Ten things to watch for in the Big Ten
With the start of the college football season just around the corner, here are 10 things I can't wait to see in the land of the Big Ten.
1. The Clarett juggling
Ohio State still needs to make some moves off the field before Maurice Clarett, its gifted but controversial sophomore runner, can resume making his moves on the field. Although the talented Buckeyes have other good options at running back, the question is, will the Clarett distractions be too much for the defending national champions to make another title run?
2. Navarre say die
Will John Navarre, who has often been scorned by Michigan rooters, turn the jeers to cheers in his senior season? The Wolverines, who haven't won the Big Ten outright since their 1997 unbeaten season, have their usual wealth of talent. But they'll need big years from Navarre and running back Chris Perry, another senior who seems poised for an image-cleansing breakout campaign.
3. Can retooling Hawkeyes fly
Iowa, the latest in the line of one-year Big Ten wonders, isn't getting much respect for a team coming off an unbeaten conference campaign. They'll miss elusive quarterback Brad Banks, tight end Dallas Clark and some stellar departed linemen. Keeping Iowa competitive for a second straight season will be a major test for coach Kirk Ferentz and his reptutation as an O-line whiz.
4. State of Michigan State
Nobody's expecting much from the Spartans, who self-destructed last fall after entering the season with high expectations. But the talent base might not be as bad as it seems. If Jeff Smoker can overcome the troubles that drove him off the team last year, new coach John L. Smith, a proven offensive innovator, might have some surprises for Michigan State opponents.
5. Will Illini receivers catch on
Ron Turner says he'd rather have his quarterback return and break in new receivers rather than have things the other way around, as he did last year. An experienced Jon Beutjer, who led the Big Ten in passing yards per game last year, will put the ball up. If a brand-new receiver corps can bring it down, the Illini could do better than their consensus seventh-place projection.
6. Walker on the hot seat
Despite a long-term contract, Northwestern's Randy Walker shapes up as the coach on the hottest seat in the Big Ten. The Wildcats have been mild cats the last two seasons, and NU's new athletic director might have a short leash for Walker. The lingering effects of Rashidi Wheeler's death during an informal summer workout in 2001, notably an ugly court case, also continue to undercut Walker's tenure.
7. The Gophers want next
Year in and year out, Big Ten powerhouses make their presence felt. But the league also has produced a lot of surprises. Iowa, Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern all have claimed at least a share of the Big Ten title recently, and Minnesota, which returns a fine core from a team that started 7-1 last season, hopes to continue that trend. The Gophers again have a soft nonconference schedule, but two of their first three league games are against Penn State and Michigan. If they start 7-1 again, look out.
8. Can Evans give the Badgers a double threat
If standout wideout Lee Evans, who missed last season with a major knee injury, approaches the form that made him one of the nation's best receivers in 2001, Wisconsin could have a potent offense. In Evans and tailback Anthony Davis, the Badgers could have the best runner-receiver combo around, and new quarterback Jim Sorgi is better-suited to throwing than his predecessor, Brooks Bollinger.
9. Can Boilers make fewer mistakes
Purdue's stocked with 17 returning starters from a team that led the Big Ten in total offense and total defense. If the Boilermakers, whose six losses came by a total of 26 points, can cut down on their minus-10 turnover deficit, they could be a handful.
10. Will Zack attack be enough
Penn State, which had six players taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, will have plenty of new faces. Look for Joe Paterno to take the heat off of his newcomers by turning loose agile quarterback Zack Mills. Whether Mills, who played hurt late last season, will give the newbies some breathing room will tell the tale for the Nittany Lions.
Herb Gould covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Sun-Times.