Commentary

Big Ten looks to regain credibility among college football's elite

Updated: March 3, 2008, 6:09 PM ET
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

The arrival of spring practice should be therapeutic for the Big Ten, which can finally move on after another substandard bowl performance low-lighted by BCS flops in both New Orleans and Pasadena. As the league tries to restore its place in college football's hierarchy, there's no shortage of story lines from State College to Minneapolis. How will Michigan adjust to new coach Rich Rodriguez, who starts installing a dramatically different offense with dramatically different personnel? Can Wisconsin's defense regain its 2006 form under coordinator Dave Doeren? Who will play quarterback at Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan?

Here's a look around the Big Ten as spring ball begins:

Illinois Fighting Illini

Spring practice starts: March 26
Spring game: April 19
What to watch
• The search for Rashard Mendenhall's successor at running back begins. Daniel Dufrene gained 6.3 yards a carry in limited work last season, but Troy Pollard and Mendenhall's brother, Walter, are also in the mix.

Big Ten Power Rankings

Despite the nation's annoyance with Ohio State's success, the Buckeyes seem poised to make another run at the BCS title, according to our Big Ten spring power rankings, writes Adam Rittenberg. Story

• Without Rashard Mendenhall, the Illini need to diversify on offense. Quarterback Juice Williams made some strides as a passer last season, but still needs work. With wideout Arrelious Benn healthy following shoulder injury, Illinois can spend the spring fine-tuning its passing game.

• The defensive midsection has become a crucial area. Linebackers Brit Miller and Martez Wilson are primed to replace J Leman and Antonio Steele, but Illinois needs immediate help at safety after losing Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell.

Indiana Hoosiers

Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 19
What to watch
• The Hoosiers need to rebuild depth at wide receiver after James Hardy's early departure to the NFL. Ray Fisher, Andrew Means and James Bailey, pending the outcome of his disorderly conduct arrest, will compete to become the No. 1 wideout. Four incoming freshmen, all 6-foot-1 or taller, join the mix this fall.

• Running back will be hotly contested this spring. Demetrius McCray has recovered from a leg injury, but his arrest on disorderly conduct charges could derail a return. If McCray is back, he will compete with Marcus Thigpen and Bryan Payton, who split carries for most of last season.

• The search for a top cover corner begins as Indiana looks to replace all-league honoree Tracy Porter, as well as Leslie Majors. Chris Phillips will be spotlighted this spring after recording three interceptions in limited playing time last season.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Spring practice starts: March 26
Spring game: April 19
What to watch
• Quarterback Jake Christensen needs to re-establish himself after a subpar sophomore season. Christensen will compete this spring with Arvell Nelson, Ricky Stanzi and Marvin McNutt.

• Take the two most productive players (Albert Young and Damian Sims) out of the Big Ten's worst offense and you have a problem. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz tries to solve it this spring as he searches for a running back. Shonn Greene, who played as a sophomore before transferring to a community college because of academic troubles, is back and will compete with junior college transfer Nate Guillory and sophomore Jevon Pugh.

• Linebacker and defensive end will be priorities after Iowa loses leading tackler Mike Humpal and top pass rusher Bryan Mattison.

Michigan Wolverines

Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 12
What to watch
• It's another ho-hum spring in Ann Arbor, just with a new coach (Rodriguez), a new offense and no quarterback. Georgia Tech transfer Steven Threet, who has yet to throw a pass in college, competes for the starting QB job with David Cone (one collegiate pass attempt) and Nick Sheridan (no pass attempts). Good luck with that.

• Whoever wins the coveted quarterback job needs someone to block for him, and the Wolverines must replace their two top linemen (left tackle Jake Long and center Adam Kraus) and two other veterans (Alex Mitchell and Jeremy Ciulla). Perry Dorrestein backed up Long last year and will get a good look this spring.

• The defense will be in the backdrop, but the Wolverines still must find replacements for their top four tacklers. Obi Ezeh might move from middle linebacker to strongside 'backer, filling Shawn Crable's spot but creating a new opening in the middle.

Spring Forward

New coaching staffs are making plans. New offensive and defensive schemes are on the chalkboard. Position battles are about to heat up. The games won't count again until August, but the preparation for the 2008 season is about to kickoff. Here's a quick look at what you need to know about spring practice.

ACC
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

Big 12
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

Big East
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

Big Ten
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

Pac-10
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

SEC
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

Non-BCS
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

Michigan State Spartans

Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 19
What to watch
• Top playmaker Devin Thomas booked early for the NFL, and Michigan State needs to replenish at wide receiver. Deon Curry, Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham all will compete to become quarterback Brian Hoyer's primary target. Freshman Fred Smith also could be a factor.

• Coach Mark Dantonio must reshape the defensive front seven after losing standout pass-rusher Jonal Saint-Dic, fellow defensive end Ervin Baldwin and middle linebacker Kaleb Thornhill. Defensive end Trevor Anderson, a Cincinnati transfer who followed Dantonio to East Lansing, likely will play a bigger role this spring.

• Who will protect Hoyer's blind side after the losses of left tackle Pete Clifford and left guard Kenny Shane? Several players will be in the mix this spring, namely Rocco Cironi and Brendon Moss.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Spring practice starts: March 26
Spring game: April 19
What to watch
• The Gophers will be adjusting to a new defensive coordinator after Everett Withers resigned to take the same position with North Carolina. Then again, Minnesota's defense finished last nationally in 2007 (518.7 yards per game), so a change might be good.

• Linebacker was a position of flux throughout last season, and with mainstays Mike Sherels and John Shevlin gone, expect more scrutiny this spring. Deon Hightower and Steve Davis try to cement starting jobs by fending off Kevin Mannion, junior college transfer Rex Sharpe and others.

• Despite a 1-11 record, Minnesota allowed the fewest sacks in the Big Ten (13). The Gophers now must replace two big pieces of their front five in left tackle Steve Shidell and center Tony Brinkhaus. Young offensive linemen like Jason Meinke and Jeff Tow-Arnett will be closely studied this spring.

Northwestern Wildcats

Spring practice starts: March 31
Spring game: April 26
What to watch
•The Wildcats hope Wisconsin's loss will be their gain as coordinator Mike Hankwitz takes over a defense that has struggled for years. Hankwitz's first priority this spring is improving a defensive line that underachieved last season despite returning six players with starting experience (four are back for '08).

• Northwestern has the playmakers on offense, but there are major questions up front after the losses of three starting offensive linemen. An untested group that includes Keegan Grant, Al Netter and Mike Boyle begins competition for starting spots at left tackle, left guard and center.

• All eyes will be on safety Brendan Smith, who comes off his second shoulder surgery and, when healthy, gives the secondary a playmaking presence.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Spring practice starts: March 24
Spring game: April 19
What to watch
• Standout left tackle Alex Boone is back, but the other tackle spot is a mystery after the loss of four-year starter Kirk Barton. Rising sophomore Bryant Browning will get the first shot at the starting job.

• Defensive end Lawrence Wilson will be closely monitored as he returns from a broken leg in the 2007 season opener. As Wilson rejoins the line, Ohio State must replace premier pass rusher Vernon Gholston, the Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year.

• Statistically, Ohio State had few weaknesses last season, but kickoff returns was one of them. The Buckeyes ranked 117th nationally (17.7 yards per return) and need a viable return man to emerge.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Spring practice starts: March 24
Spring game: April 19
What to watch
Daryll Clark has waited his turn at quarterback and could strengthen his case this spring. He'll be pushed by Pat Devlin, the highly touted prep signal-caller who backed out of a commitment to Miami for a shot in Happy Valley.

• Sean Lee is next in line to become Penn State's poster boy at linebacker, but he'll need help to fill the void left by Dan Connor. Tyrell Sales is a solid wingman, but the Lions are looking for others to emerge.

• Running back will be worth watching this spring as Evan Royster and Stephfon Green compete for the top job. Royster backed up Rodney Kinlaw last season, rushing for 513 yards, but expectations are high for Green.

Purdue Boilermakers

Spring practice starts: March 26
Spring game: April 19
What to watch
• Danny Hope's arrival as the acknowledged successor to head coach Joe Tiller creates a new dynamic in West Lafayette. Hope will start out coaching the offensive line, which must replace two starters. Ed Zaunbrecher takes over the play-calling duties after co-offensive coordinator Bill Legg was reassigned.

• The passing game is always paramount at Purdue, but it becomes an especially critical area after the team lost four of its top five receivers, including superstar Dorien Bryant. Greg Orton could step into Bryant's role, but the Boilermakers will take a long look at wide receiver Desmond Tardy (coming off shoulder surgery), tight end Kyle Adams and several others as they try to restock for quarterback Curtis Painter.

• Anthony Heygood is back and could be moved to middle linebacker, but the Boilermakers need two more players to join him. Jason Werner could solidify an outside linebacker spot this spring.

Wisconsin Badgers

Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 19
What to watch
• Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge has the inside track to succeed Tyler Donovan as the starting quarterback. The senior can solidify his place this spring, or wind up battling a younger player (Dustin Sherer, Curt Phillips) for the top job.

• After a drop-off on defense, coach Bret Bielema dismissed Mike Hankwitz and promoted Dave Doeren as the sole coordinator. How the unit adjusts to Doeren is key this spring. The linebacker group needs attention after an underachieving season, and Wisconsin must replace star cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu.

• Special teams will be a major priority after the losses of kicker Taylor Mehlhaff and punter Ken DeBauche. Both players earned All-Big Ten honors last season.

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.