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Big Ten Preview and Indiana Prediction

October 1, 2010

In honor of the beginning of Oktoberfest, my Big Ten preview has a “drinking” theme to it.  I’ve divided the league into 5 categories of contenders, with each category separated by the level of inebriation necessary in order to pick the teams in that category to win the Big Ten.  Plus, there’s a brief overview of how Michigan stacks up against each team we play.

BLACKOUT DRUNK

A bad decision, no matter how you try to rationalize it

  • Minnesota (1-3) – After finishing 6-7 in 2009, many Minnesota fans were optimistic that the Golden Gophers would take the leap in 2010.  They’ve taken a leap, but unfortunately its been backwards.  After squeaking by Middle Tennessee State in their opener, they’ve dropped 3 straight, including a loss to FCS South Dakota.  They played USC tough at home, but then dropped their last non-conference game to Northern Illinois.  Unfortunately, Michigan misses the Gophers this year, as it might have been one of the easier games on the schedule.  If Coach Tim Brewster holds onto his job until the end of the season, it means the Gophers have exceeded expectations.
  • Purdue (2-2) – The Boilermakers might be the unluckiest team in the Big Ten this year, losing their starting QB, #1 running back, and #1 wide receiver for the season, before they even played one Big Ten game.  The Boilermakers probably weren’t going to be that good with those guys playing, but without them, they are going to struggle to be average.  Purdue has limped to a 2-2 start, with tough wins over Western Illinois and Ball State, and a shocking loss to Toledo.  Michigan has struggled against Purdue the last two years, averaging 39 points in the two games, but losing both.  This year’s game is in West Lafayette, but without a capable offense, they’ll need a lot of luck to compete with us.  Our Nick Sheridan/Steven Threet led offense put up 42 against them two years ago – which means Denard and Co. could have a career day.
  • Illinois (2-1) – Like Tim Brewster at Minnesota, Ron Zook is a coach on the hot seat.  Three years ago, the Illini played in the Rose Bowl, but have steadily declined ever since, including a 3-9 finish a year ago.  While the Illini have plenty of talent, they haven’t been able to put it together.  This year’s squad is 2-1, but lost their only true test to Missouri.  QB Nathan Scheelhaase is a solid running QB and a decent passer, but he’s no Juice Williams, who I’m pretty sure was at Illinois for the last 7 years.  Illinois is a game that Michigan had no business losing last year – failing to punch it into the end zone with a first and goal from the one turned what would have been a two touchdown lead into a 25 point loss.  Michigan gets the Illini at home this year, and after the eggs we’ve laid the last two years, I expect a much improved performance and result.   Illinois isn’t talented enough and isn’t well coached enough to beat us three years in a row.

DON’T GET BEHIND THE WHEEL or OPERATE HEAVY MACHINERY

If you’re picking these teams, you’re not passing a field sobriety test

  • Indiana (3-0) – The Hoosiers are unbeaten, but largely untested.  Their three wins have come against Towson State, Western Kentucky, and Akron.  While they may surprise one of the better teams here or there, its tough to see how a team that was 4-8 a year ago will suddenly jump into the upper echelon of the Big Ten.  Bill Lynch has the Hoosiers moving in the right direction, but they aren’t there yet.  The Hoosiers are led by QB Ben Chappell who has mastered their “pistol” offense.  The Hoosiers will score points, but I’m not confident that they can stop anyone.  Their run defense is atrocious, and that’s even against the powder puff teams they’ve played so far.  After last year’s close loss in Ann Arbor, Indiana has had the Michigan game circled in crimson on their calendar.  Given the way they racked up yardage on their way to 33 points on us last year, this game won’t be a pushover.  But I don’t see it being as close as last year either.  Our talent level is much better than the Hoosiers, and despite the “revenge” factor, it will take a lot of miscues by Michigan for the Hoosiers to keep up.
  • Northwestern (4-0) – Northwestern probably isn’t good enough to keep up in the Big Ten for the whole season, but they are good enough to give most teams a scare.  Plus, they managed to avoid playing both Michigan and OSU this year.  Iowa and MSU visit Evanston, and with a little luck, the Wildcats could finish among the Top 3 in the Big Ten this year.  Ultimately though, a kind schedule won’t be enough.  I love what coach Pat Fitzgerald is doing at Northwestern, and fully expect them to consistently be an upper middle class team in the Big Ten, who even occasionally grabs a conference crown.  Like most years it seems, Northwestern has a senior QB who might not start for most teams in the Big Ten, but manages to be efficient and effective in their offense.  Dan Persa has led the Wildcats to a 4-0 start by completing 80% of his passes, and throwing for over 1000 yards and 8 TDs.  Northwestern is a scrappy and well coached team, and I’m kind of glad they aren’t on our schedule this year.

THURSDAY NIGHT HAPPY HOUR

No permanent damage, but you may regret it in the morning

  • Penn State (3-1) – Many preseason publications had PSU picked to be among the top 15 teams in the country.  I thought they were crazy then, and I’m sticking with that.   Despite coming off of back to back 11 win seasons, the Nittany Lions just aren’t nearly as loaded this year.  Penn State has looked pretty pedestrian so far this season, getting dominated in a loss at Alabama, and struggling to get by Temple.  As Michigan fans are well aware, starting a true freshman at quarterback will give you headaches, and Penn State is experiencing some of those with Robert Bolden.  They also have been hit by the injury bug, losing starting right tackle Lou Eliades for the year this past week.  While Penn State is still good enough to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, road games against Iowa (this week) and OSU will keep them out of the Big Ten Title race.  Michigan gets the honor of playing PSU in Happy Valley at night on Halloween weekend.  This was a game I had penciled in as a loss to begin the season, but from what I’ve seen from PSU so far, this game is certainly winnable.
  • Michigan State (4-0) – If this looks like a Michigan State team you’re familiar with, it’s because it’s very similar to the MSU teams of the last couple of years.  Mark Dantonio likes to run the ball, find an efficient QB, and a few playmakers at wide receiver.  Though QB Kirk Cousins hasn’t lived up to his preseason potential All-Big Ten billing, he’s still played well enough to get the Spartans to 4-0.  I really like Edwin Baker and Leveon Bell., both have been excellent at running back.  Like MSU teams of the past, the defense has been anchored by good linebacker play and solid defensive line play – but terrible play in the secondary.  Greg Jones is the best linebacker in the Big Ten, but he can’t carry this defense by himself.  Every team the Spartans have played has passed the ball with ease against them.  The secondary is not a question mark, it’s a black mark.  And while most feel the MSU offensive  line is much improved, they have yet to face a solid defense.  If they move the ball on the ground this weekend against Wisconsin, I may begin to buy the hype.  Until then, I’m not convinced this offense is as explosive as it has looked.  While some in East Lansing are dreaming of a 10-2 season, they are sorely mistaken.  MSU is incredibly lucky by missing OSU this year, but they still travel to Michigan, PSU, Iowa and Northwestern, and have Wisconsin at home this week.  They won’t lose all 5 of those games, they are too good for that.  But going 2-3 may be the best they can expect.  Throw in MSU’s usual “where the hell did that come from” loss, and they could be looking at a 4-4 Big Ten record.  As for Michigan’s game with the Spartans, MSU and Michigan both have a weak secondary.  After that, the similarities stop.  The Wolverines are fast and explosive, while MSU is methodical and bullying.  Who wins will largely depend on which team can impose their playing style on the game.  Michigan has had to listen to Michigan State brag for the last 2 years.  The revenge factor + the game being in Ann Arbor means I think Michigan wins this one.  And don’t be surprised if Rich Rod runs it up a little if he gets the chance.
  • Michigan (4-0) – Although we started 4-0 last year, this year feels different.  Though the defense is still very suspect, the offense is so explosive that there isn’t a single game on the schedule we can’t win.  Of course we won’t win them all, but looking at the schedule, a 5-3 in conference record is very possible, which is probably good enough to finish in the Top 4 of the conference and play in a New Year’s Day bowl game.

FREE BLOODY MARY’s and MIMOSA’s at BRUNCH

It doesn’t even really count as drinking

  • Wisconsin (4-0) – Much like MSU, the Bret Bielema has put together  a traditional Wisconsin team (translation = boring).  Several solid running backs, a huge offensive line, and an extremely efficient quarterback.  The 1-2 punch of John Clay and James White at running back is dangerous, and Scott Tolzien is completing 76% of his passes.  Wisconsin struggle at home against a decent Arizona State team, but stormed back to crush Austin Peay last week.  I still think they are an elite Big Ten team, and the only reason I have them behind Iowa is scheduling.  The Badgers get OSU at home at night, but travel to MSU, Michigan and Iowa.   I think they are the team most likely to knock off the Buckeyes, and if they can navigate the other 3 road games, they could be atop the Big Ten standings at the end of November.  Wisconsin is a bad matchup for Michigan because of their big offensive line, ability to run the ball, and an experienced QB who is unlikely to make mistakes.  Our speed will allow us to score points, but Wisconsin will bleed the clock and try to wear us down.  And they probably will be successful.  Playing them in Ann Arbor is a plus, but it may not be enough.
  • Iowa (3-1) – Coming off of an 11-2 season from last year and returning most of the starting offense, big things were expected of Iowa this year.  Despite a tough loss to Arizona on the road, they’ve looked the part of a Big Ten contender for most the non-conference games.  Losing starting running back Jewel Hampton for the season to a torn ACL is a setback, but Adam Robinson looked good last week against Ball State.   Iowa’s toughest road game is at Michigan, but they get MSU, Wisconsin, OSU, and PSU all at home.  They play 4 of those 5 in the first 4 games, but if they come through unscathed, or even with just 1 loss, the November 20th meeting with Ohio State may be for the Big Ten title.  Like Wisconsin, Iowa is a tough matchup for Michigan.  A good offensive line and solid QB play will allow them to score points, though I’m optimistic our offense can be successful against a bruising but slower defense.  But for 5 turnovers on the road last year, we may have beaten Iowa, so they can’t be too bad of a matchup.  Between the Badgers and the Hawkeyes, I like our chances against Iowa better, but not by much.

STONE COLD SOBER

Boring and methodical, but always the safest bet.  Just like Ohio State

  • Ohio State (4-0) – In terms of the Big Ten, there is only one favorite, and its Ohio State.  The Buckeyes have obliterated their non-conference schedule, including a 36-24 beating of #16 Miami that wasn’t that close.  Jim Tressel’s teams are always solid on defense and special teams, and this year is no different.  The Buckeyes are predictably stacked on defense – with DE Cameron Heyward and Linebackers Brian Rolle, Andrew Sweat and Ross Homan among the best in the conference, if not the country.  Couple that with an offense that is becoming explosive due to Terrelle Pryor’s improved play, and this team may very well play for their 3rd BCS Title in 5 seasons.  The schedule isn’t overly kind to OSU, forcing them to travel to Wisconsin and Iowa, but they might be so good it doesn’t matter.   The only concerns for Ohio State are Terrelle Pryor’s consistency, and the fact that he if he goes down to injury, their QB situation is worse than Michigan’s in 2008.   Barring that scenario that unfolding, I’ll be shocked if that Buckeyes don’t end up with at least a share of their 6th straight Big Ten championship.  With a guy like Denard Robinson on the sidelines, Michigan will have a shot in every game, but going on the road to Columbus without a very good defense probably stretches the OSU winning streak over Michigan to 7, and allows my wife to taunt me for another off-season.

Looking at the rest of the schedule, Michigan should beat the likes of Indiana, Illinois and Purdue.  Of the other “contenders” of PSU, Iowa, MSU and Wisconsin, I think Michigan manages a split.  Factor in a probably loss in Columbus, and we still end up with a very satisfying 9-3 record and 3rd or 4th place finish in the Big Ten.

If Michigan wants to be in that “almost contender” group, it starts with beating a frisky Indiana team tomorrow.  The Hoosiers have a terrible run defense, and we shouldn’t have trouble scoring points.  But the defense has to find a way to get off of the field so the offense can do its thing.  Ben Chappell is an experienced QB with plenty of WR weapons, including Tandon Doss.  Indiana is going to rack up both yards and points tomorrow, but unless we turn the ball over and give up a big special teams play, they won’t be able to keep up.

MICHIGAN 44

INDIANA 28

Bella and I spoke about having me follow up with her contact at E!, to see if I would have any better luck getting a response, and that’s why I reached out.
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