With the start of the 2010 Big Ten Football season there are still a lot of questions about the Conference and its 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. We've already covered the questions on Wisconsin, Northwestern and Purdue, so lets take a look at another front runner, a problem child and a potential surprise.
4. Will Ohio State's Recruiting Star Laden Offensive Line Ever Live Up to Its Billing?
This may seem like a strange question to ask about a team that demolished Oregon in the Rose Bowl and returns four upper classmen starters on the Offensive Line, but if there's been a legitimate weakness to this Buckeye Program since 2002 it's been the Offensive Line. With the same personnel last season the Buckeyes rushed for only 88 yards against USC, gave up five sacks to Purdue (gaining only 66 yards on the ground), and gained only a staggering 184 total yards against Wisconsin. That should never happen to a team this talented in the trenches, yet it seems to happen year in year out in Columbus.
Looking down the line, it's like looking at a recruiting all-star team. Mike Brewster is one of the better centers in the league. Bryant Browning and Justin Boren were both highly recruited guards that should be outstanding. J.B. Shugarts was a classmate of Sam McGuffie and another highly rated tackle prospect, and now Mike Adams steps in at left tackle with a high star rating and hype. And the two deep is just as impressive. But there have been issues. Florida, LSU and USC told the press that the OSU line was winded as the game went on and unprepared for multiple moves. Against Purdue and Wisconsin, the Buckeyes were clearly overwhelmed in the trenches.
Ohio State will be challenged in the trenches this year with Miami, Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Purdue on the schedule. But you have to consider just how dominant this line was as the season went on. In the last five conference games the Buckeyes steamrolled their opponents, racking up over 228 yards on the ground in each game. There are issues, like pass protection, but if the Line continues to improve this could be the best Buckeye line since their 2002 National Championship. Or, it could be a repeat of last year. Whether Ohio State's line is up to the challenge of Wisconsin and Purdue after four straight tomato cans before hand, may determine whether the Buckeyes play for a National Championship or the Capital One Bowl. Talent isn't the question here. Whether they're ready or not is.
5. Is there any chance the Gopher Defense will stop anyone this season?
Um... No. The Gophers returned 8 starters last year and still gave up 152 yards a game on the ground, 15.5 yards per pass and over 350 total yards a game. This year the Gophers return just two starters (both safeties) and replace their ENTIRE front seven. To top that off, Minnesota has no just the hardest schedule in the Big Ten, they arguably have one of the hardest schedules in all of college football this season. Conceivably, the Gophers only guaranteed win is South Dakota and given their issues it's not a slam dunk win.
Here's the rub, Kevin Cosgrove (one of Minnesota's Co-Defensive Coordinators) is an excellent coach. I think he'll get the most out of this unit... at some point. There is some talent at corner and at linebacker, and Anthony Jacobs could be decent. Monstrous could plug up the middle, but who knows? You guess is as good as mine.
If the Gopher's Offense can actually grind a few minutes off the clock, they may be able to save the defense some time on the field. With 9 starters back, they might be able to put some numbers up on offense. But judging by Minnesota's past performances on offense and their lack of depth on defense, this could be the worst defense in the Conference. I'm hoping, for Brewster's sake, I'm wrong.
6. Staying in the trenches, Will Michigan State's Line Allow Its Skill Position Players Any Time and Space to Perform?
Looking at Michigan State's Offense, they're pretty loaded. Kirk Cousins is a legitimate Big Ten QB. Larry Caper and Edwin Bakerare fine running backs. B.J. Cunningham is a big time receiver. These are some serious offensive players. On the other hand, offensive skill talent is nothing without an offensive line to give them time to operate.
Michigan State returns the left side of their line in D.J. Young (LT) and Joel Foreman (LG), but the rest of the line is a question mark. John Stipekshould take over the Center position after starting a handful of games last year, while converted defensive lineman Antonio Jeremiahand J'Michael Deane should nail down the right side of the line. Making a case for them, they're all upper-classmen and they've all been in the program for a while. On the downside, you'd think as upper classmen we'd have heard about them by now. Also, the guys they're replacing were actually pretty good.
Reports out of Fall camp seem to indicate the line is coming together and if there's one thing the Spartans have been able to do over the years, it's run the ball. Even so there's no way the Spartans only give up 14 sacks this year like they did in 2009. No way. That said, if they do Michigan State could legitimately challenge as one of the top offenses in the Big Ten. There is depth on the line and a number of redshirt Freshmen and sophomores that could contribute time if the upper-classmen don't pan out.
Still, teams will eventually figure out that Michigan State is running student body left the entire game and adjust to it. At that point, MSU will truly have to figure out how good its new starters on the line are. Personally, I think Michigan State's line will be down a notch and Cousin's will be on the run a lot more than he was last season. Look for the sacks to increase into the 20's and the rushing yards to decrease slightly. Even so, I expect the Spartans to field a decent line this season.