Quarterback questions loom for many Big Ten teams

Fifteen practices and a spring game should answer more questions than they create, but that's not true for most teams in the Big Ten.

Of the five schools looking to replace high-profile senior quarterbacks, only Ohio State heads into the fall knowing which direction it will go.

Junior Todd Boeckman will step in for Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, the fulcrum on which the Buckeyes' offensive success hinged the past two seasons. Still, coach Jim Tressel says he's committed to playing Boeckman's two understudies in the opener, so how solid could Boeckman be?

At Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, no player stepped forward and made the QB job his own this spring. Some coaches might know who their guy will be, but none of them can feel good about that player distinguishing himself in the spring.

Jake Christensen at Iowa and Brian Hoyer at MSU are most likely the respective No. 1s for their schools, but didn't look better than their competition in the spring games.

Minnesota coach Tim Brewster has a dicey choice come September: flip a coin between junior Tony Mortensen and freshman Adam Weber, or give incoming freshman Clint Brewster a shot. Yeah, welcome to Minneapolis, Coach. Are you going to start your son?

Wisconsin's Bret Bielema has the biggest decision. Senior Tyler Donovan and junior transfer Allan Evridge both looked alternately good and bad in the spring. Quarterback is one of only two holes on offense, so if Bielema makes the right choice, he could win a conference title and perhaps play for something bigger. Choose poorly, however, and the consequences could cost Wisconsin plenty.

Michigan has its quarterback in Chad Henne, but will he have one of his favorite targets, Adrian Arrington?

Arrington was suspended from spring ball for disciplinary reasons, and coach Lloyd Carr doesn't sound optimistic about his return.

Legal problems are also dogging Penn State, where six players, including starting defensive backs Anthony Scirrotto and Justin King, face felony charges in connection with a fight off campus.

As many as 20 Nittany Lions could be subpoenaed to testify in that matter, which could gut the very defense that loomed as Penn State's strength in the fall.

Minnesota was counting heavily on linebacker Alex Daniels and cornerback Keith Massey. It can't now, because an ongoing investigation into sexual assault allegations against the two clouds their status.

Purdue has fallen out of contender status recently as much for attitude problems, off-field issues and injury concerns as talent drain.

Coach Joe Tiller can't be too happy with events of this spring. His two hopefuls to fill gaps on the offensive line sat out with injuries, wide receiver Selwyn Lymon was stabbed outside a bar and Tiller had to suspend Jeff Lindsay and Torri Williams for alcohol-related charges.

One of Ohio State's highest-profile recruits, safety Eugene Clifford, was cited for marijuana possession.

The Buckeyes' on-field news wasn't all good, either. Tailback Chris Wells, who's looked upon as the main weapon this fall, sprained an ankle in the spring and missed the last two-and-a-half weeks.

Whether Wells is over the fumble problems that dogged him last year remains unknown, as does whether he's durable enough to handle 25-30 carries per game.

Those are just two of the host of unanswered questions that abound throughout the league entering the 2007 season.

Big Ten Spring Wrap
1. Wisconsin
2. Michigan
3. Ohio State
4. Iowa
5. Penn State
6. Michigan State
7. Illinois
8. Purdue
9. Northwestern
10. Indiana
11. Minnesota

Toughest schedule: Purdue opens at Mid-American Conference power Toledo, then has a few breathers before starting Big Ten play on the road at Minnesota. The Gophers aren't expected to amount to much, but it will be the league debut of new coach Tim Brewster, so they'll be geeked. After that, it's five bowl teams in a six-game span: Notre Dame, then Ohio State, at Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern and at Penn State. Ouch.

Easiest schedule: Iowa doesn't play Ohio State or Michigan. Enough said.

Offensive player of the year: Mike Hart, tailback, Michigan. With Jake Long coming back to block for him, and with Henne having Mario Manningham as a preventive measure to keep defenses from stacking the box, Hart could go for 1,500 yards or more.

Defensive player of the year: Jack Ikegwuonu, cornerback, Wisconsin. Everyone loves a shutdown corner, just not everybody has one. Wisconsin does in this guy, who ran down Arkansas' Darren McFadden from behind last season in the Capital One Bowl. Can you say, "closing speed"?

Comeback player of the year: Javon Ringer, tailback, Michigan State. Bothered last year by what was thought to be a season-ending ligament tear in his knee, Ringer could have sat out and rehabbed, but instead rushed back to help a team going nowhere. That shows his toughness. If healthy, he's one of the best in the league.

Breakout player of the year: Juice Williams, quarterback, Illinois. He has receivers now and a year under his belt. This kid fancies himself another Troy Smith. If so, watch for a big move from the Illini.

Most dynamic playmaker: Mario Manningham, wide receiver, Michigan. No one inspires more two-deep coverage than this home run threat. He can get behind anyone in man, and he's fast enough to shred zones, too.

Coach on the hot seat: Joe Tiller, Purdue. It's almost by default, because no one else in the Big Ten is under any pressure quite yet. Tiller shouldn't be, but he's a victim of his own success. The Boilermakers had no expectations about going to bowls before he arrived, but he has raised the bar.

Team that may surprise: Iowa. The Hawkeyes have eight starters back on defense and a talented tailback in Albert Young to take pressure off new quarterback Jake Christensen. Couple that with no Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule and Kirk Ferentz calling the shots -- that's why Iowa can't be ignored.

Team that may disappoint: Penn State. The Nittany Lions looked to have all the ingredients to contend. Then as many as 20 players showed up at an off-campus brawl, and six of them drew felony charges. How it will play out is unknown, as is whether quarterback Anthony Morelli can be a difference maker. But all together, that's too many questions for comfort.

Big Ten champion: Wisconsin. The Badgers have a quarterback question between Allan Evridge and Tyler Donovan, but tailback P.J. Hill is their meal ticket. The defense is outstanding and the toughest nonconference game is Washington State in Madison. Michigan plays at Camp Randall, too, and the Wolverines must play Notre Dame. Ohio State just goes to Washington and Michigan, while Penn State plays Notre Dame. So if it comes down to who weathered the nonconference schedule unbeaten, Wisconsin is the best bet.

Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.