March 15, 2009

Which Big Ten position battle is most interesting?

At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the coverage staff for his opinion about a current topic in the sport.

This week's question: Everyone knows about Michigan's quarterback situation. Other than that, what story will you follow the most in the Big Ten this spring?

Olin Buchanan's answer: Three consecutive mediocre seasons raised questions about whether coach Kirk Ferentz would start feeling heat at Iowa. Then, the Hawkeyes bounced back with a 9-4 showing in 2008, with each of the four losses by five or fewer points. The majority of starters return, including eight from a defense that ranked 12th in the nation. But gone is All-America running back Shonn Greene, who was the focal point of the offense. Can the Hawkeyes adequately replace him? If another capable running back is located this spring or the offense shows it can shift from depending on a standout individual, Iowa may resurface as a Big Ten championship contender. If not, the possibility exists that the Hawkeyes could slide back into mediocrity.

Tom Dienhart's answer: I will be watching the quarterback battle at Wisconsin. I think this is a critical year for coach Bret Bielema. The backsliding from 12 to nine to seven wins has to stop. To do that, the Badgers need to find a solid quarterback/game manager. This will be the third offseason in a row Wisconsin will be searching for a quarterback. Fifth-year senior Dustin Sherer figures to be atop the depth chart, but he'll be pushed all spring by junior Scott Tolzien, redshirt freshman Curt Phillips and true freshman Jon Budmayr, who graduated high school early. Don't expect this battle to be finished until fall camp in August. Until then, spring drills will help better define the pecking order heading into summer workouts.

David Fox's answer: The Big Ten is one of the country's great mysteries. I'm not sure who will emerge in that league. Ohio State and Penn State are safe bets to stay at the top, but they have their flaws. Illinois could be the great wild card again. Or it could bottom out and miss the postseason again. Coach Ron Zook set the bar awfully high with a trip to the Rose Bowl during the 2007 season, but let's face it: That was not a Rose Bowl-caliber team. Losing Rashard Mendenhall was more damaging than predicted. The Illini face similar challenges this season with offensive coordinator Mike Locksley taking the coaching job at New Mexico and cornerback Vontae Davis leaving early for the NFL. Quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn need to take a major step forward this season, but they can't do it alone. Illinois needs to find a running game, but there are no clear-cut answers right now. Illinois may not reach the Rose Bowl, but it needs to prove its 2007 season wasn't a fluke.

Mike Huguenin's answer: I think Ohio State and Penn State are the league's two best teams, but Penn State won't be winning the conference title unless it can adequately replace three starting offensive linemen the center, the left guard and the left tackle off a unit that relies on a powerful rushing attack. A team with legit hopes of a league title doesn't want to go into fall practice worried about its offensive line; instead, the Nittany Lions need to find replacements and some depth this spring.

Steve Megargee's answer: I'm interested in seeing how Penn State linebacker Sean Lee is doing in his return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that knocked him out for the entire 2008 season, but he will be limited to individual drills and won't be participating in any scrimmages this spring. So the plotline that probably intrigues me the most is how Purdue adjusts to a new era. It seemed as though Curtis Painter was Purdue's starting quarterback for about a decade. Now that Painter has finally ended his college career, who's going to take over for him? The most likely candidates are Justin Siller and Joey Elliott, but Elliott is recovering from a shoulder injury. Can one of those players emerge as a front-runner this spring? I also want to see if spring practice offers any clues on whether the Big Ten's most pass-oriented team will continue to throw the ball as often now that Joe Tiller has retired and former offensive line coach Danny Hope has taken over.

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