It's hard to believe, but Big Ten Football is a week away. That's right. A week. On Thursday, September 2, 2010, both Ohio State and Indiana kick off their seasons with out of conference matchups in Columbus and Bloomington, respectively. Our long wait in the wilderness is almost over friends, Football is almost here.
With the start of the 2010 Big Ten Football season there are still a lot of questions about the Conference and it's members that need to be answered. Some of those questions are rhetorical and some are unanswerable right now. But there are overarching questions for each Big Ten team that must be answered for these teams to compete for a bowl, a BCS, or even a National Championship bid. Each team has its dilemma. We'll identify them here, three at a time, and try to give you an answers you so desperately need.
1. Will Wisconsin's rebuilding defensive line be enough to give the Badgers a shot at a Big Ten Title?
Going into 2010 Wisconsin is without three veteran starters on it's defensive line. Starters DE O'Brien Schofield and DTs Jeff Stehle and Dan Moore have moved on, either via graduation or the NFL. Stepping into their places are two juniors (Louis Nzegwu and Patrick Butrym) and one redshirt freshman (Jordan Kohout). Nzegwu is light for a defensive end (247), but even in limited playing time last year racked up 3.5 sacks and 10 tackles. Butrym subbed in at DT and posted 24 tackles along with 2 TFL and 2 PBUs (he even racked up an INT). Kohout, however, is a total unknown. While a highly rated DT, Kohout hasn't played a down yet and he's battling injury from Fall practice. The lone returning starter on the line is DE JJ Watt, who posted 11 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 5 PBUs and 44 tackles despite contracting H1N1 at midseason.
Last season's defensive line was probably one of the best in the conference's, if not the country. From the fourth week of the season on, Wisconsin didn't give up more than 97 totalrushing yards in any game. Only Michigan State and Ohio State rushed for more than 73 yards. This season the holes on the line are pretty stark. The D Line returns 10.5 of 37 sacks from the prior year and it's uncertain whether the middle of the line is set. While I'm sure the Badgers' secondary and linebacking corps will be above average, it's highly dubious to suggest that this line will match 2009's numbers. There's enough talent and size for the Badgers to reload in the trenches, but replacing those starters down low may cost them a Big Ten Title.
Wisconsin's season will boil down to hosting OSU and visiting Iowa on back to back weeks. Both teams can run the ball. Both teams will have above average offensive lines and good running games. My heart wants to pick the Badgers to win these games, but my brain tells me that three new starters will be too much for Wisconsin to walk away with a Big Ten Title.
2. Can Northwestern win 10 games?
Say WHAT? Yeah. It's a legitimate question. Northwestern returns 13 starters and has an opening schedule made out of Care Bears, puppies and FroYo. Vanderbilt, Illinois State, at Rice, Central Michigan, at Minnesota, Purdue, Michigan State and at Indiana are the Wildcats first eight games. On Offense the 'Cats return four out of five linemen, four of their top five rushers, and four returning WR who combine for 1,400+ yards. New quarterback Dan Persa saw enough playing time last season to have a taste of what he's in for, and based on NW practice reports he's grasping the offense pretty well. And before people start screaming about how awesome Mike Kafkawas, Kafka was 16/12 TD/INT last season. QB's at NW are interchangable.
On defense, well, then you're looking at some issues. Corey Wooton's gone, but he really wasn't much of a factor last year. The defense is basically the same as it was last year, but it is an experienced group. The issue is the loss of two First Team Big Ten players in the secondary. Both Sherrick McManis (CB) and Brad Phillips (FS) were outstanding last season, and replacing them will be damn near impossible out of the gates. Still, Northwestern will plug in Brian Peters and David Arnold (both juniors) to the safety positions and both played last season. The issue is, not even Northwestern fans are that sure their defensive secondary can hold up.
Here's the thing. Northwestern is incredibly well coached and motivated. Yet for some reason they always seem to drop games they shouldn't (e.g., Syracuse, Minnesota). With the schedule in front of them, the Wildcats canwin 10 games. They skip Michigan and Ohio State this season and I frankly can't see a "lock" loss on their schedule. Penn State's rebuilding their offense. Iowa has all kinds of trouble with the 'Cats. Northwestern beatWisconsin last season. The Michigan State game Northwestern outgained MSU by 160 yards. Hell they put almost 200 extra yards of offense on Auburn! Most of Northwestern's sacks return. The heart of their offense returns. Most importantly one of the best young coaches in College Football returns.
This may not be a Big Ten Championship calibre team, but it's certainly one that can win four non-conference games and go 6-2 in conference. 10 wins may be unlikely, but lord knows it's certainly possible.
3. Can Purdue stop the run?
If there's one constant over the last three or four years it's that Purdue's defense will be run on more than a track oval. In 2008 and 2009, the Boilermakers have given over 4.5 and 4.4 YPC and over 170 yards a game. Last season the Boilermakers allow 200+ yards four times (including 280 to Northern Illinois), and over 180 three times. The only WTF outlier in this season of run defense misery was stuffing Ohio State at 66 yards on 28 carries. If you're looking for a reason for that, you're on your own. I don't think my buddy T-Mill over at Hammer and Rails can actually give you a legitimate reason for what happened either.
But hope springs eternal, and for once there is reason behind the exuberance. Purdue returns six of its front seven including its entire linebacking corps. Kawann Shortstarted all 12 games at Defensive Tackle last season, as did both DEs Ryan Kerrigan and Gerald Gooden. The added experience on the Defensive Line matched with improved linebacker play could be what puts Purdue over the top and into a Bowl Game.
Here's the rub, and it's the same issue facing Michigan, how much can the run defense improve if all the players are the same? Adding to the problem is the fact that Purdue replaces its entire secondary. Maybe initially Purdue's defense is great against the run, but when teams start putting up 300+ a game in the air on the Boilermakers you have to think the squad will be forced to go to a nickle package. Then it'll be up to 6 players rather than 7 to keep teams in check.
Personally, I think Purdue's defense will be much better against the run this season. That said, unless the secondary surprises it's not going to matter. For the numbers to improve, Purdue will have to be balanced defensively. If the secondary is a black hole, the run defense will suffer as the coaching staff tries to stem the bleeding in the secondary. However, if the secondary proves to be decent, this could be one of the surprise defensive units of the conference.