After 2 consecutive (embarrassing) defeats at the hands of SEC foes in the BCS National Championship Game, the Buckeyes look to make their 3rd
straight appearance, and this time come out on top. The past three seasons, Ohio State
has lost 5 games. 3 of the teams that defeated them won the MNC (Texas
, and LSU). The other two played in BCS bowls (Penn State
). That’s a pretty impressive resume, no matter what conference you play in. With so much talent returning in 2008, it’s hard not to pick the Buckeyes to win their 4th
straight Big 10 title.
Let’s start with what happened last season. The Buckeyes were head and shoulders over every other Big 10 team in 2007. In conference play, they gained the 5th most yards and had the best defense by a mile. In Big 10 play, they allowed 236 yards per game. The team with the second best defense, Michigan, allowed 321 yards per game. That 85 yards per game difference is larger than the difference between Michigan and the team with the 8th best defense (Purdue—allowed 396 yards per game in Big 10 play). The defense should once again be stalwart as 9 starters return. The one significant player the Buckeyes do lose is defensive end Vernon Gholston and his team-leading 14 sacks. The defense may regress from the paltry 233 yards per game (1st in the nation) they allowed in 2007, but they should still be in the top-5 nationally in total defense, and once again the best in the Big 10.
As stated earlier, the Buckeyes finished a rather mediocre 5th in the Big 10 in yards per game in conference play. That could be cause for concern if the Buckeyes did not return nearly their entire starting lineup in 2008. Quarterback Todd Boeckman, the 12th rated passer in the nation last season, returns along with all the other key skill position players—running back Chris Wells, the receiving Brians (Robiskie and Hartline) and 4/5ths of the offensive line. The Buckeye offense should improve substantially on the 394 yards per game they averaged last season (62nd in the nation).
Prediction: The Buckeyes have no negative indicators for 2008. They were 1-1 in one-score games, meaning they didn’t squeak by a lot of teams. Their turnover margin was actually -3, so that is likely to improve. Picking the Buckeyes not to win the Big 10 is an exercise in contrarian existentialism. They probably won’t win the MNC, not with a road test at Southern Cal and perhaps one loss coming in Big 10 play, but a Big 10 title is all but assured.
From 2000-2004, the Nittany Lions won only 26 games and Joe Paterno’s historical standing in college football was somewhat diminished. He set the Division IA record for all-time wins by a head coach, but was soon passed by Bobby Bowden. The past 3 seasons, the Lions have won 29 games, and Paterno is just one victory behind Bobby Bowden. In all likelihood, he will pass the Florida State patriarch on the all-time wins list in 2008.
Even when they were struggling to qualify for bowl games, the Nittany Lions could still hang their hat on their defense. In their 4 losing seasons this decade, the defense allowed 24.4, 25.5, 21.3, and 15.3 points per game. It was always the offense’s inability to supply average production that was the team’s undoing. They never averaged more than 22.5 points per game in any of those seasons. Now, 2 of the past 3 seasons, the Lions have averaged over 30 points per game. 2007 was one of those years. The only starters lost from the 2007 offensive unit are the quarterback, Anthony Morelli, and running back Rodney Kinlaw. Morelli was an enigma during his two years starting at State College. He was the 86th rated passer in 2006 (rating of 111. 90) and the 70th rated (124.23) in 2007. He was solid, if inconsistent, and never great. In 2008, the starter will either be senior Daryll Clark or sophomore Pat Devlin. The other weapons on offense should help whoever wins the job post decent numbers. Sophomore Evan Royster takes over for Kinlaw at running back. Royster gained over 500 yards last season in limited action and averaged 6.26 yards per rush. With all 5 offensive linemen back in the fold, Royster should have some holes to run through. With the inexperience at quarterback, the offense may not crack the 30 points per game barrier, but they should not be markedly worse than last season.
The defense should once again be fantastic. The Lions finished 11th in the nation in total defense in 2007, and return 8 starters in 2008. They do lose their top-2 tacklers in linebackers Dan Connor (graduation) and Sean Lee (ACL injury), and their top corner, Justin King. However, the entire front 4, including Maurice Evans (team-leading 12.5 sacks) returns intact. Penn State should once again be one of the national leaders in sacks (tied for 3rd in the nation with 46 last year), and their defense will likely keep opponents under 20 points per game.
Prediction: The Lions should breeze through the non-conference slate unscathed, with the only possible concern being a home game against Oregon State. In conference play, they host several mid-to-high level teams (Illinois, Michigan, and Michigan State), giving them a very favorable schedule. In fact, Joe Paterno will likely end his 9-game skid against Michigan (last win was in 1996). The Lions must travel to Ohio State in Big 10 play, but with Ohio State’s prospectus, that game may as well be on the road. The other conference road games are against Purdue, Wisconsin, and Iowa. It’s not a stretch to see Penn State taking 2 of those 3 and getting to 10 wins in the regular season.
If you just looked at the payoff stats—wins and losses, the Spartans 2007 season was pretty much indicative of their performance the past half-decade. But if you looked a little closer, you saw a team that was far superior than their 7-6 record. With that in mind, look out for the Spartans in 2008.
In Big 10 play, Michigan State gained the most yards of any team in the conference. They did this despite losing a senior quarterback, Drew Stanton, and replacing him with a player who had only a half-season’s worth of starting experience. Quarterback Brian Hoyer had a solid season, posting a passer rating of 133.18 (49th in the nation), but the Spartans offense was predicated on the ground. The Spartans ran the ball 580 times in 2007 (12th in the nation) and were pretty effective in doing so. They averaged 198 yards per game on the ground (25th in the nation) with Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick gaining over 2300 yards and scoring 27 touchdowns. Caulcrick is gone, but Ringer returns for his senior campaign. He may not surpass the 1447 yards and nearly 6 yards per carry of his junior season, but he should once again be one of the league’s best backs. Hoyer does lose his top 2 receivers, but the Spartan attack should once again be one of the best in the Big 10, even if they do not match their production from 2007.
Defense prevented the Spartans from being a Big 10 contender in 2007. While the unit ranked 32nd in total defense (better than the 42nd ranking of the offense), in Big 10 play, they finished 7th in yards allowed. 4 of their 8 opponents topped 400 yards, and Northwestern obliterated them by gaining 611 yards and averaging a robust 7.4 yards per play. 5 of their 8 conference opponents scored over 30 points. If the unit can be more stingy in 2008, the Spartans should climb in the standings. That may be a dicey proposition as the Spartans lose their best defensive players, linemen Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin. Those two combined for nearly half (18.5) of the Spartans 39 sacks in 2007. The pass-rush may not be as intense in 2008, and that could cause problems for the linebackers and secondary.
Prediction: Even if Michigan State does not match their performance from 2007, it’s extremely likely their record will be better. The Spartans were a lackluster 2-6 in one-score games in 2007, a trend that is not likely to continue in 2008. A few more lucky bounces and Michigan State could have conceivably won 10 games. In Big 10 play, the Spartans had the 3rd best yardage differential (behind Ohio State and Penn State), yet only finished in a 4-way tie for 7th place at 3-5. The Spartans will likely drop their opener at California and fall off the pollsters’ collective radars, but at the end of the year, they will be one of the Big 10’s best teams.
Believe it or not, Northwestern has been bowl-eligible in 4 of the last 5 seasons. Spin that a different way, and the Wildcats have had but one winning season in those 5 years. Of course, at a place like Evanston, mediocrity is not necessarily a bad thing. The table below lists Northwestern’s record by decade. With the team’s best offense since 2005, and a little bit of luck, Northwestern should return to the postseason in 2008.
In 2007, Northwestern featured a very prolific offense. They finished 32nd in the nation in total offense and were particularly adept at throwing the football, finishing 11th in passing offense. They were even very good in Big 10 play. Only 2 teams (Michigan State and Illinois) gained more yards in conference games. That unit returns its featured performers; quarterback CJ Bacher and running back Tyrell Sutton. Bacher threw for over 3600 yards and 19 touchdowns. However, he also contributed 19 interceptions, including 11 in the last 4 games when the Wildcats went 1-3. His backfield mate, Tyrell Sutton was slowed by injuries and ran the ball in only 6 games. He still managed to top 500 yards and average 4.83 yards per rush. However, those numbers are far removed from his freshman and sophomore campaigns when he totaled over 2400 yards and averaged 5.64 yards per rush. If Bacher can take better care of the ball and if Sutton can remain healthy, the offense could be one of the Big 10’s best.
The defensive side is where Northwestern has not been able to consistently excel since their Rose Bowl season in 1995. That season they held opponents to 15.1 points per game. In the ensuing 12 seasons, they have not held opponents below 23.2 points per game in any one season. Even in their 3 bowl seasons in the new decade, they allowed 33.3 (2000), 25.1 (2003), and 33.9 (2005) points per game. If the defense can keep teams in the 26-28 range, 2008 could be a special season in Evanston. The defense does return 8 starters, but loses its top-2 tacklers in linebacker Adam Kadela and safety Reggie McPherson. However, for a team that gave up 31 points and 411 yards per game last season, 8 returning starters should equal at least marginal improvement. Plus the defense created only 16 turnovers in 2008 (108th in the nation), so they are also likely to improve in that area too.
Prediction: Northwestern has 4 very winnable non-conference games (Syracuse, Duke, Southern Illinois, and Ohio). They also have 2 very winnable road games within the Big 10 (Indiana and Minnesota). They do host Ohio State (sort of a bummer since that’s a likely loss no matter the venue), but they also host 3 other seemingly middling teams (Michigan State, Purdue, and Illinois). The opportunity is there for Northwestern. No this won’t be a Rose Bowl caliber 10-win season, but 7 regular season wins and an upper-division finish is certainly within the realm of possibility.
When a down year means you finish with 9 wins, 6 of them in conference play, you know you’re a player/fan/alum/coach of a college football power. Was last year a harbinger of things to come in the near future? Will things get worse before they get better? Relatively, yes. However, Michigan will not endure a laughingstock season like Notre Dame.
As you may have heard, Michigan hired a new football coach this offseason. Gone is Michigan man Lloyd Carr and into his shoes steps Rich Rodriguez. My personal belief in the practice of hiring/firing coaches is to not fire a good coach unless you have a great one lined up. This is likely one of the few situations where it’s alright to let go of a solid coach. Michigan’s offense had become somewhat stagnant the past few seasons. The Wolverines finished 47th, 54th, 38th, and 68th in the nation in total offense from 2004-2007. Even more disturbing is the fact that in Big 10 play, only one team (Iowa) finished with fewer yards than Michigan in 2007. Contrast that with Rodriguez’s last 4 West Virginia squads which have finished 26th, 50th, 5th, and 15th in total offense. A philosophical change is probably just what the AD ordered. Of course, Rodriguez will face some difficulties, particularly on offense, in his first season on the job. The offense brings back only 3 starters from last year’s team. The quarterback (Chad Henne), running back (Mike Hart), and alliterative receiving duo (Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington) are all gone. In addition, only a single offensive linemen returns to block for the new skill position players. To make matters worse, uber-recruit Terrelle Pryor chose arch-rival Ohio State over the Wolverines. That leaves Steven Threet, a Georgia Tech transfer, as the likely starter for opening day. The Wolverines may see their worst offensive production in a very long time with so many new faces.
Even with the offensive questions, Michigan has always been about defense. The Wolverines have allowed an average of more than 24 points per game in any one season exactly Never in their history. That’s a pretty impressive streak, and one that is apt to continue in 2008. The Wolverines do lose their top-4 tacklers, but those are the only starters the defense will have to do without in 2008. The entire defensive line returns, lead by Brandon Graham and his 8.5 sacks.
Prediction: Outside of conference road games at Penn State and Ohio State, there is not another definite loss on the schedule. That’s not to say the Wolverines will roll through the remainder of the slate unscathed, but it should serve as a reminder to those predicting dire straights for Michigan in 2008. In fact, besides those 2 contests, the most dangerous game may be the opener in the Big House against Utah. You can be certain the folks at the World Wide Leader will remind everyone what happened last year on the final weekend of August in the Big House. Michigan will lose a few games and slip to the middle of the Big 10, but a lost 3 or 4-win season is out of the question.
By all accounts, Bret Bielema has had a pretty good start to his head-coaching career. In two seasons he’s gone 21-5 and led the Badgers to 2 New Year’s Day bowl games with players recruited by Barry Alvarez. Like an impoverished parent who finally ‘makes it’ Alvarez has ensured his scion has access to all the things he never did growing up. By comparison, it took Alvarez 4 seasons to reach 21 wins, and he did not have 16 more victories than losses until his 9th season. Entering his 3rd season, Bielema may finally endure some of the hardships Alvarez had to deal with at the outset of his coaching career.
Though Wisconsin has gone 21-5 the past 2 seasons, they have been rather fortunate. Their Pythagorean record, based on their points scored and allowed, is 16-10. The difference is explained by Wisconsin’s providence in one-score games; in which they have gone 7-2. That means Wisconsin should not be evaluated as an elite team that returns a great deal of talent, but as a good team that returns a great deal of talent.
On offense, the Badgers bring back 8 starters, but do lose their signal-caller, Tyler Donovan. Donovan posted a passer rating of 133.96 (41st in the nation) in 2007 and gives way to senior Allan Evridge. Evridge transferred from Kansas State, where he played as a freshman. Hardcore Badger supporters may want to avert their eyes from this next sentence. In over 200 pass attempts, Evridge posted a passer rating of 104.45 (93rd in the nation) for Kansas State. Even taking into account that Evridge is now more experienced, it’s hard to imagine him giving the Badgers even average production from the quarterback spot. The good new for the Badgers, is that besides Donovan, nearly every other important piece is back on offense. Running back PJ Hill, who gained over 1200 yards in 2007 is back along with 4 of the 5 starting offensive linemen. The Badgers will try to pound opponents into submission in 2008 (as has been the case for what seems like forever), but when the offense must move the ball through the air against the better teams (Ohio State and Penn State for example), it will find the going very difficult.
The Badger defense returns 9 starters from the 2007 unit that was not quite as good as the final stats might lead you to believe. The Badgers finished a very solid 38th in total defense, but in Big 10 play, they were actually a little below average (6th in yards allowed). 5 of the top 6 tacklers return and every player save one who recorded a sack is also back. If everyone stays healthy the Badgers defense should be on par with last season’s unit.
Prediction: The non-conference slate has 3 sure wins (Akron, Marshall, and Cal Poly), with the only possible scare coming at Fresno State. In conference play, the Badgers do get Penn State and Ohio State at home, but that may not be enough to turn the tide against those two superior teams. In all likelihood, Wisconsin will shock at least one of those 2 at home. However, road games at Michigan, Michigan State, and Iowa should temper their record and leave the Badgers around the middle of the pack.
Joe Tiller begins his 12th and final season as the head coach at Purdue in 2008. While many Purdue faithful have been calling for a change, in reality, a statue of Tiller should be erected in West Lafayette. Can the Boilers make Tiller’s last season one to remember by making a return trip to Pasadena?
While the Purdue offense is usually the reason the team wins ballgames, it didn’t really do its part in 2007. While the Boilers finished 27th in the nation in total offense, averaging 436 yards per game, they accumulated most of those yards against inferior competition. In Big 10 play, that yardage total ranks only 7th. Against the best defenses in the Big 10, those numbers are even more pronounced. Against Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State, the Boilers averaged only 296 yards per game and 4.0 yards per play. If it’s any consolation, the offense should not be worse in 2008. Senior quarterback Curtis Painter and 5 others starters return. Painter’s 2 leading receivers, Dorien Bryant and Dustin Keller, are gone, but Tiller seems to be able to plug and play skill position guys without too much drop off. Besides Painter, the Boilers return 3 starting offensive linemen. The Boilers allowed 24 sacks last season (51st in the nation), but considering how often Purdue throws the ball (5th in the nation in attempts in 2007), those numbers are pretty good. The offense should continue abusing the lesser defenses on the slate, but will once again likely struggle against teams with above-average to elite defenses.
Meanwhile, the Purdue defense also returns 6 starters. The defense was decidedly mediocre in 2007, ranking 63rd nationally in total defense. Like the offense, there should not be a distinct change in the performance by the defense in 2008. The Boilers do lose their top-6 tacklers!, and the defense will likely be a shade worse, but there are far worse defenses in the Big 10 (Minnesota and Indiana to name 2).
Prediction: Purdue’s non-conference schedule is actually pretty challenging in 2008. They open with an easy win over Northern Colorado, but then must host Oregon. While they will likely be home dogs in that game, an upset would not be terribly shocking. Then they host Central Michigan for the 3rd time in 14 games. Purdue dominated the Chips in the regular season, but then allowed a huge comeback in the bowl before winning at the last second. The Boilers finish non-conference action in South Bend against Notre Dame. Depending upon how much Notre Dame has improved, that could be a very tough game. All in all, one can envision the Boilers finishing with 1, 2, 3, or 4 wins to open the year. In conference play, they have winnable road games against Northwestern and Iowa, and gimme home games against Minnesota and Indiana. 2008 will look a great deal like the last few years. The Boilers will win some shootouts against teams with flawed defenses, but against the likes of Ohio State and Penn State, the Boilers will struggle.
After 2 seasons of paying their dues under Ron Zook, the Illini seemingly came from out of nowhere to win 9 games and play in the Rose Bowl. One of those 9 wins was a victory over then top-ranked Ohio State in Columbus, the Buckeyes first loss at home since a 3-point defeat to eventual MNC Texas in 2005. Can the Illini continue their momentum or will 2008 be a hangover year from the previous season’s excesses?
The major revelation for fans who couldn’t be less concerned with a team that had won 8 games over the previous 4 seasons was the play of running back Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall rushed for nearly 1700 yards and averaged 6.42 yards per rush. Of course, in limited action, Mendenhall averaged over 8 yards per rush in 2006 (640 yards), so maybe Zook should have gotten his stud into more games as an underclassmen. Unfortunately, Mendenhall will never carry the ball again for the Illini as he will now ply his trade in the NFL. He leaves behind 7 starters, including enigmatic quarterback Juice Williams. Williams is still much more dangerous as a runner, but he did improve his completion percentage from a piss-poor 39.5% in 2006 to a solid 57.3% in 2007. Still, his passer rating of 119.22 ranked only 81st in the nation. As long as Williams is the quarterback, the Illini will have trouble throwing the football. And without their home run hitter, Mendenhall, the offense as a whole will decline somewhat in 2008.
The Illini defense improved as well in 2007, going from allowing 26.8 points per game (91st in the nation) to 21.8 (26th). However, while the pay off stat (points) improved, the actual down-to-down performance actually declined. The Illini finished 33rd in total defense in 2006, allowing 310 yards per game. They allowed 377 yards per game in 2007 (55th in the nation). So how did the Illini improve so much despite an actual decline in yards allowed? Ah the fickleness of turnovers. In 2006, the Illini had a turnover margin of -15. That margin improved to -2 in 2007. Fewer turnovers by the offense that put the defense behind the 8-ball, and more turnovers forced by the defense equate to an improvement in points allowed. The defense returns 6 starters in 2008, but loses 4 of its top-5 tacklers. The defense will likely decline much thanks to their somewhat unsustainable (yards to points) performance in 2007.
Prediction: Besides Missouri, the rest of the non-conference slate is imminently winnable (Eastern Illinois, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Western Michigan). In Big 10 play, 3 of their home games are very winnable—Minnesota, Indiana, and Iowa. The other is against Ohio State. Their road games are very tough (Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Northwestern), but stealing one of those games is a reasonable goal. The Illini will drop to the middle of the Big 10, but should qualify for their 2nd bowl game in as many years.
Remember when Kirk Ferentz was the most sought after coach on the planet? From 2002-2004, the Hawkeyes were 31-7 (20-4 against Big 10 foes) with a pair of Big 10 co-championships. The past 3 seasons, the Hawkeyes have gone a very mediocre 19-18 (11-13 in Big 10 play) and have not won more than 7 games in any season. Last year, the Hawkeyes posted a solid 4-4 record in Big 10 play (tied with Penn State for 5th place), but were actually one of the league’s poorer teams. In conference play, the Hawkeyes finished 9th in yards gained and yards allowed; hardly numbers befitting a middle of the pack team. The Hawkeyes were able to manage 4 conference wins thanks to a 3-1 record in one-score conference games (3-2 overall) and a Big 10 best +9 turnover margin in conference play (+8 overall). Despite a host of returning talent on offense, a return to the top of the Big 10 standings is unlikely in 2008.
The Hawkeyes had a real problem protecting quarterback Jake Christensen last season. As a team, the Hawkeyes allowed 46 sacks (114th in the nation). With all 5 starters on the offensive line and Christensen back for another season, the pass protection has to be better. When he wasn’t getting put on his back, Christensen was busy not completing passes. His 53.5% completion percentage was not even in the top 100 last season. The one thing Christensen did do well last season was avoid turning the ball over. He had only 6 interceptions on the season. However, if his completion percentage does not significantly improve, it’s likely a lot of those incompletes will turn into interceptions. Elsewhere on offense, the Hawkeyes lose their top 3-rushers and the likely starter is juco transfer Nate Gullory. With the entire offensive line back, the offense will likely improve, but expect the offense to have more than the 13 turnovers (3rd in the nation) they had last season.
On defense, the Hawkeyes bring back only 5 starters and lose 4 of their top-6 tacklers, including defensive end Bryan Mattison (team leading 9 sacks in 2007). The defensive line, linebacking corps, and secondary each lose 2 starters apiece, so the unit will be somewhat patched together. Last season, the Hawkeyes ranked a solid 36th in total defense, but that was mostly due to their work in non-conference play. Against their 4 non-conference opponents they allowed 282 yards per game. Against their more talented Big 10 opponents, that number vaulted over 100 yards per game to 385. Realistically, the Hawkeyes defense should remain towards the nether regions of the Big 10 in 2008.
Prediction: The non-conference slate has two guaranteed wins (Maine and Florida International), a likely loss (at Pitt), and one toss-up (home against Iowa State—lost 7 of last 10 in the series). In conference play, Iowa avoids Michigan and Ohio State, but for a team that was not all that good to begin with in 2007, expecting anything other than a 6-win regular season is nothing more than unabashed enthusiasm.
Glen Mason never got the Gophers to the Promised Land, but he also never had a season quite as deplorable as the one Minnesota endured in 2007. The Gophers lone win was a triple overtime contest against a MAC foe. They went winless in the Big 10 and lost to a MAC school, a Sun Belt school, and a IAA school. The good news is, things can’t get any worse.
The Gophers actually had a decent offense in 2007. They ranked 48th nationally in total offense, but in Big 10 play, they were 6th in yards gained among the league’s 11 teams. That unit returns 8 starters in 2008, including dual-threat quarterback Adam Weber. As a freshman in 2007, Weber passed for nearly 2900 yards and threw 24 touchdowns. He was also the Gophers leader on the ground, gaining over 600 yards. Unfortunately, he also threw 19 interceptions and posted a passer rating of only 120.80 (77th in the nation). If he can cut his interceptions, Weber can be one of the better quarterbacks in the conference. Come 2009 and 2010, the Gophers will certainly be glad they started him as a freshman. Joining Weber on offense are 3 of 5 starting offensive linemen and his leading receiver Eric Decker. The Minnesota offense should see some minor improvement in 2008.
Defensively, the Gophers were a lost cause in 2007. They allowed 519 yards per game (dead last in the nation). There is no way to sugarcoat how bad they were. Only Iowa failed to gain 400 yards against their defense. 8 of their 12 opponents gained over 500 yards. The Gophers were the cure for the common offense in 2007. Even if the Gophers decided to blow it all up and cull every starter, they would likely improve somewhat from that dreadful performance. As it is, a healthy number of starters (7) return to the fold in 2008. Even if they are once again the worst defense in the Big 10, they will not be the worst in the nation.
Prediction: Minnesota was not only done in by a horrible defense in 2007, but also by horrible luck. They were only 1-6 in one-score games. Had they won even half of those one-score games, they would have been a bad (but not horrendous) 3-9 or 4-8. Their luck in close game will likely improve in 2008. The Gophers also had a horrible turnover margin (-15) in 2007 (114th in the nation). They were especially poor at forcing turnovers, gaining only 14 all season (114th in the nation). The ball will likely bounce Minnesota’s way a few more times in 2008, and the defense will create a few more turnovers. Schedule-wise, the Gophers can probably quadruple their win output before September is over (Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Montana State, and Florida Atlantic are their 4 non-conference opponents). In league play, they get two of the weaker teams, Iowa and Indiana, at home, so a bowl-eligible season is within the realm of possibility.
After nearly a decade and a half of staying in Bloomington in late-December, the Hoosiers finally participated in a postseason contest in 2007. Now that’s not to say their season was anything other than a non-conference fueled fluff piece. 4 of the Hoosiers 7 victories came against schools that play in the MAC (Akron, Western Michigan, and Ball State) and IAA (Indiana State). Against their Big 10 brethren, they managed to beat offensively challenged Iowa, winless (in conference play) Minnesota, and rival Purdue. Upon earning their postseason invite, the Hoosiers were swiftly dispatched by a mediocre Big 12 team (Oklahoma State), in a game that was not nearly as close as the final 16-point margin would portend. Suffice it to say, I’m not high on the Hoosiers chances of returning to a bowl game in 2008.
Last season, Indiana finished 61st in the nation in total offense. That’s a pretty solid finish, befitting their 7-6 final record. However, in Big 10 play, the Hoosiers finished 9th in yards gained. If the Hoosiers are to escape the cellar in 2008, their offense must improve. Unfortunately, that is a very unlikely scenario. Last season, quarterback Kellen Lewis posted a passer rating of 134.18 (40th in the nation) and also led the team in rushing with over 700 yards. Most of his passes went to the titanic James Hardy (6 foot 7). Hardy hauled in 79 catches in 2007, netted 1125 yards, and scored 16 touchdowns. Hardy had 27 more catches, 566 more yards, and 12 more touchdowns than his nearest competitors. To say Lewis launched jump balls to Hardy and ran around some is not an entirely accurate assessment of Indiana’s offense, buts its close. With Hardy gone to the NFL and the offensive line losing 3 starters, Kellen Lewis will need a sensational season to keep the Hoosiers offense from crumbling.
Alas, if only the Hoosiers had a defense that could keep them in games. The Hoosiers defense has been a sieve for a long time not. Last season marked the first time the Hoosiers did not allow an average of at least 30 points per game since 2001. They barely beat the mark, allowing teams to score 28.5 points per game. Still, they were pretty bad. Based on yards allowed, only 2 teams were worse in Big 10 play (Northwestern and Minnesota). The Hoosiers return 7 starters to that defense in 2008, and their only hope at a decent performance rests with defensive end Greg Middleton. Middleton led the nation with 16 sacks last season, and the Hoosiers as a team accumulated 42 (tied for 6th in the nation). Not surprisingly, most of those sacks came against their overmatched non-conference foes and Iowa. When they had to face teams with competent offenses, their sacks dropped precipitously. Unless Middleton has designs on an unholy 30 sacks or so, the defense will continue to be one of the worst in the Big 10.
Prediction: The non-conference slate has 4 very winnable games (Western Kentucky, Murray State, Ball State, and Central Michigan). However, the Chips from Central should not be taken lightly. In conference play, the Hoosiers can thank their lucky stars they avoid Ohio State, but grabbing any win on the road is unlikely (Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State, and Purdue), and winning more than 2 home games is wishful thinking (Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern, and Wisconsin).