Lately I've seen a few people trying to rank the Big Ten title contenders for 2011. Why in May, you ask? Simply because it's May and if you love you some college football like I love me some college football then we're always looking for SOMETHING to talk about to fill the void between now and September. Well unless you want to talk about the Twins being the worst team in baseball, the Vikings maybe not having a season (and really, why would they? How can billionaires and millionaires be expected to figure out how to fairly split up gajillions of dollars? It's so hard and there's so much math and so many zeros), the Wild being...well the Wild, and the Timberwolves being perhaps the worst-run franchise in sports. No? Or we could talk about the Canucks getting back to the Stanley Cup finals on a
flukey thrilling double-OT goal for the first time since 17 years to the DAY that the Canucks won in double-OT to advance to the Finals in 1994? No? You sure?
Ok then, Big Ten title contenders four months too early it is. Bama Hawkeye of OTE posted his post-spring 2011 Bowl Projections. First, he does those every week during the season and it's a must read. So if you're not reading it, shame on you. Hang your head in shame. There. And yes, I am telling you to take what a Hawkeye fan says seriously. But just this once. Anyway, Bama gives his projections which basically read like a rankings, which comes out like this:
To be honest, picking the conference champion is a question of likelihoods. In other words, how shocked would you be if Team X won the Big Ten? I break it down this way:
Best Guesses: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska
I Could See That: Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern
Who Saw That Coming?: Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota
That's fair. Adam Rittenberg put up a poll with 5 teams who could win the Big Ten Title: Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Again, all fair bets, with a few dark horses left out. But really if you had to pick 5? It'd probably be the ones he listed. But that's the thing here- the Big Ten race is WIDE open. I mean, as wide open as the gap between the Twins and first place. With the suspensions to OSU's coach and five of their best players, including their starting QB, for the opening five games, the usual conference juggernaut is no lock to win a share of a seventh straight conference title (for the love, somebody needs to beat OSU, and I hope this is the year). But they're so deep, despite losing those five and their head coach, they're not out of the conversation, and some would say are still the leading candidate.
Overall, I would agree with Bama:
My hope was that after the Spring practices ended, things would seem more clear in the Big Ten. I think that there is only one thing that is clear: there is no national champion coming from our ranks this season. As I look through the league, I see a deep, balanced league. That should be great for exciting games between seven and eight win teams. It should also mean that we won't see a team run through conference play undefeated.
Yup. Clear as mud. You want to rank the Big Ten title contenders? Good luck with that. There's likely no natty title contenders unless someone has a 2010-Michigan-State-esque run in them (and by that I mean someone who comes out of nowhere and doesn't get blown out in a bowl game by Alabama). And really, I would rule nothing out. I'd say there's seven teams with a legit shot at claiming the B1G crown, three more dark horses, and then two who have as good of a chance of winning the Big Ten in 2011 as the movie Fast 5 does of winning an Oscar for best picture (not to say it's not a good movie. I still need to see that one. And Bridesmaids. And the Hangover Part II).
One other thing until we get to my totally arbitrary and meaningless way-too-soon Big Ten title contenders: for the first time ever, the best conference record at the end of the regular season doesn't matter as much as the best record in each division. In years past we could look at the teams in the Big Ten, look at their schedules, and figure out who out of the 11 could have the best record. Now, we have to look at it by division. The two best teams could be in one division or the other, but only one is going to the brand spankin' shiny new conference title game. Somebody could (conceivably but very, very unlikely) go 5-3 or 4-4 in conference but still have the best record in their division and get a chance to play for the title. Something that was obviously never possible before. With that in mind...
NO CHANCE. NONE. ZERO. ZILCH. NADA
Indiana and Minnesota
The Gophers chances are only slightly better than IU's but there's still far too many questions for either team to even dream of winning their division. Bowl game? A possibility, but even for that a LOT would have to go right.
Mr. Rittenberg recently listed three Big Ten darkhorses for this season, but I'd only agree with two of them, and also add a third of my own...
Most would probably say the Boilers belong with IU and Minnesota in the "no chance in hell" category. While they're definitely the longest of longshots, I still think they at least have a chance-albeit a slight one- to win that division. Consider that two years ago Danny Hope had them on the upswing, shocking the world by upsetting Ohio State. They finished with 5 wins, and looked to be sleepers for 2010 before they lost their starting QB, RB, and WR. Thanks for coming, see you later. They won't have WR Keith Smith, but do a talented young QB in Rob Henry, tailback Ralph Bolden is back, and I just feel like they're flying well under the radar. Also consider they miss two of the projected top teams in Nebraska and Michigan State (as well as Northwestern), and get Ohio State and their new arch rivals Iowa at home. The roadies at Sconnie and Penn State? Um yeah those could be tough. Not saying it's probably the Boilers win the East, just saying it's not impossible.
I'm just not that high on the Wolverines chances of turning things around in 2011. I think they'll be fine in a few years and Brady Hoke might be the guy, and yes, they don't have to play Wisconsin or Penn State on the schedule AND they get Ohio State and Nebraska at home. But there's a lot working against them too: their defense blew chunks last year and their secondary depth is almost as scary bad as Minnesota's (well that's not true. Nobody's lack of depth in the secondary is as bad as Minnesota's. I was just trying to make myself feel better). The 3-3-5 was obviously a bad fit, but do they have the defensive studs they used to back in the day? I'm not so sure. Offensively, yes they have Denard ShoeLace Robinson, and yes he was freaking amazing last year. But as I said in the Rating the Big Ten QB's post, Robinson was tailor-made for Rich Rod's offense. It remains to be seen how he'll fit in the more traditional system Hoke will run. And that goes for just about EVERYBODY on Michigan's roster that's an offensive player, because almost all of them were recruited for the spread. Do they have a work-horse running back in their stables? Again, I'm not sure. Could Hoke work magic and win the division? It's possible, but I'm saying not probable.
File this under "can't learn from my mistakes". Two years ago I pegged Illinois as an under-the-radar Big Ten title contender- and they went a wonderous 3-9. Whoops. So why am I back on their bandwagon this year? Isn't The Zooker still their coach? He is, and yet still somehow I believe. First is soph QB Nate Scheelhaase, then there's the talent returning around him on offense. Defensively...yeah I know, they have to replace some monsters, but Scheelhaase...and their schedule. Look at that sched: They miss the three best teams in the West- Nebraska, MSU, and Iowa- and get Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin all at home. You're telling me it's inconceivable they lose even two of those road games but win the rest, and Ohio State or Wisconsin or Penn State stumbles somewhere along the way? Remember the Zooker can recruit, so there's talent there, and somehow, someway he got the Illini to the Rose Bowl before. It could happen again. A dark, dark horse, but watch out nonetheless.
A PUNCHER'S CHANCE
Now we get into the seven teams who have a real chance to win the thing. None are perfect, all have questions to answer, but all of them a combination of enough talent and/or experience, and/or the right schedule to be considered legit.
We know four things about the Hawkeyes:
1. They lost to Minnesota in 2010. Hahahahah wooooooooooohooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!
2. They lose to Northwestern in just about any year that begins with 20_ _.
3. They get really, really testy when you bring up the fact they lose to Northwestern on an annual basis.
4. They seem to play better in seasons where they're considered underdogs instead of favorites.
In 2010, they were one of three teams (along with Sconnie and OSU) who people were giving a legit chance to win not just the Big Ten, but a natty title. They began the year ranked 9th in the AP and 10th in the USA Today poll, but finished just 8-5 finish, which included a loss to Minnesota. Did I mention Minnesota beat them? Because Minnesota beat Iowa last year. 2005 they started ranked as a top 10 team in the country but finished 7-6. I suppose this the part where I have to say nice things about them...as much as I love watching the Hawkeyes crash and burn with the weight of high expectations, I hate even more watching an underrated Iowa exceed expectations. In 2009 they started the year as relative underdogs, ranked 22nd in the preseason poll, but finished 7th in the nation after clobbering Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. They weren't even ranked to start the 2003 season but finished 8th in both polls after beating up Florida in the Outback Bowl. And they not only weren't even ranked to start 2002, they didn't even get VOTES to be ranked in one poll. Yet they ran the table in the Big Ten (which included my 2nd least favorite Metrodome moment- and yes, that's a long, long list- when Brad Banks and the Hawks creamed Minnesota and those ****ing Hawkeye fans tried to carry the goal posts out of the stadium. To their surprise they found the revolving doors a little hard to get the posts through), and finished 8th again, losing to USC in the Orange Bowl.
For 2011, I'd be shocked if Iowa is ranked to start the year. They do lose Captain America QB Ricky Stanzi, first round pick DE Adrian Claybourn, and a slew of talented players. But they have a solid QB, some good pieces around him, and Iowa always seem to reload on defense. Does that mean another Orange Bowl appearance? We'll see, but I'd be more suprised (and happy) if Iowa sucks, than if they're in contention for the division- and therefore conference- title.
Yes, I'm well aware everyone else has the Badgers as conference favorites (or co-favorites. Or a group of three. Or higher than this. You get the idea) but the fact they lack a reliable QB right now is kind of a big deal. They can probably win 75% of their games without getting much of anything from QB Jon Budmayr, but it's those other four games where it's going to matter: home Nebraska, back-to-back roadies in East Lansing and Columbus, and their end-of-year home game with Penn State. They need to win at least two of those, if not three, to win the East, and I'm just not sure they'll be able to throw enough to do it.
They already have perhaps the best coach in the B1G in Pat Fitzgerald (who does more with less? And he also doesn't sit on information that could harm his program for a year before it comes out. Just saying), and assuming Dan Persa comes back 100% from an achilles injury suffered last year, NU will have the best QB and one of the best receivers in WR Jeremy Ebert. If they can get anything out of Mike Trumpy and the running game, they're looking at one of the top offenses in the conference. Defense? Um yeah that's another story. The D always seems to be a concern in Evanston, so that's not really new. You know what's not a concern? The Wildcats schedule. They miss Ohio State AND Wisconsin (the only West team who can say that), and get Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan at home. They have a very tough roady at Nebraska, and they have to go to Kinnick for their annual victory over Iowa. Still, they have the best schedule of the 7 contenders, and with Fitz, Persa, and Ebert they're going to be dangerous.
4. Penn State
Somehow it seems the Nitts are flying under the radar, and I'm not sure why. They have two solid options at QB (they're not Daryl Clark, but they should be better than last year), two good running backs, and some experienced receivers and O-linemen. And yes, they have a few holes to fill on D, but when don't they? They lose good players to the draft every year, and still seem to reload. It's Penn State. It's what they do. The one big hurdle for this team (besides figuring out the QB, but again, I think they figure it out), is that the schedule maker did them no favors. They do get Iowa at home in October, which has developed into a great rivalry, but the three game stretch to close the season is the worst of any team in the B1G: Nebraska at home (why on God's green earth can't we have night games in November? Why? Can you imagine Beaver Stadium at night with Nebraska in town? Apparently Jim Delaney and the B1G brass can't. Too bad), then on the road at Ohio State and at Wisconsin. Those are hostile environments in the best of times, but November? I've sat in Camp Randall in mid-November. It's cold, it's loud, there's a lot of drunken redness and...yeah it's cold and loud. Good luck with that, Nitts.
I give these three the best chance to win the B1G in 2011...
3. Ohio State
I know Tressell and the Gold Pants 5 will only be missing one conference game, but the game they miss- and the first one they return for- might be the two toughest on their schedule. The one worry I would have for the Bucks with Pryor and WR Devier Posey out is what happens if they get down early? Even with those two OSU isn't exactly an explosive high-powered offense. They win games against good teams by controlling the clock, chewing up yards, and playing great defense. I think the MSU game is tricky. Yes, it's in Columbus, so that helps, but MSU has a lot of weapons and a lot of experience. What if they jump out to an early lead? Do you see OSU being able to mount a comeback with a backup QB and limited experience at WR? Then there's the Nebraska game the following week. That might be the B1G game of the year, and it'll be the first one back for the Gold Pants 5. Not exactly an opportunity to get their feet wet before playing a big game. They're going from not playing games for 5 weeks and jumping right into the fire in one of the toughest venues in the country against the Blackshirts. IF OSU somehow get through those two games, then ho hum they roll to yet another Big Ten title. But four months from the start of the season, I don't think they do.
2. Michigan State
The last memory we have of the Spartans is them getting the bejeesus kicked out of them by Alabama. While that certainly wasn't the way they wanted to end 2010, it shouldn't cloud their prospects for 2011. I agree with Stewart Mandell at SI.com, that Bama might have been the best team in the country last year (and should be preseason #1 this year) but just had a couple of bad quarters at the most inopportune times (like, say, in the Iron Bowl). That's just a juggernaut of a program Nick Saban has down there, and while I don't want to excuse MSU for having their a**es handed to them, at the same time, that probably would have happened to just about any other team in the country. Anyway, what the Spartans bring back is one of the best teams in the conference. A good coach in Mark Dantonio, and arguably the best QB (Kirk Cousins), RB (Edwin Baker), and WR (BJ Cunningham) in the B1G. Obviously you can't replace All-conference and all-American linebacker Greg Jones with just one guy, and that's a huge hole to fill. But their secondary is solid, and I think defensively they'll be ok. With that offense, ok should be good enough. The schedule maker didn't do them many favors, as they don't have to play Penn State and do get Sconnie and rival Michigan at home: but their season hinges on three big roadies- Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa. Their record in those decides whether they win the division and play for the B1G title or not.
On paper they're the best team in the conference, or at least the best team who won't be missing five of their best players for the first five games. Their D could already be the B1G's best, and while I have questions about how well Taylor Martinez can sling it, that offense should still be plenty good. And I actually think them being new to the conference works in their favor: that team and coach Bo Pellini seem like the new kid on the block who wants to find the biggest, meanest, SOB on the block and punch him in the mouth to prove they belong. I'm sure Big Red is happy as hell to get out of the UT Big XII, but are loving the opportunity to prove to everyone that the new guys should be the best team in the new league. And apparently the schedule makers thought they should get a crack at EVERY top team. I mean LOOK at that schedule. Egads. While that league schedule is brutal (which includes roadies at Wisconsin, Penn State, the Big House, and obviously the toughest game on their schedule Oct 22 at Minnesota) they do get Ohio State and potentially three of the best West teams at home in Michigan State, Iowa, and Northwestern. At first I thought there's just no way Big Red gets through that schedule with the best record in the West, but the more I think about...the more I have trouble coming up with reasons they can't.
So there's my best guess. And whether it's now or four months from now when the season starts, it's still going to be a best guess for who the best team in the B1G is going to be in 2011. It's wide open, which makes it just about impossible to know who's going to do what. Of course, that's also going to make the 2011 Big Ten season a lot of fun too.
Have a safe and happy Memorial Day weekend everybody. Go Gophers! SKI! U! MAH!