Posted by Walter
Perhaps no conference in the nation has had more dirt thrown on them in the past 9 months than the Big 10.....and deservedly so. All year the Big 10 was perceived as a 2 horse conference, and, continuing on with that metaphor, both horses were taken to the glue factory when the season was over. Michigan was badly outclassed by USC in the Rose Bowl and Ohio State.....well we all know what happened to Ohio State. The one saving grace for the conference, perhaps, was everyone's darlings Wisconsin, who had a brilliant season mostly because they played the easiest schedule in the entire conference. Either way the Big 10 has appeared to fall behind some of its BCS counterparts during the offseason. Well it's make or break time now. With all the veteran talent returning to the top teams in the Big 10, the conference has no more excuses for another poor postseason performance.
This Michigan team is VERY interesting. With so much returning talent on offense Michigan haters want to paint them as the 2007 version of Notre Dame. Michigan lovers can only dream that they are more like Ohio State. I tend to fall with the latter group. The comparison to Ohio State is more apt for 2 main reasons. First, the strength of the Michigan offensive line. Unlike Notre Dame, Michigan returns what should be the biggest and baddest offensive line in the land. Led by all everything Jake Long, the Wolverine O-Line should be nothing short of dominant from the first snap of the 2007 season. Second, and more importantly, is the Michigan defense. Going into last season everybody knew two things: (i) Notre Dame wasn't going to be able to stop anyone, and (ii) Ohio State had more than enough defensive depth (thanks to superb recruiting) to replace all the talent lost to the NFL. Again, Michigan is clearly more similar to Ohio State. In fact, the similarities between the 2007 Wolverines and the 2006 Buckeyes are striking, right down to the star power returning on offense and the mass exodus to the NFL on defense. What remains to be seen is whether someone on Michigan will step up and take command of the team (and games) when the team needs it, a la Troy Smith last year. Chad Henne is good enough. Jake Long is tough enough. But my money is on little Mike Hart, who is the heart, soul, and spirit of Big Blue this year. Despite the fact that he is only 5'9'' the Wolverines will only go as far as Hart will take them.....and any Michigan fan who has seen this guy play for three years should feel very comfortable with that statement.
Best quarterback in the conference? Check. Best running back in the conference (with apologies to the Wisconsin Winnebago)? Check. Best wide receiver in the conference? Check. Best offensive lineman in the country? Check. So, basically, Michigan should score points. Lots of points. So what about the defensive side of the ball? Well, it's Michigan. Also, the schedule is squarely in the Wolverines favor. They have one significant road game (it's a doosy at Wisconsin) but otherwise they get the toughest tests at home. It's a tough schedule. But it's the Big Ten, and it's Michigan, so it's never easy. But it lines up as well as they could possibly hope. Yeah, Michigan lost a lot on defense. But Ohio St. lost their entire offense (and last year, people were saying their defense was a weakness, but they were very good all year). Big Blue is going to have some athletes, and Ron English really knows what he's doing. Shawn Crable will anchor the team, and lead the newbies until they get going. As overrated as the Michigan defense was last year, they are wholly underrated this season.
Indiana has never been a good football program, let's be clear on that. They were not going to challenge for the Big 10 title this year. They weren't going to challenge for it next year. But they were headed in the right direction under the tutelage of the late Terry Hoeppner, and his loss is a major blow for the football community in Bloomington. Unfortunately for everyone, Hoeppner's death will probably take its toll on the football team as much on the field as it will off it. Aside from wideout James Hardy, the Hoosiers simply don't have enough talent to compete with any of the big boys in the Big 10. However, Hoeppner was loved and respected enough by his players to get them to play hard enough to compete with the lesser Big 10 programs like Illinois, Northwestern and Minnesota. With Hoeppner's death still looming over the program, those schools have moved past the Hoosiers in terms of talent and consistency.
It's just depressing, and I'd rather not dwell on it. Coach Hep really had things going in the right direction. This is one prediction I really hope to be wrong about. Those kids deserve a great year, and I hope they can carry on their coach's proud legacy.
Offensive Player of the Year
Walter: Mike Hart, RB Michigan
Even with all the explosive talent in the conference, this may very well be the easiest selection of any we will make. No Mike Hart does not blaze all around the field like Steve Slaton. And no, Mike Hart will not plow into, through and around opposing defenders with the force of Darren McFadden. But what Mike Hart will do is get the job done, no matter what is asked of him. Hart is one of the few players in the nation who is truly more interested in helping his team win than getting his name in the newspaper (ironically enough, the Michigan Wolverines should do plenty of both this season). Making him even more special, is the fact that Hart excels at every aspect of the position. He may not have the flash of Steve Slaton, or the raw ability of Darren McFadden, but Mike Hart does all of the little things to make a team great. Don't get me wrong, Mike Hart will have his share of 150 yard, 3 TD performances this season, but perhaps even more important will be his 25 carry, 100 yard, 0 TD days when he grinds out the clock in the fourth quarter and leaves the scoring up to Chad Henne, Mario Manningham and Co. In an age where flash and brilliance grab the national spotlight, it's refreshing to see a player like Hart who is just so rock solid that you ask yourself what more you could ever want. Consider the following about little Mike Hart: Despite being 5'9'' and under 200 lbs. Mike Hart has carried the ball nearly 800 times for the Wolverines. He has scored nearly 30 times, and has never averaged under 4.4 yards per carry for the season. Yet you can count the number of times he has fumbled on one hand. On a team laden with offensive stars, Mike Hart is the one who you might notice least but makes the biggest impact. In a word, Mike Hart is the player who will get you three yards on third and 2.....every......single......time. And that is what makes him the best offensive player in one of the best offensive conferences.
Frazier: Mike Hart, Michigan
Dammit! I really wanted to go against the grain here. It's just, that, well it's not exactly easy to. Hart is a tough running back. He isn't sexy. He isn't flashy. He's a classic Big Ten workhorse. We here at the 323 are clearly enamored with the work ethic. The guy has lost a single fumble in his career. He takes care of the ball, pushes the pile, and consistently gets a yard when you need him to. Also helping are his competitors for this prize. Manningham may be the most talented of the top tier threats, but he will have to share receiving duties with a balanced group, and Michigan isn't going to throw the ball all over the field unless they have to. Henne is marked by his incredible consistency. His numbers are virtually the same for all three years he's been a starter. Which is good, because you know he'll have a good season, but it makes it hard to see a break-out coming. The guy hasn't grown enough as a player, at least statistically, although he's a much more effective leader now. Still, this would give me caution as a Wolverine fan. PJ Hill had a remarkable freshman season, but I have issues with fat, slow running backs. I believe he's a product of incredible offensive line coaching, and he's as likely to get a flat tire as have a huge season. The only other name of note is Anthony Morelli, and while the PSU quarterback has all the talent in the world, he'll need a HUGE leap forward to enter this debate. Frankly, it's Hart, and everybody else in his rearview. Just where he expects to see them on Saturdays.
Defensive Player of the Year
Walter: Jack Ikegwuonu, CB Wisconsin
This was a tough choice. As you all may know, as a former linebacker I am usually partial to that position on the defensive side of the ball. After all, linebackers are responsible for stopping the run......and defending the pass.......and rushing the passer.........and calling the defense.........and making sure the big dumb defensive lineman are aligned properly.......the list goes on. So why a defensive back? Well, simply put, it was just too tough to choose between all the great Big 10 linebackers. How can you pick between all the great LB's? Dan Connor or James Laurinaitis? Mike Klinkenborg or Jeremy Leman? Marcus Freeman or Sean Lee? See, it's impossible. So instead of giving into temptation and simply picking one of many great linebackers, I decided to go with the actual best, and most unique, defensive player in the conference. Though he is still raw, at 6'1'' and nearly 200 lbs. Ikegwuonu has quickly grown up into an elite defensive back. As a true sophomore, Ikeqwuonu displayed lock down corner cover skills in 2006 and exceptional speed for a man his size (yeah, that was Ikegwuonu you might remember running down Darren McFadden from behind in the bowl game). Even more impressive, was how physically Ikegwuonu dominated games. Not only was he the best press cover man in the conference, but he was an absolute missile filling the lane in run support. Normally a coach is thrilled to get a corner who is willing to do two of those three things (man cover, press cover, run support), and is able to do one well. Ikegwuonu is the rare player who can and does do all three things. With solid cover man Allen Langford playing opposite him, teams will not be able to simply avoid Ikegwuonu all season. He will get his chances for big plays, and if his 2 picks and 11 passes broken up (!!) from 2006 are any indication, he will make the most of his opportunities.
Frazier: Dan Connor, LB, Penn St.
Look, I own a turtle named after a Penn St. linebacker. So this should come as no surprise. Frankly, Connor was the best linebacker for the Nittany Lions last season, even better than Puz (a 323 favorite, who is going to have an excellent NFL career). He's going to be the man controlling the middle, making plays, and being Joe Pa's "brain" on the field. Connor was a stud for this team last year, and he'll absolutely anchor what should be an excellent defense. Linebacker U is definitely living up to its' name, with Dan Connor as the newest member of that elite fraternity.
Iowa is in an interesting predicament this season. With all eyes on the big three (Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State) as the favorites, and with Illinois and Purdue getting plenty of sleeper love, nobody seems to be talking about the Hawkeyes. And that is just fine with Kirk Ferentz and Co. In fact, no coach enjoys flying under the radar more than Ferentz. If history has taught us anything it's that Ferentz's Hawkeyes always play their best football when nobody expects anything from them. This alone would make them ripe for sleeper status, but wait there's more. How about 8 starters returning from a very physical defense, including three potential all conference performers in MLB Mike Klinkenborg, and DE's Bryan Mattison and Ken Iwebema. How about the return of star tailback Albert Young who finally appears healthy after an injury marred 2006 and should team with last year's fill in Damian Sims to form a very formidable backfield. And how about a schedule that features no Michigan, no Ohio State and a home slate that includes MAC foe Norther Illinois, Big East cellar dweller Syracuse and Western Michigan. True the Hawkeyes have to travel to both Wisconsin and Penn State, but even if they lose both those games, Ferentz's crew should still finish no worse than 9-3. And who's to say Iowa can't win at either location. Their defense should be so good that they'll be in every single game, and they have plenty of skill position talent returning on offense. Yes leader Drew Tate is gone, but redshirt sophomore Jake Christiensen is ready to step in, and while he doesn't yet play with Tate's fire, Christiensen has proven, in limited playing time, that he may have more raw skills throwing the football than the weak armed Tate did. If Iowa can replace three starters on their offensive line, something that shouldn't be a problem with the best offensive line coach in the world leading the program, this team could sneak up on the entire conference.
Ok, this was difficult for me. I LOVED the big man's selection of Iowa. A brilliant call. They are being completely overlooked, and I love Ferentz. Frankly, I'm jealous he gets to go first for these things. My second choice was going to be predicting Penn St. to have a fabulous year. However, if I jinxed them, I probably would be killed in cold blood. So I turned my attention to Purdue, and I like what I see. The schedule is doable, tough road games at Michigan and Penn St. will be battles, but otherwise things look pretty good. They get Michigan at home, and that game could be an absolute shoot-out. It should be a fun one. Purdue also has Joe Tiller, who has had a lot of success at Purdue, without a lot of publicity. Most interestingly, Purdue is going to score boatloads of points. Curtis Painter is absolutely unconscious (in the best possible way) at quarterback. The nation's sixth best passing team is returning all the key pieces, and Painter can even make plays with his legs. They are going to be filthy. Yes, their defense was abysmal last year, but now they have nowhere to go but up! Purdue may not be a perfect team, but they're always going to have a punchers chance. It's a group nobody is looking forward to playing, and they may end up having a huge year.
I don't love doing this, because I love what coach Bret Bielema has done in his limited time at Wisconsin. The thing is, I think that people are just starting to expect a little too much from this team. True, they were great last year, but let's take a look at their schedule. Their best win of the regular season was a 13-3 slugfest over Penn State. They lost to the only legitimate top team they played when they got smacked 27-13 at Michigan. And of their 12 wins only the Penn State, Arkansas (bowl) and Iowa wins can be considered truly impressive. The other nine wins came against a division 1AA team (Western Illinois) and 8 1A teams with a combined record of 34-65! Not exactly challenging yourself every week, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would call this Badger team "battle tested." We'll see what will happen when Wisconsin is challenged week in and week out in 2007. It's true they have PJ Hill returning to an offense that loses only 2 starters (although those 2 starters were all everything LT Joe Thomas and veteran, and consistently underrated, QB John Stocco), and a defense that should be outstanding, but Wisconsin does not have the luxury of a cakewalk schedule in 2007. In addition to finding Ohio State back on the schedule (as an away game no less), Wisconsin will have to travel to Penn State, to a much improved Illinois team, and to UNLV in an early season trap game. To make matters worse, Wisconsin has to travel to Ohio State and host Michigan in consecutive weeks. Bret Beilema is a great coach, but it is going to be nearly impossible for this Wisconsin team to make it through the Big 10 unscathed as many pundits believe they will. Even with all the returning starters this is still a very young team, and that is where losing Thomas and Stocco is really going to burn them.
This pick was really pretty easy. Wisconsin may have been a bunch of smoke and mirrors last year. They beat up on light competition, got bruised by Michigan, and then had a nice win against an Arkansas team that seemed to run out of gas, and finally succumb to the fact that they lacked a quarterback. Wisconsin had 200 total yards against Arkansas in that win, while the Hogs shot themselves in the foot numerous times (interceptions, missed field goals, 123 yards of penalties). Basically, I'm not sold. They also have a molasses-slow running back (who is vastly overrated). Hill is going to suffer without Joe Thomas paving the way this year. He's a guy who needs a head of steam to do damage, and relies on excellent line play. Also, the Badgers are breaking in a new quarterback, which could be dangerous. John Stocco was not Dan Marino, but the kid could manage close ballgames, and it's hard to imagine anyone stepping in and doing a similar job. The schedule gets tougher with trips to Penn St. and Ohio St. along with a late season battle against Michigan. I like Bielema, but Wisconsin has long been a team that has gotten close, and failed to deliver. They're a good team, not a great one. The Badgers were overrated last year, and will be exposed when the lights start shining brightly on Madison.