke about Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr in recent years.

You know, the one about the inability to spell Lloyd without two 'L's.

Of course, the frustrated fans in Ann Arbor aren't amused by that line - or by the fact that the Wolverines have suffered at least two losses every year since the national championship season of 1997.

To make matters worse, lately those two 'L's have come against Ohio State and in a bowl game. The Buckeyes are 5-1 against the Wolverines the last six seasons, and Michigan has lost its last four postseason games.

However, Carr might get the last laugh. In most polls across the country, Michigan - which is coming off an 11-2 finish in 2006 - is generally regarded as the favorite in the Big Ten. Michigan could be a national championship contender this season.

"We're very excited about our team," Carr said. "We return a lot of people at our skill positions with a lot of experience. Our goals are going to be high."

The Wolverines' offense is stacked with quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart - considered the best in the Big Ten at their positions. Michigan also features an explosive set of receivers and an offensive line that has two All-America candidates in Jake Long and Adam Kraus.

Michigan also gets a favorable draw in the schedule with Penn State and Ohio State coming to Ann Arbor.

But the list of Michigan's positive attributes is missing a dominant defense - a hallmark of Big Ten championship teams. Last year the Wolverines gave up 74 points in their last two games - losses to Ohio State and to USC in the Rose Bowl. Following the season, they lost four outstanding defenders in the NFL Draft.

At least one observer with a Big Ten background feels those defensive issues could prove costly.

"I think Michigan's offense will probably be the most dynamic for obvious reasons," said ESPN analyst and former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit. "I really want to see where their defense is psychologically after the Ohio State and USC games. They lost the core of that defense, and I'm looking forward to see how those (new) players step up.

"It's an unproven defense at this point, and defense is vitally important to get the championship in the Big Ten."

The last five teams that topped the Big Ten standings ranked no lower than 23rd nationally in total defense. The last four ranked at least 12th.

That's a major reason why Herbstreit favors Penn State, which returns six defensive starters from last season's unit that ranked 15th in the country.

"If I were ranking them I would probably put Penn State as the team to beat," he said. "(Quarterback) Anthony Morelli has a year under his belt. They have a great group of receivers and a solid offensive line, so the offense should be good.

"(Defensive Coordinator) Tom Bradley always puts together a great defense for Penn State."

Morelli was inconsistent last year, but he encouraged Nittany Lions fans with his play in the 20-10 victory over Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. However, the Lions are going with a new starter at running back - which is a bit of a concern.

Wisconsin is coming off a 12-1 finish in coach Bret Bielema's first season, but the Badgers must replace quarterback John Stocco.

"Stocco was a great player that won a lot of games for us," Bielema said. "We depended on him to make good decisions and he definitely will be missed. The best thing going for us is that against Penn State Tyler Donovan was thrown into the game (when Stocco was injured) and he finished off that game.

"Then he won the first game he started in a hostile environment at Iowa, and closed the season with a win over Buffalo. We have a quarterback that is undefeated in two starts."

Iowa and Ohio State also have new quarterbacks. The Hawkeyes are boosted by the fact they don't have to play Michigan or Ohio State this year and they're generally being overlooked.

"We've done better traditionally flying low, and I think that's where we're at this year," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Todd Boeckman replaces Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith as Ohio State's quarterback, but the Buckeyes' defense again should be among the Big Ten's best. The first two months of OSU's schedule is also soft.

"I think Ohio State is kind of a forgotten team, but I think Ohio State starts the season 8-0 and will have the best defense in the Big Ten," Herbstreit said. "I think the defense was embarrassed by Florida in the national championship game and will have a chip on their shoulder. After the first eight games we'll find out how good they are."

Ohio State closes with three of its final four games against Penn State, Wisconsin and at Michigan. The Wolverines are determined to finish better than they have in recent years.

"That's something we stress every year," Carr said. "It's something that is certainly a goal. With the disappointments we've had, I think it will motivate all of us.

"Hopefully, we'll be better at the end of the season than we have been."

Then perhaps the amateur comedians will need new material.

RIVALS.COM BIG TEN PREVIEW:
Conference breakdown | Preseason All-Big First Team | Preseason All-Ten Second Team

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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