In honor of the Big Ten media days, which begin today, the Big Ten Bloggers roundtable begins with a series of questions posed by BadgerTracker at Wisconsin Badger Sports. Despite his alphabetizing issues, I commend BadgerTracker for getting things rolling. You can find other bloggers' answers here, here, here, here, here, here. Here are mine:1a. The press and the coaches will be predicting the Big Ten champ at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago on Wednesday. That's fine, but overdone. In lieu of boilerplate predictions of who will come out on top, which Big Ten team will be the most surprising? Remember, surprises can be good or bad; the underdog who comes out of nowhere to share the title is just as surprising as the favorite who winds up with five losses and no bowl bid.
With all due respect to the originator of this slate of questions, I think it's going to be Wisconsin. I expect Wisconsin to be a very good team this season, but I think last year's 12-1 record, which did include a nice win over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl. Will be very difficult to match. Even for a program that has improved as much as Wisconsin in the last 15 years, there's no shame in going 9-3 or 8-4. Still, thanks to last season's impressive record and finish, the Badgers have been in or near the top 5 in almost all of the unofficial preseason polls that I have seen. Wisconsin lost the highly underrated John Stocco and the best offensive lineman in the league. While I am not eagerly anticipating the Hoosiers' trip to Camp Randall, I do expect the Badgers to go 5-3 in the conference, losing at home to Michigan and at Ohio State, plus one more (possibly at Penn State). I suppose Badger old-timers can take solace in the idea that 9-3 could be a disappointing season. Based on the preseason accolades, I do think a 5-3 Big Ten record counts as a disappointment, and that's where I think the Badgers will be.1b. Imagine it's December, and the consensus in the media is that your team's season was "surprising." Is this a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? What would have to happen for you to consider your team's season surprising?
Every year, the Peegs board is aflame with criticism of this preseason mag or that for picking the Hoosiers to finish 10th or 11th in the Big Ten. Who can blame the writers? Since 1995, we have obliged nearly every season. Unfortunately, it's one of the safest bets in college football. Had Coach Hep been alive and healthy to coach this season, IU would have been a trendy pick based on schedule, the youth of last year's roster, returning starters, and this season's schedule, IU would be a trendy pick to finish in the top half of the Big Ten. With the reality of Hep's death and the uncertainty surrounding the program, most prognosticators expect us to do about what Northwestern did last year. So yes, I think that if the media consensus is that IU was "surprising," it will mean that IU is playing in late December/early January and Bill Lynch is building a new house.
For me personally to consider the season surprising? I would have to say 8-4 would surprise me quite a bit. IU likely will be favored in all four of its non-conference games (Akron, @ Western Michigan, Indiana State, Ball State). IU plays Illinois and Minnesota at home and Northwestern on the road. I won't predict that IU will win all of those games, but none seems like a stretch. I may be overly optimistic, but I currently have 7-5 at the far end of "realistic" (with 2-10 at the far low end). IU's five other games are @ MSU, @ Iowa, @ Wisconsin, Penn State, and Purdue. If IU can win all seven "realistic" games and add one more (probably Purdue), I would be surprised, not at any individual outcome, but because things just don't fall together like that for IU.
2. A preseason player of the year will also be dubbed in Chicago. For your team to succeed, which player or unit is going to have to put forth a "player of the year" performance? What's the one position that would take your team to the next level if it performs above expectations?
Anyone with even passing knowledge of the Hoosiers knows the answer to this: the defense, particularly the front seven. IU needs to be able to stop the run to take some pressure off the defensive backs. With nearly everyone back on offense, the Hoosiers will score some points, especially if the running game can improve a bit. With Marcus Thigpen and Tracy Porter returning kicks/punts, the Hoosiers will score some special teams touchdowns. If the defense can just become respectable, IU could win some meaningful games this season.
3. Which Big Ten team's out-of-conference schedule would you most want to have this year? Why? Do you think your team will have out-of-conference losses this year?
I want ours. IU plays Indiana State, at Western Michigan, and Akron before beginning the Big Ten season, and then plays Ball State in November. Yes, it's a joke. Yes, this sort of scheduling is bad for college football. Yes, I would welcome a change in NCAA rules, allowing no more than 13 home games in a two year period and prohibiting I-AA games if such a rule could survive a legal challenge. But IU is in no position to unilaterally disarm. We need four non-conference wins because a bowl, any bowl, would be an important step for our program.
Oddly enough, while the MAC has had some success against some of the middle and upper tier Big Ten programs (Penn State, Purdue, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have fallen victim), IU has a 17-game winning streak against the MAC dating back to a 1978 loss to Miami. My fear is that we are due, but ultimately I do not expect IU to lose a non-conference game. While Big Ten teams can exploit IU's flaws in the trenches, I think any MAC team will have a hell of a time with Kellen Lewis and James Hardy. Yes, we lost to Southern Illinois last year, so I realize anything can happen.
4. Here's a chance to look like a complete genius in a few months: pick the biggest in-conference upset that will happen this season. Justify your prediction!
Illinois over Penn State in Champaign. I don't know what he's selling or why the recruits are buying, but Zooker is accumulating enough blue-chippers that they are going to get a scalp sooner or later.
5. Say something nice about the Big Ten school whose name precedes yours alphabetically. Say something mean about the one that comes after.
Illinois: This is a tough one. Things are a bit testy between the Hoosiers and Illini. In football, each school zeroes in on the other as a likely win at the beginning of the season, so the loser of the annual game between the two programs faces the bitter realization that it's going to be a long season. In basketball, well, the Illini seem to be a bit worked up (as in, completely unhinged, from the coach to the Pravda-like downstate Illinois media to the fans) about a 17 year old kid who changed his mind about where he's going to go to college. Something nice? Well, despite the threats that Eric Gordon has received, as far as I know no Illini fan has actually followed through on a promise to do him physical harm. Not nice enough? Although I have never been there, the Illini's Memorial Stadium
looks like a really nice stadium. So many of the old stadiums have been so extensively renovated that they are unrecognizable, but Illinois's stadium retains a really stately look, and hopefully that will survive the current renovation.
Iowa: There's something profoundly insecure about a program that has to paint the visiting locker room pink. I don't blame Iowans for venerating Hayden Fry, but what a surly sore winner that guy was! Also, good call and pushing Tom Davis out the door. NCAA titles are sure to follow!
6. USC: great football program, or greatest football program? Also, how about that SEC? Damn, those guys are fast!
USC: USC is great, but let's not forget that just a few years ago they were wallowing during the second John Robinson era and the Paul Hackett era. Every great program has had an era in which it looked absolutely invincible. Every great program, has had an era in which the media proclaimed the program would never again compete at a high level. Ten years ago, USC and Oklahoma were terrible and Nebraska looked invincible. Still, USC has had seven Heisman winners, and six of the seven have never slashed the throat of the mother of their children and a waiter. What other school can say that?
I love speed and the SEC has great speed, especially on the defensive line, but there are appropriate balances when mixing academics and athletics. Each school, as well as each conference, simply must do what fits their mission regardless...oh, wait, I'm not a blowhard, loose-cannon conference commissioner. I like the SEC, think it's a fun conference to watch, and would love to spend a football season hopping to each venue. I hate the speed myth. I think there is indeed a disregard among many SEC fans and institutions for the student-athlete concept, but I don't think Jim Delany, given some of the offenses committed by Big Ten schools during his tenure, is the person to point it out.