February 27, 2009

Mailbag: Big Ten has lots of work to do

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Big Ten football once was overpowering and intimidating. As recently as 2002, the Big Ten could make a claim as the dominant conference in college football.

That season, Ohio State won the national championship. Iowa and Michigan finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll. Penn State posted nine victories. The Big Ten went 5-2 in bowl games, including 2-1 against SEC teams.

Oh, how times change.

Think of former heavyweight champ Joe Louis, who won 69 of 72 fights in his career. But in 1951 Louis was pummeled and knocked out of the ring by Rocky Marciano, who afterward cried for having overwhelmed a once-proud champion. Big Ten football has been pummeled in bowl games lately and is on the ropes from a national perspective.

The Big Ten hasn't managed a winning record in bowls since 2003. In the past three seasons, Big Ten teams are 6-16 in bowls. This past season, the Big Ten went 1-6 in bowls. That beating was as bad as Louis against Marciano, except no one is crying for the Big Ten.

Well, no one but Big Ten fans, as we see in this week's mailbag.

Not so big

From Lou in Chicago: I am a Big Ten homer. This has been particularly taxing in recent seasons. Sadly, my only joy in football season comes from playing video games where I take Big Ten teams and turn them into back-to-back-to-back national champions. Given the embarrassing state of the conference recently and its most recent bowl performance, do you see any hope in the future for me finding joy in reality? I hate Michigan and Ohio State, but I would even settle for them returning some dignity to the conference. What is happening?

Lou, I've been to Chicago. Great city. I've got to believe there is something going on there to find joy in during football season even if Big Ten teams are tanking. But as they say, to each his own. If Big Ten football success makes you happy, who am I to judge?

And your pain is understandable. Sure, Penn State annihilated Oregon State last season, but other than that, the league's most impressive non-conference victory was Michigan State's 23-7 victory over Notre Dame.

And then there were the bowl results. Ouch.

But keep in mind that success is cyclical. Just a few seasons ago, everyone was blasting the Big East and questioning its status as a "Big Six" conference. Then, in 2006, Big East teams went 5-0 in bowls and the criticism softened. Early last season, the Pac-10 was ripped for getting jacked by the Mountain West. But the Pac-10 had the last laugh by going 5-0 in bowls.

It seems that the perception of a conference primarily is based on how its top teams fare. The source of much Big Ten criticism is Ohio State's issues in bowl games the past three seasons. But two of those losses were in the BCS national championship game and the other was last season against Texas, a top-five team.

With any luck, the view of the Big Ten might have been dramatically different. Had Oregon State, which beat USC, defeated Oregon in the regular-season finale last season, the Beavers would have been in the Rose Bowl against Penn State. The Nittany Lions had trampled the Beavers 45-14 earlier in the season and would have been favored in the rematch. Instead, Oregon won and Penn State faced USC, which was as good as any team in the country.

In addition, keep in mind that Ohio State was on the verge of upsetting Texas. But on the Longhorns' winning drive, a fourth-and-3 completion picked up the first down by an inch. That's how close the Buckeyes came to winning.

Keep in mind that fortunes can change quickly. Ohio State and Penn State are elite programs. I believe Michigan will resurface as a power under Rich Rodriguez. Michigan State, Minnesota and Iowa are getting better.

I wouldn't be surprised if Big Ten teams are posting non-conference and bowl victories in 2009 and not just in manipulated video games.

Hope in Baton Rouge?

From J.B. in Baton Rouge: With a stable quarterback and a great recruiting class, is there a chance that LSU could be on top again?

The recruiting class was indeed great, but saying the quarterback situation is stable is a big leap of faith I'm not prepared to make.

No question Jordan Jefferson played well in a 38-3 Chick-fil-A Bowl romp over Georgia Tech. But that was one game by a freshman.

Jefferson is a marvelous athlete and may develop into a terrific quarterback. But he completed 50 percent or fewer of his passes in two of the three games in which he played extensively.

Still, Jefferson shouldn't be the greatest concern for the Tigers in 2009 not with three returning starters in the offensive line and powerful Charles Scott returning at tailback.

Instead, my doubts are based on the Tigers' usually ferocious defense, which last season barely managed a snarl. LSU allowed an average of 24 points per game in '08. The Tigers gave up more than 30 points four times and more than 50 points twice. They dropped from third in the nation in total defense in '07 to 32nd in '08.

Last season, LSU probably missed former defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who left to be coach at Nebraska, more than All-America defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey.

The arrival of new coordinator John Chavis from Tennessee and seven returning starters should ensure that the defense is upgraded. But the SEC West will be treacherous. LSU will be a contender in the division along with Alabama and Ole Miss. But Florida probably repeats as SEC champion and national champion. LSU will be on top again, just not in 2009.

Options abound

From Kunal in Atlanta: Will Georgia Tech have more successful seasons under coach Paul Johnson?

Count on it.

In 12 years as a head coach, Johnson has had one losing season his first at Navy, which had managed just one victory combined in the two seasons before his arrival. Other than that 2002 season in Annapolis, Johnson's teams have posted at least eight victories each season, and that track record cannot be ignored.

It figured that Johnson might struggle in his first season at Tech. After all, 2007 leading rusher Tashard Choice was gone to the Dallas Cowboys and leading passer Taylor Bennett transferred to Louisiana Tech. The remaining players were recruited for a system much different than Johnson's run-oriented triple option flexbone.

But Georgia Tech ranked fourth in the nation in rushing offense and posted nine victories, and running back Jonathan Dwyer flourished in the system; he rushed for 1,395 yards.

Nine offensive starters and seven defensive starters return for '09, so expect the Wreck to ramble on. And in future years look for star running back prospects to be enamored with Georgia Tech, just as receivers and quarterbacks are with teams that have wide-open passing offenses.

That doesn't mean Georgia Tech will become the dominant team in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets under Johnson will be tough to beat, though. History says so.

Improvement in Tallahassee?

From Victor in Georgia: Do you think Florida State will be back in a BCS bowl this season?

I'm not optimistic. Though Florida State certainly made positive strides in '08, several more remain to be taken.

Quarterback Christian Ponder had a solid season, but he threw too many interceptions. Running back Antone Smith completed his eligibility. So did receiver Greg Carr. Defensive end Everette Brown was an early entry into the NFL draft.

Then Preston Parker got in trouble again and was dismissed from the team. And if that wasn't enough, wide receiver Taiwan Easterling ruptured his left Achilles' a couple of weeks ago and will miss spring football. Who knows how effective he'll be in the fall?

Issues like those don't inspire a lot of confidence.

Florida State will play good defense, and the offensive line showed improvement in '08. But there are too many doubts to project the Seminoles as a BCS-type team, especially with a rugged schedule awaiting.

Virginia Tech likely will be favored in the ACC, and it's doubtful the conference will send more than one team to a BCS bowl.

Defensive thinking

From Rahmod in Seaside, Calif.: Which team has the best linebackers in the Pac-10 heading into the 2009 season? And who is the fastest player in the Pac-10? Is it Oregon's Jamere Holland?

The easy answer on the linebackers issue is Oregon State. Keaton Kristick, Dwight Roberson and Keith Pankey return, and all posted between 43 and 82 tackles last season for a good defense.

Oregon will be solid, too, with the return of Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews.

But I'll go with USC. True, the Trojans return no starters. All three of the starters in 2008 Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Kaluka Maiava will be taken high in the 2009 NFL draft. Projected starters Chris Galippo, Michael Morgan and Malcolm Smith were all highly recruited prospects, and now it's their turn to show what they can do.

It reminds me of the '70s, when programs such as Oklahoma and USC would lose tremendous running backs, then replace them with tremendous running backs. It's the same principle.

As for the fastest player in the Pac-10, unless they all race, I don't know. Holland was a high school sprint champ. But so was California's Jahvid Best.

The bottom line is it doesn't necessarily matter if you're the fastest player in the conference. You just have to be faster than the guys chasing you.

Cardinal thoughts

From Michael in Palo Alto, Calif.: With eight returning offensive starters and an elite recruiting class, what can we expect from Stanford this fall and in the future?

Coach Jim Harbaugh deserves a round of applause. The Cardinal hadn't had a winning season since 2001 and were 1-11 in 2006 the year before he took over. Last season, Stanford was one victory away from bowl eligibility and three of its seven losses were by a touchdown or less.

Clearly, the Cardinal are getting better, and their recruiting class was ranked 20th in the nation.

The future looks much better than the past.

But quarterback play must improve for Stanford to end its seven-year streak of losing seasons. Tavita Pritchard was the picture of mediocrity in '08. If he doesn't show dramatic progress this spring, redshirt freshman Andrew Luck probably will take over the starting job.

The status of running back Toby Gerhart also is a major concern. He's a talented baseball player and could be a high selection in the MLB draft in June. What if he gets an offer he can't refuse?

If Gerhart does return, if quarterback play is more consistent and if there are no major injuries, the Cardinal can make a run at getting the requisite six victories for bowl eligibility.

At least they have a chance. That's more than could be said three years ago.

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